In his gripping book, Defiant, Alvin Townley tells the story of eleven prisoners of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. These prisoners vowed to resist the tortuous attempts by the North Vietnamese to extract more information from them than the Geneva Convention called for: name, rank, birthdate and service number. Some of these men endured over seven years of such ill treatment, and in most cases their families back in the United States had no sure knowledge of their whereabouts, or even if they were still alive. Ten of these men survived; one died in captivity. It was tortuous for all concerned.
Townley recounts how these men led a resistance movement, and this included the very important need to communicate in a place in which communication between prisoners was forbidden. They devised a code, a matrix of rows and columns of letters, and then used this in conjunction with tapping, usually with their tin cups, to “speak” with one another. This helped them to overcome their loneliness and their darkening sense of alienation.
Later on, some were able by stealth to dig small holes between cells, and eventually they could even whisper to one another. And in a strange way, they said, this enabled them to “peek” at one another and the mere sight of another friendly was a thrill to their souls. They needed this as they were continually subjected to harsh and tortuous treatment and indescribable pain.
These men resolved that, no matter what, they would adhere to the US Military Code of Conduct as prisoners. But alas, under so much excruciating pain, most broke the code and gave up more information than they had to. Though they never divulged information that proved to be militarily significant, yet even when they informed their captives about such insignificant things such as their family life (protected by the Geneva Convention), they felt terribly guilty. This mental and spiritual suffering intensified as some eventually signed forced and fallacious confessions.
As they were thrown back into their cells, having made “confessions” under duress, they would lament to their fellow prisoners their guilt. Each man who broke the Code assumed that he was the only one, and that the other captive soldiers had stood their ground. But they each soon found out that they were not the only ones who had faltered. In fact, they all had broken at some point. And, as they became aware of this, mutual encouragement followed with a yet stronger resolved to stand together and to do better the next time.
Townley gives the account of one such despondent prisoner, who was wracked with guilt over breaking the Code of Conduct. When he lamented with his tin cup to the man in the cell next to him he received the following tapped out response: “G-B-U.” Townley explains:
GBU had become the sign-off phrase of choice for POW’s and its meaning extended beyond “May God bless you.” It also meant, “I know you’ve been tortured, I understand your situation, and I know what you’re going through.” It told a brother POW “I know it’s not easy, but we’ll make it” and “Remember you’re not alone; we’re all pulling for you.”
As I read that I highlighted it both on my Kindle and in my heart and mind. I realised how relevant this is to the Christian and to the local church.
We too are in a war. And though, unlike the Vietnam War, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, we are nevertheless in a struggle of epic and all-important dimensions. We are in the battle for the hearts, minds and souls of men and woman, boys and girls. As it has often been exhorted, the church must come to see that we are in war mode. The fight is on. We will only enter the kingdom of God “with force” because in fact the kingdom of God itself “suffers violence” (Matthew 11:12). Jesus was not suggesting that we enter and extend His kingdom by military sword, but He was instructing His disciples (us!) that, though the kingdom itself will at times face the sword of martyrdom, nevertheless His soldiers will succeed by the Sword of the Sprit (God’s Word) by the Spirit’s means.
We must put on the armour of God as we resolve to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might as we confront the enemy of sin and Satan and self (Ephesians 6:10–18). We are called to be solders in the battle of ideas that ensnare and enslave people in spiritual captivity, cut off from the forgiveness and freedom they can have in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3–5). Yes, as we enter 2015 we leave a year of spiritual conflict to enter another year of spiritual conflict. We therefore need God to bless us. We need to hear from one another, “GBU”—God bless you—especially as we are prone to lament our failures of the past and as we no doubt will experience some faltering in the new year. Yes, in 2015 we may at times be guilty of not standing our ground. And so let’s resolve to learn and to tap out to one another, “GBU.”
Like those POW’s, Christians often resolve to be faithful to the Lord. We resolve to not break the Code of Conduct. We resolve to not betray our Lord in our witness; neither by our life nor by our lips. But, like Peter of old, we hear the rooster for the third time and we come back demoralised, assuming that we are failures and that certainly no one has failed as we have. But we are wrong to think this. And it is precisely at such times that we need to hear a brother or sister say to us, “God bless you.” Like those POW’s, we need to hear our fellow soldier say, “I know you’ve been tempted, I understand your situation, and I know what you’re going through. I know it’s not easy, but we’ll make it.” And, “Remember you’re not alone; we’re all pulling for you.”
Peter boasted that he would not fail his Commanding Officer. But he did. So he went fishing. He went back to his old vocation, assuming that there was no hope for him. Yet the Lord had other plans. He knew that Peter had failed, but He also knew that, by His help, Peter would recover and would make it. When Jesus prepared that breakfast at Galilee, and then spoke to Peter before the audience of the other disciples, it was His way of saying, “God bless you, Peter.” And God did. Peter recovered, and though he would fall at other times (see Galatians 2), nevertheless he persevered to the end. He died a martyr’s death, confessing his love and loyalty to his Saviour. God had blessed him indeed. And, Christian, He will bless you too.
The war of 2015 is just beginning. Who knows what we will face in the year ahead by way of temptations and troubles and traumas? Who knows but that some may indeed face torture for their faith. We should go into this year with a humble resolve to be strong in the Lord, while at the same time knowing that, if we fail, all is not lost. In fact, we’ll make it. For remember, you’re not alone; we’re all pulling for you. GBU. God bless you, indeed.