YAROSLAVL, Russia—- The Soviet police arrested Pastor Dmitri* because his house church had grown too large to ignore. They hauled him away to a prison filled with hardened criminals. A thousand miles from home, Dmitri suffered regular beatings. His jailers demanded he renounce his faith in Jesus and confess to being a Western spy. They even deceived him into thinking they had arrested his wife. The jailers would also trick prisoners into believing that their wives had been murdered.
Yet for 17 years, Dmitri remained steadfast. Early each morning, he stood in his cell and faced east to sing his “heart song” to Christ. The other inmates tried to shut him up by shouting insults, even throwing human waste into his cell. When Dmitri made it clear he would neither deny Jesus nor sign a confession, guards dragged him from his cell for execution.
On the catwalk outside the cell, however, the guards stopped dead in their tracks. Amazingly, the very inmates who had poured their hatred on Dmitri for so many years, now stood at the doors of their cells and sang his heart song to Christ. Not only was the pastor not executed, he eventually was released to return home.
Nik Ripken listened to Pastor Dmitri tell his story in 1994, almost three years after the Soviet Union collapsed. As an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary, Ripken and his wife, Ruth, were visiting 72 countries to interview more than 600 believers who had suffered persecution for their faith in Jesus. Dmitri’s story lies at the heart of Ripken’s best-selling book, “The Insanity of God” (B&H Books, 2013).
That book now has been turned into a LifeWay Films documentary movie showing nationwide Aug. 30 in a one-night event at select theaters. The evening will feature a Q&A time with the Ripkens and IMB President David Platt, as well as an exclusive performance of the movie soundtrack feature “Dimitri’s Song” by recording artist Todd Smith.
The Ripkens’ early life as missionaries was upended when their son died in Kenya. His tragic death filled their hearts with a compelling question: Is Jesus worth it? Pursuing an answer sent them on a journey into the depths of the persecuted church.
“How does faith survive, let alone flourish in the places of the world that are overcome with the darkness of sin, despair and hopelessness?” Ripken asks. “We were taught by believers in persecution how to follow Jesus, how to love Jesus, and how to walk with Him day by day, even when it doesn’t make sense.”
The consequences of following Jesus
The title, “Insanity of God,” arises out of a conundrum: What kind of God allows his son to be killed, not knowing if sinful humanity would return to him? What kind of father can rescue his son from death but choose not to do it because of his love for the world he created?
“Well, that kind of God is insane,” Ripken says.
‘Insane’ also is how people describe the Ripkens’ pilgrimage through war zones and into hostile countries to hear firsthand the stories of Christians who had endured persecution for their faith.
Ripken’s journey began in 1992, when he began a humanitarian mission into Somaliland, where the Somali National Movement had just declared independence following the collapse of the national government. He was astonished by the depravity and chaos – constant shootings, children and old people dying of hunger, practically every woman had been raped multiple times.
“What I saw then was a mirror of what ISIS is doing today,” Ripken says. “I saw the utter depravity of humankind. I saw what happens when Satan is unmasked, and he doesn’t have to hide behind materialism or democracy or Islam or Buddhism.”
Sharing the light of Jesus in such a dark place wasn’t nearly as hard as explaining the consequences of following Jesus.
“I had to make very certain they knew the price of following Christ,” Ripken says. “But I had entire families say to me, ‘If there is a judgment, and if there is a life after this one, hell can’t possibly be any worse than this life has been. Why wouldn’t we want to come to Christ? Why let the next life be like this life?’”
Witnesses to the resurrection
Cries of “Persecution!” have been rising in certain quarters of American Christianity because of conflict engendered by the rapid cultural shift on sexuality, but Ripken voices a word of caution.
Only a handful of American Christians ever bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus, but Ripken tells the stories of believers harassed and even killed precisely because they testify to the risen Christ.
“There’s nothing here in the United States worthy of persecution,” Ripken says. “Persecution is Satan’s reaction against Christians who choose to not keep silent about their faith. If we are keeping our faith to ourselves, why would Satan want to wake that up? Where we find a great harvest, we find a great persecution; where we find little harvest, we find little persecution.”
In fact, persecution defines normal Christianity, Ripken adds.
“About 70 percent of those who practice their faith live in environments of persecution,” he says. “Persecution described normal Christianity in the first century after Christ, and it describes normal Christianity today.”
Ripken says the Christians he met suffered for two simple reasons: They chose to follow Jesus, and they chose to not keep silent about his resurrection.
“What we’re trying to get the Western church to look at is we’re talking about people who have chosen to follow Christ and to witness to the utter joy and certainty of the resurrection,” he says. “One of the men I interviewed, a man who had followed his father into prison and torture, looked at me and said. ‘Nik, don’t you give up in freedom what we never give up in persecution, and that is our witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The hallmark of that witness to the resurrection is public baptism.
“Believers in persecution teach me over and over again that baptism is at least two things,” Ripken says. “It shows us who we are willing to die for – Jesus Christ – and who we are willing to die with – the body of Christ.”
He tells the story of an Iranian pastor named Hek, who was arrested by authorities. Word came that his mutilated body had been discovered just as a co-worker was preparing to baptize a group of 35 believers the pastor had led to faith in Christ.
“Are you ready to be baptized?” the co-worker asked the group. “Pastor Hek’s life shows you what it means.”
‘There’s just one church’
American Christians must take more seriously the biblical metaphor of the church as Christ’s body and understand their identity as part of the persecuted church, Ripken says.
“A believer in Bulgaria told me, ‘If I represent a small finger of the body of Christ, and I am being cut off from persecution – and the rest of the body doesn’t feel that pain – then either you are saying to me that I don’t belong to the body of Christ, or you are saying of yourself that you don’t belong to the body of Christ.’”
American Christians must understand there is no such thing globally as a persecuted church and a free church, Ripken explains. “There’s just one church – the church that belongs to Jesus – and it is always, and at the same time, both persecuted and free.”
Where the body of Christ is free to declare the risen Christ, it bears a great responsibility to do so, Ripken adds.
“When our brothers and sisters are suffering and persecuted for their faith, we are to walk with them and pray with them,” he says. “And at the same time, they celebrate the fact that we live in a place where we are free to share our faith. When they discover we don’t share our faith, that is so painful to them.”
When Christian brothers and sisters are suffering and dying for the faith, American believers must make the most of their freedom.
“We have people saying “I follow Jesus” just to get a stamp on their passport that gets them into heaven, when they have no intention of following Jesus,” Ripken says. “They just want Jesus to take them to heaven when they die.”
The question of obedience
Everything changes when you look into the eyes of a Muslim woman and see her hopelessness, Ripken says.
“You ask yourself what it’s like to be a woman in Islam when girls are married off at 14 and uneducated Muslim women have babies every year. In their homes, there is no intimacy between fathers and mothers. The father is abusive of her brothers and sexually abusive of her,” he says. “These young ladies are becoming suicide bombers because they cannot imagine that the world to come can be as bad as the world that exists right now. They are killing themselves for a false hope, when Jesus is asking us to live and die for a hope we are assured of because of the resurrection!”
In places like Somalia, where “for 2,000 years, you can put every missionary who has gone there in one pickup truck, we need to look them in the eyes and ask ourselves, ‘What choice have we given them?’”
American Christians can better understand the plight of their persecuted brothers and sisters by doing two things, Ripken says.
“First, take Jesus across the street. If we are fervent in sharing our faith and are rejected for who Christ is, we can certainly experience in America what it’s like to be persecuted,” he says. “You don’t have to get on a plane. The only reason we are not being persecuted in America is that we are not witnessing.
“Second, people can read and educate themselves, but there is nothing that keeps us from traveling the world in the name of Jesus Christ and standing with our brothers and sisters in China, in the old former Soviet Union, in India,” he says. We need to be wise and circumspect about it, but we will understand that when they suffer, we suffer too.”
American Christians must face the question of obedience, Ripken says.
“If we are in Christ, we do not get to decide whether we are a partner with Christ, only whether we are a good partner or a bad partner,” he says. “This movie is about getting off your backside and going to work in the name of Jesus and being a wise partner with Christ as we broadly sow the gospel in all the world.”
“The Insanity of God” offers a much-needed glimpse into a reality of following Jesus.
“There is no stronger argument for the claims of Christ than when his followers abandon everything and willingly lay down their lives,” says J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. “It’s how the early church grew, and it’s how the church is growing around the world today. ‘The Insanity of God’ allows us a small glimpse into a few of these astounding stories, reminding us that there is no limit to what God can do with a life fully surrendered to him.”
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board adds: “What Nik and Ruth Ripken share will change your view of God’s current-day activity in the world and your perception about how millions of our fellow believers live. The stories of persecution are not marked by defeat or hopelessness. They are stories of triumph and God’s amazing faithfulness to His people.”
To find a theater in your area showing Ripken’s new movie, visit insanityofgodmovie.com or buy tickets at the Fathom Movie page. For information about his books, “The Insanity of God” and “The Insanity of Obedience,” visit nikripken.com.
*Name and some details changed for security reasons
Mark Kelly is an Atlanta-based journalist. You can hear a podcast interview with Ripken at his website, godsrevolution.net.