For several years now I have been involved in my local church’s persecuted church prayer meeting and I’m a church representative for Open Doors. I am often appalled and humbled by news reports from our brothers and sisters who are suffering for Christ around the world. And I must admit, I have asked myself the above question more than once and I’m sure others have too. Because of the terrible forms that persecution often takes it’s easy to wonder what God is doing while His church suffers. I want to be clear from the start; persecution is evil and our Heavenly Father is infinitely good. With that in mind I hope to provide three answers that will shed some light on this difficult topic.
The first answer is; persecution is an effective means for spreading the Gospel. I remember hearing a report a few years ago about a small region of Bhutan that had a large Christian population. Many of the families were believers and they had enjoyed a measure of peace for some time. That was not to last, however, as fierce persecution broke out. The Christian community was shattered as people fled into other regions of Bhutan or neighbouring countries to escape. It was a terribly sad report. I remember thinking how frightening it must have been for those families to leave all they had ever known, to worry about jobs and food and shelter. But then a new thought came to my mind. What an opportunity for those fellow believers to share their faith with others who have never heard the good news before.
This is, of course, not an isolated incident. We see evidence of persecution being used to spread the Gospel in the early church. Acts 8:1 says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” This verse comes immediately after the public stoning of Stephen. Following these events we read about the miraculous conversion of Paul, who was previously Saul and a zealous persecutor of God’s church, and the subsequent mission trips that the apostles and other believers undertook in order to spread the good news. Often when we read these passages it is easy to see God at work and yet we quickly forget this lesson in the face of modern day persecution.
The second answer is; God uses persecution to perfect us. This is a hard truth for many of us. James 1: 2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” For many believers it is difficult to imagine joy during times of hardship let alone in the face of real persecution. It is important to note that the joy that James speaks of here is not simply physical or emotional happiness but spiritual ‘joy’ in our sovereign Lord. But the rewards for persevering through persecution are clear. God uses trials and hardships to make us ‘mature and complete, not lacking anything’.
The ongoing civil war in Syria serves as a recent example of the church ‘considering it pure joy’. Our Christian brothers and sisters have been caught up in the conflict and are being targeted on a daily basis. But rather than flee or denounce their faith the church in Syria is reaching out to the lost. They are providing food and medical aid, taking in orphans and the elderly, and opening up their homes and church buildings as shelters. In the face of terrible persecution, our brothers and sisters are looking to Christ and remaining steadfast in their faith. It is truly humbling to read the reports that are coming out of Syria and to witness such perseverance.
The final answer is; when we are persecuted we see God. I think it is interesting that we often forget that persecution is not a New Testament phenomenon but an Old Testament fixture. Jesus speaks of this at the Sermon on the Mount, “…for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:12) We seem to forget too, that Jesus was also persecuted and ultimately killed by the ones He came to save, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15: 18) In this situation we can so easily see God using man’s evil to accomplish His good works through Jesus death on the cross. We see His providence and sovereignty at work in the lives of the prophets. And there are countless reports from our brothers and sisters who see God at work while they are being persecuted.
For more than ten years North Korea has been at the top of the World Watch List, a list of fifty countries where Christians suffer persecution, making it the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. It is estimated that fifty thousand to seventy thousand of our brothers and sisters in Christ are imprisoned in labour camps that are not dissimilar to Nazi concentration camps. The UN met this month to discuss the “systematic torture, starvation and killings” that are being carried out in North Korea on a daily basis. The country was described as “a dark abyss where the human rights, the dignity and the humanity of the people are controlled, denied and ultimately annihilated.” And despite this, against all the odds, the North Korean church is constantly growing. Our brothers and sisters who face the daily threat of torture, starvation and death are amongst those who can most clearly see God at work.
Persecution is a difficult aspect of our faith and one that many of us in the West have never truly suffered. But is it important to remember that God’s good plans are at work in every situation. Persecution does not mean that the church has been abandoned but entirely the opposite.
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