The Blessing of the
By Peter Hammond
Could peace and prosperity be detrimental to our spiritual health? This may seem to be a shocking suggestion but recent history and personal experience should make us seriously consider the possibility. Wars, natural disasters and suffering seem to be regularly used of the Lord to revive spiritual fervor and bring vast multitudes to their knees in repentance. The sword rather than the olive leaf seems to serve the cause of both personal spiritual growth and evangelism.
For those hoping for worldwide peace, our Lord Jesus Christ declared: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34)
Unfortunately most Christians fail to see the big picture. We seldom consider our personal suffering or world events in the light of eternity. Many may feel like Christians but very few think like Christians. Many have Christian hearts but all too few have Christian minds because the average churchgoer spends more time reading the newspaper than reading the Bible. If we spend more time watching TV than in worshipping Christ, we will become practical humanists.
Nobody would welcome a stranger coming into his home and re-arranging the furniture. Yet we regularly allow secular humanists in the mass media to rearrange our thoughts and distort our perspectives. The secular media often effectively erodes the faith of believers in the sovereignty of God. Like vultures many TV cameramen swoop down to focus in on the wars, famines, disasters and tragedies. They very selfdom go on to present the wide angle picture of what God is doing even in the midst of these tragedies and in spite of the suffering.
Hence most Christians (who depend almost exclusively upon the secular, humanist-controlled media for their perspectives on history and current events) are overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness amidst meaningless sufferings in a chance world.
However, the view from heaven in the light of eternity is completely different. There is a cosmic world war in progress between the forces of darkness and the heavenly armies of our Lord Jesus Christ. Eternal destinies are at stake. As C.T. Studd put it: “‘Only one life, it will soon be past; Only what’s done for Christ will last’…Some like to live within sound of church or chapel bell; I’d like to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
Over the last 14 years as a missionary, I have found that one can be closer to the Lord surrounded by the forces of hell than back at home amongst the saints in church. I have experienced the richest blessings of God’s presence in the midst of conflict, under fire in war zones, being beaten by mobs, in solitary confinement in prison, and in the killing fields than I have a church conferences, camps and worship services.
There is something spiritually purifying about suffering. There is nothing quite like the possibility of sudden death to straighten out one’s priorities! Comfort softens us, but hardship strengthens us. Health and wealth often breeds complacency, selfishness and greed. However, suffering can encourage sharing and self-sacrifice.
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Certainly I have found people in war-torn regions far more receptive to the Gospel than those in stable, peaceful areas. Combat soldiers in an operational area are much more open to the Gospel than administrative and support troops in the safe areas. Many more people come to repentance and faith in Christ in hospitals and prisons than in our churches.
We always find it far more satisfying to teach the Word of God to spiritually hungry Mozambicans or Angolans than to try to persuade Gospel-hardened connoisseurs of sermons in the affluent West.
In my own spiritual life I can clearly see that my greatest times of spiritual growth have been in the army, in the mission field and in prison. My most earnest times of repentance and heart searching prayer have been when sick, and a motorbike accident, when captured by communist troops and in the Intensive Care Unit with my new-born son when he was in critical renal failure.
Our missionaries also have observed that they cannot compare their devotional fervor in the mission field with the comforts of home. Comfort and complacency are the enemies of our devotional lives while conflict and crisis fuel the fires of spiritual zeal.
This is Also True in World Missions!
We are living in a time of great uncertainty and instability. Worldwide there are 48 wars in progress and many hundreds of millions are afflicted by famines, epidemics and other natural disasters. Yet we are also living at a time of the greatest ingathering of people into the Kingdom of God. Every day there are an average of 80,000 more Bible-believing Protestants added to the church worldwide. Every week 3,500 new Protestant churches are planted. Most of the growth has been in Asia and Africa amidst the most severe suffering.
War and World Evangelism
Afghanistan has been one of the least evangelized countries in the world. There are over 48,000 mosques but not a single church building. This 99% Muslim country has been closed to missionaries. Just before the Soviet invasion in 1979 the last Christian church was demolished. Yet the devastating war has brought about the greatest openness to the Gospel ever seen in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans have been converted to Christ, many by Russian Christian soldiers! Many refugees have also come to faith in Christ.
In Argentina the tragic disaster of the Falklands/Malvinas War against Britain in 1982 and the national economic collapse which accompanied it led to spiritual revival. Literally millions of Argentineans have been converted to Christ and joined evangelical churches since 1982. Evangelicals now comprise over 12% of the population.
Armenia was the world’s first Christian state (AD 301). This landlocked, mountainous Caucasian state has been an island of Christianity in a sea of Islam. Often the victim of its strategic location between Turkey, Iran and Russia, The Armenian people suffered the most severe holocaust in 1915 when the Muslim Turks sought to annihilate the Christian Armenians. Over 1 ½ million (two-thirds of their total population) were murdered in this genocide. Yet the faith of the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church has endured and flourished.
The 1988 earthquake was followed by a great movement of national repentance, a resurgence of interest in the Scriptures and revival. The evangelical arm of the Apostolic Church, the Brotherhood, has flourished with its emphasis on Biblical preaching, personal witness, works of mercy and distribution of Bibles and evangelical literature. The ongoing war in Nagorno Karabagh in defense of the Christians against Islamic attack has also been accompanied by powerful revival.
Ethiopia can claim to be one of the oldest nations in the world. There are over 60 references to Ethiopia in the Bible. Ethiopia was also one of the first Christian nations--from the fourth century. This ancient mountain kingdom surrounded by deserts has suffered two great waves of violent persecution--under the Italian fascists from 1936-41 and under the Marxist regime from 1974-1991. These traumatic seasons of suffering have also been great seasons of hardest with many millions come to Christ. Protestants were fewer than 200,000 (less than 0.8% of the population) in 1960. By 1990 the evangelicals had grown to over 6 million (and 13% of the population)!
Indonesia is the world’s fifth most populous nation (200 million people) and it has the largest number of Muslims in any country (about 160 million). Yet out of the bloodbath of the failed Communist coup in 1965 has sprung one of the greatest movements to Christianity. The harsh extremism of some Muslim groups and the fierce Muslim reprisals upon the communists, their families and sympathizers (over ½ million were killed in the repression following the coup) repelled many people. About ten million were converted to Christianity, most from Muslim or Communist backgrounds!
The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 brought about much bloodshed and division and shocked many Muslims. The cruelty, corruption, extremism and hatred of the Ayatollah Khomeine’s Islamic regime disillusioned many Muslims who began to be open to the Gospel. There were less than 500 known Iranian Christians in 1979. Today there are over 10,000 Bible believing Christians in Iran and many thousands of Iranians who have been converted since fleeing the tyranny there.
Few countries have suffered as much as Korea under Japanese occupation, the Soviet-imposed division of Korea and the devastating Civil War (1950-1953). Yet the revival in South Korea is extraordinary. The first Protestant Church was planted in 1884. By 1984 there were 30,000 churches. The capital, Seoul, is almost 40% Christian (in a Buddhist country!) with over 7,000 churches. Seoul is home to 10 of the 20 largest congregations in the world. The largest baptism service in the world was in the South Korean army (which is now 65% Christian). The largest Christian meetings, evangelistic campaigns and theological seminaries in the world are all in South Korea.
Suffering in Nicaragua has brought about a remarkable turning toward God. The earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of 1972 which destroyed the capital were followed by a great number of conversions to Christ. The Marxist revolution of 1979 devastated the economy and inflicted terrible oppression and injustices. The decade of better civil war cost many thousands of precious lives. Yet amidst the violence and despair the number of Evangelical Christians has mushroomed from less than 2% of the population in 1960 to 7% in 1980, to 15% in 1990. Now it is estimated that up to 30% of Nicaraguans are Bible believing Christians.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa. It has the longest war of this century still raging (since 1956). Sudan is the site of the most vicious anti-Christian persecution raging anywhere in the world today. Yet the church in South Sudan is experiencing real revival and spectacular growth. Twenty years ago nominal Christians made up 5% of the total population. Today Christians comprise over 20% of Sudan and large numbers of Muslims are coming to Christ.
The vast country of Zaire endured eight years of vicious violence and anarchy in the 1960’s. Many thousands of Christians, including hundreds of missionaries were martyred. Yet persecution and pressure purified the Church and brought about a new spiritual earnestness. Churches overflowed and all night prayer meetings became common. There has been a massive turning to Christ from less than 1% Protestant in 1900 to 21% of the population today.
China is the largest nation in the world with 21% of the world’s population. The communist revolution in 1949 caused immeasurable suffering, and the largest number of victims massacred in history. Especially under the Cultural Revolution (1955-1976), Christians suffered what was probably the most widespread and harshest persecution ever experienced. Yet the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Rather than eradicating the Church, the fires of persecution in China purified, strengthened and expanded the Church.
The bondage of centuries of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism have been broken. The deepest resistance to Christianity has dissipated as it is no longer seen as foreign but as an indigenous faith. Waves of revival have followed every man-induced or natural disaster. The 140 years of sacrificial seed sowing by thousands of missionaries and the blood of hundreds of thousands of martyrs has brought about the greatest spiritual harvest in history.
There were less than 2 million Protestants in China before the great persecution began. In 1992 even the hostile State Statistical Bureau estimated that over 63 million Chinese were Protestants. Most of this phenomenal growth has been in response to the illegal radio and literature evangelism from outside the country and through itinerant preachers and the illegal house church networks.
The Chinese word for crisis is made up of two works--danger and opportunity. Certainly in missionary work it is true that crisis situations are the most fertile fields for ministry. Wherever there is danger--such as in wars or persecution--there are unique opportunities for serving God.
Making Sense Out of Suffering
At this point some may object that I am making light of suffering. That is not my intention. I have spent many days weeping with widows and orphans, seeking to alleviate their suffering with relief aid and counseling. Rather, I want us to better appreciate the value of an eternal soul. In the light of eternity any sacrifices made to bring lost sinners to the Saviour will be seen as eminently worthwhile. God doesn’t enjoy seeing people suffer, but He does use suffering for some good purposes (Acts 14:22).
God made a world in which actions have consequences, where descendants inherit the benefits of their ancestors’ wisdom and ingenuity or suffer the poverty, oppressions and wars which come from evil choices by their neighbors or forefathers. Suffering judges sin in general--showing that what the human race sows it will also reap (Deut. 28).
In addition, God does also send disasters on nations and individuals to judge specific persistent sin (Acts 5:1-11; 12:23, 1 Cor. 11:30-32). However, we should not assume that an individual or a nation is suffering because of their own sin. Job’s suffering was not an indication of God’s displeasure but rather the opposite. Often suffering is sent by God is strengthen our faith and to demonstrate that our faith is genuine.
People are attracted to Christ when they see Christians handling suffering with grace and confidence in God. Suffering is part of life and we are called to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3); “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (1 Tim. 3:12); “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
God can use our suffering for our spiritual good and for the strengthening and extending of His kingdom. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
Our attitude amidst suffering must glorify God and draw unbelievers to Christ. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the suffering of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
Suffering should drive us to depend upon God and grow in faith. Therefore the Scripture exhorts us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience….Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:2-3, 12).
Since we are God’s children we will share in His blessings and in His sufferings. For if we share in Christ’s sufferings we will also share in His glory. And our present sufferings cannot be compared with the glory of eternity (Rom. 8:17-18). The cross is at the heart of the Gospel and it involved incredible suffering and sacrifice for our Lord and Saviour.
We cannot divorce the cross from missions. The very purpose for Christ’s blood atonement was missionary. “For You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation…Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:9,12)
God has joined the Cross and the Great Commission together and what God has joined together let no man separate. Yet less than 1% of church finances go to missions and less than a third of one percent of church funds go to foreign missions. Less than 10% of evangelical churches have any missions programme at all.
Our Lord’s last Command must be our first concern. The Great Commission should be our supreme ambition. We must center on what is central to God’s Word--missions. Our great God and Saviour deserves all glory and honor and so we should invest all our strength and wisdom to proclaim all of His Word to all the world and to persuade rebellious sinners to fully surrender to the Lordship of Christ.
However, having said that, we need to recognize that God’s army often advances on its knees in prayer and on its back in pain. The Cross required suffering. Fulfilling the Great Commission will require no less.
From Frontline Fellowship News, P.O. Box 74, Newlands 7725, South Africa. Source for country statistics: Operation World by Patrick Johnstone, STL, 1993, in addition to various lectures and interviews with mission researcher Patrick Johnstone in Sept. 1995.