This article is in response to Nik Ripken's article,
Should We Help Believers Escape Persecution?
If you have not read Nik Ripken's article, I ask you to follow the link above and read it before reading this article. I am going to respond to him without extensively quoting him, and I want you to know exactly where he stands on this issue in contrast to where I stand.
I am responding to Nik with genuine respect and brotherly love. I do not intend to come across as critical toward him for his position on how we are to, or are not to, help persecuted brothers and sisters. I know that Nik's first priority is the glory of God in the advancement of His Gospel, no matter the cost, and I share that priority with him. Having said that, I differ with him on the point of his article, as I understand it.
Additionally, I want to point out that Nik has had experiences I have not had. I have not been overseas to walk side by side with persecuted brothers and sisters. He is held up as an expert on the persecuted church, and I do not hold myself up against him as an expert on anything. The farthest I have been on a mission trip is to Mexico. However, I have followed the plight and admired the courage of persecuted brothers and sisters for 19 years via Voice of the Martyrs, from whose website I retrieved the photo above.
A FACE ON THE ISSUE
We can look into that sister's face in that photo - into her eyes - and process this issue while being visually reminded that this issue has flesh on it. Our persecuted brothers and sisters have flesh just as real and sensitive to pain as ours. They have real faces that are put behind bars, beaten with bars, and burned - that are permanently disfigured, sometimes beyond recognition. Yes, we should process persecution in light of spiritual reality beyond experience in the flesh, but not oblivious to it (not to suggest that Nik is oblivious to it).
Nik has much to say about how we Westerners respond to the suffering of our brothers and sisters after getting emotionally attached to them. Well, I want to make a point of saying that we should be getting emotionally attached to them. While Nik and I may not come to agree on how that attachment translates into action, I must take for granted that we agree on this. Generally, Westerners are too emotionally detached from them because we don't have to face them. We should make a point of facing them, in obeying Hebrews 13:3: "Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body" (all Scriptures from NASB). That sister's face in the photo above should be my face - her pain should be my pain - in that we are in the body of Christ together. Our spiritual attachment is to lead to my emotional attachment to her. I should take her persecution personally. Now, what that means practically is the debate here.
HIDDEN PROVIDENCE AND REVEALED PRECEPTS
"Love your neighbor as yourself." In obeying that Great Commandment, I believe that in every opportunity afforded to us, we are to help our neighbors in need, even while not being fully aware of what God intends to do with those needs that our neighbors have. That starts with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ: "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith." (Galatians 6:10)
Nik made a powerful point about Joseph, which we should seriously consider. His point should be well-taken. However, we can take Joseph's story to an unacceptable extreme, if we are not careful. Joseph's conclusion about his plight - that while his brothers meant his persecution for evil, God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20) - does not excuse his brothers' actions as the evil that they were, nor does it excuse the inaction by a potential intervener, had there been one in that field that day. If I had been walking through that field that day and heard Joseph crying for help from that hole, I would have been shamefully and wickedly wrong to ignore him and leave him in that hole while thinking, "I'm sure God has something good in store for him beyond dying in that hole." In obedience to God's revealed precept of showing lovingkindness to our neighbor, I would have been compelled to try to help Joseph, as the only right thing to do in being faced with his situation. If someone had witnessed what really happened with Potiphar's wife, he should have spoken up in defense of Joseph. And the cupbearer was wrong to forget about Joseph. We should not see it another way, just because we have the luxury of seeing Joseph's story on this end of it, understanding that God, in His hidden providence, prevented Joseph from being rescued for the much greater work He had for him to do.
While understanding that God is doing much more than we can comprehend in His hidden providence, when faced with the specific situations of our suffering brothers and sisters, we should obey His revealed precepts to do them all the good we can in love for them, not only easing their suffering if God so allows, but even also stopping their suffering if God so allows, realizing that in us doing that, if He allows, He is still providentially working out His specific plans for His specific people.
"Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it." (Proverbs 3:27 )
"If you are slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited. Deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh hold them back. If you say, “See, we did not know this,” does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?" (Proverbs 24:10–12)
"If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?" (James 2:15–16)
And, yet, "momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:17–18)
So, in the mysterious correlation between God's hidden providence and revealed precepts, I believe we should, like Samuel told Saul, do what our hands find to do for our suffering brothers and sisters, as God is with us (1 Samuel 10:7).
CAN YOU BE FREE?
"Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that." (1 Corinthians 7:21) Paul's point is clear: Under God's sovereign hand providentially working in your life, if this opportunity comes to you, then take it, barring, of course, doing anything to compromise God's commandments and calling. Are we to limit this principle only to being a slave in that culture in that time? No, I don't think so.
I believe that we are to use any means, which do not muddy the mission and message of the Gospel, to help our brothers and sisters to escape persecution, and let God sort it all out as He sees fit. Some will be free, while some will be bound. Some will live, while some will die. Understanding that, if I can stop a brother from being shot for his faith, without compromising his faith, all the while being willing to be shot with him for our faith, then I will. And I will, even while another brother is shot for his faith, with no one having any opportunity to stop it. If I can sign a petition, like the one mentioned in the photo above, to get a sister out of prison, then I will do it, even while being aware that there may be another sister that never gets out of prison - just as the Apostle James was put to death by Herod, but after much prayer, Peter was released by an angel (Acts 12:1-17).
A TIME AND A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING
Before the Nazarenes could throw Him down the cliff, Jesus walked right through the middle of them and left Nazareth, because that was not His time and place to die (Luke 4:29-30). While under a death sentence at Damascus, the Apostle Paul let his disciples, under the cover of darkness, lower him through a hole in the city wall, in a basket, for him to leave the city, because that was not his time and place to die (Acts 9:23-25). Both were willing to and did die in God's plan, but not before the time and place in God's plan.
Where our responsibilities meet God's sovereignty in His providence, we are to trust Him to have a time and place for our comfort and discomfort - our prosperity and suffering - our life and death. So, we do what He will have us do, where He will have us do it, no matter the cost, trusting Him to measure the cost, whether through natural means or no means of lessening the cost. We should be strategic with the sacrifices we make, where God allows us to. We see this all through the Bible.
THE GENERAL RULE OF PERSECUTION VS. THE SPECIFIC TYPES OF PERSECUTION
"Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3:12)
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me." (Matthew 5:11)
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6)
“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. (Matthew 10:14)
Devotion to Jesus is deadly. As He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me." (Luke 9:23) Westerners must grasp this, and I concede that most of us do not. We must die to a self-centered way of life, which is wrapped up in the comforts and philosophies of this world. This is necessary, because as a general rule, we will face a cost to living for Jesus in this world.
Many Westerners are truly living for Jesus and doing so with a cost. To borrow from a quote by D. James Kennedy, they may only ever face the raised eyebrow and never the raised fist, but that does not mean that their devotion is any less legitimate or less precious to Jesus. Jesus does not work out the cost of following Him the same way for everyone in this life, in the specific costs they pay.
We all live under the general rule of persecution. But we all will not face the same specific types of persecution.
Now, here I will quote Nik:
"After long days of interviewing, we often asked followers of Jesus in persecution what they learned from Western workers. They typically looked at one another and refused to respond.
"When we pressed them for an answer, they would reply, 'Western workers teach us to be afraid. Western workers teach us that it’s possible to follow Jesus only in safe places.'
"This is not simply a mistake. This is sin."
However, it is not a sin nor a mistake to say that it's okay to follow Jesus while being safe, as God allows, as long as being safe at the cost of following Jesus is not the point. Indeed, they should not be taught that their willingness to follow Jesus hinges on how painful it might be, but neither should they be taught that their willingness to follow Jesus can be gauged by the types and severity of pains they are enduring.
It is not okay for them to be obsessed with avoiding pain, but it is okay for their specific pains to be alleviated, and even for the specific sources of their pains to be annulled, if God allows it for them to press on in their mission with His message, perhaps even in another place, like we just saw with Jesus and Paul, who were not afraid nor consumed with comfort. It is perfectly appropriate for them to ask Jesus, "Are we just giving what is holy to dogs here and throwing pearls before swine? Before they trample our pearls and tear us to pieces, do You want us to shake the dust off our feet and move on (Matthew 10:14)?" He may impress them to stay for something they cannot see yet, or, He may impress them to go for something else to do yet. If they have no way to go, then that is an answer for the moment, but if they have a way to go, whether on their own or with help, then that can legitimately be looked at as an answer, as long as their consciences' are clear before God about their motivation in their unwavering devotion. We should not be criticized for trying to help, and they should not be criticized for taking our help, if we are convinced that the Lord has provided for the help.
If we have the resources to help our brothers and sisters that are facing the raised fist, then we should, without teaching them to be afraid or that they can only follow Jesus in a safe place. And, if in God's providence, while helping by His grace and heralding His Gospel, we end up under the raised fist with them, so be it. But, if in God's providence, while helping by His grace and heralding His Gospel, we escape the raised fist, so be it. We can help and herald at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the help we offer may fortify what we herald: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
I could and may say more in response to Nik, but I will leave it at this for now: If I come up on Joseph in a hole in a field, I am going to try getting him out of that hole. If I see and can do something that will keep or get Joseph out of prison, then I will try getting him out of prison. If I am Joseph in that hole, and no one comes to help me out, then I hope that I can trust God for what He has planned beyond the hole. If I am Joseph in that prison, wrongfully accused and forgotten, then I hope I can trust God for what He has planned beyond the prison. Sometimes in God's plan, there is advancement with extraction, and sometimes in God's plan, there is advancement without extraction.
Let's help us all, and let God sort us out.