Persecution, forgiveness, and the gospel

anti-Christian grafiti in Mosul, Iraq

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”

Luke 23:33-34

Having been hung on the cross between two criminals, Jesus does not curse the Roman soldiers, the Jews, or the bloodthirsty crowds who gathered to watch the spectacle. Instead, he cries out to the Father and asks him to forgive those who crucify him. As Jesus has handed his own life over to the Father (Luke 22:42), so now he hands those who crucify him over to the Father. He knows it is his father’s will that he should bear the suffering of crucifixion and cries out to God to forgive those through whom his suffering and death are being accomplished because “they know not what they do.”

Is the uniqueness of what happened to Jesus at his crucifixion so far beyond anything we might experience that his plea to forgive his executioners cannot serve as a picture of how we might seek to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? In the midst of all the other activities in which we might rightly engage as we suffer or watch our fellow Christians suffer, can we also cry out to God to forgive those who persecute us?

Can we cry out to God to forgive those who persecute us?

I think that we can and should. As we hear of the reports concerning Christian persecution in Afghanistan, we are right to feel a sense of outrage. Whatever planning went into the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would seem safe to say that the best laid plans of mice and men have most certainly gone astray. Yet, we cannot simply focus our energies on critiquing those who have been voted into office. The events in Afghanistan cannot be reduced to fodder for the next news cycle on CNN or Fox News. They are not a tool to be used to advance earthly political or economic agendas.

The events in Afghanistan are tragic. Yet in the midst of tragedy, Christians must remain grateful that we belong to a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). We must remember that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:10). We must recognize that those who come to persecute and kill Christians have been deceived and are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).

Should any of this lessen our outrage or soften our lament? Not at all. We should not be trite about or dismissive of the suffering of other members of the body. Rather, with “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” we cry out to God asking “how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10). Our outrage and sorrow are redirected in prayer as we wait for and call upon God to act.

Perhaps we wish that our government would do something to restore whatever semblance of order is still possible. Yet, we ultimately desire to see God’s final act of judgment when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

It is because we trust in God’s justice that we can pray for those who persecute us.

It is because we trust in God’s justice that we can pray for those who persecute us. We have experienced the gift of God’s grace. We know where we came from and the state of alienation and misery we inhabited before being united with Christ and one another. We were sinners ignorant of our unrighteousness. Praying for the forgiveness of those who persecute us is, in part, a way to acknowledge that justice comes not only in the condemnation of sinners who have not put their faith in Christ but also in the justification of sinners united with him.

In the end, we Christians have a simple task: speak and display God’s truth to the world. We are right to offer a prophetic word to our nation. We are right to mourn the suffering of others within the body of Christ. We are even right to question God by crying out “how long?!?” in moments of suffering.

Still, we are the only people capable of proclaiming Christ to a world that desperately needs to hear the gospel and see it worked out in a broken world. To diminish this message with snarky memes, sarcastic quips, or political posturing is to do the world a disservice. Worse, it is to dim the light of our witness and confuse the uncomplicated message of the gospel. When we respond only or primarily as the world responds, we lose opportunities for powerful testimony.

We must offer an explanation for the hope we have in Christ.

We are the only people who can show the world what it means to live in union with Christ. Whatever else we do, we must do that. Some are doing it now by proclaiming Christ even in the face of death. We may do it by giving our lives over to God in this moment and allowing our anger, sorrow, and frustration to draw us toward prayer, love, service, worship, and proclamation. In this moment, when the travesties of the broken world are so evident, we must offer an explanation for the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do. Give them eyes to see and ears to hear so that they may observe the faith of your people and listen to the words of our testimony. Protect your people and grant us your peace. May we be faithful witnesses who testify to the world that you are the sovereign Lord who has conquered sin and death. Even as we pray for faithful hearts, we ask you to come. We pray for you to act, judge, and make all things new. We long for the day when your creation is set right that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. Provide for us, teach us forgiveness, and keep us from being tempted to deny you. Amen.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind