Persecution : Coming soon to a church near you
In recent years, November has become the month in the Western church where there is a special focus on praying for our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church. It should, of course, be an all-the-year-round activity, but it is helpful to have a regular focus and reminder of the scale of the need, as a spur to our faithful intercession.
Many of us in the West have had little experience or encounter with overt and state-sponsored hostility to our Christian faith. My own experience goes no further than having some very intimidating members of Robert Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation in dark sunglasses standing at the back of my church in Zimbabwe for a period, and my telephone tapped. That was disconcerting enough.
But for countless millions of our brothers and sisters the threat of violence, hardship, imprisonment and even death is an ongoing daily reality. I read recently that if the persecution of the church gets no worse, one in every two hundred people alive today can expect to die for their faith. A believer is tortured every three minutes in the Muslim world.
From the comparative comfort of the West, however, it is still easy to believe that persecution only happens in a small number of countries, and that it is not anything on a global scale. It comes as a shock to discover that more than three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries which are closed to the gospel and where evangelistic missionary activity is prohibited.
It is worthwhile recalling Jesus’ prophecy that “you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matthew 24:9). That is nearer to being true now than it ever has been. There are precious few countries left where there is not some form of restriction on Christian beliefs or freedom to evangelise. Even in Britain it is now obvious that we must prepare for persecution, as the attitude of society and government moves from apathy to hostility.
Some Christians blithely cling to the “escape mentality” that the church will be raptured before the great tribulation. But where persecution is concerned, it matters not whether one holds to a pre-tribulation or post-tribulation rapture of the church, because suffering and persecution can come upon the church at any time and in any place. The task of the church is to be prepared at all times, so that when it comes we can endure it with grace and courage.
A bishop in China once sadly told Corrie ten Boom, “We failed. We should have made the Christians strong for persecution, rather than telling them Jesus would come and take them away.” He added, “You still have time to tell the people how to prepare for persecution, how to stand when tribulation comes, to stand and not faint.”
Whatever our convictions regarding God’s purposes in allowing suffering and persecution, all of us are taught to believe that we can be confident in the Lord when such crises come. Jesus encouraged his disciples with these words: “In the world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). So now is the time to strengthen ourselves. The lesson from chapters such as Daniel 3, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego go through the burning fiery furnace, is of the need to be faithful.
Faithfulness daily in the small matters in life is what prepares us for faithfulness in the big crises of life, remembering Jesus words in Luke 16:10 “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” Tens of thousands of Christians have been faithful to the extent of martyrdom, because not all have been rescued from the fiery furnace. Our faith will only ever be comparable to theirs if we take heed of that challenge from that Chinese bishop and strengthen our faith and obedience to Christ now, whilst at the same time heeding the exhortation in Hebrews to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.