On this particular Easter morning, I woke up with a sinking feeling in my stomach. As I prepared to drive our nice minivan, to our nice church in our nice clothes I couldn't help but think about the global plight of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I prayed that morning—a prayer that God didn't seem to answer. An unholy foreshadowing of the events to follow crossed my mind and I whispered a faint prayer against attacks. I grabbed for my bright green scarf and threw on my yellow earrings for a pop of color and asked God to save his people from death and persecution on Easter Sunday.
After service, I picked up my phone for a casual scroll through all of the images of friends and family hunting down eggs only to find that that my fears were playing out right before my eyes. In Sri Lanka, three churches and several hotels were targeted by what the government now claim to be a suicide bombing. As I'm writing this the death toll rises to 290 with hundreds more injured. Read more about it here (www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/world/asia/sri-lanka-bombing-explosion.html)
Among the onslaught of devastating pictures I came across a family carrying the coffin of an 11-year-old girl slaughtered in her own church. These are times when words fail. Somber lamenting befalls the church and the joy of a risen Savior seems to fade into the background. There is nothing profound to say about such a tragedy. But I know this—I prayed against an attack, but an attack happened anyway. I know that we serve a God who is both sovereign and good. I know that God teaches us that prayer works so when it seems that God’s sovereignty and his goodness do not add up where does that leave us as the believer?
The answer may come from the persecuted church. A believer once said, "when you pray, don't pray that we will not be persecuted, pray that we remain faithful through persecution." I was dumbfounded the first time I heard this; how selfless could this person be in the face of such imminent danger? It's nearly inconceivable for me as a western Christian to relate, even among the prevalence of gun violence here in the United States. The chance of religious persecution and death feel slim here. Still, the person that uttered these words chose to set their mind on the eternal. Their focus is not death. Scripture says this of man's evil intent, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28) Their focus is on the glory of God through the testimony of suffering. Their prayer is to prevail spiritually not to save their lives but that God may be exalted through their faithfulness.
Tertullian, one of the early church fathers in the 2nd century, famously wrote: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." When death and persecution produce a faithful response among believers we point a lost world to a God who is able to give hope to the hopeless and peace beyond all understanding. In the end, suffering glorifies our Father in heaven and shines the light of the gospel to the unbeliever.
When death equals glorification we are not minimizing the actual loss of our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. At first the news of the bombings felt like God ignoring my prayer. But perhaps God chose to show himself strong in the face of evil though death. Perhaps God’s goodness and sovereignty are best represented in his extending grace to the onlooker who witnesses the Christian's hope. "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first." (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16)