It’s Christmastime, which means it’s time for Christians to get agitated about the verbiage used by retailers and whether nativity scenes are permitted at City Hall.
We’re also enthusiastic about the more typical Christmastime pleasures—gift giving and family time.
Of course, Christians should be most excited to celebrate the incarnation, God with us in the virgin birth of Jesus.
But there are unknown millions of believers around the world this Christmas who will risk their meager livelihoods, separation from their families, and in many cases, their very lives to confess Jesus is Lord in celebrating His birth.
In our demands that the culture properly recognize Christmas with religious displays in public places and in the midst of our mad dashes for the latest must have gadget, some of us have consciously or subconsciously bought into the notion that the Christian life is supposed to be struggle-free, encouraged by such happy talk coming from the likes of Joel Osteen.
Osteen brought his smiling road show to Jacksonville recently. The “Night of Hope” fetched about 10,000 people—at $15 a ticket—to hear Osteen’s version of the old health and wealth so-called “gospel.” In an interview with The Florida Times-Union, a sociology professor at a secular university described Osteen’s message as being “wrapped up with the idea of individualism, in achieving the American Dream. He has tapped into that theme very well.”
Osteen told the Times-Union, “People have been beaten down enough by life. … I want them to feel like no dream is too big.”
I thought a lot about Osteen while reading a new book, The Insanity of God, by Nik Ripken. The Broadman & Holman book to be released next month is both a biographical and educational survey of Christian persecution across the world. From the jarring title to the heart-wrenching true stories, Ripken (not his true name) challenges the notion that persecution is unusual and even to be avoided.
The message of The Insanity of God and the preaching of Joel Osteen could not be more different. There is an incredible incongruity between Osteen’s sermons and the real-life examples of persecuted Christians around the world. Any theology that “works” only for those pursuing the American Dream is no true theology.
Indeed, Ripken—after 30 years on the mission field and 15 years intensely studying persecution among Christians in more than 700 interviews with persecuted believers in 72 nations—contends the absence of persecution among western believers should be more troubling than the presence of persecution among believers in the rest of the world.
He asserts, “Perhaps the question should not be: ‘Why are others persecuted?’ Perhaps the better question is: ‘Why are we not?’”
One Russian pastor told Ripken persecution was as common as the sun coming up in the east. “It happens all the time. It’s the way things are. There is nothing unusual or unexpected about it. Persecution for our faith has always been—and probably always will be—a normal part of life,” he said.
Struck—and even troubled—by the pastor’s statement, Ripken writes: “I had always assumed that persecution was abnormal, exceptional, unusual, out of the ordinary. In my mind, persecution was something to avoid. It was a problem, a setback, a barrier. I was captivated by the thought: what if persecution is the normal, expected situation for a believer? And what if persecution can be, in fact, good soil?”
After experiencing the near-total absence of Christianity in war-torn Somalia in which the few believers there were exterminated systematically by Islamists and following the death of his 16-year-old son, Ripken admits coming close to despair in a crisis of faith. He questioned the goodness of God in the face of evil and whether Christianity works in the hardest places of the world.
In the end, Ripken says the stories of persecuted Christians “saved my life.”
Even western Christians who are rightly concerned about persecution of their fellow believers sometimes are failing to understand the meaning and indeed value of persecution, Ripken believes.
“For decades now, many concerned western believers have sought to rescue their spiritual brothers and sisters around the world who suffer because they choose to follow Jesus,” Ripken writes. “Yet our pilgrimage among house churches in persecution convinced us that God may actually want to use them to save us from the often debilitating, and sometimes spiritually-fatal, effects of our watered-down, powerless western faith” (emphasis in original).
I’m tempted to say that if every Christian could read this book there would be an incredible revival in their lives and churches, resulting in a societal transformation. But then I think about how Ripken was rebuked by one of the persecuted believers.
“These are inspiring testimonies! I have never heard anything like them!” Ripken told an old Ukrainian pastor who lived through years of persecution. He asked why they had never attempted to publish a book recounting the stories.
“Son, when did you stop reading your Bible? All of our stories are in the Bible. God has already written them down. Why would we bother writing books to tell our stories when God has already told His story. If you would just read the Bible, you would see that our stories are there,” the pastor said sternly.
“His convicting question still echoes in my mind,” Ripken writes.
Indeed, Ripken’s recounting of persecution across the world—from the old Soviet bloc, to Russia, to China, to Southeast Asia to the Islamic world—sounds just like the Book of Acts, incredible works of the Holy Spirit in which the Gospel is amazingly preached and prospers under the most repressive regimes.
And yet, never has any mature Christian requested prayer for relief of persecution, Ripken says. “Rather, persecuted believers ask us to pray that ‘they would be faithful and obedient through persecution and suffering’” (emphasis in original).
This is one of the most important lessons Ripken learned: political freedom has nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual freedom. “The price for obedience might be different in different places—but it is always possible to obey Christ’s call to make disciples. Every believer—in every place—is always free to make that choice” (emphasis in original).
Our persecuted brothers and sisters are modern-day illustrations of the biblical people of faith.
“How many of us who strive to follow Jesus today have ever wished we could have witnessed firsthand the kind of spiritual adventures and the world-changing, resurrection-powered faith experienced by believers in the New Testament?” Ripken writes. “I believe that we can—and we don’t have need a time machine to do it. We need only look and listen to our brothers and sisters who are faithfully living for Christ today in our world’s toughest places.”
I understand the frustration Christians have with efforts to sanitize Christmas of its true meaning. Indeed, in some of these matters are the seeds of a possible future persecution of Christians in America—a prospect that seems more and more likely. Where there are true attacks on religious freedom at Christmastime—and throughout the year—let’s take our stand and work for justice.
Yet, at the same time, let’s get excited about and pray for Christians who are being persecuted today in horrific ways, at great cost. And, let’s learn from their example so that we may too be a witness for Christ in spite—and indeed because of—opposition.
This Christmas as you are gathered with family and church to celebrate the incredible truth of Immanuel, take some time to turn your attention to fellow believers around the world who are unlikely to have the same, simple opportunity to celebrate openly their faith in Christ. Pray that they would remain obedient and faithful to the end—and that western Christians will also.
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