These familiar words spoken by our Lord doubled as a caption on Facebook added to a now-iconic photo of armed guards surrounding St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, one day after nearly 300 professing Christians were killed in a coordinated series of suicide bombings while worshiping on Easter Sunday.
The photo was from the news, but that Bible-verse caption was posted by a friend of mine: a believer from Mannar, a town just six hours or so north of Colombo. Here was a Sri Lankan Christian whose first public comment on the terror strikes was, in effect, “Love your enemies.”
Meanwhile, across the globe, it was Resurrection Day just before sunrise, and I was downstairs reading, sipping coffee, and praying—getting in those quiet moments of reflection before the kids woke up. Easter baskets stuffed with fake grass and plastic playthings awaited them on our kitchen table, and our traditional Italian Easter pie breakfast awaited in the fridge. Savoring the crisp morning, I looked over my sermon notes on 1 Corinthians 15 one last time.
Then I opened my Twitter feed. #EasterBombings was trending. Hundreds of professing believers had been slaughtered in Sri Lanka.
For those of us who have spent our entire lives in North America, Easter Sunday was probably the first time many of us had ever given real thought to the small, predominantly Buddhist South Asian island nation.
The weight of the issue truly began impress me I preached on this verse later that morning: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). To embrace Christ is in a sense the supreme act of delayed gratification, as we look not to the present, seen things but to the unseen, eternal life to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:18). Christianity is assuredly not about having your “best life now.”
The irony of the Easter attacks is palpable. At the same time that our ancient foe continued his attempt to enslave and ensnare through the fear of death, the global church sang the praises of a death-defeating Lord whose victorious resurrection renders all such attacks utterly vain. Even in the midst of violent persecution, the gospel story still declaws death and defangs the grave.
But the plight of the persecuted church has implications for mission. A gnawing question faces us Christians trying to make sense of suffering.
The Missional Puzzle of Persecution
Where was God in Sri Lanka? Or, as the psalmist Asaph himself asks in Psalm 79:9-10a, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake! Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’”
Why would God in his sovereignty allow such a small, struggling community of believers as those in Sri Lanka to endure such debilitating hardship? Does it not undermine the mission of the church? Doesn’t this invite the doubt of the onlooking Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu populations in South Asia—not to mention the surrounding onlookers in secular media?
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
Biblically, we have confidence that all who endure reproach and even greet death for the sake of Christ will be infinitely compensated in eternity. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). If we suffer with him, we will be glorified with him (Romans 8:17).
Suffering is a platform for global witness. When the persecuted church displays patience and godliness in the midst of pain—like the gracious response exhibited by my Sri Lankan friend on Facebook—the world takes notice. The gospel is always the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), but it assumes a particular potency when preached from the platform of persecution.
But the missiological question posed by persecution goes deeper. If Christ has promised to be with his church on its global mission (Matthew 28:20), if God has promised that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord (Habakkuk 2:14), and if heaven will be populated by representatives of all nations (Revelation 7:9), then how can so many saints worldwide be permitted to suffer in such a way that invites unbelievers to doubt their God?
Public Persecution, Public Vinciation
Psalm 79 provides the answer to this second question in the very next phrase and following:
“Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes!
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power, preserve those doomed to die!
Return sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors
the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!
But we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” (vv. 10b-13)
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Asaph petitions God to display his justice on behalf of his people, delivering them through their suffering in the eyes of all the watching nations (v. 10a). The result of this anticipated vindication is that the covenant people of God “will give thanks” to God forever, and “from generation to generation” worship him boldly and publicly.
Public injustice against the bride of Christ sets the stage for public vindication from the hand of God. All injustices against God’s people are repaid either in temporal judgments, the final judgment, or the very cross of Christ—and all of these settings are public. The divine response to the oppression of the saints is inevitable.
So, with Asaph, we and our brothers and sisters in countries like Sri Lanka can cry out to God to avenge his people’s blood. We can also love our enemies, praying for their conversion. And we do all of this knowing that the unreached nations of the world are watching.
God will not ignore the cause of his people forever. He is preparing to bare his holy arm in the sight of all nations, even as he already has on Calvary, where he sacrificially poured on his Son what all the persecutors of his people actually deserve. And even as the flaming darts of the enemy still rain down on the bride of Christ, we remember on days like this past bloody Easter that our Redeemer has robbed the grave.
Where is God? “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Not only that, but God has set his King, Jesus, “on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). Peering into heaven where our grave-robbing Lord sits, we await not only our eternal consolation but also the vindication that will show the unbelieving world our gospel was true all along.
The world is watching Christians in Sri Lanka, and they are watching us too.