Sister Yuen, a Chinese follower of Jesus, was a widow with two small children. Paul Hattaway of Asia Harvest tells how she was arrested and thrown into prison because of her faith. ‘In a bid to make her renounce Christ,’ Hattaway continues, ‘the guards brought Sister Yuen’s children and had them stand outside the prison gate. With their arms outstretched, they begged their mother to come home.
‘The guards taunted Sister Yuen by asking, “Doesn’t your God want you to take care of your own children? You can return home today if you just sign a statement declaring you will no longer be a Christian.”
‘Like any mother, Sister Yuen’s heart was torn at the sight of her crying children, and she asked the guards to bring her a sheet of paper and a pen. They hurriedly fetched the items, thinking they had finally found a way to break her faith in God. Sister Yuen calmly wrote on the paper and handed it to the prison warden. A moment later his face turned red with rage. She had written in large letters: “Jesus can never be replaced! Even my own children cannot replace Jesus!”
‘Sister Yuen was sentenced to 23 more years in prison. By the time she was released her children were adults, having been raised by the atheistic state. She spent months trying to locate them, and was finally able to reconcile with her daughter. Her son, however, had become a policeman and his heart was filled with hate for his mother and her God. He wanted nothing to do with her ever again.’
Your Children or Jesus?
Hattaway comments that this story is a favourite in the Chinese house churches, ‘touch[ing] a deep chord in their hearts’. However, when he told this story in New Zealand Hattaway was rebuked: Sister Yuen ought to have signed the paper, for the sake of her children.
Hattaway quotes Matthew 10.32-33: ‘Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.’ If Sister Yuen had denied Jesus by signing a statement that she would no longer be a Christian, this verse seems to say, Jesus would have denied her before his Father in heaven. But she acknowledged him, so Jesus will acknowledge her.
Did Sister Yuen make the right choice? She refused to deny her faith, putting Jesus before even her beloved family. Yet by so doing she abandoned her children. She said a categorical No to disowning Jesus – and as a result her son was raised an atheist and hated Jesus. He did say No to Jesus.
Lay down your eternal life for your family?
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Sister Yuen did sign the paper. She states that she will no longer be a Christian. She is released from prison and goes home with her two children. Her conscience plagues her. In her heart she still believes – but the State has it documented that she has recanted. She knows that if she demonstrates faith or allegiance with the church again, the State is watching her and they will haul her in and throw her into prison again – or worse. And so she keeps her faith secret and her conscience continues to haunt her. But she is able to bring her children up. She secretly teaches them the faith that she has renounced. They both grow up to follow Jesus.
Would it have been worth it? Would it have been right: to deny her own standing before God in order to give her children a greater likelihood of following Jesus? The greatest possible act of unselfishness: to lay down her own eternal life in order to give her children a greater chance of eternal life.
Waiting to pounce or to show compassion?
I cannot answer the question of whether it would have been worth it. But I’m convinced that that’s not how God works. Whether Sister Yuen denies her own faith in order to give her children a greater chance of having faith, or whether (as actually happened) she refuses to renounce her Lord, and as a result her son grows up a God-hating atheist – God is not a Great Ogre in the Sky, waiting to pounce on the one who denies him, throwing her or him with glee into the eternal fire. As I blogged last week, God is mercy, God is forgiveness, God is compassion. It strikes me as being entirely within the character of God to show mercy on the son on behalf of the mother, or to have mercy on the mother because she laid down her assurance of salvation for the sake of her children.
It’s a matter of conscience
What matters is one’s conscience, and one’s conscience is culturally conditioned. The conscience of the New Zealanders who rebuked Hattaway would have allowed them to sign the document renouncing their faith, knowing that God would understand and forgive. The conscience of Sister Yuen permitted no such thing.
In the context of discussing whether or not it is acceptable to eat meat that has been offered to pagan idols, Paul says: ‘It all depends.’ In particular it all depends on the consciences of the people involved. Each should follow their conscience. (See this post.) The same, I suggest, is true here. I would not claim that Sister Yuen was right and that the New Zealanders were wrong; or vice-versa. Sister Yuen followed her conscience, her conscience that was informed and educated by her faith in God. And I am convinced that that action does not separate her son or daughter from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (cf Romans 8.31-39).