A Sudanese judge convicted Mariam Yahya Ibrahim of apostasy and offered the eight-months pregnant mother three days to abandon her Christian faith and “return” to Islam (she was born to a Christian mother and a long-absent Muslim father).
The judge also revoked her marriage, convicted her of adultery for marrying a Christian man, and sentenced her to 100 lashes.
For refusing to renounce her Christian faith, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Two weeks after sentencing, she gave birth to her daughter in prison with her legs chained.
Thanks to international outrage and a skilled team of Muslim and Christian advocates, Mariam is now free in Sudan. The case highlights the need to repeal unjust laws that deny fundamental freedoms and universal human rights, and there are many with whom we partner who are working tirelessly towards this noble aim.
As I consider the myriad cases around the world like Mariam’s, however, I cannot help but ponder an age-old theological question.
Why does God allow such suffering?”
This latest example provides another exhortation to Christians, especially relatively free and wealthy Christians, to contemplate their own “theology of suffering.”
Many people assume that God wants us to have a safe, comfortable life. This thinking is prevalent today, as has been the case for thousands of years. When people saw Christ’s physical suffering on the cross, they assumed that God was punishing Him (Isaiah 53:4).
Contrary to this thinking, however, God teaches us to expect that:
- His followers will be persecuted. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” – 2 Timothy 3:12 (see also: Matthew 10:19, 22-23; John 15:18, 20)
- Being a Christ-follower requires self-denial and sacrifice. “Then Jesus said to his disciple, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’” – Matthew 16:24-25
- Sharing in Christ’s suffering is an honor. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” – 1 Peter 4:12-14, 16, 19 (see also: Acts 5:41; Romans 8:16-17; Philippians 3:8,10; 2 Thessalonians 1:5)
- Suffering for the spread of the Gospel demonstrates Christ’s suffering love for sinners to a watching world.“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” – Colossians 1:24
As I prepare to travel to Sudan next week, I will be unable to provide encouragement to those who are suffering unless I have a faith that speaks to their reality – often a harsh reality. While we should never seek out suffering, if God’s promises of persecution and the inherent honor of suffering for Christ are true, I can be praying that our brothers and sisters will remain faithful to God in the midst of their pain… that they will not deny him…
That they will suffer well.
I can remind them that God hates the suffering brought about by sin so much and had so much compassion on us that he sent his only son to step into our suffering with us. Jesus suffered an agonizing death at the hands of his own creation so that he could take away suffering and death once and for all (John 16:33). I can thus cry out with my friends for Jesus to come quickly!
In the meantime, we do not relent in fighting against injustices that bring about so much unnecessary suffering. Jesus’s life provides the model of an activist’s faith.
We are not callous to the pain around us and the people and systems that contribute to such suffering. We believe that the fruit of our labor will be manifestations – even if only in small glimpses – of a glorious kingdom where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelations 21:4).
Finally, Mariam’s case serves as a reminder to global Christians that we are called to “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).
We do not know why certain followers of Christ are called to bear the cross of suffering and imprisonment and others are not. We can, however, pray for these men and women as we would want to be prayed for if we were in a similar situation.
When greater persecution and suffering comes to us (and God promises that it will), hopefully we will respond with the faith and courage of Mariam Yahia Ibrahim.
If we do not pray for Mariam and others like her now, who will pray for us when it is our turn to suffer for Christ?
The principal contributor for this article is a trusted leader of an African-led peacebuilding and leadership development organization. Due to the sensitive nature of her work, she has requested to remain anonymous.
 See John Piper, Called to Suffer and Rejoice: To Finish the Aim of Christ’s Afflictions, Aug. 30, 1992, available at www.desiringgod.org.