When we worked among Somali believers in East Africa years ago, there were approximately 150 followers of Jesus among the millions in the area where we worked. We faced persecution. By the time we were kicked out, only four believers were left alive. They were hunted down and killed. Additionally, for twenty-five years, extremists took the bodies of martyred Somali believers and cravenly disposed of them. Therefore, the martyr’s body was not present at their own funeral.
Western Christianity does a credible job of preparing its workers to be sheep among sheep. Yet, we were entirely unprepared to be “sheep among wolves,” particularly in a place where the wolves were in the vast majority. At the end of this tough season of life, we desperately needed answers to questions that had not been answered by Western, Christian churches or training entities.
How do we make Jesus known in harsh environments, environments where it could cost a Muslim his life if he became friends with us? How does one plant house churches that can multiply inside environments of persecution? And how do believers thrive in persecution, not just survive?
We went to over 600 believers in persecution, in approximately 72 countries. With truth and grace, they reminded us of our biblical heritage. As families, they modeled how to choose joy in the midst of persecution. These suffering believers instructed us about how to follow Jesus in environments defined by persecution. Over many years, they taught us three critical truths.
1. Persecution is Normal in the Bible
The Western church disagrees. She believes that persecution is bad, that it should be avoided, and that persecutors must be punished. On the other hand, many who experience persecution dare to state that sometimes God places Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison. Yet, what is the Western church’s reaction when “our Joseph” is arrested? We write parliaments and congresses. We petition presidents and prime ministers. And we defer to the military for the deliverance of our missionaries currently imprisoned. Our beliefs and actions are based upon Western forms of democracy and our sense of human and civil rights. Do such beliefs represent a biblical theology of suffering? What happens when we succeed? What happens when we get Joseph delivered from Pharaoh’s prison?
It might so happen that Egyptians die and all the Jews in Egypt die. We must remember that, ultimately, God places Joseph in jail.
It’s also helpful to remember that the problem is not primarily persecution but rather our response to it. If someone on a missionary team is fearful of suffering for Jesus, other team members should confront them with a gentle heart and point them to the Bible’s teaching on this subject. The opposite approach to persecution is also problematic. If someone on your team wants to be persecuted, i.e., wants to be jailed, tortured, or killed, then they should be taken to a psychiatrist! Again, persecution itself is not the problem; the problem is when we respond to it in unbiblical ways.
2. The Greatest Cause of Persecution is People Giving Their Lives to Jesus.
Where there is a great harvest of souls, there is often great persecution. Where there is little harvest, there is little persecution.
Believers in persecution are suffering for two primary reasons. First, they have chosen to follow Jesus, and, second, they have chosen to witness to their families, neighbors, colleagues at work, government officials, and others in positions of power. We identify with our persecuted brothers and sisters when we sow the gospel lovingly, wisely, and daily, right where we are. The absence of persecution in the USA is, perhaps, less a sign of God’s favor with our political system than it is an absence of true faith and witness.
There is a great cost in obeying Jesus’ Great Commission, and this is not simply a price to be paid by believers in persecuted countries. This is the price paid by all who love Jesus and who are obedient to His command to cross the street and to cross the oceans with God’s gift of grace.
3. Obedience often leads to persecution.
What is Satan’s response when we obey Christ and His gospel is received by many who are unreached? What was the response to such harvests in the book of Acts? The apostle Luke notes that a widespread harvest led to the stoning of Stephen and the scattering of the house churches (Acts 7:58–8:1). Obedience to the commands of Jesus means both harvest and persecution. When a harvest comes, mothers will forcibly have their children taken from them, told that they are unfit to raise them now that they are Christian. Parents will lose their jobs, their homes, their freedom, their health, and their lives.
And, if you’re a missionary, the world will turn on you, blaming you for causing such suffering. Others will ask, “Why did you not simply feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and shelter the refugees? You cost that woman her children. You cost that man his job. And you caused that young woman to be forced into marriage with a Muslim man decades her senior. Your Jesus led to others being killed. Why did you not simply continue to do good deeds and keep your mouth shut? Your Jesus has caused great harm.”
These are not easy words to hear, especially within the Western church context. We want resurrection without crucifixion. We want to believe that if God loves us, our lives will be absent of trials and suffering. But in reality, persecution is evil’s response to a positive, loving witness that has been offered and accepted. If we are to be wise sheep among wolves, then we must embrace a biblical theology of suffering and persecution.
– The Somalis of East Africa are the prayer focus for Secret Church 19. Learn how you can pray for Somali believers.