The following story probably stirs my own confidence in the power of God's Word and His sovereignty more than any other.
I was ministering in Vietnam in 1971, and one of my interpreters was Hien Pham, an energetic young Christian. He had worked as a translator with the American forces, and was of immense help both to them and to missionaries such as myself. Hien and I traveled the length of the country and became very close friends before I returned home.
We did not know if our paths would ever cross again. Seventeen years later, I received a telephone call. "Brother Ravi?" the man asked. Immediately I recognized Hien's voice, and he soon told me his story.
Shortly after Vietnam fell, Hien was imprisoned on accusations of helping the Americans. His jailers tried to indoctrinate him against democratic ideals and the Christian faith.
He was restricted to communist propaganda in French or Vietnamese, and the daily deluge of Marx and Engels began to take its toll. "Maybe," he thought, "I have been lied to. Maybe God does not exist. Maybe the West has deceived me." So Hien determined that when he awakened the next day, he would not pray anymore or think of his faith.
The next morning, he was assigned the dreaded chore of cleaning the prison latrines. As he cleaned out a tin can overflowing with toilet paper, his eye caught what seemed to be English printed on one piece of paper.
He hurriedly grabbed it, washed it, and after his roommates had retired that night, he retrieved the paper and read the words, "Romans, Chapter 8." Trembling, he began to read, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him….for I am convinced that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Hien wept. He knew His Bible, and knew that there was not a more relevant passage for one on the verge of surrender. He cried out to God, asking forgiveness, for this was to have been the first day that he would not pray. Evidently God had other plans. What his tormentors were using for refuse—the Scriptures—could not be more treasured to Hien.
After finding the Scripture, Hien asked the commander if he could clean the latrines regularly, because he discovered that some official was using a Bible as toilet paper. Each day Hien picked up a portion of Scripture, cleaned it off, and added it to his collection of nightly reading.
The day came when, through an equally providential set of circumstances, Hien was released from prison. He promptly began to make plans to leave the country and to construct a boat for the escape of him and fifty-three others.
All was going according to plan until days before their departure. Four Vietcong knocked on Hien's door and said they had heard of his escape. He denied it and they left. Hien felt relieved, but at the same time disappointed with himself. He made a promise to God—fervently hoping that God would not take him up on it—that if the Vietcong returned, he would tell them the truth.
He was thoroughly shaken when only a few hours before they were to set sail, the four men returned. When questioned again, Hien confessed the truth. To Hien's astonishment, the men leaned forward and in hushed tones, asked if they could go with him!
In an utterly incredible escape plan, all fifty-eight of them found themselves on the high seas, suddenly engulfed by a violent storm. Hien cried out to God, "Did you bring us here to die?" He said to me, "Brother Ravi, if it were not for the sailing ability of those four Vietcong, we would not have made it." They arrived safely in Thailand, and years later Hien arrived on American soil where today he is a businessman.
How fittingly do the words of the eighteenth-century poet William Cowper capture what God did in Hien's life:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour:
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.