“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.
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:
- Does persecution indicate the absence of God’s activity or blessing, or its presence?
- 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?
- 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).