I’m currently visiting some believers in a part of the world where it is increasingly difficult to be a Christian. Persecution is growing and believers in many parts of this country are being called upon to count the cost of following Christ as perhaps never before. It has been an enlightening, edifying, and even encouraging experience.
Yesterday I had to travel to a church “incognito”—with a hood pulled down over my head with a cloth wrapped around my face. That day, protests were taking place nearby, aimed at calling for an end to people converting to Christianity. Radicals want to drive Christianity out of their country. It was an unsettling experience; one that I would be happy not to repeat. However, this experience is becoming a way of life for my believing friends living here. They feel as though they have a target on their back. Speaking of which—
This morning, I went for a run in this city, as I have done on many occasions in the past. I grabbed a running shirt from my suitcase, headed for the roads, and was well into a long run when something dawned on me: The shirt I was wearing was the kit of our church’s running club—complete with a big yellow cross on its front and back.
I’ve run lots of times in this shirt. In a few races back home, I have answered questions from fellow runners about the design. It has served as a wonderful talking point. But to be frank, this morning I was less than enthused about anyone enquiring about it. Having experienced what I did the day before, I didn’t want the attention!
As I continued my run, my imagination kicked into overdrive. As numerous people drove past me on their scooters, garbed in their nationalistic colours (which is a large factor in the current persecution), I wondered how I would respond if I was stopped and interrogated by them. As I ran in the direction of a rural area, I contemplated if perhaps I would be more safe running in the city. And, of course, I thought about what if someone gave hostile chase: Could my 58-year-old legs help me to escape? Would I be able to outrun potential assailants? And, of course, the thought also crossed my mind, should I just go back and forget about the run? Well, as the Sunday school song has it: “No turning back, no turning back.”
Later in the day, I shared with my host what had happened, and he said, “This is how we feel nearly every day, especially when we go to church.” This struck me in a most profound way. This brother, his family, and those who are a part of his church live, quite literally, with a target on their back. They are watched carefully and, as another pastor shared with me, sometimes traps are set for them. For example, this brother has received several calls from individuals asking him questions about Christianity. The questions are worded in such a way to entrap him in criticising the major religion of this country. The pastor wisely says, “Rather than speaking over the phone, let’s meet in person.” So far these enquirers have not made an appointment.
It struck me that what I take for granted our brothers and sisters in this part of the world cannot. They will not. They dare not. They live their lives as a marked people. For them, carrying their cross is not only a metaphorical symbol; it is a threat-inviting reality. We should pray, and pray often, for our friends who live as those with a target on their back. They face difficult times and yet, at least in my recent experience, they are wearing it well.
With a joy that can only arise from Christ-centred faith and hope, they continue to proclaim the gospel with the conviction that it remains the power of God unto salvation. Including the salvation of those who are presently opposing this power.
As I have thought much about this over the past several hours, the words of Jesus, have become freshly relevant once again, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). I have a new appreciation for Jesus’ call to discipleship. Jesus expects every Christian to live with this target on our back. That is, if we faithfully respond to the call of Jesus, we will find ourselves at times in situations where we are exposed before those who have no love for our Saviour. And this can lead to suffering.
Paul said that those who desire to live godly for Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:11). Since every true Christian has this desire, every Christian will experience disapproval and even perhaps hostile opposition from those who have no desire to love and serve Christ. As we identify with our Saviour, we will have our cross on our back precisely because Jesus took his cross on his. Our cross-bearing will point to his. At times, this will bring us into conflict with the enemies of the cross. Those enemies will be from those outside the church, as well as sometimes from within the church (Philippians 3:18).
On my visit here, I met a pastor here who told me of missionary friends in a neighbouring country who were assassinated by radicals. He told me that they had been betrayed by some members in their church who had turned away from Christ. Thinking about this, I realise how little I understand what it means to suffer for Jesus’ sake.
A crossless Christianity is not a threat to anyone or to any system. That is why nominal Christianity can thrive in a country while at the same time intense persecution is taking place. I am old enough to remember how this was precisely the situation in the old Russia of the U.S.S.R. A crossless, gospelless “church” was tolerated by the Communist government while those faithful to Christ were fiercely and mercilessly persecuted. The same thing is happening in certain segments of the country from where I write.
I highlight this to, once again, call us to prayer as well as to call us to faithfulness in our own country. In South Africa, we are not facing the same kind of persecution as are our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, we too are called to so live that we are marked people. We too are called to live with such fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ that, at times, it will seem as if we have a target on our back. And we can do this because Jesus was the target of all the suffering that we deserve.
From his birth, Jesus was the target of the evil one. The devil sought to destroy him by tempting him to sin and, in a futile attempt, to destroy him from the face of the earth. By Jesus taking up his cross—by his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross—he defeated the enemy. Remember that. Satan’s defeat means that all attempts to target and destroy those saved by Christ will fail.
Our persecuted brothers and sisters said to me that they don’t plan to quit, and they don’t plan to flee. As they told me, they know that Jesus will be victorious, and they want to be in on this victory. May God bless them as they run the race, refusing to look back, even though they have a target on their back. To God be the glory!