As the coronavirus continues to impact all of our lives, here are seven lessons we can learn from the persecuted church about trusting God and being family through isolation and crisis
The coronavirus is having a wide-reaching impact on all of our lives in the UK and Ireland. Many of us are worried about our health and the health of loved ones. Offices are closing, people are self-isolating and nobody knows exactly what is likely to happen. A lot has changed in a short space of time.
But our God has not changed! One of the great truths of the gospel is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). And He told us “Do not worry about your life,”, but rather “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6).
That certainly isn’t easy. We need God’s grace. And, as so often, we can learn a lot from the faith, strength and perseverance of the persecuted church. People who are persecuted for their faith live the reality of isolation and danger every day. They experience fear and uncertainty, pain and suffering – and yet they see the hope of Christ in the midst of it!
Here are some lessons from our persecuted sisters and brothers during these uncertain times:
In John 17, Jesus prays for His followers – not just those He was speaking to at the time, but for all those who would follow God in the future: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through [My disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”
Rikiya, northern Nigeria
Jesus wants His Church to be unified – to be one worldwide family of God. This reality plays out for persecuted Christians around the world. Rikiya, in northern Nigeria, had nothing left after Boko Haram attacked her village. Open Doors microloans mean she is getting back on her feet – and she recognises the necessity of support from her brothers and sisters: “You are the ones who brought hope and healing back to me,” says Rikiya. “Honestly, if not for the loan I received to rear these goats, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The persecution faced by believers like Rikiya isn’t the same as the isolation and fear that we are facing now – but we can still share in this lesson. We can love and help one another. It’s more important than ever.
Most of us will be practising some sort of social isolation. But isolation in the midst of a pandemic does not mean we are alone. Instead, we have a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), both here on earth, and who have gone before us.
Eun Hye* escaped persecution in North Korea – her worship had to be done alone and with great secrecy. When she finally reached safety, she was deeply touched by the prayers of Open Doors supporters around the world. “I had no idea so many people were praying for us,” she says. “Those prayers are really important. They will lead more people to Jesus Christ in North Korea.”
Eun Hye from North Korea
Knowing that there is a worldwide family praying for each other can be a great source of encouragement to all of us too. Do keep praying for each other and for persecuted Christians – who are often among the last to receive emergency relief in times of crisis.
In Acts 17, Paul tells the people of Athens that, “‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’” In God, we have our security – not in health, safety or comfort. God promises He will be with us – He doesn’t promise we won’t suffer (quite the opposite!), but He assures us that He is stronger than our suffering and mightier than the things we fear.
Kwate, northern Nigeria
Kwate was widowed by an attack on her village in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram killed her husband – Kwate is an elderly lady, and looking after her farm was difficult, and she faced isolation from her community. But she continued to praise God: “He spared me and helps me in my small farm,” she says. We know that God is the sustainer of widows (Psalm 146:9).
He helped sustain Kwate through an Open Doors loan, thanks to your support. He shows the same sustaining love to all of us.
In John 16:33, Jesus says: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” He’s speaking of the dramatic scenes around His arrest, trial and crucifixion. But His words apply to any uncertainty and anxiety faced by His followers today.
Rohan* is an Indian Christian whose church was deliberately burned down in 2018. Everything was destroyed. But Rohan didn’t lose sight of God’s sovereignty: “I never thought about giving up. I trusted that God would act. I wanted to see Him take me a step further in ministry. My fellow pastors encouraged me. They reminded me that God is faithful to the persecuted church.”
Open Doors partners encouraged Rohan and offered financial assistance. Now the number of members in Rohan’s church has doubled! Even when the church was burned down, they kept meeting together. They trusted that Jesus’ victory has glorious consequences not only for eternity but for this world too.
Regardless of the situation for Christians, Jesus reminds us that He has overcome anything the world can throw at us. Because of that, we can have confidence and hope, no matter what happens. While this can be hard for our minds to comprehend in light of current times, we only have to look at the example of our persecuted family to see this kind of faith in action.
In Romans 8:35-37, Paul writes:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
You could add ‘pandemics’ to the list Paul gives in the first part of that passage.
Christians who have been persecuted have even more pressing reminders of this reality. Christians like Asia Bibi, who was released after eight years on death row in Pakistan, under the country’s harsh blasphemy laws.
Asia Bibi speaks at a recent press conference
“I had a lot of patience and hope in my heart while I was in prison, and I was certain I would be released one day because I was innocent,” says Asia , who now lives safely in Canada. “I knew that someday I was going to be free. When my father came to visit me, he said that I’ve been accused in the name of Jesus – and I told him I would also be released in the name of Jesus.”
Where does our help come from? Psalm 121 says, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” This is why we have the confidence that, whatever we have to face, we will still be held in the strong and mighty hand of God, the Creator.
Christians who are oppressed for their faith around the world often live in this knowledge. Surviving under constant threat would be impossible without the Holy Spirit’s constant assurance that God is there as a help and as a strength.
“The Pharisees persecuted Jesus, but still He went on with His work,” notes Lazar*, a church leader in Uzbekistan. His church was raided by police, who took all the church’s Bibles and Christian books. “The evening after the raid, I read Psalm 91. God is my refuge and my strength. I can hide in Him. I don’t want to allow myself to be governed by fear, because that doesn’t help you at all.”
Lazar’s example can inspire us. How do we live and serve during the coronavirus crisis, without being governed by fear – and instead live in the knowledge that God is our help, strength and refuge?
It can be hard to see where God is during moments like these. Why didn’t He stop the virus from spreading? Why won’t He intervene to save every life? Why is this happening?
These are hard questions. They’re also not new questions; they’re the types of questions that have been asked since the beginning of time. But God is there and He’s listening. His ways are not our ways, but we can trust that He will accomplish His perfect will, and that He invites us to participate in His plan for the world.
For Christians who have experienced persecution, suffering for Jesus can make this lesson plain. Time and again, we hear from believers from the persecuted church that they trust God and His care, whatever suffering there are enduring. “I am always amazed by how God worked in mysterious ways to answer our prayers and meet our needs,” explains Aditi*. She is a 16-year-old believer from India whose family experienced severe persecution for following Jesus. “All this time, God just wanted to teach us how to trust in Him, and now, in the end, we know that He is trustworthy. He never abandoned us or put us to shame.”
Aditi from India
God is there, even when it can be hard to see His hand. We can pray to ask God to help us have eyes to see His work in our lives, even in the midst of a global pandemic. This time of uncertainty is an opportunity to have the courage to follow Him, love our neighbours and live for Him, no matter what happens.
*Names changed for security reasons
We are praying for all of you. Here are some ways you can be praying with us: