At the Border of Faith and Doubt
It seemed like yet another routine border crossing in what was then Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.(1) The year was 1981; Leonid Brezhnev was the head of the Soviet Union, and half of Europe languished under the Communist vision and control. As a young and eager Christian, I had joined a mission whose primary task was to help the church in Eastern Europe. This involved transporting Bibles, hymn books, and Christian literature to believers behind what Winston Churchill called the "Iron Curtain."
It was indeed an iron curtain: a vast barrier made of barbed-wire fences, mine fields, exclusion zones, guard towers, heavily armed soldiers, and dogs. Although designed allegedly to keep the West out, it was in actuality a vast system of control to keep those under this tyranny in. On this occasion my task was to transit through Czechoslovakia into Poland to deliver my precious cargo of Bibles and books to a contact there.
The literature was concealed in specially designed compartments, and my colleague and I had gone through our routine preborder procedures. We bowed our heads and prayed that God would protect us. We then proceeded to the border crossing between Austria and Czechoslovakia.
It was a cold, bleak, early winter day. It all seemed normal. We entered Czechoslovakia, and the huge barrier descended behind us. We were now locked in. As usual, the unfriendly border guards took our passports, and then the customs inspector arrived. I had been trained to act casual, to pray silently, and to respond to questions. I sensed this time it was different. The man ignored me, concentrated on the structure of our vehicle, and was soon convinced we had something concealed. I became quite tense. They eventually took the keys from me and locked my colleague and me in separate rooms. The guards broke into the special compartments in our vehicle, where they discovered the Bibles and literature.
My colleague and I were handcuffed, not allowed to speak to each other, and put in separate cells with people who spoke no English. The small rooms smelled of disinfectant and had only two bunk beds and a hole in the floor that served as the toilet. The light was kept on all night and some basic food was brought three times a day. The rules were rigid and enforced: no sitting or lying on the beds during the day. This meant shuffling backward and forward for hours in a highly restricted space, then facing a difficult night as we sought to sleep under the glare of the constant light.
Time became blurred. Was it morning, day, evening? I found myself alone, in a hostile place, without anything to read, without anyone to talk to, without any idea when or if we might be released, and with seeming unlimited (and empty) time on my hands. There is nothing like empty time and constricted space to bring to the surface feelings, questions, and doubts.
Contrary to some of the more starry-eyed testimonies I have read, I did not experience overwhelming grace or a profound sense of God's presence. I did have the assurance that God was there, that God knew what was going on, and that "my times were in his hands" (see Psalm 31:15). My feelings, however, became a source of torment. For some reason I had an initial impression that we would be released quickly and expelled from the country. As the first few days passed with no communication and I had no idea what was happening, I began to wrestle to some degree with doubt. It was intense, it was real, and it was filling my mind and clouding my thoughts and my heart. My doubts seemed to focus on uncertainty as to what God was doing and whether I could actually trust what I thought was his leading. I also was struggling with how much I might be asked to face.
I can well remember a point of surrender. After several days, I resigned myself to the possibility that my imprisonment could last for years. I might not get out for a long time, so I had to make the best of what was and to rest in God. It is a point where we accept the hardship, where we still believe in greater good, and where we surrender to what seems like inevitability. I think I came to relinquish my sense and need for control (I had none anyway) and simply accept that God would be there as promised, and therefore, to rest in Him.
I had crossed an important point that I subsequently discovered in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Richard Wurmbrand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vaclav Havel. Scholar Roger Lundin remarks:
"To Bonhoeffer, this is the distinctive 'difference between Christianity and all religions.' Our suffering, wrote Bonhoeffer only months before his 1943 arrest, teaches us 'to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless.' The interpretive key to human experience is to be found not in our preference for Eden but in our power to share in the sufferings of God and the world: 'We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.'"(2)
As those raised in comfort and convenience, the very nature of all this may frighten or repel us. If the message we have believed or the model we have been taught has raised false expectations, then we are going to be subject to doubt and fear, and worse, reject the whole thing. But the gospel and Christianity are concerned with reality, and hence with truth. By this I mean what the true nature of life really is and means. Christianity is not an escape system for us to avoid reality, live above it, or be able to redefine it. Christianity is a way that leads us to grasp what reality is and, by God's grace and help, to navigate through it to our eternal home.
As I sat thinking, praying, and hoping in the custody of the Czechoslovakian authorities, I was surprised one day when the door opened and I was summoned forth, signaled not to speak, and then led out to a waiting car with my colleague. We were driven in silence to the border. We were handed our passports and our severely damaged vehicle, and we were then expelled from the country. We crossed into Austria and were able to talk for the first time in nearly two weeks. We shared our stories, and we stopped and prayed. We heard missing details; we discovered ways that God worked in us. We spoke of our struggles, our doubts, and our overall confidence.
It would be presumptuous to turn our limited experience and insight into a major pattern for all, yet in the midst of it we were able to detect broader strokes, hidden meanings, and real possibilities. Like Joseph so many centuries before, we could look back on all that happened, reflect on it and say, "They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20).
Stuart McAllister is regional director for the Americas at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Excerpted from Stuart McAllister’s chapter "The Role of Doubt and Persecution in Spiritual Transformation" in Ravi Zacharias, ed., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters, 17, 370, quoted in Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 40.