It’s true: being quarantined in your own home because of the coronavirus isn’t the same as being imprisoned for your faith. Yet, it’s still a form of isolation and we can learn from those who experienced a far more severe form for a much longer period. Here are seven things we can learn from pastors who had been imprisoned for their faith. (These lessons were taken from a survey among nine pastors*).
1. Accept that suffering is a normal part of following Jesus
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)
All nine pastors believed that suffering and following Christ go hand in hand. One shared, “We felt that [our arrest] was normal–we already knew that it was going to happen, we weren’t shocked. If you want to follow God, you have to accept this kind of consequence.”
Though we are not taken away from our homes, we still need to accept that suffering is part of life, especially when you follow Jesus.
2. Let go of your life and surrender to God’s will
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mat. 16:24)
When the pastors chose to stand firm in their faith, they risked losing everything dear to them. Their decision came at great cost: losses of health, family, future, education and life. They described pivotal moments in their suffering where they had to make the choice to let go of control over their lives and surrender to God.
In our case, we need to understand that God is sovereign. If people ask, ‘Where is God?’ the answer is simple: ‘He is on His throne in heaven’. The will of God is one of the most difficult things to understand. There’s no point in resisting His sovereign will. Jesus never asked His disciples to agree with Him. He told them to let go of their life and follow Him, no matter the costs.
3. Worship and recite Scripture for spiritual strength
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)
The pastors continued to worship God and recited Scriptures to receive spiritual strength during their imprisonment. That encouraged them to confess their sins, perform merciful acts for others and reflect on God’s love. Some even sang hymns, such as: “When we pray, grace of heaven comes. When we pray, the gate of heaven opens. When we pray, power comes. When we pray, victory comes.”
Worshiping, singing, praying, meditating, reading or reciting scripture all do the same thing: they focus your mind and heart on Jesus. The avalanche of news and social messages about COVID-19 can easily make us depressed. We need to hold on to what is eternal and true, our Lord God.
4. Find a secret (or online!) fellowship
‘And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.’ (Ecc. 4:12)
The interviewees described the support of other believers as instrumental in their ability to survive their imprisonment. Believers found ways to support each other and to pray together in prison and labor camps, despite the risks. One pastor got married shortly before his arrested and the support of his wife meant a lot to him.
Knowing that others care makes a massive difference – even if you can’t see them. Isolation creates misunderstanding, causes division and makes us vulnerable. The first thing the god of this world does to break a Christian or lead him astray is to isolate him. On the other hand, through our unity, Jesus gets the glory. Stay connected to the body of Christ. Worship Him with your household and connect with other Christians by phone or digitally.
5. Experience God’s presence
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. (Psalm 34:17-20)
Several interviewees described their experience of God’s presence during times of doubt and despair. One interviewee recalled seeing an image of Jesus, to remind him of God’s love. Another interviewee described a moment of despair where he considered jumping out a window to end his life, only to be ‘stopped’ by God’s presence. The believers interviewed experienced God in a very real way during their experiences of suffering.
God does special things in special circumstances. We should not waste this crisis by entertaining ourselves until this is over. We can experience God in unprecendented ways. As one persecuted believer said this week: ‘The love of Jesus cannot be quarantined’. We can experience His love AND give His love during this special time in modern history.
6. Identify with the suffering of Jesus and of His disciples
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Heb. 13:3)
All pastors were encouraged by remembering and identifying with the passions of the Christ and the sacrifices of the early Church. Recalling God’s acts in history, reflecting on Christ’s experience preceding and during His crucifixion, and reflecting on the experiences of Paul in the early church were examples of ways in which the interviewees identified with the suffering of Christ and His followers.
One thing the current situation does is make it slightly easier to identify with those who suffer for their faith. We are not imprisoned, but we are restricted in what we can do. The corona crisis can bring us closer to those who suffer (whatever the cause of their suffering).
7. Believe in a greater purpose
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)
Most pastors were convinced that God had used the suffering of His people to bring others to Christ in their country. When they tasted the harvest and found their purpose, they gained more peace in the process of suffering.
What is so great about reading the apostle Paul’s writings is his heavenly perspective. He always asks the question: what might God be doing here? Is what is happening to you and to the world around you serving the advance of the Gospel? Can you be a part of it?
*This research project is called ‘Is suffering good? – An explorative study on religious persecution among Chinese pastors’ (Ting, 2007)