Taking up our cross and following after Christ is not a popular notion in modern Christianity much less, actually disciplining ourselves to suffer well and for the glory of God. In this episode, Leslie continues her series on unshakable women of Christian faith who did mighty deeds in and through His strength. This week, be challenged afresh at Esther Ahn Kim’s perseverance and tensile strength in the face of prison, torture, and seeming death – all out of love to her King, Jesus Christ! May we all be reminded, that while we may not be facing persecution, surrender is requisite for every believer!
Leslie Ludy: Hey, everyone! It’s Leslie Ludy, host of the Set Apart Girl Podcast: Biblical Encouragement for Women of All Ages! Today we’re going to take a look at another woman who has greatly impacted my life, and I know that her story can impact your life as well! Her name is Esther Ahn Kim. She was a Korean Christian who stood boldly for her faith in the Second World War when the Japanese were taking over her country. She was a young woman from a privileged family, and she was teaching at a Christian school.
Esther Ahn Kim’s Story
Leslie Ludy: The Japanese were putting a tremendous amount of pressure upon the Korean Christians to deny their faith and to begin showing worship to their false gods. So many Christians around her were giving in to that pressure, because they knew that the alternative was imprisonment, torture, or death. Christians in her school where she worked were putting a lot of pressure on her saying, “You’re going to bring a lot of persecution to this school, to the students, and the teachers if you don’t go along with this.” But she said, “I cannot deny my God.”
There was a certain day where they all went at her Christian school to this shrine, the Japanese shrine, and all of the Japanese officials were there. They were going to make sure that every one of the students and teachers bowed at the shrine to the Japanese sun god. Even though it was a Christian school and most of the students and teachers proclaimed to be Christians, Esther Ahn Kim was the only one who resolved in her heart that she would not bow. When she stood there with hundreds of people, one of the officials said, “Everyone must bow to the sun god.” As he shouted the words the entire group bent the upper half of their bodies, bowing solemnly before the shrine. And Esther, as this young 20-year old girl, was the only one who remained standing and looking up at the sky.
The fear and uncertainty that had gripped her heart all the way as she went to the shrine that day – she wasn’t sure if she could do this – as soon as she took that step, all that fear vanished, and she was overwhelmed with calmness and peace because she knew that she had done what God had wanted her to do, even though nobody supported her in that decision.
As they walked back to the school, she continued to surrender to God in her heart, pray to Him, and say, “I’ve done what I should have done, now I commit the rest to You. I died today on that mountain. It is only You now who leaves through me. I leave everything in Your hands.”
From that day on, she lived in hiding. She knew it was only a matter of time before she was going to be caught and imprisoned because of the stand that she had taken against the Japanese that day. But one of the things that is so powerful about her story; it wasn’t just taking that one bold step of faith, it was how she chose to live knowing that she was going to face persecution. Instead of cowering in fear and worrying about what the future held, she wanted to prepare her heart and her body to suffer for Christ.
Training for Difficulty
Leslie Ludy: Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I buffet my body and make it my servant …” (paraphrased) and that is exactly what Esther Ahn Kim did. She decided to train for prison life just like an athlete would train for a competitive sport because she counted it a great honor to suffer for Christ, and she knew that she wasn’t ready for all that lay ahead. She wrote later, “I knew it would be impossible for me to keep my faith in my own power. God would have to work through me if I was to stand firm. I decided to go on a fast …”
That was the first thing that she did was go on a long fast. She had fasted for three days before without difficulty, and now she decided to go without food or drink for an entire week so that God would strengthen her spiritually for what she would face when she was finally captured and imprisoned. By the sixth or seventh day, her lips were dry, she felt like she couldn’t breathe, and when she was finally done with the fast, she raised her hands in victory and thanked God for being with her and giving her the grace. She knew that if she had the grace to endure that intense of a fast, she would have the grace to endure whatever came in prison.
She wrote this, “Although I had not expected it, after that fast, I was able to understand the Scriptures better and felt a new power in my prayer. I felt I could leave the fear of torture in the Lord’s hands.” That’s incredible! I don’t know many young, 20-year old girls who would go through something like that, but it was what she felt like God was calling her to do to spiritually and physically prepare for walking through torture and imprisonment.
As more time went by and she heard more about what prison life was like, she battled many times with anxiety. She continued to fast, to pray, to train, discipline her body, and build her life around Scripture reading, prayer, and immersing herself in the presence of God. She wrote this, “I found a peace I had never known before. I read the Bible earnestly and had a new concern to memorize important chapters against the day when I would be in prison without my Bible.
She knew prison was coming, it was just a matter of time. She didn’t use that time to indulge in comforts; she actually began sleeping on the floor and learning to live in a state of poverty. She had grown up in wealth and privilege, and she wasn’t used to discomfort, but she began to give up all of the comforts that she had grown up with so that she would be prepared for the harsh conditions of prison.
When she went to the market to buy produce, she would buy ripe fruit for her family members, but rotten fruit for herself. When her mom and her sisters saw the rotten fruit that she was going to eat, they were so upset, but they began to understand because this was the kind of food that she would be forced to eat in prison.
After months of faithful and diligent preparation – fasting and memorizing Scripture, tirelessly praying, and training to endure harsh conditions – this transformed her from a weak, frail, faltering young girl into a bold and confident ambassador for Jesus Christ. Instead of fearing torture, she now faced it boldly in the grace and the power of God. Eventually, she felt like God was telling her to come out of hiding and boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel among the Japanese. Again, she knew this was very likely going to lead to her death, but she was determined to follow the Lamb wherever He would lead her.
Possessing the Strength to Stand for Christ
Leslie Ludy: Standing boldly for Christ led to six years in Japanese prisons. During that time her body grew weak with suffering, but she shone with supernatural love towards her persecutors and fellow prisoners. Even through torture, she refused to deny the name of Jesus. Her astounding example of suffering hardship as a good soldier for Christ brought so many people into the Kingdom who never would have heard the Gospel otherwise.
After she was released – which was truly a miracle because of how near she came to death – the story of her imprisonment and unwavering faith became the all-time, religious bestseller in Korea, inspiring countless thousands to stand strong in their faith.
Modern Christianity often encourages us to chase after our own achievements and accolades, to develop our own skills, and pursue things that will be applauded and esteem by this world. Some people even go as far as to say that the more impressive we are to pop-culture, the greater our witness for Jesus Christ will be. The hip, trendy, pop-culture style of many of our modern worship services illustrates how far we’ve come from the days of the apostles where Paul proclaimed, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity” (2 Cor. 11:30).
Paul had plenty of human skills and achievements that He could have built upon, and he chose to treat those things as rubbish (see Philippians 3:8). His greatest accomplishments, his most powerful witness came from the incredible suffering that he endured for the sake of Christ.
It says in 2 Corinthians, “Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness …” (2 Cor. 11:25-27). That’s an incredible list of suffering for Christ’s sake and yet, that was what made Paul so strong in the grace of God! And that is really what we see in the life of Esther Ahn Kim. It’s not her accomplishments, her personality, her money, or her skills that caused the entire nation of Korea to be forever impacted, but her shining example of suffering well for the sake of Christ.
There was a time in prison where her arms were handcuffed behind her back for days until she finally passed out from the relentless pain. The intent was to torture her until she finally denied Christ, but even though her mind and body were broken, her spirit remained strong rooted and grounded in truth. She didn’t relent no matter how horrible the pain became. She emerged from that torture victorious in her faith.
There was another time in prison where she gave up her meager prison food for several days to a woman who was insane and filthy and sentenced to death for murdering her husband. But instead of being repulsed by this woman, as all the other prisoners were, Esther Ahn Kim prayed relentlessly for her, sacrificing even her own comforts to reach the woman’s heart. The woman died in her right mind, knowing Jesus Christ with a hope and a future.
That kind of sacrifice and personal suffering for Christ is only possible through His grace. It’s only when we’ve truly given up everything to follow Jesus that we can have that kind of grace in the face of such hardship.
Asking Ourselves the “Hard” Questions
Leslie Ludy: Esther Ahn Kim’s story challenges me at the deepest level of my soul and causes me to ask the question, “Am I prepared to suffer well for Jesus Christ?” In our comfortable, American lifestyle, it’s so easy to think, Oh, well of course, if persecution comes, I’ll never deny Christ. If I were thrown into prison, I would remain strong in my faith. But we have to ask ourselves: Are we truly dying to ourselves daily as Esther Ahn Kim did, or are we more concerned with protecting our own comforts and interests than in fully consecrating our lives to Christ? Remember the only way to truly be a follower of Christ is to willingly give up everything, take up our cross, and follow Him.
When we’re more concerned with how many friends we have on Facebook than with what priority Jesus Christ has in our daily lives, we’re really not preparing to suffering well for Christ. When we’re more preoccupied with having enough time to go to Starbucks than having enough time to spend in God’s presence, we’re not preparing to suffer well for Jesus Christ. When we’re reluctant to give up our time, resources, and energy to other people so that we can preserve our own comforts, we’re not preparing to suffer well for Jesus Christ. We’re never going to gain Esther Ahn Kim’s version of supernatural boldness and sacrificial love by coddling our own self-interests and protecting our own comforts.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Facebook, with Starbucks, or with material things, but when these kinds of things become more important to us than Jesus Christ, then we’re not walking the narrow way of the Cross. We’re just merely living selfish lives and putting a Christian label over them.
Choosing to Count the Cost
Leslie Ludy: One thing I love about Esther Ahn Kim’s story is that she counted the cost; not only on the day that she refused to bow at the shrine, but every day after that. She counted the cost when she willingly and gladly gave up comforts and trained her body to endure hardship for the sake of Christ. She counted the cost when she came out of hiding and boldly proclaimed the Gospel among the Japanese who had the power to torture and kill her. She counted the cost when in prison she endured horrible misery rather than deny her faith in Christ. She counted the cost when she sacrificially loved a filthy, repulsive woman and gave what little she had in order to win her for Christ.
Her life was no longer her own. Every decision she made reflected that inner reality. If we desire to do big things for God, we need to ask ourselves whether we have truly counted the cost of following Christ. When self is at the center of our lives, the only impact we can really have on this world will be shallow and human-scripted – not eternal and God-scripted. We might make a temporary splash, but if we don’t take up our cross, follow Him, and count the cost of following Him, we won’t reflect the supernatural radiance and the grace and power of Heaven.
Gauging the Depth of Your Surrender
Leslie Ludy: In light of Esther Ahn Kim’s story think about this: When you woke up this morning, did you think of your day as belonging to you or to Jesus Christ? Did you live today as if your time and decisions were your own or His? Did you allow the distractions and the allurements of this world to turn your head, occupy your thoughts, or dictate your decisions? Or was He your sole pursuit? How did you spend your free time – doing what you felt like doing or pouring your life out for Him?
I encourage you to spend some time focused in prayer and waiting on God, and allow Him to gently reveal those areas of your life that need His transforming touch. Allow His Spirit to open your eyes to any part of your life where you are yielding to selfish whims and desires. It might be helpful to write down anything that He brings to your mind. Pray for the grace to silence your selfish side in each of these areas, and begin putting into practice that dying to self in your every day life. It might be as simple as choosing to joyfully respond when your alarm clock goes off in the morning instead of pushing the snooze button lazily or throwing it across the room in anger. It might be the simple things, like how you respond when somebody does something that bothers you, or how you respond to a task that you don’t really feel like doing. Are you truly dying to self and saying, “Lord, I will follow you no matter what the cost.” Silence that lazy, selfish voice of your flesh that says it’s all about what you want. Remember, it shouldn’t be all about what we want, but only about what He wants.
Now it may take a few days weeks, or months to re-train from a selfish perspective into a Christ-centered perspective, but when we allow Him to come in and re-train our thoughts and our daily decisions and show us what it means personally for us to pick up our cross and follow Him, then we soon begin to understand from firsthand experience what Paul meant when he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me …” (Gal. 2:20).
Leslie Ludy: I believe this world needs more women like Esther Ahn Kim; women who will unreservedly take up their cross and follow Him and count the cost. May it be our greatest desire to follow her example, even if we are never in prison and suffer in the same way that she did that we die daily and give our lives fully and be willing to suffer any hardship or persecution for the One who gave everything for us. The world will never be the same when they encounter a life that is that surrendered for Him.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. If you would like to know more about what it means to stand boldly for your faith and endure ridicule, reviling, and persecution – either on a small level or on a large level – I encourage you to go to www.setapart.org or www.ellerslie.com and look at the online courses that we have available.
These are courses where there’s a weekly video lesson; they’re perfect for small groups, and we go through a new theme each month. Each course includes a comprehensive notebook with study questions and Scriptures that can help you go deeper into these themes. Our online course for the month of December is called Unshakable Faith: How to Stand Boldly for Truth When Others Don’t Understand You. Our online course for the month of December is specifically about having unshakable faith and standing boldly for truth when others don’t appreciate or understand you.
If you would like to know more about how to follow Esther Ahn Kim’s example and learn how to stand boldly for your faith – even in this culture – I encourage you to participate in that course. I believe it will inspire and ground you in truth. I pray you have a blessed and Christ-centered week!