Now, if “worst” means “costliest” or “most challenging” such as it does in this excellent piece from our brothers and sisters at Voice of the Martyrs on which I was privileged to collaborate, then that designation is certainly well deserved. In North Korea, becoming a Christian and taking up one’s cross are the same thing, not two distinct steps where the first is good and the second is optional and hopefully avoidable. Trust me when I tell you that there are a grand total of zero casual Christians in North Korea.
But if “worst” implies a diminishing of the presence of God, some kind of “blessing shadow” where Christians receive less of God’s goodness and divine provision than the rest of us, I would emphasize that North Korean Christians would strenuously disagree.
It certainly is true that North Korea would be among the worst places to be if one was not a Christian. But North Korean Christians see the situation differently. They talk about being filled with joy and honor to bear the reproach of Christ. They do not consider their provision from God inferior to our own. They fervently believe that their existence in North Korea has a purpose. North Korean underground Christians are, when compared to other groups in North Korea, among the least likely to try to defect. While some underground Christians do escape, our experience has been that they almost always do so with sadness and as an absolute last resort. I’ve never talked with one who was exultant to leave or who told me that they were looking for a better place to be a Christian.
We should always ask what we mean when we say that a particular place is the “worst” for Christians. Our reckoning that North Korea is the worst place to be a Christian may say more about our own understanding of Christianity than it does about the conditions Christians face in North Korea.
With that in mind, here are 10 reasons North Korea is not the worst place to be a Christian:
1. Romans 8:28 still applies inside of North Korea.
2. One can only suffer for the name of Jesus if he counts you worthy to do so, and so if you are a Christian in a country where it is considered optional or undesirable to take up your cross you probably ought to be more concerned than if you are a Christian in a country where nearly every Christian considers it pure joy when they suffer for the name of Jesus.
3. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. …For your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5: 11–12). The whole earthly thing is temporary. God is a debtor to no one. In the end, no one can say their suffering exceeded or was even comparable to their reward. If you believe in eternal life, aren’t you at least a little intrigued by what Jesus means by “a great reward in heaven”?
4. We Western Christians can be tempted or deceived into confusing God with Mammon, freedom of religion with freedom in Christ. North Korean Christians see–daily–the stark difference between the One True God and every counterfeit. They talk of a freedom that can’t be taken away, even inside a concentration camp.
5. For some Western Christians, our biggest theological preoccupation seems to be making sure we are not trying to earn our way to heaven. I have never in my life heard a North Korean Christian under the impression that they could earn their way to heaven. They have a visceral, moment-by-moment awareness that they are completely dependent upon the grace of God for their daily bread. They are long past thinking that they can do anything to impress God.
6. Wholly reliant upon the power of God, they daily pray and see him move in the most miraculous ways. Some of us Western Christians are either theologically or practically convinced that God quit answering prayers for his miraculous intervention somewhere around Acts 28:30. North Korean Christians would regard that as patently heretical.
7. Some of us Western Christians have a hard time believing in the practical reality of Satan. North Korean Christians have no such hangup. As such, they learn to take evil far more seriously, and thus they actually mean it when they say that Christ is their only comfort in life and death.
8. They understand–in the depths of their stomachs and in every fiber and sinew of their bodies–that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Meanwhile, many of our day-to-day prayers as Western Christians are variations on John 6:34, “Sir, always give us this bread.”
9. Most North Korean Christians find Luke 16:19-31 very comforting and are longing for that day. How are you doing with that one?
10. God raises up the church is a witness to his grace, presence, and judgment in every nation. As such, Christians no longer live for themselves but instead for Christ and as his ambassadors. If one truly understands one’s identity as an ambassador, one glories in that identity rather than grumbling about the country where one got posted.