More and more, as I have read stories and accounts of persecuted Christians lived in areas of the world where their faith marks them for death, torture, and imprisonment, I can only conclude this:
I, an American Christian, have so much to learn from these distant brothers and sisters of mine, and learning about their richness in Christ – even in desperate, dark circumstances – makes me comprehend how much more I have to learn and grow.
I live in a culture where I can practice my faith freely. I’m not persecuted in any way. My life is full of all sorts of comforts, many of which I cling to because they make my life easier, more pleasurable, and more enjoyable. I work on growing closer to Jesus, and yet I am also aware that my commitment to my faith, and to Him, has cost me very little. Staggeringly little. I have never had to choose between Jesus and my husband, or Jesus and my home, or Jesus and my parents, or Jesus and my life.
That seems like something to be thankful for: that I haven’t ever had to willingly choose Jesus, knowing the consequences, at the end of a knife or a gun. And I am thankful for it, for where I have been born, and for the privilege of freely being a Christian with no worry about persecution or struggle. But when I read accounts of those martyred in the name of Christ, both now and throughout history, I am also staggered by the depth of faith and joy and relationship they have. I also understand that they have glimpsed, in a way that I may never fully manage, what it means to be a follower of Christ. That they are experiencing something very close to what the New Testament church experienced: a willingness to cast everything away for Christ and the truth that to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Those of us who practice our faith freely ought to reflect deeply on what that freedom and our luxuries and comforts might have blinded us to. In what ways have our privilege and our ease dampened our spiritual walk? Do we live with the urgency of those, under constant threat of persecution, who feel only the drive to share the love of Christ? Is our joy so enduring that it would hold up under trial? Are we a true church of believers supporting each other through times of crisis? What are we willing to give away for God?
Philip Yancey theorized once in one of his books that the church is most alive and vibrant where it is most oppressed. Given the stories I have heard recently of believers especially throughout the Middle East, I have no reason to doubt it. In the West, with all the freedoms afforded to us, believers can easily fall into the temptation of clinging tightly to all our comforts and desires and holding very loosely to God. Our faith can easily fall into stagnation, into placidity, into a calm habit. For believers living under threat of persecution, it seems the opposite is true: they hold everything, including their lives, lightly, and cling only to God.
More than anything, that is the mindset I want to reach.
Periodically, when I look at my blog stats, I see visitors – sometimes consistent visitors – from unexpected places: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Malaysia, Iraq. I have no way of knowing who visits from where or why, and I am not entirely certain that anyone from those places would find anything meaningful on this blog, but when I see those countries I always wonder: is there a believer there? A brother or sister in Christ stopping by? And so I pray for them, always, just in case.
As you head into this holiday season, I encourage you, too, to pray for the persecuted believers in other countries: some currently in prison, some separated from their families, some living in refugee camps, many whose fate is unknown. Pray for the brothers and sisters in Christ working together in those countries to support other believers, to spread the Word, to live and love and serve. Pray that God will fill them in strength and give them great joy. Pray for healing, pray for mercy, pray for courage for them. Pray that they will know they are loved and in the hearts of their brothers and sisters all across the globe, and that they will endure patiently and with great hope for the glory of God.
And maybe, most of all, pray that you will learn from them what it means to hold things lightly and to hold God closely. These fellow believers of ours have much to teach to those of us who live in relative ease and privilege, and we would be wise to learn from them.