Suffering Opens a Door for the Gospel
It’s illegal to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to Muslims in Tehran, Iran. So when I think of gutsy women I think of Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh.
The two Christian converts from Islam met one another at a conference in Turkey, became friends, and committed their lives to reaching the lost by canvassing the streets of Tehran. For three years, they sought gospel opportunities and spread New Testaments throughout the city — “accurate modern translations of the New Testament in Farsi to supplant the Islamic version allowed in the public shops, which had been rewritten to support the Koran” (Captive in Iran, 36).
The government-approved Christian writings in Tehran leave readers with the impression that Jesus was nothing more than a prophet. Such lies had to be subverted, and these courageous women set out to combat the lie by trafficking bulk Bibles — once transporting three thousand copies into the city in one vanload under the cover of night. On foot, the women carried several copies of the New Testament in backpacks to hand out every chance they got. They boldly shared the gospel of Jesus Christ in one of the most foreboding Muslim cities on earth.
Two brave women, and two backpacks re-stuffed with Bibles, in one huge Muslim city, can accomplish a lot in three years — like safely distributing 20,000 copies of the New Testament.
And they would pay for it.
Suffering Opens Doors
Never comfortable, always anxious about who was watching, always fearful they would accidentally approach someone on the street with the gospel who was a police informant or someone who would rat them out, their gospel work was always a personal threat. Little did they know how closely they were being watched until March, 2009, when they were summoned to the local police station, arrested, and tossed into a disgusting detention center.
In the filth of the detention center came a new gospel surprise, as the women later recounted.
Most amazing of all, we were in the best place we’d ever been for witnessing to people hungry for the gospel of Jesus. We had spent ourselves and our resources traveling all over the country with the message of salvation, always mindful of the danger if the wrong person overheard us. Now we were stuck in jail, and God was bringing spiritual seekers in waves. The living conditions weren’t very good, but we didn’t have to deal with travel and traffic! And we could tell our fellow prisoners the story of Jesus openly because no one would come into this rat hole to spy on us. (38)
Charged with sedition and threatened with torture and even execution, the women eventually landed in Tehran’s notoriously dangerous penitentiary, Evin Prison. They would call it “Our Church,” and spend nine months there, continuing their gospel mission among the prisoners. They would eventually be released and tell their story in the book Captive in Iran: A Remarkable True Story of Hope and Triumph amid the Horror of Tehran’s Brutal Evin Prison.
Suffering for the Name
Persecution normally happens in subtler ways for Christians in the West — a cold shoulder, a subtle jab in a conversation, a workplace bias, or getting overlooked in a promotion. Persecution may increase to the realm of verbal mocking, insults, and false accusations meant to undermine your character. In some places in the world, it can advance all the way up to beating, imprisonment, stoning, beheading, crucifixion, or burning at the stake (Matthew 5:11; 1 Peter 4:14; Matthew 23:34).
Whatever expression it takes, all persecution is stoked by our public identity with Christ, a point Christ himself reiterates to his followers. They will all suffer “for his name.”
When Jesus says, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” we get the point fairly quickly (Mark 13:13).
I will suffer because I have identified myself with the name of Christ. We pause, maybe flinch at what this potentially means for us, and then move along in our reading.
Consequence or Opportunity?
But we should learn to flip this point around in another direction.
To suffer “for the name of Christ” has a second, more profoundly important dimension, as Jesus explains in this same context. “For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them” (Mark 13:9).
Do you see what he did there (and in most of the passages listed above)?
To suffer for the name of Christ is a two-sided equation. The name of Christ is the cause of our added suffering, but the name of Christ also becomes the purpose of our suffering. As cause, we can expect to suffer for the name of Christ. As purpose, we can expect to suffer, so that in our suffering we might testify to the name of Christ.
This same equation works in the mind of Paul.
From the very outset of his ministry and all through his letters, “for the name of Christ” was both cause and purpose, both consequence and opportunity, behind every pinch of his suffering.
Thus, for Jesus and Paul, to “suffer for the name of Christ” becomes both a marker of the allegiance that brings the suffering in the first place (identifying with Christ) and also God’s purpose in our suffering (new gospel opportunities).
Of course, we would always be wise not to draw undue persecution on ourselves, but we should not be too quick to evade the inevitable pushback and cultural pressures we now face in following Christ. To suffer for the name of Christ is to be positioned firmly within the sovereign will of our Father, often for new gospel witness, new opportunities to magnify the name of Christ in ways a more comfortable life would never have afforded us.
“One of the glaring omissions in modern church growth studies is the key part that suffering has played in the growth of the church” (Fernando, 83). Yes. Suffering and gospel growth go hand-in-hand. (One reason why prosperity preachers will never hold to the true gospel for very long.)
The most suitable way to proclaim the glories of the cross is in the cruciform position of scorn. This seems true of Paul’s testimony. “Paul thinks suffering not only accompanies the apostles’ proclamation of the gospel, but is a proclamation of the gospel” (Plummer).
When and where the world blockades Christ-followers by oppression, new roads are opened to advance the name of Christ.
“We were more free inside the prison to give the message of salvation to many prisoners than outside the prison,” Marziyeh Amirizadeh recounted in one interview. “When we were free [outside the prison], we had to pray and ask God to lead us to the right person to talk. Inside the prison we could talk to anybody. One day my interrogator became angry and asked why we were talking to prisoners about Jesus. And I said: ‘We talk to prisoners about Jesus because you arrested us, and put us in prison, and prisoners are curious. They all want to know: Why are you here? What is your charge?’ So we had to explain the gospel.”
Marziyeh herself chuckles now when she recounts this ironic turn of events, which serves to all of us as a modern illustration of and inspiration for what it really means to suffer for the name of Christ.