ISIS and the lessons of persecutionWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
There’s nothing quite like real life to test the sturdiness of our professed beliefs.
A materialist may claim that concepts such as right and wrong and justice are mere illusions produced by chemicals in the brain – that is, until someone steals his wallet or his parking spot.
A postmodernist may argue that words have no real meaning, but if she has a headache, she’ll be sure to grab the bottle labelled “pain reliever” rather than the one marked “rat poison.”
Christians likewise have fundamental beliefs about reality. We believe that God is sovereign. We accept that He allows suffering as a means to accomplish His good and perfect will. We recognize that He calls us to a standard of holiness that includes loving our enemies.
We hold these beliefs in principle as part of our theology. But then, actual events come along that cast a probing light on just how firmly we hold them in practice.
Over the past few years, it’s been hard to follow world news for very long without coming across a story about ISIS or ISIL or whatever name they go by at present. The militant jihadist group made incursions into Iraq and Syria and proclaimed itself an Islamic state under sharia law. They’ve engaged in campaigns of ethnic cleansing and enforced conversion to Islam using torture and mutilation. They’ve beheaded a number of foreign journalists and aid workers. They’ve boasted about enslaving the women and girls among their enemies and continue to spew threats against the West. They’ve broadly targeted Christians and other religious groups, including Muslims who don’t share their interpretation of Islam.
They haven’t been the only ones doing such things. In Nigeria Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” have attacked schools, churches and government offices, killed thousands of civilians, and abducted over 200 schoolgirls for potential slavery. Like-minded groups in other countries have pursued similar agendas with murderous zeal.
Christians as well as non-Christians around the world are rightly troubled by these developments. We’re concerned about the implications for global stability and peace. We’re saddened and horrified at the suffering of the victims, and outraged at the injustice and cruelty of their oppressors.
There’s a real temptation, at times like these, to allow those justifiable feelings to boil over into fear and vindictive hatred toward the ones causing the problems. But for Christians, this is an opportunity to remind ourselves of what we believe, not merely as facts to check off a list but as soul-satisfying truths that shape the way we view the world.
God is sovereign over history
The Old Testament is the story of how God chose His people, blessed them and delivered them from their enemies. It’s also the story of how He at times turned them over to those enemies. In either situation, there was never a question that God was anything but sovereign, just and good.
History since Biblical times is rife with similar events of both kinds. Over the centuries, Christians have commemorated the decisive moments in which Christendom was saved or the advance of the Gospel safeguarded: Charles Martel’s military victory at Tours; similar triumphs by Janos Hunyadi at Belgrade and Jan Sobieski at Vienna; the German princes’ protection of Martin Luther; John of Gaunt’s support of John Wycliffe.
But there are also the catastrophic reversals: the massacre of the Huguenots in France; the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire; the sack of Rome by invading barbarians. The latter event so confounded Saint Augustine that he wrote The City of God to explain how no earthly kingdom, no matter how “Christian,” should ever be confused with the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Book of Acts, Paul told the Athenians that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” (Acts 17:26)
None of us know whether our civilization will continue to prosper or pass into the pages of history before Christ returns. But we do know that He is in absolute control of these matters, as He is of everything. He will continue to build His kingdom and redeem His creation until He consummates it in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
God allows and uses suffering
The problem of suffering is one of the most perplexing questions of existence. It has been debated and discussed by philosophers and theologians for as long as there have been philosophers and theologians. If God is absolutely sovereign and perfectly good, how can He permit suffering to exist in His creation?
However we answer that question, we need to affirm what Scripture affirms: God is in fact both sovereign and good; suffering is very real; and God allows and uses suffering to accomplish His perfect purposes.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
Jesus taught His disciples, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) He also promised them, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Luke echoed this in Acts, saying that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
Numerous passages throughout Scripture speak of faith as gold or silver and suffering as the refiner’s fire, an instrument in God’s hands to test and purify that faith. (Proverbs 17:3, 25:4; Malachi 3:2-3; 1 Peter 1:7, 4:12; Isaiah 48:10; many others)
In light of current events, we must read such Scriptures with one vital proviso: It’s our fellow Christians and others in these troubled lands, and not we in the West, who are passing through the blast furnace of God’s testing. At this moment in history, they’re the ones called to endure extremely fiery trials. We’re the ones called to pray for them, support them and seek their relief in any way God may open to us.
The theology of suffering can pose a serious challenge to our faith. But it’s also a source of comfort when rightly understood. God isn’t in heaven wringing His hands, wishing He could do more to help us. He’s not cobbling together a plan B for when the world messes up. Neither is He cruel or capricious in allowing suffering. As with Job, He permits it only to the extent that it will benefit His people and glorify His name. In Job’s words, “He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” (Job 23:10)
God calls us to love our enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
Few commands of Scripture have such potential to carve a gap between what we say we believe and how we actually feel. Most believers, especially in our peaceful and prosperous culture, would affirm that yes, of course, we’re to love our enemies. But the enemies we imagine are abstractions and generalizations, like drawings from a children’s Bible of a tax collector or a wicked king.
But what about real people who’ve done us actual serious harm? What about the armed thugs daily patrolling the streets who have destroyed our livelihood, maimed our bodies, raped our wives and murdered our children? Few of us living in the West can truly relate. But we see the stories on TV and the Internet and if we’re honest, love is not our default response to those committing these atrocities.
Nevertheless we have Jesus’ command, not to love abstract enemies in theory but real enemies in practice. And He tells us why: “So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. . . . You therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:45, 48)
In other words, when we pray for the persecuted in Africa or the Middle East, we must also pray for the members of ISIS or Boko Haram. We must honestly seek their well-being and pray for their salvation. Doing so demonstrates that we’re new creations in Christ, adopted children of our Heavenly Father.
God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The vicissitudes of history don’t surprise Him, and world events aren’t happening by accident or outside His will. God has made His people a promise: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
We may not know what God is up to in the details, but we can rest in faith that He does. And that’s more than enough.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox