Gracia Burnham shares how faith can survive 376 days of captivity in the Philippine jungle.
by GRACIA BURNHAM
Who would have thought a few short years ago that I would be doing things like writing articles for magazines! I was perfectly content to live in a small barrio in the Philippines with my jungle pilot husband, Martin, and my three children. My daily tasks were simple: keep Martin going so he could fly for our coworkers who labored in the tribal areas, homeschool the kids so we didn’t have to send them to boarding school several days travel away, and provide meals and housing for visitors and colleagues who passed through our area. We loved our ministry and our life overseas. We loved each other and our Lord Jesus.
Then came May 27, 2001. Martin had to go to the island of Palawan to fill in for another New Tribes Mission (NTM) pilot, and I decided to go with him as I knew he would need help. We left the children with coworkers and told them we would return in one week. But life doesn’t always go as planned — and we were taken hostage by militant Muslims while on Palawan.
For the next year, we lived with the Abu Sayyaf in the jungles — running from the military, sleeping in the open, starving, drinking dirty river water, and witnessing the atrocities that this group inflicted on others, all the while wondering if we would ever see our home and family again.
It was a hard year — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Physically, I learned that a woman in her 40s can hike with guys in their 20s and keep up if she must. Mind you, I am a city girl. I don’t even like to camp! But day after day, God gave me the strength I needed to keep going.
Emotionally, Martin kept my spirits buoyed. He just had a way of encouraging me. There were days when I felt like I was going to lose my mind from the stress of being in a hostile environment for so long — especially during and after gun battles. Those attacks were terrifying as bullets whizzed past our heads while we hugged the ground. We wondered, Will the bullets find us this time? We were spared for the first 16 gun battles.
Several times during that year, I decided that I’d had enough. I was done being a hostage. I wouldn’t move another inch. They could kill me if they wanted, but I was finished. Martin would gently encourage me: “Gracia, what would the kids say if you could talk to them right now? They would say, ‘Keep going today, Mom, cause tomorrow you might get to go home.’” What would I have done without Martin’s encouragement? God only knows.
Spiritually, my toughest lessons were learned in this area. I think the hardest thing about being held hostage was that I saw what I really was. In one swift moment of time, everything I had — except Martin — was taken away from me. And when everything is gone and you’re in an uncomfortable position, you see what’s really in your heart. And what I saw in mine was not pretty.
I had always prided myself that I was a pretty good person. But in the jungle, I came face to face with a Gracia I really didn’t want to see. I saw a me I didn’t want to believe existed. I saw a hateful Gracia. There were times I really hated those men holding us hostage. I saw a covetous Gracia. When we were starving and I saw someone with food, I coveted what he had. I saw a despairing Gracia. “Nobody cares about us anymore. This has gone on for so long that everyone has forgotten us!” I saw a faithless Gracia.
When I saw what was happening to me — when I was faced with such an ugly Gracia, I began crying out to God to change me. And He started doing it.
As months passed and God worked, I began seeing our captors as the needy kids that they were. My hatred
was replaced with concern and even
love for them. Contentment and joy grew in my heart as I began acknowledging God’s goodness to me on a daily basis instead of looking at the trials.
God never leaves us as He finds us, and I am so glad for His work in my life during that year!
After 376 days as hostages, in the 17th gun battle, Martin was killed. I was wounded but rescued that day.
When I returned to America (I live in Kansas), I learned that God had been touching the hearts of countless believers to pray for us. Four thousand people attended Martin’s funeral. Many of them said they would love to know what God had been doing in our lives in the jungle while they had been praying. So, I got busy and wrote the story of our captivity, In the Presence of My Enemies.
My family began praying for the men who held us captive — praying that they would be able to hear the gospel in their own language and that God would do a work in their hearts. I know God has said, “I am Yahweh. … Is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jer. 32:27). But, I’m not sure that as I prayed, I even expected God to work. Oh, me of little faith!
Something wonderful, indeed, has happened. I have found some 23 or so of our captors in a maximum security prison in Manila. I am involved with a couple who is ministering to them. So far, four former Abu Sayyaf have come to know the Lord as their Savior!
Stories of overcoming encourage us, don’t they? But what I think really encourages us is when we realize the God who does amazing things for others has the power to work in our lives, too. Do you think God can work in your life? Does He see your struggle today?
Let’s remember who God is. “Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us — to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).
I often pray, “Lord, this is big.” And deep in my heart, I don’t really expect anything to happen. Are you like that? Or, is it just me with little faith? Do we expect Him to answer and do great and mighty things?
We ought to be encouraged today. God is going to do what He says He will do. It may look different than what we imagined or planned, but in the end, “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).
GRACIA BURNHAM is the author of In the Presence of My Enemies (a New York Times best-seller) and To Fly Again. She is the founder of the Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation and a speaker at churches, colleges, and conferences. She is the widow of Martin Burnham; the mother of Jeff, Mindy, and Zach; and the grandmother of five.
This article originally appeared in Mature Living magazine (March 2015). For more articles like this, subscribe to Mature Living.