Since the day of Pentecost and the beginnings of the Church, persecution against the Church has been a reality. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death for his bold proclamation of the gospel. The apostles were threatened not to “preach in this name,” which is to say the name of Jesus. James the apostle was killed by Herod to gain political favor.
However, persecution was not a new phenomenon when the church began. There are numerous examples of the persecution of the people of God in the Old Testament. Jesus had promised his followers, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20 ESV) Indeed, Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of persecution—a necessary one for our salvation. His resurrection, in turn, was the greatest response to the persecution and rejection of the world. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we find the greatest answer for the church today as it faces persecution throughout the world.
So how should Christians pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world? I would like to offer a few suggestions to help us.
Understand the Nature of Persecution
In western culture, we can sometimes use the word “persecution” rather loosely. We might call it persecution when kids are not allowed to pray or study the Bible in public schools. We might call it persecution when a business uses the words “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the month of December. We might consider it persecution when someone is told not to pray in Jesus’ name in a public setting or when a worker is not allowed to display a copy of the Bible at work.
Whether these are instances of persecution or not, I will leave it to the reader to decide. I am not saying that they are not. We might say that they are at least indications of attempts to segregate expressions of Christian faith from the public sphere. However, when we compare such limitations on faith expression with the fact that in some countries churches are being burned, Christians are being killed, families are losing their homes, children, and their livelihoods for the sake of Christ, we are forced to ask the question again, “What is persecution, really?”
“It may be helpful to us to distinguish between what is persecution and what is spiritual inconvenience or annoyance.”
Again, Jesus said that if they had persecuted Him, they would persecute us also. As we look at the life of Christ, we will discover perhaps what He meant by the word persecution. We see that Jesus, for the sake of his preaching and teaching, was ridiculed, lied about, rejected by men, illegally tried, unjustly condemned, mocked, beaten, and killed by crucifixion in an attempt to silence Him. If any of these types of things have happened to us, we might justifiably say we have been persecuted. It may be helpful to us to distinguish between what is persecution and what is spiritual inconvenience or annoyance. Again, I will let the reader make that distinction under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Understand the Reality of Persecution in Today’s World
Usually our understanding of the nature of persecution is based on perspective. If we only see persecution as we think it exists in the USA or the Western World, our understanding of worldwide persecution will likely be skewed. It can be argued that we owe it to our persecuted brothers and sisters in the world to at least make an attempt to understand what they are facing.
“. . .we owe it to our persecuted brothers and sisters in the world to at least make an attempt to understand what they are facing.”
There are a variety of resources that are available to us to understand persecution in today’s world. Organizations such as The Voice of the Martyrs (https://www.persecution.com) and Open Doors USA (https://www.opendoorsusa.org) provide information about the persecuted church worldwide and list and describe countries where Christian persecution is most witnessed and experienced. Mission agencies often post articles regarding persecution on their websites. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has information about persecution throughout the world under the “Research” tab on its website (https://www.imb.org/category/research/). A simple search of any trusted Christian website may yield a number of articles that have been posted which will serve as resources for understanding worldwide Christian persecution. Simply reading a variety of missionary biographies can give us a new perspective on how God uses persecution to advance the Gospel. Adoniram Judson, John Paton, Jim Elliot and the Ecuador martyrs, among others, are good examples.
Pray Specifically and Discerningly
Armed with information about the persecuted church in the world that we have received from sources such as those listed above, we can pray specifically for the real needs of persecuted Christians. The next question we must ask, however, is “How do we pray?”
“While the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the evil one exist simultaneously in the world, there will be persecution.”
Should we pray that persecution stop? Should we pray that there be unhindered freedom of religion for Christians everywhere in the world? Should we pray that no one dies? The temptation is to pray such prayers. We certainly do not want a brother or sister who loves Christ as we do to suffer. In a perfect world we would not want it to be so. However, we certainly know that we do not live in a perfect world. It was this imperfect world that Jesus was referring to in his high priestly prayer in John 17 when He said “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15 ESV)
While the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the evil one exist simultaneously in the world, there will be persecution. Jesus and the Word of God make it clear that we can expect this and biblical and church history teach us that we should see it as permitted as part of God’s plan for His church and the expansion of the gospel. It is also clear that some are chosen for martyrdom. The reasons for this are God’s and we should not pray against it.
Here are some specific ways to pray for the persecuted church in the world:
- Pray for the wisdom of the persecuted church in the preaching of the Gospel and evangelism.
- Pray for boldness for Christians who are persecuted for their faith.
- Pray for secret house churches that are meeting daily throughout the world.
- Pray for Christian brothers and sisters who are imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel.
- Pray for specific examples of persecuted believers or churches that you read or hear about in various parts of the world.
- Pray for the power of the Gospel to transform oppressive nations throughout the world by name.
- Pray for God’s grace for those for whom God has chosen the way of extreme suffering or death for His glory.
- Pray that the burden for the persecuted church will be placed on your heart more heavily.
- Pray that we will pray about persecuted believers in the world according to God’s will.
- Pray that we will be ready to give an answer for our faith in Christ should we be chosen for persecution.
As you pray for the persecuted church, consider it an obligation to pray with knowledge and discernment of God’s purposes in the world. By all means, pray!