Tortured. Imprisoned for 13 years. Beaten. Starved. Ridiculed. Psychologically abused. This sounds like the makings of a strange horror film, and truly there is much horrific in these words. But by God’s grace Haralan Popov lived through this experience in Communist Bulgaria in the 1940’s and 50’s. A friend gave me his autobiography to read yesterday and it was so masterfully written that I read it in one night, praising God for the life and strength he gives to his servants.
The words of the Lord are trustworthy,
“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11)
In his story, Brother Popov tells about coming to faith and pasturing a church in Bulgaria. He shares how he was arrested one night and spent more than a decade in prison, suffering unspeakable torture, beatings and trauma that would break any living person. He tells how the communist authorities would swing between cruelty for months and then treat one wonderfully for a few weeks in order to clean you up for a foreign dignitaries visit, only to become more ruthless once they left. The reader is left on the edge of the seat, many times wondering if Haralan and his fellow churchmen will survive. Not all did.
But what shines through amazingly is the way he gives glory to God amidst the entire story. His prayer life, his courage, his evangelistic heart and zeal overflow through the book as he brings fellow prisoners to Christ, prays for his tormentors and thanks God his wife and children have escaped the country. What was most moving to me was the last chapters when he speaks about his release from prison only to find a vibrant underground church still functioning.
We meet the Bible scavenger who combs the city dump for the burned books the authorities don’t want in circulation. This man collects the bibles and gives them away, charred remains and all. We meet the underground copyists who work twelve hours a day in order to produce 25-30 hand lettered Scriptures a year. The there is the crippled man who translates and types 5-6 copies of Christian literature that has been smuggled into the country in order to give them away, or the young believer who borrows his bible every night in order to work all night long to copy the Scriptures for herself, or Babba Maria an old saintly woman who encourages him with prayer and prays communist officials out of their positions of authority.
Popov masterfully paints the spiritual battle between Christ and Satan, showing the depth of human depravity but the strength of the redeemed when they have nothing to depend upon but the Lord. I read the text and thanked God that his promise never to leave us or forsake us is true. I read and rejoiced at the power of Christ to sustain a believer in the midst of persecution. I read and was grateful that this is my God and the same Spirit that sustained a man in the dark and gave him power to defy his oppressors is the same God who rescues me from the very talons of death and evil. His God is my God – The Lord Jesus, the victor over darkness and the grave.
But I must confess, I was also convicted of my lack of fervor in evangelism and prayer. I was challenged to pray and trust more deeply and to cherish the very Word of Life which I can so easily set aside thinking, “There is always more time tomorrow.” Popov’s story reminded me that any day the tides can change and one may be stripped of everything around except the word and faith hidden in their heart.