"Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:17)
I read an article today written by Leo Thorsness, recounting an episode from his captivity in North Viet Nam. (You can find the entire article here.) After the Son Tay raid, the North Vietnamese moved all the prisoners of war into a central location. For the first time ever, men who had become friends through the "tap code" could actually see each others' faces.
On the first Sunday they were together, they agreed to hold a church service. As they gathered in one end of the room they shared, the guards burst in to break them up. Ned Shuman, the ranking officer, explained that there would be no trouble; they were just holding a church service. The guards would not allow them to gather in groups of more than three, and under no circumstances were they to have a church service.
During the next week, they felt bad about backing down and renewed their commitment to hold a service, with each man committing individually to it. Ned Shuman knew that when it happened, he would be hauled off for torture.
The next Sunday, as before, they began to gather and the guards, who had been watching for this, burst in. Ned Shuman was dragged out for torture.
"Our plan unfolded. The second ranking man, the new SRO, stood, walked to the center of the cell and in a clear firm voice said, “Gentlemen,” our signal to stand, “the Lord’s Prayer.” We got perhaps halfway through the prayer, when the guards grabbed the SRO and hauled him out the door toward Heartbreak.
As planned, the number three SRO stood, walked to the center of the cell, and said, “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.” We had gotten about to “Thy Kingdom come” before the guards grabbed him. Immediately, the number four SRO stood: “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.”
I have never heard five or six words of the Lord’s Prayer — as far as we got before they seized him — recited so loudly, or so reverently. The interrogator was shouting, “Stop, stop,” but we drowned him out. The guards were now hitting POWs with gun butts and the cell was in chaos.
"The number five ranking officer was way back in the corner and took his time moving toward the center of the cell. (I was number seven, and not particularly anxious for him to hurry.) But just before he got to the center of the area, the cell became pin-drop quiet.
In Vietnamese, the interrogator spat out something to the guards, they grabbed number five SRO and they all left, locking the cell door behind them. The number six SRO began: “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.” This time we finished it."
Reading this left me in tears. Tears for the men who had such courage in their convictions that they would stand up and pray, knowing they would be tortured. Tears also of shame, because I have never shown that kind of courage.
We live in a post-Christian culture. In some ways, we live in an anti-Christian culture. In my lifetime I have been looked down upon for my faith. I've been marginalized, laughed at, and ridiculed. I've even had my career affected. But I have never suffered imprisonment, torture, or deprivation for my faith. I have never had to face that.
So, is that what it means "to share in his sufferings?" Because if that is so, then I cannot "share in his glory."
This question has long troubled me. Most of the apostles were martyrs. All of the early Christians had to fear persecution from the Romans and from their own people. That is beyond question. But does that mean that we who do not suffer persecution are lesser Christians?
After long reflection and much study, plus a lot of help from people who are wiser and brighter than I am, I have to say the answer is "No." Jesus said persecution would come, but he did not say all would suffer in that way. It also seems to me that much of the talk of suffering in the Bible relates to the effect of sin upon the world. We all experience sickness, heartache, grief, loss, disappointment. All lives have pain. We all know this. Some have more than others. It takes different forms for all of us. Who am I to say that the man whose arms are forced out of joint suffers more than the man whose only child dies at the hands of a drunk driver? Or that the woman who is imprisoned behind iron bars suffers more than the woman who is imprisoned by her own fears and depression?
So, when I hear stories of martyrs, I thank God that such stories come to my ears. I wonder if I would have equal conviction, and through my tears, I pray that I would. And I resolve to love, forgive, and proclaim truth no matter what comes to me, be it bitter or sweet.