According to the World-watch-list published by Open Doors, oppression of Christians increased in many countries in 2015. This is true especially for Muslim countries, due to the activities of organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In addition, fanatic Hindus make life difficult for Christians in India, and so do some Buddhists in Burma. (You can see the list at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/)
Many Christians, particularly in Western Europe, have never really experienced oppression or persecution. They may have to deal with opposition to their convictions now and then, but they do not know what it means to fear for their life because of their beliefs. Yet Jesus Christ taught us that those who follow him should not be surprised when faced with persecution. In Mark 10:29-30 he says: “No-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (NIV). If, in this age, we abandon precious things for Jesus, we will be compensated, but still we will have to expect persecutions as ‘part of the deal’.
What can Christians in Europa do in face of the reports about worldwide persecution? Obviously, we must pray for our fellow believers and help them as much as possible. Furthermore, it goes without saying that Christians who enjoy freedom should thank God for his protection. However, in some cases our life may be relatively easy because our witness is too weak to provoke any resistance. If we do not know anything about opposition, it may be wise to ask ourselves if perhaps that sad possibility applies to us. As Christians we should behave prudently in all circumstances, but that may never keep us from saying what should be said.
As a young boy, raised in a Christian family, I heard stories about martyrs in the Netherlands in the 16th century and about persecution in communist Eastern and Central Europe. They made me afraid. Would I be ready to be tortured and abandon my life for the Lord’s sake as the Christians did at the stake?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus speaks about people who fall away in times of trouble of persecution because of the word of God (Matthew 13:21). Yet churches may also grow in spite of oppression, as Tertullian said: “The blood of the Christians is seed.” Persecution does not always destroy the church. Yet it is anything but self-evident that Christians persevere. History also presents examples of churches that decreased or disappeared under the pressure. If persecution always went together with growth, Jesus would not have felt urged to warn against apostasy.
Persecution is a real threat to the church. How can we endure, if it comes? Ultimately, that is in the Lord’s hands. However, with his help we can prepare ourselves, even if it is still far away. Job presents a good example. He shows us how we can remain faithful in times of severe trials. Job persevered, because he did merely not start thinking about God when troubles arrived. In Job 2:10 he says to his wife: “Since we are in the habit of receiving good from God, shall we not accept evil as well?” (my translation). Job was able to accept evil and to persevere, because in his blissful days he had already trained himself in relating everything in his life to God.
In short, the best thing to do in times without persecution is to learn to love God more and more. As Jesus said: those who bear fruit are those who hear the word and take it to heart (cf. Matthew 13:23).
Professor of Old Testament, Faculté Jean Calvin, Theologische Universiteit Kampen
Member of the Executive Committee of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians