About six years ago I was asked by a friend to intercede for twenty-two men in an Islamic country. These men were among the first Christian converts in an area dominated by Muslim extremists. With a growing number of followers of Jesus in this region, these brothers had been chosen for seminary-level training in preparation for ordination. Since they could not attend a conventional school, they met in secret for one week each month, changing locations frequently to avoid detection.
Within six months of receiving that assignment, two of these men had died a martyr’s death. The loss of these two brothers and the high stakes for those who remained forced me to plead with God like the disciples of Jesus: “Lord, teach me to pray!” In answer to that prayer, God has taught me five lessons that enable me to pray meaningfully for my Muslim background brothers and many others in the persecuted Church.
1. Wait upon the Lord
The first lesson I had to learn emerged out of Jesus’ agony on the night he was betrayed. Knowing he was going to the cross, Christ asked his three closest companions to “keep watch with me.” Instead, they slept. Jesus pleaded with Peter: “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). “Watch and pray” he urged them. But what were they watching for? Jesus said Peter should pray he would not fall into temptation. Somehow, by watching Jesus, Peter would see and learn from our Lord’s struggle.
In If Ye Shall Ask, Oswald Chambers wrote of Gethsemane, saying:
“Tarry ye here, and watch with me.” Is my idea of prayer based on the keen watching that Jesus Christ asked of his disciples? These three men were taken and appointed by our Lord for one purpose—to see his agony. … He did not put them there to go to sleep; he put them there to wait and watch. … He took these three with him to see the unveiling of his heart—and they slept for their own sorrow.
As I have traveled to the persecuted Church, particularly in the Muslim world, I have frequently prayed this prayer: “Lord, may I see what you see, hear what you hear, love what you love, hate what you hate, and feel what you feel.”
I remember an early glimpse God revealed of his perspective: I was dining in Bethlehem with a distinguished professor of Islam and I took advantage of the opportunity to ask him many questions about the practice of his faith. When I asked him about the Hajj—the pilgrimage every Muslim is required to take at least once in his lifetime—I discovered he had led three groups to Mecca and Medina.
For the next hour he described all of the preparation: pilgrims need to ask forgiveness of anyone they have hurt or offended, to pay off their debts, and to read and meditate on the Quran. Then, during their journey they must behave perfectly—if they curse or get angry at another pilgrim, they have failed and might as well stop and go home. At that moment, I felt a deep compassion in my heart, realizing that many Muslims were trying hard to please God through their efforts. This professor knew nothing about grace. That insight led me to pray for him and develop a long-term friendship. It also helped me to realize that many Muslims who persecute Christians believe they are pleasing God by their actions. As a result, I pray for the persecutors—that, like Saul who became Paul, they might see Jesus.
2. Use the Psalms as Your Prayer Book
As a boy, I participated in a famous church choir which sang through the Psalms every month. We tended to judge a psalm by its length—the shorter the better. Today, I see the Psalms as a rich treasure trove to guide my prayer life. Usually I pray through three each day, with at least one dedicated to my friends in the persecuted Church.
For example, following Psalm 55, I pray: “Listen to my prayer, O God…. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught” (55:1). Although I often have limited information about my suffering brothers and sisters, I can be fairly sure that most of them have troubled thoughts. David goes on to proclaim that the terrors of death assail him, and I know that those I pray for face death threats, sometimes daily. “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert” (55:6-7). Surely my friends have such thoughts—who wouldn’t yearn for escape from the threats and attacks of Muslim fundamentalists?
Then David complains about how he was betrayed by a close friend. That drives me to pray for the community of believers which often meets in secret—that there will not be a “Judas” among them. David concludes: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall.” Here’s a promise I can claim for my brothers. “Lord, may they cast all their cares on you. Sustain them; do not let them fall.”
There is one Psalm, 119, that takes three to four days to pray through. I focus on those brothers who are preparing for ordination. They are studying the word of God and this Psalm helps me pray specifically for their studies, and that the word would go deep into their hearts.
3. Pray as You Watch the News
As I write this article a bomb exploded in Islamabad, killing at least six. Looking at the pictures, I glimpse a burned-out car with an icthus fish on it. I ask: “Was the owner in that car?” I wonder about the effect this latest explosion may have on my brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
The stream of bad news from around the world is almost constant. If it’s not natural disasters, there are wars waged by corrupt dictators or suicide bombings. I’ve learned to ask with each news report: “Is there a church?” Almost certainly there are fellow believers affected by every event. That motivates me to pray.
Sometimes I know someone in the affected area. A couple of years ago there was a suicide bombing at a shopping mall in Netanya, Israel. I knew there was a messianic congregation near there and I emailed one of the leaders to see how they were doing. Fortunately, no one there was hurt this time. But I know there have been attacks on these believers in the past, so I was reminded to pray again for my Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel.
4. Pray Constantly
One day, as I was having coffee with my friend Paul, I noted a horrific news story and mused, “How do we possibly pray about this?” Paul reminded me that the Church has always had a prayer for such situations: “Lord, have mercy.” When words fail, that prayer seems to say much. I’ve found myself using it often.
Sometimes, even those words seem to stick in my throat. When my friend calls from South Asia to tell me several brothers died in a suicide bombing, only tears and an inner groaning seem to be my prayer. I’m reminded that I don’t have to find the perfect words for prayer. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” says Paul. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).
5. Give Thanks for the Persecuted Church
Recently, I visited with some Muslim background believers in Egypt, and I asked them how we in the West could pray for them. “Please don’t pray for us,” they answered. “Please pray with us.”
I was confused by this answer, so one of them explained: “If you pray for us, you will pray for the wrong things. You will pray for our safety. You will pray that persecution will cease. But if you pray with us, you will ask God to bring millions of Egyptians to faith in Christ. You will pray that when the inevitable Muslim backlash comes because of our witness, we will be faithful, even if it costs us our lives.”
I left that meeting amazed at the strong faith of these brothers, and thanked God for their words. How many of us would boldly witness for Christ if we knew it could cause our arrest, torture, or even death. Yet they were joyful and eager to see God produce a harvest of souls among Muslims.
The persecuted Church needs our prayers. But we also need their example. Often, they have told me that they pray for the Western Church—that we will be faithful to Christ in the midst of our materialism and the numerous temptations of our culture. We need their prayers, not least because they need for us to be strong in our faith in order to stand with them. Together we are one body—suffering together and rejoicing together.