During the National Day of Prayer (NDP), I sat on the edge of my seat as NDP Honorary Chairman Dr. Ravi Zacharias told the following story. In 1971, when Ravi was a twenty-something young man, he traveled to the war-torn country of Vietnam for a series of revival meetings. Upon arrival, Ravi met Pham Hien, a 17-year-old youth, who gladly served as Ravi’s translator during his stay.
Not long after Ravi left the country, Pham was imprisoned by the Viet Cong because Pham had worked with Americans like Ravi. Locked away behind bars, Pham was subjected to harsh treatment. Among other forms of physical and psychological duress, his guards took away anything written in English while permitting only reading material penned in Vietnamese or French. Their ultimate goal was to strip away Pham’s faith in God – and they almost succeeded.
Unlike today where the U.S. military respects the faith of those imprisoned and, for instance, provides copies of the Qur’an to Muslims soldiers detained in Guantanamo Bay, Pham’s Bible was immediately confiscated. In its place, Pham was given the writings by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, co-authors of The Communist Manifesto.
After a year without any signs of relief, Pham began to doubt that God would ever answer his prayers for release from that dingy Vietnam jail. One night, frightened and at the end of his rope, Pham said, “God, maybe you’re not there. I’m giving up all hope. Tomorrow when I wake up, I’m not going to pray anymore.”
Pause there for a moment. I bet you’ve experienced seasons in your life where you’ve asked, “God, where are you?” You know, where’s God when your marriage is heading for the rocks? Where’s God with a prodigal teenager breaking your heart with their choices? Where’s God when you feel stuck in a job that just drains the life out of you? You don’t have to be in a physical jail to feel confined. Alone. Afraid.
I know. I’ve had those dark nights of the soul–especially during my childhood. As Ravi told this story, I couldn’t help but recall sitting on a hillside outside of my elementary school in the fourth grade just crying out to God. My mother was dead. My father was AWOL. I was living with strangers who made me feel like an outsider. I had no hope. I wasn’t even sure if God heard my prayers–or, if He did, that He cared about my plight.
That’s exactly where Pham found himself.
The next morning, Pham was assigned to clean out the prison latrine. While I’ve never done that, that’s got to be the dirtiest job in the world. I imagine Pham felt further abandonment from a God who would allow him to be so humiliated. But what choice did he have? Pham wrapped a handkerchief around his nose and mouth and started cleaning the muck. As he worked, he saw several scraps of paper smeared with human excrement. One page in particular caught his eye. Why?
There was English written on the page.
Starved for anything written in English, Pham quickly wiped the page and stuck it in his pocket hoping against hope his guards didn’t see him squirrel away the contraband. Pham waited until after dark to examine the paper. Only after everyone had gone to bed and the lights were out did he dare look at this tiny treasure. Using his pocket flashlight, Pham quietly retrieved and studied the forbidden page. If caught, he knew there’d be serious consequences.
As he started reading, Pham’s eyes were drawn to the words “Romans 8” in the upper right hand corner. The words jumped off of the page: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God.” All things–like cleaning a filthy latrine and finding a page from the Bible.
With tears filling his eyes, he read on:
“Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution? . . . For I am persuaded that neither death nor life . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” Stunned by this unexpected gift, the next morning Pham asked his commanding officer if he could be assigned latrine duty again that day. I bet that was a first–someone volunteering for latrine duty!
Day after day, Pham found other pages from the Bible in the dung heap. Under the cover of night, he took the carefully washed pages to use for his personal study of the Bible. Pham later learned the commanding officer had been using torn pages from a confiscated Bible to use as toilet paper. God had met him in the lowest place on earth. And he knew it.
But that wasn’t the last of the miracles which God used to restore his faith. Pham and a number of other prisoners had carefully planned an escape from their Viet Cong captors. Four days before he and his allies were planning to make their break for freedom, Pham was confronted by four heavily-armed guards. Cornered, they demanded to know whether or not Pham was trying to escape. Fearing for his life, Pham lied. He said, “No.”
“Yes.” A second lie.
While they let him return to his jail without a consequence, Pham’s conscience bothered him. Convicted by this lie, he told God, “If you want me to tell the truth, have those men come again and this time I’ll tell them the truth.” Later, Pham admitted that was one prayer he truly hoped God wouldn’t answer.
Sure enough, just hours before executing the escape plan, four guards with machine guns accosted him. Grabbing Pham by the collar, they said, “You’re lying, aren’t you? You’re planning to escape, right?” This time he told the truth. Bracing for the worst, Pham asked, “So, are you going to imprison me again?” Much to his surprise the guards answered, “No. We want to go with you!”
Amazed by this turn of events, Pham introduced the guards to the others. Looking back on that moment of truth, Pham realized it was God who had sent those guards to be their escort. Without their skilled help, there was little chance that Pham and the others would have been able to navigate the ocean safely to Thailand. In the end, Pham became a United Nations refugee and ultimately made his way to America. Today, Pham is at University of California at Berkeley working on his business degree. He also owns a financial consulting company.
Where is God when it hurts?
At the risk of sounding simplistic, I’d say learning from Pham’s story as well as from my own personal experience, God is close to the brokenhearted and to those crushed in spirit. Sometimes we have to be brought to the end of ourselves, to the end of our finances, our abilities, our careful planning, or whatever before we are able to understand how utterly dependent we are upon God. In other words, there’s something about a broken heart that is vital to God’s work in our life.
As I’ve said before, God meets me in my brokenness and, like a skilled artist, takes the failures, shortcomings, and trials–those splintered pieces of my life–and shapes them into a remarkable mosaic. He did it for Pham. He continues to do that for me.
I know He wants to do the same for you.
[Listen to Ravi tell this story on the Focus on the Family broadcast. Click here for details.]