This may be the most important book for Christians in our times I have ever read, after the Bible. I appreciated everything about it except the sub-title, which should have been WHAT THE PERSECUTED CHURCH TAUGHT ME ABOUT FAITH–
–because this is a book which in the first half asks, WHERE IS GOD IN INJUSTICE, PAIN, LOSS, HEARTBREAK AND DEATH and in the second half answers with resounding conviction, based on interviews with 600 severely persecuted Christians in 60 countries, HE IS IN IT WITH US, BEARING US UP.
I love Jesus and I love stories–and this is a book of stories of how God is woven into all circumstances even when He seems indifferent and nowhere around. The questions Ripken asks are THE questions we all need answered, the basic questions Does God see? Does He care? Can He–will He–help? even in war-torn parts of the world where there is unbelievable brutality, where people starve to death, babies die needlessly and nothing makes sense?
Throughout the book there are shocking, scary, grief-producing parts that were exceedingly hard to read, that have burned their way into my memory for life. And throughout the book there are sweet, powerful, miraculous, life-affirming parts that were joyous to read and have burned their way into my memory for life. I am grateful for both, because the bottom line, underscored in the blood of 21st century martyrs, is that living for Jesus Christ is worth the loss of anything and everything.
Ripken comes to a jolting conclusion: Everyone is every part of the world is free to obey Christ’s last and greatest charge to preach the good news about Him and make disciples. The difference between “free” and “restricted” countries is not whether we are allowed to obey God or not. The difference is what may happen if we do.
When Ripken met secretly with pastors of underground churches in Muslim and communist countries, they spoke of almost daily instances of supernatural leading, protection, healing, deliverance from death and even resurrections from the dead. Ripken told them, “All the things God did for the early disciples He is doing for you. I envy you seeing so many miracles.”
To which they replied, “You say that in your country, millions of people openly worship Jesus in public, over the radio, TV and internet, that they can preach, pray, be baptized without recrimination. You tell us–which are the bigger miracles?”
I think about that every day, as Jerry and I pray aloud together, say grace aloud before a meal in a restaurant, listen to Christian music in our car and Christian messages on YouTube, gather openly with hundreds of others for worship in church on Sundays. We refer to Jesus Christ in emails, on blogs and on Facebook, over the phone and in conversations with neighbors, some of them from countries in which speaking His name or owning His book brings with it automatic rejection, prison or even death.
The hard but triumphant truth is that if we are willing to be obedient we have the opportunity to live in a constantly unfolding continuation of the book of Acts.
It is those who have been persecuted for their obedience–they refer matter-of-factly to their first 3 years in prison as “seminary”–who have all the answers to those questions and can tell us “Don’t be afraid of persecution. It can draw you closer to Jesus, make you stronger and prove life with and for Him is a privilege and an honor.”
(Note: Safely Home, a similarly moving, thinly-fictionalized novel by Randy Alcorn, has captured the story and heart of the persecuted church through the friendship of a nominally Christian American businessman and an underground Christian in China.)