“The 20th century has produced double the number of Christian martyrs [than] all the previous 19 centuries put together.” So concluded the Commission for the New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee around the turn of the millennium. Martyrdom continues in the 21st century, particularly in predominantly Muslim countries, as well as countries like China. In addition to those who make that ultimate sacrifice for Christ, there are plenty of God’s children who continue to live without rights that many others enjoy, to put it mildly.
In February 2018, over 100 girls were abducted from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a group of Islamic militants. All of them were released within a month except for Leah Sharibu, who refused to deny her faith in Jesus Christ. At last report, she was still in captivity. At the time I first heard about her, I prayed that the Lord would keep her strong in her faith, and I have continued to do so since. I wondered, though, if that was how I should pray. If I were in captivity and were offered my freedom in return for renouncing my faith, how would I pray for myself, and how would I want others to pray for me?
2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” This is a promise that understandably makes North American Christians very uncomfortable, but for those Christians who live in countries where persecution is the norm, this is not hard to understand. There’s another related verse, Acts 5:41, that astounded me the first time I read it in my early Christian walk. The context is that the apostles have just been flogged for teaching about Jesus in Jerusalem, but this verse says, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” I had to, and still have to, ask myself: Do I rejoice, for example, when I am mocked very personally and directly for my faith?
So, how should we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters? I think one good way to answer this question is to ask them. There’s a church in China with about 22,000 members; they have four services every Sunday, with about 2000/service, and the church leadership asks that people attend only once every three weeks to make sure everyone has a chance to come. There are ~100 smaller groups meeting together as well. Here’s what the pastor said: “Persecution has caused us to grow. Don’t pray that the persecution will stop; that makes us stronger. That has built our faith. I also pray for the church in America. I’m praying that persecution will come to the church in America so that their faith will become strong.” If you live in the U.S., you probably don’t like that last sentence! However, this pastor understands that, at least in the Chinese context, persecution has made the church stronger. In 1949, when Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took over in China, it’s estimated that the number of Christians there was less than 1%. Now, after seven decades of persecution, the estimated percentage is somewhere between 5 and 10%; let’s call it 7.5%, which amazingly is the same current estimated percentage of Christians in the United States, but more than four times as many people!
The January 2021 issue of the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) magazine reported that Mina, a believer in Indonesia, prayed for herself: “I just prayed in my heart that if it is time for me to die, I’m ready.” The context is that Mina had been confronted by an angry man outside a mosque; she had been sharing the Gospel with a woman there. Now, would it have been wrong for her to pray that she not be harmed or killed? No, I don’t think so, but her focus was on the Lord, and if she had to die at that moment, so be it.
Here’s another story, this one from the March 2021 issue of VOM: Daniel is a pastor in Nigeria, which is divided into a Muslim-majority north and Christian-majority south. A concerned Christian from the U.K. once offered to help Daniel’s family get asylum after hearing that they witnessed to Muslims in Nigeria. Here is Daniel’s response: “You think God made a mistake keeping me in Nigeria? If you want to pray for me, pray that the Lord will give us safety there so that I can preach the gospel of Christ. This is where we live; the same with my wife, and thank God we are of the same mind.” Notice first of all that Daniel and his wife don’t want “asylum” in another country. Second, notice the reason he gives when asking for safety: so that he can preach the gospel of Christ.
Many years ago, when other Christian teachers and I were getting ready to leave for a summer of teaching in a Third World country, we heard a young man who spoke about the persecution he and his family had endured in that country. His little brother had been beaten to death in front of his family, yet he had died singing praises to the Lord. His mother had been thrown in prison, which she regarded as a mission field: she told many other prisoners, and even guards, about the Lord. As this young man spoke, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room–certainly not mine. I also noticed a glow on his face. Since I was a very young believer at the time, afterwards I asked another teacher who I had been getting to know and who was much more mature in the faith about the glow; she had seen it, too. In fact, she said, “I heard his mother speaking yesterday morning at a church service; she had it, too!”
Is it wrong for us to pray for safety when we or others are being persecuted? I don’t believe so, but these examples will hopefully inspire us to focus on remaining strong in the faith, regardless of what may come. Speaking of: Cancel Culture will continue to restrict our religious freedoms here, so we should be aware and ready. If you don’t think so, perhaps you’ve heard of the so-called Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; the language of “gatherings” and “public accommodations and facilities” is vague enough to include churches.
A final note: I strongly recommend Safely Home by Randy Alcorn; it’s a novel, but it’s also very true-to-life in its account of persecution of Christians in China. In addition to being an incredible story, it has great spiritual truth throughout.