Monday, September 20

The Fragrance of Oppression

The spate of violence in Iraq this past week got me to thinking about an article I wrote for Table Talk magazine this past year about the place of persecution in the history of the Gospel. I don't know about you, but my comfort and affluence often numbs me to the real nature of spiritual conflict in this poor fallen world. Thus, every so often I find I need to think about Ziwar:

The assailant fired off nearly thirty rounds. He shouted, “Allah akhbar! Allah akhbar! God is great!” He turned on his heel and left the taxi driver to die. And thus, on February 17, 2003, the Iraqi church had yet another martyr. Ziwar Muhammad Isma'il, a believer from the city of Zakho, not only left behind a wife and five children, he left behind a remarkable legacy of faithfulness in the midst of adversity, discrimination, oppression, harassment, and persecution.

Ziwar, a Kurd, came to saving faith seven years ago. “Since then he has been faithful to, and open, about his faith. Many times he was threatened and twice arrested, though never charged,” reported his pastor. Though practically illiterate, he had memorized large portions of the Scriptures and served as a deacon in the fledgling Evangelical church. Thus said his pastor, “he was always very well aware, as are all of us in the church here, of the fact that at some point, martyrdom is all too likely. He accepted this without reservation.”

I confess that when I received the e-mail reporting Ziwar's death, I was shocked. But, I know I shouldn't have been. Long ago the Apostle Paul asserted, “All those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). There is no way around it. No amount of compromise can divert it. Persecution is inevitable.

Jesus explained this fact to His disciples saying, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the Word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My Word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).

Ziwar understood, perhaps better than most of the rest of us, the ever-present danger of Christian profession in the midst of this poor fallen world.

Everyone loves a winner. The sweet smell of success draws nearly all of us like moths to a candle flame. Popularity, celebrity, prominence, and fame are not only the hallmarks of our age, they are just about the only credentials we require for adulation or leadership.

As a result, we are generally not too terribly fond of the peculiar, the obscure, or the unpopular. At best we reserve pity for losers. In fact, we view with suspicion anyone who somehow fails to garner kudos from the world at large. If they have fallen prey to vilification, defamation, or humiliation we simply assume that they must somehow be at fault.

There was a time when martyrdom was 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.
But no longer. There is almost a kind of shame that we attach to those who suffer persecution or isolation or oppression. If their cause does not meet with quick success, we are only too hasty to abandon them. Maybe they didn't try hard enough. Maybe they just made a couple of dumb mistakes. Maybe they had faulty theology. Maybe they just failed to marshal effective public relations techniques. But however they got into the mess they're in, we are all but certain that they are not the kind of models we ought to follow.

E.M. Bounds, the great nineteenth century pastor and evangelist who penned several classic books on prayer, asserted it was "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."

Throughout the history of the church, believers have suffered both fierce persecution and enforced obscurity. They have been beaten, ridiculed, defrocked, and defamed. They have suffered poverty, isolation, betrayal, and disgrace. They have been hounded, harassed, and murdered. Through it all though, they bore testimony to the fact that they found solace in the realization of genuine hope-a hope that did not depend on the confirmation of worldly notions of success; a hope that did not need to adjust to the ever-shifting tides of situation or circumstance. They were somehow able to comprehend 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: apostles, prophets, martyrs, confessors, pastors, evangelists, missionaries, reformers, and witnesses. 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).

And so, though they often suffered the slanging ridicule and irate torments of the world, they remained steadfast, continued their course, and walked in grace. Like Ziwar, they were willing to risk everything for the sake of truth.

The fact is, 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. It is in "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger" (2 Corinthians 6:4-5) that our mettle is proven.

E.M. Bounds said it well, “The easy smile, the temperate deportment, and the contented visage of a successful and prosperous Christians can but impress few, but the determined faithfulness, the long-suffering fellowship, and the stalwart compassion of yokefellows in hardship is certain to convey the hope of grace to many.”

Everyone loves a winner. That's not all bad--as long as our understanding of who the real winners are conforms to Biblical standards. But then that's the rub, isn't it?

I loved Ziwar before. But now, he is my role model.

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