Pastoring the Persecuted
What do you tell a persecuted Christian who has been beaten for their faith and they’re liable to be beaten again?
That’s a question I’ve had to deal with recently as a pastor in a creative-access country. Have you ever thought about this, not just as a rhetorical and hypothetical question but really and truly? What do you tell someone who feels that further church attendance—even underground church attendance—will bring verbal threats and physical abuse?
Certainly our counsel is occasional; we take every situation as it comes and give advice on a case-by-case basis. The only constant is that these conversations are never easy.
BELIEVERS’ SUFFERING, GOD’S PRESENCE
I recently sat with a believer who has suffered for his public witness. He thought all this may have been behind him; he was beaten last year in another part of Asia. Actually, the way he tells it, that beating is when he became a Christian. He’d been hearing the gospel from a group that was being watched, and as he was mulling it all over, he was pulled in by the police. As the blows fell, the truths he learned from Scripture washed over him and he knew all of it was true.
Recent events, though, have made him think he’s potentially in for a Round 2, and he’s struggling with fear. When I asked him what he’s praying for he said that he wanted to be forgotten by those pursuing him. He wants to be off-the-radar and have a life where he can worship publicly and freely.
My follow-up question may come as a shock, but it had to be asked. After telling him I’d join him in praying for his safety, I asked: “What if God doesn’t make that happen for you? What if you are indeed still persecuted? What if the beatings increase?”
We then spent some time reading Romans 5, James 1, Psalm 6, and a few other passages. We talked about what persecution and suffering brings in the life of a believer and how God is never absent in it. I wanted him to leave our meeting more prepared for suffering. I wanted him to have some armor for the lies of the Enemy who would whisper that God doesn’t hear him or love him if pain comes his way.
PASTORING THE PERSECUTED
Meetings like this leave me feeling somewhat odd. Maybe humbled is the right word. I obviously cannot relate to my friend’s intense pain and doubt. After all, I had this conversation only a couple weeks removed from someone giving my family free tickets to Disneyland, for crying out loud—a strange contrast that’s not quickly ignored in my heart, I assure you.
And yet, God wants to use me to give a pastoral word. I don’t want to give him false promises like some of my friends in our city who would tell him to “name and claim” his physical safety. Rather, our goal should be to pray for justice and righteousness while also preparing each other for the times when pain and injustice will come.
What will we believe about God? Will we bail out or bear up? What Scriptures will fortify a healthy view of who God is in times of trouble?
In fact, it’s doubly humbling that God would put me in a place to have such conversations. Our life in this country isn’t always easy, but God frequently drops reminders like these for why we’re living and doing ministry here.
Let me offer a few concluding remarks for those with the privilege of ministering in situations like ours where religious freedom is not recognized, be it long-term or short-term. These might also help pastors in the West prepare for what’s ahead.
(1) Ask local believers about their real pressure points.
This will help you pray, but it may also be an enlightening experience. I recently sat with a Chinese pastor and asked him if his church faces persecution and what it looks like. What he said might surprise you. He said the way his church feels the impact of persecution is that it makes them timid to do what’s right. Direct government interference was actually something like number three or four on his list. More common were situations like whether his congregation would discipline the woman sleeping with her boyfriend who happens to be a police officer. Or whether they should pray publicly for those imprisoned over matters of Christian conscience. Or if they’ll publicly acknowledge the anniversary of a sensitive-but-famous date of past government oppression.
(2) Ask local believers about their prayers.
Are they praying merely for safety or are they also praying for strength in times of trouble? Do they see persecution as a curse (as many do in the West) or as an opportunity? Regardless of how they answer these questions, you’ve opened up a door to counsel wisely, pray accurately, and mobilize others helpfully.
(3) Ask local pastors for their advice.
I was meeting with a local pastor and told him about the story above (the guy afraid of being beaten). I asked him what he thought about how I counseled the brother. He said, “I wouldn’t have advised him that way.” That was humbling for me to hear, but it led to a helpful conversation where I think we both walked away with a more nuanced position than when we began.
(4) Approach your friends with grace and truth.
My goal in these conversations is to offer a two-sided coin of encouragement and equipping. I want my friends to remain hopeful in God, making their true requests known to him with thanksgiving. I want them to know he is good and he does good.
At the same time, I honestly never know how many more times I’m going to see this brother or sister. That’s a harsh reality, but it’s reality nonetheless—so I want to use every opportunity I can to help them draw near to God and hold fast to truth.