I spent last week in the Middle East, hanging out with some of my church’s partners in that region of the world. These are American families who’ve responded to a special call and committed their lives to front-line gospel work. Their ministry is to a region of the world that isn’t just casual toward the Christian faith but actively hostile toward it. In last week’s post I called them “white martyrs.” A martyr is someone willing to give his life for Jesus. A “white” martyr is willing to travel into the unknown in order to take the gospel to people who don’t know Jesus.
But our partners don’t show us the only face of martyrdom in the modern world. Working alongside them is another family native to the region who has chosen to follow Jesus instead of Islam. They are former citizens of one of the many nations there who actively persecute believers and so have ended up as refugees. This family’s story shows another face of modern martyrdom.
The husband and dad—I’ll call him J—grew up as a passionate Muslim. As a young man he even served as a muzzein, the person who sings the call to prayer. For anyone who’s travelled in the Middle East, you know how strange and haunting that call is. Several times throughout the day, the adhan, or call to worship, rings out from each mosque’s minaret and summons the faithful to prayer.
Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar. Allah is great, Allah is great
J pitched not only sang out the Muslim call to prayer, he embraced Islam with his whole heart. His wife was as committed as he was.
A few years passed and the two of them ended up in another Islamic country nearby. While there they met a local Christian priest who—by the grace of God—led them to faith in Jesus. Their conversion is an amazing testimony of the power of the gospel not only to save people but also to deliver them from desperate kind of spiritual bondage that Islam represents. When J and his wife were saved, they were saved completely. In a manner similar to Saul meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road, the two of them turned 180 degrees and from loyal Muslims became in a short time passionate Jesus followers. They became some the most effective Kingdom workers in the entire region.
They returned to their native country and began working as church planters, winning people to faith in Jesus then building house churches up in order to accommodate the new believers. J travelled throughout the country in the work, from town to town and from house to house. He was arrested, of course, because in his country it’s illegal to disavow Islam. He served time in jail. He, his wife and two children were in danger almost daily. They lost everything they had. He finally was able to leave his country for a Middle Eastern country that has some degree of religious freedom, and that’s where he hooked up with our partners. He’s been living there now for some time. But, being the Jesus follower that he is, he’s been able to continue his ministry among other refugees from his native land, and was able to plant a vibrant church there. His calling is so evident that no matter where he is, people come to faith in Jesus.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
I met J several years ago and have grown to love him and respect him like few others. Last year I was able to preach in his church—and it was an amazing experience. Last week I spent the night in his apartment and had several hours to talk, share and pray with him and his family.
J and his family don’t know what will happen to them, even now. They’re political and religious refugees praying and waiting for the next thing God has for them. Their future is uncertain. Our partners—along with churches here in America—are doing everything possible to help them, but in the meantime, they’re living a precarious life. They have no citizenship. Few resources. Few prospects for employment. What they do have is a burning desire to know Jesus and to serve him.
Theirs is the modern face of martyrdom.
Martyrdom isn’t just people who physically die for their faith—although an increasing number of those heroes can be found across the world. It isn’t just people who leave behind their comfortable American lives and move to distant lands to share the gospel—although those who follow that call are examples to all of us.
Martyrdom in the modern world also includes those like J and his family, nationals coming out of Islam who count the cost and decide that even with all its uncertainty and danger, a life lived for Jesus is far, far better than any other kind of life. These modern martyrs know first-hand the truth of yet another modern martyr, Jim Eliot, who said: “That man is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.”