The Hidden Face of God, pages 69-71.
August 21st, 2019
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those
who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
I am writing to you from just outside the city of Jinan, in northern China. Along with friends from WorldServe, I have been visiting some of the leaders in the underground Church. WorldServe is a ministry that serves believers in closed and restricted countries by simply coming alongside them and listening to their needs. But during the past week here in China and Vietnam, I've begun to discover that listening is neither simple nor easy.
It is not easy to listen to the stories of suffering you frequently hear in this place - stories of torture, and prison, and persecution. In one of our first meetings, we spoke to some brothers who were concerned about a couple of women from their community who had been imprisoned along with their young children. One brother (we call him snowman) had been chained to a wall in the prison yard in the dead of winter. The guards watched through the window, warm inside, waiting for him to succumb to the cold. Finally, as dark fell, they decided it was easier to leave him there for the night to make sure he was "finished."
The next morning, as they approached the still suspended body, they noticed steam rising from it. Miraculously, he had survived the night's exposure to sub-zero cold.
That same winter two young women, who had been thrown out of their home for embracing Jesus, were wandering from house to house in their village asking to be taken in. Like the Holy Family, they discovered that no one would make room. To shelter the new converts would bring guilt by association.
Finally, they quietly whispered, "We lay down in the snow. We had lost all hope and decided to 'fall asleep' in the drifting snow."
When they woke up the next morning, warm and unharmed by the winter chill, they noticed small footprints all around them in the snow. It became apparent to them both that small animals had come in the night and lain next to the two girls, keeping them warm.
Again and again we heard these kinds of stories, stories of suffering and the remarkable intervention of God, saving believers not from the suffering, but through it. One man told us that though he had been tortured several times, he felt no pain during the beatings. Another older brother we called "tire man," had his hands ripped to shreds by the nylon strands in the tires he was forced to pull apart in prison. With another one of those gentle smiles I became used to experiencing, he showed me his hands. They had healed almost scar-free.
Not all the stories end with miraculous interventions or healings. Many have died in prison. Many more wander the streets, having been forced out of their homes only because their association with the underground Church was exposed by neighbors and, incredibly, sometimes by members of their own families.
By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death.
But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. Some were mocked, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. Some died by stoning, and some were sawed in half; others were killed with the sword. Some went about in skins of sheep and goats, hungry and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world. They wandered over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:33-38, NLT)
Hebrews 11:33-38 contains a list of both those who win and those who lose. By faith some of them conquered kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the fury of the flames. But others were mocked and flogged, stoned, and even sawn in two. Like the believers in China, all were called to suffer for their faith. Though some might not have been miraculously "delivered," all of them were winners by the simple fact that they overcame by grace through their faith in Jesus.
If you think I'm going to spin the story to manipulate you into feeling guilty or inferior in your faith because you have not experienced prison, you're wrong. What I'm campaigning for is your presence. The hunger I'd like to awaken in your heart is simply to "be there" in prayer alongside the brothers and sisters, some of whose stories I've been telling. It does not necessitate the seven thousand mile plane ride I made to get here.
The same unknown author of Hebrews who gave us the list of the winners and losers (who in the end were all winners), ended his "brief letter" with a benediction. Call it the key, or the starting place, call it anything you want, but within that benediction he opens the door to a whole new world of prayer - the prayer of presence. "Remember (in prayer) those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners," he said. Prayer as an extension of our presence, of your being there, not prayer for miraculous deliverance or healing (though these are still appropriate requests to make), but prayer that, in faith, projects your presence into those prison cells in China, Vietnam, Sudan, El Salvador, Pakistan, Iran, and Iran...the list goes on. More believers are dying for Christ in this present day than at any time in the history of the Church. One believer in China spoke in tears, "I thought you had forgotten us."
Remember those who are in prison, and in your remembering, by faith, be there for them, be present. In your prayer, open the door of your life to their suffering, not that their laments might end, but so they will know they do not lament alone.