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Responding to News of ISIS

The past few months, we’ve watched the former al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), conquer large swaths of the Middle East. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS aims to establish an Islamic State through aggressive militarism, what they view as acceptable jihad, unlike moderate Muslims whose belief in jihad amounts to a mere struggle for individual piety. ISIS’s rapid growth, spreading influence, ruthless conquest, and fear-provoking threats leave us wondering how to respond, especially as Christians who long to see our Muslim friends (and enemies) saved.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers when circumstances such as the one with ISIS transpire, but the Bible instructs us to respond in at least the following five ways. These are not five additional things to “tack on” to your Christian walk; they are the overflow of who God has already made us to be in Christ.

1. Devote yourself to prayer.

Far be it from us to pretend we can endure these evils from ISIS apart from relying on our heavenly Father in prayer. And when we ask, the Lord promises to give us whatever we need (John 14:13-14). So, commit your own fears and anxieties to the Lord, because he cares for you (Phil 4:4-8; 1 Pet 5:6-7). Pray that you might stand firm against the tidal wave of evil (Rom 12:12; Eph 6:10-22). Pray for God to strengthen the persecuted church and prepare Christians worldwide to endure tribulation (Heb 13:3; Matt 10:22; 24:13). Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night (Luke 18:7)? Pray also for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1-2). Even ask God to convert ruthless persecutors into followers of Jesus, like he did with the apostle Paul (1 Tim 1:15-16; 2:3-4).

2. Pursue Christ-like love.

We should not forget that we are the true aggressors in the advance of God’s kingdom on earth. ISIS is simply one more expression of the evil world system still sitting in Adam and controlled by Satan, the ruler of this world (Rom 5:12; Eph 2:1-3; 1 John 5:19). But Jesus sits at the right hand of God’s throne, having defeated the power of sin for his people and having ousted the ruler of this world (John 12:32; Heb 2:1-14). He’s bringing in the new kingdom as we speak and appointed us to spread the news about his kingdom’s arrival through preaching and bearing a cross (Mark 1:15; 8:34-38). When the world dishes out hatred, lies, and violence; we, just like our Savior, respond with love, truth, and self-sacrifice. We do not take lives to advance the gospel. We pursue love even when it means somebody else takes our life.

3. Prepare for persecution.

The exhortation isn’t meant to send us spiraling into fears and borrowing troubles from tomorrow. I say it because of Bible passages like these: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12); “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). It’s true that some Christians will suffer more than others (John 21:18-23). But suffering for the sake of the gospel is every disciple’s calling (John 12:24-25; 1 Pet 2:20-21). Whether it comes through an atheist’s ridicule or the sword of ISIS, we must prepare ourselves to endure persecution. Take it from the words of Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who endured fourteen years of imprisonment and torture in communist Romania:

What shall we do about these tortures? Will we be able to bear them? If I do not bear them, I put in prison another fifty or sixty men whom I know, because that is what the Communists wish from me, to betray those around me. And here comes the great need for the role of preparation for suffering which must start now. It is too difficult to prepare yourself for [suffering] when the Communists have put you in prison.
I remember my last confirmation class before I left for Romania. I took a group of ten to fifteen boys and girls on a Sunday morning, not to a church, but to the zoo. Before the cage of lions I told them, “Your forefathers in faith were thrown before such wild beasts for their faith. Know that you also will have to suffer. You will not be thrown before lions, but you will have to do with men who would be much worse than lions. Decide here and now if you wish to pledge allegiance to Christ.” They had tears in their eyes when they said yes.
We have to make the preparation now, before we are imprisoned. In prison you lose everything. You are undressed and given a prisoner’s suit. No more nice furniture, nice carpets, or nice curtains. You do not have a wife anymore and you do not have your children. You do not have your library and you never see a flower. Nothing of what makes life pleasant remains. Nobody resists who has not renounced the pleasures of life beforehand (Wurmbrand, “Preparing the Underground Church,” 46-48).

In short, Christ must be precious before our suffering (Heb 10:32; Rev 2:9). We prepare for persecution not by looking inward or fretting about tomorrow, but by looking outward to Christ and enjoying him more deeply today.

4. Trust in Christ’s power.

As we enjoy Christ more deeply, our eyes will be further opened to the glory of his power. He is powerful to give us everything we need to endure persecution (Matt 10:19-20; 1 Pet 4:13-14). He is powerful to preserve all his elect (John 10:28-29). He is powerful to shield us with his love even through the tribulation and persecution of the world (Rom 8:31-39; John 16:33). He is powerful to change the hearts of our enemies as we preach (Rom 1:16-17). He is powerful to raise us from the dead even when those same enemies kill us for preaching (2 Cor 1:9-10; Phil 3:10-11). And he is powerful to usher in the final kingdom, where we will experience God’s sheltering presence and the protection of the chief Shepherd who will guide us to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 7:15-17).

5. Remember religious liberty.

One other thing we can do is simply be a responsible citizen in our own country and contribute wherever we can in helping others abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good (Rom 12:9). “What is good” includes supporting public policies that uphold religious liberty for all US citizens, including our Muslim neighbors. That means as the Muslim population continues growing in the US, we must remember that religious liberty applies to them as much as it does to us. The advance of ISIS cannot change our convictions. Unlike ISIS, who impose Sharia on their society by the sword, Christians should not resort to the coercive powers of the state to carry on its work or advance its mission since the gospel of Jesus Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends.