God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. [Matthew 5:10 (NLT)]
As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died. [Acts 7:59-60 (NLT)]
His testimony enraged the Jewish high council and he was taken from the city and stoned to death. Stephen was the first of the Christian martyrs but clearly not the last. We’ve all been horror-stricken by the recent news from Egypt where ISIS thugs attacked Coptic Christians on their way to a remote monastery. According to witnesses, the men were told their lives would be spared if they recited the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. When they refused to do so, they were gunned down. Since December, more than 100 Coptic Christians have died in Egypt in four different attacks. On Palm Sunday, two of their churches were bombed leaving forty-four dead. It’s not easy being a Christian in Egypt.
Apparently, it’s not that easy in India, either. Last winter, Bartu Urawn and his wife were forced to stand all night in a freezing pond. When they refused to renounce their Christian faith after being immersed in the frigid water for seventeen hours, they were beaten. Although his wife survived, Urawn died as a result of the torture. A decade ago, Christianity was embraced by ten families in this remote Indian village. Unfortunately, in the years that followed, seven of those families caved into threats and returned to their indigenous tribal religion. The Urawns, however, remained faithful to Jesus.
After watching the news of the Egyptian attack last night, my husband asked how I would respond in a similar situation. I wondered. Would I choose to be a martyr? I’d like to think I would. Like the Urawns, could I endure hours of torture and still stay true to Christ? I’d like to think I could. What if, rather than saving my life, renouncing Christ meant I could keep my children from suffering torture or death? Now it’s getting harder to know the answer. Could I watch them suffer? How could I live with myself in either scenario? Perhaps I’d find an excuse for verbally abandoning Jesus by telling myself that they were just empty words from my mouth and my heart didn’t mean them. I’m not so sure God would see it that way and it doesn’t much sound like something Jesus would do. These are not easy questions and, hopefully, I’ll never be forced to ask them. Nevertheless, the uncertainty of my answers indicates the level of my faith and it’s nowhere near as strong as I thought it was. Jesus told us to pick up our crosses and follow him; let us never forget that the cross was an instrument of torture and He was walking to Calvary. We have been called to share in His suffering and persecution should not deter us.
Living here in the United States, we’re not likely to be threatened with torture or death for our Christian faith. We don’t risk our lives by reading the Bible or gathering in worship and prayer. Perhaps, rather than wondering if we would stand up to ISIS soldiers or an angry mob of non-believers, we should ask ourselves how well we stand up to the world in which we live. Although we may never have to choose between Jesus and our physical survival (or that of our loved ones), there are plenty of opportunities every day to forsake Him in far more subtle ways. If we’re not walking in His footsteps and led by His Holy Spirit, we’re denying Him. There’s more than one way to lose one’s soul.
I will not deny Christ…I will continue to believe until my last breath. [Bartu Urawn]