Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church edited by Hannah Nation and Simon Liu. Bellingham, WA: Kirkdale Press, an imprint of Lexham Press, 2022, 192 pages. ISBN-10 1683596048, ISBN-13 978-1683596042. Available from the publisher and Amazon.
Throughout history, where Christianity has existed it has often been accompanied by suffering. This is not to say that suffering is experienced exclusively by Christians, but that Christians around the world regularly grow and even flourish in the face of opposition, oppression, and ostracization. This has certainly been part of the story of how God has established his church in China: faith grown in the wilderness.
While much has been written, studied, and analyzed about the Chinese house church, what is sadly neglected is the voice of the church in China. Most Christians know that the Chinese house church has grown vastly in its breadth, but along with breadth it has also grown in theological depth. This theological depth is worth listening to and learning from, just as we have listened to and learned from oppressed saints who have gone before us in Western church history.
This is the concern and heart behind the book, Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church. In this collection of nine meditations from modern Chinese pastors, editors Hannah Nation and Simon Liu invite the reader to “hear something about walking with Jesus that we have been missing” (p. 5). China is not simply “the mission field,” but a country that has theologically rich and faithful churches. These churches know that “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” (p. 5). A church that knows the Christ and knows the way of the cross is a church worth listening to and learning from.
This book is organized into three thematic sections, with three meditations per section, each by a different house church pastor or leader. The three sections, with meditations on brokenness, redemption, and hope, serve to order the book around the narrative of the central message of Christianity: the gospel. A theology of suffering is not developed purely by the experience of suffering. Rather, it is shaped by that experience, but it “is fundamentally rooted in the doctrine of the Christian’s union with Christ” (p. 3), a union that is accomplished through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This gospel narrative has been treasured by the Chinese church through “the horrors of the Cultural Revolution…the economic reforms of the 1980s…[and] the urban house church has grown against the backdrop of rampant corruption, alienation, and social decay” (p. 2). Nation and Liu seek to point Western Christians to the reality of what God has done with his people in the wilderness of modern China. In doing so they remind us that this is the same thing that God has done throughout history: grow and preserve his people in faith amid suffering.
Section I: Meditations on Brokenness
The book begins by exposing and explaining the problem that is experienced by all humans: the world is broken. While documentaries and academics will often point to the rich history of a place like China, Simon Liu reminds us that history should not be observed through rose colored glasses, saying, “These 5,000 years of culture are actually 5,000 years of sin” (p. 27). China’s history, while rich, is nonetheless broken. There is a greater problem than warring dynasties and uncontrollable viruses. Brokenness in this world is a symptom of sin: opposition and rebellion against the creator. Sadly, that brokenness isn’t simply evident in the physical world, but also in the hearts of people who persevere during persecution. Yang Xibo warns, “You may be under government persecution and suffer from injustice, but even if you persevere and prevail against them, you may still be in danger. Why? Because you will feel terrific about yourself: everyone else has run away and only you have stood firm” (p. 47). The world and the heart of every human is evidence of a brokenness that cannot be fixed by political policies or nationalistic determination. Suffering needs a greater answer—it needs a greater redeemer.
Section II: Meditations on Redemption
The good news for the Christian is not that God will make suffering end, or that we will eventually understand a reason for suffering. The good news for the Christian is that God, through Christ, has redeemed his people from sin and an eternity of suffering. As we wait for the day when our redemption will be fully realized, we trust that God’s people “will always persevere—not because of our own will or determination, but because of the unchanging election of the Father, the ever-mighty power of the Son on the cross, and the fellowship and power of the Spirit that continues to help each child of God” (p. 86). In this world, the Christian gets to do something that he will not get to do in heaven: cling to Christ as redeemer amid suffering. The goal of the Christian life is not to live as comfortably as possible. Rather, “[t]he goal of our whole life is to gain Christ, to continue to know God by faith in him, to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, to experience and suffer with him” (p. 72).
Section III: Meditations on Hope
The church in China has never known an extended period of calm and stability. Whether it is persecution, political instability, or pandemic, Chinese history is proof that our hope is not in this ever-changing world. Pastors like Paul Peng serve as a model in pointing God’s people to a hope that is certain and unchanging. He says, “As we struggle to travel from the earthly seas of chaos to the sea of glass in front of God’s throne, does God have a stabilizer for his suffering people? Indeed, he does…as Christians, Jesus Christ is the…stabilizer of our various earthly seas” (p. 150). Hope for the suffering Christian is not in the next midterm election or economic rebound; hope in the midst of suffering is found in the immutable ballast of the soul, Jesus Christ.
Hannah Nation concludes her introduction to this book with the line “If we want revival in our communities, then let us learn from those currently being revived” (p. 7). While both catchy and compelling, I think that this line sets the reader up for disappointment. If we come to this book, or come to learn from the Chinese church, hoping to find a captivating formula for revival or spectacular stories of faithfulness in the face of persecution…well, I think the reader will leave with a letdown. What Faith in the Wilderness presents is far more ordinary: Christians working to help each other trust Christ amid difficulties. But it is here that historically ordinary Christianity, while not flashy, makes much of God and in doing so, is supernaturally remarkable and faith-stirring. Three personal exhortations that I walk away from this book are:
I. Persecution is not the priority, faith is.
When someone thinks about the suffering of the Chinese house church, it is natural for our minds to go towards persecution. Tim Keller certainly does in a helpful way in his foreword to this book. Yet, as I read meditation after meditation, it was surprising to see how little persecution was mentioned by these house church pastors. This isn’t to say that they ignore a serious reality for their brothers and sisters, but it does reflect that they are more concerned about their people’s faith than they are about the government’s persecution. Noah Wang says, “[i]f God loves you, he will not allow you to remain in a stable faith environment” (p. 112). Persecution is a means that God uses to exercise his love for the Christian. Pure faith in his people is the goal; persecution is merely a means to that end. While we see and experience persecution, as God’s people “we live not by sight, but by faith in the word of God” (p. 147). Gaining a purer faith for these house church pastors is a worthwhile prize that the circumstances of persecution bring.
II. Gospel clarity is essential for a vital church.
Over the last few decades there has been no shortage of “church growth” books. Thankfully, this is not one of those. The Chinese house church model is not a program that should be implemented elsewhere, nor is it a pragmatic approach that is marketed as transferable. What is abundantly clear in this book is that the vitality of a church is directly linked to the clarity of the gospel that it preaches. Every chapter in this book doesn’t just make mention of or give reference to the cross; each chapter in this book would be utterly incomprehensible aside from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These pastors prioritize the gospel clearly preached, and recognize that any health in their churches, any faith that is evident in the wilderness, is due to the fact that the members of their churches know and believe the gospel.
III. Good pastors are a good gift to God’s people.
What do people need in the midst of suffering? Faithful teaching of the truth! This is the underlying theme that unites each of these chapters. San Shou speaks as a pastor of pastors when he says, “Teaching the truth is the most important responsibility for a pastor…Often, our lives and faith go wrong because of our superficial understanding of the truth” (p. 124). While a pastor never wants to ignore the emotions and felt realties of his people, a pastor loves his people best when pointing them to the Good Shepherd who knows their needs better than they do. Paul Peng, in a wonderfully vivid way, challenges pastors to preach more than emotional comfort, saying, “Manmade fictions bring only cotton candy-like self-comfort, but the visions revealed by God bring solid security and sturdy hope” (p. 143). These men, while worthy examples of faith to follow, are equally worthy pastors to emulate. While a good pastor doesn’t necessitate a healthy church, they are a normal and good means that God has used throughout history to care for his sheep.
Knowing that persecution is the backdrop for these meditations is what makes this book particularly special. The reader, however, should be most encouraged that the backdrop remains in the background. The circumstances these pastors are in is never a challenge to the Christ that is in them. In this, Faith in the Wilderness, is a worthwhile read. I pray that this is the beginning of more resources from similar authors—resources that don’t sensationalize the Chinese house church, but that give evidence to a mature Chinese house church with a robust theology of suffering.
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