24 March 2020
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 have experienced far more severe isolation for much longer periods. Here are some things we can learn from nine Chinese pastors who spent years of their lives behind bars.
Worship and recite Scripture for spiritual strength
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)
The Chinese pastors continued to worship God and recited Scripture which gave them 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.”
Worshipping, 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 messages about COVID-19 can easily get to us and bring us down. We need to hold on to what is eternal and true: our Lord God.
Accept that suffering is a normal part of following Jesus
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on 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 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. The coronavirus doesn’t specifically target Christians, of course, but it is reassuring to know that God anticipated suffering and prepared us for it.
Let go and surrender to God’s will
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
When the Chinese 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. The will of God is one of the most difficult things to understand. Jesus asked His disciples to trust Him – to let go of their life and follow Him, no matter the cost.
Find a secret (or online!) fellowship
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
The pastors 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 labour camps, despite the risks. One pastor got married shortly before his arrest, 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. That’s why Paul wrote letters to churches when he wasn’t with them. Isolation creates misunderstanding, causes division and makes us vulnerable. Stay connected to the body of Christ. Worship God with your household and connect with other Christians by phone or digitally – find out what your local church or churches are doing to keep in touch with their members, or, if you’re able, why not set up some communication yourself? Just one phone call or text can make a huge difference, especially to the most vulnerable, and those without the internet.
Experience God’s presence
The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken. (Psalm 34:17-20)
Several of the pastors described their experience of God's presence during times of doubt and despair. One recalled seeing an image of Jesus, to remind him of God's love. These pastors 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 unprecedented ways. As one persecuted believer said, “The love of Jesus cannot be quarantined.” We can experience His love and share His love with others during this time.
Identify with the suffering of Jesus and of His disciples
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)
The 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 pastors 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. This crisis can bring us closer to those who suffer, whatever the cause of their suffering. And, of course, many believers.
Believe there is a greater purpose
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)
When we read the apostle Paul’s writings, his heavenly perspective shines through. He always asks the question: What might God be doing here? Is what is happening to you and to the world around you serving to advance the gospel? Can you be a part of it?
Many of the pastors were convinced that God had used the suffering of His people to bring others to Christ in China. When they tasted the harvest and found their purpose, they gained more peace in the process of suffering.
Here in the UK and Ireland, we’ve seen an amazing explosion of creativity, generosity and connection as a result of the coronavirus. We can trust that God will all circumstances – whether good or bad – for His kingdom and His purposes, which are always good.
This period of isolation is temporary. Let’s continue to remember our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world and join with them in prayer as we pray for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done.