Andrew Brunson: When God’s Grace Isn’t What You Expect
My wife, Norine, and I lived in Turkey for 25 years, starting churches and a house of prayer, and working with refugees. Our lives were turned upside down one day when we were invited to the local police station and told that there was an order to arrest and deport us.
The problem is, they never got around to deporting us. They released Norine after two weeks, but they held me for two years. They accused me of being a military spy, a terrorist, and of trying to overthrow the Turkish government.
None of this was true. They wanted to make an example of someone in order to intimidate other Christians, and they chose me. They threatened to give me three life sentences in solitary confinement.
I thought of myself as a relatively tough missionary — we had faced threats before; I had even been shot at once. But I was not prepared for what I experienced in prison. It was much more difficult than I imagined it would be, and I almost didn’t make it through. Persecution almost knocked me out.
Many Christians do not think this can happen in the United States, but it can. Followers of Jesus throughout history and in countries around the world have experienced persecution. In fact, our experience of very little persecution up to now is the exception.
I think everyone can see that our society has changed significantly in the last generation or two. The commanding heights of our culture — the corporate world, big tech, arts, media, entertainment, professional sports, schools and universities, government bureaucracy — are mostly populated by people who do not honor God. In fact, many openly defy Him. These are the people who control the centers of power and influence. They have the platforms to amplify their voices and shape public opinion, and they’re increasingly hostile to those who identify clearly with Jesus and His teaching.
I’m not talking about politics. I’m not thinking of this as an issue of right versus left, but rather followers of Jesus on the one hand, and on the other, those who are hostile to followers of Jesus.
What Will Drive Persecution
I think two wedge issues will drive persecution. First, the exclusivity of Jesus in salvation — that Jesus is the only way to God. Second, that Jesus demands obedience from His followers in a number of areas that are hotly contested in our culture, such as sexual morality, gender identity, marriage, family, life, and biblical justice. Those who are faithful to Jesus in upholding gospel exclusivity and obedience to Christ are going to be labeled as evil people, and those who persecute us will justify themselves by saying that we are a people of hate, that we carry a message of hate.
This, of course, is completely backward. It’s a satanic lie. But think of Jesus. He was the most loving and kind man in history, and yet people called Him evil. They said He was demonic, and an angry mob demanded He be killed in a gruesome way. And Jesus said that just as the world hated Him, it will also hate His followers.
And that’s true. Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. Why? It’s because when we walk closely with Jesus, we carry His scent, and people react to Him in us.
I think this is some of what will happen: Many, in the name of being inclusive and tolerant, will say that the followers of Jesus are a threat to safety. They’ll say: “You can’t work here. Your views make people feel unsafe. You can’t use social media. You can’t use our financial products. We won’t process your payments. We’re canceling your bank account. You can’t use these credit cards. And as for your church, we’re closing down your website and your podcasts. And we’re stripping you of your tax-exempt status because you have a message of hate.”
These are some of the possible pressure points. I don’t know how far it will go, but even if it’s just being despised and hated and slandered, that can be difficult enough.
For now, we still have robust legal protections for freedom of religion, but as the commanding heights of our culture turn against our Judeo-Christian heritage, these protections can erode very quickly. And when we reach a tipping point, it will accelerate rapidly across a wide front.
The majority of believers are not ready for the pressures of persecution, and this is very dangerous. I can tell you this from personal experience. I came close to failing, especially during my first year in prison. At times I was suicidal. I was overcome with fear and despair. I went into relational crisis with God.
I believe one of the purposes God had in my imprisonment was that I would learn how to stand under pressure even when I was weak and overwhelmed, and this was in part so that I could encourage others to stand when they’re under pressure.
In this series I will highlight some of the spiritual dangers ahead and suggest some steps we can take to prepare ourselves to stand. This is not a comprehensive list, but these are things that I learned and practiced that helped me to endure under intense pressure, and I believe they will help you also.
I’m focusing on preparation of the heart, which is the most important and fundamental factor in determining whether we will stand faithful. And that is the ultimate goal: to be faithful to the end.
Talk and Plan
Here’s how we can start to prepare to stand under pressure: We need to talk about persecution, be aware of it, and plan for it. It needs to be on our radar screen, and I say this especially for pastors, leaders, influencers, parents, and grandparents, because you have people under your care. If we don’t talk about it, then when that dark wave hits, it is going to shock many people, and that places them in danger of being knocked out.
This is especially true because persecution is different from other trials. There are many pressures that we cannot easily escape — an illness, grief from a loss, a broken relationship. But persecution is different because the pressure will usually stop if you just compromise. This is why we must prepare ourselves ahead of time, so that when pressure comes and we are afraid, we do not run but stand firm. Here are three practical things to do.
Read in a New Way
First, read the New Testament with a different eye. It’s full of exhortations to prepare and also examples of people living victoriously under persecution. In prison, I especially read 2 Timothy, which Paul wrote in a dungeon before he was martyred. The letter of 1 Peter addresses Christians who are suffering for doing good. Read the gospels with a focus on what Jesus says about persecution, how He Himself deals with persecution and how He prepares His disciples. Discuss with your loved ones and decide now that “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15) — even if it becomes costly.
Pray for Strength
Second, begin to pray now that you and your loved ones will have enough faith and strength to stand. This is what Jesus urged His disciples to do. He said, “Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41, NIV). And Peter says to believers facing persecution, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Learn From Persecuted Believers
Third, learn from persecuted Christians, those who have gone before and endured faithfully. We have been conditioned not to expect persecution in this country, so we need to change our mindset. This is not a time for ministry as usual in the church. Many churches are looking at how to expand, but very few are getting ready for the wave that is about to hit. Some of my friends are expecting a revival, and I hope it comes. But before we see revival fire, I think we will go through a refining fire. So, we need to prioritize preparing ourselves right now.
Early in my detention, my mother was allowed to visit me, and she said to me, “Andrew, there’s a long line of people who have suffered for Jesus Christ. My son, it is now your turn to stand in that line.” This was a difficult thing to hear, but it was the right perspective. Accept that you may have to stand in that line.
The Hard Truth
The hard truth is that God allows His children to suffer persecution, and it can be more difficult than we think. I had an idealistic view of how I would handle intense persecution like imprisonment. And looking back, I think it would have helped me to know how difficult it can be, so that I could adjust my mindset and expectations.
I hear some people saying confidently now, “Persecution will be good for us. It will build the church. Bring it on.” We need to be careful not to be over-confident. I say to you again, it can be more difficult than we think, and God’s faithfulness, His help, His grace, may look different than what we would expect.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Paul declared confidently to Timothy: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly Kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). But when he wrote this, he was suffering in a miserable Roman dungeon. He was expecting to be executed, so safety and being rescued may look different than we imagined. And Jesus tells His disciples that they’re going to face persecution and be hated by everybody. Some of them will be imprisoned. Some of them will be put to death. And then after giving them this long list of terrible things that can happen to them, He says, “But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18). So, escaping harm may not look the way we expect.
The Supremacy of Jesus
Because this can be a discouraging subject, we need to keep before us the truth of the supremacy of Jesus, the image of Jesus as the Lion. He will not be defeated.
C.S. Lewis in “The Chronicles of Narnia” tells the story of a horse and his boy who want to go to Narnia. But to get there, they have to undertake a perilous journey that’s filled with hardship and danger. One of the key points in the book is when the boy and the horse have to go through a very dangerous mountain area at night. It’s dark. They can’t see anything and there are sheer cliffs. But the great lion, Aslan, takes them through to the other side.
A year before I was arrested, someone had referred to this story when praying over us, and said that I had a perilous journey ahead of me, but that I would press through, that I would keep going, because God would be with me. And we wrote that down.
Right before we were arrested, Norine happened to grab this prayer among some other random pages as she left our home in a flurry on her way to a prayer retreat. In God’s timing, this is what she was praying through right before my perilous journey began. I thought of it often in prison. There was hardship. There was real danger, and at times I came close to defeat. What God wanted to highlight for me was the Lion — the Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ. He was there and would take me through to the other side.
My brothers and sisters, we are on a perilous journey. There will be hardship and danger, but the Lion is with us. At some point, the journey will end, and it will end in victory for the Lion and for those who are on His side.
This article originally appeared in Decision Magazine.
For more, see Andrew Brunson’s video series Prepare to Stand.
Andrew Brunson serves as special advisor for religious freedom at Family Research Council.
Andrew Brunson is Special Advisor for Religious Freedom at Family Research Council.