Each Voice of the Martyrs organization in each country around the world is independent, but we share a common history and heritage. We also cooperate wherever possible, including in the production of resources. One of my favorite resources from the VOM family is a list of ten ways to pray for persecuted Christians. It comes from what we’ve collectively learned from persecuted Christians themselves about prayer. In case you’ve not seen it before or recently, here it is. As you read it, please note not only the ways that are listed, but see if you can detect the most common way that Christians pray for the persecuted that is not on this list:
10 Ways to Pray for Our Persecuted Family
1. Pray that persecuted believers will sense God’s presence (Heb 13:5).
2. Pray that they will feel connected to the greater body of Christ (1 Cor 12:20, 26).
3. Pray that they will experience God’s comfort when their family members are killed, injured, or imprisoned for their witness (2 Cor 1:3-5).
4. Pray that they will have more opportunities to share the gospel (Col 4:3).
5. Pray for their boldness to make Christ known (Phil 1:14).
6. Pray that they will forgive and love their persecutors (Matt 5:44).
7. Pray that their ministry activities will remain undetected by authorities or others who wish to silence them (Acts 9:25).
8. Pray that they will rejoice in suffering (Acts 5:41).
9. Pray that they will be refreshed through God’s Word and grow in their faith (Eph 6:17).
10. Pray that they will be strengthened through the prayers of fellow believers (Jude 20-25).
The most common persecution-related prayer I hear prayed by Christians when I travel to speak is notably not on the above list:
1 Way Never to Pray for Our Persecuted Family
1. Pray that the Lord might deliver persecuted Christians out of persecution and into freedom like we are able to enjoy.
That prayer seems to be the most commonsense one of all. More and more it certainly forms the basis not only for the praying but also for the thinking, acting, and speaking of the wider church with regard to persecution.
And democratic governments seem to agree. An increasing number of them convene ministerials and appoint special rapporteurs and ambassadors to address the “problem” of persecution, noting (correctly) that Christians are persecuted more than any other religious group.
But the idea that persecution is a problem–that it is bad, that it should be avoided and remedied, that governments, Christians, people of all faiths, and fair-minded humanitarians everywhere should do all they can to ensure that all human beings may believe and live out their beliefs without fear of reprisal–is an idea that is increasingly accepted by Christians without thorough theological examination.
This is regrettable.
While Robert Louis Wilken rightly notes the Christian origins of religious liberty in his recent book, Liberty in the Things of God, he makes an implicit assumption that is nearly universally shared these days; namely, that persecution (or what he generally calls “coercion” in the book) is human in origin. Some evangelicals might say Satanic.
But biblically, and within the church’s Great Tradition theologically, persecution is regarded as neither bad nor human nor Satanic in origin. It is a gift from God. As Martin Luther wrote:
A theologian of the cross (that is, one who speaks of the crucified and hidden God), teaches that punishments, crosses, and death are the most precious treasury of all and the most sacred relics which the Lord of this theology himself has consecrated and blessed, not alone by the touch of his most holy flesh but also by the embrace of his exceedingly holy and divine will, and he has left these relics here to be kissed, sought after, and embraced. Indeed fortunate and blessed is he who is considered by God to be so worthy that these treasures of the relics of Christ should be given to him; rather, who understands that they are given to him. For to whom are they not offered? As St. James says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” [James 1:2]. For not all have this grace and glory to receive these treasures, but only the most elect of the children of God.
And this was hardly an isolated occurrence of this theme in Luther’s writings. As Walther von Loewenich noted in his Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976):
Luther regarded cross and suffering as the church’s most precious treasure; but the church that bears Luther’s name has not often taken this sufficiently to heart. In Luther’s eyes a church that is all too militant and vocal in its politics is suspect. The true church, on the contrary, is a church of martyrs. The new humanity that Christ wanted is the suffering church. Only that church has the full right to call itself the church of Christ which follows her Lord in all things. Hence Luther lists cross and suffering among the marks of the church. In his book Of Councils and the Church, 1530, Luther counts seven marks by which the church can be recognized, and he would prefer to call them the seven sacraments of the church, if the term “sacrament” had not already taken on a different meaning. As the seventh mark of the church Luther mentions “the holy presence of the sacred cross”. Hence it is part of the church’s essence to be in suffering; a church of which that cannot be said has become untrue to its destiny.
Thus, according to Luther, a church which prays for Christians to be spared from persecution and suffering is a suspect church. It is a church which has become untrue to its destiny. That might explain why the church is so spiritually feeble in the countries where Christians do not suffer. This may be less a sign of the favor of God than of a suspect church that has become untrue to its destiny.
How might we in the wider church go about recovering our destiny? How might we become a true church rather than a suspect one?
One way is to take the VOM list of recommended prayers for the persecuted church and pray them for ourselves as well:
10 Ways to Pray for Ourselves (as Inspired by Our Persecuted Family)
1. Pray that we will sense God’s presence (Heb 13:5).
2. Pray that we will feel connected to the greater body of Christ (1 Cor 12:20, 26).
3. Pray that we will experience God’s comfort when our persecuted brothers and sisters are killed, injured, or imprisoned for their witness (2 Cor 1:3-5).
4. Pray that we will have more opportunities to share the gospel (Col 4:3).
5. Pray for our boldness to make Christ known (Phil 1:14).
6. Pray that we will forgive and love those who persecute our brothers and sisters (Matt 5:44).
7. Pray that our ministry activities will remain undetected by authorities or others who wish to silence us (Acts 9:25).
8. Pray that we will rejoice in the suffering of our persecuted brothers and sisters (Acts 5:41).
9. Pray that we will be refreshed through God’s Word and grow in our faith (Eph 6:17).
10. Pray that we will be strengthened through the prayers of our persecuted brothers and sisters (Jude 20-25).
Since there is one body, it makes sense to pray the same prayer for all of us. Receiving the persecution of Christians as a gift from God to the whole church is exactly the kind of break from worldly ways of thinking that we need to put us back on the right spiritual track.