“A faith that has not been tested cannot be trusted.” John C Maxwell
Not long after 9/11, I remember a sermon given by our pastor, Msgr. Gregory Mikesch, in which he said something to the effect, that just as improbably as it may have seemed to the early Christians when they were being lead into the Colosseum to be martyred, that one day Christianity would overtake Rome, it seems to us that one day, Muslim countries in the Middle East would also be come Christian nations. Yet in spite or even because of the terrible persecution, Rome became the seat of Christianity. What evil tried to conquer and wipe out, instead conquered evil, not through violence and war but through the silent, spirit-filled, faithful witness of the martyrs to faith in Jesus Christ. So, when I saw a book at the Christian Book Store called, “Too Many To Jail, The Story of Iran’s New Christians” by Mark Bradley*, I was intrigued. Could it be that the improbable is a reality? And there it was in black and white, that by all counts there are at the very least 100,000 Christians in Iran with the possibility the number being closer to one million making the Christian Church in Iran one of the fastest growing in the world. Gathering in homes to avoid persecution they are desperately seeking Jesus through the word of God. Risking their families, jobs, homes and their very life’s they gather together in the very heart of a Muslim nation to praise Jesus as their Lord. They also suffer greatly to follow Christ.
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
Even more repressive is the regime of North Korea. The North Korean Government will say there are no Christians in their country, but they exist in spite of persecutions we only pray we never have to even think about. They risk the loss of everything dear in life to praise Jesus. Priests, Bishops and church leaders languish in prisons in Turkey, China, and Cuba to name a few. ISIS has decimated the Christian populations of Iraq and Syria, burning Christians alive, crucifying children in front of their mothers and raping women and children. Their sacrifice is not in vain. It is bearing fruit in ways we could never guess. The blood of the martyrs cries out to the throne of God. God’s life and spirit is flowing through their veins and giving testimony to the love of God for his children.
“Your faith is more precious than gold, and by passing the test, it gives praise, glory, and honor to God. This will happen when Jesus Christ appears again.” (1 Peter 1:7)
We take our faith for granted. Our very nation was founded by poor masses of immigrants looking for a place they could pray without fear. Yet, we go to church when it pleases us and think nothing of what it cost to our forefathers to give us our right to worship. In so many nations of this world, just praying to Jesus will get you killed while we barely have the conviction to stand up for our faith lest the world laugh at us. Too many times, our flesh wants us to stay in bed on Sunday mornings rather than get up and go to worship God in our faith filled community churches. I have heard it said, “I can worship God all by myself in my own home.” I wonder if this is the view God had in mind for his Kingdom. I pretty sure there is no parable for the Kingdom of God being like the man who gets up, makes some coffee and reads a little scripture before he goes and plays golf.
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
Perhaps that is the gift of persecution, is to be brought to an insatiable hunger for Christ, a desire so deep that nothing in this world can keep us from it and the internal and external struggle to achieve oneness with God becomes an indescribable obsession unstoppable no matter the cost. It is almost as if the more we want that communion with Christ, the harder the forces of evil come against us. And yet, the stories of those being called to Christ in the heart of the Muslim world are filled with graces and spiritual experiences as they are purified in the fire of persecution making them spiritually rich. Christianity thrives and explodes under persecution.
“Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
My PSR students would come to class as if being dragged there and I truly believe some of them really were dragged there in many cases. I told them how lucky they were to be able to come to class without fear. Like typical American thirteen year old boys and girls, they grimaced. They never realized how close they came to not being allowed to use the local public high school rooms to meet for their religious education. In their sheltered uneducated minds, religion was being forced on them. They could not comprehend the wonderful gift of freedom of religion they were enjoying. Why do we really have to wait until it is gone to appreciate what we have?
“More over the law entered, that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” (Romans 5:20)
*Monarch Books, Oxford, UK, & Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA 2014.