Would Brother X break under torture? Would You or I?
I want to tell you a true story. Understand, this story is a real treasure and it took me several years of building a relationship before the individual to whom it happened was willing to share it. I have found that Eastern European people, especially Romanians, are very open when it comes to telling the overall story, but quite tight-lipped about their own suffering.
During the Soviet era, Romanian Christians understood it as a rite of passage that they would spend some time in prison for their faith. This is the story of a Romanian Christian’s personal experience with prison, the temptation to deny Christ, and the victory that comes in choosing to persevere.
Stories like the one I am about to share are ubiquitous amongst Romanian Christians, so you may have heard things similar to this before. For me, the power of this story comes in knowing the source personally, having looked into his eyes and heard the tenor of his voice as he shared it. I will share his experience with you in the form of a conversation, as I recall it.
The scene: Brother X and I, standing in the parking lot behind the church that I used to pastor. It was June on a typical, hot, cloudless, Summer day in Sacramento, California.
Me: Brother X, you’ve told me in the past that you were imprisoned in Romania like so many other Christians. I would really like to learn more about how God was with you through that experience.
Brother X: Pastor, I am embarrassed to speak about some of these things because they were quite humiliating. Some of the tortures were things that we just should not speak about. But you know, there were so many who suffered much worse than I did. What I went through was really easy compared to those who spent decades in solitary confinement and endured horrible tortures.
Me: I understand. Maybe you would feel more comfortable answering this question. My friend told me that unless the Lord intervened, we would all deny Christ like Peter did. What do you think about that?
Brother X paused for several moments. It looked to me as if he was recalling a personal experience that applied to my question. Then he began to speak.
Brother X: On the first night when you are in prison, they try to break you. They know that if they are going to break you it must happen immediately. They placed me on my knees and bent me forward over a bench. They spread my arms all the way out and tied them to the bench. At first the prison guards were very calm in their speech. They said, “This is all really quite silly. All you have to do is publicly denounce Christ and we will release you. You’ll be free to go back to your family, back to your job, and you can even go back to your church.”
This all seemed quite reasonable and I considered it for a moment. I knew, however, that I could not renounce Christ. When I said no, they wasted no time and started beating me. As they beat me, their offer played in my mind over and over again. With each blow, their offer seemed more and more reasonable. Then, I heard a voice in my mind. “You know, all you have to do is speak the words that you renounce Christ. Everybody will know that you don’t mean it. It doesn’t really matter. You will be able to go back and help your family and you will not have to spend the next two years in prison. Just do it.” The strange thing was, even though the voice was my own, I knew that the words were the very words of Satan himself. The beating continued.
The more the beating continued, the louder the voice grew. With each blow I grew closer to acquiescing and denying my faith in Christ as many others had done that very night. I could feel my body was reaching a point where it would not be able to recover. Death seemed near and the satanic message delivered in my own voice became even louder. Finally, in one final act of defiance, I yelled out, “I will not renounce Christ.”
In an instant, everything changed. I could not see them, but I suddenly became aware of what seemed like ten thousand angels to my left and ten thousand angels to my right. The blows from the guards continued but I could not feel them. It was as if there were angels laying on top of me and shielding me from the blows. Not long after that, the guards gave up on me and moved on to the next guy.
Me: Wow, Brother X, I’m humbled that you shared all that with me. Was that the last time that you were tortured?
Brother X: No, there were many times after that, but I was never tortured in that specific way again. They had other, much more humiliating, ways.
Once Brother X and I had cracked the wall of secrecy, he began to speak freely about many things that were done to him while he was in prison. I think it may have been cathartic for him. I listened intently and sympathetically knowing that the things that he was now sharing were too intimate for me to ever speak to another human being.
Brother X served every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day of his two-year sentence. He was starved, beaten, isolated for weeks on end, often alone in the dark. He, like many others, called that time his honeymoon with Jesus; something wonderful and sweet flowing out of something so bitter.
How would you or I fair under such circumstances? I know we all would like to think that we would have that defiant moment like Brother X did but note that Brother X also said that many renounced their faith during that first night in prison. How should we process this? Keep reading to find out.
Would You Deny Jesus?
(Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke22:54-62, John 18:15-18, 25-27)
If you are like me and most other people, your first reaction to Peter’s denial of Christ is disbelief? Peter was the first to declare that Jesus was the Messiah. He was a firsthand witness to countless miracles. How could one with such an experience deny Christ under any circumstance?
The story goes that after Jesus was betrayed by Judas and taken captive, Peter followed him. Now, Jesus had forewarned Peter that before the night was over, Peter would deny his relationship to Jesus not once but three times. To Peter, such an idea was beyond believable. It was impossible. Nevertheless, Jesus had said it would happen. Mind you, none of the awful suffering which was to come upon Jesus had yet transpired. Jesus was merely being questioned about his claims by the High Priest.
In close proximity to Jesus, there was a fire burning. Peter joined the other men who were warming themselves there. A young girl asked him if he was a follower of Jesus and Peter flatly denied that he was. In the coming hours, he was directly asked again if he was a follower of Jesus. Peter lied again and denied his association with Jesus.
Be honest. Isn’t it our first inclination to judge Peter just a little bit? Most of us think that we would never deny Christ under any circumstance. But is that an honest and humble self-assessment?
We all like to think of ourselves as the hero of the story; the one who always does the right thing. However, I submit to the reader this simple idea: without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, there is a circumstance under which we all would deny Christ. For many, (not you, I'm speaking to the other readers now) the causes of our many denials of Christs can be as tiny as being mildly inconvenienced or irritated.
Encouraging thought: Yes, without the Holy Spirit, we would all deny Christ at some point, but we who are born again have the Holy Spirit in us. Look at how the presence of the Holy Spirit changed Peter (Acts 4:1-31). He who was once timid when faced by a little girl became so bold that he stood before the very Jewish leaders from whom he had once hidden and boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus.
The life giving, empowering Holy Spirit abides in us as we abide in Christ. Therefore, be bold and courageous, proclaiming the name of Jesus without fear. And if, heaven forbid, we are ever called to testify in our own blood, the Lord will give us the strength and boldness to endure. Believe it!