Last week, a friend asked me to meet for coffee. She is a young mother, and after seeing the now-world-famous image of a young Afghani mother handing away her baby over a barbed wire fence to an American soldier, my friend found herself struggling to emotionally grapple with what she had seen. Though she has been praying consistently for the situation in Afghanistan, as the image continued to loop through her mind. She wanted advice regarding how to be concerned for the suffering church without succumbing to the heavy emotional toll of it all.
While working with the Chinese church over the past 16 years, I have had to do some processing and learning after watching brothers and sisters in Christ in another cultural context suffer deeply. In December 2018, I watched as a group of Chinese men and women I have prayed and worshiped with were viciously attacked and jailed. Watching their suffering from a distance over the joviality of American Christmas deeply impacted my understanding of Christ’s calling.
Roughly 70 years ago, the global church witnessed what was thought to be the end of the church in China. Similar to what we are witnessing today in Afghanistan, citizens (and especially Christians) scrambled to leave China after the Chinese Community Party took over. The Chinese government persecuted the church in the immediate years following. Thousands abandoned Christ.
But there was a generation of men and women who laid down their lives as the seeds of the Chinese church today. They remained faithful as individuals and as the corporate church. And when the time was right, the gospel spread across their country in such a way that today the Chinese church is the largest numerical church in the world. Christians in China are estimated to be around 5–7 percent of the population, a crucial tipping point, according to missiologists.
Paying attention to the global church causes us to realize just what our brothers and sisters are sacrificing in their walk with Christ. Engaging with the suffering church—from Afghanistan to China—has discipled my own heart. We must not let our own fear of suffering dictate the narrative, but rather we must be discipled by those in Afghanistan and China and elsewhere.
First, my emotions surrounding the suffering church have pressed me to examine what I actually believe about prayer. I’ve noticed that for many Americans like me, prayer can feel trite during times of global suffering because we don’t believe that prayer is an actual contribution to the situation. I’ve found that I pray because I feel distressed at what I see and read, and not out of true conviction that my prayers are part of the objective work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Since watching those I work with suffer in 2018, I have been learning to see my prayer not just as a tool to ease my discomfort but as my weapon against the forces of evil in this world.
One diagnostic question I’ve asked myself since 2018 is whether I am capable of praying for justice and judgment. God’s justice is a theological framework for understanding a force for good in this world and a promise to be fulfilled at the end of time. As our brothers and sisters in China and Afghanistan demonstrate, preaching the gospel is about believing in a God who destroys evil and having the compassion of Christ. If our prayers for the situation in Afghanistan feel empty, then we need to reexamine how we are praying.
Second, watching churches I know suffer has caused me to examine what I believe about the perseverance of the saints. What is happening today is not the end of the story. But do I believe that and am I praying accordingly? As I watch the last American soldier leave Afghanistan, do I believe that God’s best plan for his people did not leave along with that soldier? For God himself has not left. I do not want to be trite. This is not a flippant statement to say that who is in power doesn’t matter or that our physical realities in this life don’t matter.
But if our view of church history requires friendly rulers and personal freedom to believe the church can not only survive but grow, then we have a faulty view of God’s relationship to his church.
There are a lot of things I’m praying for Afghanistan—justice and protection for women of all ages, justice and restoration for the abuses of government, economic stability, etc. I’m praying for those Christians who are fearing for their lives and want out. I’m praying for miraculous rescue.
But I also pray for those who stay. I am praying their lives will be the seeds of a similar gospel movement to what we’ve seen in China. I’m praying for their empowerment to be a strong and bold church in the coming decades so that in 50 years, we might be amazed to discover the largest church in the Muslim world. I am praying that their love for Afghanistan and their people will compel them.
As we awaken to the suffering of brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, let it disciple us to better engage the suffering we see in Afghanistan and here at home. We still have neighbors whose children are dying from cancer. We still have isolated widows who sit alone at night. We still have financial, psychological, and racial oppression. We still have divided churches. We still have wounds that are in need of binding.
Suffering is not a phenomenon of the persecuted church; though we try to avoid it, it is present everywhere. Suffering is part of our identity as adopted heirs of the suffering Lord, an identity which many of us are trying to escape. Where are you avoiding suffering with Christ? Where might you be able to testify to his name by entering into that suffering? Go there when you are compelled by what you see of the courage of your brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.
Hannah Nation serves as managing director of the Center for House Church Theology and content director for China Partnership. She is a co-editor of Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church (Kirkdale Press, 2022).