The Voice of the Martyrs | Used by Permission | www.persecution.com
(November 6, 2016 was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church)
In the children’s story “Chicken Little,” a chicken frightens the other barnyard animals with warnings of doom after an acorn falls on its head. With cries of “the sky is falling,” the chicken leads the animals on a pilgrimage to the king to tell him the bad news. The story reminds me of how we should not address the persecution of Christians.
An August 2011 study from the Pew Research Center reported that restrictions on religious beliefs and practices increased in 23 of 198 countries between mid-2006 and mid-2009 (up 12 percent). These 23 countries comprise 32 percent of the world’s population. In visiting many of the 23 countries for Voice of the Martyrs work, I find that persecution and increased restrictions against Christians are due to the world’s hatred toward God and his revelation in Christ. The more Christ is made known in these nations, the more anti-Christian persecution we see. The sure way to stop this persecution is to stop evangelizing. But our sky is not falling—the kingdom is increasing.
In addition to prophesying that the world would hate us and we would be persecuted, Jesus also stated in John 16:2 that we would be killed by those who believe they are serving God. It is not biblical to desire persecution, but according to Jesus it is part of God’s plan, part of our cross-bearing. The paradox, or apparent contradiction, is that we should pray for hostile authorities yet help the persecuted Church as part of our own family.
Christians do not lose. As we serve persecuted Christians, we may petition governments on their behalf and pray for their release from prison, but we also realize that God can use injustice as well as justice to accomplish his will. As John Bunyan sat in prison writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, his wife appealed (unsuccessfully) for his release. The Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation while in exile on Patmos. My wife Ofelia, prayed for my immediate release from prison so I could be reunited with my 1-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. I would expect no less from her. But while I was in prison for 17 months, I met and fellowshipped with Pastor Noble Alexander, who secretly baptized more than 300 prisoners. God’s plans can be on a greater scale than our worthy, heartfelt prayers.
In a letter that Richard Wurmbrand wrote on Jan. 19, 1966, he stated that Jesus “is not arrested, nor released. He reigns over all things.” Pastor Wurmbrand believed that his imprisonment was simply one more opportunity to share Christ. His classic book Tortured for Christ is only 10 percent about torture and mistreatment of Christians. The remainder is filled with examples of heroic Christian responses to persecutors, a book of evangelism! We Christians in the West need this book more than ever as we lose jobs, teaching positions, businesses and orphanages because of our Christian convictions. Pastor Wurmbrand regarded his enemies in a very hopeful light. He wrote of this in Tortured for Christ:
“But looking at men like this—not as they are, but as they will be—I could also see in our persecutors a Saul of Tarsus—a future apostle Paul. And some have already become so. Many officers of the secret police to whom we witnessed became Christians and were happy to later suffer in prison for having found our Christ. Although we were whipped, as Paul was, in our jailers we saw the potential of the jailer in Philippi who became a convert. We dreamed that soon they would ask, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ In those who mocked the Christians who were tied to crosses and smeared with excrement, we saw the crowd of Golgotha who were soon to beat their breasts in fear of having sinned.
“It was in prison that we found the hope of salvation for the communists. It was there that we developed a sense of responsibility toward them. It was in being tortured by them we learned to love them.
“A great part of my family was murdered. It was in my own house that their murderer was converted. It was also the most suitable place. So in communist prisons the idea of a Christian mission to the communists was born.”
To present the persecution of Christians as “wrong” or “unjust” is half-baked theology. Jesus prophesied that persecution can be a natural outcome of our witness. It is right to cry out for justice for all who suffer violence or oppression. However, it is wrong to believe that the unjust treatment of Christians cannot be part of God’s plan. The promotion of human rights is not a substitute for the message of cross-bearing as a universal rite of passage for believers.
When the Apostle Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he was in prison. In a vision, Jesus told Paul to go to Rome, where he was eventually executed. Yet his sky was never falling. Jesus in him, the Holy Spirit was never imprisoned.
I met a house church leader in China who has been arrested seven times and spent years in jails, prisons and labor camps. In his particular “house group,” which is composed of over 6 million believers, they use New Testament scriptures to teach that persecution can be a normal part of the Christian experience. Today he teaches in caves, factories, fields and apartments, mostly leading seven-week courses broken up one week at a time to avoid detection. House churches, which do not permit censorship of their sermons, are growing three times faster than the state TSPM church. Their sky is not falling. I asked this house church leader how his imprisonment has affected his teaching sessions, and, as he ate a piece of melon with his chopsticks, he replied, “Jesus loved me so much that he sent me to prison.”
Sabine Wurmbrand, who spent years in Romanian jails and a labor camp, said the ministry her family founded was about fellowship. Remembering those in bonds brings us into fellowship with those who know that Jesus “is not arrested, nor released. He reigns over all things.”
When I began working with The Voice of the Martyrs in 1972, the theme on our letterhead was Hebrews 13:3—“Remember those in bonds…” I thought this mainly concerned helping Christians get out of jail. I was wrong. The chapter also mentions going boldly into the world if need be to suffer for our witness under the same disgrace that Jesus suffered. It is about being obedient, even if it means going to jail. From prison, Paul writes to the Colossians that we have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus’ love. Our King is the creator of the Church. Persecution does not surprise him. His sky cannot fall. Jesus—the Son—is always rising.