Image: Hadi Mizban / Associated Press
The International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, estimated that Christians were the victims of 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world, many human rights groups corroborate this finding. A report of the U.S. State Department shows that Christians face persecution in over sixty countries. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, for each year between 2007 and 2014, Christians have been targeted for harassment in more countries than any other religious group.
Scholars and missiologists call this phenomenon, Odium Fidei, or hatred of the faith. Jesus said in vs. 17; you will be hated by all because of my name.
A few days ago, a group of prayer warriors from our church spent praying for the persecuted church in various troubled places around the world. This prayer meeting deeply stirred my emotions, raised ponderous, soul-disturbing questions: What does following Jesus look like in North Korea? Would I be bold about preaching Christ in Saudi Arabia? Would I openly gather for worship in South Sudan, Iran, or Somalia?
During the meeting, I asked God to help me remember to pray for those who are held in bonds for their faith (Hebrews 13:3). I intentionally prayed for Pastor Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen from North Carolina, arrested in Turkey in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pastor Brunson had been living in Izmir, Turkey, where he ministered for over 23 years. He loves the people of Turkey and would never do anything to disrupt their government. Now he’s facing a possible life sentence.
Writing from his prison cell in Turkey last week, Pastor Brunson had these words for us: Let it be clear, I am in prison, not for anything I have done wrong, but because of who I am – a Christian pastor. I desperately miss my wife and children. Yet, I believe this to be true – it is an honor to suffer for Jesus Christ, as many have before me. My deepest thanks to all those around the world who are standing with and praying for me.
Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, once referred to what he called the “counter-intuitive phenomena of Jewish history”— a set of circumstances that I think too often applies to Christians as well: “When it was hard to be a Jew,” Sacks wrote, “people stayed Jewish. When it was easy to be a Jew, people stopped being Jewish. Globally, this is the major Jewish problem of our time.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century [Schocken Books, 2009], page 51).
Applied to Christianity, Rabbi Sacks’ vision is right on target, too. In a time when it is easy to be a Christian, instead of seeing growth and great sacrifice for Christ, the church too clearly withers from apathy and worldly distractions. In places where it is hard to be a Christian, the church is exploding with growth. (Click here to read how Iran is now the center for the fastest growing church in the world.) What is our sacrifice — what Cross does Jesus’ church have to bear — in circumstances of comparative comfort and ease?
This Sunday, we wrap up our final reading in Luke (click here to read Sunday’s text, Luke 21:12-19). Here, Jesus says that persecution is inevitable for those who believe in his name and that it is through endurance that we are saved. Taken to heart, these are hard, challenging words — and I hope you will not be dissuaded from making an effort to join us on Sunday.
In preparation, I present for your consideration a few things that I am trying to do in light of persecution and injustice toward Christians in our world today:
- Don’t waste your prayers on small things (praying only for present needs). Expand your worldview. Pray for Christians in other parts of the world.
- Educate yourself about the mission of God in the world. Get a copy of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.
- Practice gratitude. Don’t allow pettiness and ingratitude to shrivel your soul. Compared to many places in the world, Americans are rich as kings of old.
- Deny yourself the pleasure of food by practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting and prayer for Christians who suffer. Feel a need much deeper and more elemental than your own.
- Be courageous. Practice radical obedience to God. This is how Christians in the majority world live their spiritual life every day.
What do you think? Do you agree with Rabbi Sacks that faith and devotion are most challenged when things are easy? Let me know what you think.