In this third article adapted from Andrew Brunson’s “Prepare to Stand” video series, Brunson discusses the danger of becoming so offended at God because of hardship that we turn away from Him—a temptation he experienced during two years of imprisonment in Turkey because of his Christian faith. Applying the lessons Brunson learned can help us prepare so when persecution comes, we will stand firm to the end.
During difficult times, a real danger for the Christian is to become offended at God. I struggled with this. In fact, I came close to losing my friendship with God. My imprisonment, the isolation, the loneliness, the fear that I would never be with my family again—all these were difficult, but I understood intellectually that this was persecution. I didn’t like it, but I understood it to some degree.
What I could not understand was that during my imprisonment, I had no sense of God’s presence. Instead of a supernatural sense of strength and joy as I expected, I lacked any sense of strength—and I had no joy. Instead, I was breaking down emotionally and physically. I was going into spiritual crisis.
For years, I had drawn close to God, especially focusing on His kind, gentle Father’s heart. But now I couldn’t discern my kind and gentle Father in any way. Now—at the most desperate time in my life—He had removed any sense of His presence.
Objectively, I can say God did not abandon me, but it felt and looked like He had. It was agony to my soul. I can see now that I had grace, but mostly it was an unfelt grace. My heart was deeply wounded, leading to doubts, anger and accusation. I questioned God’s existence. Then I questioned His character. I knew He loved the whole world. But did He really love me?
Was He really faithful? Was He completely good and truthful? I wasn’t so sure anymore. The offense in my heart was strangling my relationship with God.
This is what Jesus warned about when He said that “the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). Many will turn away because they become offended at God. When something bad happens, many people become angry at God. They blame Him. “God, if You’re all-powerful and loving, why don’t You intervene? How can You let this happen?”
In the years ahead, I think we will see what happens when a nation’s leaders turn their backs on God. Believers are not under judgment, but we are embedded in a nation that is entering a period of judgment. Believers will be offended because of the intensity of their persecution and suffering. They will ask, “God, how could You let this happen to me? I’ve been an obedient son.” That’s what I said in prison.
But God intervened. At a very low point, I visualized a valley of testing—like the valley of dry bones from the Book of Ezekiel—filled with the skeletons of believers who had failed. God drove this scene into my heart. I realized I was very close to losing my friendship with God. So I made a decision. I could not do much to fight for my freedom, but I could fight for my relationship with God. I made a decision with my will—not with my emotions—and said:
“God, whatever You do or don’t do, I will follow You. If You do not let me sense Your presence, I will still follow You. If You don’t speak to me, I will still follow You. If You don’t show me Your gentleness or kindness, I will still follow You. If You leave me in prison, I will still follow You.”
Setting aside my demands and conditions for God, I determined to turn my eyes toward God. I couldn’t turn my eyes very far, but turning them even one degree toward Him rather than one degree away made all the difference in the world.
And He started to rebuild me.
I had to make this decision again and again. Every time I was in a pit, at every setback, I chose to turn toward God rather than away from Him.
I also visualized a lockbox that would contain my questions, doubts and accusations. Ultimately, I made a decision of the will that I would no longer open that box. I told God, “I won’t entertain these doubts and questions any longer.” And this was very important: I said, “I do not need to have answers to have a relationship with You.”
After this, I still had questions and doubts, but I sent them to the lockbox. I had been focused on my questions, but I realized that God had questions for me. I was questioning God’s love and faithfulness, but it wasn’t God’s love and faithfulness that were being tested. They’re constant. It was my love and my faithfulness that were being tested.
And God asked me, “Andrew, will you continue to love Me, even when you don’t feel or see My love? Andrew, will you be faithful to Me, even when you don’t see My faithfulness?”
The truth is, God tests His children. And one of the tests is overcoming offense. Think of John the Baptist. Jesus was performing miracles, the Kingdom was coming, but John was suffering in prison. Jesus had power, but He didn’t use it on John’s behalf. When Jesus answered his cousin John’s puzzled question about whether He was indeed the Messiah, Jesus’ message was, “Blessed is the one who isn’t offended by me” (Matthew 11:6).
Here, John the Baptist is in danger of being offended in his crisis. This is John, one of God’s great servants. So Jesus says, “Be careful, John, that after coming this far, you don’t fail, you don’t turn away because of offense.” And shortly after this, John is executed. God appears very willing to offend.
There are many such examples in the Bible. Most of Jesus’ disciples rejected Him after He told them they would have to drink His blood and eat His flesh. Jesus could have explained further. He could have removed the offense. He didn’t. He let them go. He let the offended leave.
In contrast, another time Jesus appears to insult a woman. He basically compares her to a dog, but she overcomes the offense. She will not leave, and she and her child are saved.
The heart’s response to Him is critical. It seems God is looking for those who will overcome offense, who will press through hurt, doubt and confusion.
I think of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who suffered persecution in communist prisons. He tells of believers who went insane in prison. I could relate to this. I was afraid at times that I would lose my sanity. But how does this fit with the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you”? Or, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”? God could have given sufficient grace for those believers not to go insane. But He didn’t.
This is how Wurmbrand dealt with it. He said, “Their insanity is beautiful to God.” They lost their minds because of their faithful commitment to Jesus, and this means it was a beautiful sacrifice. It’s all been made right, now. They’re in Heaven. But it wasn’t made right in this life. This demonstrates the human cost of suffering. We don’t know how, when, or even if our difficulties will end. And this uncertainty tests our hearts.
Some people have said to me that the main narrative of my imprisonment was trusting God. I’m not sure about that. Often when we talk about trust, we link it to an outcome. But I couldn’t find any verse that said, “Andrew will get out of prison.”
Trust is very important to God. I’m not sure how well I understand it, but I lean into the leadership of Jesus, knowing He is a good leader who has promised the Kingdom to those who trust Him. I don’t have to understand. I just have to lean into Him.
Isaiah 50:10, where God is speaking to Israel in exile, became my theme verse in prison.
It says in part, “Who among you walks in darkness, and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord; let him lean on his God.” God could have said, “I’m going to send light right away; look for the light, expect the light.” But He didn’t. He said, “When you’re in the dark with no light, lean on me.”
I think part of my testing was that I not have a sense of the presence of God, that I not have His voice. God wanted me to learn to stand in the dark, to lean into Him whatever my feelings, whatever my circumstances.
We’re tested by different means, but we’re all tested in the same areas of the heart. Every one of us goes through times of difficulty. It could be persecution or some other crisis, like a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one, an illness. At some point in your life, you’re going to be in the dark.
You may cry out, “Where are You, God? Where is Jesus? Where is my Shepherd? Where is the lover of my soul? God, why are You silent?”
But much more important than getting the answers is the simple truth that you must survive the test. You must remain faithful. Your devotion to God is being tested, and you must hold on to Him. What you do in these points of crisis will define your relationship with God.
Please, take seriously the danger of the offended heart. You must not allow offense to take root in your heart. Decide: “I will turn my eyes toward Jesus and not away.” Lean into the leadership of Jesus. Lean into your Beloved. He is committed to bringing you safely through to His Kingdom. ©2022 Andrew Brunson
Scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible, ©2017 by Holman Bible Publishers.
This article is adapted from the video series “Prepare to Stand,” by Andrew Brunson. To view the videos, visit lp.BillyGraham.org/Prepare-to-Stand.
Andrew Brunson serves as special advisor for religious freedom at Family Research Council.
Photo: ©2022 Samaritan's Purse