As I gravitate toward a reading diet that focuses primarily on either theology or literary fiction, I was pleased to discover the 2002 book, The Heavenly Man, which is the autobiography of Brother Yun, a leader in the Chinese house church movement as well as one of the visionaries behind Chinese Christians’ goal of taking the Gospel “back to Jerusalem.” Written with Paul Hathaway, Director of Asia Harvest, the book is a compelling story of Yun’s conversion and total commitment to Jesus Christ, a commitment that led him to suffering the great trials of poverty, imprisonment, torture, and separation from his family, and yet Yun’s story of complete dependence on God also demonstrates the many blessings of God even amongst suffering.
Like many of our time, I suffer from the twin plagues of cynicism and skepticism, and so I came to this book ready to question or even disbelieve its claims of miracles, looking for some skewed theology or sensationalistic claims. Yet I found none. What I did discover was a man who, despite his sufferings, maintained his humble reliance on God, was immersed in Scripture and prayer, was full of love for fellow prisoners and even captors, and received visions from the Lord and miraculous interventions that he did not seek and yet sorely needed.
Some examples may help give one a flavor of what life was like for Yun. During Yun’s first imprisonment, where he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks, he was somehow miraculously able to fast from both water and food for 75 days, earning the respect of both fellow cellmates (who were generally cruel to him) and prison guards. Not humanly possible, of course, but his own account is corroborated by his wife and another prisoner. It led to him being called “The Heavenly Man.” Yun later escaped from a heavily guarded prison by simply walking out, past guards who did not see him, through a gate that was inexplicably standing wide open, and into a taxi that took him away into hiding. Whenever I doubted the story, I was reminded that nothing occurred to Yun that did not have a precedent in Scripture and was corroborated by at least one (and often more than one) witness.
Yun is also forthright about his own failings. He admits, for example, that his last imprisonment, in Myanmar (Burma) would not have happened if he had heeded his wife’s wisdom and prompting by the Lord, that he placed to much trust in his having a German passport. He also admits that his own busyness and refusal to rest had at times alienated him from his family and led him to make unwise decisions.
Yun maintains that “how we mature as Christians largely depends on the attitude we have when we’re faced with suffering,” that the Lord “gives us these trials to keep us humble and dependent on him for sustenance.” That being said, Yun is frank about the agony as well as the discouragement and bitterness he faced at times. Even in this, he was Job-like, crying out to God in his distress and suffering and yet remaining faithful, continuing to trust the One who saves us from our captors (whoever or whatever they may be) and gives us joy in the midst of suffering.
The Heavenly Man is not a difficult book to read, and yet its content is emotionally charged. It’s 347 pages of life at the edge of faith, about a life fully dependent on God. As Western Christians, I doubt many of us know anything like what Brother Yun experienced, and yet we can be challenged to a deeper faith and walk by his example. Read it to be challenged. Read it to be informed. It’s an uncomfortable, holy provocation.
[For a more detailed survey of the mushrooming growth of Chinese Christianity, I recommend David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, and a Christian, believes Christians will make up 20 to 30 percent of the population of China within just a few years. Perhaps the most arresting chapter highlights the growing role of Christians among the educated elite - artists, writers, intellectuals, even Party members. It’s rich with detail and yet is a bit dry at times.]