Why Andrew Brunson never heard from God in prison

September 7, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Europe

For 735 days, we prayed for him. With each court hearing and each delayed verdict, we poured out our hearts and voices for Andrew Brunson, the pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina. As the leader of a small Christian church in Turkey for 25 years, Andrew never expected to be standing before a Turkish court facing multiple charges, including espionage and terrorism, and a collective sentence of 35 years—essentially life in prison for the then-50-year-old husband and father of three. He never expected to be a political pawn in a legal case that would rise to Washington, D.C.’s highest halls of power.

 

And he never expected to be physically, emotionally and spiritually tested for two years in a crowded prison cell in Izmir, Turkey.

 

On October 12, 2018—two years after a series of four hearings and postponed verdicts—Andrew was found guilty and sentenced. The same day, in a whirlwind of events and emotions, Andrew was surprisingly released and 25 hours later was in Washington, D.C., meeting with the president.

 

Recently, we sat down with Andrew and his wife Norine for a conversation about those two years in prison, how God has worked in their lives over the last three years and why they say their ordeal was so much bigger than their own stories.

A breaking year

Andrew and Norine, millions of people were praying for you, including the Open Doors community. Did you sense people’s prayers in prison?

Andrew: My two years in prison were marked by what I would call the silence of God, and not having any sense of His presence. Because my past experience with Him was really rich, to have that intimacy removed led to a fence around my heart toward God. Woundedness.

I was the only Christian in prison, and the only Christian I had any contact with throughout my two years was Norine. So I was very alone, isolated in my faith. I prayed for peace so much. I did not feel much peace. Grace was taking me through, but finding strength, determination, peace and joy was actually much more difficult than I expected. So I didn’t feel people praying for me. I had grace, but it was an unfelt grace. My first year in prison, I broke repeatedly

Were there specific times that were harder than others?

A: I had a number of bad ones. Being thrown into prison for the first time. I had been held in detention centers before that. Being in solitary confinement was very difficult. When I went on trial, that was initially very difficult. The first year, especially, is when I broke physically. I lost 50 pounds. I broke emotionally. I went into that spiritual crisis.

Still, I had this desperate need to know that people were praying.

Norine: Each time we met, he said, “Are they still praying?” Because it would be natural for people to move on to the next crisis. So that was something he kept coming back to.

A: And the encouragement I got often came from knowing that. The prayer just kept growing. I’ve been told by a church historian that what happened with me was an unprecedented prayer movement focused on one person.

So, clearly this was supernatural. It was God-initiated, God-driven, God-sustained, and I came to see that God was doing something much bigger with that movement of prayer than just sustaining me and then delivering me from prison. There was something much bigger going on.

Did you see that in prison, or was that in hindsight?

A: Well, in hindsight it’s clearer, but I began to see it in prison. I didn’t know the numbers of people praying when I was in prison. Norine started to hear that people were praying in a number of countries. We saw that something unusual was happening.

Did you have a sense of what God was wanting to do?

A: I came to see during my imprisonment that actually, God was using this to draw in prayer for Turkey, in an unusual way. In 2009, God had said to me: “Prepare for harvest.” I came to see that being in prison was part of that assignment. That just by being there, I was the lightning rod that was drawing in prayer God intended to use for the region.

People have told me, “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and pray for you.” Even children were praying for me. Wow!

N: So many children. I think God was doing many, many things. But one of the things was bringing praying for the persecuted into children’s hearts and minds. I heard about the prayer more than he did, and I understood earlier on that this was something happening for Turkey.

A: I came to see that over time, but I did begin to worry that I was more valuable or useful to God in prison than out. So: He might keep me there.

N: Or for a while, at least. It was really hard, but I do remember once or twice just saying to somebody, “You know, I should be feeling a lot worse right now. My spirit is lifted. There’s probably somebody praying for me, somewhere, in some time zone, right now.”

One day in church, a woman felt something behind me. And she said, “God, what is this? Is it an angel, or what?” And God said to her, “It’s My giant hand holding her up.” That was because of the prayers of people. So, I just want people to know that whether we felt it or not, their prayers were propping me up and strengthening me to be able to pass some of that on to him.

For those who prayed for us, we really want you to know how grateful we are and that your prayers accomplished much more—they’re sowing into the spiritual harvest in Turkey. Your prayers were behind all of everything that happened.

Andrew, you said that God used you like a lightning rod to bring prayer into Turkey. What are you seeing today that’s showing you how God has used you and your suffering?

A: There are two main factors. One is that Turkey’s becoming more oppressive, and it’s being done in the name of Islam. So many people, especially the younger generation, are starting to react to that. You put that together with all of the sowing of prayer, and that combination is accelerating the process.

N: I don’t want to say that this is just the prayer. It’s always very complex. But the prayer was a big part in the great increase of seekers and people making professions of faith. I don’t think we’re at harvest time yet, but there is an increase.

Imprisoned for Christ

From prison in March 2018, Andrew Brunson wrote:

“Let it be clear. I am in prison not for anything I have done wrong, but because of who I am—a Christian pastor. I believe this to be true: it is an honor to suffer for Jesus Christ, as many have before me.”

A year of rebuilding

Andrew, how was the second year in prison different than the first, spiritually?

A: So my first year was a breaking year. I broke, thoroughly, repeatedly, and then God rebuilt me. One of the things I believe He really wanted to do in me was show me how to devote myself to Him and be faithful—in the absence of feeling His presence and the normal means of encouragement.

Even if I don’t see His love or His faithfulness, even when I don’t have His presence or His voice, and I don’t feel any grace: Am I going to be faithful to Him? Am I going to embrace Him, in spite of my circumstances? In spite of feeling abandoned, am I going to be faithful? Am I going to pass this test and just press into Him?

Norine, did you feel tested too?

N: I was just very aware that we were on display. I’ve got the guards, the wives of other prisoners, people on my street, neighbors and other believers all watching to see how I’m going to respond under this pressure.

Andrew, would you say the second year was a spiritual breakthrough?

A: It wasn’t as much a breakthrough as it was a shifting that led to a rebuilding. And that was a decision on my part to lay aside my conditions and expectations of God and simply be faithful to Him. So, I said: “Whatever You do or don’t do, I will follow You. If You do not give me Your voice, I’ll still follow. If you don’t give me Your presence, I’ll still follow You. If You do not set me free, I’ll still be faithful. I’m going to fight for my relationship with You and I choose to turn my eyes ‘toward’ rather than ‘away.’”

In my weakness, at the bottom of my pit, I knew I might only be able to turn slightly in His direction, but even if I turned one degree toward Him, that was all the difference in the world than turning one degree away. That mindset positioned me into a place where He could begin to rebuild me.

Everything didn’t just suddenly change. It was still very difficult, but it was a decision of the will to pursue Him. And then there were a series of steps after—disciplines. Persevering into certain disciplines that, as I practiced them again and again, rebuilt me.

What disciplines?

A: Well, for example, dancing five minutes a day before Him as obedience to His command: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil things about you on account of me. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” I knew I needed to actually be rejoicing, although I had no joy, and in obedience I would perform an act of joy.

As I did that day after day, even though I had no feeling, that discipline ended up building in me a stronger obedience. I ended up focusing on Heaven more. “Rejoice and be glad for great is my reward in Heaven”—I repeated that to myself again and again.

Another example would be worship. For a long time, I could not worship. I just couldn’t sing, “Great is your faithfulness,” because I would just choke up. I was so wounded in my heart. Norine told me, “You need to worship.” So, it was a discipline. I didn’t feel like it, but as I worshiped, it ended up building in me a commitment to worship in all circumstances.

As God began to rebuild me, I started to sense an upward trajectory. I prayed almost every day for the character of Jesus. For His strength, His courage and especially endurance, steadfastness, perseverance. A number of disciplines ended up reshaping my perspective over time and refocusing my heart.

The coming persecution wave

I’m curious if you have any new perspective on persecution around the globe?

A: I actually think there are difficulties coming to the United States.I believe there is a wave of persecution that is going to hit the U.S. church. And it’s not going to be the same as in Nigeria or North Korea, but it will nevertheless be very significant.

I think we need to prepare ourselves to live as a minority in the United States. And that’s a real shift in the way most people think. Not that the U.S. was a Christian country, but it was a culturally Christian country as far as many people having some favorable view of Christianity.

So, that’s one of our assignments now in the States, to sound the alarm and say, “Prepare your hearts so that when pressure comes, we don’t get knocked out, but stand firm.” Our focus is still the Muslim world. But this is our secondary assignment.

Why do you say that? What are you seeing?

A: I identify specifically two wedge issues: One is the exclusivity of Jesus’ salvation; the other is His demands of obedience in a number of areas hotly contested in our culture, such as gender, sexual morality. family and marriage. Life, political justice. For those who remain faithful to Jesus in these areas, they’re going to be seen as bigoted, not inclusive, unloving, people of hate. And that means they will be seen as a threat and marginalized, shamed, silenced, de-platformed, canceled.

So, there’s social and financial pressure coming. Under this pressure, I think there will be an exodus from the church. And if we do not prepare people to stand firm and to be faithful to Jesus, then many will be knocked out. That’s my concern. This isn’t a political thing. Our culture has changed so dramatically that I think we’re reaching a tipping point.

I don’t know that there will be imprisonment. Who knows what extent it will go to. But there will be sufficient pressure, and many won’t want to associate with the “church of hate.”

N: Especially because nobody’s expecting it here. We haven’t had this before.

A: I’m not saying, “Oh, look, people are persecuted here!” But I am saying there’s already more of a cost to follow Jesus now than there was when I got out of college, and it’s about to very quickly accelerate. So, I think you’re going to see some real pressure on those who remain faithful on those two wedge issues.

One of the things I think God was doing in me was having me go through this breaking and rebuilding so that I would learn and practice certain things that would strengthen me to be an encouragement and resource to others who are also going to face difficulty.

Out of the battle

Andrew Brunson waves from a car as he arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, Wednesday, July 25, 2018  (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul).

Andrew, can you talk about what you learned in prison that might have changed how you look at your faith today?

A: There are actually a number of things that came out of my imprisonment in my own heart. Even though it was two years of the silence of God, I came out with a different intimacy, more confidence in my relationship with Him, which comes from having been tested and proving myself. It’s the difference between a soldier who has been trained and has skills, and one who has the same training and skills but has also been in battle.

So in a sense, I would say my love for God was real and sincere before I went to prison, but it was severely tested and I proved it. Kind of like how Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Maybe God knew what He would do, but Abraham didn’t know. And until he did it, he actually had not proven it. And once he does it, God says, “Now I see. Now I know.”

And so, I think there’s a testing and the proving of our love and faithfulness that brings us into a different level of friendship with God, where He can trust us with more. It also gives me a different level of confidence because I know that I’ve passed tests. So in that way, I came out with a broader, more strengthened intimacy with Him than I had before.

That’s powerful.

A: And I came out loving Him more because I paid a price for Him. I feel like I’ve invested in this relationship.

N: Kind of like when we invest in our kids’ lives. We pour so much of ourselves, our money, our resources, our love, our time and everything into them that it’s just very precious.

A: I’m also much more focused on Heaven. Before prison, I obviously loved Him; I was in ministry. But even more now, I’m living for that day I stand before Jesus.  What we’re really aiming for is to make it safely home. That’s what really, really matters: Are we faithful to the end?

top photo: Andrew and Norine Brunson in their Alsancak home in Izmir, moments before they were escorted to the airport by US Embassy officials to fly back to the US on the evening of October 12, 2018.

Praying with the prisoners

Based on their experience, Andrew and Norine shared their prayers for the tens of thousands of Christians falsely accused and imprisoned for their faith, as well as their families.

“I’m praying that prisoners will have an experience of God’s presence, even though many people don’t in prison,” Andrew says. “I’m praying for them like I did for myself in that second year. And that they will endure. That they will hold on.

“When Jesus talks about persecution, often it’s, ‘You must overcome. You must endure to the end.’ And so that’s the main thing. We want to make it through. We want to remain faithful. So, I pray for protection of their hearts—that they will not become bitter toward God, or disappointed to the extent that offense takes root, but that they will embrace Him. And that they will turn their eyes toward Him and not away from Him. Obviously, we can pray for hope and confidence and release, but in the midst of it, especially, I pray for a grace to persevere, to endure, to be faithful.”

Strength to endure, as well as provision, has become a regular prayer for Norine as she prays for the families of Christians behind bars. “There are families where the imprisoned Christian is the breadwinner, and the families are just trying to make ends meet,” she says. “I didn’t have that situation, but I know that provision is a definite need.”

Andrew shares the prayer he prayed for his family in prison—the same things he prayed for himself: “I pray for these families like I prayed for my own: ‘Father God, pour out on Norine and our children the strength, the confidence, the courage, the endurance, perseverance, steadfastness of Jesus, so that they may run the race set before them and finish well.’ And I also said, ‘Lord, I am suffering for Your sake, so give favor to my family. OK?’”

Share Your Comment

Related Stories