Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway


The Heavenly Man


Just what do you do with a testimony like this?


It feels like the Acts of the Apostles, with miracles, brutal persecution, and mass conversions. Some Christians deliberately separate themselves from the New Testament church, declaring that the ‘apostolic’ age was qualitatively different and it’s absurd to expect contemporary miracles. Yet while the more mainstream view is that there is no reason why miracles theoretically can’t still occur, in the way our lives are lived we might as well hold to the ‘different age’ concept.[1]


Ideally I’m meant to just be blown away with challenge and encouragement to read this spectacular stuff. Yun, despite (or because of) times of the most appalling torture and deprivation while imprisoned under China’s violently anti-Christian regime, among other things sees miraculous healing, survives for 74 days without bread and water, and walks out of a maximum security prison on shattered legs (as God miraculously blinds the guards, opens the doors, and heals his legs). All the time he’s in and out of prison people constantly repent and become Christians around him.


I’m not going to pursue the line, ‘what if this isn’t really true?’, because even if I do presume it’s a reliable contemporary account, I’m still back at that question of ‘what do I do with it?’


The fact that the ‘Christian Booksellers Convention’ made this their ‘Book of the Year 2003’ suggests I should read it and find great encouragement to see the powerful way God has been working in China, and be challenged to greater urgency, faith and zeal in my own personal evangelism and devotion.


But the gulf between my experiences, or even the experiences of anyone I know, and that of Brother Yun is so massive that I don’t see any valid way I could, um, incorporate what I’ve just read into my comfortable non-miraculous life. To, for example, show a bit more patience next time my kids are being irritating (or I’m being irritable), reasoning that if Yun could bear electric batons being shoved into his mouth, I should be able to bear someone whining because they have to have their teeth brushed – well, this just doesn’t seem particularly apposite.


Yun does suggest that a reason we in the West don’t see the sorts of spectacular supernatural stuff that appear to be relatively common in China is that we are not at a point of utter abandonment to God: we don’t feel desperate enough to allow God to work because, relying on our own wealth and skills, we don’t really feel we need him. Thus he urges readers not to pray for persecution to cease in China – rather that Christians there will utilise the great benefit open to them by growing through suffering. My horror at torture is misguided, he’d suggest, because I haven’t appreciated the far greater horror of someone well fed and comfortable but Godless.


Well, I suppose I haven’t. Torture is still in the too hard basket for me – one of those filed next to predestination in the, “Who am I to judge God” basket. I (acknowledging myself as a flawed mortal) would draw the line at torture. I mean, go even harder – God views us as his children – yet does not stop his own children being tortured.


This sort of speculation brings us into the muddy world of sovereignty and free will. I could, for example, better understand torture as God allowing people to do awful things – refusing to step in to thwart someone’s free will. The old question and answer:

“How can you reconcile pain and suffering with a loving God?”

“Free will – God doesn’t cause the pain, and if he stopped it, we’d be less than human, less than the free agents made in His own image to choose.” 

In such a scenario humans are the agents of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth, and should, for example, be working desperately to eliminate all torture.


However Yun, as someone who’s actually repeatedly endured extreme torture, takes a highly contrary view. His text is full of interpretations of events to see God’s will in placing him and others to be abused in the most awful prisons. Playing games with this is easy: Yun, for example will say:

After I contracted the dreaded plague that spread through the prison, I lay unconscious for five days in hospital. Even after I recovered I suffered regular fevers, headaches, high blood pressure, and severe gastric pain. Only later did I discover that God had a plan in allowing me to get sick. Not only did it give me the opportunity to share the gospel with the Chinese prisoners, but if I hadn’t been transferred to the prison hospital I would have been immediately to a prison labour camp in the countryside to complete my seven-year sentence.

Now I feel sure that if Yun had’ve been transferred to a prison labour camp (as he was in an earlier imprisonment) he would have taken every opportunity there to share the gospel and/or to refocus on God – and would have seen this as God’s plan. My plan would have been to have got him into the hospital as a nurse or doctor. The logic of miracles – here and in the bible – is just so weird. You get one miracle somewhere that maybe helps out a couple of people – like some extra food or clothes in a hard time – but then you’ll get no miracle a couple of months later when two crucial workers die in a small outbreak of disease that doesn’t even effect many others. And there’s the faith, isn’t it: thanking God’s benign sovereignty for anything good that happens, and not beginning to think of recriminations when some awful (even seemingly random awful) thing happens (you know, the classic, “Wasn’t God good in protecting me in that car accident – a couple of seconds later and I would have been killed,” while I’m thinking, “A couple of seconds earlier and you wouldn’t have been hit at all”). Indeed, you can interpret the awful thing as good in another guise (which is uncomfortably close to some more Eastern styles of thought that don’t really admit to there being such a thing as evil), although I suppose Yun doesn’t doubt that the torturers are doing evil, rather he feels that God allows it because he can do something good with it.


There is a middle ground in this – saying that awful things happen, but that God is so great that he can still do good in the worst of circumstances. But that is quite different to saying that God is responsible for the ugly stuff, or even that he allows it to happen to enable greater good. I suppose it’s the line thing again: I’d expose my kids to some hardship and discipline to help them to not be spoilt or unprepared for inevitable later challenges – but I’m not about to step aside for the sake of their character if someone’s coming at them with a knife. Unlike Yun, I find it hard to praise a heavenly Father for allowing this and worse to his own children. Even more so when he steps in miraculously here and there for aberrant deliverances.


Yun, I’m sure, would think my ruminations are coming from the wrong direction, that I’ve really missed the basic point. And while he’d probably be right, but that’s where I am at the moment anyway.


December 2003



[1] In saying this I’m excluding the remarkably common and tenuous, “I got a park right outside the bank the other day, just when it started raining – doesn’t God look out for us,” sort of claytons miracle.