Many of the Christians we admire most have been imprisoned for the cause of Christ. Believers like Corrie ten Boom and Richard Wurmbrand are remembered as giants of faith and perseverance, blessed with a peculiar sense of God’s power and presence even in the midst of extreme suffering. In God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance, pastor and missionary Andrew Brunson provides a raw account of his own experience as a prisoner of the Turkish government. Yet his is a story of doubt as well as faith, of depression as well as hope. Writer and former missionary Jaclyn S. Parrish spoke with Brunson about suffering, growth, and dependence on God in the face of despair.
Can you give some of the background of why you were imprisoned?
My wife, Norine, and I were missionaries in Turkey for 23 years, and we never tried to hide our work. We were surprised when we were detained. There was an attempted coup in 2016, but that didn’t change the views of the government leaders. I think it just gave them an opportunity to do many things they’d wanted to do before. It had nothing to do with our arrest; it just created a very tense environment.
When they called us in, we thought we were getting our residence permits. But then they said, “No, you’re being arrested for deportation.” Norine was released after 13 days, but they kept me. There are several reasons, and they changed over time, but the big thing is that they wanted to make an example of somebody, of a missionary, to intimidate other missionaries so that they would self-deport. And they also wanted to intimidate local believers. At some point, the government decided to keep me as a political pawn, a bargaining chip. They wanted concessions from the US.
But there are two issues here, one human and one spiritual. I think there was a larger drama going on behind the political dealings, which was God’s story, what he was accomplishing through my imprisonment.
You explain that your two greatest fears in prison were losing your faith and losing your mind. How would you encourage other believers who are struggling to keep their faith and sanity in the midst of suffering and trauma?
Whatever you’re going through, if you’re working for Christ and his kingdom, then it is very precious to him. Throughout the day, I would repeat to myself that there was purpose in my suffering, that God was involved in it, and that it had eternal value because it was suffered for his sake.
It’s especially important, I’d say, to guard against resentment. I felt abandoned by God, and in those circumstances it was easy to let my heart grow cold. When it seemed like God wasn’t answering my pleas for his presence, I would imagine a box, where I would lock away all my questions and doubts and refuse to entertain them anymore. As Norine reminded me, “Whatever doubts you have, God remains the same. He is faithful. He is true. He is loving. He is good.”
You also explain how your crisis of faith was incomprehensible to your Muslim cellmates, since they had entirely different expectations of Allah than you did of the Father. In light of that, how would you say our view of God informs how we undergo suffering?
My crisis of faith wasn’t a matter of being imprisoned. That’s persecution, and the Book of James promised it would happen (1:2). It was more the feeling of abandonment. I had expected strength to pour into me. I had expected to feel an overwhelming sense of grace. When this didn’t happen, I became suicidal.
I had questions about his love, loyalty, and faithfulness, but really he had questions for me. “Are you going to be loyal? Are you going to love me? Are you going to remain faithful even if you feel abandoned and disappointed?” I was being tested, and it was painful. But when your faithfulness is tested and proven true, there’s such a great reward. It brings you to a new level of intimacy with God.
One thing I really tried to focus on was cultivating the fear of God: having an eternal perspective, seeing things through his eyes. I knew that if I feared God the way Isaiah did, I would be more willing to undergo any hardship, which would confirm that he is worthy of all my pain and suffering.
I also held fast to the promise that God will make all things right in the end. That doesn’t mean thirsting for vengeance. It just means that while Jesus is portrayed as a lamb—pure, innocent, sacrificial—he is also portrayed as a fierce lion. Someday, those who persecute my brothers and sisters are going to encounter Jesus. They will encounter him as a Lamb, if they’ve surrendered to him. Or else they will encounter him as a Lion. They will meet him, and he will make all things right.
In your epilogue, you describe how your story was a small part of the bigger story God was weaving. How have you seen God use your suffering and your faithfulness?
In 2009, I believed God was calling me to Turkey to prepare a harvest of souls for Christ. In 2016, when we were detained, my thought was, “Wait, this can’t be. This seems like God is cutting the assignment short.” But I learned to see my imprisonment as a crucial part of preparing the harvest, mainly because of the worldwide prayer movement it started. This was something God-initiated, God-sustained, God-driven. A tsunami of prayer crashed into Turkey. It’s as if God were saying, “I can take you out, but if you’re willing to stay, I will do something greater.”
Something that comes across strongly in the book is your love for the nation and people of Turkey. What are some of your hopes and prayers for this country?
When we talk about our love for Turkey, we’re not talking about Turkish food or culture, although we do love those things. No, we’re really talking about a determined commitment to seek the good of the Turkish people, whether they appreciate it or not. It’s a love that’s demonstrated in faithfulness to our assignment.
But right now, I’m relatively pessimistic about Turkey. A number of missionaries have been deported just in this past year, and I think there’s a time of persecution coming. There will be a harvest, under God’s power, but it will happen under difficult circumstances.
Toward the end of the book, you mention that, however terrible the prison ordeal was, you do “miss being so completely dependent on God.” How can we cultivate that kind of intimacy with God, wherever life finds us?
Extreme circumstances are sometimes necessary to push us toward God. Without them, our natural inclination is to decline in faithfulness, and we have to be deliberate about cultivating it. Sometimes, I’ll find myself praying, “Lord, I’m not hungry for you, but I really want to be.” As my wife would say, “There’s no substitute for time spent with God.”
When I wake up each morning, I try to focus myself by saying, “Jesus, the only thing that matters is what you think about me when I stand before you, so I want to live accordingly. I want all of my efforts to have your glory in mind.” That’s what I encourage other people to do.