Strangely, I have Islamic extremists to thank for the recent renewal of my faith and trust in Jesus.

DSC01124The abhorrent evil of their actions and all that they stand for naturally shocked me and led me to despair.  The small margin between their ideology and that of some people I meet in my own community brought the threat closer.

As a person of faith, I did a lot of soul searching – What is the real nature and source of this evil?  Where is God and… how can this be happening?

And I feared.  I feared for the future of my young daughter in this type of world, and for the very existence of what is now the most persecuted faith group worldwide – Christianity.  My faith.

And in fearing, I fell victim to the terrorist’s agenda.

Much of my fear was based on assumption.  I assumed that in the midst of destruction, beheadings, incomprehensible evil, all was hopeless for the victims, and there was no comfort.  My own latent doubts about God combined with the horrific reports on the news and led me to feel in the pit of my stomach that He was absent.  I saw the darkness growing, but not the light.

But then, I began to hear stories from the actual sufferers of persecution themselves.

The first was a few nights ago when I switched on the new TBN channel on freeview.  An Iranian lady, whose husband, a pastor, is detained and undergoing torture in Iran’s Evin jail.  She spoke of how she used to fear and suffer terrible anxiety.  Yet when her worst fear was fulfilled, she realised she really had nobody to turn to but Jesus.  And in turning to Him afresh she found a joy and peace even in the midst of the sorrow.  There was real weight to her words – the integrity born of suffering.  She said she no longer feared, nor felt the crushing anxiety.

It got my attention.  Fearful little me, who hasn’t even suffered like her.  Have I ever really known Jesus?  Not like that.  But I want to.  And her husband was leading people to Jesus even in that prison.  This Jesus must surely be more than a Sunday school slogan.

Then I heard of the brother of 2 Coptic Christian men beheaded in Libya, speaking of his pride in them, and the hope in his community: ‘ISIS helped us strengthen our faith…Since Roman times we as Christians have been targeted to be martyred.  This only helps us endure such crisis, because the Bible tells us to love our enemies, and bless those who curse us.’  He had a message of forgiveness towards the murderers.

Then the young Iraqi girl Myriam, whose family were driven out of the Mosul area by ISIS, saying ‘I don’t want revenge, I don’t want to kill them, I pray for them.’

And more: After the burning of churches that took place in Egypt over a year ago, the Christians held up a sign in their burned down church that read, “My terrorist brother, I came today to pray for you.” And the mother of a young girl who was shot and killed in front of her church, showing genuine forgiveness to her daughter’s murderers.  She declared on secular Egyptian TV that she not only forgives them, but prays that they would repent of their sins.

To love, to bless… to forgive?  Isn’t it madness to respond this way to such atrocities?  No:

It is the only real power that will end the madness.

Only love and forgiveness can change corrupted hearts, break the cycle of revenge, and bring hope to the oppressed.  And when such love is offered by the oppressed themselves, towards their corrupted oppressors, it has a power that cannot be ignored.

While false ideologies prepare their own demise through the spread of evil, love springs up and shows the way to hope.

This is the gospel, and the reason my faith is renewed.  It’s all about love and forgiveness, it always was.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. / Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. / For God so loved the world that He gave His only son…

And it all hinges on the person of Jesus himself.  The man whose actions matched his words, who loved right to the end – and beyond.  Who showed us the only way out of the madness, and was willing to walk that hard path Himself, to show us a hope beyond death.

In the midst of suffering in the Middle East, there are reports of people who never knew Christ before coming to find this real hope and love in Him.

I grew up a Christian, and took it all for granted.  In my young untroubled world I found some of the truth but not it’s depths.  Because I didn’t need it.  I hadn’t yet seen the bleakness of the alternatives: the inevitable evils of religion without love; or the Godless ideologies that elevate man’s limited reasoning so high it becomes foolishness.

Now I see afresh the hope I half-knew all along.  Not a vague idea nor a totalitarian system.  But a person to follow who has proven themselves trustworthy.  One who will never force Himself or be forced on anyone, yet welcomes all who come to Him.

More lately, instead of taking for granted these inherited beliefs, I want to know the real historical person of Jesus.  And for all my questions about the Old Testament etc, I simply cannot walk away from this person.  I used to be secretly annoyed at people going on about him – in connection with love, joy peace etc.  For as long as these things were not real to me, I judged them to be spoken in hypocrisy, and his name to be invoked with shallowness, by people just repeating what they were taught.

Yet the more I study His life and words for myself, the more I meet with Him in prayer, and the more I try to follow his example, I find myself ever more captivated by Him.  And those blessings becoming my own.  His integrity, consistency, compassion, wisdom – they challenge me, and keep bringing me back.  And above all His love.  It is our only hope.  He is our only hope.