Persecuted for the faith series, Part 4: Nik Ripken on what we must learn from Christians
This month, we have done a series of interviews preparing for the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church. Every first week of November, the Church comes together to specifically pray on the behalf of persecuted Christians. In part one, we spoke with Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs on how Christians in restricted countries expect persecution as a part of being a believer. In part two, David Curry of Open Doors shared incredible stories in how the global church supports those undergoing persecution. And in last week’s installment, Philos Project shared an update specific to those in the Middle East and how we can come alongside believers in the region.
Get our free special resource ebook on persecution here.
For our final conversation for this series, we talk with Nik Ripken about what we can learn from our brothers and sisters who have had to learn from Jesus’ hard teachings in ways we have not. Since 1991 Nik labored with his family in countries which are predominantly defined by persecution toward those coming to faith in Jesus Christ. For nearly 15 years the Ripkens embarked on a global pilgrimage among believers in persecution to understand how the Christian faith has not just survived, but thrived. He wrote about it in his book, Insanity of God.
You have primarily served in countries defined by persecution toward those coming to faith in Jesus Christ. What can we (Christians in America) learn from our brothers and sisters who face persecution around the world?
There are three things that we say are non-negotiable in regard to learning from believers and persecution.
1. Persecution is normal. One of the biggest lies that Satan has talked the church, is that the Bible is an old book, it’s truth and authoritative, and it correctly records what God used to do. The implication of this is that God is not doing these things anymore. He has ceased to do them. If the Bible is an old book, the reasoning goes, is that one no longer has to struggle with the excesses of the Old Testament, nor with the overt presence of demons and spiritual gifts in the New Testament. What my wife and I have discovered is that everything that God has done in the Bible, he is still doing. He is a God in present active tense. Therefore today, there are times when God needs Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison. Yet what is our response when “our Joseph” is jailed unjustly? We write emails to presidents and prime ministers and we demand that the militaries of this world free our Joseph from prison because he has been unjustly incarcerated. For the Western church, generally, all persecution is bad. No matter how much we are exposed to persecution in the Bible, and in the present day, our prayers always go like this, “God, free Joseph and punish the persecutors. Because of a non biblical view of persecution, we only pray half of the prayer of Jesus, “Father let this cup pass.” There is nothing wrong with this prayer though it represents only half of the prayer that Jesus prayed. We must add to this prayer, “Father, not my will but you will be done.”
In Russia, during the USSR, they sold persecution as normal as “ the sun coming up in the East.” In the Ukraine, they asked me, when I demanded of them, “ why haven’t you written these stories down. Why haven’t you made movies of the stories. Your stories are better than anything Hollywood has ever produced.” One of their strongest evangelist stood 3 inches from my face, demanding of me, “Son when did you stop reading your Bible? Everything that has ever happened to us is in the Bible. Why would we write it down again or make movies of it? If you want to hear our story, read your Bible. When did you stop reading your Bible?”
2. The number one cause of persecution is people giving their lives to Jesus. Where there is a great harvest there is a great persecution. Where there’s little harvest, there is little persecution. We should stop asking the question “ why are those people persecuted?” Instead we should ask of ourselves, “Why are we not persecuted?” We are not excusing those who drove the nails in the hands of Jesus. Without the forgiveness of sense they, as Judas, will pay on an eternal price. Our challenge is that we have a Western democracy definition of persecution rather than a biblical one. Satan’s two desires is to keep the peoples of this earth from having access to Jesus and, failing that, to shut them up, causing them to keep witness to themselves. The way that we identify ourselves with believers and persecution is that the point of believing in Christ and sharing his life death and resurrection with others. Failing to do so identifies us with the persecutors!
3. What is the result when we are obedient to the Great Commission, obedient to sow the gospel of Jesus Christ, while following the example of Jesus in the early church? Not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of people will turn to Jesus. What will be the end result when we do everything right? Believers will lose their jobs, they will have their children taken from them, they will be jailed, imprisoned, tortured, and as leaders emerge some will be killed.
Scripture also lays out expectations and encouragements for those undergoing persecution. What does it look like for a Christian in America to count the cost?
The number one way we identify with our brothers and sisters in chains is to believe in Jesus and share him both across the street and across the oceans. It is estimated that among large portions of the evangelical church in America, 95% of church members will never share their faith with another person. In some circles 20% of existing churches baptized no one in the previous years. In the same circles 40% of churches report less than two baptisms the previous year. Pastors often say to Ruth and myself that, “ persecutions of coming to America.”
There is no such thing as a free church and persecuted church. There is just the church; always free and always persecuted. Christians in America will count the cost when they share their faith with their family, their neighbors, colleagues at work, and friends. Sharing one’s faith is time-consuming. The average time of day when Muslims come to faith, for instance, is after 10 o’clock at night!
Whether it be non-churched persons in America or Muslims in their home countries, the best way to win families to Christ is to break bread together, sharing meals in their homes and in our homes together. Barriers fall to the wayside as we share meals and tell our stories, and God stories, to each other.
This is not brain surgery. How often in the New Testament do we have the examples of Jesus and his disciples, in the homes of non-believers, breaking bread with “sinners and publicans?” Overseas, we often measure of obedience by how many times we have shared meals in the homes of nonbelievers, with them also sharing meals with us in our homes.
Because we have constitutionally-protected freedoms of speech and religion in this country, it can be easy to find our “hope” in being American, thinking we will never really have to worry about persecution. What would you say to Christians who are surprised by challenges and pressures to our faith here at home?
My initial response would be, “How’s that working for you?” Unless research is leading us astray, all mainline denominations are in decline. We spend approximately 95% of our church’s budget on ourselves, leaving $.03-$.05 of every dollar for the nations. Satan will seldom use overt persecution as long as covert persecution suffices us to be quiet, lose our witness, and shut up when it comes to sharing our faith. Satan knows human nature. He does not want to beat us up he simply wants to shut us up. And he wants to shut us up at the lowest common denominator. He knows what God does with the blood of the martyrs.
We love the bride of Christ. I would no more criticize the bride of Jesus than I would want anyone to criticize or attacked my bride. The above words must never be seen as an attack upon Jesus’s bride. That would be unseemly and dangerous! What we are recognizing by this response is the extent that Satan will use cultures to draw the brides attention away from her husband, Jesus the Christ. While one does not pray for persecution, we must pray for obedience. And obedience entails a bold witness that crosses the road and crosses the oceans with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without witness there is little to persecute. Without breaking bread with those outside the kingdom of God there is little to persecute. Without letting our enemies there is little to identify with Jesus. Perhaps America can keep us safe….. for this lifetime. What about the kingdom to come?
With the International Day of prayer for the persecuted church, how do we pray for those undergoing persecution?
I was Interviewing a brother and leader in Eastern Europe during the fall of communism. His father had been in a KGB torture facility for nine months and then in a prison for a further 10. He himself went to prison though he said, “I only had to go for three years.” He knew so much about the kingdom of God and how to serve in the midst of persecution. It was obvious that in my relationship with him that he was the apostle Paul and I was his Timothy. I sat at his feet for over two days as I learned from a modern day apostle Paul, Simon Peter, or perhaps a Stephen. He said to me, representing the words of hundreds others, “Don’t you dare pray for our persecution to stop. Pray that we will be obedient through our persecution.” That’s a really different prayer. That’s a prayer that prays both halves of the prayer of Jesus in the garden before the crucifixion when he prayed for the “ cup to pass,” but also prayed for “Thy will not my will be done.” Then he left me with these startling words, “Nik, I took great joy that I was in prison in my country so that you could be free to share Jesus in Kentucky.” I lay my pen down, closed my notebook, and turned off my little tape recorder. I looked at him and said, “No! You cannot do this to me! You given me a debt I can never repay.” He looked at me sadly and said, “Nik, this is the debt of the cross. Brother don’t you steal my joy. I took great joy that I was suffering in prison in my country to buy you a space of time to share Jesus in your country. Don’t you steal my joy.” Then he leaned across the table, tapping me on the chest with his finger, saying, “Don’t you ever give up in freedom what we never give up in persecution. That is our witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ”.