This month, our meditation has been excerpted from the book entitled Extreme Devotion, compiled by the Voice Of the Martyrs. In the following passage, a North Korean Christian provides us with fodder for reflection and perhaps application:
I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. (2 Corinthians 7:4)
"I never knew what these prisoners were singing until I became a Christian."
Soon Ok Lee was a prisoner in North Korea from 1987 to 1992. She did not become a Christian, however, until she escaped to South Korea. When she first received Christ, she was overwhelmed by her memories of what she had seen and heard in prison.
It was the simple things, like the Christians who sang as they were being put to death. At that time, she did not understand and had thought they were crazy. She was not allowed to talk, so she never had the chance to speak with a Christian. She does remember hearing the word, "Amen."
"While I was there, I never saw Christians deny their faith. Not one. When these Christians were silent, the officers would become furious and kick them. At the time, I could not understand why they risked their lives when they could have said, 'I do not believe,' and done what the officers wanted. I even saw many who sang hymns as the kicking and hitting intensified. The officers would call them crazy and take them to the electric-treatment room. I didn't see one come out alive."
It was the singing that stuck with her. Perhaps it was the singing of these precious saints that planted a seed in her spirit and eventually led her to Christ.
A moment of consideration: Charles Dickens wrote an acclaimed novel entitled, "A Tale of Two Cities." For this devotional, let us consider the increasingly belligerent tone of the world against Believers. Let us also ponder a true tale of 3 types of people: suffering Christians, prison guards, and non-believing prisoners. Even as Thomas Paine wrote (Federalist Papers, December 23, 1776) the now-famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls...", it now behooves us to consider the possibility that we may benefit from the example of other believers whose souls have likewise been tried. In North Korea, the government readily jails believers, often including entire families and extended family (e.g., grandparents, children, and relatives). Life is hard apart from prison, and often intolerable inside the network of prisons. Within the prisons, Christians have become bolder than perhaps in everyday life in the North Korean country, where foraging for grasses and plants to eat can be arduous, and few are allowed to speak of Christianity in the villages and cities of the country. Christian prisoners have been known to sing hymns while working, when beaten, when being put to death, and when resting from work, if given such rests. Paul and Silas were thrown into prison in Philippi, and began praying and singing hymns around midnight of their first night of incarceration. And other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)
Soon Ok Lee found herself as a non-believer, listening to the Christians with which she was imprisoned. Some imprisoned Christians struggle to find Immanuel with them during their long, painful days. (e.g., Andrew Brunson, for one, admitted that he had trouble sensing the presence of God during his imprisonment in Turkey). It would do us well to practice the Presence of God during peaceful times, so that when times of violence come, we recognize the signs of His presence. When or if confronted with the event of imprisonment, seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in what to say before your prosecutors. (Luke 21:12-19) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17) And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:23-26)
In the times ahead of us, the one-world government will not be kind to us believers. We will need to be strong and courageous if we, too, would never deny our faith when under duress. The apostle Paul acknowledged his own weakness: "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) In our weakness, the power of Christ is available to help us meet the challenges to our faith as they come. Soon Ok Lee said she never saw Christians deny their faith. But it does happen; the apostle Paul laid it out for Timothy, when he told his young protege, that "if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful--for He cannot deny Himself." (2 Timothy 2:12-13) Let us pray that the Lord will keep us faithful, when and if such imprisonment happens--so that we may glorify Him. Let us walk humbly with Immanuel, continue to do justice, and to love kindness. (Micah 6:8) This is our calling, no matter what our circumstances may be.
The prison guards in this account punished believers who remained silent, and those who expressed their faith in song and/or words. Guards are paid to be cruel to prisoners, to punish them for their "crimes", to subdue them, to make them subservient to the wishes of the prison management. The prison officials called such believers crazy, and subjected them to inhumane punishments that often killed the prisoner(s). In accounts from other sources, individual prison guards have responded to the gospel message, and become believers. But the role of prison guards is to maintain order in the prison, unless the guards subscribe to radicalized beliefs of Communism, radical Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, et al, groups of which they are a part. The agendas of such groups often carry over to the beliefs and actions of prison guards--resulting in cruelty, hatred, abasing, punishing, torturing, and physical attacks--in combination and intentional. As these days progress, the likelihood of Christians/Believers being jailed or imprisoned is likely to increase. If we are jailed, pray for the jailers; if imprisoned, intercede for the prison guards--that the gospel message would sink through the "chinks" in the guards' ugly facades.
In the Scriptures, the account of Asa reported "Then Asa was angry with the seer and put him in the stocks in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this. (2 Chronicles 16:7-10) Isaiah reported God gathering the kings of the earth, "as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in prison, and after many days, they will be punished." (Isaiah 24:21) Prison is not an easy place to live. In 2021, Uzbekistan was cited for its use of torture; and other forms of abuse in its extensive prison infrastructure. Soon Ok Lee recounts her experience of abuse from the prison guards. Even in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:10, God's Word acknowledges that some may be thrown into prison, wherein we may be tested, and experience tribulation. In such environs, stay close to the Lord, and pray. Remember that a soft answer turns away wrath [in certain circumstances]. (Proverbs 15:1) Remember the Scripture verses you’ve memorized, that they may comfort, guide and uphold you. It is important in such times and places to persevere in faith. That is critically and gravely needed.
But it is not only prison guards and jailers who abuse believers incarcerated in their facilities. Fellow prisoners often malign and physically attack Christians in their cells. Examples are unfortunately easy to find. Consider the beating of Muhammad Kace, in Indonesia, noted in 2021; Petr Janek, who told of his inhumane treatment by fellow prisoners in Sudan in 2015. A noted gang lord in Peru was imprisoned, became a Christian, and was attacked for his betrayal of them, with broken glass bottles, by inmates in his cell block; fellow prisoners may be recruited by prison officials to bait Christians into saying something for which they would be punished. Muslim prisoners also are incensed at having to share a cell with an infidel. Yet prison has often been found to be a mission field in which to share the gospel and nurture new believers. As in society, some may respond to the call of the Gospel; others will be angry and lash out. Seek with cell mates, to be sensitive to brokenness and pain; let your kindness and compassion speak for themselves. Speak the Truth of our Savior in love. As in society, some will expose and denounce Christian neighbors or friends; the same is true in prison.
Our Christian comportment in times of danger can impact "those who are curious about Christianity and have zeroed in on believers so that they can evaluate the Truth for themselves. These fellow prisoners observe, watch, and take mental notes. Whenever Christians go through trials, these silent observers often hope to see the believers fall, so that they can assure themselves that Christians are like everyone else after all. However, when Christians smile through trouble, they are stumped. When believers clap instead of cry, they are amazed. When Believers sing amidst sorrows, they are drawn in by what they cannot explain."* May our joyful example, glorifying God in all we do and say in such circumstances, inspire others. When we experience trials, we have an unprecedented opportunity to witness for Christ. Our heavenly Father is concerned that people shall know that He is the Lord. Be strong in Him; may our joy in the Lord be our strength. Albert B Simpson wrote a hymn, “The Joy of the Lord is the Strength of His People”, which may help to lighten our hearts along the way:
1 The joy of the Lord is the strength of His people,
The sunshine that scatters their sadness and gloom;
The fountain that bursts in the desert of sorrow,
And sheds o’er the wilderness, gladness and bloom.
Oh, the joy of the Lord is my strength and my song,
Our sorrow and sighing are o’er;
We’ll rejoice in the Lord,
We’ll rejoice in the Lord,
We’ll rejoice in the Lord evermore.
2 The joy of the Lord is our strength for life’s burdens,
And gives to each duty a heavenly zest;
It sets to sweet music the task of the toiler,
And softens the couch of the laborer’s rest. [Chorus]
3 The joy of the Lord is our strength for life’s trials,
And lifts the crushed heart above sorrow and care;
Like the nightingale’s notes, it can sing in the darkness,
And rejoice when the fig tree is fruitless and bare. [Chorus]
4 The joy of the Lord is the hope of our calling,
And oh, for His coming, how fondly we pray!
When we shall return with rejoicing to Zion,
And sorrow and sighing shall vanish away. [Chorus]
Source: Hymns of the Christian Life #258
* Source: Extreme Devotion, © 2001, Voice of the Martyrs, Page 150