I relished two hours with Joseph Tson in my office on Wednesday, January 31. Mr. Tson, who lives in his native land of Romania, is the president of the Romanian Missionary Society and president of Emmanuel Bible Institute in Oradea, Romania. When I heard he was in town I was very eager to have time with him because his writing on the “Theology of Martyrdom” had deeply moved me several years ago.
What an amazing time we had together. I had not experienced anything quite like it before. There was almost no small talk. Immediately we were catapulted in the weightiest matters of suffering and Biblical theology. On the surface he vehemently disapproved of my term "Christian Hedonism". One does not suffer at the hands of communism, and easily embrace anything called "hedonism".
But beneath the surface (where we went very quickly) there was an almost instantaneous camaraderie. At one point well into our conversation he startled me by standing up from his chair and taking two steps toward me with a big smile on his face and shaking my hand, because of the delight he felt in our agreement theologically with regard to the role of suffering and self-denial in the plan of salvation and in the completion of the great commission. In recent years I have been coming more and more to the conclusion that suffering is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to do missions. You can see this in the suffering chapters in Let the Nations Be Glad and Future Grace, and the new edition of Desiring God (due out in April).
Mr. Tson told me of his personal relationship with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great London pastor who died in 1981. He described how he was the only foreigner in the Monday pastors’ meetings while he was studying at Oxford. He knew the Doctor personally and was told by Martyn Lloyd-Jones how he and his wife prayed regularly for Joseph.
On joy he said that at one point in the days of oppression in Romania his house was searched by communist officials because he was a leading pastor. Almost all his books were confiscated. He said that the soldiers needed proof that they were getting his books from him. So they told him to sit at a table and write in each book that it was found in his house. Then he had to sign the book while they took pictures of him. At one point in the tense process, he took down a book whose title was Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory with the subtitle, “Is This Your Experience NOW?”
As he read the title he asked himself that question and was filled—at that moment—by the Holy Spirit with amazing joy. The change was so profound that he told his wife to get those soldiers some coffee and he was freed from his anger and fear. Later that week he had to preach. All in his congregation knew that he had been stripped of his books and was daily questioned by the authorities so that he had no time to minister or prepare. When he preached he spoke on “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). He said that one man was so overwhelmed with the sheer force of his joy in that setting of suffering that he could not hear anything after the text and was broken in his own heart and deeply changed.
Lord, I thank you for this meeting and this man. I pray that I will be faithful to your call, and that the joy of the Lord will be the strength that frees me to love soldiers and preach truth (whether anyone calls it Christian Hedonism or not). Amen.