Could I Endure Torture?

I wanted to share with you some thoughts about an article I read in the most recent Voice of the Martyr’s magazine. Ashamedly, I have often become inured to a lot of the stories I hear about the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. However, the Lord used this particular article to stir my heart and I wanted to share that with you.

The article was titled “Do Not Fear” and the author wrote about two people in Muslim countries who were arrested, interrogated, and jailed for their Christian faith. The first was a man by the name of Hussein (not his real name), who was a leader of a house church. He was arrested and jailed, and became very anxious about what he would say at his coming interrogation. Would he break and reveal the names of other Christians? As he obsessed about this in prayer, he was overcome with the sense of God’s presence with him in that solitary cell. “I was in the presence of Jesus, and I was praying more boldly and confidently (recognizing) that Jesus had brought me there for a purpose. To hear God, like you hear water or anything else, I heard God…Jesus said to me, ‘There is no need for you to say anything because I am going to tell you what to say. Why are you afraid?'”

Hussein is still in prison, but he has experienced the favor of some of his guards and been given some amazing opportunities to share the gospel with other prisoners, especially some who will probably be executed.

The second account was about a woman named Shani, whose husband had already been arrested as a leader of a house church. For three months she had no word as to his whereabouts or even what the charges were that were filed against him. She knew her husband would not break, but could not imagine herself ever being arrested or interrogated. One night she prayer, “Dear God, please don’t allow them to find me. I can’t handle torture. I can’t handle a jail cell. You said you would not give us more than we can handle, so please make them not come and arrest me.” Have you ever prayed a similar prayer about something you feared?

The very next morning she was awakened by the police who arrested her and carted her off to jail. She remembers saying to the Lord, “Whatever happens now, God, it’s your fault.” That night they came and pulled her out of her cell into the interrogation room. A man sat across the table from her and angrily began to question why she evangelized; why she talked to Muslims about Jesus and what she and her husband hoped to gain from this illegal activity. Suddenly she felt a peace come over her as she looked at the man and said, “I have a right to evangelize and I am happy to do it. This is a commandment from Jesus Christ. Everyone needs to hear this good news. You need to hear this good news. God sent me here to tell you about Jesus. You are a poor man. I feel bad for you. You don’t have peace, you don’t have joy, you don’t have hope. You don’t even know why you are alive. The only way to truth is Jesus Christ. You are an interrogator, but one day you are going to stand before the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ, and he is going to examine you. Without him, you have no hope. And Jesus is going to ask you why you did these things to his servants.”

She couldn’t believe she said all that and neither could the interrogator who sent her back to her cell and told her he would deal with her later. In her cell that night she felt she had made a serious mistake and decided she would apologize to the interrogator the next time and take it all back. Two more times she was dragged before the same man with the intent of apologizing to him, and each time the Holy Spirit led her to share the gospel with him. On the fourth night, he came to her cell and said, “How did you know that my life is so crazy? I’ve tried everything in my religion and I could never seem to be happy. I learned from you that the only savior is Jesus Christ. When you were talking in the interrogation room, that really wasn’t you. I saw myself in God’s presence. Please help me to be saved.”

The article concludes by saying, “Maybe you have prayed prayers like Shani’s: Lord I can’t handle cancer. Lord, I can’t work for this difficult boss one more day. God, I can’t handle a rebellious teenager. Lord, I can’t endure the betrayal of my unfaithful spouse or the possibility of parenting alone. Shani told God that she couldn’t handle arrest…yet three times this seemingly timid, fearful woman shared the gospel with her interrogator.” And a fearful Hussein was given the comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit as he faced his tormentors.

So, it is really not about us and our fears, or about whether we could endure torture or suffering for for our faith or whether we would lose our courage, is it? It is really about the power of the Holy Spirit working through us in situations that we would never chose for ourselves. “It is about the Holy Spirit giving us the words to say or the ability to forgive or an opportunity to tell someone what Jesus has done for us.” This is why the Bible tell us on 366 occasions “don’t be afraid.” As Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of VOM, once said, “366 times, not merely 365, to account for leap year.” DON’T BE AFRAID!

Thoughts on the Book of Job

Quite honestly, the Book of Job is a disappointment! When we suffer, we go to Job to find answers for why and how to cope. However, all we get are a bunch of grumpy old men arguing, some young guy giving his two-cents, and God showing up and blasting everyone. Then we’re back to where we started, as if nothing happened in the first place.

Reading through the book again, as well as reading a recent book by John Walton and Tremper Longman III, “How to Read Job” (IVP, 2015), I have seen some themes often hidden by our expectations. The book is really about the Wisdom of God, which is why it is included as Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. The Wisdom of God is compared with the wisdom of the world based upon experience and observation (revealed by Job and his “friends”). The challenge of the book is whether we will trust God’s Wisdom even though we do not understand what is happening to us or going on around us.

The book contains challenges to how God runs the world. If it is God’s standard operating procedure (SOP) to bring prosperity and blessing to people who are righteous, then isn’t he creating a world of “mercenaries” who worship and serve him just to get rewarded? What would happen if God took away those benefits (thus Job’s first trial)? Would people still love and serve him? One can see that this is not just a question about SOP, but an implication that God might not be worthy of worship just for who he is. Hmmm…good question. Is my love and service for God based upon a quid pro quo (this for that)? What about the times of drought and despair when I feel like there is nothing in it for me? Do I still trust in his Wisdom?

The second challenge to God’s SOP comes after Job has already begun to suffer. It questions why God is ganging up on a righteous man when, in fact, he is supposed to bless the righteous. This challenge is replicated over and over again in the Psalms as the writers struggle with why the righteous suffer while the wicked are the ones who seem to prosper.

“These two challenges set up the focus of the book (Job) as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not a good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not as good policy for righteous  people to suffer (they are good people, the one’s who are on God’s side). So what is God to do?” (Walton and Longman, p. 15).

Thus God is assailed both coming and going. To put it in a sanitized version of a colloquial expression: He is darned is he does (bless the righteous) and darned if he doesn’t (therefore, allowing the righteous to suffer). Will Job still maintain his righteousness (integrity) even though there is nothing in it for him and God’s ways seem so incomprehensible? Will we? That seems to be the biggest issue that needs to be resolved both in the book and in our lives.

“The entire debate between Job and his friends and then God’s showing up at the end and restoring Job’s fortunes, shows us that God does not run the world by justice (at least as we understand it), but by His Wisdom. ‘I am God, who is supremely wise and powerful, so I want you to trust me even when you do not understand.'” (Walton and Longman, p. 16)

As the world cries out for justice and mercy in the face of so much suffering, we are called to trust in a God of Wisdom who is working out his purposes behind the veil of our finite understanding. “Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will…Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His works in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.” (William Cowper) Someday…

Toward a Theology of Suffering…

Many of us recognize the first Sunday of November as more than an opportunity to get an extra hour of sleep the night before. It has been set aside as Prayer for the Persecuted Church Sunday. In fact, I will be leading a prayer service at Wheaton College on Sunday at 8 pm; an event sponsored by World Christian Fellowship (Phelps meeting room, south end of lower level of the Beamer Student Center, for those who would like to come). This has motivated me to share some principles I have gleaned from Scripture about suffering. I do so for two reasons: First, to help you build a theological framework in which to deal with what some have called the Problem of Evil; Second, to help you construct a place to stand for your own faith when you face suffering or see it played out in the suffering of other followers of Christ.

These principles could be summed up in Elisabeth Elliot’s book Suffering is Not for Nothing, in which she wrote, “I see [suffering] as a necessary part of the sovereign and loving purpose of God, even as a gift to be received, then offered back as a sacrifice, capable of being turned into something beautiful.”

You may not agree with her conclusion, but you must respect her suffering. Here are my principles:

  1. The presence of suffering in this world does not need to be problematic for the Christian’s faith. In reality, it can be seen as a proof of God’s existence. If God did not exist there would be no standard by which to judge whether an action was good or evil. God is the ultimate reference point and apart from Him good and evil cannot be defined. (Rom 7:7-12)
  2. In many cases evil and suffering are redeemed by God to produce something of value. Imagine the shape of morality in a world where there was no pain, only pleasure. (2 Cor 4:16-18; James 1:2-4)
  3. What satisfies us most when we suffer are not intellectual answers to our questions, but the experience of the personal presence of God. (Job 42:3-5)
  4. Given our self-seeking and rebellious natures, suffering is the only way by which God could arrest our attention and graciously motivate us to begin seeking after His help. Truly, pain is God’s “megaphone.” (Gen 3:16a; 4:1; Lam 3:19-33)
  5. Suffering for the Christian does not imply punishment, but presents an opportunity for learning and drawing near to God for His sustaining grace in the midst of our crisis. (Rom 8:1; Heb 12:5-11; 4:15, 16; Ps 119:71)
  6. God allows evil to exist, but has limited its effect. While this is not the “best of all possible worlds” because of human sin, it is also not as bad as it could be because of God’s common grace. For the honest seeker, this creates what we call “the problem of the good.” (Rom 8:20-23)
  7. Our suffering may serve the purpose of showcasing God’s glory before a watching universe (John 9:1-3; 11:4; Job 1, 2) and as a witness to the Gospel (Acts 9:15, 16).
  8. While we do not know why God permits suffering to accomplish His purposes, we do know that there was a principle established at the Cross; evil is overcome through the suffering and death of Christ. It is the “deeper magic,” which turns tables on the evil one. Victory is not through violence or revenge, but through suffering; life comes out of death. (1 Cor 15:50-57) [Look at the example of the Apostle Paul, where the persecutor became a devoted follower; this should cause us to pray specifically for the “beloved enemies” of the gospel.]
  9. Suffering is not only a part of the human condition in a fallen world, but also what a follower of Christ should expect as a means spiritual development and of reaching a fallen world with the gospel. (Matt 5: 11, 12; 20:27-28; Phil 1:29; 2 Cor 4:8-10; James 1:2, 3; 1 Peter 4:1, 2; 2 Tim 3:12)
  10. In the coming Kingdom of God, ALL EVIL will be overcome and the incomparable GLORY AND GOODNESS OF GOD will reign, FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN (Rom 8:18; Rev 20:11-21:4)