Christians in the West hear a lot about the church in China. We hear of its growth, of its strength, of its suffering, of its perseverance. We admire it and often laud it, yet in truth know very little of it. Though we often hear about the church in China, we rarely hear from the church in China (for at least a couple of reasons: There is a need for many of those believers to keep a low profile and, of course, there is a language barrier).
Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church addresses this sad oversight with a series of exhortations—a series of translated “sermonic letters”—from Chinese Christians meant to teach and encourage. Together, they teach Christians specifically how to endure suffering, trials, and persecution, topics near and dear to the heart of Chinese Christians.
Context matters and the context of Faith in the Wilderness is two-fold: persecution and pandemic. In her introduction, Hannah Nation says that “for the majority of Western Christians, the topics of persecution and pandemic might seem disparate. On the one hand, pandemics have been long removed from our lived experience, so when it is discussed, if it is discussed, we categorize it under natural evil and the suffering we experience living in a broken world. On the other hand, persecution tends to be siloed from other topics of suffering, and neatly tucked into the great theological debates of church and state.” Thus these topics tend to sit apart from one another. Yet this is not the case for the church in China—at least for the “underground” house church movement that sits apart from the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
Within the theology and preaching of many of China’s urban house churches, persecution and pandemic have become two sides of the same coin, two parallel points under one familiar topic—suffering. If you had the opportunity to hear a house church pastor preach today, you would likely hear them discuss Christian suffering and you would have a fifty-fifty chance of them focusing on either suffering through persecution or suffering through the pandemic. Often, to your surprise and perhaps confusion, they would interchange these two topics.
The reasons are many and beyond the scope of this brief review, but they do lead to a fascinating collection of exhortations from China’s Christian leaders. These are divided into meditations on brokenness, meditations on redemption, and meditations on hope. And often, as Nation says, these leap seamlessly between pandemic and persecution. Between them they teach a theology of suffering deeply grounded in our union with Christ—a union that reveals the brokenness of the world, that reveals the way of the cross, and that reveals that God’s kingdom is at hand. Between them they minister comfort, encouragement, and perhaps even a measure of rebuke to Christians in the West.
“Marginalized themselves, the house churches understand Christ’s care for the weak and suffering, and rejoice at preaching the good news to anyone who has ears to hear. As the Chinese house church knows, our hope is not in princes and power, but rather in the Savior who unites us to himself, his death and resurrection. Our strength is in bearing his cross, and our joy is in his suffering.”
Faith in the Wilderness is a powerful and moving collection of sermonic letters and I am glad to recommend it. I am quite sure that if you take the time to read it, you will be both blessed and encouraged. Best of all, you will be better equipped to endure pandemic, persecution, and whatever else providence may have in store for you and for all of us.
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