“Remember the prisoners as if chained with them, and those who are mistreated, since you yourselves are in the body also.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Every Christian will suffer persecution to some extent. For most of us in North America, whatever persecution we presently face is likely quite mild in comparison to what so many Christians are suffering in other places. We must remember them in Christian love. As in the case of remembering the poor, this is not a matter of giving them a passing thought. It means trying to relieve their suffering and meet their needs. Down through the centuries, identifying with persecuted brothers and sisters and trying to help them has been a crucial, and often dangerous, exercise of true faith: “I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matthew 25:36).
Organizations like “The Voice of the Martyrs” inform concerned Christians of ways they may actually become involved in helping mistreated believers. However, because we are generally so far removed in proximity and personal knowledge from these suffering Christians, the most we can do is pray for them. This kind of remembering must also be taken seriously. Ministries such as the Bible League have designated international days of prayer for the persecuted. We do well to observe such times. However, the call to pray for the persecuted is not seasonal. Just as elders will remind the minister if he neglects to pray for the sick or for civil government, they must ensure that the persecuted are regularly remembered in congregational prayers. Family prayers should include them as well. It is important for children to grow up hearing such prayers.
We must remember the persecuted with sympathetic feeling “as if chained with them”. It is natural for us to feel for a suffering brother or sister when they are close to us. We are moved by the sights and sounds of their anguish. That is how it should be in the church: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (I Corinthians 12:26).
Often the very circumstances which make it difficult to become directly involved in helping persecuted Christians make in difficult to pray for them with real sympathy. They are far away. We do not know them personally. Christian publications sometimes give names and describe the circumstances of our suffering brothers and sisters. We should read them with interest.
Likewise, the knowledge and experience of our own weakness and vulnerability as those who are “in the body” should help us sympathize with the persecuted. In any case, we must endeavor to ‘put ourselves in their shoes’. We must give thought and use means to stir our hearts so that we might remember and pray for them with the fervency of faith and love.
In this connection, the Psalms serve as a powerful, God-given means of fellowship with the persecuted church. Sadly, the Psalms have fallen into neglect in much of the modern church. Even in many Reformed churches with a history of commitment to their priority in congregational singing, they have become less popular than hymns.
Among the Psalms that are sung, the many ‘darker’ Psalms are passed over, or those heavy verses of lament and cries to God in the midst of trouble and anguish are skipped. Why is this? Is it because “These Psalms do not express my feelings, fears or troubles? I can not relate to them and their constant references to enemies?”
Such a response may indicate spiritual inexperience and shallowness. Even more to the point, it expresses a kind of individualism and selfishness. When we approach the Psalms this way, we fail to think and feel beyond our present, personal interests. That means we will fail to recognize Christ where the Psalms give us insight into His sufferings and holy endurance in the face of all opposition. We will fail to hear His cries of anguish and unwavering devotion as He suffered and conquered as our Mediator. We will fail to sing with hearts uplifted in the worship of our Savior.
Furthermore, this approach will hinder us from truly singing as members of the body of Christ. We will not join in spirit with that brother or sister passing through a dark time of conviction for sin, or facing a tragic loss, or finding themselves in the midst of a great spiritual struggle. We will not think of those sick members of the congregation whose needs, fears, and praise are so wonderfully expressed in these less popular songs. We will likewise fail to appreciate one of the most powerful means that God has given to help us feel our unity with our brothers and sisters facing arrest, or shut up in the darkness of prisons, cut off from the means of grace, isolated from loved ones, wrestling with confusion and fears, suffering physical pain inflicted by their oppressors.
The next time you find yourself singing like a captive, or like one “doomed to die”, or one surrounded by cruel enemies, do not selfishly say, “This is negative, this does not apply to me in my situation, nor does it reflect my state of mind—let’s sing a peppy tune instead.” Rather, sing as a member of the body of Christ. In your heart and mind, join in sympathy with the desolate and afflicted, the imprisoned and mistreated. Cry to God with them and for them. Sing Psalms along with the suffering Church.
Rev. Bill Pols is the pastor of the Orthodox Reformed Church [URC] in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.