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Chinese Culture and the Ethos of Suffering in the Chinese Church

I am an observer, but I am not a participant, and what I write and share today has to do with my observations over years of working in both the Chinese diaspora as well as my travels in China from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

I would like to start with language and begin by saying that when we think about suffering in the West versus suffering in the East, our language is different. The English term “suffer” comes from the Latin word sufferere, meaning to bear, to undergo, endure, carry, or put under.1 The Chinese word for “suffer,” however, takes us to a different place. One common concept for suffering is found in the expression “to eat bitterness” (吃苦). So, I reflect a lot about this from a linguistic vantage point.

We are already going on different roads. In the Western world, suffering for Christ is a weight to shoulder, a weight on your body; in the Chinese world, suffering for Christ must be consumed. It actually goes into us. If you sent me to provide pastoral care to a Chinese ministry couple serving Christ in the world today, while drinking tea, the topic of balance and self-care might enter the discussion. Once sufficient trust has been established the wife might express herself to me as follows:

Pastor Dennis, my husband—he works too hard. He is gone many nights of the week. When someone connected to our ministry calls, he drops everything and goes out the door. The children see him go and seem to understand most of the time that he is serving Jesus, but the Jesus he serves has made me a lonely wife.

Chinese church history possesses a legacy of suffering that is spiritually essential to one’s calling; therefore, member care is, I believe, ontologically difficult to both pursue and receive. Rather than embracing as legitimate the self-stewardship of one’s own spiritual and emotional health, member care feels selfish. That is because suffering is to be ingested. Suffering is to one’s calling what tofu is to mapo doufu.2 Remove the tofu, and “pockmarked grandma bean curd” is no longer; it ceases to exist.

Because the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, a noted church historian has indicated that every Christian should thank a martyr when they reach heaven.3 Chinese Christians, with their culture and history, will thank the Chinese martyrs more than once. So, how has the historical context of “eating bitterness” shaped the way Chinese gospel workers practice their faith?

Let us briefly examine three well-known Chinese Christian leaders from the past who have profoundly shaped the history of the Chinese church’s view of suffering: evangelist John Sung (Song Shangjie; also known as John Song); the father of the house church movement, Watchman Nee; and Pastor Wang Mingdao. Let us see, individually as well as collectively, in what way they have shaped how Chinese church leaders view suffering.

John Sung

In his last letter before he died, John Sung stated the following:

The father did not use those mighty warriors to kill Goliath nor those encumbered with steel armor and bronze helmet to defeat Goliath. He used one who was despised even by his own brothers, but his heart was single, fully trusting the Lord. He was David, who had close communion with his Lord. He picked up five stones, despised by the people. What are these five stones? They are five truths: to suffer with Christ, to crucify with Christ, to bury with Christ, to rise with Christ, to ascend with Christ. With these five stones, we have more than enough to kill Goliath.4

Looking at a summary of his ministry, while his cause of death was intestinal tuberculosis, basically, he worked himself to death. He was gone from home at the peak of his ministry up to eleven months out of the year. His wife had five children and he was not home for the birth of any one of them. Looking back on the influence of his ministry, conservative numbers would place 100,000 Chinese as having been converted as a result of his labors.5

Watchman Nee

In the concluding paragraph of The Spiritual Man, Volume One, Watchman Nee wrote, “The cross needs to be borne faithfully and to be borne increasingly faithfully. Let us gaze upon our Lord Jesus who ‘endured the cross, despising the shame.’”6

We read in the concluding paragraph of The Spiritual Man, Volume Two:

When a believer has experienced the practical treatment of the cross, he finally arrives at a pure life. All is for God and in God, and God is in all as well. Nothing is unto self. Even the tiniest desire for pleasing oneself is crucified. Self-love has been consigned to death. The present aim of existence becomes single: to do the will of God: so long as he is pleased, nothing else really counts: to obey him becomes the sole objective of life. It does not matter how he feels; what matters is obeying God. This is a pure walk.7

In the conclusion of his book The Normal Christian Life, Nee wrote:

Oh to be wasted. It is a blessed thing to be wasted for the Lord. So many who have been prominent in the Christian world know nothing of this. Many of us have been used to the full—have been used, I would say, too much—but we do not know what it means to be ‘wasted on God.’8

To summarize Watchman Nee’s ministry: His cause of death was probably 20 years of imprisonment. Not one Christian was present at his death; his body was cremated and given to a sister. His wife had already died years before. Conservative estimates place 2,300 churches worldwide specifically related to his ministry, many of them house churches.9

Wang Mingdao

Finally, we turn to Wang Mingdao’s summary on suffering for the believer. Many of his journals and other writings are published in English, but let me just choose one quote of his primary words that have impacted me: “If we would be God’s faithful workers helping others, we must let him train us through suffering, the suffering he permits for us.”10

Wang Mingdao’s cause of death was the impact of 22 years of imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, and interrogations.

In his writings Wang Mingdao lists six benefits of suffering. The theme is very powerful and very strong in his life.

  1. Suffering presses Christians to look up to God, to depend upon him, to come near to him and pray to him. This in turn releases innumerable blessings from God.
  2. Suffering helps Christians in strengthening their faith.
  3. Suffering edifies and strengthens believers so that they want to leave all unrighteousness and be made holy.
  4. Suffering alerts believers to the fact that this world is not our permanent home, and therefore we need not love it too much. Instead, we can press forward with that which will help us in our eternal dwelling place.
  5. Suffering can help Christians practice complete obedience, for which we will receive an eternal reward.
  6. Christians can be trained through suffering, so that they can be workers who comfort and help others.11


From my viewpoint, the leadership legacy established in the Chinese church is that of the suffering servant. Suffering is the confirmation—no, it is the ordination of the gospel worker’s testimony in a Chinese context. This is a significant hurdle to overcome when delivering member care. Who believes they are worthy to receive care when the faithful witnesses who preceded them had little to none?

In June 2017, two Chinese missionaries were martyred in Pakistan.12 Afterwards, I was able to meet privately with a team of Chinese missionaries serving in Pakistan. I asked the members of the team if anyone from their agency had visited them to provide member care. I learned that I was the first person from outside their context to ask such questions. No one had visited them.

I grieve that isolation is often the normal Christian life for Chinese gospel workers. I also grieve when we fail to follow the Lord’s command, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).

If God calls us to “eat bitterness” for the sake of the gospel, then our calling is to chew as best we can. One day the agony and the pain will be no more, because Jesus Christ has said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

There is no place in Scripture that teaches us to feed bitterness to our Christian brothers and sisters by abandoning them and their member care needs. Rather, the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:15–18 speaks of those who have devoted themselves to the service of the saints and who have refreshed his spirit. The new commandment that Jesus Christ gave in John 13 asserts that loving others is how the world will know we are his disciples. We know that the spiritual and emotional care of missionaries and pastors matters to our beloved shepherd, Jesus Christ.


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “suffer (v.),” accessed August 26, 2022,
  2. Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) is a popular Sichuan dish. For background on the dish, lots of pictures, and a recipe, see “Mapo Tofu Recipe,” China Sichuan Food, November 23, 2020. Accessed August 26, 2022.
  3. Kevin A. Miller, “Tomb of the Unknown Christians,” Christian History 27 (1990):2, quoted in Alvin J Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 39.
  4. Timothy Tow, John Sung My Teacher (Singapore: Christian Life Publishers, 1985), 241.
  5. G. Wright Doyle, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, s.v. “John Sung.” Accessed August 26, 2022.
  6. Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man Vol. 1. (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1968), 207.
  7. Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man Vol. 2. (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1968), 256.
  8. Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life. (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985), 284.
  9. “Watchman Nee’s Life and Ministry.” Living Stream Ministry. Accessed August 26, 2022.
  10. Wang Mingdao, Chinese Church Iron-Man Wang Ming Dao Looks at the People, trans. Evelyn B. Solomon (Touliu: Conservative Baptist Press, 1988), 481. While the passages quoted come from the section of the book, “The Benefits of Suffering,” the publishers make a case for analysis of Wang Mingdao’s messages as a study of the Bible through the lens of suffering.
  11. Wang, 462–481.
  12. “Mourning Two Chinese Christians Killed in Pakistan,” Chinese Church Voices: ChinaSource Blog. June 20, 2017. Accessed August 26, 2022.
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Image Credit: Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity; from left: John Sung; Watchman Nee; Wang Mingdao

Dennis Ahern

Dr. Dennis Ahern currently serves as WorldVenture’s pastoral counselor, providing member care to workers in many locations. He and his wife Denise have been involved in missions for 43 years, including serving in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and the Philippines from 1981–1995 and then serving as WorldVenture’s southwest regional director …View Full Bio