At times like these, when we hear almost daily of new massacres, new injustices around the world, we can let ourselves give in to a desire to give up. When facing the latest tragic event in a series of overwhelming suffering, we ask “how can I even start to pray about this?”
When I hear of Christians being killed for their faith, I draw strength from the story of Damaris Atsen, a persecuted Christian from Nigeria, whose inspiring testimony I heard at a recent event discussing persecution (watch video from 19:45 onward).
I could see the Holy Spirit’s joy and strength in her as she recounted her reliance on God after her husband had been murdered by militants.
He was helping a blind man find his way on a public street as Boko Haram approached their location. Boko Haram stabbed Damaris’s husband, and he died of his injuries. Damaris become practically suicidal, but her church comforted and prayed with her. Through the incredibly difficult ordeal of her husband’s senseless murder, she was sustained by the grace and power of God.
At times like these, when ISIS’ horrible actions are on display for all to see, I remember what God says about mankind: “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. . . . So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
At the beginning of creation, before man sinned, God created human beings in his image–all human beings–every human being to ever walk the face of the earth. They retain vestiges of this image despite their sin, no matter how horrible.
This includes murderers. This includes murderers of Christians. This includes followers of ISIS.
God created the followers of ISIS in His own image. They have inherent value by the fact that they are human beings, born men and women in God’s image. They have strayed from that image, as we all have. No doubt, they (and we) will ultimately have to give an account of our actions, but we must also forgive them. Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, describes his forgiveness of ISIS members for killing fellow Coptic Christians: “as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”
We must view the followers of ISIS in light of their inherent human dignity, and remember to pray for their salvation.
Why should this be so hard? The Apostle Paul himself “agreed completely with the killing of Stephen” as the people “rushed at [Stephen] and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:58-57, 8:1). Paul continued “uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers” (Acts 9:1).
But then the Lord appeared to Paul and converted him, making him a “chosen instrument to take [God’s] message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul was so feared for what he had done to Christians that Ananias was afraid to meet with him despite God’s command to do so: “‘But Lord,’ exclaimed Ananias, ‘I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name’” (Acts 9:13-14). Yet Ananias went to Paul, and the Apostle received the Holy Spirit and was baptized (Acts 9:17-18).
If this great former persecutor of Christians can be saved, great persecutors of Christians today can be saved.
We must bear in mind that the followers of ISIS are human beings searching for meaning, just as all human beings do. Only Jesus can give that to them. But we must remember to seek that for them, and pray toward that end.
We should therefore take heart and pray:
“Lord, let your kingdom come to the Middle East. Let it come to ISIS-controlled territory. Be glorified there. Let those who know you and are your followers hold on to their testimony. Give them your power to do that. Let those who don’t know you come to know you. God, nothing is too great for your power. That means that you have dominion over the hearts of ISIS followers, and you can turn their hearts to you. Please do that. Bring people in the Middle East into your kingdom, and let them be forgiven for their sins, as you forgive all of us.
God, we thank you for the Muslims and those of other faiths who have sheltered and aided the Christians where they are persecuted in the Middle East. We pray for the protection and safety of those who are providing such aid, and we pray you would comfort the people they shelter. We pray that peace would reign in that region and that all people in the Middle East would be able to live side-by-side in peace regardless of their different beliefs. Amen.”
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council where he has written about genocide in Iraq and Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim. He attends Redemption Hill Church.