At church today, we observed the international day of prayer for the persecuted church. We heard stories about Christians who are experiencing persecution because they profess faith in Christ. Whether it be North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan or some other nation opposed to the gospel, there are Christians around the world for whom social, physical, and emotional suffering is the norm. These women and men are members of Christ’s body…we are one with them even though we don’t feel their particular pain or experience their particular suffering.
As I listened to the call to pray this morning, I found myself oddly detached from the experience of Christians in many other parts of the world. Living as a Christian in the U.S. presents it’s own challenges, which are, in many ways, are far less overt and visible than what Christians in other countries experience. If marginalization is the biggest challenge we face in the U.S., we must surely thank God for his benevolence and protection.
The beatings, sexual assault, social ostracism, unjust imprisonment, etc. are acts that I cannot fully grasp. At the same time, hearing the stories of Christians around the globe suffering for their faith reminds me of the brokenness of the world…and of my inability to do anything in my own power to make what is broken right again.
It isn’t easy to admit that there are some situations we just can’t change. It doesn’t matter what we do, how smart we are, how much wealth we amass, or how many other perspectives we listen to…some situations are simply out of our control. We can’t make the world right again…but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything we can do.
In addition to prayer (a crucial activity of which the international day of prayer is a reminder), I believe there are at least four, ongoing activities in which Christians must engage to become one body, offer one witness, and glorify God as one, united people.
1. Learn– After more than a decade of theological education, learning, as you might guess, is something I enjoy. When I first began my education, I focused on “book learning” to develop a solid theological and theoretical foundation for my thinking. As I’ve grown older and stepped into leadership positions, I’ve come to value more deeply the learning the comes form hearing about the experience of others. In a manner similar to what Paul notes in Romans 1, I find that I am both a giver and receiver of blessing when I interact with other Christians. It is not simply that I bring a spiritual gift to others, but that I benefit from their faith as well (Rom 1:11-12).
We must not view our persecuted brothers and sisters as only in need of our help and support, but as men and women whose experience of God and demonstration of faith in him is so powerful that they become an example to us of what it means to walk with Christ. We must learn from them even as we seek to alleviate their pain.
2. Hope– While it may seem like more of an orientation than an action, I believe hope to be an active yearning and trust that God will act to make the world right again. Whatever Christians are, we are not a people given to despair. Even as we see the naked aggression toward members of Christ’s body around the world, we cannot throw up our hands and give up as if God were not with us…as if he will not act to reestablish His order in creation. We must remain hopeful.
3. Lament– It may seem counter-intuitive to list lament after hope. In reality, I believe that the two go together. As Soon Chan Rah notes in Prophetic Lament,
“…lament is not simply the presentation of a list of complaints, nor merely the expression of sadness of difficult circumstances. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.”
As we practice lament (a crying out to God), we do not detach as if watching a movie…we immerse ourselves in the pain and suffering of others as we recognize again and again that the world is broken and in need of fixing. It is in need of God’s final intervention…his coming to recreate all things and to redeem a fallen world.
4. Re-orient– We tend to see the world from our own, often privileged, perspective unable to identify with or recognize the validity of the perspectives of those who see the world from a different, perhaps disadvantaged, viewpoint. As I listened to the stories of persecuted Christians today, I was reminded that, in making us one body, God has connected us so that we feel the pain and appreciate the function of each of the other members.
We must not neglect the potential of reading the Scriptures with the eyes of the persecuted because, as Fernandez notes, the benefit of reading from the standpoint of those who suffer comes in the provision of a “nagging reminder that things are not right, and that it is not all right.”
Ultimately, on their international day of prayer for the persecuted, we must recall that all who believe in Christ have been formed into one body. We are no longer separate…we strive with one another despite, because of, and through our varied experiences. All of us, as one organic whole participate with God, wait for Him to make all things new, and strive to serve him without reserve or regret.