Persecution. Jesus said that His followers should expect it (John 15:20; 2 Tim. 3:12) and that those who experience it are blessed (Matt. 5:10–12). In our First World society, persecution may mean mocking, slander, or alienation from friends and family. However, the church extends far beyond our circles to include dozens of countries around the world. In much of the Majority World, Christians are experiencing persecution in the form of harassment, beatings, and even martyrdom.
The Risk of Belief
Over the past fifteen years, my work has been primarily focused on evangelism, disciple-making, and church planting in places where those activities are either strongly discouraged or even outlawed. Specifically, I have worked alongside national believers in South and Southeast Asia reaching out with the gospel to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh people groups. Many of my national partners were raised in those religions, but came to repentance and faith in Christ through the bold spread of the gospel.
These are not just my brothers and sisters in Christ. They are yours as well. And most, if not all, daily risk paying for their faith dearly, not only with social repercussions, but some with physical abuse, imprisonment, or even death.
In one South Asian country where I have worked, there was a mass shooting at a Christian school, multiple church bombings, and countless stories of brothers and sisters who have been threatened and abused because of their faith in Jesus. I served alongside a dear friend and encouraged him in his work, only to see him forced out of the country by those who felt threatened by his gospel ministry. In another country I worked alongside a brother who was tied up, beaten and left for dead—by his own family members—because of his decision to leave Islam and follow Jesus. Last year, as I led a small group of students and a few national friends in sharing the gospel, we were met by threats of arrest and assault by a radical Hindu group that had tracked our location via hacking a social media website.
The difference between me and my national brothers and sisters is that I can get on a plane and fly back to the United States, where, at least for now, the likelihood of persecution is very limited. Our suffering brothers and sisters around the world have an even greater hope than an American passport—they have been promised the very presence of Jesus in the midst of their suffering (2 Cor. 4:9).
The Call for Christians
Today, an estimated two hundred million Christians worldwide face harsh persecution each year in dozens of countries on nearly every continent. Bill Bright once said that more Christians have suffered persecution and martyrdom since the beginning of the twentieth century than in all of the rest of church history to that point.
What should our response be? Always, our response should be informed prayer; and whenever possible, we should promote and participate in gospel-centered action.
It is impossible to pray for situations about which we are unaware. The gospel is offensive to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18); therefore, one of the primary motives behind persecution is to eliminate the voice of a person who is heralding the gospel or to discourage the spread of the gospel. This means that thousands of persecution stories go untold because voices are hushed by the roar of oppression.
There are several organizations that exist to give a global voice to those who are enduring persecution (see www.persecution.org and www.persecution.com). Those resources intend to mobilize both informed prayer and gospel-centered action. There are also several books that tell the stories of persecuted Christ followers, both in church history (Foxe's Book of Martyrs) and in modern times (The Privilege of Persecution by Carl Moeller and David Hegg; The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken). I recommend that you become familiar with these and other gospel-centered resources so that your prayers for the persecuted can be specific and substantive.
The Scriptures beckon all Christians not only to pray informed prayers for the persecuted but also to engage in gospel-centered action on behalf of the persecuted. This action begins with standing alongside the persecuted so as to encourage them. The author of Hebrews was writing to a group of Christians who had grown weary and discouraged by the opposition they were facing. He reminded them of a time when they had personally been persecuted or had, even at great cost, stood with others who were enduring persecution (10:32–39). Their key to enduring earthly persecution was none other than the hope of the gospel and the return of King Jesus to establish His kingdom. Then in Hebrews 11, the writer unfolds a long list of those whose faith in God led to relative peace and sometimes prosperity followed by references to many who, with faith in the same God, endured harsh persecution and martyrdom. Standing with the persecuted may in fact be costly like it was for the audience of the letter to the Hebrews. But for those who have experienced the wonderful rescue of Christ, there will be no limit to our own gospel-motivated sacrificial service of others. You and I have need of endurance—and we can both encourage it and grow in it through informed prayers and gospel-centered action for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.