I love Jesus, but sometimes He said troubling things. For example, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). Deny Christ and you can be denied entry into Heaven. That’s harsh.
Fortunately, most American Christians need not worry. We like this verse because our trials aren’t too bad. We might be mocked by our friends, laughed at in class, or even lose our jobs for our faith. That’s the worst it usually gets, though.
Arab Christians, however, often face more dire circumstances. I know, because I go to the Middle East to train Egyptian believers in theology and apologetics each year. I just returned from a ten-day trip to Beirut, Lebanon where I continued to train potential church leaders in Egypt.
During the five years I’ve been going to the Middle East, Egypt has endured violent demonstrations, revolutions, and has had five Presidents. These periods of political instability have provided opportunities to persecute Egypt’s Christian minority. Many believers have been killed, their churches bombed or burned, and their pastors assassinated.
That’s not all. The Islamic State (ISIS) kidnapped and beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya this past February. Shortly after a gruesome video of the killing emerged, several Egyptians I’ve worked with over the years visited the families of those martyred. They live in Al-Our, a city 150 miles south of Cairo. Although my friends went to comfort and serve those families, they were surprised to find their own faith was strengthened as a result of the visit.
The martyred men lived in brick, mud, and stone houses. Their income was meager so they travelled to Libya to find odd jobs and send money back to their families. While heading back to Egypt, they were ambushed, kidnapped, and eventually killed. The widows of these martyred men told my Egyptian friends that their prayer, at first, was for the release of their husbands. Once they realized there was no chance, their prayer changed. They knew ISIS was going to kill them unless they renounced their faith in Christ. So they pleaded to God, “Please give my husband the courage to stand firm in his faith and not deny Christ!” God answered that prayer. Those 21 Christians proclaimed the name of their Savior, Jesus, until they could proclaim it no more.
The widows told my friends that if one of the husbands had returned home because he had denied Christ, they would have been ashamed of him. Now, however, they were grateful that their men remained faithful to the end. My Egyptian friends who were there to help were overwhelmed by such great faith.
American Christians rarely face trials such as these. Nevertheless, Scripture says we’ll all experience difficulty in one way or another. That’s why I’m mystified by Christians who believe God will protect them from danger or save them from a storm. I find the opposite message in Scripture. God doesn’t promise us prosperity, but persecution. “Indeed,” Paul writes, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). It’s virtually guaranteed.
Sadly, many Christians have a false expectation: God will protect them from harm. When they face storms or trials, they’re dumbfounded. Scripture says, though, we shouldn’t be shocked by such difficulty. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12).
It’s not that God doesn’t care about us. He loves us. His promise, though, is not that we won’t face persecution, but that He will always be with us and never forsake us (Matt. 28:20). He uses trials to develop our faith. James tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3).
Despite the fact that our bodies will die one day, death will not be our end. Because Jesus overcame death, so will we. That’s why 21 Egyptian Christians, who were undoubtedly scared, still placed their hope in Christ. They knew their captors could only kill their body, but not their soul (Matt. 10:28). That gave them the courage to stay faithful even with a blade at their neck.