Encouragement from Suffering Saints

Several years ago I read a stirring book called The Korean Pentecost & The Sufferings Which Followed. Reading it reminded me once again of the suffering church and challenged my faith afresh. Since tomorrow is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, let me share with you a portion of one pastor’s story.

Choo Kichul was born in 1897 in Oongchun, South Kyungsang Province to a non-Christian family. When a young man, Choo became a Christian under the ministry of Kim Ikdoo. He attended both college and seminary, and following his graduation served small churches in South Korea. Eventually, he was called to the large Sanchunghyun Presbyterian Church in Pyengyang.

Korea was under Japanese rule in those days, and though the Japanese Constitution guaranteed “freedom of religion,” the refusal to bow before shrines was considered politically insubordinate. Many professing Christians submitted to the directives of the Japanese and bowed before the Shinto shrines, but the true Christians, like Pastor Kichul, refused. His strong conviction to worship Christ and Christ alone was publicly known. In fact, a covenant was drawn up by over two dozen churches to stand against shrine worship. Nobody was baptized who did not give their consent to the covenant, and no one was allowed to lead in worship who hadn’t affirmed it.

Pastor Choo was first arrested because of his connection with a deacon in his church who was a member of the “Christian Farmer’s Movement,” an organization under suspicion of being anti-Japanese. Choo was arrested in 1938 and imprisoned for six months. His opposition to shrine worship did not go unnoticed in his trial. He was released, however, after being threatened by the authorities.

Following his release, and after much prayer, Choo preached with great freedom against shrine worship, declaring that it was idolatry. He was arrested again in August of 1939. It was difficult for him to go back to prison, leaving behind his blind mother and crying children. His brave wife, however, was a constant prayer warrior, asking not for her husband’s release, but that the Lord would help him to “be strong and of good courage to the end, and to be offered up a sacrifice on the altar of the Korean Church.” His congregation also prayed that he would be faithful to the end.

This second arrest brought the first torture. Pastor Choo was flogged for some five hours, until he finally fainted under the duress. He was examined under torture ten different times, but never gave in to the wishes of his oppressors. A fellow prisoner reported that he would often pray, “Lord, don’t leave this weak Choo Kichul too long, but hurry up and take him away!”

He was in prison for six years. During the last twenty days of his life he was able to eat practically nothing, because of the severe disease and sickness he had contracted in the rough prison conditions. His wife visited him the day before his death. Some of his last words to her were: “I’ve gone the road I’m supposed to go” - “Follow in my steps” - “Let’s meet in heaven.” He died on April 13, 1944 at 9:30 p.m. (This story is told by Bruce Hunt in The Korean Pentecost & The Sufferings Which Followed [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977], p. 100-103).

This was just one of many, many stories of pastors, elders, evangelists, and other Christians who suffered torture, persecution, and death for the sake of their Lord Jesus Christ. While this particular martyrdom took place in the 1940’s, it is an undisputed fact that thousands of believers die for their faith every year. North Korea remains antagonistic to the Christian faith.

What should be our response to the persecuted church?

1. Let us be stirred with compassion for our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ. The author of Hebrews commands us to: “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). Because we are members of the same body, we are to remember our suffering brothers and sisters “as though in prison with them.” This means we should cultivate an awareness of and compassion for the suffering church equal in intensity to what we would feel if we ourselves were undergoing the same. I am not there and neither are you. It is almost impossible to be that disengaged from our peaceful and complacent culture. But the Bible commands it; therefore, we must pursue it.

2. Let us plead with God to prepare our hearts to be faithful unto death. I didn’t relate to you the events spoken of in the first half of the book - namely, the revival which swept through the Korean Church in the early 1900’s. But there is no doubt that the revival helped prepare the church for the suffering which followed. Just as the Day of Pentecost preceded the first wave of persecution in the first century church (as recorded in Acts), so did the “Korean Pentecost” precede and prepare the Korean believers for the persecution which would soon follow.

3. Let us be weaned from this world and live for Christ alone! Should we ever be called upon to die a martyr’s death, we must be able to say with Paul, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” (Philip. 1:21). Let’s learn to say it now. How can we get there? What is the secret to endurance? Well, when one Korean pastor was asked, “How do you have the courage to keep going in the face of constant arrests?” he answered, “When I became a Christian, I died with Christ, and once you are dead, what men do to you cannot hurt you” (The Korean Pentecost, p. 120-121).

That is basically what John Bunyan had said almost three hundred years before. Though Bunyan was not martyred, he did experience regular suffering during his 12 year imprisonment, away from his wife and six children, in the Bedford jail. His secret to endurance was found in 2 Cor. 1:9, which reads: "Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Whether this “sentence of death” for Paul was literal or metaphorical, Bunyan’s comments on this text ring true. He said: "By this Scripture, I was made to see that if ever I would suffer rightly, I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything that can be properly called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them. The second was, to live upon God that is invisible, as Paul said in another place, the way not to faint is to 'look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.'" (Quoted by John Piper in The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd [Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2000] p. 42-43).

There is the key to persevering through suffering: a radical detachment from – yes, even deadness to – the things of this world that we might live upon God who is invisible.

4. Let us be encouraged by the example of those who have gone before. As Hebrews 12:1-2 states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who steadfastly fixed their eyes on Jesus Christ and endured to the end. How encouraged we should be by their faithfulness! May we follow in their steps.

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