Suffering With Christ: An Interview on Faith in the Wilderness

Editor’s note: We recently interviewed Hannah Nation, editor of the new book Faith in the Wilderness, a collection of pandemic sermons preached by Chinese house church pastors in the first months of the pandemic. She talked with us candidly about how Chinese Christians have a different understanding of suffering with Christ than Westerners tend to, and how she was personally challenged and encouraged by them in editing this book.

This is the first of a two-part series; the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


The Christian Life Involves Suffering with Christ

China Partnership: What do Chinese house church Christians have to say to us?

Hannah Nation: Chinese Christians are bold in saying the Christian life involves suffering with Christ and participating in the suffering he endured while on earth. That goes against everything American culture tells us about our expectations for life. Our culture preaches that the right expectation is comfort, ease, and well-being. We live in a fallen world, we are fallen people, and suffering is inevitable – suffering physically through health problems, suffering we all experience through conflict, the suffering of putting sin to death sin in our lives.

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“Chinese Christians are bold in saying the Christian life involves suffering with Christ and participating in the suffering he endured while on earth. That goes against everything American culture tells us about our expectations for life.

There are many ways we as individuals suffer, and there are also ways we suffer corporately. For example, the pandemic. We don’t really need to come up with any more examples. Suffering happens on both large and small levels. As Americans, we rationally know that, but when we find ourselves in realities that cause us to suffer, we are poorly equipped and have a visceral reaction. Our entire society tells us this is not supposed to be happening. We can’t handle it; our identity as Americans is challenged when we start to suffer.


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That was my experience of the pandemic. We as a family dealt with a lot of hardship, and even though rationally and theologically I knew this was a normal part of life, my lived experience was, “This is wrong.” It was a blessing for me to be marinating in material from brothers in China who are more able to look at the realities of life and say, “This is normal, because we live in brokenness.” They don’t call it good, but they are able to see it as normal. It is what life looks like this side of heaven.

So much of the first three chapters of Faith in the Wilderness are this naming of the problem, which is so important when dealing with suffering. Once you’ve been able to name the brokenness, to look it in the face and say it is real, then you can start to talk about redemption.

The Chinese ability to understand suffering as part of the Christian walk is the underpinning to responding graciously to persecution and suffering. If you are being persecuted, and you think that is part of what it means to be united with and in fellowship with Christ, you are more equipped to forgive the person who is persecuting you and to respond in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel to that person. If you are caught up thinking about all the ways this is wrong and someone is wronging you, it is tempting to hold onto anger and bitterness. It blows my mind how, when Chinese pastors are arrested, many respond with this attitude of, “Well, now is the time to go preach the gospel – not only to the prostitutes and drug dealers I’ll be imprisoned with, but also to my interrogators and persecutors.” You can only have that attitude if you believe suffering with Christ is part of your Christian calling. If you are trying to escape suffering with Christ, you will go into those situations with a different approach and attitude.

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“Part of what forms the Chinese response to persecution is seeing it as one of many expressions of suffering in life… If we can faithfully respond in one situation, we can also faithfully respond in another.

Right now, in the West there is a lot of anxiety among Christians about the future of our culture. There is fear of the world and of what the world might do to us. It is an important time to be learning from those who are more mature in their understanding of how to interact with a world that is actively seeking to harm them.

An Antidote to the Prosperity Gospel

CP: You mentioned the connection between suffering and persecution. In one of the sermons, Noah Wang talks about intense personal suffering when his infant son was diagnosed in utero with a serious birth defect. Just as predicted, the baby died shortly after birth. Then Wang moves from that talk of personal suffering and closes his message by talking about witnessing the raid of a church he knew; sisters were being beaten and children were screaming. It’s not a hopeful, optimistic, “Jesus will make your life better” kind of message, yet this sermon is in the section Meditations on Hope.

Is this the anti-prosperity gospel? What is the Chinese house church theology of suffering?

Hannah: So much of what is coming out of China is a much-needed antidote to the prosperity gospel. The more I interact with Chinese house churches and listen to their theology, the more I realize how much the prosperity gospel has gotten its tentacles into American Christianity. It is easy for us to fall into the idea that, if God is for us, he will bless us. Scripture does say that, but in American culture, we immediately translate that into material prosperity. We are unable to imagine God’s blessings being anything other than health and wealth. Even if we are preaching a biblically accurate message, our culture and our level of prosperity and ease is such that the way we interpret that message is immediately wrapped up in the American dream of prosperity.

Chinese brothers and sisters also believe God is for them and is blessing them, but they don’t immediately move to that being defined by a certain degree of health and wealth. Even apart from persecution, life in China can be very competitive and cut-throat. There is a lot of financial and medical and physical insecurity. God’s blessing has to mean something other than a prosperous, middle-class life.

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“It is easy for us to fall into the idea that, if God is for us, he will bless us. In American culture, we immediately translate that into material prosperity… Chinese brothers and sisters also believe God is for them and is blessing them, but they don’t immediately move to that being defined by a certain degree of health and wealth.

That is not just China. If you listen to the global church throughout most of the world, and also throughout most of history, wealth, prosperity, comfort, and ease have not been the markers of a good Christian life. We need a definition of the good Christian life outside of the wealth and comfort America lives in. We need an understanding of what a blessed life looks like that isn’t having two cars, a house with a yard, and a medical system that’s going to take care of all of your various problems.

Part of what forms the Chinese response to persecution is seeing it as one of many expressions of suffering in life. Persecution is not categorically separated out from something like having your infant son die. If we can faithfully respond in one situation, we can also faithfully respond in another. The Chinese understanding is holistic. Persecution is not categorically different from other ways Christ calls us to walk the way of the cross.

That is part of how the Chinese church has endured multiple great hardships in the last couple of years. They are persecuted. They have also endured some of the hardest restrictions regarding Covid, both at the beginning of the pandemic and recently. They have not bifurcated these two realities. In the American church’s response to any sense of marginalization or persecution, and also to things like the pandemic, there has been a defensive posture of needing to fight for ourselves. In America, similar to China, our responses to these things have mirrored each other.

In China, I have seen people act with boldness, but in grace. They are bold in their commitment to preach the gospel through the pandemic, making risky decisions. But they take the risk onto themselves, while submitting fully to the government. There is an understanding of the posture of Christ in that, and it comes only through the ability to accept suffering. It only comes with the ability to say, “We will be the church. We will follow Christ. We are not going to compromise, but we must suffer in doing these things.”


Hannah Nation is the Managing Director of the Center for House Church Theology. A prolific writer and student of missions history and World Christianity, she is inspired by this historical moment and the privilege of witnessing a new chapter in church history unfold across China.

 

FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION

Pray that Western Christians will learn from and take to heart the words of Chinese Christians.

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Further Reading

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Qingdao: How to Pray
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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Qingdao: Good Soil for the Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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