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Life-Changing Lessons I’ve Learned from Persecuted Christians

We’re leaving for the airport in twenty-five minutes. I hope you’re ready. I’m rushing around my house, trying to figure out how to get my suitcase closed and which things in it I won’t actually need on the trip. I check my phone again to see what the weather is predicted to be: the warm jacket takes up a lot of suitcase space. Will I need it? Will I need a nicer pair of shoes for church? Is anyone going to expect me to be wearing a tie?

Every extra item prompts a tiny cost-benefit analysis. Yes, it would be nice to have my running shoes in case the hotel has a fitness center. But they take up precious space. Yes, I’d love to have my personal Bible, but my traveling New Testament is much smaller and lighter—and I have the whole Bible on my phone if I need it. And I always hope to have a little bit of extra space when I leave, because invariably I come home with a small souvenir for my wife or a gift for my sons (when they were young, their favorites were swords, knives, or any sort of weapon!) and daughters-in-law.

As the son of missionaries, I grew up in a traveling family. The packing rules were simple: if you can’t carry it yourself, you can’t bring it. This was sometimes tested, such as when we carried silverware for twelve to Papua New Guinea—in our carry-on bags! I still try to follow that rule: one medium-sized checked bag and one carry- on, which has my camera, headphones, and eBook reader, as well as various and sundry power-adapter cords and hopefully a snack and a spare shirt, because there’s never a guarantee your suitcase will arrive the same time you do.

Early on in my time at The Voice of the Martyrs, I had a very different idea about visiting persecuted Christians. I remember on my first VOM trip to China, our team was going to meet a pastor who’d been arrested multiple times in the previous three months. He led a large unregistered church that met on Tuesdays, and police and Religious Affairs authorities had taken to arresting him each Tuesday morning so he couldn’t lead the services. They’d hold him all day, or even overnight, then let him go, just so he couldn’t lead his growing flock.

So as we went to visit, I had a picture in my mind of this poor, abused pastor. I thought how much of a blessing it would be to him for foreigners to come and cheer him up, because he’d no doubt be feeling deeply discouraged. My ideas couldn’t have been much further from reality!

When we arrived at his apartment, he was smiling and joyful. He was thrilled that people in his area were meeting Jesus Christ, thrilled his flock was growing. If the price of effective ministry was a few measly arrests or a few nights in jail, then so what? It was worth it to see lives changed and Christ’s kingdom grow.

I remember clearly how he showed us the bag he took with him to church: it had a blanket and a change of clothes. It was his jail bag, and he was packed and ready to go.

I turned to his wife, sitting to the side as we sipped cups of tea. “Don’t you worry about him?” I asked, pointing to the pastor.

“Why should I be worried?” she answered through the translator. “God will take care of him.”

God will take care of him. And God will take care of us.

Since that trip, I have different ideas about my travels. While persecuted Christians greatly enjoy fellowship with other believers, they don’t need me to cheer them up. In fact, often in their presence, I wish for much more of the joy that shows on their faces and in their lives. I go to hear their stories. I go as a learner, wanting to know more about their faith and their walk on their journey toward home—“a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” And when I get back to my earthly home, I want to tell the story of their amazing faith.

I hope the testimonies of our persecuted family members will bless and challenge you. And I hope they’ll make you think more about our true home, and about the path you’re on to get there.

I am often floored by the high price our brothers and sisters in hostile and restricted nations are asked to pay for following Christ, when I and so many Christians in the U.S. are asked to pay so little. I’m even more amazed when they pay that price not grudgingly, or with frustration or disappointment, but with a pure, unfiltered joy.

Perhaps these brothers and sisters have grasped a truth that we need to be reminded of. The privilege of walking with Christ, forgiveness of sin, the promise of heaven—that privilege is worth everything. Think of the parable of the treasure in the field: the man who found the treasure sold all he had to own it. But he didn’t do so hesitantly; he sold it all “in his joy” (Matt. 13:44).

Does your life and walk of faith exhibit that same joy? Are there cares and burdens weighing on you? What are they? Are you willing to “cast” those burdens onto the Lord?

For most of my work-related trips over the past twenty-three years, the best part of the trip is the end. I love coming back home to my wife and sons! The flights home always seem so long, like they might never end. Or maybe I’m just impatient to hug my wife, sleep in my own bed, and unpack both my suitcase and the stories I have from the journey.

I hope you’ll spend some time unpacking the stories we’ve shared and, more importantly, the lessons God may be teaching you through the examples of persecuted believers around the world.

Adapted from When Faith is Forbidden: 40 Days on the Frontlines with Persecuted Christians by Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs (©2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.

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