About ten years ago a Muslim in Afghanistan named John was age 23, and married with a young son. John’s father, an important tribal chieftain and a leader in the Taliban terrorist group, sent John to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, so that he might make the pilgrimage required of Muslims. While there, two unexpected things happened. First, John became disillusioned with Islam, seeing for the first time many contradictions and problems in its teachings and practices. Second, John had a vivid dream in which he saw a Man with a shining face, dressed in dazzlingly white clothes. When John asked Him Who He was, the Man answered, “If I tell you Who I am, you will lose your religion and Mohammed as your prophet. You will lose your parents. You will lose the child you love. You will lose your relatives. You will lose your wealth. You will be homeless and without a country. John, if you don’t accept the loss of these things, you will never be able to find Me. What is your choice?” John answered, “If you tell me Your Name, I will believe in You.” The Man responded, “I am your God; I am Jesus Christ.”
When John awakened the next day, he felt like a new person, cleansed from his sins and given a new purpose in life. He returned home to Afghanistan and announced to his father that he was now a Christian. Infuriated, John’s father had his men lock John in a basement torture room, where over the next eighteen months he was beaten repeatedly. The captors put poisonous snakes in the room to attack John, but their bites had no effect on him; they also brought in a vicious guard dog, but immediately it became friendly with John. Nothing seemed to harm him, and he frequently dreamt of Jesus, Who reassured and consoled him. Finally his father had him released, but warned him to say nothing of Jesus to anyone. To John’s delight, his wife Mary revealed she had been praying for him, and that—because of dreams in which Jesus promised her husband would return to her, she had become a Christian too. In the months that followed, John—despite his father’s warning—spoke to others about Jesus whenever he could, and managed to convert his mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins. His infuriated father had him imprisoned again, but his mother secretly released him, gave him money, and begged him and Mary to flee, promising to take care of their two-year-old son. With great reluctance, they did so, going to a neighboring Muslim country. There they received many phone calls in which they were threatened with death by Islamic radicals, and warned that if they didn’t return to Afghanistan, their young son would be killed. Sadly, this threat was carried out, and when John’s mother and sisters objected, they were murdered by the Taliban, too.
The stress from all their grief, along with continued death threats, gravely endangered the life of the unborn child Mary was carrying—but after John prayed in the Name of Jesus, the child was delivered safely, and was named Isa—the Arabic name for Jesus. Father, mother, and child were all baptized as Christians, though it was necessary for them to flee six more times before finally finding refuge in a Western country (Voice of the Martyrs newsletter, January 2015). Sometimes following Jesus demands great sacrifices—but if this is our choice, we will be strengthened, and we will be blessed.
Anyone who thinks Jesus was merely a nice, likeable fellow, always smiling, saying nice things, and never making demands on anyone, needs to look carefully at the Gospel of Luke (12:49-53). Our Lord speaks of setting the world on fire in a spiritually painful way, breaking up families and bringing controversy and religious division. This is the nature of truth, which confronts us, convicts us, and often provokes a response of either grateful love or angry rejection. The prophet Jeremiah (38:4-6, 8-10) experienced this firsthand and the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1-4)—reminds us how Jesus Himself suffered—urges us to persevere, and not grow weary and lose heart. A stark choice is presented to us. We can go along with the crowd and take the path of least resistance, only to find ourselves on the broad and easy way that leads to hell, or we can follow the painful but joy-filled path of self-surrender and sacrifice that leads to the Kingdom of God. There are no other possibilities, and there are no shortcuts.
It is a wonderful thing if our families and loved ones also cherish and practice the Catholic Faith—and if that’s the case, we should certainly give thanks to God and count our blessings. Sadly, however, the situation is often quite different. Many families today settle for a bland and mediocre experience of religion; some have little or no religious commitment at all, and still others are even fiercely divided over religious issues. Throughout the world—even here in the United States—some Christians still suffer severely at the hands of radical Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and even nominal Christians; by putting Jesus first in their lives, they risk being insulted, rejected, disinherited, persecuted, and even killed. If we take our faith seriously, we too may be misunderstood, scorned, laughed at, not taken seriously, or blamed for causing trouble. A sincere and committed practice of our Catholic Faith is no longer politically correct, and we are even seeing increasingly ominous signs of a religious persecution coming over the next few years to the United States—something which previously would have been unthinkable.
If we were in John’s situation, what would we do? Would we be willing to give up almost everything—family, wealth, and home—in order to know and follow Jesus? Thankfully, we don’t have to do anything quite that radical—at least not yet—but the Lord does expect us to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to live out our faith. This might be something as simple as making the Sign of the Cross and saying the Grace before Meals in a restaurant while others stare at us, or as difficult as letting a lifelong friendship come to an end because we refuse to compromise our moral and religious values. We may need to miss out on fun and fellowship because we refuse to participate in morally-objectionable forms of entertainment, and we may find ourselves all alone in defending unpopular but unchanging teachings of the Church. These and other sacrifices may be difficult and painful, but the Lord will be with us, sustaining us and giving us a deep inner peace. In all things, we must pray for the Holy Spirit’s strength and guidance and strive to put God’s Will first—for only in this way will we remain true to Jesus, and one day be found worthy of entering His Kingdom.