Imprisoned to Witness

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June 2, 2014

Photo: Shad Gross

The last day was rough. My friend Joel Mellin and I had just been denied entry to Israel without a good argument, and had been transferred to a prison as we waited to get deported. This was not just a prison with the same standards as in Western European countries. The hygiene was bad, they took our belongings, and I was refused to bring my Bible into the cell where we were locked in 23 hours a day. We were treated very bad, like animals. Why would God allow something like this? How will this end?

A divine appointment
It’s 2 pm, and I am sitting in my bed. I look at the door where someone has tagged: “Allah is with the patient one”. I look up in the bunk bed where someone has written “Jesus”. The messages I find reflect the fact that people before me have cried in distress. We just have to use the situation as best as we can.
So what should we do? The other two room mates were sleeping or trying to sleep. “Are they just going to sleep away the day?”, I said. We understood them very well! It was really not much to do there. So we started to talk about life, and the future. Having talked about a future project, we thought that we could have the first official board meeting now. Why not in the prison? Now we had the time, and tried to use it. After talking some hours about how, where and when to start this new project, the door opened again. A black person came in. “Oh, a new guy, I should greet him and see who he is.”, I thought. I see a shampoo bottle, and a soap bar in his hand, and a towel hanging over his shoulders. “He managed to get these things into the cell – not bad”, I thought, wishing I had the same.

I presented myself, and asked if he is new here. He explained to me that he has been in prison for one year and four months. Without knowing whether he was a believer or not, I said: “I think God allows trials and hardship for our good. It is working on our characters, even though it can be hard right there and then, in situations like we are facing now.” John* confirmed that this was true for his case, that he has seen how God has been working with him during this hard time. “This has strengthened my faith.”, he continued, and explained that his Israeli wife had accused him and turned him in to the authorities, and that’s how he got into prison. “I was transferred to this place yesterday, and I am waiting to get deported to Nigeria. The other prison was better than here.”, he said, clearly disappointed about the fact that he was imprisoned by false accusations. What a horrible situation for this guy! I felt compassion for him, and could only imagine how hard this must be for him, being in prison in this country for such a long time!

He only came to our room to shower? But why? I didn’t understand, nor did I really care about the reason, because I was happy to talk with him. We had a blessed conversation about God’s care for us, and how He is sustaining us. This really made me happy, and brightened up my day!

Bible Prophecy talk
“I enjoy studying the Word of God”, John said, still having his towel on his shoulder. He seemed to be more busy with our conversation than thinking to take a shower. I asked if he was able to read the Bible in his cell, explaining how harsh they were with me, when I asked if I could bring my Bible to the cell. “He managed to smuggle in his Bible”, I said, pointing at Joel. Joel explained how he hid it in his blanket, that he got into the room the first evening. The Nigerian brother affirmed their harsh behaviour: “They tried to deny me too, but I told them: “Would you leave your Torah down here?… This is my Torah, and I need to bring it! You cannot deny me bringing my Torah into my room.” They got his point, and he managed to convince them. We were astonished about how he managed to convince them so well. “I have learned how to deal with them.”, he continued.

Yesterday night he wanted them to keep the lights on in his cell, so that he could study the Bible for some hours more. “I studied Daniel chapter 2 last night”, he continued. My eyes got big, and my mouth dropped. “Really?!!”, I exclaimed. “They let the lights on for a while more, and I managed to read until 2 am.” We had a good conversation about the prophecies of Daniel 2, 7 and 8 as well as the first beast of Revelation 13. I explained how these prophecies talk about the same kingdoms, and that it just gives different details. “They give more details about the kingdoms, especially Daniel 7 that also talks about the little horn, which is described as the first beast of Revelation 13.” John explained to me how the Word of God must be our only guide, and I quickly went through the different kingdoms with him. When I explained the little horn, I realized that I don’t even know which Church he belongs to. Joel were surprised how bold I was in my speaking, but the Spirit inspired me to keep talking. I am usually not this bold, and I believe we have to be careful and wise when we share our faith with others, and not share all at once. Sometimes however, I think it is in place to be more bold, sharing more, if the Spirit leads you to do so. I knew that I probably would not see him much more again, and it seemed as if God had led our paths together at this very time.

I showed him how the Catholic Church fits the description of the little horn. “This Church is putting tradition above the Bible, and they claim to be able to forgive sins.” They even claim the Pope to be God on earth. This Church claim to put tradition above the Bible.  “Do you belong to a Church?”, I continued. “Yes, I am a Catholic.” My eyes got even bigger, and I wanted to eat my socks! “But, you talk like a protestant!”, I managed to spit out. “I don’t think that it matters which Church you belong to”, he continued. I realized that this guy is really a seeker. He is seeking for the truth, and is living by the protestant principle: Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone. I told him about the book The Great Controversy; how it explains the Bible prophecies we have talked about now, and other things as well. “It’s the best book I have ever read, except the Bible”, I told John very excited. “I would like to send you this book somehow, I think you will like it!” He told me we could exchange contact info later. “But how?”, I thought. The sooner the better! I don’t know when or if I will see him again. I also wanted to direct him to Amazing Facts, which has many good Christian resources. He had actually heard about this ministry before.
“The pen!! I have a pen in my pocket!”, I thought, as my eyes lit up. Wow, what a timing! Just before he came, I managed to get a pen into the cell. “Joel, do you have something to write on?”, I quickly asked. He handed me a piece of paper that he had managed to get into the cell recently. We exchanged contact information. The very pen I had was from Amazing Facts! I showed him the pen, and the website address that was on it. He seemed to have heard about it, and I told him about the many good resources there.

Photo: William Berg-Hillinger

Photo: William Berg-Hillinger

It’s about who we worship
Now we had talked for nearly 30 minutes, and I told him that he should take a shower, before the prison guards will take him out. After he finished his shower, God impressed me to be more bold. I knew it would be hard to be able to meet this guy again, and since he seem to be a faithful Bible student, I should add something more. “What do you think about the 4th commandment?”, I asked him. “Well, today, most Christians go to Church on Sunday”, he said, claiming that there are only a few Churches here and there who go to Church on Saturday. I told him how God gave the Sabbath to man in creation, on the seventh day. It was given to man, not to the Jews particularly. I told him what Jesus said about the end times: “But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day” (Matthew 24:20) and how God’s last people will “Keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). All since God created the world, the battle has been about worship. Cain worshiped his way to God (sacrificing fruits) contrary to Abel that did it the way God had asked man to do. “The Sabbath as well as God’s commandments will still be valid in the end times”, I continued as an officer locked up the door. “There is a worldwide Church that keeps the Sabbath, and actually I belong to this Church…Study this topic in the Bible!”, I quickly added, right before he had to leave. We had talked about that he could stay in our cell, and we could study together, but I knew the chance was little.
“I don’t want you to deport me to Nigeria. Please let me stay here. If you send me there, I will get killed just as my family.” he pleaded with the prison guard. “If you love your neighbor as yourself, you should listen to me and let me stay in this country. However I respect your decision you make, because you are in charge.”, he continued. He was very firm with them, yet humble. We admired John’s way of dealing with the prison guards.
“You like it here in the cell?” the prison guard asked. “Yes, can I stay?” he replied. After some silence, he gave sign to John to come with him, and they left.

Wow, what a joy! “Now I know, why God allowed this to happen”, I told Joel, all excited.

Transforming Grace
Later in the afternoon, we were allowed to get out in the sunshine for some minutes. How nice I thought. As I aimed my steps toward the area where the sun shines, I saw our fellow prisoner brother from Nigeria! He had two Bibles in his hand, and I thought that I gladly will trade the sunshine that I had looked forward to, with a talk with him.

I would rather trade the presence of sunshine where I can enjoy life, ministering to someones needs in the shadow.

We sat down, and started to talk about true conversion. True conversion requires a change. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) ”Many times people leave out verse 10”, I told him, and asked him to read: ”For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” God’s grace does not only save us, but changes us, more and more into His image.
It is all Christ’s works, we just have to walk in them, by His grace.
Justification is not only what Christ did on the cross, but He starts a work in us, ”by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). There are many teachings in Christianity, where people claim to believe in and belong to Christ, while you cannot see it in their actions. ”Our works doesn’t matter”, some may claim, but even ”the devils also believe, and tremble.” (James 2:19) Faith is not only an intellectual belief, but an experience with God, trusting in Him, and allowing Him to work in and through us. Not all who say Lord Lord will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of God. (Matt 7:21-23) Our fellow prisoner nodded in agreement as I shared these texts with him.
“I like this text”, I added: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” (Isaiah 40:8). “Amen”, he affirmed. “Look at the beautiful flowers, or at other worldly things that we want to have. Nothing of this will last, it will all burn.”, I said, while trying to locate a flower in the prison area. God is taking care of His children. He is even leading people that do not know His commandments.
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)” (Romans 2:14-15) ”For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) Isn’t it amazing that God will judge us only for the light that we have about things, and the ability to get more light? There will be people in heaven that will ask Jesus where the wounds in is hands are from. (Zechariah 13:6). God leads people through His Spirit, but it will never be contrary to the Word of God. He continued to agree. ”Do you know what the very center of the Bible is?”, I asked him. He didn’t know. ”It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.” (Psalms 118:8) ”All the three of us here have experienced lately that we cannot put confidence in humans, but we can trust God!”
This was the last time I saw John before we left the following day.

Sacrifice for Christ
I started thinking about why and how we started to study these topics and not something else. But I realized that these are the very topics that he probably needed to get affirmed.What is God’s grace without a transformed life? What is a Christian life without a changed heart?

Just as the cross would mean nothing without sacrifice, our lives will mean nothing without sacrifice. Jesus called us to a life of sacrifice, to put God above everything else in life – to choose Him first. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Jesus demonstrated His love by sacrifice. By His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) After my meeting with John, I prayed: ”God, now I know why you sent me here and I am willing to stay here if you have someone else I can minister to. Thank you so much for this experience!” It was a hard prayer, because of the horrible conditions in the prison, but I know that my life is safe when I trust God and put it in His hands.
It’s not always easy to be a Christian, and especially not in the midst of trials. During my time in prison, I was certain however that God was in charge. What if we would ”glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;and patience, experience; and experience, hope”. (Romans 5:3-4) I got a taste of this during my time there.

I have found that true happiness can be found even in a prison, through hard times, because ”It is in unselfish ministry that true happiness is found.” (Ellen G. White, 7T p.49)
God turned this mess into a message, and darkness into light, and I continue to rejoice as I think about the many blessings that have come out of this, inspite all the hardship. There are many people like John in this world, who can be reached, if you dare to ”glory in tribulations”.
Do you want to live a life where circumstances cannot move you? If necessary, do you want to accept
ministering to someones needs in the shadow, rather than enjoying your life in the sunshine?

*John is a pseudonym.
Christian Hjortland

Read the article: “Imprisoned but Free”, to understand the background for this story.

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Christian is founder of Empower Missions. He is an experienced teacher of the Bible, a nurse, and a public speaker. Christian loves to help others to more healthy and meaningful lives. He is fascinated by bible prophecy, that is very relevant today. Within health he has a passion for lifestyle, preventive health and natural remedies.