In this fourth article adapted from Andrew Brunson’s “Prepare to Stand” video series, Brunson discusses the most important thing he did that helped him endure two years of imprisonment in Turkey because of his Christian faith. Applying the lessons Brunson learned can help us prepare so that when persecution comes, we will stand firm to the end.
The most important step we can take as Christians is to pursue God’s heart. It’s what helped me endure the pressures I faced in prison, and I believe it will help you as well.
In 2007, I began to pray in a different way: “Father God, draw me so close to Your heart that You’ll be able to trust me with the authority to start waves.” I wanted to see waves of the Holy Spirit—Kingdom waves—start in Turkey, which is the largest unevangelized country in the world. But God focused me on the first part of that prayer—“Draw me so close to Your heart.”
So Norine and I began a pursuit of God’s heart. We started to pursue intimacy with God in a new way—to go after His presence.
When we talk about loving God, it can be very abstract. So, here’s how I started. I said, “God, I don’t love You with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, but I want to. I want more of You. The psalmist says, ‘As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you’ (Psalm 42:1, ESV). God, my heart doesn’t long for You as a deer longs for streams of water. Make me thirsty for You.”
As we asked again and again, we became thirsty for God. We started to long for His presence. This pursuit of God’s heart began to change us, and it positioned us to receive assignments from God—including my prison assignment.
I see it as an assignment because I now understand that God fully intended to use my imprisonment for His purposes. When God allowed me to be thrown in prison, He knew that I was going to break. He knew I would go right up to the point of failure. But He did it anyway. Why?
I think that He knew He could trust me. God knew that at my lowest points, I would turn my eyes toward Him and not away, because of my pursuit of His heart over the years.
Here’s an important truth I want to underline: Love fuels endurance and perseverance. Love is what makes us willing to undertake risk and hardship, to carry burdens. A lover is willing to endure much for his beloved. We know that fathers and mothers have sacrificed themselves for their children, and husbands for their wives. In my case, Norine remained in Turkey throughout my imprisonment. Leaders we respect urged her to return to the States. “Norine,” they said, “let God take care of Andrew. You need to get out of there.” But she stayed because she was the only person who could visit me, and she knew how desperate I was. She placed herself at personal risk because she loves me.
So yes, a lover is willing to suffer for the one he or she loves. An admirer may not be so willing. God has many admirers, even many servants, but few lovers. Determine that you will be a lover of God, that you will run after His heart.
I want to give some examples of how my love for God fueled faithfulness in prison. One day God drove a verse from Philippians into my heart: “They all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21, ESV).
I began to weep. I thought, This is me in this verse. I realized I had been focused on myself and not what mattered to Jesus. All I wanted was to be with my wife and children, but what if Jesus’ interests were best served by my remaining in prison? This became a turning point for me, and I began to fight to get to the point where I could embrace serving the interests of Jesus, even if it meant remaining in prison. This was because of my love for Him.
For many months, I had a difficult time worshipping God. I was struggling with doubt and questioning His character. But in my second year, I determined to worship, and I sang to Jesus. It was a declaration of my love for Him in the dark night of my soul. I also developed the discipline of dancing before God. It was an act of obedience to Jesus’ command to rejoice when we’re persecuted. But it was also very much an act of love. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV). And I loved Him. Therefore, I tried to obey Him.
Many times I said, “I just want to be a good son to my heavenly Father,” and then pushed toward surrender one more time, forced myself to look heavenward again, chose to forgive those who were hurting me and my family. Love drove me to do this.
For years I had pursued God’s presence. It’s what I most wanted from God. But there was something that God wanted from me: simple devotion, simple love. He wanted to see if I would devote myself to Him in spite of my questions, my doubts, my disappointment—in spite of His silence. So He stripped everything away: the encouragement of my closest friends, fellowship with other believers, every way in which I had experienced His love in the past. And what was left was a core of love in my heart, a simple devotion that I clung to in desperation.
And this simple devotion said, “I don’t need answers. I’m focused on loving You.”
A result of my testing is that God showed me my own heart. After 18 months in prison, the Turkish government decided to put me on trial. The day before it started, I was moved back to my old prison, where the trial would take place. This was very difficult for me. I had experienced a lot of trauma at Sakran Prison, so when they returned me there, it triggered all the trauma again.
On my trial day, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept for two days. I hadn’t eaten. I wasn’t given the anti-anxiety medication my body had become dependent on. And I was in court for a 13-hour session. Add to this even more stress, as I was falsely accused of terror crimes and spying.
I knew this was a completely political case, and the judges didn’t care about truth. The prosecutor was asking for a 35-year sentence. I was told I would be kept in solitary confinement in this prison for the duration of my trial, and I knew it could go on for years.
I was devastated. I lay on the bed alone, isolated, with fear and grief welling up inside me. A prayer kept going through my mind: “Where are You, God? Why have You permitted them to return me to this awful place? Why have You not intervened for me? Why are You so far away, so silent?”
I opened my mouth, and I was surprised by what I heard: “I love You, Jesus. I love You, Jesus. I love You, Jesus.”
And I realized, Here’s my victory. Yes, I do love You. Even if You’re silent, I love You. Even if You allow my enemy to hurt me, I love You. Even if You do not give me Your presence, I love You.
My love for God before I went to prison was sincere and genuine, but until it was tested, it was unproven. Now, I had proven my love for God. Yes, I was weak and broken. I know that grace took me through. But during my worst time, I cried out, “I love You, Jesus.”
Jesus said that the most important thing we can do is to love Him with our heart, soul, mind and strength. It’s so clear and simple, but it’s very difficult to do. We don’t naturally increase in love for God. In fact, our tendency is to decrease, to cool down in love for God. We have to nurture love for God. It doesn’t happen on its own.
Loving God is a lifelong pursuit. Begin building this into your life now. Don’t wait for hardship to push you to seek God.
One of the best ways to do this is to spend time with God. Norine and I were detained together for two weeks. I noticed that she was handling it better than I was. Over the years we had been like the tortoise and the hare. I would get excited about God, sprint ahead, and then become complacent, whereas Norine was steady and consistent, making it a priority to spend time with God on a regular basis. Over time, this built a deep reservoir in her, and this is what she was drawing on during that terrible time. I also had a reservoir, but hers was deeper. There’s no substitute for spending time with God. As she looks back, she says, “I was not prepared, but I was not unprepared, either.”
We may not be completely prepared for everything, but we don’t have to be unprepared, either. Pursue the heart of God. If you make this your priority, everything else in your life will come into right alignment. I’m not saying your life will be easy, but everything will be rightly aligned. We want to emerge from the wilderness leaning on our Beloved, tested and proven worthy of Him. ©2022 Andrew Brunson
Adapted from the video series “Prepare to Stand,” by Andrew Brunson. To watch the videos in the “Prepare to Stand” series, go to lp.BillyGraham.org/Prepare-to-Stand. Brunson serves as special advisor for religious freedom at Family Research Council.
Photo: ©2022 Samaritan's Purse