The assailant fired off nearly 30 rounds. He shouted: “Allah akhbar! Allah akhbar! God is great!” He turned on his heel and left the taxi driver to die. And thus, on Feb. 17, 2003, the Iraqi church had yet another martyr. Ziwar Muhammad Isma’il, a believer from the city of Zakho, not only left behind a wife and five children, he left behind a remarkable legacy of faithfulness in the midst of adversity, discrimination, oppression, harassment, and persecution.
Ziwar, a Kurd, came to saving faith seven years ago. “Since then he has been faithful to, and open about, his faith. Many times he was threatened and twice arrested, though never charged,” his pastor said. Though￼ practically illiterate, he memorized large portions of the Scriptures and served as a deacon in the fledgling evangelical church. “He was always very well aware, as are all of us in the church here, of the fact that at some point, martyrdom is all too likely. He accepted this without reservation,” his pastor said.
I confess that when I received the email reporting Ziwar’s death, I was shocked. But I know I shouldn’t have been. Long ago the apostle Paul asserted, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). There is no way around it—persecution is inevitable. Ziwar understood, perhaps better than most of us, the ever-present danger of Christian profession in the midst of this fallen world.
There was a time when martyrdom was among the church’s highest callings and greatest honors. Early on, Christians embraced the truth that the godly will be persecuted. The heroes of the faith have always been those who actually sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and reputations for the sake of the Gospel.
But no longer. There is almost a kind of shame that we attach to those who suffer persecution or isolation or oppression. If their cause does not meet with quick success, we are only too hasty to abandon them. Maybe they didn’t try hard enough. Maybe they just made a couple of dumb mistakes. Maybe they just failed to marshal effective public relations techniques. But however they got into the mess they’re in, we are all but certain that they are not the kind of models we ought to follow.
E.M. Bounds, the great nineteenth century pastor and evangelist who penned several classic books on prayer, asserted it was “all too often the case” that “when the church prospers it loses sight of the very virtues from whence its prosperity has sprung.” According to Bounds, those virtues “invariably have sprung out of either the suffering of believers or their response to the suffering of others.”
Believers throughout history have suffered fierce persecution and enforced obscurity. They have been beaten, ridiculed, and defrocked. They have suffered poverty, isolation, betrayal, and disgrace. They have been hounded, harassed, and murdered. Through it all, though, they have borne testimony to the fact that they found solace in the realization of genuine hope—a hope that did not depend on the confirmation of worldly notions of success and did not need to adjust to the ever-shifting tides of situation or circumstance. They were able to comprehend that the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the faithful are the seeds of real success, and that our unflagging efforts on behalf of the despised and rejected are our most potent caveats to the worldly-wise.
This has been the common experience of virtually all those who have gone before us in faith: apostles, prophets, martyrs, confessors, pastors, evangelists, missionaries, reformers, and witnesses. They tasted the bittersweet truth that the kingdom of heaven belongs to “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:10), and that great blessings and rewards await those who have been insulted, slandered, and vexed, but nevertheless persevere in their high callings (Matt. 5:11–12).
And so, though they often suffered the ridicule and torments of the world, they remained steadfast, continued their course, and walked in grace. Like Ziwar, they were willing to risk all for the truth.
The fact is, our response to the “fragrance of oppression,” as historian Herbert Schlossberg has dubbed the persecutions of our world, is perhaps the single most significant indicator of the health and vitality of the church. It is “in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings” (2 Cor. 6:4–5) that our mettle is proven.
As Bounds said, “The easy smile, the temperate deportment, and the contented visage of successful and prosperous Christians can but impress few, but the determined faithfulness, the long-suffering fellowship, and the stalwart compassion of yokefellows in hardship is certain to convey the hope of grace to many.”
Everyone loves a winner. That’s not all bad—as long as our understanding of who the real winners are conforms to Biblical standards. But that’s the rub, isn’t it?
I loved Ziwar before. But now, he is my role model.