When Voice of the Martyrs’ Todd Nettleton traveled to China in 2002 to interview Sister Tong, a Chinese Christian who was sentenced to six months in one of the country’s notorious prisons because of her faith, he wasn’t prepared for her response.
“Oh yes, that was a wonderful time,” she told him.
Baffled, Nettleton asked Sister Tong to explain. Was she not imprisoned for six months because she hosted a church — an “illegal religious gathering” under Chinese law — in her home? Were government officials not trying to “re-educate” her, forcing her to become less Christian and more Chinese?
“I'm thinking she’s going to paint a picture for us of how miserable her life was in prison. How hard the bed was, how cold the cell was, how big the rats were,” Nettleton told The Christian Post. “But instead, she looked at me with this heavenly smile."
Sister Tong shared how, during her time in prison, God was right there with her, every step of the way.
"He felt so near to me during that time," she said.
She was also able to start a women’s ministry in prison, sharing Christ with those who had never heard His name.
“So, yes, it was an absolutely wonderful time,” Sister Tong said.
As a relatively new member of the VOM team, Nettleton said he was “blown away.”
“I couldn’t imagine myself being in prison and thinking it was a wonderful time,” he said. “Sister Tong changed my perspective on how I view persecution. What if we all had the attitude, when we faced difficulties like unemployment or sickness, that Jesus was giving us an opportunity to minister and witness to others?”
Stories like Sister Tong’s, compiled over 23 years of ministry with VOM, inspired Nettleton to write his latest book,When Faith is Forbidden: 40 Days on the Frontlines with Persecuted Christians.
In it, he shares stories of Christians from around the world who took a stand for their faith — even when it meant severe persecution. From India to Turkey, Nettleton gives a voice to the voiceless and challenges his readers to boldly follow Christ, whatever the cost. One hundred percent of the royalties from the book will go toward providing help to persecuted Christians.
“The premise of the book is, why don't you come with me, Christian reader, and take a trip for 40 days. Let’s sit down with these brothers and sisters, hear their stories, and drink tea. Let’s meet these amazing followers of Jesus Christ," he said. "Because I think, by the end of the journey, the reader is going to be challenged and inspired and think about their faith differently after meeting brothers and sisters who are willing to give their lives for Christ.”
The “common thread” he’s seen among persecuted Christians around the world, Nettleton said, is that they all “counted the cost” of their faith ahead of time. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” Nettleton said, adding: “That’s the message our brothers and sisters in hostile and restricted nations understand from the very first moment that they follow Christ.
But in the West, Christians “are told that once they follow Jesus, their life will get better,” he explained. “So they aren’t prepared when trials or oppositions come.”
“The Gospel message that's presented in hostile and restricted nations is a very different Gospel message than we hear in the West,” he said. “It is, 'if you come to Jesus, your life here on Earth is probably going to get worse. Your family might reject you, you might get thrown in prison, you might get beaten up. But Jesus will be with you. And you have the promise of eternity with Christ.'”
Still, over the last two decades, Nettleton told CP that he’s been “encouraged” by how many Christians in the West are increasingly aware of the state of Christian persecution around the world.
“The scriptural mandate is that, when one part of the body suffers, we are all supposed to feel that pain,” he said. “We can't do that unless we have an understanding of what's happening around the world. We can't do that unless we start to know the names and the faces and the places where our brothers and sisters are suffering. I think that awareness has increased. I hope that sense of being part of the Body of Christ and being connected has also increased as well."
He predicted that though persecution is “likely going to increase” — particularly in countries like China, India, North Korea, and in the Middle East — it also means that the Gospel is spreading.
“As we see persecution increase, the other side of the coin that we need to recognize is the Church is growing. That's part of the reason persecution is increasing. So as we look to the future, I think we will see more persecution, but we will also see the Church grow. Christ promises the gates of Hell will not prevail against my Church.”
When it comes to coming alongside persecuted Christians, Nettleton advised believers in the West to do three things: Pray, educate yourself, and then say 'yes’ to whatever God calls you to do in response.
“The first thing they ask for is prayer,” he said. “We need to educate ourselves so we can pray effectively using their names, the names of their families, and addressing the particular challenges they’re facing.”
“As you’re praying, as you're educating yourself and learning more about our brothers and sisters who face persecution, I think God will say, ‘OK, this is what I want you to do,’ whether it's writing to imprisoned Christians or advocating on their behalf. And then it's up to us to be obedient to what God is asking us to do.”