What do you think of when you hear of persecuted Christians? Maybe you think of China with its underground Church of millions, or of Iran with its hidden community of believers, or of Nigeria with its burnt-out church buildings.
Our instinct sometimes is to think of persecuted Christians as followers of Jesus in dark, cold, lonely places, and to think of them as poor and unfortunate. When I hear of persecuted Christians I think about the words from Philippians 2:15, of those who shine bright and uncorrupted in a world encased in darkness. I have learnt that it is in the dark, cold, lonely places that stars shine brightest.
Christians in Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka face a life of material and social hardship because they choose to trust Jesus and follow his teachings. In Egypt some are disowned by their families, in Pakistan strict anti-blasphemy laws can leave Christians unjustly imprisoned, and in India communities are attacked and divided, and yet still they choose to follow Jesus.
In North Korea, the Bae family passed on the truth of God through whispered recitations of the 10 Commandments – the almost total sum of what they knew of God – and the word hunanim, the Korean word for “the true God”. I have been taught the value of the Word of God in the Bible, to be grateful for all that I have access to.
Helen Berhane is an Eritrean gospel singer who spent two years in prison because she refused to stop singing about her faith. She was beaten, suffered the indignities and distress of imprisonment, and almost lost her life, but never turned her back on her Jesus. I have been taught faithfulness under extreme pressure, to trust that God never leaves us, even in the bleakest moments.
In Azerbaijan government pressure means churches struggle to get registered; their leaders face beatings and are so certain of the inevitability of prison that some choose not to marry. I have been taught that Jesus deserves, and sometimes demands, my sacrifice.
These tiny glimpses of the experience of Christians under pressure because of their faith have shown me what it means to be the bright, shining stars in the darkest of places. My life of comfort is not a bad thing; I am thankful for it every day. Yet it is not the common experience of many people who share my faith, it is not the common way that most followers of Jesus walk with him daily. Many suffer, some die, we all grieve, but we are one family, one Church, one community of believers. Those who suffer for their faith teach me every day to look to God, to trust Him completely, and to aim to be willing to give up anything and everything for Him.