One of the most common questions I receive from Christians in prosperous countries is, “How can we prepare for increasing persecution?” I actually hear this question more and more each year, perhaps due to reports which assert that persecution of Christians is increasing dramatically around the world.
(By the way, I am not persuaded of the rigor of the methodology and analysis of most of these reports; that, however, is a post for a different day. In the meantime, if you are interested in an alternative viewpoint done according to more traditional and rigorous standards of research, let me recommend the newly released Pew Research Report on Restrictions on Religion. It contends that “the share of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities involving religion dropped from 33% in 2012 to 27% in 2013.” It also suggests that we vastly underrate the severity of restrictions being faced by Christians in countries like Russia, which is generally, and in my view regrettably and inaccurately, ranked very low on most other persecution lists.)
My reply to those who want to prepare for increasing future persecution in prosperous countries is to recognize that Christians living in prosperous countries are always in greater danger of becoming lukewarm than of being martyred. Thus, greater than the need to prepare for a future of persecution is for Christians in prosperous countries to repent from a present of lukewarm practice.
In this perspective I am saying nothing original. It is in fact Jesus himself who makes this point, in Revelation 3:15-19 (ESV), to the church in Laodicea. If we read carefully, past Jesus’ critique, we see that Jesus also offers the remedy:
I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by the fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
Among Christians in prosperous countries, I do note the same attitude Jesus describes when I speak about persecuted believers in North Korea and other countries. Christians in prosperous countries assume that their role is to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters. Can we pray? Send money? Certainly there is something more we can do?
Jesus offers us another idea: Repent.
That is, we are called to repent of the attitude that we are rich, prosperous, and need nothing. We are so rich, we believe, that we have a surplus that we feel called to share with wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked persecuted believers around the world. But, says Jesus, you are actually the wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked ones.
Jesus’ solution? Buy from him gold refined in the fire. He is not explicit as to his meaning, but certainly back of his image here (as well as his next image of white robes) is to learn a faith and wisdom born of suffering. For me and for many, that wisdom has come from learning from persecuted brothers and sisters.
Merv Knight, historian of the Voice of the Martyrs movement and of its founder, the Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, noted Rev. Wurmbrand’s concern that the fall of the Soviet Union prompted so many Westerners to rush in in an effort to teach Russian Christians. “Why do you rush in to teach them?” Rev. Wurmbrand asked. “Why don’t you rush in to sit at their feet and learn from them?”
Thus, it turns out that preparing for persecution is one and the same thing as repenting of lukewarm practice. In both cases, our persecuted brothers and sisters are our teachers, not merely the recipients of our largesse.