This blog post was first written on the 12th of March this year.
Earlier this year, I bought a book. Titled “i am n”, the book is compiled and written by an organisation named “Voice of the Martyrs”, a group which works and walks alongside the persecuted church, recording and sharing their stories. This book in particular is focused on the persecution of Christians and the church by Islamic extremists in the last 15 years.
The Persecuted Church
Across the world today, the church is persecuted intensely. None of their stories will make the news; none of their deaths will be noticed by our western world. In fact, many westerners like to deny that the church is being persecuted. To begin this blog post, I feel it needs to be said: the western church is NOT undergoing persecution. Oh, you’re being sued for not serving a gay couple a wedding cake? Atheists are questioning and “attacking” our beliefs? Big deal.
The western church has for centuries been in a place of power. We have enjoyed unbridled freedom to practice our faith and much lack of opposition. So what if the culture is pushing back against some of the things we believe? We are still free to practice and believe what we want.
I feel if we claim persecution, we do a massive disservice to our brothers and sisters the world over who are undergoing horrific ordeals. Those who claim the name of Jesus, in places such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Somalia, Nigeria, Syria or Afghanistan undergo more tragedy in a single day then we will in our entire lifetimes in our comfortable western society.
People like Musa* in Somalia, quietly evangelising groups of Muslims. A prominent Al-Shabab Islamists wife attended these meetings, with deep interest. Receiving a bible and being renewed in Christ, weeks later she returned bruised and beaten. That’s when Al-Shabab came for Musa, who was forced to go into hiding in Kenya. His wife and boys stayed – and when Al-Shabab came, one of the boys and the wife escaped. Two of his sons were beheaded. That same month, 8 other believers were killed for their faith in Jesus. It’s costly to be a Christian in Somalia and I have heard story after story out of that country where to be Christian is to be killed.
Those like Naasir* and Hoda* from Egypt. When Hoda came to Christ as a young woman, she was persecuted by her own family. Her mother locked her into her room – not for a day, or a week. She was locked away for two years. Because she was an ‘infidel’, she was not allowed to eat with her family. Along comes Naasir, a Christian who asks for her hand in marriage, a friend of Hoda’s Christian cousin. Her parents didn’t ask what he believed, presuming he was Muslim. As a married couple, with a child, they are continuously turned away from renting or evicted once their faith becomes known. They are harassed and mocked. They said “In Egypt, our theology is one of pain. We don’t know the theology of prosperity, but we know Jesus.” And that is enough for them.
People like Abdulmasi* from Nigeria, a notorious church bomber and extremist. The kind of man who liked to return afterward his attacks and relish his work; his body count, his destruction. He earned the nickname “Mr Insecticide”, as explained in the book: “the only one who could organise the killing of insects – the killing of Christians“. After one bombing, he returned to his work only to find Christians in the church worshiping God. Furious, he said “They are rejoicing. They are happier”. So he hatched a new plan – infiltrate the church. He entered, pretending to become a Christian convert from Islam and lived a double life for 6 long years. He was baptised, became a young adults leader, all the while participating at the mosque and orchestrating attacks. Up comes a conference and the pastor brings out 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal – “How long are you going to waver between two opinions? If God is God worship Him. If Baal is god, worship him!” The pastor continues, “Who are you deceiving? How long now since the day you have accepted Christ and you have not been serious? Why are you playing this double game? Just stand up. Let me pray for you and the Lord will forgive you for all you have been doing. Forget that you are an armed robber. Forget that you are a killer. Forget all those things. Stand up!” Abdulmasi stood up, repenting and gave himself entirely to Christ, effectively opening himself up to retribution from jihadists. Years on, Muslims confronted his son and slit his throat for the “sins of his father”.
*Pseudonyms used by the text
Following Christ is costly. It requires intense sacrifice. It requires deep belief that “To live is Christ and to die is gain”. These are people who are literally “taking up their cross and following Christ”. Who have given up their families, been beaten, had children and spouses killed for following Christ. Who themselves have been killed for their obedience. Yet they joyfully continue on the path set before them, praising and following Jesus, sharing the gospel, stepping in obedience in the ways of God.
The City to Come
“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city”.
~ Hebrews 11:16
Things that happened to the saints of old are happening today to the followers of Christ in the 21st century. Our brothers and sisters of whom the world is not worthy – rejected, beaten, bruised, broken. The sacrifice they make is phenomenal – the life they live unimaginable.
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing the accept release, so that they might rise to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
~ Hebrews 11:32-40
They have, as Hebrews 13 says, gone outside the camp and bear the reproach endured by Christ. For, Hebrews 13:14 says, “Here we have no lasting city but we seek the city that is to come”.
As said before by Naasir, a theology of pain is ever present. Jesus is literally all they have, and He is enough for them. Their eyes are focussed on the city that is to come, on the coming of the kingdom, on the Christ who is the author and perfecter of our faith. They have hope in Christ in their persecution, because He has a room prepared for them in the house of God, a heavenly city prepared for them.
What should our response be?
I remember that numbers upon numbers of Christians placed this symbol upon our Facebook in solidarity with our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution in the Middle East. The outpouring of identification as ن, a symbol used to mark shame and oftentimes for death. There needs to be more we can do then just placing a symbol on our Facebook for a month or two.
So what can we do?
1) Be informed
We must know what is happening in this world. We need to keep an eye out. Their stories often won’t make the news because it happens out of sight and out of mind. Watch for the news stories when they do come. Know what our brothers and sisters in the faith are going through.
Hebrews 13:3 tell us to “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” This is a call to be informed – to not be negligent or ignorant of the plight of the body of Christ in persecution for the name of Christ.
The news will a lot of the time miss stories – so a good place to keep an eye out is no doubt the Voice of the Martyrs website found here.
2) Be encouraged and learn from their example
I don’t know about you, but I am so encouraged reading their stories. I am emboldened by their fierce courage in the face of adversary. I am encouraged by their deep faith in the face of death. They are not shaken, not broken, not prepared to back down. They are lacking in prosperity and have much to credit to pain but they fight the good fight, never shrinking, continuously faithful.
Our faith is so easily broken in the west. People leave the faith for silly reasons. Oh that we would have even a fraction of the courage, the steadfastness, the faith and the boldness of our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution in much of this world.
In the words of the writer of the book, “They are people just like us. They feel deep anguish when their children are taken away, their husbands are killed, their sons are attacked, their wives are raped and their daughters forced into sex slavery. They face uncertainty and fear when they are kicked out of their families, lose their jobs, and are cast out of their communities because they follow Jesus. To thrive while enduring such suffering, they pray for courage, faith and endurance. They tenaciously cling to the Word of God, trusting in the loving, faithful character of God and the certainty of heaven. Having lost everything of value in this world, they learn to trust that God is in control no matter what.”
We can learn much from their example. From their courage, endurance under stress, their trust in our Creator.
3) Give generously
I don’t know many organisations that do work like Voice of the Martyrs does, but I imagine there are more out there. Giving financially is one practical way something can be done to help and no doubt through Voice of the Martyrs or others working on serving the persecuted church much can be done through monthly support or once-off giving.
VOM works on several projects such as the provision of bibles and literature, supports ministry on the front lines, financially supports families of martyrs of the faith, medical costs and helping persecuted churches through the funds they receive.
A natural overflow of seeing the news or reading the stories should be movement towards prayer, another practical way we can support the body of Christ struggling under persecution. We must pray for their steadfastness in the faith, for their courage to not falter, for their hope in Christ and their foundation in His love to not be lacking. That their joy in Christ would be complete and for a peace which surpasses all understanding.
Pray also for ourselves. That we would not be ignorant to them and the things they are going through. That we would not turn a blind eye as we in the west are so in the habit of doing. That our “theology of prosperity” would not be a stumbling block in the face of their theology of pain. That Jesus and only Jesus would be enough for us, as He is for them.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
~ ˆ2 Corinthians 4:16-18
All the things that happen in this life are light and momentary, and beyond the pain, beyond the persecution, beyond the suffering there is an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Look to the things unseen; to the city that is to come, to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith.
Do our hearts ache for our brothers and sisters undergoing these trials, or are we blind to their suffering? We must be aware, must be informed and must stand with them in everything. Because after all, when it comes down to it, they as are we…
We are ن