If you want to be transformed, share your testimony before you’re transformed (and other lessons I learned from coaching traumatized North Koreans)

A Guest Post from Dr. Hyun Sook Foley

Contrary to what you may have been taught or maybe just assumed, you do not have to live a successful life first and then tell your testimony once your life is polished and perfect. You don’t have to suddenly start making great choices and produce astonishing results in every area you touch before your story is worth hearing and telling. Instead, when you learn to tell your story the way God does, you’ll discover that you really are already in the middle of something truly amazing, right in the midst of your difficulties. You are already on a hero’s journey.

And it’s okay if you’re not the heroic type, because the heroics come from God. We’re the recipients of His heroics, not the other way around.

A close reading of the Bible reveals that God never gives anyone a victim story or a life consigned to failure. “No,” says the apostle Paul to the Roman Christians, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” He who loved us is God. Human beings are created in the image of God, and God is no victim. Victim stories come from Satan, who, according to John 10:10, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” And nothing can steal, kill, and destroy your life as a victim story can. God, on the other hand, only narrates redemptive stories, or what we might call hero stories. And He reserves hero status for individuals who simply trust in that truth and in His goodness, and thus let Him narrate their lives accordingly. Wouldn’t you rather let God narrate your life story than Satan? That’s all that being a hero requires.

Nearly two decades of work with North Korean Christians has led me to recognize that the difference between those who are happy and those who are traumatized does not lay in their experiences but rather in the narrative frame they use to understand and tell their stories, right as they are in the midst of living them. I coach traumatized North Koreans to narrate their life stories using a different frame than the ones they learned from North or South Korea–a biblical frame, where God can be revealed as guiding and caring for them at each step. With surprisingly little outside coaching, life change became possible for these North Koreans because they changed the way they told, thought about, and lived their stories. In very much the same way, you can learn to change the way you tell your story, and the way you think about it.

In fact, my own life has been fundamentally transformed by changing my narrative frame. Like you, perhaps, I have experienced a number of near-crippling psychological, spiritual, and physical episodes over the years, including losing my health, getting divorced, being physically abused, and suffering the painful betrayal of close friends. As each difficult episode was added to my life story, I became more and more tempted to narrate it as a sad, broken, and disappointing story.

But what I learned through coaching North Koreans through trauma is that the path to positive life change did not begin with us somehow starting to get everything right in our lives but rather in us first getting the narrative frame itself right. In fact, until you get the narrative frame right, very little else will go right in your life. The wrong narrative frame will lead you to make unsatisfactory choices, as I did. I needed to learn to tell, hear, and live my story for God’s glory, not my own. That meant embracing His narrative form, which is always gracious, redemptive, and Christ-centered, rather than the narrative forms of the cultures around me (American and Korean) which were either self-focused, shame based, or success oriented.

Take it from North Koreans: Learning how to hear and tell your story the way that God does is the key to coming to greater peace with yourself, others, and God even though you might be right in the midst of nearly impossible circumstances. It is these challenges that make your story so very, very good and important, after all.

Posted in North Korea | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

How North Koreans Can Help Us Tell Our Life Stories the Way God Wants Us To

A Guest Post from Dr. Hyun Sook Foley

The estimated population of North Korea is nearly twenty-five million people, but North Korea is actually the country of one story: the story of Kim Il Sung.

As North Koreans grow up, they have to memorize more than one hundred stories about Kim Il Sung’s life. That includes exact dates, place names, details, everything. Kim Il Sung is the subject of nearly every North Korean’s story, and Kim Il Sung is the hero of nearly every North Korean’s story.

But when North Koreans escape their country and enter South Korea (where more than thirty thousand North Korean defectors have now resettled), they are confronted with the reality that Kim Il Sung is no hero. For North Koreans, learning to tell their own stories as anything other than Kim Il Sung’s story is quite challenging. They quickly latch on to the stories that others tell about them, and those stories are always deficit stories: Defectors are considered traitors by North Korea, and even in South Korea there is strong prejudice against them. They are viewed as lazy, stupid, dishonest, and untrustworthy.

Many North Korean defectors internalize these negative narratives about themselves, and the results are literally fatal: North Korean defectors have the highest rate of death due to suicide of any group in the world: more than 16 percent. That shows how deadly it is to adopt any narrative frame but God’s for telling your life story.

That’s why I became involved in listening to the life stories of North Korean defectors and coaching them to retell their stories using a “hero’s journey” framework. It really was a matter of life and death! Virtually every defector with whom I have ever sat down with tells me his or her story as a victim story, as a story of worthlessness, unbearable pain, or both. The person’s life is filled with memories of starvation and concentration camps, combined with the worship of the leaders that made it happen—a worship that is ultimately transformed into hatred.

So after I hear them share their stories this way, I share with them about God, who, according to Revelation 12:11, intends for us to triumph over our enemies by the blood of His Son, Jesus, and by the word of our testimony. In other words, our very survival depends on the stories we tell about ourselves. I advise my North Korean defector brothers and sisters to learn to tell the stories God tells about them, because if they don’t, they will end up living forever inside the story of Kim Il Sung, even though they have left North Korea physically.

After I coached North Korean defectors in these truths enough times, I started to realize that the same is true for the rest of us too. We also have to learn how to tell our stories the way God tells them. If we don’t, we will always tell (and live in) stories about ourselves that lead to unhappy endings.

The good news is that those who experience the most pain and suffering and setbacks and life-shattering tragedies are those who go on to do the greatest things and have the best lives—if they learn to see, understand, and tell their own “hero’s journey” story the way God tells it.

Posted in North Korea | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Satan’s New Strategy: Save the Church from Itself

Satan is always seeking to destroy the church, but his strategy updates with the times.

Back when Voice of the Martyrs founder Rev. Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years in a Romanian prison under Cold War Communists for practicing his Christian faith, the persecutors were easy to identify: They were the ones who were trying to kill the Christians and crush the church.

Today the opponents of Christianity are harder to identify. In places like China and North Korea, they present themselves not as opponents of the faith but rather as its most principled and enlightened proponents.

What the governments (and government-sponsored theologians) in these countries oppose, they say, is not Christianity but rather the captivity of Christianity to Western imperialism. They contend that when citizens in their countries get involved with Westernized Christianity, they become belligerent toward indigenous religions and ideologies, refusing to cooperate with their own government’s efforts to promote good citizenship, religious co-existence, and a better future for all. They become, in other words, bad citizens. In this way of thinking, in order for Christianity to become a positive social force in China and North Korea, the state must ensure that Christianity stops behaving like a foreign import and instead develops as a domestic product. Christianity must “de-Westernize” and—in the terminology favored by the Chinese government and its state-sponsored theologians—”Sinicize”.

This kind of talk finds a sympathetic ear among the general global public these days. The “Sinicization” of Christianity seem like a courageous cultural “me-too” movement, where Chinese Christians can finally reject the unwanted centuries-old advances of the white male Western theologians and churches whose money and power have long silenced Chinese voices and Chinese ways of encountering and worshiping the Christian God.

The idea that the main problem with Christianity is Christians is hardly new. Even the idea that Christianity in places like China and North Korea must find its voice through liberation from its Western imperialist roots has a long history. Rev. Wurmbrand ended up in prison in part because he was the lone voice of dissent in a “Congress of the Cults” where Romanian Christian leaders heaped praise on the new communist government as saviors of a long-captive church.

What is new, however, is the evangelical church in the rest of the world heaping praise on this strategy as well.

Upon reflection, it is not hard to understand the attraction of evangelicals to working through these state-sponsored churches in places like North Korea and China. Partnering with underground Christians is dangerous, illegal, unpopular, politically problematic, impractical, and necessarily small scale. In contrast, partnering with government-sanctioned churches potentially yields a positive public witness for Christianity. To know us, the hope goes, is to love us. Evangelicals reason that by engaging in religious tourism, speaking at state-sponsored churches and events, and funding serious amounts of humanitarian aid—all things that communist governments love—goodwill will be fostered and the official door will open wider for more Christian involvement. Such a missions strategy, the thinking goes, could ultimately end up reaching exponentially more people for Christ in places like North Korea than the underground church ever could.

But there is a fundamental flaw with such a strategy: Any time a state cuts its Christian citizens off from the church around the world and the church throughout history, the inevitable result is imperialist Christianity. No one should know that better than Christians in the West. Western imperialist Christianity flourished during the Hundred Years War, when Western Christians themselves were divided into national churches.

But the problem is not an inherently Western one, nor even a white male Western one. The root of the word “imperialism” is the Latin imperium, which means “to rule”.  Any time Christianity is conscripted in support of a government’s rule—any government’s rule—it becomes merely a means of advancing a worldly imperium. But, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  


This is precisely what makes governments nervous—communist governments today, and Western governments in previous centuries. The one holy catholic and apostolic church is not created by lump sums, i.e., the Chinese church plus the North Korean church plus the Western church. As Paul takes great pains to note in addressing the Christians in each of his letters, there are only Christians in China, North Korea, and the West—not Chinese Christians, North Korean Christians, and Western Christians. Christians are united not first with their nations, and then next with a national church which is somehow then united with churches of other times and places. Instead, Christians in every time and place are directly united in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that transcends time and geography. They have one Lord, Jesus, and one country, heaven.

In a sense, this is what makes evangelical Christians nervous as well. Evangelicalism emphasizes personal faith so strongly that it matters little to most evangelicals whether a Christian is in China or of China, so long as that Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus. That is sufficient ticket to heaven in today’s evangelical parlance. But as Jesus himself noted, no one can serve two imperiums without hating one and loving the other. Heavenly citizenship contrasts with earthly citizenship—whether Chinese, North Korean, or Western—at least as much as it overlaps. The fact that modern evangelicals struggle to articulate how shows just how cut off we ourselves are from the church across time and geography.

All of this brings us back to Rev. Wurmbrand in his cell at Jilava Prison. In the end, it was not his personal convictions and relationship with God that kept him connected to Christ. He was quick to point out that under the right circumstances any prisoner will forget the Lord’s Prayer, every Bible verse, and even one’s own name and nationality. What kept him—and us—connected is membership in the one body of Christ. This membership, it turns out, cannot be cut off by either nations or the churches eager to do business with and through them, because it is guaranteed by the Christ who will not let anyone snatch us out of his hand.

And it turns out that what is true of individual believers is also true of the church: The Apostle Paul was persuaded that neither principalities nor powers—the stuff that countries and their governments are made of—could separate us from the body of Christ. That means that any effort to separate Christians from each other—for example, luring evangelical Christians around the world into partnership with monocultural, ahistorical state-sanctioned churches in North Korea and China, instead of drawing North Korean and Chinese Christians into the one, holy. Catholic, and apostolic church that crosses all bounds of geography and time—will ultimately be exposed not as an exciting new chapter in world missions but as another futile effort by Satan to destroy the church of God.

Posted in China, North Korea | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments