Ultimate Cost of Discipleship
wife and I first met Bonny Weatherall at All
Saints Anglican Church in
Beirut, Lebanon. A committed American Christian, and a qualified
midwife, she and her Australian husband were working with “Operation
Mercy” in the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon. The old
city has existed since the days of the Old Testament prophets.
Tradition says that Jesus visited Sidon. More recently, the area
around Sidon has been linked to Islamic organisations such as Hamas
and Islamic Jihad.
visited Sidon on numerous occasions and always felt welcome.
However, concerns often were raised about militancy in the nearby Ein
el Hilweh Palestinian Camp. (Large numbers of Palestinians,
displaced from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 and not
allowed to return, live in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Gulf
three years Bonnie had worked in Sidon on a voluntary basis, serving
women from Ein el Hilweh and teaching them nursing skills. She spoke
of the love she felt for women in the area and the fact that this
stage of her life was committed to helping them. Bonnie felt her
life could make a difference and, like other Christians we knew,
served the inhabitants of the camps out of her love for Christ.
in the morning of 21 November 2002, Bonnie answered the door of her
office at the health clinic and was confronted by an unidentified
man. Without warning he produced a 7-millimetre pistol and shot her
three times in the head. She died on the spot. In the aftermath of
her murder a number of organisations made claims impugning her
motives for helping Palestinians and attributed her death to Islamic
justice. Evangelical church leaders made an effort to convey to
local leaders the fact that they saw beyond the tragic event and
wanted to demonstrate the love of Christ. Police claimed they were
unable to conclude whether killing Bonnie was an anti-American
statement (a number of attacks had been made against American outlets
since earlier in the year and anti-American feelings were running
high in the context of discussions about a possible invasion of
Iraq). Whatever the spin others put on the event, the only reason
Bonnie was in Sidon was because she believed Jesus had called her to
serve him in Lebanon. She had been there long enough for her work to
be well known and her face recognised in the street. Strict Muslims
approved of her death, regardless of the humanitarian work she was
carrying out, because she was not a Muslim and was having an
influence on Muslim women and children.
Western diplomats in Beirut, swayed by (and echoing) what I knew to
be anti-Christian propaganda put out by the Muslim Governor of Sidon,
told me they thought Bonnie was unwise operating in the region. I
think they missed the point completely. Bonnie knew threats existed
but had consciously made a decision to be a witness for Jesus despite
the potential reactions. “They loved not their lives unto
death” (Revelation 12:11). Madness? In the eyes of the world,
certainly, but in God’s sight esteemed as a consequence of
following Christ in the shadow of the cross.
wants to be a “witness?
I was a boy I read a brochure about missionary life and work and told
my friends that I wanted to go to Zambia as a missionary. I learned
all I could about men like David Livingstone, explorers,
missionaries, doctors, walking through jungle and savannah, facing
constant threats of disease, physical attack and wild animals,
opening up an unknown continent to European missionary endeavour.
Years later I stood at the tomb of Livingstone in Westminster Abbey
and marvelled at the courage of people who gave all they had to
spread the Gospel. I visited the Anglican Cathedral in Lusaka and
saw proof that the faithful work of those first missionaries, many of
whom died in the process, was still bearing fruit long after they
being a witness isn’t just emulating pioneers, but living for
Christ where we. Around the same time, friends of my father who were
serving as missionaries in the north-east of the Congo became
bystanders in a civil war that took the lives of thousands of
Congolese. Soon after gaining independence on 30 June 1960,
conflicts broke out. Secessionist moves by rebels in the mining
province of Katanga, combined with inter-tribal violence,
anti-communist sentiment, economic turmoil and a mutiny in the army
led to the assassination of the first President, Patrice Lumumba, and
United Nations intervention. For four years problems simmered
beneath the surface, only to re-emerge in 1964 in the form of an
uprising by rebels calling themselves “simbas (Swahili for
“lion”). Foreign missionaries working in the country
(many missionaries remained long after the departure of Western
businesspeople) became targets. They had remained, convinced God had
called them to make every sacrifice, including their own lives if
necessary, to share his love with unbelievers. More than one hundred
missionaries lost their lives, bludgeoned to death, including my
said, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Christians
everywhere are happy to sign on to being his witnesses. What few
realise is that the Greek word for “witness” is
“martyrus”, the root of our word “martyr”.
Now who wants to be a witness, if it incurs the risk of pain and
suffering? Who is eager to give their testimony if they might be
called upon to deny what they testify to, under threat of penalty of
promised His followers they would experience persecution: “If
they persecuted me, they will also persecute you… But all
these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because
they do not know the One who sent me” (John.15:20). Paul
reminded Timothy that those who live Godly lives for Christ will
experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
I was growing up, “Fox’s Book of Martyrs” was
popular in Christian circles. As I read stories of Christians being
tortured and giving up their lives for Christ I often wondered what
it would be like to suffer for my faith. I’ll admit I don’t
like pain, but there was something appealing about these men and
women (some were children) laying everything down for Jesus. If
there were Christians who took literally Jesus call to take up their
cross and follow him, as a mark of true discipleship, they were the
heroes, the best.
took their lives into their own hands, virtually carrying nooses,
bullets and other instruments of death and following Jesus as far as
it was humanly possible to do so.
continue to be persecuted
numbers of Christians are suffering for their faith in Christ. More
believers have been martyred during the past hundred years than in
the previous nineteen hundred. The collapse of the Soviet Union has
not diminished the threat, just redirected it in line with the growth
of anti-Christian forces linked to Islam, Hinduism and other faiths.
last time I met with “David” he explained that his next
goal was to get into Afghanistan and help Christian workers. Due to
complex circumstances, he ultimately ended up in jail in Iran facing
the possibility of a death sentence. David had travelled into Iran
from Turkmenistan for a brief contact visit and was detained on the
way out of the country. Escorted back to Tehran, he was told his
activities as a Christian were regarded as serious and that he would
be charged under espionage laws that outlawed fomentation of social
unrest. For many weeks we prayed and lobbied for his release. He
was eventually allowed out of Iran, following high level
representations, but those he left behind had no such protection. We
thanked God for his release but soberly considered other Christians
in Iran, who are arrested, beaten and sometimes die for their faith
martyrs today are Westerners and most suffer without the rest of the
world knowing anything about it – or caring. Sometimes they
are attacked because they do not comply when authorities forbid
Christian gatherings. (I have had to go elaborate ends to meet with
Christians leaders in North Africa, not because they posed a threat
to society but because the paranoid totalitarian Islamist authorities
did not entertain Christian activities.) Such gatherings are
labelled subversive by dictatorial governments that do not allow
independent thought on the part of cowed citizens. Christian belief
flies in the face of secularist or cult value systems. Sudanese
Christian leaders I have met over time have spoken with sorrow about
the pain that continues to be visited on Christians in the south of
his country, as the government in Khartoum tries to Arabize and
Islamize the country. The civil war there has raged for thirty years
and most suffering on the part of the church has gone unnoticed.
believe they are commanded by Scripture to obey their rulers, but
they also look for a higher “kingdom” whose builder and
maker is God (cf Hebrews 11:10), not an earthly utopia. Others are
targeted because they evangelize in the name of Christ. They posit
their actions on Peter’s bold declaration, “We must obey
God rather than man” (Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29). Accepting that
alone Jesus is “the way, and the truth and the life” (Jn.
14:6), his disciples are rejected, ridiculed, threatened and
antagonised by other religions and even alienated their own families.
Still others are targeted simply because they are Christians.
such societies it is often illegal (or at least culturally
unacceptable) to turn from the officially sanctioned religion and
embrace Christian faith; such actions are regarded as apostasy and
are interpreted as unconstitutional or disloyal. A handful of
societies prescribe the death penalty for conversion – and
those who are instrumental in winning converts to Christ.
can our faith be relevant in a world where Christians are arrested,
imprisoned; tortured and killed for their faith? After all, if one
suffers we all suffer. Those who do so are brothers and sisters in
Christ. And what is the most appropriate response? The enemies of
Christ want the chastened church to comply by shutting up shop and
moving away. However, there are alternatives.
ultimate cost of discipleship
Rohan Dissanayeke visited our church in Canberra he and his wife,
Alison, were excited about sharing their faith in his native Sri
Lanka. Having visited South Asia, I was enthralled by Rohan’s
vision to reach polytheistic Hindus working in tea plantations with
the Gospel of the Only God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Imagine the
reaction in our community when we learned that Rohan had been killed.
He was driving back from a prayer meeting with friends in Sri Lanka,
when he was pulled over by Tamil Tigers who mistook his identity and
riddled the car with bullets. Rohan knew that being a witness for
Jesus Christ in a part of the world that was in turmoil because of a
long-standing insurgency posed personal danger. He did not expect to
die for his faith, but it happened. After returning to Australia for
a period, Alison made the bold decision to go back to Sri Lanka and
continue his work.
Hindu groups have been blamed for escalating anti-Christian violence
in India over recent years. Countless numbers of Christians suffer
persecution and death for their commitment to following Christ. You
will not read their stories in the West, but they are martyrs, living
and dying to proclaim Christ, considering their lives of little value
compared to making Him known.
Westerners are attacked and the world becomes aware of the threat.
Graham Staines was a distant cousin by marriage and our family had
followed his progress in India with interest. He worked with lepers
in the eastern Indian state of Orissa for nearly 30 years. One night
he paid the supreme price of living and working for Christ. He and
his sons Phillip and Timothy were sleeping in their station wagon
outside a hospital near the remote village of Manoharpur, 600 miles
south of New Delhi on January 23 when militants attacked them. The
mob prevented Staines and the boys from getting out of the vehicle
while some of their number stuffed straw inside and under the car and
set fire to it. Their deaths shocked Christians and aid workers
around the world. Leaders of India’s 23 million Christians and
hundreds of Hindu lepers took part in the funeral procession.
long after the murders, Graham’s wife Gladys made public
statements saying that she forgave the killers and remained committed
to continuing her husband’s work, in spite of her loss, family
pressures to return to Australia, the task of raising their daughter
and repeated threats against her safety. "We have to work and
show that Jesus is worth dying for.” What amazing courage.
People who do not understand her commitment to Christ question the
wisdom of remaining in India. Her position is unequivocal: "Hindus
and other non-Christians have stopped me and asked me how and why I
did that. But that is the Christianity we are asked to practice.
Although death stares at my face, I know that Christ lives in me, and
I live because of Him. And as long as he continues to give me life,
I will carry on the work that is ahead of me in Baripada. I am now
an Indian at heart, and this is where I will ask the Lord to call me
“Come and die”
does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? It implies
that, as His followers, we no longer “own” our lives?
For every believer, life’s circumstance and the guidance of the
Holy Spirit will show us how to be true witnesses, even when there is
no clear and present physical threat.
Jesus can also involve suffering simply because we say “yes”
to Him. The deaths of dozens of Sweden’s finest young
Christians on a summer outreach in 1994 are a case in point.
in Estonia is beautiful. It never seems to get dark. Sunny days
stand in contrast to dark, cold snowy winter days that never seem to
end. For the Estonian Pentecostal churches in the early 1990s this
was the best time of the year to set up huge tents across the city
and organise great evangelistic rallies with good music, friendship
and dynamic preaching. The country’s independence in 1989,
following the collapse of the Soviet Union, had provided an enormous
fillip for evangelism and church planting. Estonian Christians
living abroad returned to help national churches make an historic
impact for God in the life of the nation. Teams from around the
world came to help.
the summer of 1994 Christian groups from Sweden, including numerous
members of the same Bible College and one of the country’s top
evangelists descended on the larger cities on Estonia for what were
to be memorable days and nights of Christian witness, conversions,
baptisms and church planting. All too soon the outreach was over and
they set sail for home, looking forward to being reunited with loved
ones and opportunities to relate what God had done through their
ministry. Many of them would not make it.
the early morning of 28 September, news reports began to filter out,
indicating that a ship had sunk in the Baltic Sea. It soon became
clear that the doomed vessel was the giant 15,000-ton Estonia,
the pride of the nation’s merchant fleet. The ship had
foundered in bad weather and sunk,
with hundreds of people trapped inside.
to the Estonian Foreign Ministry, 1,049 people were on the ship when
it capsized. Rescue services from nearby Finland did what they
could, but the official toll eventually stood at 844 people. The
real figure was much higher, as officials admitted many children were
not registered as passengers. A hundred and forty people were saved
from the frigid waters; many died because of exposure to the cold.
Most passengers perished inside the darkened hull, as it was flooded
with water. It took less than forty minutes for the vessel to go
down. Most of the bodies were never recovered.
revealed that enormous waves lashing the ship had torn off the 56-ton
bow door. An inner door was also broken off and the open sea rushed
across the decks. During the fifteen minutes it took for the Estonia
to capsize there was chaos everywhere. Furniture became detached and
crushed people. Lights were extinguished. Stairwells filled with
water, blocking escape routes and drowning those below. Only a few
passengers managed to escape before the ship submerged and sank.
Life jackets were hard to find; lifeboats overturned. People froze
to death in the bitterly cold water before rescuers could get to
them. The nation was plunged into grieving.
one morning in the grounds of the Estonian Bible College in Suurupi I
stood alone and in awe in front of the memorial to Swedish team
members who had died on the Estonia.
What a loss! How could God allow this to happen? Estonian
Christians I met told me someone on the team had had a vision about
impending disaster. Reading down the list of names, I thought of
loved ones, work colleagues, church members, villages affected by the
disaster. I thought about the impact the group had had in churches
and tents around the tiny country in the days leading up to their
departure. They were not martyrs in the classical sense, condemned
because of their faith, but it was that faith that created the
circumstances that led to their deaths. Each one had perished
because he or she had chosen to be a witness, a martyrus
for Jesus Christ, that the world might know He loved them. “For
me to live is Christ; to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). As I
stood by the memorial a Christian couple came up beside me. “We
are worried about your trip to Helsinki.” The event was fresh
in their minds. “But we know God is in control”. At the
end of the day, that counted more than any human consolation.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”
(Psalm 116:15). God knows our future; at the end of the day we can
trust him with our lives.
told us to count the cost of following him (Matthew 16:24; Luke
14:27-33). “For whoever will save his life shall lose it; and
whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew
16:25). The challenge for the rest of us, as world Christians
seeking to be relevant and make a difference in our day, is to count
the cost before we brashly claim that we will follow Jesus anywhere,
not to baulk at the price and stop there, but go forward in faith for
the willingness of men and women more in love with Jesus Christ than
their lives, and prepared to spare nothing they hold dear to declare
His love in a world that is without eternal hope, will maintain the
relevance of the Gospel in the face of hostility in the coming