If you were creating a brochure to attract people to your church, which of the following phrases would you include?
“Join our church and …
… you will endure suffering.”
… people will hate you.”
… your family may become your enemy.”
… gruesome death is a real possibility.”
… your life will no longer be your own.”
It’s doubtful that you’d include any of those phrases in a church brochure, and even more doubtful that you’d visit a church that featured any of those sentences on their brochure. It would seem like an awful place to attend.
This, you may think, is why you leave the advertising to the professionals. What you want to emphasize when following Jesus is the cool worship music (an amazing lead singer, a killer drummer and two bass guitars), the amazing children’s department (filled with crafts, games and a tender, loving staff), the amazing facilities (complete with shuttle service from the parking lot and a coffee bar that would make Starbucks envious) and, of course, a dynamic preacher (when he’s not out speaking at some event with exciting names like Catalyst or Passion or Momentum). Above all, we love everyone – everyone is welcome to come and be whoever they are.
That’s what a church brochure should be about, not crazy phrases like suffering and hate and enemies. Certainly nothing about giving up your life or dying a gruesome death.
You might be thinking, that’s not the brochure I read. That’s not the Jesus I signed up for.
It’s true that Jesus didn’t use one of those phrases as an advertisement for following him – he used all of them!
Surely that can’t be true, can it? You might be thinking, that’s not the brochure I read. That’s not the Jesus I signed up for.
Let’s take a look at just a few examples of what Jesus told his disciples and followers.
Matt. 10:34-36: “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.”
Mark 10:34-35: “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it.
John 15:19: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you.”
John 16:33: “You will have suffering in the world.”
Matt. 5:11-12: “You are blessed when they insult and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven.”
In all likelihood, if you’re part a large nondenominational evangelical church or a denominational mainstream church, the only time you’ve ever heard words like hate, suffering, enemies, persecution and gruesome death were during Easter services – and they only applied to what Jesus went through.
Those just aren’t good selling points for a church, so why would Jesus include them in his “brochure?”
Well, for starters, Jesus told the truth and he knew this would happen. And he knew that people who truly followed him, who chose to live in the kingdom of God, would no longer be subject to the whims and desires of the world – the world run by the Prince of Darkness. Satan will do whatever he can to stop Christ followers in their tracks, and suffering, persecution and the threat of a horrible death are good ways to do that.
He wants people who are totally sold out to his way of doing things.
And finally, Jesus isn’t messing around. He wants people who are totally sold out to his way of doing things, who will follow him no matter where he takes them, who love him above everything – and everyone – else in the world.
Fortunately, Jesus also added plenty of positive phrases to his brochure for those who repent and follow him. He says we’ll be blessed when we endure these things. In John 16:33 he tells us, “Take courage! I have overcome the world.” He says that no one can snatch us out of his hands. He promises us eternal life, starting now. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” he said in John 10:10. He promises that his Holy Spirit will live in us, to guide and comfort us. We will have 24/7 instant access to the Father.
The negative and positive thoughts meet up in Jesus’ illustration of the kingdom of God being like a priceless treasure in a field, or a priceless pearl in the market. The kingdom of God, he said, is a treasure worth giving up everything we own, including our lives, to obtain.
Priceless treasure. Peace. Abundant life. Comfort and guidance. Now that sounds more like it.
But we can’t separate those words from the others. Christ promises that we’ll have both.
The question for most of us is, Am I willing to endure the negatives in order to gain the positives?
It’s the beginning of December, the time of year to remember the suffering of our Lord.
Wait, what did I just read? Did this guy accidentally post an Easter column by mistake? This is the season of joy to the world, of peace on earth, of angels and shepherds, gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s the season of the birth of a beautiful baby, not of a grown man being cruelly crucified to a cross.
True. But let me ask this question: When did Jesus’ suffering begin?
Before answering that, let me start with a sort-of parable – suppose you have been selected to be the savior of the earthworms. You are zapped into the body of an earthworm, although you still have access to all your human senses, thoughts and memories. Your mission now is to tunnel daily through the dirt, bringing the words of salvation to the earthworm population. Eventually you are sacrificed on a cruel hook and dropped into the water, where a large fish swallows you, and the earthworms have their salvation.
At what point do you think your suffering would begin? Only when the hook pierced your body?
No, I think your suffering would begin the moment you left the world of humans and entered into the earthworm body. Still being fully aware of your humanity, it would be humbling and true suffering to now be confined to a body that had so little mobility and ability.
He entered the confines of not just a human body, but an infant human body.
Jesus was fully God, a partner in the creation of the world, with all the power, omniscience, glory and other aspects of the Father. And then he entered the confines of not just a human body, but an infant human body. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t walk and he had to depend on someone to change his diaper. We can’t begin to imagine what kind of suffering that was for him.
Even when he became an adult, he was still shackled to the most basic of human needs for food, shelter, sleep and bowel movements. He was tempted in every way we are, with pride, lust, anger and fear, yet successfully overcame succumbing to any of them.
Jesus had to endure the plodding simplicity of the humans around him – even the wisest, most educated human being was little more than a doddering fool in comparison to his wisdom. Even in his last hours on earth, he had to face the inevitability of human death, even though he was immortal God.
This is how Paul described Jesus’ sacrifice in Phil. 2:6-8:
“(Jesus), existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—even to death on a cross.” (HCSB)
There is no doubt that Jesus’ birth, eventual death and his resurrection gave us the opportunity to experience joy and peace on earth. We can celebrate that birth with joy. But I think it is good for us to remember how much that joy cost God the Father and God the Son. It’s when we realize that Jesus willingly placed himself in a position of suffering in human form because of his great love for us that we can truly rejoice in the true Christmas spirit.
Want to find out what Princess Kate is wearing or the latest outrageous thing Miley Cyrus has said or done? Chances are good you’ll find out on the evening news or as a top internet story. On the other hand, if you want to find out about Boko Haram slaughtering Christians and kidnapping adolescent and teenage girls to use as servants, sex slaves and suicide bombers, you’ll probably have to search a little harder.
In fact, you may not even know what I’m talking about when I say Boko Haram. They are a militant Islamic terrorist group in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. For the past several years they have been trying to overthrow the Nigerian government to turn the entire country into a militant state. They have killed thousands – it has been estimated they killed more than 4,000 in just 2014 alone, and they’ve murdered many more since.
They have openly declared war on Nigerian Christians and hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians are among those they’ve killed. But they have also targeted Muslims who do not go along with their violent outlook and anything else they consider marks of Western civilization (in a local language, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”).
Perhaps most disturbing is that they are now using these young girls as suicide bombers.
Along the way, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of girls, some as young as 7, to serve as cooks, servants and “wives” for their soldiers. Perhaps most disturbing, though, is that they are now using these young girls as suicide bombers. They strap explosive-filled vests on them and send them into a targeted area – sometimes the girls know what they’re doing, other times not. So far at least 145 girls have been used in this way – probably a low estimate – and have taken the lives of hundreds more. Targets have included government centers, Christian centers, even a mosque. It also included a wedding, although a dog heroically stopped the girl before she could enter the ceremony and detonate the explosives.
Boko Haram recently sent out a request to Muslims who are in agreement with their way of thinking: Donate your young girls to use on suicide bombing missions. Yes, they want parents to willing sacrifice their daughters in this way.
Tragic, you may say, but why should we be concerned about some tiny little country half-a-world away?
Well, Nigeria isn’t exactly tiny. At 357,669 square miles, it is larger than Texas and nearly the size of the combination of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Nigeria has a population of 193.5 million, ranked seventh in the world, which is more than half of the United States population (the population for the seven states mentioned above is a combined 47.3 million, so it has four times as many people as that area). Nigeria has a GDP (the nation’s contribution to world wealth) of $1.125 billion, which ranks it in the top 25 in the world.
Still not convinced of the need? Consider that we have been involved in helping straighten out Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 15 years, and are still sending troops there on a regular basis. Nigeria is far larger than either of those countries, more than twice the size of Iraq – in fact, it has nearly the land size of the two countries combined (it is 85 percent the size of those two).
When it comes to population, Afghanistan and Iraq combined have a third as many people as Nigeria. Their GDP combined is barely half of Nigeria’s. You might suspect oil has a lot to do with why we’re more interested in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Nigeria ranks 11th in oil reserves, right behind the United States (Afghanistan has no known oil reserves).
As Christians, we should be especially concerned. At least 40 percent of the country is identified as Christian, about equal to the number of Muslims.
We certainly can communicate with people in Nigeria – the country’s official language is English.
And as Christians, we should be especially concerned. At least 40 percent of the country is identified as Christian, about equal to the number of Muslims, compared to just 3 percent in Iraq and less than 1 percent in Afghanistan. This isn’t too surprising since the area of West Africa where Nigeria is located is experiencing some of the fastest growth in Christianity in the world.
So these are our brothers and sisters who are suffering torture and death simply because they have chosen to follow Christ as their Lord. They are already crying out to the Lord to avenge their blood. Rev. 6:9-10 says, “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. They cried out with a loud voice: ‘Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?’” God gives them white robes and urges them to be patient until the end of this world, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t calling us into action now.
What can we do as Christians to help our brothers and sisters in Nigeria?
Pray. First of all, pray. Not just praying for the persecution to stop, but for God to raise up laborers – based on the growth in the neighboring countries, many people in that area of Africa are interested in Christianity, despite the threat of persecution.
Donate. Then consider donating to those who are already helping the persecuted. A list of some of those groups appears at the end of the blog. I have not vetted them for their effectiveness in getting mission dollars to where they’re needed most, so check them out, as you should with any organization, before donating.
Write. On the political front, urge your senators and representatives to consider what actions can be taken to help the Nigerians. While I don’t believe the United States should be the world’s police officer, it does seem like our resources could be more wisely allocated in a country like Nigeria than in the Middle East.
Action. Be open to taking action. Whether through advocacy here in the United States or in ministering in Nigeria itself, be open to God’s call to action in your life.
Left untreated, even a small cut can lead to an infection that threatens the entire body.
In 1 Cor. 12:26, Paul tells us that if one member of the body suffers, then all members suffer. Sometimes that’s hard to remember, if the cut is small. But left untreated, even a small cut can lead to an infection that threatens the entire body. Right now, to Christians in the United States the persecution in Nigeria may seem like a small cut to the body, but how long before it becomes an infection that threatens us all? And I guarantee to the Christians in Nigeria and its neighboring countries, this is far more than a cut. It’s a major wound. They are suffering; we must help.
Groups Supporting Persecuted Christians
The Voice of Martyrs (persecution.com)
Open Doors (opendoorsusa.org)
Christian Aid Mission (christianaid.org)
Frontline Missions International (frontlinemissions.info)
Rescue Christians (rescuechristians.org)
I Commit to Pray (icommittopray.com)