By Todd Nettleton
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
It’s not hard to see the truth in Jesus’ words when you consider what our Christian brothers and sisters are enduring around the world.
In Egypt, the “Arab Spring” was supposed to bring about more freedom and more democracy, but under the Muslim Brotherhood, persecution of Christians actually increased. While many Christians were pleased to see the recent overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) contacts say radical Muslims actually blame Christians for Morsi’s loss of power. Already there have been reprisal attacks on churches and Christians’ homes.
In Iran, authorities recently forced the last “building church” to stop holding services in Farsi. This was the final above-ground church in the country still holding services in the language of most of Iran’s people. (Churches are permitted to hold services in Armenian, because the Armenian people are considered to be traditionally Christian.) In the past two years, raids on house church meetings have increased, and pastors and church leaders have been imprisoned.
In Nigeria, the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (which loosely translates to “Western education is a sin”) has attacked churches and schools, in addition to police stations and other government targets. Its stated goal is to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, and it has told Christians in the region they should move to the southern part of the country or risk death. Churches post uniformed guards outside services to monitor security, and Christians know going to church could get them killed.
In China, two men—Lacheng Ren and Wenxu Li—were recently sentenced to years in prison for trying to establish a Christian bookstore, despite the fact the bookstore had all the correct licenses and approvals from the government. China’s government touts “religious freedom,” and the government-controlled Amity press brags about how many millions of Bibles it prints, yet these two men are in prison for trying to offer Christian books to their customers. Some of the so-called “illegal” books they offered were audio versions of Old Testament books.
Power in the Midst of Suffering
It is easy, when considering these and other stories from the persecuted church, to be overwhelmed by the attacks of the enemy and the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Sometimes, though, in focusing on the suffering we miss the supernatural things God does through persecution. Yes, without a doubt, our Christian family does have tribulation in this world. But also, without a doubt, our brothers and sisters are experiencing Christ’s overcoming power in the midst of that tribulation.
Early this year, one of my VOM coworkers was in Egypt. He had arranged to meet with a Christian pastor, but when he arrived at the church he was told to wait; the pastor’s previous meeting was running long. He was then escorted into a room where about 30 people were gathered around the pastor.
Through a translator, my colleague began to understand what was happening. The 30 people were all former Muslims who had seen clearly the hopelessness of Islam, even as their nation was becoming more Islamic politically. These 30 had accepted Christ, and now the pastor was leading a discipleship class that would prepare them for baptism.
It must be understood that leaving Islam makes one an apostate, and often results in being cut off from one’s family and friends. It can result in execution, either by the court system or one’s own family members who are shamed by having a Christian in the family. Yet these 30 were willingly turning their backs on Islam and embracing life with Christ, even a life of danger and rejection.
Iran’s government is shocked and frightened by the growth of the church in that nation. It arrests, interrogates, and even tortures Christians, yet it cannot stop the church from growing. In fact, Operation World says the fastest-growing church in the world is in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In many ways Iran’s government is contributing to the “problem” it is trying to solve. Iran’s government is led by mullahs, or Islamic leaders, who claim to be doing everything according to the Quran and Islamic teachings. So in the minds of the people, any failure of the government or the nation is a failure of Islam. A stolen election? A failure of Islam. A government that cannot overcome or alleviate crippling economic sanctions? Another failure of Islam.
I have spoken with Iranian church leaders who say the average persons on the street have already rejected Islam, even if they haven’t chosen what to accept in its place. So when the gospel message falls into this ready soil, it naturally produces a great harvest. One Iranian church worker told me if you would share the gospel message with 10 Iranians, five of them would accept Christ immediately, and two more would turn to the Lord within a few weeks. That’s why the church is growing at such a high rate.
Earlier this year I visited Nigeria to meet with and interview Christians there. I met with several who had suffered unspeakable losses at the hands of radical Muslims. Yet I also saw faithful believers who will not give up in spite of their suffering.
One of my final meetings was with two pastors from a village that had suffered attacks by radical Muslims. The two men were from different denominations, yet they came together and spoke about how they are working together for the kingdom of God in their village. The persecution, they said, has brought about more unity within Nigerian churches. Under attack, denominational walls are falling and Christians are stepping up to comfort and support each other, and they are acting together to reach out to their persecutors.
Our Chinese brothers and sisters are often given a choice: allow the Communist Party to be the head of the church and avoid trouble and persecution, or choose to keep Christ the head of the church and face arrests, interrogations, torture, and prison. There are God-fearing believers who worship in state-sanctioned, Three-Self churches, but the vast majority of China’s Christians choose unregistered churches which clearly keep Christ at the head, regardless of what the Communist Party or its religious affairs officials say. And the church grows; China watchers predict that at current growth rates, in 30 years China may become a majority-Christian nation.
How Does It Happen?
How does this happen? How is it persecution doesn’t stop the church, but, in fact, often we see the church growing in restricted and hostile nations much more rapidly than in “free” nations?
From the first days of the early church, God has used persecution to spread and strengthen the church. Acts 8 says a “great persecution broke out,” and many Jesus followers were forced to flee Jerusalem and head out to the surrounding towns and nations. The people took the gospel message with them, leading to more people in more places choosing to follow the resurrected Christ.
But persecution doesn’t just scatter the seed-bearers. Something supernatural happens when Christians are so submitted to God’s will and his Spirit that they are willing to endure persecution—and even death—for his name’s sake. Paul wrote to the Philippians that, “because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (1:14). Seeing the faithfulness of Paul, who was awaiting execution in Rome, Christians answered the call more boldly to be like Paul and share the message of salvation with those around them.
In some cases, those around them are limited to their persecutors. Prison guards or even torturers are allowed to hear the gospel message even as they persecute the messengers. And one of the greatest witnesses to the power of that message is the ability of those being persecuted to forgive and even love their persecutors.
Paul held the coats of those stoning Stephen, and heard Stephen cry out with his last breath asking God to forgive the very people taking his life. It is a pattern we see repeated even today: those who are bold in persecuting Christians often become even bolder in preaching the gospel and sharing their faith once the love of Christ takes control of their lives. One of our VOM partners in Colombia puts it this way: “A race horse can run just as fast in either direction.” May we reach many “race horses” and turn them to run fast for the kingdom!
Todd Nettleton serves as director of media development for The Voice of the Martyrs (www.persecution.com).