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Imagine for a moment that you are Timothy.
You’ve given up everything to follow Paul as he follows the Lord. After being circumcised and saying farewell to your parents, you take to the road with Paul and Silas. Along your journey, you visit groups of believers from around the world and share with them instructions from apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
At first, the experience is exhilarating. Every step of the way, you are being instructed by Paul, Silas, and the global Christian community. You watch in awe as your mentors direct their steps according to the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit. Although you are still a student and several things about Christianity remain elusive, your faith has never seemed so alive! Like Peter, John, and James on the mount of transfiguration, you want to stay awash in Christ’s glory forever.
But then Paul has a vision.
When Paul first tells you and Silas about the vision, you are all excited. Recently on your journey, Paul and Silas were barred from visiting Asia or Bithynia by the Holy Spirit. For a while, you had no idea where you were headed. Now, however, Paul has been given a destination.
In the dead of night, Paul saw a vision of a Macedonian man begging him for help. So the three of you set course for Macedonia right away.
The three of you arrive in Philippi, the largest city in Macedonia, with great hope. Through Paul’s vision, God led you to Macedonia, so you figure that God must have great plans for this city. After everything that you’ve seen on your travels with Paul and Silas, you can’t wait to see what he has in store!
Within a matter of days, however, Paul and Silas have been dragged from the marketplace, stripped, beaten, and humiliated in the stocks. Now that evening has fallen, Paul and Silas have been taken off to prison and you, Timothy, are left behind to contemplate these recent events.
If God had led Paul to Macedonia and Paul had faithfully followed his instructions, why had Paul and Silas been arrested?
Why had God’s promises turned sour?
This is a question that both North Koreans and Eritreans are all too familiar with. These brothers and sisters find that sometimes the only reward for faithfully serving the Lord has been prison or persecution. Scripture has told them that their God is the God of miracles, the God of healing, and the God that is bigger and more powerful than any government. Yet these brothers and sisters often find themselves in situations where all of the promises of scripture seem false.
If God is who the scriptures say he is, why do his children find themselves in situations like this?
Standing before a crowd of our North Korean Underground University and Underground Technology students, Pastor Temesgen, an Eritrean pastor who has suffered much for his faith, said this: “Even if we are in a bad situation, we must give praise to God.”
Pastor Temesgen was not speaking empty words. Although Eritrea is not as infamous as North Korea, it is a country that takes pride in being called the “North Korea of Africa.” It is a small country, but it is one of the biggest offenders of human rights worldwide—especially when it comes to Christianity.
Eritrea and North Korea are very similar—namely, because the Eritrea government purposely tries to emulate North Korea. There has never been an election in Eritrea, as the country only allows for one political party: People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). This party is vehemently opposed to the West, and has a history of befriending countries with equally nefarious human rights records (North Korea, Communist Russia, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, etc.).
Since Eritrea has repeatedly postponed the creation of constitutional clauses pertaining to individual freedom, the people of Eritrea can be arrested and imprisoned at any time and for any reason. There is a forced and indefinite conscription into the army. Citizens are denied any form of independent media, which limits their source of information to the government’s official channels.
Just as North Korean defectors are constantly trickling into China, Eritrean defectors find ways to cross the border into Ethiopia. Crossing the border in both cases is incredibly dangerous, and so potential defectors often seek help from brokers and smugglers. Unlike North Korean defectors, however, Eritrean defectors do not receive a stipend from the government upon arriving at their destination. Eritrean defectors are tossed into a shanty town, where they are forced to build houses from mud and straw. Conditions are squalid and, despite the government’s best efforts, the defectors are often underfed.
Suffering is an old and familiar friend to Pastor Temesgen. But—just like Paul, Silas, and Timothy—Pastor Temesgen tells us that we must give thanks to God in the midst of our suffering.
“Even though Christians who defect from Eritrea have no food, they still give thanks to God because their faith is strong,” Pastor Temesgen told our North Korean students.
Although Paul and Silas may not have expected to wind up in prison, scripture tells us that they worshipped while all the other prisoners were sleeping. Just as Paul and Silas were ignorant of their imprisonment when they followed God into Macedonia, they were now ignorant that God would soon release them. Yet, they worshipped.
“We need to remember that at five in the morning, the world is always very dark, but one hour later, the sun lights up the world,” Pastor Temesgen reminded the students. “So when you are in a dark time, give thanks to God. He will bring the sun again.”
How do we know that the sun is coming? Because we know God’s character. We have learned about God’s character from Paul and Silas’ experience in Macedonia. But we have also learned about God’s character from the experiences of our brothers and sisters from around the world.
“It is true that many Christians in Eritrea are sent to prison,” Pastor Temesgen explained. “But it is also true that God has used these Christians to transform prisons into churches.”
When Christians are imprisoned and they remember to faithfully give thanks even in the darkest of circumstances, others notice. Eritrean prisoners are always drawn to Christian prisoners because of their unconditional joy. Even prison guards are drawn in by the Christian prisoners. Pastor Temesgen has seen both prisoner and guard alike becoming missionaries and pastors—all because Christians were sent to jail.
This was Paul and Silas’ experience as well. Because of their witness, they were not only able to impress their fellow prisoners, but were also able to impress the same guard who had so emotionlessly put them in the stocks.
“Governments can bind a body into prison, but they can never bind the gospel,” Pastor Temesgen said.
When Pastor Temesgen speaks of God’s work in Eritrea, it is easy to see God moving. However, what about North Korea?
“Compared to North Korea, Eritrea is more open. That is why you hear more stories about God moving in Eritrea than in North Korea. However, when North Korea opens, I know we will hear many stories about how God was moving in North Korea, too,” Pastor Temesgen promised the students.
Whether we are Christians imprisoned at the time of Acts, underground North Korean believers, or Christians in the free world, we must remember to give thanks to God in every circumstance. When we do this, we remind the world—and ourselves—that God is moving in every place, in everyone, and in every time.
Yes, I suppose imagine a fresh circumcision of heart!