She wasn’t a typical American.
At a time when other Americans were throwing rocks in first grader Afshin Ziafat’s childhood home and kicking him off the soccer team, there was an American lady who loved him.
What Afshin didn’t realize at the time was that her acts of love would one day connect him to the Source of love.
When he was 2, Afshin and his family moved from Houston to his parents’ home country of Iran.
Four years later, the Islamic Revolution hit the country and the Ziafats returned to Houston.
“I was in the middle of first grade,” Afshin said. “I didn’t speak English and God in His incredible providence gave me a tutor who taught me English by reading me books.”
But that’s not all she did for him.
“In the second grade, she said, ‘Afshin, I’ve been reading you all these books but now I’m going to give you the most important book you’ll ever get in your life,’ and she handed me a small New Testament. She said, ‘You’re not going to understand this book today, but promise me you’ll hold onto it and read it later in your life.’”
And a seed was planted.
A doctor and prominent Muslim in the Houston community, Afshin’s father taught his children the five pillars of the Islamic faith and that Jesus was merely a prophet. Despite that, as a senior in high school, Afshin became curious about the person of Christ.
“God, in His amazing plan, had this guy on a basketball court say to me after I said ‘Jesus’ in vain, ‘Hey, that Jesus is my God.’”
Afshin thought the guy was crazy, but one thought led to another until he went looking for the Bible his tutor had given him. Years after she gave him the book that had the power to change his life, Afshin found it at the bottom of his closet.
With the covers pulled over his head, he began reading the Bible every night by flashlight, afraid of what would happen if his family discovered him.
But then Afshin discovered something worth immeasurably more than his security.
“I got to the book of Romans and read about a righteousness that comes apart from the law but comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” he said. “That day was a turning point for me and a couple of weeks after that I was invited to an evangelistic event where I gave my life to follow Christ.”
What happens when suffering looks like persecution within your own family?
Not fully understanding the commitment or call of Christ to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, Afshin drove home from the evangelistic event wondering what he would tell his family, especially his father. Instead of telling them anything, he hid his faith from his family, intercepted mail from the church he snuck out to attend, and continued to hide his Bible.
Eventually, however, his father found out and presented him with an ultimatum: Christ or him.
By God’s strength, Afshin chose Christ.
“You’re no longer my son,” was the response he received.
In what he now sees as a definitive moment in his life, Afshin went upstairs and cried, “God, how could You do this to me?”
The Lord, full of compassion, led him to Matthew 10 where he read,
So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father…
“I’m reading that going, ‘That just happened to me,’” Afshin recalled.
…and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. –Matthew 10:32-38
“That’s when I really understood what it means to be a follower, not just to believe the right things, but to be willing to lose your dad, your family to follow Christ.”
As detailed in Scripture, our lives intersect with other lives and weave together in affliction, suffering, and comfort, ultimately displaying the faithfulness of God for the glory of God.
Afshin’s story is no different. Though persecution came and his family disowned him, Afshin learned to embrace the God who is sovereign over suffering and with us in the midst of it.
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. -1 Peter 4:19
“Normal human experience would be to shake your fist at God because suffering is coming,” Afshin said. “But if you’re suffering, I believe you have an opportunity to say to the world, ‘He’s faithful. Even in my suffering, He’s faithful and He’s got a purpose for this.’ I think that’s a huge opportunity.”
This, along with Jesus’ high priestly prayer, directly counters the comfort-driven lives of the Western world.
“In John 17, Jesus prays for His disciples and He says that the world hates them and they don’t belong to the world,” Afshin said. “We would probably say, okay, if the world hates me and I don’t belong to the world then Jesus is going to say, ‘God, keep them separate from the world, protect them from the world and they’ll become monks in the mountains somewhere away from the world.’ But that’s not what He said.”
As You have sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. … I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word… –John 17:18, 20
“Leveraging our life for eternity means I understand that the days I have here are limited and God has not left me here to pursue comfort and the American dream,” Afshin said. “He’s left us here for mission.”
With an earnest desire for believers to be moved by that mission, Afshin leads his life, family, and church to glorify God by making disciples who make disciples through the Gospel, in community, and on mission.
“I wish the church in America would wake up to our calling to love and serve the least of these and to spread the Gospel to a spiritually dark world and not be fixated on our protection and our comfort and our safety,” he said. “You’re not here for you. You’re here to be on mission. That’s why God has left you here.”
That mission does not cease during trials but, through the lens of the Gospel, we see the opportunity to magnify God actually expands during suffering.
“Why would you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus? Why would you hate your father and mother and your wife and children to follow Jesus? Why would you forsake all you have in order to be His disciple? There’s no way you would do that unless you understand what you’re getting in the Gospel.”
After completing high school, Afshin graduated from The University of Texas in 1996 with a Bachelors of Arts in History then Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2000 with a Masters of Divinity with Biblical Languages. He and his wife Meredith now live in Frisco, Texas, with their two daughters, Elyse and Ansley, where he serves as lead pastor of Providence Church. Afshin also works with Elam Ministries to train Iranian men and women called into ministry to go back into Iran to preach, teach, and plant underground churches.