There are two types of suffering.
First, we suffer for our humanity. These experiences are common to everyone and include illness, grief, disappointment, depression, loneliness and the like. If you keep breathing you can be assured that this kind of suffering awaits.
Second, there is suffering specific to our position in Christ. Most of it is unseen through acts of self-denial where the one who would pursue a holy life finds it takes him from the mainstream. It can be lonely. But beyond this there is the suffering that is inflicted from the outside. That is persecution.
We need to clarify by saying what persecution is not. If you are obnoxious or an angry person, people disliking you is not persecution. If someone discriminates against you because you are old, young, thin, fat, black, white, male or female, as wrong as it is, it isn’t persecution in the biblical sense.
Rather, persecution is the focused and deliberate singling out of a believer because of his allegiance to Christ. But even here we need to clarify. The nominal Christian has little fear from persecution because he has proven he is not willing to suffer in everyday life. There will be no testing in the big moment because there has not been any sacrifice in the little moments.
Some will remark that persecution has caused the Church to grow. Certainly that is evident throughout history and in places like modern day China. But it also is an effective tool to slow or exterminate Christianity in places. When the Muslim armies swept across northern Africa in the early days of Islam, the demand to convert to Islam or be killed effectively wiped Christianity out in that region. North Africa has never recovered. The reason Satan uses it is because it often results in Christians renouncing their faith or being silenced out of fear.
Why then did Jesus say we should rejoice when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness?
As much as I love my Lord and seek to live a holy life, I can never have a life as pure as his. No matter how focused I am, I cannot perform miracles like Jesus did. When I die, there will be no miraculous resurrection a few days later. Regardless of how sincere my intentions, there are so many points where I will fail to equal or even approach anything that Jesus was or did in the flesh. But what we can do is share in the sufferings of Christ.
Christ denied himself, bravely turned his face to Jerusalem, silently endured the taunts of those who hated him, watched as the friends that promised him their allegiance fled for their lives, submitted to the crown of thorns, the nails, the spear in the side. Although my experience may not perfectly follow what happened to Christ, when the enemies of Christ come to persecute I can rejoice because here in my pain I can taste something of what my Lord drank for me. Like the disciples we can rejoice because we have been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41).
A reward is promised for those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, but to the true believer sharing in the suffering of Christ is the reward. Owning Christ, reaching out to hold his bleeding hands with our bleeding hands is more than anything the world offers.