What if we were praying for the people of ISIS?
The reverse of good is evil. The light will always have its dark; virtue always has its menacing vice. In the past, it’s been easier to identify the enemy, the evil, than in the present. In the mid-1900s, it was easy to see Germany and the Axis powers as the foes which deserved all our attention and might. But ever since 2001 and the bombing of the World Trade Centers by Al-Qaeda terrorists, our enemy hasn’t surfaced quite as distinctly. This is due to a number of factors, most of which I don’t intend to address here and now, but the organic and religious nature of Islam certainly plays a (significant) role. It’s not a people group that’s causing this terror, it’s a faith group; it’s not a race of individuals, it’s a number of sold out persons who’ve believed with engrossing passion a comprehensive religion (albeit a false one). That’s why when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (that is, “ISIS”) revealed themselves, a greater sense of nationalism and patriotism ensued. There was a glaring, identifiable, controversial adversary upon which to channel our campaign against terrorism. Their reprehensible displays of violence, torture, and execution, along with rampant war crimes and ethnic cleansing programs further engaged the national psyche to champion the cause of freedom.
But I wonder, what would happen if one of the leaders of ISIS suddenly got saved? What would happen if one of participants in those deplorable beheading, fear-mongering propaganda clips suddenly outed himself as a Christian? What if he was struck with the redeeming, forgiving, rescuing, transforming, empowering, and delivering mercy? And what would happen if, after renouncing his former life, he went to all surrounding cities and provinces and countries preaching the unadulterated gospel of grace? Started planting churches? Started seeing people saved? What would our reaction be to such a story? Do you believe it can happen? Do you really believe that the Triune God can still rescue lost souls as depraved as this? Because, you know, he already has!
He’s done it before!
Do you remember the story of Saul? He’s the Pharisee that became an apostle and went on to become, perhaps, the greatest missionary this world has ever seen, as well as being the writer of the majority of your New Testament. Saul was a ruthlessly religious Pharisee, devout student of the law, and ardent seeker of justice for those who embraced “The Way.” (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14) These who followed this “way of God” (Acts 18:25–26) were counted as heretics and dissenters from true religion, and, therefore, they were persecuted.
Saul first appears in the Scriptures at the close of Acts 7, where we’re given the account of Stephen’s death. “Then they cast [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58) We’re also told that Saul endorsed this action, confirming and consenting to Stephen’s callous execution. (Acts 8:1) This evidently triggered something in Saul as it’s reported that he ravaged Christians, storming their houses and dragging them off to prison. (Acts 8:3) He fashioned quite a reputation for himself, persecuting and wreaking havoc and violence on the Church. (Acts 9:13, 21; 22:4; 22:19; 26:10–11; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6; 1 Tm 1:13) I don’t always have a vivid picture of this type of unparalleled oppression. Being raised in the United States, I’ve never been made to endure anything close to this level of persecution. But to truly grasp the terror Saul dealt, if the Words of Scripture aren’t apparent enough, reflect on the conditions during World War II.
The Nazi regime governed everything by fear. By intimidation and malevolence, they dominated nearly all of Europe, treating the Jews as pariahs and attempting to exterminate an entire people group. Hitler’s most ominous henchmen, the German SS, conducted countless horrific, gruesome acts upon men, women, children, demolishing homes and destroying them forever by means of affliction and decimation. What’s more, the level of terror and hatred we feel for the goons of ISIS as they behead innocent lives and conjure a level of nearly unmatched global unrest, is the selfsame dread that would’ve accompanied Saul as he breathed “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1)
Picture Saul similarly. He, too, overran homes and doled out incomprehensible and inhumane brutality on followers of this Jesus of Nazareth. And yet, this isn’t how we remember him. We know him as Paul, the apostle of Christ and minister of the gospel. But how did we get from Saul the ruthless terrorist to Paul the preacher of mercy? One boundless word: grace!
Never beyond his reach.
The Word of God really is his story of grace in our lives. Every line displays for us more and more of the Godhead’s everlasting mercy and immeasurable forgiveness. The rhythm of the Bible is divine love for the wayward, the weary, the lost, the broken, the wretched, and the wrecked. (1 Tm 1:14-15; Eze 34:11; 34:16; Is 61:1; Lk 4:18-19; 19:10; Mt 9:12-13) Paul’s story, then, of conversion from malevolence to missions (Acts 9:1-20), is the surest evidence that you’re never beyond God’s reach of grace. Indeed, “the higher that the tide of iniquity has swelled, the higher has grace risen, far surmounting the utmost heights of sin; the wider that wickedness has spread its hideous circle, the wider has grace stretched her far ampler compass, proving that there is not one spot on this ruined world, even ‘the ends of the earth,’ nor one being of the fallen race on this side of hell, to which in its boundless reach it cannot extend.”
What is seen in the apostle Paul’s salvation is immense, wonder-working power of divine grace, which is able to vile, loathsome sinners into humble, righteous saints. In fact, the wretched are with whom grace delights — in them, it receives the higher honor, the greater glory! God’s gospel of fathomless grace chiefly concerns itself with great and glaring sinners. It takes pleasure in canceling their criminal records to impute to them by faith the perfect record of Christ. (Col 2:13–14)
You’re never too far gone for God. You can never out-sin the coverage of Christ’s forgiveness. You’re never outside the jurisdiction of Jesus’s redemption. Whether you’re ISIS lackey, a corrupt businessman, an unfaithful wife, a pathological liar, a porn junkie, notwithstanding your sin, you’re whom God aims to rescue by his grace! “If the bridge of grace will carry the elephant it will certainly carry the mouse. If the mercy of God could bear with the hugest sinners it can have patience with you.”
Grace abounds for you. (Rom 5:20) Grace abounds for all. No life is too despicable for grace to reclaim. Once we’re made to feel our own sense of ruin, we’ll never imagine again that any person is too fallen to be rescued nor think their situation utterly devoid of hope. This is why we must be in perpetual prayer for all lost sinners. Yes, even those monstrous leaders of ISIS. (Mt 5:44–45) Don’t count yourself or others as exceptions to this grace. The sincerest desire of our Heavenly Father is that you’d come to know, love, and follow him, and pray for others to do the same.
If we were more like Christ, we should be more ready to hope for the hopeless, to value the worthless, and to love the depraved.
Therefore, pray for ISIS. Don’t disbelieve the rescuing, reclaiming power of God’s grace, but know that “the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save.” (Is 59:1) Trust forever in God’s infinite reach of grace.
Horatius Bonar, “No. 31—God’s Purpose of Grace,” Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851), 6.
Charles Spurgeon, Seven Wonders of Grace (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1877), 120.
Charles Spurgeon, The Saint and His Saviour: The Progress of the Soul in the Knowledge of Jesus (Houston: Christian Focus, 1989), 34–35.