How Should We Pray for Persecuted Christians?

“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.

Planting, Watering, Harvesting

In 1984, when I was young in the faith, I had a roommate who was attending a Bible college. For one of his classes, he was required to do some door-to-door evangelism. One night when he came back to our apartment, he was excited because not only had someone invited him and his partner in to talk, but he had also accepted Christ! While I felt happy, I also felt a little uneasy, but I didn’t know why. Was it because I felt envious? Did I think that I should also be knocking on doors? Or was there something else?

Several months later, while I was attending a university in another city, someone knocked on my door. I invited him in and noticed he had a Four Spiritual Laws tract. He quickly started to explain the first spiritual law, but I interrupted him and told him I was already a Christian. Undeterred, my visitor continued his spiel, unwilling to listen whenever I tried to interrupt him. When he reached the “end,” I reminded him again that I was already a Christian, but he still said something about asking Jesus into my heart.

Thinking back on my roommate’s excitement a few months earlier, I understood my feeling of uneasiness. Had my roommate and his partner also behaved in this way when they talked to the man about Jesus? I sure hoped not! Don’t get me wrong; even though I would never do door-to-door evangelism, I know that people come to saving faith in the Lord in a wide variety of ways, including in that way. My guess, though, is that someone is not very likely to trust Jesus as Savior and Lord when someone is trying so hard to explain the Gospel that they have little or no regard for the person they’re explaining it to.

Scripture suggests another way to share the Gospel that I have found to be, dare I say, a better way because it takes more account of personhood. I Corinthians 3:5-7 says, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” In other words, sometimes you may plant the seed in a person’s life; they hear something of the Gospel for essentially the first time. Sometimes you may water the seed; a person already knows something of the Gospel, but they learn more of it from you. The Bible also often speaks of harvest as a metaphor for people who put their faith in Christ; sometimes you may even have the privilege of being there for that moment. Regardless, as Scripture says, it is God Who makes the seed grow.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my wife and I spent five years teaching in a foreign country; in the 2000s, when our kids were 10 and 13, I was able to get a short-term summer teaching contract in that same country, so we all went back there for a few weeks. One of my students, who I’ll call Mr. Intellectual, often dropped in to visit; several of his questions were spiritually related. Three years after that, at the urging of our kids (!), I again secured a short-term summer contract at the same university. I had e-mailed Mr. Intellectual prior to our departure from the U.S., but I hadn’t heard back. However, the Lord brought him across my wife’s path one day; we were amazed at the Lord’s arrangement of that on a very crowded campus.  Mr. Intellectual had many more spiritual questions during our remaining time there.  Before we left, we put him in touch with someone who would be able to meet with him and continue to answer his questions. 

On Christmas Day of that year, we received an e-mail from Mr. Intellectual:  “Today is Christmas Day.  It’s very meaningful for me since I have taken Jesus as my Savior.  Thank you so much for leading me to the world of Christian.”  With eyes a bit misty, we agreed that was our best Christmas present, perhaps ever!

Around that time, another former student, this one from the 1990s, contacted us to tell us that she and her husband were now living in the U.S. and wanted to visit us. While they were with us, she (I’ll call her Mrs. Seeker) had many spiritually-related questions, with a somewhat more life-application focus; she had already learned something about Christianity. A couple years later, we heard from her again; she said that she had become a Christian. She asked me, “Do you remember that evening when you and I were talking while you were washing the dishes?” I replied that I did except that I didn’t remember the exact things we had talked about. She said, “Well, that conversation was very important in my coming to faith in Jesus.” She said that there were other people who had answered further questions as well.

In the case of both Mr. Intellectual and Mrs. Seeker, the Lord gave us the privilege of watering; in the case of Mr. Intellectual, also planting. We were not there for the moment of harvest, when they put their faith in Christ, but that in no way lessened our joy! In addition, there have been other times when we have been there for the moment when someone we know and love has prayed to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Imagine traveling through a Third World country with a colleague. He is a citizen of that country, but you are not. You need a place to spend the night, so you get two rooms at a small motel where both of you are allowed to stay. The motel is lacking in certain amenities, like towels, so you dry yourself off with an extra bed sheet. Your colleague comes to your room to talk. You have previously talked some with him about the Lord, and now he wants to ask some more questions. That very night, he asks Jesus into his heart.

I have been a little hesitant to write this post because I don’t want to come across as boastful. My intention is simply to say that as the Lord brings people into our lives, sometimes we have the opportunity to tell them something about Him. And as we are faithful, sometimes we have the joy of seeing people that we have loved come to faith in Jesus. I would encourage you to keep planting and watering even when you don’t see fruit right away!

Always Be Prepared to Give an Answer

The title of this post is taken from 1 Peter 3:15-16, which says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

A lot of Christians think about these verses in terms of giving your testimony, that is, sharing with someone how you came to saving faith in Jesus and the changes in your life since then. Don’t get me wrong; that is a very important first step, if you will. However, there’s much more to sharing your faith than giving your testimony. Sometimes the Lord brings people across our path that we have a chance to engage with about issues and big questions.

A pastor that I know (not mine) had such an opportunity a couple of years ago. He told about how he had been in a barber shop, waiting to get a haircut, when he overheard two other men talking about an important issue. It became obvious that neither one was a Christian, so he had an opportunity to share a Christian perspective. As this pastor was telling the story, my heart sank because I guessed what was coming next: he failed to share that perspective. The good news is that he realized later–and even somewhat in the moment–that he had failed. He succumbed to the fear of “offending” these other two men. However, more good news: he said that he would not fail the next time the Lord presented him with such an opportunity.

I couldn’t help thinking at the time of another story, this one involving a teacher that I know. He was attending a conference for ESL teachers, and one of the sessions he attended was about teaching argumentation in writing.  The presenter, a teacher, shared how she had put students into groups to choose a topic from a list, discuss it, and then later write about it.  Several groups chose to write against same-sex marriage, using the Bible as their primary, or in some cases only, support.

As the presenter spoke, the other teachers who were present, including my friend, chimed in with questions and comments.  Some questioned whether the Bible was a legitimate source for students to use since:

  1. We supposedly don’t even know who wrote it;
  2. It supposedly says nothing against homosexuality;
  3. It supposedly condones slavery, stoning of children, and wife-beating.

In a matter-of-fact way, my friend refuted Number 2 by quoting Scripture (a self-proclaimed lesbian asked him to do so). Specifically, he quoted a portion of Romans 1:26-27, which she attentively listened to and didn’t argue with. He also refuted the last part of Number 3, noting that wife-beating comes from the Qur’an, not the Bible. (He didn’t have time to refute everything!) He also said that students should be allowed to use the Bible as a source, but that they should also have other sources; however, since same-sex marriage had been in existence for a mere five-six years at that time (and not in the U.S. yet), he said that it was a difficult topic to argue either for or against in terms of, for example, the effects it has on the children of homosexual couples. Given another three to four decades, it would be much easier to argue for or against it.

I tell this second story to give an example of what I Peter 3:15-16 tells us to do. If my friend had instead spoken about how he came to saving faith in Jesus, it would have been inappropriate; these people needed to hear the truth of God’s Word in response to their misconceptions about it. Note that in order to refute these misconceptions, my friend had to know the Bible. I hope that each of us who claims to be a Christian is regularly in the Word so that we can always be prepared to give an answer.

Spiritual Maturity and Response to Hardship

I’ve been thinking about two different responses to hardship that I’ve heard in the last couple of years. One was by someone who has been a brother for several years and had also been in church leadership for some time. The other was by someone who has been a sister for about three years. You might expect that the more mature response (in a spiritual sense) would be by the person who has been a Christian longer, but I’m sure most of us know very young-in-the-faith Christians who are more spiritually mature in some ways than people who have been Christians for many years.

The brother that I mentioned had an opportunity to talk with a non-Christian who told him something about her life experiences. When it became clear that he was a Christian, she became rather combative. Specifically, she told him about her mother, who had died within the past couple of years. Then she asked him if God was loving, why He had allowed her mother to die. The brother’s answer was, “I don’t know.” Period. When he told the story, I was expecting something like, “I don’t know, but…”

Sometimes in such a moment, we don’t know what to say, but then later, we realize how we could have responded differently. However, the brother seemed rather satisfied with his response; the main reason was that he hadn’t “offended” the woman in that moment. On the other hand, it also seemed as time went on that he didn’t really have the spiritual maturity to respond differently. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he is no longer in a position of church leadership.

When I heard the story, the first Scripture that came to mind was Luke 13:1-5. In verses 4-5, Jesus says, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” As this applies to the woman that my brother in Christ talked to: her mother was not “more guilty” than anyone else; after all, the entire human race is under the bondage of sin, but Jesus frees those who believe. This woman still had the chance to repent. Now, would I have quoted these verses to her in that moment? Probably not, but I would have said something like, “I don’t know about your mom, but I know that you still have the chance to trust Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.” In fact, in another very similar situation, that’s what I did. I don’t say this to boast, but simply to respond to I Peter 3:15, which says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” I believe this verse applies to people who are just being combative as well as to people who are sincerely seeking answers.

At the outset, I mentioned two people, one of them a sister who has been a believer about three years. She experienced two rather extreme hardships in a short period of time. First, her husband died; then she developed cancer. She also has two young children. That kind of combination would be devastating to anyone, but here are some things that she said in her testimony last year:

“God allows certain situations to happen in our lives for us to examine how we respond. All these situations are allowed by God.

Despite my doubts, God used the opportunity to strengthen my faith, understanding His grace and mercy. He will strengthen me in time of weakness.

The hardship we endure is actually a disguise for His wonderful blessing.”

Wow, and wow! Frankly, if my wife were to die and I were to develop cancer soon afterward, I doubt I would have the spiritual maturity that this young sister has. And I don’t have young kids anymore, either! This sister came to saving faith during her hardships because of the love she experienced from the church that she and her kids had started attending. A couple in the church even offered to take in her children and raise them as their own if she died. (She didn’t; the Lord used doctors to completely eradicate her cancer.)

Maybe you think that I’m comparing apples to oranges because the brother I wrote about was not responding to his own hardship, while the sister was. However, the key point is spiritual maturity, not how closely the situations match. May the Lord give all of us discernment and understanding in how we respond to hardship, whether in our own lives or the lives of others, and whether those people are believers or not.

What Does God’s Judgment Look Like?

I’ve been thinking for months about writing this post, and having seen what has transpired so far in the new year, this seems like a good time.

To answer this question, let’s begin with Genesis 6-8, where we have the account of the flood. In Genesis 6:11-12, we read, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” Notice the word “corrupt(ed),” which appears three times. God sent a flood to wipe out all of mankind except for eight people: Noah and his family. Jumping ahead to Genesis 19, we see God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah with burning sulfur because of their pride, which manifested itself in gluttony, lack of concern for the poor, and homosexuality; Ezekiel 16:49-50 tells us, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and the needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Only three people–righteous Lot and his two daughters–survived.

If you read the history of Israel throughout the Old Testament, you will see that again and again, God brings judgment on His people. Sometimes it takes the form of invading nations; sometimes plagues; and sometimes extreme drought and famine. There is also a startling, remarkable verse, Hosea 4:17, which says, “Ephraim [the northern ten tribes of Israel] is joined to idols; leave him alone!” (More on that later.)

God’s judgment in the Old Testament had the purpose of turning His people from their sins. However, stubborn Israel repeatedly returned to their sinful ways after being graciously delivered by the Lord. After repeatedly warning and judging His wayward people for hundreds of years, the Lord sent the northern ten tribes (collectively called Israel) into Assyrian captivity in 721 B.C. In 586 B.C., the Lord sent the southern two tribes (collectively called Judah) into Babylonian captivity. 70 years later, Judah was allowed to return to their land. (If you read Isaiah chapters 13-23 and Jeremiah chapters 46-51, you will see that the Lord also judged the other Old Testament nations; in almost every case, those nations were utterly destroyed, never to exist again.)

By the time Jesus was born, Judah was under the oppressive thumb of the Roman empire. The Jews rejected Jesus and crucified Him, and two generations after that, in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jews ceased to exist as a nation.

Now I want to look at Romans 1: 18-32, where we are told about God’s wrath against mankind and the reasons for it. Rather than write the entire passage here, let’s focus on verses 24-28: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.”

John MacArthur, one of my three favorite preachers, has preached on this Romans passage several times. There are three that I noticed in particular. The first one was in 1981, in a two-part sermon called “Abandoned by God.” The second time was in 1993, in a sermon called, “What’s Wrong with America?” In 2006, he preached a sermon called “When God Abandons a Nation.” Notice the theme of abandonment; if you reread the above verses, you will see the phrase “God gave them over,” which means abandoned by God, three times. In other words, God allows people to go their own way. Here’s a quote from his 1993 sermon: “God has just taken away the restraining grace that might preserve our nation and has let our nation run to its own doom.” When I heard this, it struck a chord with me, partly because of what was already happening in the U.S. and partly because of a sermon by another pastor I had heard in the 1980s. He gave the analogy of being in a rowboat that is tethered to a dock by a long rope. Over time, as the boat gets further and further from the dock, the rope becomes more and more frayed, until eventually, if the people in the boat are unaware, the rope breaks and the boat is adrift.

Let me be clear here: there is a distinction between a nation and God’s people within it. God never, ever abandons His people, but He can certainly abandon a nation. You may question MacArthur’s conclusion about the U.S., but it’s impossible to deny the rampant sin in our society, certainly including homosexuality. Not only has same-sex marriage been legal here since 2015, but it has also become more and more dangerous to speak against it. Beyond that, what does God’s judgment on the U.S. look like? How about the widespread riots last summer and the attack on the Capitol last week? I don’t want to get overly political here, but how about the left’s condoning of last summer’s riots contrasted with their rabid response to the attack on the Capitol? How about Cancel Culture in general, which means that those in power dictate what can be said and written, and what cannot? If the left follows through with its threats to add two more states and pack the Supreme Court, welcome to one-party rule, and so much for the First Amendment.

I can’t help but think of the OT Israelites in Egyptian captivity during the ten plagues; we are explicitly told in Exodus Chapters 7-12 that in the case of at least half of the plagues (flies, livestock, hail, darkness, and the firstborn), the Lord brought them only on the Egyptians, but not on the Israelites. Regardless of what happens, the Lord will never abandon His people. He calls us to stand firm, with grace and truth, and He calls us to live in obedience. If you are reading this and are not a Christian, I pray this will be the day you come to Jesus in saving faith.