"Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam in the days to come, declares the Lord” - Jeremiah 49:39
When the history of Iran in the twentieth century is written, the year 1979 will be seen as a defining watershed. The events that unfolded that year have forever changed the lives of the Iranian people. That was the year that the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi was forced to abdicate his long reign in Iran and flee into uncertain exile. It was also the year that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flew into Iran on his chartered Air France jumbo jet and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. These events shocked the Iranian people as no other event in modern times has.
Like an earthquake sends out shock waves, the events of 1979 sent out its own series of shock waves. The people of Iran at best could have been called nominal Muslims but now the full weight of Islamic Law and practice was laid on them. Women were forced once again to cover themselves with the "chador", a veil that covers women from head to toe. All alcoholic beverages were destroyed, movie theaters were closed, and western music was eliminated from the radio and T.V. programming. A countrywide reform was begun to bring every area of personal and public life into compliance with Islamic Law. It is far beyond the scope of this brief article to try to give a full description of the revolutionary changes that came to Iran, suffice it to say that the Islamic Revolution turned life upside down in Iran.
The results were catastrophic. Iranian society began to erupt. Thousands of educated Iranians and those with ties to the previous regime began to flee the country. It was difficult to book a seat on a flight out of Iran. The great Iranian Diaspora was on. It is interesting to note that in Jeremiah 49:34-39 we read that God will bring His judgment against the Elamites (one of the ancient names for the Iranians) and He will humiliate their king and scatter them to the ends of the earth. In the 17 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian people have literally been scattered to every continent of the globe. A 1993 study done by the Iranian Christian Internationals, Inc., shows significant numbers of Iranians in 33 different countries and on every continent. The total number of Iranians scattered worldwide is cited at over 3 million. Today that number has climbed to 4 million. It is estimated that 2 million of these displaced Iranians live in North America.
The next shock wave that began to be felt was the surge of Iranians who began to turn to Christ as a result of the Revolution. Of course, this was not evident to all at first as many Christians fled Iran along with others. My wife and I had the privilege to be in Iran that first year of the Revolution and we were firsthand witnesses to the devastation that the exodus of Iranian Christians had on the churches; however, at the same time we saw the heightened interest in the Christian faith as churches began to be filled up with seekers. Iranian Christians International reports the number of Iranian believers in 1979 at just fewer than 3,000.
Today, 17 years later, estimates range from 25,000 to 40,000. It is really very difficult to get statistics which can be verified but the point is clear: there has been a dramatic growth of Christianity among Iranian Muslims. In 1969 Dr. William M. Miller wrote his landmark book entitled, Ten Muslims Meet Christ, and it was heralded as a breakthrough. Today if Dr. Miller were to write a book he would have to call it the rise of the Muslim convert church; for since the Islamic Revolution over fifty Iranian fellowships have arisen outside of Iran; this fact prompting Greg Livingstone, the founder of Frontiers Missions, to comment that the Iranian Church is the most mature Muslim convert church in the world. Iranians are coming to Christ in unprecedented numbers with more of them turning to Christ in the last 17 years than in the previous 1,000 years. The Iranian harvest field is white and awaiting workers. Today there is only one Christian worker for every one million Iranian.
There was one more shock wave yet to consider in understanding the Iranian context and that was the persecution of the church in Iran. The Christians in Iran fled from the grip of the Islamic Revolution because they intuitively knew Islam's stance on Christianity. They knew firsthand that Islam would make every effort to stamp it out. Again, it is beyond the scope of this article to go into depth in describing the persecutions that the Iranian church has undergone; suffice it to say that five pastors have been martyred since the beginning of the Revolution and countless others have been persecuted and martyred. Today Iranian believers are routinely persecuted for their faith. The blood of the martyrs has indeed become the seeds of revival. Pastor Mehdi Dibaj, one of those martyred for Christ, often said, " The Church in Iran is like a rose petal; the more you press it the sweeter the perfume."
In summary, the Islamic Revolution has changed the contour of the Iranian's mind and heart. He has been driven from his homeland by forces beyond his power to control or even to understand. He has been ripped from the close and intimate relationships of his family, causing devastating emotional consequences. He has suffered the ravages of war and possibly has had members of his family executed by the Islamic courts. He has witnessed the unmasking of Islam and may now hate all religion and religious leaders. He may mistrust other Iranians and want to lose himself in his new country of residence. He is a stranger living in a new culture. If he does not know the language he must work for other Iranians and be at their mercy for survival. Many Iranians living in the west are well educated but have had to settle for very menial occupations while still others have become very successful in a great variety of careers and make great contributions to our society as productive citizens, but the events of the Islamic Revolution still affect them deeply and stir up a host of basic questions about the God of history and the purpose of life. You will find within the Iranian community the full range of conclusions about life but you will also find some of the most open and searching souls on earth. God has prepared them for such an hour and He is calling us in the Western church to respond.
You will not regret the time you give to your Iranian friend for he will teach you much more about friendship than you will be able to teach him. You will find him more interested in spiritual matters than your western neighbor probably is and you will find that God may well touch your life afresh through him as you observe God at work in him.
The Key of God's Love
By now it should not come as a surprise when I tell you that your Iranian friend needs love. You can see that he has been greatly hurt. He has lost so much; he has lost his homeland and probably his life's fortunes. By the time he gets to the west he may well have been abused by smugglers who promised him an easy access to the west and he has experienced many harassments by western government officials. He needs a friend who can love him with the unconditional love of Christ. He needs someone who can help him find his way in his new country.
As I listen to the countless testimonies of Iranian Christians, one of the keys that God has used in their lives was the unconditional love of Christians. Iranians are very social people and do not thrive on being alone. They would rather be with a group of people than alone. When they come to the west they are amazed at how separatist we are. They may find us to be friendly on the surface but are surprised at how poor we are at friendships. When they come to our churches we smile and greet them but we seldom invite them to our homes or open our lives to them. This would not be the case if we were in their home country; we would very quickly be invited to their homes. When we understand this about their culture it becomes a key bridge into the Iranian’s heart. Become his friend! Open your life to him. Learn about his culture and enjoy his foods. One aspect of Iranian culture that you must quickly master if you are going to have successful interaction is what Iranians call "tarof". The best way I can explain "tarof" is to say that it is a formal politeness that may disguise the true feelings of the person. For example, if you ask you Iranian friend if he would like something to eat, he will probably will say no. However, what you should do is bring him something to eat anyhow. He is not likely to share with you his real wants. If you go to his house it is customary to take flowers or a small gift. The best thing to do is to ask you Iranian friend to tell you about how "tarof" works. For a fuller description of the Iranian culture and holidays, I would recommend Sharing the Gospel with Iranians, by Don M. McCurry.
The Key of God's Truth
The events of the Islamic Revolution have caused a great many Iranians to be disillusioned with Religion. They have seen the hypocrisy of their religious leaders. They know the powerlessness of Islam to change the human heart. As I have listened to dozens of testimonies I hear this theme over and over again. Their disillusionment is with the "Mullahs" who rule Iran with merciless adherence to the Koran. Many of them have a story to tell you about their discovery of the emptiness of Islam. They might tell you about their experiences of searching for the truth and how they brought their questions to the Mullah, who told them to believe blindly.
One of my good friends who taught the Koran for many years, who today is a follower of Jesus Christ, shared with me how he had been taught that if he would repeat a certain verse from the Koran a thousand times God would give him anything he desired. He prayed and fasted for three days and repeated the verse thousands of times.
He told God there was only one thing that he desired and that was for God to change his character. He had a terrible temper. Once he had finished his spiritual exercise he had great hope that God would answer and make a new man out of him. When he emerged from his room he saw one of his children doing something annoying and he exploded with anger. Within moments he was in great despair for, not only had he gotten anger but he had discovered his faith was powerless to change him. So great was his despair that he plotted to take his life. Instead he was led to the cross of Christ and to the One who makes all things new. Iranians are experiencing a great paradigm shift in their souls. They are going through a time of great questioning and the key to witnessing to them is to present the truth in love.
It is extremely important to note at this point that all our confessions of the truth must be accompanied with a life that demonstrates it as well. They have been so disillusioned by religion and religious leaders that they will not easily be convinced by insincere Christianity. It is the reality of Christ, which they are seeking, not a formal nominal Christianity. This must put us on the alert to be the fragrance of Christ. You can begin to demonstrate Christ's reality in your life by praying with your Iranian friend. I usually say something like this. "I like to pray with my friends; would it be alright if we close our time together with prayer?" Never once has an Iranian objected. When I pray I always make it a very personal and intimate communication with God because I know that they do not know God that way. I also always include very specific requests for my friend. God is so faithful and almost always answers those prayers. Our prayer times serve as a spiritual lab session in which they see how much I depend on God and they see God at work. It does not surprise me when my Muslim friend calls back to tell me God answered my prayers and would I be willing now to pray for another matter? Now I have an open door to begin to share with him how he can know God as I do. As you can see, I have not argued my friend towards faith in Christ but have led him to taste and see that the Lord is good.
As we pursue this matter of truth the good news is that in general, Iranians still believe in absolute Truth and revelation. (The exception here is if the Iranian has completed his formal education in the west; then he may well have become a western relativist). They have been taught that the "Injil" (The Gospels) is a holy book and that they should read it. They may have been told that it has been tampered with but my experience is that they are anxious to read it. I find that Iranians gladly accept a gift of the New Testament. Sometimes I will say something like, "Now that you are living in our country you probably would like to know what Christians really believe." Then I will present them with a New Testament. I am always careful to caution them from thinking that all westerners are Christians. I go on to tell them that as they read they should underline the sections that are hard for them to understand. I assure them that it is all right to make marks in the Bible since it is a guidebook to God and His peace. This may come as a surprise for them since they revere the Koran but seldom read it lwt alone dare to write in it. The first verse I like to read to an Iranian seeker is Matthew 11:28-30. The Lord’s invitation to give rest to those who are weary and burdened always seems to cut to their hearts.
Two cautions are in order here. One, you must be forewarned that the Iranian's mind is very much a literal mind. By that I mean he will take the Bible very literally and you will have to help him understand it. Be patient as he asks you questions you may never have heard before. An example might be something like this. "You say Jesus is God but here he is praying to God. Now if he is God whom is he praying to?" Iranian seekers also will need help with many terms that are very familiar to us. They will not know what a Pharisee is or what the Jewish feasts are all about. As you encourage your Iranian friend to read and ask questions be very patient and explain everything. Do not assume he is getting the message on his first reading. It is better that you discuss these things with him alone. Never ask him questions about his faith in front of other Iranians but set times to be alone with him. It is also better that he initiates these times. Iranians are very polite and may agree to meet with you just to please you. So tell your Iranian friend that you are at his service for when he wants to discuss his Bible reading. As this point the best thing you can be doing is to be praying for him.
The second caution is that the Iranian tends to see Truth not so much as objective Truth but embodied in a position or person. For example a young Christian might give a seeker a totally correct answer from the Scriptures but the seeker will not accept it as truth because it did not come from the mouth of the pastor. This means that you should find a way to link the Iranian seeker with a person whom he accepts as authoritative in the matter. Take him to your pastor or an older leader in the fellowship and let him get his answers from him. This is especially important if the Iranian you are dealing with is an older man.
Now we are ready to get down to some specific discussions with our Iranian seeker. At this point I cannot over emphasize how important it is not to debate the weaknesses of Islam. It is far more productive to use the New Testament and simply discuss who Christ is and what He offers the sinner. It is also advisable to present Christ as Savior of sinners and leave the question of His divinity for later.
The first problem you may to run into is that in the mind of your Iranian friend, the terms you are using mean different things. You may not pick this up at first but it is a major hurdle that must be overcome. For example, when you suggest that your friend is a sinner he may well be come quite insulted. The reason for his indignation is that in his mind sins are horrible crimes against God like murder, adultery and stealing. He is insulted that you are suggesting that he is such a person. You will need gently to go to Genesis and show him the story of the Fall and explain that he may well be a good person in comparison to other human beings but in God's sight all have sinned and he has inherited his sin from Adam and Eve. You will have to show him that all human beings are sinners not because they sin; but they sin because they are sinners. I often spend an entire evening laying a sure foundation on the depravity of man.
As you continue your discussions with your Iranian friend you will want to begin to define for him, from the scriptures, many key terms. Jesus' true identity will quickly become a focal point. He will say that he believes in Jesus. But before you celebrate his conversion, you need to know what it is that he believes about Jesus. He believes he was a great prophet, that he was born of a virgin and that he lived a sinless life and that Jesus Himself did not die on a cross for us, rather is was someone who looked like him. Jesus ascended into heaven before the so-called crucifixion. Now you realize you are up against a system of thought that has carefully eclipsed Jesus's divinity and atonement. All your arguments will not reveal the truth of Christ to your Muslim friend; it will take the revealing work of the Holy Spirit.
A day will come when your Iranian friend will want to have a serious discussion with you about the Divinity of Christ. He may now find himself drawn to Christ but the Trinity is his stumbling block. Here are the steps I have used that God has blessed many times.
1. "Do you agree that God is Almighty and can do anything He wills?"
2. "Do you agree that God is a Spirit and can take any shape he wills?"
3. "Do you agree that God is infinite and beyond human comprehension except that He chose to reveal Himself to us?"
I have yet to meet an Iranian who disagreed with these statements. After laying the foundation I share this illustration. I ask him to compare the vastness of the ocean with that of God. We cannot possibly explore the entire ocean. But what if I took a glass and filled it with water from the Ocean and brought it to you? Now you can taste it, touch it and smell it. You could put it under a microscope and you would see that in essence it is the same as the ocean. It is separate from the ocean but it is in essence the same as the ocean. Then I read John 1:1, 14 and Colossians 1:15. I show how God emptied Himself and became a human being so that we could taste and see who He is. This illustration has been the key for many Iranians to begin to understand the Divine nature of Christ. Throughout your discussion you will want underscore the Christians belief in one God by reading him I Corinthians 8:6
You will need to carefully help him see what the Scriptures teach about the character of God, the nature of heaven, salvation, grace and faith. You can safely assume that he has non-Biblical concepts for most of these precious truths.
When you talk about prayer, his experience with it is that one recites memorized prayers in Arabic that he really doesn't understand and that while he is praying his mind is wandering. When you begin to pray with him he might even repeat what you are saying because he has never really talked to God. This is to illustrate how important it is to get your Iranian seeker into the Word. Be sure to provide him with good solid evangelical literature in Persian.
One very good resource is Dr. Miller's little book, "The Beliefs and Practices of Christians," in Persian.
The Key of God's Touch
In our arsenal of weapons that we have with which to share Christ with Iranians, we still must look at our greatest weapon. The greatest weapon we have is that God has chosen to touch the Iranian people at this point in history. We know that Jesus told Peter that it was not flesh or blood that had revealed to him that Jesus was the Christ rather it was the Spirit of God. Today the Spirit of God is touching Iranians around the world. That means that God has already gone before you in witnessing to the Iranians in your city.
As you grow close to Iranians you will hear more and more stories about the dreams they may be having. You may find these stories hard to grasp but I have found that almost every Muslim convert that I know has had some type of dream that he understood to be a revelation of Christ. These dreams seem to awaken a hunger for Christ. I have come to see them as God's calling His own out of the world because we, His church, have failed to go to the Muslim world as we were commanded to go. Still today only 2% of the western mission force is serving among the Muslims who make up of 20% of the world's population. The approach I take with these dreams is to celebrate them and then invite them to get to know Jesus through reading the New Testament.
Over the years I have catalogued the types of dreams that Iranians are having about the Lord. Most of them have a rescue motif. The person is drowning and a hand comes down into the water and saves him. A person is ill and a person in radiant white robes enters his room and tells him he will be healed and he is. Not only do they have dreams; they also may have a vision while awake. The point is that God is calling these dear people and we need to be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit and be ready to follow up with good Biblical discipleship.
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The other evidence of the touch of God is the stories of the transformation of those who have been saved. Iranian Christians have miraculous testimonies. I never get tired of hearing them. Their testimonies are full of stories of how God intervened in their lives. One Iranian man told me that while he was visiting Los Angeles, he was walking the streets to pass the time of day when a painter on a ladder said "hello" to him. That began a two-hour conversation that led him to trust Christ. He confessed, "God sought me out."
I encourage you to get to know the Iranian Christians in your city and get them to tell you about how they came to faith in Jesus. It will thrill you. The next very important step is to introduce your Iranian Christian friend to your seeker friend. There is no power like the testimony of one Iranian believer telling his story to another. Another important insight is that if you feel you have led an Iranian to Christ and he refuses to meet with other Iranians, it may well be a sign that he has not really come to faith. A good acid test of true faith is that one is willing to confess Christ before his own peers.
Now there is another powerful testimony to the touch of God in the Iranian community and that is the Iranian Church. Where true Iranian believers gather for worship and fellowship is another tool you want to use in reaching Iranians. The Muslim who attends a worship service in Persian usually makes comments like, "I have never experienced such peace!" In our Persian language fellowship we have many Muslims who come to church just to feel the peace of the presence of God. But there is yet another unseen difference that you and I as westerners probably will miss and that is the different social flavor a gathering of Iranian believers has in comparison with a secular gathering of Iranians. I have heard numerous times from Iranians, as they tell me their testimonies, that it was the transformed relationships in the Iranian Body of Christ that convinced them that Christ was real.
There is no doubt about it; Iranians have been uniquely prepared for the Gospel. God has brought them to our shores and He is calling us to be available to minister to them. In many of our larger cities there is probably a small fellowship of Muslim convert Iranian Christians already worshipping and fellowshipping. If we are open to God's Spirit we can be God's link between the unbelieving Iranian and the Iranian Church. It might surprise you that an unbelieving Iranian would rather have you as his friend as opposed to having one of his own unknown countrymen as a friend. We need to use this favored position that we as westerners hold and use it for the advancement of our Lord's Kingdom.
This article was written by a missionary to Iranians and a close friend of Voice of Christ Media Ministries