Pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife Norine spoke about the hardship of persecution they endured at the hands of the Turkish government for approximately two years.
Speaking before thousands gathered in Birmingham, Alabama for the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention Monday, the North Carolina couple explained in a panel moderated by Timothy George, how testing the process was. In his remarks prior to the panel, the evangelical pastor said there were times where he was suicidal.
George, who is the outgoing dean of nearby Beeson Divinity School, noted that not since Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who was vocally critical of the Nazi regime, became Adolf Hitler's prisoner had a jailed pastor inspired so much prayer around the world than Andrew Brunson. Interviewed together, Norine said a major focus of her life was keeping prayer going on her husband and to encourage him in faith during his time in jail.
"I was the persistent widow," she said smiling as she explained her work on the government diplomacy side.
"I knocked on every door, probably many times. I probably made a pest of myself."
Although there were times where he wanted to end his life, it was the Word of God that sustained him, particularly Psalm 118, Andrew Brunson said. For a while he was not even allowed to have a Bible in his prison cell. When he was finally able to read one, it was dry to him, but it was comforting to have the Bible physically present. He ended up spending a lot of time in Phillippians and 2 Timothy, and was especially encouraged by the Apostle Paul's words about finishing the race of faith well.
Brunson's wife was the only one who was allowed to visit him, and was only allotted about 35 minutes each week. The couple would speak by phone through reinforced glass.
"She was a lioness," Brunson said of his wife, recounting how she would build him up and speak truth to him, even "rebuke" him at times.
Norine Brunson added: "I think the difficulty is there are no promises [in Scripture] when it comes to persecution."
"There are no promises except that we will have persecution; there's no promise of an outcome."
During part of his imprisonment, Brunson was jailed in Izmir, Turkey which in the biblical era was the ancient city of Smyrna. Smyrna was where Polycarp, a 2nd century Christian bishop, was martyred for the Gospel. Brunson was also held in another part of the country that was the location of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Pergamum, which is referred to as the "throne of Satan" in Revelation 2.
"I had run after the presence and intimacy with God for years and I tasted it," Andrew Brunson said, noting how it was a brutal, confusing struggle.
During the first seven months of his time in jail he said he lost 50 pounds.
"God, if I come out of this I'm going to have a testimony of my weakness and of Your strength," he remembered praying.
The ordeal surprised him how much it "broke" him, he added, but then he read more about those in the history of missions who were persecuted for their faith and wanted to die amid the abuse they endured, such as Adoniram Judson, the first Protestant missionary sent from North America to preach in Burma.
"This is the reality of suffering and persecution. It's very, very difficult ... it stretched me beyond what I could handle, but there was grace and there were a lot of prayers sustaining me."
It was only when he shifted his focus about what legacy of faith he would pass on to his children and resolved to fight for his faith did his perspective change.
In 2009, God spoke to Brunson about a move of God coming to Turkey but that it would happen during hard times. Turkey is the largest unevangelized nation in the world and the church remains small in number there, Norine Brunson noted, urging the crowd to pray that Turkish Christians accurately discern God's voice.
When Brunson was finally freed and came home to the United States in October, they stopped by the White House where the couple both famously prayed for President Trump in the Oval Office.
The annual meeting of Southern Baptist Convention will conclude Wednesday.