This coming Sunday is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Alas, these days most Christians spend very little time thinking about—much less praying about—our persecuted brothers and sisters around the globe. This despite the fact that more believers have been martyred in the last century than all the other centuries combined!
There was a time though when persecution and martyrdom were among the church's highest callings and greatest honors. Early on, Christians embraced the truth that "all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). The heroes of the faith have always been those who actually sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and reputations for the sake of the Gospel.
E.M. Bounds, the great nineteenth century pastor and evangelist is probably best known today for the classic books on prayer that he wrote. In his own time though, he was equally well known for his advocacy for the persecuted church. He once lamented the fact that it is “all too often the case” that “when the church prospers it loses sight of the very virtues from whence its prosperity has sprung.” According to Bounds those virtues "invariably have sprung out of either the suffering of believers or their response to the suffering of others."
That insight was honed from his own personal experience. Throughout his long earthly service to Christ, Bounds suffered both fierce persecution and enforced obscurity. During the terribly uncivil Civil War he suffered great hardship, hunger, and imprisonment. Later he suffered scorn the hands of liberal denominational administrators who objected to his unswerving evangelical faithfulness. Even at the end of his life, he was unable to enjoy success--he was sorely neglected by publishing executives who believed that his brilliant devotional writings were of little value. He was beaten, ridiculed, defrocked, and defamed. He suffered poverty, isolation, betrayal, and disgrace.
Through it all though, Bounds said that he found solace in the fact that the Christian vocation does not depend on the confirmation of worldly notions of success and thus does not need to adjust to the ever-shifting tides of situation or circumstance. He knew that the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the faithful are the seeds of real success and that our diligent, unflagging efforts on behalf of the despised and rejected are our most potent caveats to the worldly-wise.
Though that may be an alien notion to us today, it has been the common experience of virtually all those who have gone before us in faith. They tasted the bittersweet truth that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to "those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness" (Matthew 5:10) and that great "blessings" and "rewards" eventually await those who have been "insulted," "slandered," and "sore vexed" who nevertheless persevere in their high callings (Matthew 5:12-13).
According to the Scriptures it is incumbent upon us to "comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God" (2 Corinthians 1:4). We are to "bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). We are to "encourage one another and build up one another" (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The mandate to care for one another and all those who suffer--even in the midst of our own travail--rings as clear as a clarion down through the ages: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly" (Romans 12:10-16).
The tenderest stories, the greatest adventures, and the most inspiring examples of faith across the wide span of history are invariably those instances when the Family of God has actually acted like a family and when the Household of Faith has actually functioned as a household. They have been when the church served as Christ's own instrument of mercy, when it became a kind of medicine of immortality to the dying minions of the of the world.
Like so many before him--and so many who would follow--E.M. Bounds discovered the beauty of fellowship, the strength of communion, and the brilliance of grace at a time when ugliness, weakness, and dullness seemed most certain to prevail in his life. Indeed, it was only as he witnessed the constant and fervent service of the true church during his bitterest days of adversity that he began to comprehend the place and power of prayer--a comprehension that would in later years bring blessing and strength to generations of Christian readers through his many incisive books.
Merciful service in the face of suffering is "often the glue that holds together the varied fragments of the confessing church" says the remarkable Romanian pastor Josef Tson. It affords the church "strong bonds of unity, compassion, and tenderheartedness" says Russian evangelist Georgi Vins. It "provokes the very best in us, demonstrating grace to a watching world, working out that which God has worked in," according to Indian apologist Vishal Mangalwadi. It "lays sure foundations for evangelism and discipleship simply because in the face of tyranny, oppression, and humiliation, the church has no option but to be the church," asserts Croatian pastor Josep Kulacik. "Disguised as evil, persecution comes to us as an ultimate manifestation of God's good providence" says Bosnian Christian leader Frizof Gemielic. "It provokes us toward a new-found dependence upon His grace, upon His Word, and upon His people. It is in that sense a paradoxical blessing perhaps even more profound than prosperity."
Our response to the "fragrance of oppression," as historian Herbert Schlossberg has dubbed the persecutions and sufferings of our world, is perhaps the single most significant indicator of the health and vitality of the church. After all, it is in "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger" (2 Corinthians 6:4-5) that our mettle is ultimately proven.
On this International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church may that mettle indeed be proven anew.