Ease coronavirus fears: 7 lessons from persecuted Christians

March 13, 2020 by Christopher Summers in Africa

For the last six weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has changed daily life in the United States. To date, there are more than 40,000 related deaths and 1 million cases confirmed in the U.S. Lockdowns have driven conversations about the “new normal” and school closures. In many places, employees continue to work from home; 26.5 million have lost their jobs. Sports leagues are still on hold, libraries remain closed. And churches have learned how to do virtual worship and small groups with some leaders thinking things will never go back to exactly the way they were.

 

And the whole country is holding its breath for the fallout.

For many Americans, it’s a scary time—there are still plenty of unknowns about COVID-19. We know it impacts elderly people or those with compromised immune systems more heavily; we’ve all seen the commercials by now.

What has happened over the last six weeks seems surreal. Seeing empty store shelves and massive lines to buy hand sanitizer and toilet paper seems like something out of a movie. And with the ongoing daily reports of rocketing unemployment rates and poverty levels, testing failures and speculation over treatments, it’s no wonder people are afraid and anxious as we head into the next phase of living in a pandemic.

And yet, as Christians, we have a different calling. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6. Later, He adds: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

People who are persecuted for their faith live out this reality each and every day. They experience fear and uncertainty, pain and suffering, and yet they see the hope of Christ in the midst of it. Might they have something to teach American Christians gripped by fears of a global pandemic and the impact of necessary but damaging lockdowns? I think so.

Here are some lessons from our persecuted sisters and brothers during these uncertain times:

Mohan, a persecuted believer in India. Photograph by Brittany Buongiorno.

1. We belong to a family that helps one another.

In John 17, Jesus prays for His followers: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through [My disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” Jesus wants His Church to be unified—to be one family of God.

This reality plays out for persecuted Christians around the world. “We were shaking with fear,” says Mohan*, an Indian Christian whose home was destroyed because he follows Jesus. “But then I was reminded of our church, and that in the church we share love, we help each other.” Though fear and uncertainty about a virus are obviously different than persecution for following Jesus, Mohan’s reminder can be ours—in the Church, we share love. We help each other! As we consider how to navigate the coming months, let’s keep in mind how we can share love and help one another both now and in the months ahead.

2. We are not alone.

We’ve been asked to practice social isolation—and for good reason. Simply staying home and not risking the most vulnerable in our communities is perhaps one of the most loving things we can do!

But isolation in the midst of a pandemic does not mean we are alone. Instead, we have a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), both here on earth, and who have gone before us. “I’ve […] learned that we are not alone in this,” says Asuncion, a Christian in Mexico who went through persecution preparedness training. He was expelled from his community for being an evangelical Christian. “We are not the first ones to be persecuted for religious reasons, and we won’t be the last.”

Similarly, we are not the first Christians to live and worship in a time of fear. Our sisters and brothers who are persecuted testify to this, as does the long witness of Christians in ages past! The Black Death and the Spanish Flu of 1918 didn’t kill the Church, and neither will the coronavirus. We are not alone; we have each other through prayer, and the Holy Spirit to give us courage.

Help persecuted Christians in the coronavirus crisis!

For many Christians already persecuted for their faith, the global pandemic is making live even more difficult. They have less access to healthcare, medicines and community services. Open Doors is committed to standing with the least of these—to ensure that the vulnerable have what they need too. If God lays it on your heart, we invite you to join us in obeying God's call to care for His people.

Help today

3. God will sustain us.

In Acts 17, Paul tells the people of Athens that, “‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’” In God, we have our security—not in health, safety or comfort. God promises He will be with us—He doesn’t promise we won’t suffer (quite the opposite!) but he assures us our suffering or fear will never be outside of His caring hand.

We recently met with a Christian named Achiam*, a Christian in Chad in West Africa. She is the only known Christian in her village, and she is blind. She’s been beaten by her brother and ridiculed by her family for her faith, but she still follows Jesus. “I know the end of this situation is not for tomorrow, but I also know my God will continue to sustain me,” she says. “I was very clear with my family about my faith. I told them I am with Christ and that nothing in the world would make me change my mind. My God has been sustaining me since then, so I fear nothing.”

In the midst of persecution or global pandemics, God sustains His people.

4. Jesus has overcome the world.

In John 16:33, Jesus says: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” He’s speaking of the dramatic scenes around His arrest, trial and crucifixion. But His words apply to the uncertainty caused by something like coronavirus—or to the fear and anxiety caused by persecution of His people.

In Nigeria, Rev. Marcus’ church and community were attacked by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. People were killed; churches were burned; houses were destroyed; lives were changed forever. And yet, Rev. Marcus lives in the knowledge that Jesus has overcome anything that might hurt him or other Christians. “We do not pray that God will take away the hardship, but that God would give us the grace to be able to stand,” Rev. Marcus explains. “The Bible tells us that whoever endures to the end will receive a crown of righteousness. This is the message I want to send to Christians around the world today.”

Regardless of the situation for Christians, Jesus reminds us that He has overcome anything the world can throw at us. Because of that, we can have confidence and hope, no matter what happens. While this can be hard for our minds to comprehend in light of current times, we only have to look at the example of our persecuted family to see this kind of faith in action.

5. Through Jesus, we are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37).

In Romans 8, Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

You could add “pandemics” to the list Paul gives in the first part of that passage.

Christians who have been persecuted have even more pressing reminders of this reality. They don’t just pay lip service to passages like these—they live out the truth of the gospel. Christians like Kirti, an Indian believer whose husband was killed because their family follows Jesus, daily count the cost of being a Christian. And they choose Jesus’ love, anyway. We can, too.

“I have committed everything into the hands of Jesus,” Kirti says. “When I feel sad, I remember the Word of God. In all my trials, He helps me. I cannot read or write, but I memorize what the pastor teaches me. Because of attacks, many new Christians are leaving the faith, but I’m stable in my faith.” Kirti’s example is a reminder that Jesus has already won the victory, and that His love is always there, even in the scariest circumstances.

6. God is our refuge, and our strength.

Where does our help come from? Psalm 121 says, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” This is why we have the confidence that, even if our worst fears come true, we will still be held in the strong and mighty hand of God, the Creator.

Christians who are oppressed for their faith around the world often live in this knowledge. Surviving under constant threat would be impossible without the Holy Spirit’s constant assurance that God is there as a help, as a strength.

“The Pharisees persecuted Jesus, but still He went on with His work,” notes Lazar*, a church leader in Uzbekistan. His church was raided by police, who took all the church’s Bibles and Christian books. “The evening after the raid, I read Psalm 91. God is my refuge and my strength. I can hide in Him. I don’t want to allow myself to be governed by fear, because that doesn’t help you at all.”

Lazar’s example can inspire us. How do we live and serve during COVID-19, without being governed by fear—and instead live in the knowledge that God is our help, strength and refuge?

Aditi, a persecuted believer from India.

7. God is trustworthy—and we are not abandoned.

It can be hard to see where God is during times like these. Why didn’t He stop the virus from spreading? Why won’t He intervene to save every life? Why is there now a global crisis of hunger? Ultimately, why is this happening?

These are hard questions; and they’re the types of questions that have been asked since the beginning of time. But God is there if we have the courage to look for Him. His ways are not our ways, but we can trust that He will accomplish His perfect will, and that He invites us to participate in His plan for the world.

For Christians who have experienced persecution, suffering for Jesus can make this lesson plain. The suffering is still there, and it might seem unfair or even pointless. And yet, time and time again, that’s not what we hear from God’s people. “I am always amazed by how God worked in mysterious ways to answer our prayers and meet our needs,” explains Aditi*. She is a 16-year-old believer from India whose family experienced severe persecution for following Jesus. “All this time, God just wanted to teach us how to trust in Him, and now, in the end, we know that He is trustworthy. He never abandoned us or put us to shame.”

Aditi’s father feels these same truths. Even though he had times of doubt in God’s goodness, he would come to the Lord in prayer and be reminded of God’s truth. “Often when I felt discouraged, I spent time in prayer,” he says. “It was then I gained the courage to trust in Him; it’s true that we need the courage to trust in God. And that courage comes through prayer.”

God is there, even when it can be hard to see His hand. We can pray to ask God to help us have eyes to see His work in our lives, even in the midst of a global pandemic. This time of uncertainty is an opportunity for all of us to see Him and trust that He has not abandoned us—and to have the courage to follow Him, love our neighbors and live for Him, no matter what happens.

Pray with Open Doors

  • Pray that God would calm our fears and that His people would be reminded we have a different identity—one of boldness, not of fear. Pray that the church would be a calming presence and radiant light in the face of so much confusion and darkness.
  • Pray that we would be people of compassion who intentionally reach out to others in our neighborhoods and to our family around the world where following Jesus often results in denial of community healthcare, less or no access to medicines and social boycott.
  • Pray for world leaders as they continue to work with healthcare organizations and the medical community to develop next steps. Pray that all would be united for the common good both now and in the weeks to come.
  • Pray with church leaders as they offer insight and wisdom to their congregations and communities. Ask God to give them opportunities to be voices of reason, clarity and grace.
  • Pray with the families of the 216,000-plus people (as of April 28, 2020) who have died and for those undergoing treatment. Ask God to comfort the broken-hearted and to strengthen those who are suffering physically and emotionally.
  • Pray for those whose jobs or hours have been cut due to economic downturn. Pray for parents who are struggling to work and care for their children. Pray that churches would look for ways to reach out to families in their communities to provide for them and show them the love of Christ.
  • Pray that God’s people would be unified as one Church, and that we would look to the lives and faith of our persecuted brothers and sisters as we navigate fear and the unknown … that we would look to them for guidance and for hope.
  • Pray that we as God’s people would be reminded of our hope in Christ and the truth that our Savior who died and rose for us has already overcome the world. Pray that we would be people who read His Word and take both His call to serve others and His promises to be with us as we live and serve others to head and heart.

 

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