Slowly the pastor made his way to the pulpit to conclude a service where I had shared concerning the reality of Christian persecution today, testimonies of the faithfulness of the Suffering Church, and the responsibility that Canadian Christians have to stand together with them in their affliction. But as he opened his mouth, I was saddened to realize that, despite all my efforts, this dear man of God had completely missed the point of the message. Thanking me for coming, he then suggested that the congregation spend a few minutes thanking God for the freedoms that we enjoy in Canada since it was obvious that so many around the world cannot worship freely as we do.
This incident was not unique. Today is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada. In a few weeks, our friends in the United States will celebrate similarly. Regardless of the date or the country, I am sure that many of us pray such a prayer as we gather together as friends and families or during Thanksgiving services and/or family celebrations.
Indeed, this type of prayer of gratitude tends to be the standard ending to many of meetings where our staff are asked to speak. And how many of us haven't personally prayed a similar prayer at one time or another? It seems to be a particularly suitable prayer when we consider what we were thankful to God for. The issue of religious freedom almost inevitably comes up, and the prayer is spoken, "Thank you, Lord, for our freedoms, for we know that there are many around the world who don't have them. Thank you that we don't have to meet in secret like so many do." And with that we barely give a second thought about the very people to whom we were comparing ourselves.
I have no great desire to be contrary and controversy for its own sake no longer has much appeal to me the older I get. But this particular response no longer seems appropriate to me as I learn more and more about God’s Word and His persecuted children worldwide.
Let me state it plainly. If your first and primary response to the Persecuted Church is to feel grateful for the freedoms we enjoy in this country then you have probably missed the whole point of what God wants to say to you through their testimony of suffering, faithfulness and grace. Simply put, the Persecuted Church does not exist so that we can feel grateful, and they deserve to be more than a prayer item or sermon illustration designed primarily to elicit thanksgiving.
I recall the first time I began to have misgivings about the appropriateness of responding to reports of persecution by giving thanks for our freedoms. It was after I returned from a week of ministry in Colombia in 1999, when I was privileged to meet a number of courageous believers who are putting their lives on the line for Jesus Christ. In the six months previous to my visit, more than 25 evangelical pastors had been killed and up to 300 churches destroyed by leftist guerrilla groups in Colombia. Satanists had killed other pastors. While there, I met with the families of 180 Christians who had been kidnapped on May 30, 1999, by ELN, one of the country's main Marxist guerrilla groups. The ELN had attacked the church where they were praying and took the entire congregation hostage. With tears in their eyes, the families of those held hostage begged for our help in alerting the world to the plight of their loved ones and were grateful when we prayed for them before we left.
Hearing of the suffering of these people, I thought to myself, what should we do? Offer a prayer of thanksgiving that we don't live there? Do I really believe that this is what God calls for? Is this really the best we can do?
Isn't it ironic that whereas the early church thanked God for the privilege of suffering for Him, we thank God for the privilege of not suffering for Him? And whereas Jesus called those who are persecuted "blessed", we say that the blessed are those who are protected from persecution? Something is amiss here.
(this article is a revision of a blog originally posted on November 23, 2006)