Christian Martyrs are Victors, not Victims

It’s hard to understand from within. Some of our best go to dangerous places. It doesn’t seem right they would fall to the insane acts of evil men. It raises age-old questions about good and evil. To our way of thinking the best and the strongest should win every time. On the surface this doesn’t seem to be happening in places where national Christians are persecuted and visiting Christians are murdered.


It’s hard to understand from without. Our denomination and our churches pray and give and support and send and go, and then this happens. Isn’t this the worst possible outcome? In talking to and listening to media representatives it’s a common question. Will we pull our workers out of dangerous places? How can we better protect our workers? Will future missionaries be afraid to go? These are strange questions to our minds. Non-Christians don’t understand the nature of Christian obedience or the lordship of Christ in our lives. They don’t understand that our calling makes us combatants in a war as old as Eden. They can’t understand it but they can hear the testimonies of those who do.


Non-Christians and Christians alike are tempted to think of those who are murdered as victims. A letter in USA Today following the Yemen murders questioned the wisdom and sanity of those who go into dangerous places. A murdered aid worker, he reasoned, is a lost asset. Similar criticisms were made of Heather Mercer and Deyna Curry after they returned from their ordeal in Afghanistan. They should have known better, it was said. Don Caswell, a wounded survivor of the attack on our hospital in Yemen, says he thought that way before going overseas. He thought it was foolish to go places where people hated Christians or Americans. His call to missions changed his mind. His work in Yemen changed his heart. Christians tend also to be wrong-headed when we assume that a safe rescue is a victory and martyrdom is a tragedy. Is this always true?


We see with eyes that do not comprehend eternity. What frightens or confuses us must be bad by definition. In hindsight we know this isn’t always true.


Compare two fairly familiar scenes. One is a missionary commissioning service. Scores of newly-appointed candidates parade across the stage and excitedly tell of the work they have been called to. A recent service I attended commissioned a large percentage who were going to places that could not be named for security reasons. They went joyfully onto the front lines of Great Commission work. It is safe to assume that some few will fall to disease, auto accidents, or violence during the course of their service. Yet they go.


The second scene is a military deployment. Men and women are lined up to get on a transport plane, rucksacks and rifles slung over their shoulders, babies and loved ones attached to their arms and legs. It’s a moving scene partly because of the long separation but mostly because of the clear danger they will face. As sorry as they are to leave people they love, military folks are ready to go where they are needed and do what they have been trained and called up to do. Some will not return alive from this deployment whether they fall in battle or to an accident. This is grievous to us but not usually seen as a tragedy unless the mission is a failure.


I know the two missions are different. There is a reason, though, that the God who reveals himself in Scripture used military imagery frequently in describing our service to him. The sacrifice is similar, the risks are similar, and the battles, spiritual and physical, require a similar commitment of all we are. A key difference is the assurance of victory we have as we serve the Creator of all things. Not assurance of safety or visible success or comfort or long life, just ultimate victory and eternal reward.


In great heroic battle stories, say the Alamo or the 300 Spartans, it is said that these few “sold their lives dearly.” That means that the enemy suffered disproportionate, even mortal losses in overcoming the defenders. That’s true of Christian martyrs. The first century church was strengthened by the witness of those killed for their faith. The fact that they would die before they would recant lent credibility to the gospel. The manner of their deaths belittled their killers and the evil cause they represented. Fox’s Book of Martyrs is full of such stories from the history of Christianity.


Our work today is heartened by the examples of Bill Wallace, Lottie Moon, Jim Elliot, and now Bill Koehn, Kathy Garrity, Martha Myers, and William Hyde. In these more modern examples also, the enemy lost ground in the deaths of these believers. The gospel will reign in some new place or heart because of their witness. After Mr.Hyde’s death, I heard his seminary professor, pastor, an IMB representative, and current seminary students headed for missions service all give powerful gospel testimonies on national television. They had this opportunity because a deceived man in the Philippines thought he could destroy those he disagreed with. He failed like all his predecessors have, all the way back to the garden. The best and strongest has won. Our mistake is forgetting that he is the Lord.

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