The Gospel, Advancing Toward Jail: A Letter from One Preparing for Prison

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Editor’s note: This pastor spent several weeks in jail at the beginning of this year. Since his release, he has written about his experiences in prison, as well as a fervent defense of the goodness of Christian belief in a state where such faith is maligned as destructive.

Here, he shares his personal relationships with several other imprisoned Chinese pastors. He closes by admonishing those closest to him that he must choose to follow the way of the cross, seeking obedience to Christ above staying out of trouble.

Just like you would be, I am also surprised to find myself in my forties, with several of my closest friends in prison. Pastor Wang Yi and Elder Qin Defu are typical representatives of this group. They were convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business operations,” respectively. My friend, Elder Zhou Dongyu [a pseudonym], has recently been charged with “criminal fraud.” If you are reading this article, you will inevitably be on the alert to find out who I am. What type of person has a group of jailbird friends like this? There are already those who are distancing themselves from us. I completely understand their reasons, although I cannot help but feel sorry about this!

Let me tell you about my relationship with these men. Wang Yi was my pastor and mentor while I was in seminary. It goes without saying that I have been influenced by what he has seen, learned, and by how he has lived. How others interpret his influence on me, and the consequences to which his influence lead, have long ceased to remain personal matters. His influence has been elevated from an individual concern to one of principle, an issue for national and judicial judgment. Being under Wang Yi’s influence incurs the risk of criminal conviction, and leaves no room for defense. But so what? Am I to make myself an outcast, cutting myself off from the grace God has given in my life? Is the richness of God’s mighty work to be lightly erased from my memory? No. Never.

In this persistence, Elder Qin Defu was sentenced to four years in prison. This is the third year. His prison is a fortified camp, which has been conquered by the power of the gospel [implying Elder Qin has led other prisoners to Christ]. We are looking forward to glorious victory in Christ, which will be witnessed by many when he is released next year.

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When I first met Elder Qin, he was not yet an elder, but a capable and experienced man, a petite, slender, super-dad. That day he was holding his son, a baby carrier tied around his waist. He brought his wife and his in-laws to Bible study with us. We were in the same small group in Pastor Wang Yi’s home, and he and I were both leaders for other small groups. Over the next two years, Brother Qin grew in grace and knowledge more quickly than I. His shrewdness, boldness, and quick pace of action demonstrated his gifts and revealed his calling. For this reason, he was first chosen as a deacon, and then as an elder.

It was not only the church’s appointment of him, but God’s mighty use of him that eventually made him into a warrior of faith. He is like steel, forged in the hardships of prison. Just before Elder Qin was imprisoned, his 70-year-old father—a country preacher who influenced his spiritual life since childhood—went home to be with the Lord, dying in a car accident on his way home from church. At that time, Brother Qin’s daughter had just turned one month old. The trials he endured during that short period might take others ten years to go through. Looking back, I regret that I was bashful, and didn’t dare to hug him harder.

When it comes to Elder Zhou Dongyu, the two of us share a heartfelt friendship. We were classmates at seminary, and shared the tacit understanding that we could talk about everything. Just three months ago, after I was released from detention, he called me as I was sitting with my critically ill father. I was physically and spiritually exhausted. His exhortations were the most powerful comfort to me. But just a few days later, he was also arrested. I had the deep feeling that he was suffering because he shared my suffering—as if our Lord Jesus Christ was with me in my suffering. But Elder Zhou’s suffering was heavier than mine. I was only detained for fifteen days; he has been in custody for several months. 

Last September, he came to my home to visit me and my family. He expressed his respect for the history and culture of my province. Even more than that, he also remembered the missionaries who came here a hundred years ago, and the blood of their martyrdom that was shed in this land. During the few days he was with us, I was surprised to find in him an elegance I had not noticed before. I saw in him a faithfulness and determination to follow Christ.

When I was at my poorest, Elder Zhou’s generosity left a deep impression on me. Now he has been charged with “criminal fraud,” and I cannot be ashamed for what they bring against me. If it is not fraud for a teacher to be paid a salary, how can it be fraud for a pastor to receive the free offerings of brothers and sisters, offered out of their godly consciences and reverence for God, in order to present God’s favor in grace? As Paul rhetorically askedhis interrogators, “Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” 

If such a charge was levied against me, it might have been justified; I have always been down and out. But Elder Zhou was a former provincial official. He left all this behind, willingly taking up his cross to follow the Lord. His testimony either shows the honor of his Lord, Jesus the Son of God; or it shows that he (and all of us) are crazy, sick, and stupid. If Jesus is not more honorable, then we ought to be imprisoned, locked up in an insane asylum for being part of a madhouse operation!

During the fifteen days during which I was incarcerated, I heard a crazy remark from an ordinary person who was also incarcerated. He said: “If a person was never put in prison in their life, wouldn’t they be missing something?” This was, of course, poor self-consolation, carried out in a joking manner. Perhaps he himself did not know how crazy he sounded. Prisoners are, after all, ordinary, mortal, corrupt people, fallen in sin. Their crazy words, at most, made them more mortal and corrupt—these words never make them spiritual.

But Christ, the pioneer of salvation, leads his troops to break into that mortal place from the heavenly place. From a supernatural place, he leads them into the place of insanity. Is this not the trumpet, blown in the last days, gathering an army to forge ahead into the prisons with the gospel? Is this not so that the power of the resurrection may launch an attack on the stronghold of the power of death?

Prisoners’ need for the gospel is often overlooked. We assume that being on the outside of prison is always better than being on the inside; that those on the outside are better than those inside. Not necessarily!This false assumption makes us abandon the people inside the prison, people who are like us. This assumption makes us fear our days inside prison. But once prison stops being a projection of hell, there is nothing in there to be afraid of. For this reason, those who have committed crimes repeatedly do not change. Because they know this, those who come out of prison become more emboldened to commit more crimes. Do evil-doing criminals have more courage than we, righteous children of God who do good?

In fact, many prison inmates really want to be free from sin. They were taken to prison and brought to the judgment seat. There they were compelled to think about the meaning of life, about the complex topics of sin, death, and salvation. How their hearts long to hear the gospel at that moment!

Prisoners are already mixed up with greasy dirt, wallowing in sludge and filthy sins. They have also seen through the hypocrisy of the world; they have had enough of moralistic preaching. There is a call for a group of prisoners in such a prison, a group of people whose lives have been truly refined by the gospel. These prisoners need people like themselves, those who know the depths of sin, suffering, and death. They also need people who are not like themselves, people who have experienced “the breadth and length and height and depth” of love and forgiveness, of grace that surpasses everything.

After Elder Zhou called me, my father passed away. After I had buried him, as I readied to departed and return to my hometown, my concerned family pleaded with me not to get myself arrested and imprisoned. I am very grateful to them; I thank them, from the bottom of my heart, for their care and love. I feel their heart-warming concern. My eyes were moist with tears as I received their care. 

But—I say to you, my beloved family—I am a servant of God, called by the Lord, and my life is given by the Lord Jesus Christ. I need to be ready to obey the almighty, glorious, majestic command of the trumpet of the Lord. I need to keep in step with the hosts of the Lord. I need to live worthy of the call of the kingdom of heaven, to run for the emblem and medals of the cross. I must get ready to receive the coming of the eternal weight of glory, a reward that is beyond all comparison.


Here are a few ways to pray for China based on this brother’s reflection:

-Pray for God’s presence to be with Elder Zhou, with Elder Qin Defu, and with Pastor Wang Yi. All three are currently imprisoned.

-Pray for the gospel to be preached to those in jail.

-Pray for this pastor to have wisdom, discretion, and courage as he walks with God.

Our blog exists, not just to share information, but to resource the global church to share the joys and burdens of the Chinese church. Our hope is that everything you read here will lead you to intentional, knowledgeable prayer for the Chinese church.

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