In the early days of my faith I read Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned during the rule of Communism. The book left an impression on me, and in those early days, if I wasn’t in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Adrian Plass books then I would have been in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Richard Wurmbrand books. His biographical account, In God’s Underground, is absolutely fantastic. As Brian Clough might have said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Christian autobiography, but it’s in the top one.”
One book that I read was Alone with God, which is a collection of his sermons. What makes them unusual is that they are sermons that Wurmbrand preached while he was in solitary confinement. As part of a routine to keep his sanity, he would preach a sermon in his cell every day, despite the fact that no-one was there to hear it. He says that he reduced their main points to rhyming couplets, and by doing so he was able to memorise the bulk of them. When he was released, one of the things that he did was write them down, and he claimed that he managed to recall 348 of the 350 that he had preached.
I find that feat of memory amazing enough, but when you consider that many of the sermons include extensive quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare and other sources, it becomes truly incredible. I can’t help but think that the published articles were a lot more polished than the original sermons. Regardless, Alone with God was a very significant book for me when I was a younger Christian.
Many years later, while I was in Australia, I read a copy of the first collection of sermons that he wrote, the functionally-titled Sermons in Solitary Confinement. I’d found Alone with God to be insightful, powerful and influential. Sermons in Solitary Confinement. Blew. My. Mind. The sermons in this collection were raw and uncompromising in a way I’d never encountered before – these were the ones that read like sermons conceived in a oppressive hole deep in the Romanian earth. There is something incredibly unnerving about having a man bleed all over you, but you can’t doubt for a second the strength and meaningfulness of his convictions. These sermons came from a dark place, but they blazed in a way that deeply challenged and comforted me, despite the distance of both years and geography.
One thing that had a large influence on both my writing and my personal walk was the book’s introduction. Wurmbrand was obviously aware of the potential controversy of some of what he was writing so he warns the reader that he will find some disturbing and uncertain things within. This is not a place to find solid, consistent theology and doctrine, he warns, rather these are the outpourings of a soul in agony. But then he writes the following about those days: “I did not live on dogma then. Nobody can. The soul feeds on Christ, not on teachings about him.” Wurmbrand survived his ordeal not because he knew a lot of theology, but because he knew Christ. Do you understand the difference? In that one line he put into words the yearning of my soul since the first day that I had bowed my head before my new master.
If there is one goal in my writings, it is this. I do not want people to learn about Christ through what I write. I want them to encounter Christ. There is a crucial and important difference, and I am thankful to Richard Wurmbrand for his writings over the years, in which he demonstrated that distinction. It has helped to make my faith real, rather than hypothetical.