More than even our prayers or our money, persecuted Christians need this

“How can we help persecuted Christians?”

It is the question I have been privileged to be asked nearly every day for nearly two decades. Most people assume that the answer must be some combination of prayer and financial giving, and most people assume that the biggest challenges in helping will be in remembering to pray regularly for the persecuted, knowing what to pray, and finding money to give amidst many excellent competing causes.

But after 17 years, I have come to the conclusion that God has ordained the matter of persecution so that something must precede our prayers and our financial giving in order for us to be able to help persecuted believers.

What persecuted Christians need more than our prayers and financial giving is a global church that embraces and trusts the way of the Cross.

Put more personally, what persecuted Christians need is for each of us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Christ.

Why?

Because absent the personal process of dying to ourselves and dying to the world, we will pray for the wrong things for persecuted believers and give to the wrong projects to help them.

Take, for instance, the general state of anxiety and alarm among Christians in response to the proliferation of news stories proclaiming that Christians are now being persecuted more than ever. Such stories create a sense that the persecution of Christians is due to a combination of our neglect/silence/passivity and the neglect/silence/passivity of the governments under which we live. The solution seems clear: We need to end our neglect/silence/passivity and demand that governments end theirs. Then, persecuted Christians can be protected (or, in the language of one recent campaign, saved).

But the fundamental premises of such a view must be subject to serious biblical scrutiny:

  1. Does persecution indicate the absence of God’s activity or blessing, or its presence?
  2. If, as Paul insists in 2 Timothy 3:12, “all who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (BSB), who exactly is it who is saving the persecuted Christians?
  3. Why does Hebrews 3:13 not say, “Remember those who are in prison with your prayers and financial giving” or even “Remember those who are in prison and do what you can to help get them out” but instead “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering”? Why is there no mention of those in prison exiting the prison as a result of our remembrance? And why does the remembrance take the form of suffering in the body of the one remembering?

The Cross is always the anchor of the Christian life, the interpretive principle of all of history. Jesus refers to Peter’s admonition to skirt the cross as nothing less than satanic. As our friends at VOM Canada say, ““A cross-centered gospel requires a cross-bearing witness.” Any step that is not a step in the direction of the Cross is, for the disciple, a misstep. In fact, we would always do well to remember that it is the non-persecuted Christian, not the persecuted Christian, who is the biblical oddity.

But if our prayers and our financial gifts must be preceded by a cruciform transformation in our own lives (which Jesus notes as the initial step of discipleship, by the way, not an advanced stage), it is fair to ask: What does that look like in a place where we are not being overtly persecuted?

I have previously written about the early church’s three “colors” of martyrdom. The insight of the early Christians was that the martyr’s physical death differs in degree, but not in kind from the Christian’s death to self and death to the world. As I have written previously, this is why the author of Hebrews can propose that one of the best ways we can remember the martyrs is to stop sinning: because self-denial and persecution are disciplines which are both rooted in taking up our cross.

As I write this, persecution is rising to a new level in China. How should we pray? To what should we give financially? My own sense is that if we are not dying to ourselves, to our own desires and plans and ways of thinking, and if we are not dying to the world, to its desires and plans for us and its ways of thinking, then our prayers and giving will be exceedingly wrong-headed. Instead of seeing the present hour as a major offensive that God is undertaking in China, we will see it as a major offensive that Xi Jinping is undertaking, and a major setback for the work of God.

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, NIV).

 

 

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An NK Bible Smuggling Story: How God Smuggles Bibles By Transforming Hearts, Not Deceiving Eyes

I met a young North Korean man Sunday who was newly arrived in South Korea. He had defected shortly after completing his mandatory ten year military service. He had caught my attention during the worship service where I was preaching because he held eye contact with me the entire time, had a warm and compassionate face, and showed a lot of calm and poise–traits not often found in North Koreans just beginning to make the adjustment to life outside of North Korea.

In our private conversation he showed unusual insight into English–also rare for North Koreans. He was not fluent, but he had certain phrases memorized (like “nice to meet you”). He looked at our VOMK logo and read slowly, “Voice…of…the…Pilgrim…” (An insightful mis-reading!) He said today NKs all learn English, but in his day they would take the smartest students in middle school and teach them English, and that is where/how he learned.

In the military he had served as a border guard and used his position to do black market trade in cigarettes and rice. He clearly was very smart and fared well. He became a Christian shortly after arriving in South Korea, during his initial interrogation period, of all times.  Since then he has been growing steadily week by week, even participating in daily morning prayer.

But now the smuggling story.

When the young man was a border guard along the river, a middle-aged North Korean woman came across the river on a raft made of inflatable inner tubes. She had a box that was labeled DVDs, but when he searched it he found six Bibles concealed on the bottom. When he saw these, he froze as if dead. He said all NK border guards are told, “If you see the Bible, you are dead,” which he as an intelligent young man understood to mean that if an NK soldier ever reported having seen Bibles, he himself would be heavily interrogated and watched. So in his panic he told the woman, “Never mention this in your life, and I will never mention it in my life,” and he let her in to North Korea with the Bibles.

This is a good reminder that God has his ways of moving hearts and arranging for Bibles to enter into North Korea. Human deception is rarely God’s way. God’s way involves transforming hearts in surprising fashion.

The young man noted that before he became a Christian he had a lot of anxiety. Since he became a Christian, he has had a great peace and calm over him, which was evident to me.

He asked us about a dream he recently had. In the dream he overslept because he was watching Korean dramas. So in the dream he arrived late for the morning prayer service at church. He was supposed to have organized and prepared the worship bulletins, but when he showed up at 6:10, they were blowing freely down the hallway. I showed him James 1:5 and told him always to pray for the interpretation of dreams.

But as I prayed with him, I myself received the interpretation of his dream, which I expressed to the young man through the traditional Korean proverb, “You can’t catch two rabbits.” I told him about Jesus’ admonition that we cannot serve two masters. I explained that the Lord was showing him that he must overcome the temptation to seek both worldly success and Christian service, choosing instead to “seek first the kingdom of God.” The young man was struck by the interpretation, and I laid hands on him and prayed that God would make him a single-minded man in all his ways.

Perhaps you will join me in praying this for him as well.

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Congratulations to Ji Seong Ho, but the biggest North Korean heroes are those who cross the border in the other direction

Ji Seong Ho may now be the best-known North Korean defector on the planet. The image of him holding his crutches aloft as President Trump told his story in the State of the Union address will not soon be forgotten. President Trump said that Mr. Ji is “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” In one of many interviews following the State of the Union address, Mr. Ji explained:

I think I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t live for any single more day. And even if it means I would die by risking crossing the border, that was so worth it because I just wanted to live one single day as a genuine human being.

Mr. Ji said that his crutches symbolize the truth “that you can achieve anything if you do not give up.”

These are the kind of words that resonate with most of us in the so-called “free” world, so it is no wonder that Mr. Ji was feted on the perhaps the highest stage that the free world has to offer.

I have nothing negative to say about Mr. Ji, and I am happy anytime the world hears North Koreans share their own thoughts in their voice. Yet…

I wish you could meet the people we get to meet: North Koreans crossing the border in the opposite direction of Mr. Ji. Heading home. In possession of a message powerful enough to raise the dead. A message that one does not have to cross any border or escape any country in order to live as a genuine human being.

“Yes, that’s easy for you to say,” some might reply. “You have not been in that situation.” I often receive criticism from Westerners for our organization’s stance against defection–we don’t encourage it, we don’t assist in it, and we spend a good deal of our ministry time and resources picking up the shattered pieces of life of North Koreans who do defect, often through the aid of well-meaning Westerners who hold liberty, freedom, choice, and safety as the greatest goods. Yet…

There is a message some North Koreans learn, typically while visiting China–on a work visa, a relative visa, or having been sold there by their own government working in cooperation with Korean-Chinese gangs. They typically learn the message from people like us whom the North Korean government brands as terrorists precisely because we spread this message to its citizens wherever they are found: North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Korea. And this message enables North Koreans to be genuinely human wherever they are found, whichever side of the border they are on, and even without ever needing to leave North Korea.

I know many of the names and faces and stories of these North Korean message carriers, and I can picture their backs as they turn to head back home, crossing the border into North Korea in possession of nothing more than this message. Like Mr. Ji, they believe that they can achieve anything if they do not give up. But the “anything” they are seeking cannot be confined to this lifetime. As the author of Hebrews writes,

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Mr. Ji found a new country–South Korea. And he is being celebrated in another country–America. And as he was being celebrated in that country this week, he said, “the next time I go to North Korea will be when reunification finally happens.”

But the greatest North Korean heroes, in my view, are those who returned to North Korea not at the point of political reunification but at the point when they were reunified with God, through receiving his son, Jesus Christ. These heroes are now even greater outcasts and greater enemies than was Mr. Ji when he was in North Korea–the North Korean government tirelessly searches for converts to Christianity and regards them as far more base than any physically handicapped person. They are martyred quietly, almost never as dramatically as the stories you hear from Christian organizations who focus on this sort of thing. Mostly they just disappear one night, and then their names are taken away from them, and they die nameless, faceless, voiceless deaths after a short time in a North Korean concentration camp.

I am not ashamed to call these my heroes.

And God is not ashamed to be called their God.

 

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