I boarded an early morning flight to Bangkok, and my mind sifted through all the Christian truths I had learned in my few short years of ministry experience.
I was looking for something to say, anything really, to encourage and comfort Pakistani Christian refugees who have experienced the torment and sorrow of religious persecution.
More than 11,000 Pakistani asylum seekers wait in the shadows of Thailand’s capital city after being driven out of their home country by violence.
They apply for relocation assistance from the United Nations’ refugee resettlement program, but long wait times leave many families in difficult and complex situations due to the country’s strict sentencing for migrants without a valid visa.
Perhaps there were lessons from my seminary training that could edify refugees seeking new lives in foreign lands. Thankfully, I remembered several. After all, the scriptures are replete with gospel promises for God’s people in the midst of suffering.
But if I could go back in time and offer myself advice as the plane departed for Thailand, I would redirect my focus to something different, something unexpected. Instead of preparing to speak, I would prepare to listen.
The most memorable moments of the short-term mission trip to serve Pakistani Christian refugees in Bangkok would be the lessons I learned, not the lessons I taught.
Based on numerous conversations with faithful, God-honoring, asylum seeking families, here are four truths I brought home:
Life is bursting at the seams with God’s grace.
It is easy to forget that each moment of our lives hangs on the sustaining word of Christ when we dwell in safe, affluent and politically stable environments. Comfort can blur our vision and cause us to lose sight of God’s active hand in our lives, as He blesses with simple necessities such as daily bread.
Christian refugees usually have no such illusions because their lives have been stripped bare by violence, poverty and persecution.
They see God’s gracious provision in every cool drink of water, warm meal or restful night of sleep.
“It is not good for people to have no suffering,” one Pakistani Christian refugee told me. “They never learn how to love what God gives them.”
In fact, nearly every migrant I encountered gushed with thankfulness to God for the multitude of little miracles they see each day. Refugees taught me that when all is stripped away, everything becomes a gift of God’s mercy.
The Good News is unstoppable.
Pakistani Christian refugees have many reasons to remain quiet about their faith. Many of them have lost family members or were brutalized for their belief in Christ. Even as they flee persecution and seek resettlement, they often risk imprisonment under strict immigration policies in other countries.
Yet, many of them refuse to stop sharing the gospel with people they encounter, even if it increases their risk of imprisonment. As one aid worker put it, they cannot live in hiding.
Even as well-meaning volunteers urge them to keep a low profile, Christian refugees crowd into small apartments for Bible studies, sing hymns that waft through building complexes and share the Good News with their neighbors. I learned from asylum seekers that genuine faith is resolutely evangelistic in nature; it cannot be concealed.
Refugees are tempted too.
Brothers and sisters in Christ who display faithfulness to Christ through excruciating trials and tribulations deserve our honor and respect. They are wonderful examples to other Christians, but it can be tempting to idealize them, as if they are super-Christians. The truth is, they are not.
They face temptations just like you and me. It is sad to say, but difficult circumstances can stress and bend their biblical convictions.
I had multiple conversations with Pakistani Christian refugees who were tempted to believe the Muslims who persecuted them were too morally corrupt for God to save. Bitterness had begun to twist and distort their understanding that God’s grace is sufficient to save even the worst sinners.
As best we could, myself and others on the mission team gently encouraged them to resist those temptations to false belief by pointing them to passages of scripture that clearly explain the life-transforming salvation offered by Jesus Christ. I learned from refugees that difficult circumstances tempt us to adopt unbiblical convictions about God and salvation.
True citizenship is in heaven.
Christians in any civil society should acknowledge and give thanks for the blessing bestowed upon them, but it is important to remember our true identity can only be found in Christ.
I spoke to a Pakistani Christian family in Bangkok whose resettlement case had been rejected by international authorities. They fled violence in their home country, were denied visas in the place they sought refuge, and now could not gain access to a new country. They were nationless. Yet, any time they spoke to others about their citizenship status, the father opened his wallet to retrieve a small card.
The credential read in clear print, “Identity: In Christ” and “Citizenship: Heaven.”
“This is all I need,” he said.
Now, to American ears, that may sound gimmicky, but for this brother, it is a symbolic token of profound hope. He is dead serious. This Christian husband and father, seeking a place to resettle his family, knows at a deep level the meaning of identity in Christ.
Despite what governmental agencies may say, they belong to a holy nation whose Kingdom shall have no end. Refugees helped me take seriously the meaning of heavenly citizenship.
The next time I step onto a plane headed for foreign lands that house migrant Christians, I’ll carry these truths with me. But more importantly, as I settle into a seat and call to mind the upcoming ministry itinerary, I’ll remember to quiet my mind and prepare my heart to listen for unexpected lessons about God’s faithfulness from dear brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Seth Brown wrote this in 2017 for the International Mission Board.)