The Cost of Following Jesus
By Anne B. Doll
When a Gordon-Conwell graduate returned to his native Ethiopia after completing his degree in New Testament, he knew full well he would face religious persecution. He had lived in its shadow for most of his life.
“If you follow Christ, you should expect suffering,” he comments matter-of-factly. “We are all called to bear our cross. If our Lord was persecuted, who won’t be persecuted?”
Now the leader of a Christian school in Ethiopia, he accepted Christ in high school during Communism’s grip on Ethiopia. Throughout those perilous years, all churches were closed, and government-sponsored persecution prevailed. “For 17 years, the persecution from the Communist regime was very, very difficult,” he recalls. “So many people were tortured, imprisoned and beaten. They were attacked because of their faith so that they would recant and say, ‘There is no God.’”
Those who refused to recant “paid a high price,” he adds. “So many people died during the Communist time.” As a university student, he and fellow Christians experienced intense persecution first-hand, especially from the Communist student association. “Because of the Communist ideology, we were not allowed to declare our faith, to worship God openly,” he explains. “We were not allowed to pray in the cafeteria or in our dormitories. We could not sing, or do anything that was religious, and we were highly followed by the student association.” As a freshman, he faced a defining moment in his faith journey when he and several fellow Christians were called before the dean of students to face charges by the student association that they were “anti-Communism, unpatriotic and had been hired by imperialist America.” The purpose of the charges was to have the Christians dismissed from the university and even sent to prison.
The night before their meeting with the dean, the students gathered to pray. Many were frightened, particularly because some of their friends, facing similar harassment, had abandoned their faith. The believers also knew that university expulsion would forestall any future opportunities for employment.
“That was scary personally for me,” he says. “At that time, I was a younger man. I trusted in the Lord. I believed in the Lord. I knew he was my Savior, and I did not believe in the Communist ideology. But now I was in a situation: to follow Jesus or deny my faith.”
The next day, when the group appeared before the dean, she looked at the list of accusations by the Communist student association and finally asked, “What are you going to say about this?” The students replied, “We will not deny our faith. We will not deny Christ. You can expel us from the university, but we will continue worshipping the Lord.”
Impressed by the students’ response, she commented, “I know that you are very faithful and honest students, and they are jealous of you—jealous of your performance. So the only thing I would advise you is: please be wise in your worship and don’t expose yourself to these dangers.”
The alumnus suffered yet another assault when he graduated from the university. Included in a standard reference letter affirming that he had met all requirements was an addendum: “But we want to mention that he is a follower of a cult.” Evangelicals were seen as cultists.
Looking back, he says that growing up under Communism “was good, because it refined our faith. It purified us. At that time, we were worshipping underground. Many people lost their eyes. Their arms were amputated. Some paid their lives. We have experienced all of this.”
When Communism fell in 1991, millions of Ethiopians came to the Lord—approximately 14 percent of the population. But persecution did not end. Today in Ethiopia, two religious groups are recognized as official religions: the 35 percent comprising the traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the 35 to 40 percent who are Muslims. Persecution is waged by both groups when their members convert to Christianity. As he says, “The two groups call it ‘sheep stealing.’”
Converts from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are ostracized, threatened, attacked and beaten, and their homes are burned, especially in rural areas. Converts from Islam face even harsher persecution.
“The Lord is bringing thousands of Muslim converts into his Kingdom,” he explains. “When these Muslims become Christians, they experience serious persecution from their family members and friends.”
Persecution can include ostracism—a hardship in a country where identity is found in the community. Converts may also suffer loss of property such as cattle, destruction of their harvests and the burning of their homes. “If again they endure,” he says, “the radical Islamic fundamentalists tell the local authorities that the converts are anti- government so that they can be imprisoned. All this so that people will abandon their beliefs.”
New believers are cautioned not to expose their faith and immediately join a local evangelical church, and some continue to attend services in their mosques, becoming part of what he calls an “Insider’s Movement.” But if new believers are identified, they are warned by Christians not to stay in the area because some converts have been poisoned. Others have disappeared and are assumed dead.
“Islam is a very, very strong religion,” he comments. “People are like in iron bars. It’s very hard to penetrate. But what is happening in Ethiopia is that some people are coming to the Lord through dreams and visions. Sometimes the Lord himself appears and tells them this is the right way.”
He says this happened recently to a young college student. “She was tied with a strong rope and somehow the Lord untied her in the night, and she escaped through a window. She took a bus and came to the city and asked the Christians for shelter.” Eventually, her new Christian friends may be able to send her back to college.
“Muslim converts in Ethiopia nowadays are paying a high, high price,” he says. “The most important thing is to help them endure through this persecution. It’s knowing the truth. Once they see the light, it is very hard for them to turn their backs. So when they come out of Islam, our graduates who are ministering to Muslims tell them that following Jesus has a cost. They warn them, ‘You will be persecuted.’ But compared to knowing Jesus and the price they pay, it is nothing.”
How do Ethiopian Christians like this Gordon-Conwell graduate hold firm under such persecution? “The Holy Spirit helps you to stand in those difficult circumstances,” he replies. “When you make that decision [to stand], you know that there is nothing above the Lord, that if they take your property, they kill you, absolutely your life is in the hands of the Lord. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8, ‘nothing will separate [you] from the love of Christ.’
“So it’s knowing God. It’s knowing His love and what He paid on the cross, the price He paid for us in redeeming us. It’s having a Heavenly mindset, knowing that you are in God’s Kingdom, that this earthly kingdom is temporary and that this persecution will pass.”
He urges fellow Christians to pray for their brothers and sisters in Eritrea, where severe persecution by the government is rampant, and 3,500 are imprisoned for their faith in Jesus.
He also seeks prayer for his school. Many students come from poor churches that cannot support them, and occasionally go for several days without food. After graduation, they return to the same poor churches and serve without pay.
Teachers at the school also suffer privation. But what sustains them, he says, is “the fruit we see. Our graduates go out, and they minister the Lord. And when we see the Kingdom of God stretched across Ethiopia and other countries because of the ministry of our graduates, it keeps us going. We need your prayers.”
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