Part 3: Running Scared
by Phil Martin
On the way home from the church, we walked considerably faster than we did on the way there. This little brush with the police brought up a whole range of emotions. Most of the emotions pointed directly at idols in our hearts, which felt like added insult to injury. If almost getting arrested wasn’t enough, now I have to be honest about my sin! As the hours and days have gone by, I’m more thankful that we went through this so that I better understand my temptations and idols.
The first and strongest emotion was simply, fear. The process of getting detained or even deported is not pleasant, especially if you don’t fully understand the language. Being detained by any authority is, for lack of better term, scary. However, it wasn’t the main thing we were afraid of. The fear of looking like fools and being laughed at was much stronger. I discovered that hiding in the dark corners of my heart was a desire for approval from the missionary and ministry communities. Not a few people have told us that what we are doing is naive and dangerous. They told us we wouldn’t last 30 days in China. I imagined, “I told you so” conversations I would have to have. Even though I’ve believed from the beginning that things like this could happen, there was still a desire to be proven right.
Beyond that was the fear of wasted time and money. If we indulge a secular business perspective for a moment, the Return On Investment of our missions work is very low at this moment. Over the last three years we’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars and it doesn’t feel like there is much to show for it. Even worse, the most expensive part of the whole process was the last three months. If we got kicked out now, it would all seem pointless and expensive.
There is some merit to considering which missions endeavors are worth supporting. Despite what value those evaluations might have, the kingdom of God does not play by the same rules as the world. It is above our pay grade to analyze missions ROI. Furthermore, our actions are guided by what is glorifying to God. Christians can not sin to protect the greater good, even if that good is further ministry!
That type of thinking is what gets people in huge messes. Churches that discover scandals within their midst, decide that it is better to hide it so that people don’t leave which would hurt the budget and shrink the opportunities for ministry. Or from a different angle, Churches are willing to pare down our message to a more palatable form so that more people will accept it. All of these are examples of serving ministry for Christ, rather than serving Christ himself.
I think we can agree that when asked directly, “Are you a Christian?” our consciences are bound to answer in the affirmative, regardless of the consequences. We have a conviction that to be biblically faithful as a missionary requires us to gather with other Christians. If in pursuit of worshipping with other Christians we are deported, this is not a waste. Obedience to Christ is never a waste, regardless of how the world may view it. Once again, we are pushed to the heart of the matter. Is it necessary to gather with the local, indigenous church in order to be faithful as a missionary? My attempt to answer that from scripture is in a later post, so stay tuned.
Even as the fear wore off, there remained a nagging discomfort. At the root, we felt uncomfortable because we felt out of control. It felt like being on a roller coaster and realizing that it isn’t very safe. There is no way you can stop it, you can only hope to get to the end of the ride in one piece. The one thing you certainly can not do is control the outcome.
I pride myself in being a fairly flexible person. Control is not my idol, right? Well I was dismayed to discover that I was not Mr. Go-With-The-Flow when the flow was really uncomfortable. I was more like Mr. Make the flow go where I want it to go.
Within a few minutes Sara and I had both woven together elaborate conspiracy theories that explained how it was all connected. I was convinced that 1) our VPN and internet problems were a result of the police intentional disrupting it. 2) The security guard at the bank near the church gave Sara and weird look. He must have called the station and told them we were coming to church 3) Every “official” looking person was watching us and reporting on our activities. 4) Our FaceTime and WeChat had been watched and that somehow that’s how they knew our plans. 5) The reason the police gave us problems the previous week with our registration was to keep an eye on us. 6) That the security cameras that I attempted to install in our house that week allowed THEM to listen to our conversations.
As I thought more about it, each of these was easily disprovable. 1) VPN service was slowed in the entire country that week, it wasn’t just us. Later, we discovered our ethernet cable was just loose. 2) We learned that the security guard gave us the weird look after the officers were already in the service. 3-5) The police didn’t know our names or phone numbers, and certainly weren’t expecting us. If they were following us, watching our WeChat, and trying to keep an eye on us they would have known exactly who we were. 6) The security cameras were connected briefly, but due to our internet problems they weren’t connected for anyone to listen to us.
I included all that detail to try to show how paranoia works. Thinking rationally for less than five minutes cleared away all my suspicions. Still, until I thought about it I was convinced every move I made was watched and chronicled. If we had let that feeling continue, it only would have grown until it seeped into everything we did.
Our hearts wanted there to be easy explanations for what happened so that we could control the future. If everything is connected, then we can fight back against it. If it was a divinely ordained coincidence, we are forced to trust that God knows what He is doing. Paranoia is a form of rebellion against God’s sovereignty!
Closely connected to the paranoia was a whole host of lily-livered resolutions to, lay low for awhile, be extra careful on WeChat, never go to a house church again, start using code etc. For a minute I even contemplated moving, or at least leaving the country for a spell. Let me remind you that NOTHING HAPPENED. Just a police officer at church was enough to turn me into a gutless chicken.
Our ideas for the practical implementation of “laying low” all turned out to be along the lines of, “Not doing our job.” We are here to share the gospel, to disciple converts to maturity, and to train leaders in churches. I was prepared to take a break from telling people we want to teach the Bible. Notice that I said, “want to.” At this point we are hardly doing any ministry in Changchun. Certainly not enough to get us kicked out. But at the mere possibility of an uncomfortable situation, I was considering a change of goals.
As I started thinking more clearly, I was ashamed of how spineless I am. I read 2 Corinthians 11 and marveled at what Paul endured for the sake of preaching the gospel. If I were with him, how many times would have I turned back like John Mark? Many saints have risked death to gather with other believers. There appears to be another entire area of my heart that needs serious renovation by the Spirit.
So in short, our idols of comfort, security, control, approval, and indepedance all bubbled up to the surface. I’m quite certain that God gave us a chance to see our poor reaction so that next time, Lord willing, we will be better prepared to take our thoughts captive and represent Christ well.
Next Post: Observations and Analysis