In my visits to churches overseas, one difference from North American Christians stands out sharply: their view of hardship and suffering. We who live in an age of unprecedented comfort seem obsessed with the problem of pain. Skeptics mention it as a major roadblock to faith, and believers struggle to come to terms with it. Prayer meetings in the U.S. often focus on illnesses and requests for healing. Not so elsewhere.

I asked a man who visits unregistered house churches in China whether Christians there pray for a change in harsh government policies. After thinking for a moment, he replied that not once had he heard a Chinese Christian pray for relief.

"They assume they'll face opposition," he said. "They can't imagine anything else." He then gave some examples. One pastor had served a term of 27 years at hard labor for holding unauthorized church meetings. When he emerged from prison and returned to church, he thanked the congregation for praying. Assigned a dangerous prison job, he had managed to couple together 1 million railroad cars without an injury. "God answered your prayers for my safety!" he proudly announced. Another imprisoned pastor heard that his wife was going blind. Desperate to rejoin her, he informed the warden that he was renouncing his faith. He was released, but soon felt so guilty that he turned himself in again to the police. He spent the next 30 years in prison.

I have read enough stories of Christians suffering so as to become impervious to a prosperity gospel that guarantees health and wealth.

I found the same pattern in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a dictatorship with brutal policies against religious activities. The person who invited me to the country informed me, "When you speak to pastors, you should remember that probably all of them have spent time in jail because of their faith."

"Then should I talk about one of my book topics like Where Is God When It Hurts? Or Disappointment with God?" I asked.

"Oh, no, that's not really a concern here," he said. "We assume we'll be persecuted for faith. We want you to speak on grace. We need help getting along with each other."

Legacy of Suffering

In preparation for my Myanmar trip, I read several biographies of Adoniram Judson (1788 - 1850), one of the first missionaries from the United States and the one who first brought the Christian faith to Burma. Hardship stalked his life. When war broke out with England, the Burmese arrested Judson because, light-skinned and English-speaking, he looked and talked like the enemy. (Actually, the U.S. was still recovering from its own wars against England.)

Judson was force-marched barefoot for eight miles to prison, where each night the guards passed a bamboo pole between his heavily shackled legs and hoisted the lower part of his body high off the ground. Blood rushed to his head, preventing sleep and causing fierce cramps in his shoulders and back. Clouds of mosquitoes feasted on the raw flesh of his feet and legs. Treatment like this went on for almost two years, and Judson managed to endure only because his devoted wife brought him food each day and pled with the guards for better treatment.

The Bible never minimizes hardship or unfairness. It simply asks us to withhold final judgment until all the evidence is in.

A few months after his release, Judson's wife, weakened by smallpox, died of fever, and shortly after that their baby daughter also died. Judson nearly had a breakdown. He would kneel by his wife's grave for hours each day, regardless of weather. He built a one-room hut in the jungle, morosely dug his own grave in case it might prove necessary, and worked in solitude on a translation of the Bible in the Burmese language. Only a handful of Burmese had shown any interest in the Christian message. Yet he stayed on, 34 years in all, and because of his faithfulness more than 1 million Burmese Christians today trace their spiritual roots to Adoniram Judson. The dictionary he compiled, now nearly 200 years old, remains the official dictionary of Myanmar.