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Joy Beyond Understanding: Common Ground in Suffering and Worship among Eastern European Christians During the Communist Era

Joy beyond understanding of Christians during the Communist regime in Romania

In former Communist countries, many Christians imprisoned for their faith confessed they felt their deepest joy in prison and in persecution. Romania, the country where I am from, was 45 years under the Communist regime and many Christians were imprisoned for their faith. I will highlight some of these heroes of the faith who have become models for us today: the reformed pastor Richard Wurmbrand, the Orthodox monk and writer Nicolae Steinhardt and the Pentecostal believer Constantin Caraman.

Richard Wurmbrand and his wife founded Jesus To The Communist World (later renamed The Voice of the Martyrs) in April 1967. The interdenominational human rights organization worked for persecuted Christians in Communist countries, but later expanded its activities to help persecuted believers in other places, especially in the Muslim world.

Richard Wurmbrand (1909–2001) was born to a Jewish family but later he became a Christian and a Lutheran pastor who spent 14 years in prison (three years he in isolation) because he had the courage to face an atheist regime. He was a missionary, but one in chains, his field of work was between the thick walls of the prisons, as he said, an antechamber of hell from where he lead prisoners of different ages and social levels, including guards, to faith in Christ. Although he was alone in the cell, when other prisoners would have lost their mind, though he was hungry and experienced the cold of his cell, he received power to dance with joy every night because he experienced the closeness to God. He said that sometimes he was so full of joy that he felt that if he does not express the joy soon he will explode. He wrote his experiences during his imprisonment in his book With God in the Underground. When he was tortured by his cell mates he did not denounce them nor did he quit proclaiming his testimony. Here is how he presented part of this experience in the forward of his book: “The years of prison seems were not so long, (he was imprisoned fourteen years!) because, alone in my cell, I discovered that there is joy in the Lord: a deep, great ecstasy of happiness, unparalleled in the world. And when I came out of prison I was like a man who came down from the mountain, where eyes were swept away with the peace and beauty of the whole land, to return to the plains.”[8]

Wurmbrand filled a great joy to suffer for Christ, he says that “beyond faith and love, there is joy in the Lord: A great deep happiness.”[9]

In his memories from prison, Wurmbrand spoke both about physical suffering and weakness due to detention and about the joy beyond understanding, a joy of the Holy Spirit: “We were terribly hungry … we were thin like skeletons. The prayer Our Father was too long for us. We could not concentrate enough to say it. My prayer was repeated again and again, I love you Jesus. Then one day I received a wonderful response from Jesus: Do you love me? Now I’ll show you how I love you. Immediately I felt a burning flame in my heart like sunshine (…) I met the love of Him who gave his life on the Cross for all of us.”[10]

When Wurmbrand was abandoned in the cell where the dying prisoners were left to die due to physical exhaustion and lack of food (they receive only a slice of bread per week), though he was a Lutheran pastor he had forgotten even who Luther was, being so close to death he felt the presence of God so close and then he felt a great joy and a profound jubilation in this room of the dying.

Richard Wurmbrand’s spirit of gratefulness to God is amazing. He found a reason for gratefulness in prison for his existence although he endured much physical suffering; he thanked God that even in pain he exists. Remembering his imprisonment period he wrote: “I thank God that I exist! (…) I emerged alive from nothingness! How grateful we should be to that God and how we should love him with all our hearts because we exist here! In the darkest prison, I was there! Exist! I was beaten, but I was existing! We were hungry, but I was existing! I had the hope in God because he provided me with this gift, the gift to exist.”[11]

Wurmbrand’s joy beyond understanding in suffering is contagious, it gave him power to endure injustice and also inspire us in the present because it is a lesson of life.

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About the Author: Eugen Jugaru, Ph.D. (Lucain Blaga University, Sibiu, Romania), is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pentecostal Theological Institute in Bucharest, Romania. He has pastored a Pentecostal church since 1993 and is the former President of Operation Mobilization Romania.

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