As many of you who were in church last Sunday know, it was International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church. This is the day, one Sunday a year, when the whole church of Christ around the world prays together for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for no other reason than that they profess the name of Jesus, and they live in a country where doing so is either highly disfavored or completely illegal, with penalties ranging from extreme social rejection to immediate death. And yet, the church continues to thrive under those deeply threatening circumstances. I find this particular worship service compelling every year, for a number of reasons.
First, I simply can’t get my head wrapped around what it means to suffer like that for our faith. We watched several stories and testimonies of believers in places like Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and India. My pastor instructed us at the beginning of the service not to feel guilty about the level of persecution and suffering these faithful believers faced relative to my own, but I couldn’t help it. I felt convicted. I don’t think I felt guilt, necessarily, as though I was somehow to blame for their suffering. But, I did feel responsible. Not responsible for causing it, but responsible for doing something about it.
At least for now, as for the past 200 years, we have been given a precious gift in this country, one we had the opportunity to celebrate at this week’s Veterans Day commemoration: our constitutional rights. Two hundred years ago, a group of men, operating mostly from a Judeo-Christian perspective (with some Enlightenment deism thrown in for good measure) believed that the best form of government would be limited government, and that a people so governed would need freedom of conscience in order to develop and sustain the self-government necessary to exercise their freedom wisely. And, so, they limited the government’s power to infringe on our exercise of religion. It is a pure accident of birth that you and I live in a country like that, where we have not only that freedom, but political power to exercise it. We know it’s not really an “accident” at all, but a gift from our Creator.
But, it’s not a gift to be squandered. Like brains, money, and other resources, this freedom should be exercised for the benefit of others, and stewarded for that use. As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity to pray, give to organizations like Open Doors, and solicit our governmental representatives to assert pressure on other governments to protect our brothers and sisters who are persecuted there. Like I tell my kids, you aren’t guilty, but you are responsible- responsible for stewarding this great freedom as a resource to ease their suffering.
Suffering also unifies the body of Christ in a way nothing else does. The body is joined under the mantle of suffering. When I see my brothers and sisters suffer, it crosses time and space like nothing else. When I was in that church last Sunday, my heart cried out for the believers in those videos as if they were my flesh and blood. Because they are. God has joined them to me by the blood of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and I feel deeper empathy toward them than perhaps some of my own extended family. For years in our studies of history at Grace, we’ve shared with students the stories of the great martyrs of the faith. Our students are always deeply engaged with these stories, and not just because of the gory details. These stories contribute to developing empathy among our students. The suffering of these saints over 2,000 years links us deeply to a history of God’s work through His people.
Which leads me to a final thought about the importance of experiencing the brotherhood of suffering under Christ: its impact on kids. It’s hugely important for our kids not only to experience their own suffering, but to be shepherded through the suffering of their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. It helps develop empathy. Empathy is understanding, concern, and regard for another’s feelings. It’s a precursor to love; you can’t truly love someone toward whom you don’t feel empathy. In Philippians 2, Paul encourages believers to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Looking out for the interests of others is impossible without empathy. It not only transforms us into the image of Christ; empathy has lots of other benefits on kids: studies show children are more engaged in the classroom, experience higher academic achievement, are good communicators, experience more positive relationships, and are less likely to be aggressors and be involved in bullying others when they are empathetic.
While kids have the capacity for empathy, they are not naturally empathetic. It has to be taught and modeled. And, there are barriers of human selfishness in all kids that have to be overcome to foster empathy, things like noticing and rejecting stereotypes, respecting and valuing differences, helping kids widen their circle of concern to those not like them, and working through sadness, anger, and frustration. Exposing our kids to the suffering of others around the world, and helping them understand that suffering and connect it to their own faith, develops deep and profound empathy.
Sometimes I regret that the International Day of Prayer comes only one day of year. I don’t contemplate the church’s persecution around the world nearly as often as I should. If I did, I think it would lead to a greater appreciation of Christ’s continuing work through His people around the world, and greater hope for the day when we will all be joined together under the banner of the New Jerusalem.
Jay Ferguson, PhD, Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.