In Suffering, THEY THRIVE.
The death of Nik and Ruth Ripken’s son launched them on a pilgrimage to learn from suffering Christians.
by MARK KELLY
MISSIONARIES NIK AND RUTH RIPKEN stood over the grave of their teenage son, Timothy. The onset of Kenya’s rainy season had released a flood of mold spores in their old house, and a severe asthma attack had overwhelmed his 16-year-old heart.
The grief was almost too much to bear. After years of devoted missionary service, some of it in extremely difficult places, now this happens. On Easter Sunday, no less.
After the funeral, Ruth opened her Bible, but the words just sat on the page. “I could read one verse,” she says, “then all I could do was scream, ‘Help!’ to the Lord. We had seen darkness when we served in Somalia, but now we saw darkness up close and personal in our family. We didn’t want to go there.”
Nik wrestled with questions: How can a person maintain even a little hope in a dark place? Was Jesus worth this high price his family was paying? And should they risk the lives of their other two sons to continue their missionary work?
Tim had died on Easter, but the celebration of that holy day reminded Nik and Ruth that the joy of resurrection comes after the agony of crucifixion.
“God promised us He wasn’t going to waste Tim’s life,” Ruth recalls.
Nik adds: “We didn’t know where we were going to find the courage. And we didn’t know how all the pieces would come back together. But we would hold on to Jesus until Jesus proved He was not worth it.”
In Somalia, the Ripkens had seen suffering beyond anything Americans experience: war, senseless violence, and starvation. They had seen an entire first generation of Christians murdered for their faith.
“Ruth and I were captive to the conviction that if Jesus is not the answer to the human condition, there is no answer,” Nik says. “We stumbled on a single thought that captured our hearts: Surely, wherever believers have suffered — and still suffer — for their faith, we could find wise and faithful people who would be willing to share their spiritual survival strategies and other faith lessons learned from the hardship they have faced.”
HOW TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE IN SUFFERING
The Ripkens set out on a pilgrimage, visiting 72 countries to interview more than 600 believers who had suffered persecution for their faith in Jesus. They listened to Christians who had suffered torture and imprisonment. They talked with the families of believers who had been murdered.
And they learned that God’s people can thrive and experience deep joy even in the midst of great suffering.
The story of China’s Christians moved them deeply.
The Communist Party persecuted Christians after seizing power in 1949, but the truly intense suffering began in 1966 when Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong launched his Cultural Revolution. Millions of people suffered harassment, public humiliation, seizure of property, imprisonment, and torture.
“There were 400,000 to 700,000 people who were considered believers, in various churches and denominations, when communism came to China,” Nik says. “The missionaries who were forced to leave wondered whether any believers would survive the persecution. But when we got back in, we found 10 million believers in Jesus. And today there are at least 85 million Christians — and perhaps as many as 100 million — in China!”
Beyond the amazing numbers, however, Nik discovered an even more startling fact: Even though they continued to suffer greatly, the Chinese Christians he met were filled with profound joy.
“These Chinese believers lived under the very real threat of arrest and imprisonment for the practice of their faith,” Nik says. “Even so, the believers in China exhibited a constant joyfulness in the midst of harsh circumstances. They were painfully aware of the reality of their lives. Still, they exhibited an undeniable, irrepressible joy.”
Nik asked the Chinese believers, “How does this happen?”
They replied, “We’ve got a decision we make every day. We ask ourselves this question: Do I want to identify with believers in persecution, or do I want to identify with their persecutors?”
Nik asked them how a person can know whom they identify with, and they replied, “By whether or not today you share Jesus with someone else or you keep Him to yourself.”
“These modern-day giants of the faith teach us through their flesh and souls that following Jesus involves a cross as well as a crown,” Nik explains. “They learned not just how to survive in persecution and suffering but to thrive in it.”
A PURPOSE IN SUFFERING
Christians in America aren’t often persecuted for their faith — largely because they don’t tell others about it, Nik says. But the lesson of Chinese suffering holds value for anyone who is struggling in difficult circumstances.
“There is a mysterious purpose in persecution and suffering related to bringing about the kingdom of God,” Nik explains. “Scripture tells us Jesus was ‘perfected’ as the author of salvation and in His obedience through suffering. One of God’s purposes in affliction and suffering is to equip His servants with the ability to comfort and sustain others who endure similar afflictions.
“As believers share in experiencing Christ’s suffering and persevere in their faith, then God is glorified in the end,” Nik continues. “The apostle Paul writes that if we are children of God, then we are ‘heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom. 8:17, CSB).
“Is Jesus worth it? That may be the only question that matters for believers,” Nik says. “We realized as a family that if the resurrection isn’t true, then we are the most to be pitied for the risks that we’ve taken and for the places our kids have had to live.”
“We knew the risk, and we knew the cost,” Ruth adds, “but Tim’s life and death were worth it because Christ’s life and love were worth it.”
Christians suffering in difficult circumstances can ask themselves, “Is Jesus worth it?” On a larger scale, however, Nik says church members must ask, “What risks are we willing to take for the kingdom of God?”
“Sadly, when we ask most people in the Western church, ‘Is Jesus worth your life and the life of your wife, and is it appropriate to risk your children for the kingdom of God?’ the answer has been overwhelming silence, or it’s been, ‘No, you don’t do that with your wife and kids,’” Nik says.
“We know that to get to resurrection, it’s almost always preceded by crucifixion, but if the resurrection is true, it changes everything,” he concludes. “And the gospel continues to be authenticated because of what people are willing to suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ.”
Some of the amazing stories captured during Nik and Ruth Ripken’s visits with 600-plus persecuted believers are collected in their best-selling book, The Insanity of God (B&H Publishing Group, 2013), which has now been turned into a LifeWay Films documentary movie with the same name.
Learn more about the Ripkens’ ministry and books at nikripken.com. Find out more about the movie at insanityofgodmovie.com.
MARK KELLY is a career Southern Baptist journalist and host of a podcast at godsrevolution.net, where you can hear an interview with Nik Ripken about his experiences.
This article originally appeared in Mature Living magazine (March 2017). For more articles like this, subscribe to Mature Living.