Want to Meet New Heroes of Our Faith? They Live in Syria.
Horrific pictures and videos out of Syria last week chronicled a sickening, brutal, deadly phosphate gas attack that killed many innocent children and their families. This isn’t the first time chemical weapons have been deployed in this 6-year hell-on-earth war. Syrian refugees have scattered all over the world now, but the refugees that remain inside the country have lost everything and have nowhere to go. The worst humanitarian disaster since World War II may actually end up surpassing the devastation witnessed in World War I.
Homs was once a vibrant city, and one of the largest and friendliest in Syria. The Julia Restaurant was packed every night with birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and family reunions. Now it’s a pile of bricks and twisted steel. I was privileged to preach in Homs’ church some years ago. The entire block that several churches were located on is no longer recognizable. Someone flew a drone over Homs with a Go-Pro camera attached and posted the video on You Tube. The bombed-out city resembles Berlin after the allied forces leveled it in World War II.
A cloud of death and desperation hangs over the entire nation. The war shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
Can anything good come out of Syria? Well, if you take your worldview from cable news then it is probably unfathomable that there is actually good news in Syria. In fact, if you’re a follower of Christ, there’s great news. Believers in Syria aren’t merely surviving in all this: they’re thriving, even in the midst of Islamic terrorism.
Farid Assad is a pastor who also plants churches. He gets more death threats than most people get mail. Recently, he told me he had 30 new threats on his life. He knew there were 30 because they were spray painted on the front of his apartment and numbered. So, you would think he might think seriously about relocating right?
Contrary to the popular news story of the day, Christians are not being systematically crushed by the Islamic State and annihilated out of existence. True, many are leaving, but many Syrian Christian leaders are choosing to stay and not run despite the certainty of persecution and the ever-present threat of martyrdom.
One month ago, my wife JoAnn and I were privileged to lead a team to Lebanon and our goal was to bring Christian leaders in from Syria for a much-needed break from the battle. We hoped to have 30 pastors, church planters, evangelists, and their wives. It ended up that about 120 came and miraculously every one of them made it through numerous unstable government checkpoints safely to a monastery in the mountains overlooking Beirut.
They came from cities that you hear about in the news. Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Idlib, Tartous, and Alawite Mountain are just some of the places where they live and serve Christ often caught in between the Alawite-led government of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State in their fight to the death. It was hard to fathom that any Christians were left in these epicenters of evil. Christians are being crucified on crosses and beheaded in these places, yet many stay.
Some of the leaders traveled on the infamous “highway through hell” stretch of road that connects Aleppo to Damascus. In one 10-mile section there are 20 checkpoints. These are often the scenes of some of the most gruesome battles that ISIS and other terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have.
We’re still processing the stories and probably would need a calculator to count the Jesus-miracles that we heard first-hand accounts of. In fact, without Jesus intervening how could any follower of Christ still be alive in Syria with Sunni Muslim imams threatening “to wash the streets in Christian blood.”
Yet, these front line believers in Syria typically have joy in their lives, peace in their hearts, and a smile on their faces. They are strong and actually thank God for the persecution since it has made them stronger in their faith.
So, how is it that Christians in Syria seem to live with less stress than we Christians do in America and in the West?
That’s the question I answer in my new book that releases this week:
Standing in the Fire-Courageous Christians Living in Frightening Times. It is a collection of eight true stories about your new brothers and sisters in Christ. Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the book of Daniel, these new believers make a conscious choice to face a fiery furnace rather than recant of their faith to save their own skin.
Medo was a terrorist with the Islamic State in Iraq. Osama was a high level leader in the Syrian version of al-Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra. Mohammad was Secret Police in Syria. Noor is married to an imam. Rashid spray painted the 30 threats on Farid’s apartment wall and threatened to kill the pastor for five years.
How would you like that crew in the new members class at your local church? Actually, it would be the best thing that ever happened to your class and probably for your church.
These new believers in Christ have learned some spiritual truths that would be good for us to learn as well. I won’t spoil the book by detailing the stories, because their true accounts are thrilling, inspiring, and I have no doubt that they will elevate your faith in Christ. God is moving powerfully in some of the most dangerous places to live on the globe like Syria, and believe me, these stories you’ll never hear on the news.
So how do these saints of God thrive in the midst of Islamic terrorism and persecution?
I’ve consistently observed three spiritual disciplines inherent in each of these believers. Think of them as “tactics” that need to be employed during wartime.
Spiritual Discipline #1- Choose What Voice You Listen To
The modern-day saints of God would never be able to thrive in places like Syria, Iraq, and Gaza if their worldview came from the news and circumstances around them. Their stability comes from God’s Word, radical obedience to Jesus, and dependence on the Holy Spirit’s leading. Then they tune out the rest of the noise around them.
To live by faith in frightening times it’s essential to turn off the noise around us that chips away at our faith on a daily basis. As followers of Jesus, it will only be well with our soul if we allow the One to whom we have given our life, to control our equilibrium. Spiritually we must put on some noise cancellation headphones to tune out the ambient sounds around us. Only God’s view of the times we live in matters. Let’s stop taking our worldview from the news. It’s not the whole story, and sometimes it’s not even the true story.
Spiritual Discipline #2- Make Faith Your Filter
Faith is your filter to screen out the world’s pollution that can rob your soul of the peace that Jesus promised to all of us who love Him. Is faith your filter? Or is it worry? The next time you hear something disturbing on the news or something that affects you personally, remember this: “Worry is my old way of thinking.” Our loving God is still on the throne, and He hasn’t vacated His responsibilities as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Remember, as believers in Christ, we’re victors not victims. Hakeem from Damascus told me recently that one day 92 bombs dropped on his city. He told the story with a smile as he recounted the “creative ways” that God protected him and his family. “We looked for God to intervene for us on that horrifying day and He did!”
Pretty simple, right? Send everything through the filter of faith, not the filter of worry. Paul said we have to adjust our thinking this way: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1–4 NIV)
Spiritual Lesson #3- Get On Your Face and Pray
Prayer still moves mountains. It’s time to get on our faces before God. This may shock you, but I have learned more about praying in the last few years from former Muslims who are new believers in Christ than I have from most seasoned Christians.And it’s because they are desperate for God to move. Talk about having enemies! Their own Muslim family members often want to kill them. When they pray, they’re all in. It’s common to see them flat on their faces before God. Are you? It’s probably time in your life for desperate praying.
FaceTime isn’t just the name of an app. Believers have been doing this for centuries when they were desperate for God to answer their prayers.
There is a new generation of believers in Syria who are rock-solid firm in their faith in Christ. They are unshakeable and refuse to run away by giving into their fear no matter how hot the furnace is heated. And it’s getting hotter.
The times we live in are frightening, but we are right on course with the very plan of God for this world. Things are not falling apart . . . they’re falling into place.
So this begs the question: Am I willing to live for Jesus? If you truly want to live all-out for Christ in today’s world, you will experience blowback like never before. Since the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, as John the apostle tells us, why should we expect anything less?
But take heart, have courage, stand firm, and don’t run away in fear. Many new believers in Syria aren’t running. The reason they stand is because they’ve learned, as followers of Christ, that Jesus is right there next to us—standing in the fire.
Tom Doyle, Vice President and Middle East-Central Asia Director for e3 Partners based in Dallas, Texas, and author of four books including Dreams & Visions and Killing Christians. Visit e3partners.org.
Image courtesy: Pixabay.com
Publication date: April 11, 2017