The New Testament tells us that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12, NIV). These words can be surprising, or even frightening, to Western ears. Yet for many believers in the Middle East, these words are their reality. How are God’s people supposed to respond to persecution?
Farshid Fathi, an Iranian Christian who went to prison for his faith, recently laid out his view of suffering and persecution – forged through experience – on SAT-7 PARS’ program New Identity.
First, Farshid put forward the idea that Christians should expect suffering and persecution on their journey of following Jesus. “From my perspective, suffering is one of the foundational principles of the Christian faith,” he said. “I am not saying, ‘Let’s get ourselves into trouble.’ But accepting suffering when it comes really does help us. When I came to faith at the age of 17, I accepted the possibility of suffering, that like all these other people [Iranian martyrs Mehdi Dibaj and Haik Hovsepian], I too might suffer for my faith. So it is nothing strange or new.”
These words make sense coming from a man who has suffered for his faith. Farshid was accused of illegal activity against the state, convicted despite Iran’s commitment to religious freedom, and confined to a “solitary cell which was two meters by two meters” (approximately 6 ½ feet).
There is a common idea that suffering and persecution always strengthens faith and leads to church growth, but Farshid disagrees. “I have known people who have been destroyed going through difficulties. While I was in prison, a friend and I managed to save someone who had hanged himself. Thank God he recovered, but I think it is our attitude to the suffering that makes the difference, not the hardships. Those don’t automatically build you up.” Read more about the impact of persecution here: https://www.sat7usa.org/stories/persecution-and-the-iranian-church/
Farshid believes that the power of prayer is what allowed him to make it through the intense seasons of suffering he endured.
“Of the things that gave me strength through that time, the greatest was the Holy Spirit, who really strengthened me,” Farshid said. “All the prayers that went up for me really caused that strength to be granted.”
Because of the prayers of others, there were even moments of great joy in prison. Farshid shared one such moment on air: “I was sitting down, certain that someone or a group of people were praying for me somewhere. I suddenly could hear a melody in my spirit, and I don’t know what language it was, but I was able to sing along to it. I stood up in my cell and started to sing and dance to this melody, which I am sure was from heaven and not earthly.”
Fortunately, the prison guard who overheard the commotion wasn’t fazed. “Suddenly [a guard] opened the cell door as I was mid-dance. As I spun around, I saw his face and smiled at him and asked if he was well. He looked at me and said, ‘I think not as well as you,’ before he shut the door and went on his way.”
Farshid called on Christians not simply to receive suffering passively, but proactively to love God and others in the midst of their pain.
“The Bible says that ‘perfect love drives out fear’ (1 John 4:18). I think the more we experience and receive His love, we also gain the opportunity to love Him [in return],” he said. “I believe that while going through suffering, we gain the opportunity to love God.”
The Christians of Iran, beset as they are by such difficult circumstances, desperately need to hear wise voices such as Farshid’s. His advice may not be easy to take, but he is speaking the truth in line with the teaching of Jesus, who called His followers to live a life of love despite the difficulties of life.
“When suffering comes our way,” Farshid concluded, “whether it is something that happened to us or we chose it, it presents an opportunity for us to express love.”