For Zhang Boli, one of China’s most wanted student dissidents, the months of hiding and running from the relentless police manhunt had been grueling. He was sick and exhausted, but still grateful for the shelter and care he was receiving, especially from the selfless woman he described as “Elder Cousin.” When he was well enough, she asked him to read something for her, because it was hard for her to read. He was surprised when the manuscript wrapped in red cloth which she brought out was the Gospel of John, copied by hand.
In his book, “Escape from China: The Long Journey from Tiananmen to Freedom,” Zhang explains that he had no interest in Jesus, but was glad to be able to do something for the person who had nursed him through his illness. And then something happened that he hadn’t expected: He could not stop reading the Gospel. He was moved by the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; he was shocked that Jesus taught his disciples to forgive; he could not forget any of it.
It was not until some time later, when he was lost in a subzero snowstorm on the northern border of China, numb with cold and facing almost certain death, that he turned wholeheartedly to Elder Cousin’s God for comfort, and found a new framework for his life.
As he explained in an interview with National Public Radio, he discovered that freedom doesn’t come through a governmental decision, but that “it lies in your own heart.” From that time on, prayer and a new kind of comfort were with him on his remarkable journey and final escape to the West. Now an ordained minister, he is able to share the good news of the Gospel with other Chinese speakers. He has learned to forgive the Chinese government, which had been hunting him down, he told the NPR interviewer. He added, “Forgiveness starts from the weak, not the strong.” Reading the Bible changed his life, as it has changed the lives of so many others over the years, with the idea that the spiritual is more important, more powerful, and more real than the physical.
After reading of Zhang’s conversion experience, I wondered what it would be like to read the Bible for the first time as an adult. Of course Zhang was not reading in a vacuum; while he did not think he was interested in religion, his well-developed sense of justice had made him one of the key speakers articulating Chinese student demands for an end to government corruption and for a more just governmental system. What would the Gospel have offered him that made him change the trajectory of his life?
We don’t know just what touched Zhang’s heart, but there are powerful promises in the book of John. There is hope for all of us in John’s declaration that “the Light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness has never overpowered it” (1:5, Amplified Bible), and comfort in Jesus’ explanation to his followers that life is not determined by human circumstances, but by Spirit. He told them: “It is the Spirit which gives life. The flesh will not help you. The things that I have told you are spiritual and are life” (6:63, J.B. Phillips translation).
And Jesus explains about the source of spiritual nourishment and refreshment that is never exhausted. When he talked to a Samaritan woman he met at a well, for example, he explained that people who drink from such a well will be thirsty again, but that “whoever takes a drink of the water that I will give him shall never, no never, be thirsty any more. But the water that I will give him shall become a spring of water welling up (flowing, bubbling) [continually] within him unto (into, for) eternal life” (4:14, Amplified Bible).
For centuries, God’s Word has been providing deeply satisfying refreshment and freedom from whatever is threatening people’s peace and safety. If you have a Bible, take some time to read it. You just may find greater peace and safety in your own life.