31 Days of Missionary Stories: Gracia Burham and God’s Grace in Captivity

Several years ago I had heard of Gracia Burnham’s In the Presence of My Enemies and somewhere read an excerpt from it, but I avoided reading it. I couldn’t face it. I’m not sure why: maybe because it was too fresh, maybe because the people responsible for the Burnham’s captivity were still alive (maybe not the specific people, but the extremist Islamic groups are still active), maybe because in the portion that I read, Gracia was having to deal with something that I struggle with. But the youth pastor at the church we were attending saw a DVD presentation of Gracia sharing her testimony at another church where he was ministering and recommended it to me. I ordered it, watched it, and was so touched on so many levels. I then felt that I had to read the book. (Sadly, the DVD does not seem to be available any more – I couldn’t find it after searching the Web for a while.)

For those who might not be aware, Martin and Gracia Burnham were missionaries with New Tribes Mission in the Philippines: he was a missionary pilot who reminded me a lot of one of my former church’s missionaries who also pilots a small plane. They had gone for a quick weekend get-away to celebrate their anniversary at a resort. They didn’t usually go to the “touristy” areas, but decided to go this once. During their stay, an Islamic extremist group stormed the resort and took guests and a few staff members hostage. Several of the hostages were able to arrange for ransom and were released after a few months. Some were killed along the way. The Burnhams were held for over a year. Martin was killed in a rescue attempt by the Philippine military and Gracia was wounded.

I don’t want to take away from what she shares in the book, so I won’t go into the details of the story here. I do want to mention just a couple of impressions, though.

As the Burnhams struggled with negative thoughts and attitudes toward their captors, I kept finding myself thinking at first, “But they had a right to feel that way!” I knew better, but that was the thought that kept coming. They had to put into practice the Bible’s teaching about loving their enemies, praying for those who were despitefully using them, in a very real way and only by God’s grace.

I also was grieved that I did not pray for them more. Often when I hear reports of stories like theirs on the news, I try at least to pray right then in the midst of whatever I am doing. I may have prayed for them in that way, but I don’t remember. The scripture came to mind to remember those in bonds as if bound with them, and I failed to do that for the Burnhams, but this caused me to determine not to neglect that ministry again.

I was also struck by the Muslim group’s twisted sense of logic. They wanted Islam to rule the world so it would be ruled by “righteousness.” They advocated the cutting off of someone’s hand for stealing — but excused their own stealing because they “needed” the stolen items for their cause. When people died in the course of what they did, it was “their destiny.” They had a strong sense of “justice” but saw mercy as a weakness. When discussing that last point with one of their captors, Martin said, “You know, I hope my children don’t take up the attitude you have. I hope they don’t ever shoot some Muslims because of what you have done to us.” The man to whom they were speaking looked shocked. “Done to you? What is my sin against you? I have never done anything to you.” Martin and Gracia could only look at each other incredulously.

Gracia tells of her very human struggles, like depression, anger, and resentment over their situation and the realization that not only was her attitude not helping, but it was hurting. She writes, “I knew that I had a choice. I could give in to my resentment and allow it to dig me into a deeper and deeper hole both psychologically and emotionally, or I could choose to believe what God’s Word says to be true whether I felt it was or not.” That was a turning point for her as she chose to believe God and handed over her pain and anger to Him. I thought how often we get tripped up over pain, resentment, and anger over much lesser things.

She shares also how the Lord provided for them in unexpected ways, how she and Martin encouraged each other, how they had to battle a captive’s mindset, how they were able to talk about the Lord with their captors and other hostages, as well as the details of how she and Martin originally came together as a couple and what happened in the aftermath of her captivity.

A few years later Gracia wrote To Fly Again: Surviving the Tailspins of Life (linked to my review), which includes an update of how she and her children were doing after all that had happened to them, her recovery from the trauma, and encouragement to others who have gone through any kind of traumatic event.

I found this video on YouTube, and I think some of the footage is from the original DVD:

I also found this report of Gracia’s going back to testify against her captors.

God’s Word is true no matter what, and thankfully He doesn’t see fit to put all of us through that kind of experience, but when someone who has been through what she has speaks of God’s goodness and faithfulness, the truth of God’s Word and the reality of His Presence….it rings true. There is an authenticity about that person’s testimony. Their faith, their beliefs have been tried in the fires of testing. Gracia’s testimony touched me deeply. I don’t know if I could have gone through what she did – in fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. But God gives His grace for various trials when we need it. Though I hope I never have to face that particular kind of trial, we will all face trials of some kind, and we can trust He will see us through them as he promised.

I Peter 1:6-8:

Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:
That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory…

(You can see other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

12 thoughts on “31 Days of Missionary Stories: Gracia Burham and God’s Grace in Captivity

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories | Stray Thoughts

  2. reading this gave me chills! how extremely hard it is to love or even care about those who hurt you… can’t even comprehend. God bless you!

  3. Fabulous book! Excellent testimony of faith in our most Excellent God! As is the second book, To Fly Again. This is what I wrote in my Goodreads review: “Tremendously practical, honest, and uplifting and encouraging and teaching. Couldn’t be better unless it were longer.” Real people — real God.

  4. We were in Japan when this was going on. They broadcast news from all over the world in Japan and so we saw this on the Philippine news. There was actually an interview with them while they were held captive. I couldn’t even imagine what they were going through. The book is an amazing testimony of what they endured. I can only hope that I would do half as well as they did if I found myself in similar circumstances. I don’t know if I could, but I know God doesn’t give the grace until we need it. Having said that, one thing she said at the end of her book bothered me. She said that she had to learn to forgive God. To me, this implied He did something wrong. We don’t understand His ways and to our finite minds, this is a hard, hard thing. BUT He doesn’t need our forgiveness. He wants our trust. We will never understand why He allowed something so terrible to happen to them, but His ways are not our ways.

    • I hadn’t remembered that about forgiving God, but I agree. I have heard prominent Christian leaders use that phrase, but I cringe every time. He does nothing wrong: we have to submit our will and way to Him whether we understand or not.

  5. What a powerful close to this post, using the verses from 1 Peter. These words have come to be incredibly meaningful to me over the last few months, and when I think about Gracia’s story, I’m humbled to think how much more traumatic others’ trials often are than mine. Thank you for the reminder to take God’s Word by faith, and not do things my way.

  6. This would be so hard yet so worthwhile to read. I sort of understand the term “forgiving God”. I think it means the person had to let go of anger they had towards God for allowing the thing to happen to them and submitting themselves to His sovereignty. I also get that it does imply that God did something wrong but I think it relates more to the person’s attitude and anger, “forgiving God” is the wrong terminology.

  7. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories: Pedestals? | Stray Thoughts

  8. Pingback: 31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Facing the Darkness | Stray Thoughts

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