It's hard to believe we've made it to this point - the final post in this series on the persecuted church. I hope that God has done a work in your life like He's done in mine as you have studied about a subject so dear to His heart. As I have prayed for, studied about, and written about the persecuted church over the past few months, God has imprinted these truths on my heart in ways I cannot express adequately. Even the aches and pains that go with living in this body of flesh have become reminders to me of the suffering that is occurring in the body of Christ. I never want to forget what I've learned.
I also never want to make the mistake of just thinking that the relationship with the persecuted church is one way. It's true - they need to feel connected to the wider body of Christ, to know we are praying and helping in practical ways. But also - and maybe even moreso - we need to feel connected to them. We need to receive from them the ministry and lessons only they can teach.
As we discussed when we defined persecution, we are all "persecuted believers" to some extent. Whether through spiritual warfare, marginalization, mocking, or a whole range of other non-physical forms, we know what it means to be attacked for no reason other than our faith in Christ. Yet there are those whose persecution reaches far more severe levels, who live daily with the possibility of imprisonment or death, who face choices far more drastic that I've ever seen. And I have learned through these studies that I need them more than I ever realized. We - the church in the West - need them more than we know. So here are some lessons that those who've worked most closely with them have learned - and a few that I've learned along the way. (Some of these are pulled from Boyd-MacMillan, 304-349, with my own thoughts incorporated.)
- A cross-centered life. Persecuted believers who endure don't minimize the cross. Instead, they exemplify a cross-centered life. Their theology is focused on Jesus - on His life, on His suffering, on His resurrection, on His victory. They connect their suffering to His, identify with Him in the "fellowship of His sufferings" even while they wait for the "power of His resurrection" (Phil. 3:10).
- A relationship-oriented life. Often their testimonies reflect the lesson that relationship with Him is more important than tasks for Him. Wing Mingdao, a Chinese pastor, learned this when he spent 20 years in a cell with no ministry opportunities at all, and not even a Bible to study. He found himself with nothing to do - "Nothing to do except get to know God. And for twenty years that was the greatest relationship I have ever known. But the cell was the means." (Boyd-MacMillan, 308). A cross-centered life focuses on God, and lets Him take the reins for any tasks. The success, and speed of victory, are His to determine. As Boyd-MacMillan says, "How sad it is that so many of us work in the garden for the Creator, but never walk through the garden with the Creator! This invitation to walk with God in His garden, say the persecuted, is one we must pay any price to accept." (p. 310)
- A Bible-saturated life. A persecuted believer hungers for God's word. If he's had a little of it, he wants more. If he's had a lot, he recalls it for sustenance. Suffering also brings clarity to confusing Bible passages, yielding lessons about God that we don't learn until we are in the trenches. A Chinese pastor described to an American pastor why Revelation was his favorite book of the Bible. Surprisingly, it wasn't because of the hope for heaven and victory to come. It was because of the encouragement he received to resist idolatry. He saw Revelation as describing the way his world was - full of idols and things trying to draw him away from Jesus. (see Boyd-MacMillan, 316-318). Scriptures depths can be plumbed for a lifetime and we will still have lessons we can only learn from each other, because God has set up His body to need each other.
"The ultimate challenge of the persecuted church is to teach us things about God that we can incorporate into our daily walk. If all we do is pray for the persecuted, support the persecuted, march for the persecuted, then it's still a question of us helping them. We have not actually allowed the persecuted to change our lives." - Boyd-MacMillan, 305
- An empty/full life. Persecuted believers are forced to accept their weaknesses. They give up trying to do things in their own strength, and allow Him to fill them. Suffering empties us of ourselves and allows us a deeper filling of Him. An Egyptian believer recounted his persecution, and how it brought him to a place of seeing the depth of his sinful nature. In the midst of that dark moment, he realized how much Jesus loved him at his worst, and then: "Christ rushed in and filled me, and the filling was so great because I was so empty." (Boyd-MacMillan, 320)
- A risky life. Radical Christianity invites hostility, because as we saw earlier Satan hates Jesus and lashes out at us because of Him. Whether the attacks come spiritually, or more overtly through our cultures, families, laws, neighbors, or even authorities in power, obedience to Christ is not a "safe bet". One believer in California related how his radical giving and simple lifestyle became offensive to his law firm partners, costing him a partnership. Brother Andrew observes, "Persecution is because of the radical life, not the other way around. Why are we not having persecution? Because we are dodging it." (Boyd-MacMillan, 326). That doesn't mean we go "looking for trouble". It simply means that as we live out our faith, and confront darkness in Jesus' name, there will be a reaction. Boyd-MacMillan highlights how broad this reaction can be when he writes, "the pressure of the world, the flesh, and the devil comes from so many sources that we can safely say that every Christian will experience it, no matter if their culture is formally hostile to Christianity or fundamentally formed by it." (p. 326)
- A God-glorifying life. Persecuted believers remind us of God's power to deliver, as well as His power to equip us to endure. They testify to His faithfulness. They remind us that we don't have to know the results of our efforts, because He will see the job through. Missions was His grand idea, after all, and He just asks us to help Him out for the short time we walk this earth. Persecuted believers can teach us to exalt God.
By far, the single biggest lesson I have personally learned from reading stories of persecuted believers and praying for them is simply this: Jesus is worth it. He is enough. This truth was driven home to be in a powerful way though a story I read. A pastor in the former USSR was being tortured by KGB agents to give up information. He refused, but then they brought in his son. As they tortured his son to the point of death, the father started to waver. Just before he would have given in, his son urged him to stand firm. "I can see Jesus coming for me," the son said as he encouraged his father not to give in. "And He is so beautiful."
I don't have to know how things will turn out. I just have to know that He's worth holding on to - and that He's holding tighter to me than I ever will to Him. HE IS WORTH IT.
YOUR TURN: What have you learned from studying the persecuted church along with me?
Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church.Revell, 2006.