For those of us living in climates of religious freedom, the topic of persecution may feel like something to avoid. So much unpleasantness: suffering, guilt (as we lack the level of commitment of those who are suffering), and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it.
And like Christmas or Easter, an element of obligation and routine may creep in as the season approaches. When the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church rolls around, a lot of things can get in the way of committing to praybesides things to do and places to go, there's also compassion fatigue, or just plain old fatigue, and perhaps the sense that you're going to get cowed into something you're just not that into.
Those who regard Christianity as something more than a topic in the cafeteria of ideas, however, will hurt when other members of the body hurt. As a relationship with the God who was tortured to death, Christianity has persecution at its core. Hence the annual International Day of Prayer (IDOP), like Christmas or Easter, is something that is always with us, even if we recognize it officially but once a year.
Many churches observed IDOP on Sunday, but the observance actually lasts an entire week (November 13-20), with the call to prayer especially highlighted last Sunday and next. Numbers will be bandied about, such as the roughly 200 million Christians around the world who are imprisoned and/or tortured for their faith, or the 400 million whose religious liberties are violated, often costing them their homes and/or livelihoods. Exhortations to pray for the persecuted church will issue forth. And stories of persecuted believers will be toldmany to choose from. The news service for which I'm managing editor, Compass Direct, relates a few of these stories every day, at least five days a week, year-round. And that continual shower of painful narratives represents a mere raindrop in the storm.
A different kind of story needs to be told; the kind that a Vietnamese pastor known as Silas recently told. Local authorities warned that if his church continued to meet without a permit, he could expect to see trouble. "Be careful," one official told him. "Watch out."
This was a threat as much as a warning. In Vietnam, as in many other Communist (and some Islamic) countries, governments commonly deny or delay church permits, then jail Christians for meeting without a permit.
Silas shot back: "I don't have to watch out or be careful; God will care for us." He went on to thank the official for the harassment and opposition that Vietnamese authorities had meted out, as it unified the country's Christians.
"Your persecution has made us stronger," he told the officer.
Moreover, the pastor told him that he loved him. "You can shut down our churches, jail us, torture us, it doesn't matter, because we'll still love you," he said. "We'll love you, because God loves you and wants to see you come to know Christ's salvation." Then he delivered the final, loving blowasking the official if he didn't feel badly about mistreating Christians. Silas told him he suspected it was tearing him up inside.
The official stalked away.
Late one night, he came back. When the pastor heard him knock on the door, he assumed he was going to be hauled off to jail. But the official's manner was more like that of Nicodemus visiting Jesus, the pastor said; he needed to talk. He was depressed.
Silas invited him in, and in tears the officer told him how he did, indeed, feel badly about forcibly restraining Christians from worship. Most upsetting, though, was that he feared for his job if he did not beat and otherwise harm Christians. He himself felt mistreated at the office; peers who were lesser officers than he looked down their noses at him, advancing through the ranks by purchasing successively higher positions; the force was rife with such corruption.
Silas told him that God had a sterling plan for his life, and that he would care for him and guide him if he would only follow his son, Jesus. Before the night was over, the official prayed to receive Jesus.
The next miracle was that the official advanced to a high positionwithout bribes. He advanced high enough to know when church raids were about to take place, so he could tip off Silas.
"He would tell us on Saturday that the police were coming on Sunday morning, so they'd come and find nobody there," the pastor said. "Then we'd meet for worship in the afternoon."
These miracles, the pastor concluded, could not have happened without the prayers of believers worldwide. Many other oppressed believers tell of receiving supernatural consolation in the midst of their ordeals. Suffering Christians are actually protected, comforted, and rescued through our prayers. That's probably the best reason to pray during IDOP this year.
Compass Direct managing editor Jeff M. Sellers is a former CT associate editor.
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Compass Direct writes about the persecuted church.
More on IDOP is available from our site.
The official IDOP site has more information about the observance, including an article about why we should pray for the persecuted church.