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On another occasion one particularly brutal prison official forced us to lie on our backs under the blazing sun for six straight hours. I don’t know why I said it, but when we finished I told him, “You caused the sun’s rays to strike us, but God will strike you.” A short time later, the official contracted severe diabetes and died.
When the communist government fell several years later, the head official invited us to preach in the jail. At that time, twelve prisoners being held for murder received Christ. We have continued to minister in the prison, and there are now 170 believers. Most of the prison officials have also believed.
Only God can sort out all the influences that led to this remarkable time of harvest among the prison inmates and officials. But surely it would be naïve to think that the suffering of Dansa was not part of the compelling presentation of the reality of Christ in the lives of those who believed.
“THANK YOU, NATASHA, WHEREVER YOU ARE” One of the most moving and incredible accounts of suffering filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is found in Sergei Kourdakov’s autobiography, The Persecutor. Kourdakov was commissioned by the Russian secret police to raid prayer gatherings and persecute believers with extraordinary brutality. But the
afflictions of one believer changed his life:
I saw Victor Matveyev reach and grab for a young girl [Natasha Zhdanova] who was trying to escape to another room. She was a
beautiful young girl. What a waste to be a Believer. Victor caught her, picked her above his head, and held her high in the air for a second.
She was pleading, “Don’t, please don’t. Dear God, help us!” Victor threw her so hard she hit the wall at the same height she was thrown, then dropped to the floor, semiconscious, moaning. Victor turned and laughed and exclaimed, “I’ll bet the idea of God went flying out of her head.”
On a later raid, Sergei was shocked to see Natasha again.
I quickly surveyed the room and saw a sight I couldn’t believe! There she was, the same girl! It couldn’t be. But it was. Only three nights before, she had been at the other meeting and had been viciously thrown across the room. It was the first time I really got a good look at her. She was more beautiful than I had first remembered—a very beautiful girl with long, flowing, blond hair, large blue eyes, and smooth skin, one of the most naturally beautiful girls I have ever seen.… I picked her up and flung her on a table facedown. Two of us stripped her clothes off. One of my men held her down and I began to beat her again and again. My hands began to sting under the blows.
Her skin started to blister. I continued to beat her, until pieces of bloody flesh came off on my hand. She moaned but fought desperately not to cry. To suppress her cries, she bit her lower lip until it was bitten through and blood ran down her chin.
At last she gave in and began sobbing. When I was so exhausted I couldn’t raise my arm for even one more blow, and her backside was a mass of raw flesh, I pushed her off the table, and she collapsed on the floor.
To Sergei’s shock, he later encountered her at yet another prayer meeting.
But this time something was different:
There she was again—Natasha Zhdanova!
Several of the guys saw her too. Alex Gulyaev moved toward Natasha, hatred filling his face, his club raised above his head.
Then something I never expected to see suddenly happened.
Without warning, Victor jumped between Natasha and Alex, facing Alex head-on.
“Get out of my way,” Alex shouted angrily.
Victor’s feet didn’t move. He raised his club and said menacingly, “Alex, I’m telling you, don’t touch her! No one touches her!” I listened in amazement. Incredibly, one of my most brutal men was protecting one of the Believers! “Get back!” he shouted to Alex.
“Get back or I’ll let you have it.” He shielded Natasha, who was cowering on the floor.
Angered, Alex shouted, “You want her for yourself, don’t you?” “No,” Victor shouted back. “She has something we don’t have!
Nobody touches her! Nobody!” …For one of the first times in my life, I was deeply moved… Natasha did have something! She had been beaten horribly. She had been warned and threatened. She had gone through unbelievable suffering, but here she was again. Even Victor had been moved and recognized it. She had something we didn’t have. I wanted to run after her and ask, “What is it?” I wanted to talk to her, but she was gone. This heroic Christian girl who had suffered so much at our hands somehow touched and troubled me very much.
The Lord later opened Sergei’s heart to the glorious good news of Jesus Christ. As he later reflected on Natasha, whom he never saw again, he
And, finally, to Natasha, whom I beat terribly and who was willing to be beaten a third time for her faith, I want to say, Natasha, largely because of you, my life is now changed and I am a fellow Believer in
DEMOTED CHRIST SALVATIONFOR AND FOR Josef Tson has thought deeply about the issue of suffering for Christ as a way to show Christ to the world. He was the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Oradea, Romania, until 1981, when he was exiled by the government. In his
book, Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven, he writes in the conclusion:
“Suffering and martyrdom have to be seen as part of God’s plan; they are His instruments by which He achieves His purposes in history and by which He will accomplish His final purpose with man.” I have heard Tson interpret Colossians 1:24 by saying that Christ’s suffering is for propitiation; our suffering is for propagation. He points out that not only Colossians 1:24, but also 2 Timothy 2:10, makes suffering the means of evangelism: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.”
According to Tson, Paul is saying:
If I had remained a pastor in Antioch, in that affluent and peaceful city, in that wonderful church with so many prophets and such great blessings, nobody in Asia Minor or Europe would have been saved. In order for them to be saved, I have had to accept being beaten with rods, scourged, stoned, treated as the scum of the earth, becoming a walking death. But when I walk like this, wounded and bleeding, people see the love of God, people hear the message of the cross, and they are saved. If we stay in the safety of our affluent churches and we do not accept the cross, others may not be saved. How many are not saved because we don’t accept the cross?18
17. Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor (Carmel, N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell, 1973), 192, 194, 195, 199, 200, 251.
18. Tson, “A Theology of Martyrdom,” 2.
He illustrates how the very suffering of Christians is what often provides the
means of fruitful evangelism:
I had a man in an important position whom I baptized come to me and ask, “Now what shall I do? They will convene three or four thousand people to expose me and mock me. They will give me five minutes to defend myself. How should I do it?” “Brother,” I told him, “defending yourself is the only thing you shouldn’t do. This is your unique chance to tell them who you were before, and what Jesus made of you; who Jesus is, and what he is for you now.” His face shone and he said, “Brother Josef, I know what I am going to do.” And he did it well—so well that afterwards he was severely demoted. He lost almost half of his salary. But he kept coming to me after that saying, “Brother Joseph, you know I cannot walk in that factory now without someone coming up to me. Wherever I go, somebody pulls me in a corner, looks around to see that nobody sees him talking to me, and then whispers, ‘Give me the address of your church,’ or ‘Tell me more about Jesus,’ or ‘Do you have a Bible for me?’” Every kind of suffering can become a ministry for other people’s salvation.19
CHOOSING SUFFER SAKE NATIONSTO FOR THE OF I conclude, then, that when Paul said, “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied,” he meant that Christianity means choosing and embracing a life of suffering for Christ that would be pitiable if Christ proved false. Christianity is not a life that one would embrace as abundant and satisfying without the hope of fellowship with Christ in the resurrection. And what we have seen is that this embracing of suffering is not just an accompaniment of our witness to Christ; it is the visible expression of it. Our
19. Ibid., 3.
sufferings make Christ’s sufferings known so that people can see the kind of love Christ offers. We complete Christ’s afflictions by providing what they do not have, namely, a personal, vivid presentation to those who do not see Christ suffer in person.
The startling implication of this is that the saving purposes of Christ among the nations and in our neighborhoods will not be accomplished unless Christians choose to suffer. At the extreme end of this suffering, the number of martyrs is not yet complete (Revelation 6:11). Without them, the final frontiers of world evangelization will not be crossed. Less extreme is the simple costliness in time and convenience and money and effort to replace excessive and addictive leisure with acts of servant love: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
BUT IS THIS CHRISTIAN HEDONISM?
I have titled this chapter “Suffering: The Sacrifice of Christian Hedonism,” even though on page 243 I quoted David Livingstone as saying that the sufferings of his missionary service were not a “sacrifice.” This is not a contradiction to or disagreement with Livingstone. Words are like that. Context is almost everything. When he says suffering is not a sacrifice, he means the blessings outweigh the losses. When I say that suffering is a sacrifice, I mean that there are losses— great losses. When you realize that I agree with Livingstone, it simply implies that I see the blessings as massive.
But I am going to retain the use of the word sacrifice. The pain is too great, the losses too real, to pretend that we can talk only in terms of no sacrifice. We must simply keep our definitions clear.
My answer is: Yes, this is Christian Hedonism. The entire New Testament treats suffering in a Christian Hedonist context.
Was Paul pursuing deep and lasting joy when he chose suffering—so much suffering that his life would have been utterly foolish and pitiable if there were no resurrection from the dead? The question virtually answers itself. If it is the resurrection alone that makes Paul’s painful life choices not pitiable, but praiseSU F F E R I N G worthy (and possible!), then it is precisely his hope and quest for that resurrection that sustains and empowers his suffering. This is in fact exactly what he says: He counts all ordinary human privileges as loss “that I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11). His aim is to so live—and suffer—that he is assured of resurrection from the dead.
GIVING ALL GAIN CHRISTTO Why? Because resurrection meant full, bodily, eternal fellowship with Christ.
That was the center of Paul’s hope: “I count [all things] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). Gaining Christ was Paul’s great passion and goal in all he did: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Gain! Gain! This is the goal of his life and suffering. Paul desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). “Far better” is not an altruistic motive. It is a Christian Hedonist motive. Paul wanted what would bring the deepest and most lasting satisfaction to his life, namely, being with Christ in glory.
But not alone with Christ in glory!
No one who knows and loves Christ can be content to come to Him alone.
The apex of His glory if this: “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). If this is the summit of Christ’s glorious mercy, then those who count it their infinite gain cannot live for private pleasures. The pleasures at Christ’s right hand are public pleasures, shared pleasures, communal pleasures.
When Paul said that he counted everything as loss in order to gain Christ, his losses were all for the sake of bringing others with him to Christ: “If I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all (Philippians 2:17). The pouring out of his life in sufferings was, to be sure, “that he might gain Christ,” but it was also that he might gain the faith of the nations that magnifies the mercy of Christ.
MY JOY, MY CROWN EXULTATION!
OF This is why Paul describes the people he had won to faith as his joy: “My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20). The church was his joy because, in their joy in Christ, his joy in Christ was greater. More of Christ’s mercy was magnified in multiplied converts to the Cross. So when Paul chose suffering in the cause of world evangelization and said that his aim was to “gain Christ,” he meant that his own personal enjoyment of fellowship with Christ would be eternally greater because of the great assembly of the redeemed enjoying Christ with him.