Long before there was a war in Vietnam, there were Christian missionaries proclaiming the Gospel to the Vietnamese. The Christian population of Vietnam was never very large, and it has been severely persecuted since the end of the Vietnam war, but those who have persisted have grown strong in the faith. Hien Pham was a Vietnamese Christian who worked as a translator for the missionaries in the 1960’s and 70’s during the war. After Vietnam fell, Hien was captured by the Viet Cong and imprisoned. He was accused of collaborating with the CIA, and while in prison he was to be re-educated. He was taught about the evils of democracy and the many benefits of communism. He was also told that he had been brainwashed by the Christians, and that there really was no God. The authorities took away the Bible that he loved and forbade him to speak English, the language that he loved.
“There is no such thing as God,” was the message that his captors drilled in, day after hellish day.
For a long time, Hien held on to his faith, remembering the words of his Bible that he could no longer read, and, saying his prayers every day. But finally, Hien began to wonder, “Maybe they are right. Maybe there is no such thing as God.” Soon his questions became convictions, and one night he decided not to say his prayers. Instead, he made up his mind that he had been deluded all along by those missionaries, and he would no longer believe in God. “I’m through with God,” he said to himself that night. “When I wake up in the morning, it will be no more God for me and no more prayer.”
The next morning, Hien, the newest atheist in the camp, stood in line as the commanding officer of the prison barked out the assignments for the day. Hien’s job that day was to clean the latrines. He cringed when he heard it. This was the ultimate form of indignity for the prisoners. The latrines were shabby and filthy and Hien would be spending the entire day amidst that filth.
The soiled toilet paper was not flushed through the primitive plumbing, but was put into waste baskets. One of Hien’s last jobs of the day was to empty these waste baskets. All day long he had labored with reminders to reinforce his new belief that there is no God. How indeed could a loving God leave him here and not rescue him from this living hell? But as Hien’s work for the day was coming to an end, something in the last trash can happened to catch his eye. It was a piece of paper with printed type. As Hien looked closer, he saw it was in English. Anxious to read this language once again, he looked around to make sure no one was watching. He then quickly rinsed off the filth and tucked the paper into his pocket.
That night after everyone had fallen asleep, Hien carefully took out his flashlight and removed the still damp paper from his pocket. In the upper right hand corner he saw printed Romans 8. Amazing! This was a page from the Bible. In a state of shock, Hien began reading. The first verse he read was Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” What a miracle to find a page of the Bible on that very day that he had decided to forget about God; and then to read first of all that verse that spoke right into Hien’s situation and into his heart. Hien read on: “What then shall we say in response to all this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, or anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Hien began to cry. Of all the Scripture verses he had known, these were the ones he most needed to hear in his present situation, and now they had come back to him in a most incredible way. “Lord,” he prayed, “you would not let me out of your reach for even one day.” Hien then gave up the atheism that he had just embraced, and went back to his faith and his daily prayers.
The next morning, when Hien saw the commanding officer before the daily line up, he asked him, “Sir, would you mind if I cleaned the latrines again?”
The officer stared at him, puzzled. He decided Hien was trying to be a smart aleck, so he said, “All right, you are going to clean them every day until I tell you to stop.”
Hien did not know it in the beginning, but it was that officer himself who had been tearing out pages from a confiscated Bible and using them for toilet paper. Now, each day, Hien would find more pages, and each day, he would rinse them clean, hide them in his pocket, and read them at night. In this way his faith was sustained and strengthened. Life seemed hopeless to Hien as he cleaned those prison camp latrines, but there among the filth he found a word of hope.
After a while, Hien was released from prison. In time, he escaped from Vietnam in a small boat. He was one of the boat people that were so often in the news back in the 1970’s. He made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then eventually was able to come to America. He lives now in San Francisco, where he has a business. Whenever possible, he looks for opportunities to tell people about how good God has been to him. (Story told by Ravi Zacharias for whom Hien Pham worked as a translator in 1971.)
Romans 8:18 — I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Romans 8:28 — We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:24-5 — For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
My God, I believe in you. Increase my faith.
My God, I hope in you. Strengthen my hope.