A widespread view in this country, especially among Evangelicals, is that we are a Christian nation. Polls appear to support this supposition, regularly finding a majority of the country declaring itself Christian. Consequently, believers suffer little, if any, real persecution here. On the contrary, we enjoy unparalleled religious freedom, constitutional protection to worship and evangelize, and face limited governmental interference in practicing our faith.
In contrast, believers in most countries across Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East endure various forms of persecution, often face hostile governments determined to limit the practice of Christianity, and have no (substantive) legal protection to worship as they please. Radical terrorists, with designs to eradicate Christianity from places it has survived for two millennia, target Christians with increasing brutality, intimidation and death. The escalation in violence has, in some regions, reached epidemic proportions and often flourishes because local and national governments refuse to intervene.
So how do believers in these countries remain faithful despite the risk to life, limb, and liberty? How does the difficult environment in which they live produce Christians with faith so vibrant and mature? How does the fiery crucible of tyranny and torment yield faith so closely resembling the early church? Perhaps most importantly, what lessons can we learn from those living in a region engulfed by persecution and where basic religious freedoms do not exist? Here are four lessons from the persecuted church which we would do well to model in our own lives.
Faith comes at a cost. Believers in nations hostile to Christianity understand and embrace this critical truth. It is not an ivory-tower belief or an intellectual assent. Instead, it is a practiced truth forged by daily experiences – where intimidation, threats, and physical pain often are an integral part of daily life. Embracing Jesus in these countries has severe consequences that can include rejection by family, job loss, arrest, assault, loss of housing, imprisonment, or even death. That daunting reality attracts only serious disciples to Christ and serves as a natural barrier to lukewarm adherents. Said another way, no one feigns faith in Jesus when the penalties are so high.
Curiously, many in this country reject the idea that Christianity has a cost. We often look with incredulity at anyone who teaches otherwise, as if the person had three heads. We assert that since salvation is free, faith cannot impose a cost. But that popular view is unbiblical. Not only did Jesus teach that following Him would have a cost, He emphasized it. Even a casual study of Jesus’ ministry reveals the significance He placed in grounding His disciples in this truth. It is the essence of His message in Luke 14 when He advises potential disciples to “count the cost” and understand that whoever “does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (vs. 33, NKJV). That comprehensive truth is readily understood and embraced by believers overseas, because they experience it daily.
In contrast, a faith that ignores the cost of discipleship, also ignores the call of Christ. What results is a church flourishing with casual Christians – those whose faith exists to the extent their lives undergo no disruption or pain. Whenever the first sign of difficulty arrives or they must sacrifice something for Jesus or it is no longer expedient to profess Him as Lord, they walk away and embrace whatever religion, philosophy, or ideology advances their agenda and validates their lifestyle. What those faux followers of Christ fail to understand is that God uses the cauldron of persecution, suffering, and difficulty to strengthen our faith, draw us close to Him, and prepare us for eternity in heaven. As strange as it sounds, those circumstances we often associate with curses are in fact blessings, and, similarly, those circumstances we often associate with blessings are often curses.
Eliminate distractions. As I visit with believers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America I discover something interesting. Those with few possessions and impoverished lifestyles often display the strongest faith, most hope, and an unbridled joy seldom seen in this country. The passion they demonstrate for Jesus, their boldness in sharing Him with a adversarial community, and the significant time they dedicate to growing their faith is rarely matched in this country. How can that be?
To understand this we must take off the temporal lens through which we often view the world and put on a spiritual lens instead. Without the treasures of this world to distract them, these believers have plenty of time to nurture their relationship with Jesus. For example, worship services in third-world countries often last hours with no one in the congregation checking the time or leaving early. The opportunity to fellowship with other believers is God’s blessing and they want to maximize that blessing each week. They focus more clearly and easily on Jesus because the things of this world do not demand their attention.
We can apply this insight by removing from our lives whatever worldly treasures distract us from the Lord and compete with Him for our time and devotion. The apostle Paul referred to this as “counting all things as loss” for the excellence of knowing Jesus more. (See Philippians 3:7-11).
Pain refines faith. The suffering, persecution, and threats endured by overseas believers produces deep trust in God. With nowhere else to turn, they petition God for relief, seeking solace and comfort from Him alone. Since the courts, government, and society refuse to address their fears, troubles and needs, they know that their survival rests entirely in God’s hands, as does their freedom, health, safety, and basic needs.
In contrast, experience often teaches us to trust our employment, family, government, retirement plans, and investment accounts to provide for and protect us. We thank God on the surface but do we trust Him when the circumstances change? If not, our faith rests on an untenable foundation. Let’s learn from our persecuted brothers and sisters and place our trust in Him and not the circumstances or the things of this world.
How do we demonstrate that? By better stewarding the resources He has provided, by refusing to remain in our comfort zones, and by living a more sacrificial life. Let’s give more generously, invest our lives more sacrificially, and respond in obedience when He calls us to action that is uncomfortable.
Cultivate urgency. A final lesson from persecuted believers involves our need to cultivate greater urgency and focus on fulfilling the Great Commission and reaching the world with Jesus’ love. Those priorities dominate the worldview and decisions of Christians surrounded by darkness and confronting daily hostility to Christianity. They seem to understand the critical role they play in serving God by serving others. We should adopt the same mindset. Let’s set aside those activities and plans that entertain us and satisfy our worldly desires and replace them with actions that satisfy God’s desires and fulfill His will. In doing so we not only draw others closer to Him, we become more like Him ourselves.