Suffering and Mission: Narrative Research from Cambodia, with Special Reference to Cambodian Church History

The paper presents the findings of narrative research on suffering in the lives of Cambodian Christians. It begins with a discussion of what the Bible says about suffering and a historical review of the suffering in Cambodia and her church. The paper shows how the scars inflicted on Cambodia through decades of suffering still impact the church and wider society.



Born and raised in Japan, Yuzo Imamura and his wife, Hitomi, have served as church workers in Cambodia with OMF International since 2003. He holds a Master of Christian Ministry from the Discipleship Training Centre, Singapore.






Suffering and Mission: Narrative Research from Cambodia, with Special Reference to Cambodian Church History

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2017):4-12


1. Introduction: Suffering in today’s world

Every single day, we read stories of suffering in the newspaper. Tsunamis, hurricanes, an Ebola outbreak, multiple terrorist attacks all over the world, bombings in Syria, and countless mental and psychological collapses. The list goes on. It seems that the world is full of suffering. We ask ourselves agonizingly, “Lord, can this be your will?” It is so commonplace that a Google search of “theology of suffering” yielded 22,800,000 hits in 0.57 seconds as of 10 October 2017.

In Cambodia today, more than three decades have passed since the devastation of the Khmer Rouge, yet the scars left by the Pol Pot regime and the following civil wars are still tangible in the society. On the one hand, physical suffering such as that which is experienced by land-mine victims is observable. On the other hand, psychological suffering such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are invisible, yet they have tormented countless people. According to a 2012 report, between 15 and 35 percent of those who survived the Khmer Rouge and experienced violence associated with armed conflict suffer from PTSD and even more people within the general Cambodian population suffer due to a wider transmission of Khmer Rouge-associated trauma.[1]

Dictionaries define suffering as “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship”[2] and “physical, mental, or emotional pain or anguish.”[3] They do not say where it comes from or whether it is beneficial or totally harmful.

In reality, there are different views on suffering. For instance, people who live in highly industrialized countries such as Japan, find suffering to be an unpopular word as they are often convinced by the mass media that making our lives easier, smoother, and barrier-free is of ultimate value. They are constantly advised to eliminate suffering in their lives as much as possible by using high technology or the spirit of kaizen (continuous improvement).[4] Alternatively, they ignore suffering or think it doesn’t exist in their lives while they strive to keep up with a very fast-paced life. Even if there is suffering they can seek help from experts such as counselors, psychologists, or folk beliefs. The motto is “to manage, reduce, and cope with stress, anxiety, or trauma.” On top of that, they are prone to blame the socio-political and economic system for their suffering. As a result, there is very limited space to consider biblical ideas of persevering, enduring, and living with suffering. But once cross-cultural workers from those countries land in Third World countries like Cambodia, they are overwhelmed by suffering such as poverty, injustice, lack of social security, etc., that the local people face.

Persecution (including martyrdom) is just one form of suffering. Tieszen reports that to some scholars “any unfortunate experience befalling a Christian is considered persecution.”[5] Certainly, persecution comes in various forms and intensities, and it hurts Christians physically, psychologically (mentally or emotionally), or socially. Tieszen rightly says, “We cannot define the event based on the level of pain it might cause, or the level of intensity in which it occurs. Instead, a definition of persecution encompasses actions spanning the full range of hostility.”[6]

Before exploring the biblical perspective on suffering, I would like to note that while suffering can be subjective, some types of suffering—such as natural disasters—are evident to everybody. The Bible says that suffering not only gives believers sorrow and pain (e.g., Job of the Old Testament) but also brings joy (e.g., Acts 5:41; Rom 5). But such an epistemological discussion lies outside the scope of this paper.

Rather than reviewing suffering in terms of non-Christian philosophical analyses, whether ancient, medieval, or modern, this paper will focus on what the Bible tells us about suffering.[7]

2. What the Bible tells us about suffering

Countless books and articles have been written on suffering. Hence, it is not necessary to duplicate this information here. Recently, an OMF e-Learning module on “the Way of the Cross,” the Theology of Suffering 101, was prepared and will hopefully help those who are not familiar with suffering.[8] Here, foundational teaching and practical issues surrounding suffering are explored briefly.

2.1. Suffering is a part of the normal Christian life

The Bible does not deny that the Christian suffers. Tim Keller rightly says:

The Book of Genesis begins with an account of how evil and death came into the world. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament is largely dedicated to the problem of suffering. The Book of Psalms provides a prayer for every possible situation in life, and so it is striking how filled it is with cries of pain and with blunt questions to God about the seeming randomness and injustice of suffering. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are almost wholly dedicated to deep reflection on unjust suffering and on the frustrating pointlessness that characterizes so much of life. The prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk give searing expression to the human complaint that evil seems to rule history. NT books such as Hebrews and 1 Peter are almost entirely devoted to helping people face relentless sorrows and troubles. And towering over all, the central figure of the whole of Scripture, Jesus Christ, is a man of sorrows. The Bible, therefore, is about suffering as much as it is about anything.[9]

While we try to eliminate suffering, the Bible tells us suffering can be beneficial and indispensable to our Christian life. Indeed, suffering is a gracious gift from God (Phil 1:29). Next, we will explore possible meanings of suffering.

2.2. Certain meanings of suffering

Because we instinctively pursue answers to the purpose or meaning of suffering, we should be careful to note that the Bible does not give a clear answer to why we face suffering. It only addresses how we can handle it. Here are some meanings that are found in the Bible.

2.2.1. Suffering as God’s justice and judgment

Genesis 1–3 explains that suffering entered the world as a result of the original sin of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who turned away from God. Paul later wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Their disobedience of the Creator’s will and the breakup of their relationship with God have filled the world with suffering: spiritual alienation, inner psychological pain, social and interpersonal conflict and cruelty, natural disasters, diseases, and death (Gen 3:16–19). In addition, Psalms and Proverbs suggest that suffering can be directly related to transgression (Pss 32:1–5; 38:1–4; Prov 12:21; 13:20–21; 22:3; 27:12).

2.2.2. Suffering as God’s mystery and his good intention

Trying to discover the reason for evil and suffering drives us to consider the bigger picture that is God’s plan which is far beyond our understanding. There are hard questions, like the way Joseph was sold by his brothers to Egypt. However great a setback he suffered, Joseph endured and trusted in God through every single episode of suffering. In the end he came to understand God’s big picture, “a great deliverance” (Gen 45:7, NIV), and said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). Like Genesis’s picture of Joseph, Job and Ecclesiastes richly demonstrate that much of suffering is not directly related to justice and judgment; rather it is God’s mystery that is beyond our understanding (Deut 29:29). Joni Eareckson Tada views her suffering in this way: “My suffering is redeemed for His purpose.”[10] This view resonates with Romans 8:28 where Paul writes, “All things work together for good.” Peter encourages us to entrust our souls to a faithful Creator even when we do not understand our circumstances (1 Pet 4:19).

2.2.3. Suffering as God’s means for strengthening our faith and holiness

God saves us and shows us the infinite depths of his grace and love through weakness and pain. Dan McCartney writes, “Christ learned humanhood from his suffering (Heb 5:8). [And therefore] we learn Christhood from our suffering.”[11] God disciplines us through suffering (Heb 12:10–11). Just as Jesus has experienced our humanity through suffering (Heb 2:18; 4:14–15), we are also able to grow in Christ-likeness and care for others who are suffering, as we suffer. Job acquires a deep knowledge and experience of God through suffering (Job 42:5–6). The Psalmist writes that suffering is good for us and leads us to have a better understanding of God (Ps 119:71; cf. Jas 1:2–4). Likewise, Paul encourages us to be prepared for “an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison” (2 Cor 4:17) and “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Peter clearly states we will be restored, confirmed, strengthened, and established by God in the end (1 Pet 5:10; 4:12–14).

2.2.4. Suffering as a display of God’s glory

Jesus came to us and suffered for us chiefly through his death on the cross as Isaiah prophesised in chapter 53. Piper meticulously expounds the glory of God that comes through suffering. He summarized the achievements of Jesus Christ by his suffering as follows:[12] (1) Christ absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf (Gal 3:13), (2) Christ bore our sins and purchased our forgiveness (1 Pet 2:24; Isa 53:5), (3) Christ provided a perfect righteousness for us that becomes ours in him (Phil 2:7–8; Rom 5:19), (4) Christ defeated death (Heb 2:14–15), (5) he disarmed Satan (Col 2:14–15), (6) Christ purchased perfect, final healing for all his people (Isa 53:5; Rev 7:17), and (7) Christ will bring us finally to God (1 Pet 3:18). The ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering himself to overcome our suffering and bring about the praise of the glory of the grace of God.

2.3. Suffering and its five challenges to the character of God

While an atheist is free from the problem of evil, religious people, including Christians, from ancient times have struggled to tackle questions arising from the problem of evil. That is why the study of theodicy develops. Theodicy is defined as “an attempt to show that God is not responsible for evil,”[13] or “the justification of a deity’s justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil.”[14] There is no space to describe all ideas of theodicy here, but five practical challenges when we consider suffering and God are noted: (1) a suspicion about God’s omnipotence; (2) a suspicion about God’s sovereign control of the future; (3) a suspicion about God’s goodness; (4) a suspicion about God’s love and presence with us; and (5) a total rejection of the idea of evil and suffering. People surrounding us might conclude that “if there is a good god, there should be no evil. But in reality there is evil in this world, so that a god who is both good and powerful cannot exist.” It is easy for them to miss the great teaching of suffering and thus develop a very myopic understanding of the gospel. All Christians are required to develop a biblically-sound understanding of each aspect of God’s character through sincere study of the whole Bible, and then live out the word of God.

3. Suffering in Cambodia and her church

Since the first Protestant missionaries with the Church and Missionary Alliance arrived in Cambodia in 1923, the gospel has not been received well. After forty years of work there were just 734 baptized believers in good standing in the Khmer Evangelical Church started by the C&MA. Ellison estimates that there would have been just over two thousand “Christians” in Cambodia just before 1965.[15] In 1965, King Sihanouk expelled all missionaries, and evangelical church leaders were ordered to close their churches when diplomatic relations with the West were terminated. But, in 1970–1975, missionaries were allowed to return to Cambodia with the rise of a pro-American regime. In 1972 the Khmer Evangelical Church held two evangelistic campaigns in Phnom Penh. Dr. Mooneyham of World Vision was the guest speaker, with music provided by the Palermo Brothers and also by the Danibelles. In these two campaigns more than three thousand people made public decisions to accept Christ. Before the war broke out in 1970, there were only three congregations in Phnom Penh.[16] It was recorded that there were ten thousand believers in thirty congregations in Phnom Penh in 1975 when Pol Pot’s regime took control over the country.[17]

Cambodia experienced a notorious massacre during the Pol Pot regime (1975–1979). Today, many tourists pay a visit to both S-21, a former torture center converted from a high school in Phnom Penh, and the killing fields across Cambodia, as well as the Angkor Wat complex, a World Heritage site. More than one million lives were lost in less than four years of the Pol Pot regime. These four years were the darkest period in the history of Cambodia. Furthermore, its effects are still fresh and can be observed in daily life. Almost every household lost loved ones in that period. Because of Pol Pot’s systematic elimination of national leaders and intellectuals, poverty and poor education have been major problems in Cambodia since the 1980s.

The situation is improving very slowly and Cambodia has recently escaped from its “poor country” status and joined the “low-income country” category.[18] When the Vietnamese army entered Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979, a few hundred Christians were still alive on that “liberation day.”[19] Ellison provides a list of thirty-three pastors and church leaders and found that twenty-seven of them were martyred or died as part of the policy of enforced starvation. By the end of 1979, eighty percent of Cambodia’s believers had been martyred during the horrors of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. But even after the Killing Fields, difficult situations continued for Cambodian believers. Following the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, the new government persecuted the Church—confiscating Bibles, refusing to allow church meetings, and keeping known Christians under surveillance—until 1990 when the Cambodian Protestant Church was officially recognized by the government. It was reported that there were only about thirty small churches across the country in the early 1990s.[20] The number of believers has grown significantly in the last twenty-five years, and it is now estimated that there are more than 250,000 believers in over two thousand churches.[21]

There are several other occasions besides the Pol Pot period when the Cambodian church suffered. In 1946, after the Second World War, the political vacuum gave rise to the nationalistic movement called the Khmer Issarak Movement, which was an anti-French nationalist movement that quickly split into competing factions. By the time of independence in 1953 all but one of these were incorporated into Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s political structure,[22] but many Christians were persecuted and the first Cambodian Christian was martyred by members of the movement.[23]

Mr. Taing Chhirc was a high rank military officer, a major in the nation’s armed forces, and a strong Christian leader. He was General Secretary of the young Cambodian Evangelical Church. In the summer of 1973, he spoke at the Keswick Convention in England, issuing a challenging call to raise awareness and prayer for his country.[24] On the way back to Cambodia, he stopped in Singapore and talked with the directors of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship at 2 Cluny Road, assembled in Central Council, inviting this mission likewise to follow him into Cambodia where the harvest was great and the laborers all too few. To this pressing invitation to “come over and help us” from a man of Cambodia, the mission directors concluded that God was indeed calling them “to preach the gospel to them.” By early 1974 the first missionaries of an eventual band of five from OMF entered Cambodia, wading into a harvest for which they had not labored but were now privileged to help reap.[25]

A few days after the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, Major Chhirc was standing on the roadside just beyond the city with his colleague Voan and shared the gospel to all the people who were unceasingly pressed on their way to the provinces. Chhirc did not hide his identity but continued boldly to proclaim Christ to his countrymen whom he so dearly loved, and consequently was soon overtaken by a martyr’s death.[26] Just before the fall of Phnom Penh, he had told a missionary friend: “Communists are willing to die for what they believe. Is not Jesus worth more than all these things?”[27] In writing of Bonhoeffer, Ajith Fernando could equally have been referring to Chhirc when he commented, “Many people thought his death was the waste of a great resource for the church. But Bonhoeffer himself remained close to God and knew that his death would only bring him nearer to God.”[28]

4. Qualitative research on suffering in Cambodian Christians’ lives

Qualitative research is an approach that allows us “to examine people’s experiences in detail by using a specific set of research methods such as in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, life histories, etc.”[29] It can thus provide complex textual descriptions of how people experience a given research issue. It provides information about the “human” side of an issue, that is, the often-contradictory behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships of individuals. Qualitative methods are also effective in identifying intangible factors, such as social norms, socioeconomic status, gender roles, ethnicity, and religion, whose role in the research issue may not be readily apparent. It helps us to interpret and better understand the complex reality of a given situation and the implications of quantitative data.[30]

Nowadays, qualitative research methods are used in social science, medicine, and anthropology, among other disciplines.

I have chosen a narrative research method as the suffering that the Cambodian people have faced could be very different from the suffering I have experienced and imagined, and could vary between different Cambodian Christians. In addition, I am curious about their interpretation of their life experiences as Christians. Qualitative research could help us to learn from both their experiences and their perspective on suffering. One question that I was most curious about is how the Pol Pot genocide affects their life. While this is a time-consuming research method that further challenges my linguistic ability of analysis, I have conducted a life story interview with Cambodian Christians using the Khmer language. The whole interview was recorded with the interviewees’ permission. After each interview, the transcripts were typed verbatim. The abstracted stories from my interviews are summarized below.[31] In this paper, the interviewees’ names, ethnicities, and place names are changed or withheld in order to protect their identities.

4.1. Cambodian Christians’ life stories

Story 1 is about a Khmer man in his fifties. When he heard the gospel the first time, he was a teenager in a refugee camp in Thailand. He lost his parents during the Pol Pot era. He went to a refugee camp with his friend when they heard that they might be able to get some means to earn a living; his four brothers and sisters were separated from each other while travelling from Phnom Penh. At the refugee camp, he started attending a church on Sunday and joined a youth-group activity because many people, including his friends, went and many people said that the Christians helped their daily life more than others, including government organizations. After a couple of months, when many people were getting baptized he thought that he could gain some benefits too, so he also got baptized! He looked back to this event later and concluded that he neither had faith in Jesus nor experienced any spiritual transformation.

In the early 1990s, the UN encouraged people in the refugee camps to go back to Cambodia. Finding himself an orphan, he went back to Phnom Penh, was reunited with his brothers and sisters, and stayed with his uncle and aunt. But he and his siblings were not welcomed by his uncle and aunt due to the shortage of food. In addition, he had to work hard to take care of them while studying English to get a better job. His family origins can be traced back to Mainland China—his grandparents migrated from there to Cambodia and his father taught Chinese at a Chinese school. His family followed many gods including those worshipped in Taoism, and anything that provided merit for their lives. After his marriage, he moved to his wife’s province and started to work with a Christian NGO.

Through working with missionaries, he was convinced that Jesus was the only Savior and got baptized a second time, this time after a sincere conversion. Looking back on his life, he said that he did not feel miserable during the Pol Pot time or while he lived in the refugee camp. He said that everyone was in the same situation. Everyone felt equally hungry due to the lack of food. He felt he suffered more after he became a Christian and was baptized a second time than during the Pol Pot era. He was dejected that his good friends left. Their sudden change of attitude towards him and termination of their friendship hurt him very much. His siblings and relatives also discontinued their warm relationships with him. Their reasons were his refusal to join them in drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, etc. They also considered him a traitor to Buddhism. But he has been able to stay with Jesus because he has received much better benefits from Jesus. He mentioned a couple of passages from the Bible that helped him to go through his suffering. For him, the greatest news is that he understands his future destiny (John 14:1–3; Rom 8:31–39; Rev 21:3–4), living with the true God forever with eternal life and the incomparable peace from God. He came to understand God’s purpose in his life and has no more fear of death. It is indeed the good news that he needed in order to live his life at that time.

Story 2 is of a man in his twenties from a minority tribe. His family was not affected during the Pol Pot time. He never heard of anyone being killed by Pol Pot’s soldiers. The first time he heard of Jesus was from his uncle. It scared him because he heard that he would go to hell if he did not believe in Jesus Christ. He and his family believed in many gods, both Buddhist and animistic. Ten years later, he got into trouble when his motorbike was stolen. He was ashamed as he lost face with his family and community. He was helpless and had no more hope to restore his face among them. Suddenly he remembered his uncle sharing that Jesus took his shame on the cross and he could restore him by the power of the cross. He asked his uncle for more teaching on this good news. Later, he got baptized. Since then, he felt no more shame. Moreover, he has an unshakable hope and peace in Jesus, and is always thankful to Jesus for his goodness. He boldly shares the good news with people in his community. When he shares the good news, he is intimidated by others who do not believe in Jesus. But he does not feel lonely at all, rather he gives thanks to the Lord that he belongs to the community of believers.

Story 3 is of another man in his twenties from a minority tribe. His family also had a normal life during the Pol Pot era. The first time he heard of Jesus was when evangelists came to his village seven years ago. One year later, he joined a church conference at a district town, far from his village, because he wanted to see the town. But at the conference he clearly understood that he was a sinner and received Jesus as his Savior. Then, straight afterwards, he started to suffer from an unknown disease, which affected the right side of his whole body, causing numbness and pain. He got medical help from missionaries and stayed in a mission hospital in Phnom Penh for one month. After he became sick, his family repeatedly offered pigs and chickens to the forest gods. But his disease was not healed. He resisted joining their “satanic worship” because he believed Jesus would heal him because he is love. When discharged from hospital, his numbness and pain was almost healed except for the right side of his abdomen. His family was amazed that his disease was healed without any help from their gods, and all of them decided to believe in Jesus as their Savior. He is happy that all his family turned to Christ Jesus and wants to serve him forever.

Story 4 is about a Khmer man in his forties.[32] He was born to a poor family and used to work for the military. It was years ago when he first heard of the salvation Jesus brings—through a Bible school student who came from Phnom Penh to share the good news in his city. After he became a Christian, he resigned from military service and started serving in a church while working as a night guard for an NGO office. He has a beautiful wife and two children. His family faced many challenges, especially in the last decade. First, he had a difficult relationship with his wife, as he was too busy at church and with ministries. Their relationship had become sour and tense. After reducing his time in church and ministries, their relationship improved. Second, shortly after his relationship with his wife improved, he was taking a shower from the well outside his house when a coconut fell and hit his head. He was almost killed, but God saved his life without any after-effects. Later, his wife got a strange illness that lasted many months. Local doctors could not help her so she traveled to a neighboring country a couple of times, but her symptoms did not improve. She ended up unconscious and they rushed her to one of most expensive private hospitals in Phnom Penh without thinking of the medical fee. She was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and slowly improved. Every time she visited the hospital after her discharge, she had to pay an expensive bill, but God provided for them through many miraculous ways. In the same year, his daughter started stumbling and falling down and was later diagnosed with brain tuberculosis. By God’s grace, she received medical treatment and was healed a year later. Very recently his work-place lost its NGO status and came under the government. As a result, his salary was cut by more than half. His family is struggling to make ends meet and send two children to a middle school. But he and his family continue to serve the Lord faithfully.

4.2. Insightful findings from the stories

These interviews show that the experiences of the interviewees vary from person to person, generation to generation, and tribe to tribe. But the life stories generally seem to focus on their faith, probably because the interviewer was a missionary. Although these stories are still in the process of analysis by the author, some prominent findings will be presented here.

There are a couple of key words regarding faith in Christ Jesus, suffering, and how to endure sufferings. First, regarding faith in Christ Jesus, socio-economic, physical, emotional, and/or spiritual crises and sufferings are observed to be a reason for seeking Christ Jesus. Because many communities in Cambodia have a “shame” culture, they took the opportunity to seek the ultimate solution from the Savior rather than from within their community when they faced trouble with their family members, close friends, and/or community. Suffering could prepare one’s heart and mind to look for the Truth.

Second, suffering is not stereotypically linked to the Pol Pot era or refugee experience. To the contrary, relationship issues (which also trigger a seeking after Jesus Christ) were the foremost cause of suffering mentioned. Because of their faith in Christ, they suffered from conflicts in relationships with family, relatives, and close friends. Their friends cut off their friendship. The community ostracized them for being Christians. In addition, many mentioned dealing with the feeling of “loneliness.”

It is interesting to see that the suffering in their lives is related to their faith. It is also surprising that they did not see themselves as being pitiful or poor when they experienced the same situation as others during the Pol Pot era. As outsiders, we tend to feel sorry for the locals when we see their lives are much harder than ours and that they have greater problems. When we are involved in a development project, it would be helpful to get an insider’s perspective in order to avoid giving too much or inappropriate aid, which might lead to dependency. However, this unexpected finding, related to their experiences during the Pol Pot era, might have resulted from the depth (or lack of depth) of the interviewer’s relationship with the interviewees. It is rare in Cambodia for people to share about the suffering they experienced under the Pol Pot regime with someone they do not yet trust, as they might end up getting into trouble, such as becoming the subject of gossip, in the community. Further interviews with a more established relationship with the interviewer will more clearly address this point.

Third, the interviewees shared key Bible truths about enduring suffering by faith. These include their eternal relationship with God, their Lord and Savior; the power of the resurrection; God’s protection; God’s indescribable eternal love; eternal life; a clear destination after death. Their sharing suggests that it could be helpful for them to understand the nature of the Trinitarian God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the theology of suffering, and their belonging to the new community of believers as their community is a shame-based and relationship-oriented culture.

Fourth, it would be impossible to generalize this, yet if the interviewees (e.g. Story 3 and 4) had accepted Jesus Christ as Savior prior to suffering, they could look back on their sufferings as God’s means of strengthening their faith and holiness. (See Section 2.2.3.) Indeed, they have clung, in the midst of sufferings, to God’s faithfulness and goodness by faith and prayers and waited for his glory promised. And after that, they have praised him and shared his greatness with others. On the other hand, those who suffered without knowing Jesus but came to know Jesus later (e.g. Story 2) tended to think that their sufferings drove them to thank God for his good intentions toward them and their family. (See Section 2.2.2.)

Fifth, in view of Cambodian church history (Section 3 and 5.1), the fact that quite a few people came to Christ in Cambodia and in refugee camps has been recognized as a revival. And yet, some apparent conversions might have been insincere as indicated in Story 1. It could be instructive to examine when a rapid increase in the number of Christians takes place under perilous conditions. A careful follow-up study on those who came to Christ in refugee camps would be beneficial, particularly one that focuses on the long-term relationship between revival and trauma.

Lastly, it would to be helpful if more interviews are conducted on people from different backgrounds, such as gender (female or male), ethnicity (Khmer or other minorities), and religion (Folk Buddhism, animism, Islam, or others) and analyzed.

5. Implications for missions and church

5.1. Suffering and church growth

The second century Church Father Tertullian wrote, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”[33] It is a well-known belief among Christians that suffering helps churches grow. We see many examples of this in church history. For example, nobody would have imagined fifty years ago that there would be more than seventy-five million Christians in China today.[34] Cambodia is no exception. According to Cormack, Cambodia experienced two revivals before the early 1980s. The first happened from 1970 to 1975 in Cambodia and the second took place between 1975 and 1981 in the refugee camps.[35] As reported in section 3, there were only three congregations in Phnom Penh before 1970, yet more than three thousand people accepted Christ as a result of the 1972 evangelistic campaigns. More people came to Christ through evangelistic efforts such as those organized by brother Chhirc. Cormack reported:

The year 1973 ended with about one thousand two hundred Christians in Phnom Penh celebrating the Saviour’s birth in their various and sundry meeting places. This represented a near one hundred per cent annual increase from the three hundred souls to be found four years earlier in 1970 … 1974 was going to be an even more abundantly fruitful year than 1973 … By mid-year the church in the capital had increased to upwards of 3,000. A growth rate in those six months alone outstripping the entire growth of the church throughout its fifty year history.[36]

It was also reported that fewer than one thousand Christians survived the genocide during the Pol Pot regime, but many people came to Christ in the refugee camps until the early 1980s.

Looking back on Cambodian church history, we can also see another period of rapid numerical growth in 1990–2010 (Figure 1).[37] From 1996 the Protestant church doubled in size every two years until 2010.[38]

Figure 1: Christians in Cambodia


Estimates indicate that there are now more than 250,000 Protestant Christians in Cambodia in more than two thousand churches. That Cambodia has “the modest two percent annual growth of Christianity from 1910 to 2010 masks the impact of Pol Pot’s genocide in the 1970s.”[39] Cambodia’s Christian growth rate in 2000–2010 was the fastest in South East Asia at 7.28 percent, followed by 4.80 percent in Timor.[40]

Now, the question of whether Tertullian’s phrase could apply to the Cambodian church needs to be asked. Although there are few analyses of the reasons why so many people came to Christ, suffering is one of the key factors which contributed to church growth. Besides the factor of suffering, other factors helped to spur church growth both in 1970–1975 and 1975–1981. First of all, there was the supreme work of the Holy Spirit. It has been suggested that God prepared Cambodia for the next decade’s suffering when the Cambodian church grew just before the Pol Pot regime took over. When they sensed a very ambiguous and unstable political situation, many people sought God. Regarding the 1975–1981 church growth, which took place mainly in refugee camps, suffering and devastating life situations stirred the hearts of many to look for God. But as Cormack honestly shares, “In the context of the dull and uninspiring refugee camps, Christianity was very attractive.”[41] As mentioned by the brother in the first life story (Section 4), his first baptism that took place when he did not have faith was a joyous event at the refugee camp. Cormack writes of the latest church growth that, “the direct correlation between the level of Christian philanthropic aid and church growth cannot be allowed to escape our attention here.”[42] In fact, the church prior to 1993 was a handful of isolated, small, underground groups, but from 1993 onwards, every major denomination, large Christian NGOs, and many missionaries arrived in Cambodia.[43] It was common in the later 1990s that many young people went to the churches where a western missionary worked in order to get free English and/or computer-skill instruction so they could seek a better job.[44]

Another interesting phenomenon could be observed in later part of the first decade of this century. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, the number of new church plants started to decrease after 2008 (Figure 2).[45] Their analysis came up with various reasons, but one strongly-suggested reason is materialism.[46] Cambodia started to enjoy relative peace and a stable society, which promotes more economic activities. As the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shows (Figure 3), Cambodia’s economy has steadily grown since the last coup d’état in 1999.[47] But at the same time, Cambodian people have started losing their interest in Christianity. It leads to the next point related to the prosperity gospel.


Figure 2: The number of newly-planted churches in Cambodia


Figure 3: Gross Domestic Product of Cambodia


5.2. Suffering and the challenge of the prosperity gospel

The “prosperity gospel” is one of the biggest challenges in mission today. The Cape Town Commitment defines it as “the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through financial or material gift.”[48] If we say that we have a right to the blessings, we reject suffering. If we then experience suffering, we face problems in our faith. In the second Cambodian life story, when the brother shares the good news with his fellow villagers, he is often asked, “How much monthly salary can I get if I believe in Jesus?” Literally it means, “What kinds of benefits do I get from the Christian God?” It is a big challenge for him to share the good news with people who want to get tangible, material benefits. As he shared, “They always mocked me when I explain about heaven, eternal life, and the kingdom of God, which are invisible things.”

Prosperity theology is very common in Cambodia where churches or Christian NGOs, which provide a tangible benefit such as financial support for the poor, are very popular in the community. Many people do not come to a church to hear the gospel, but only want to get the immediate, tangible blessings. As a result, it is very hard to share the good news. While there are no statistics, there is a general feeling that many people in Cambodia respond positively toward Christianity, but very few continue to worship God after several years. It surely relates to a lack of discipleship, but the tangible blessings could also be a key factor in this. In rural areas, many people respond to Christianity through experiences of God healing their sicknesses by prayers or contemporary medical services provided by Christian NGOs. It would be an important approach to share the good news with them through healing in this country. The Lausanne Movement rightly deals with the prosperity gospel. In particular, the Akropong Statement is very helpful for us to defend the biblical teaching on suffering.[49]

5.3. Suffering and evangelization

5.3.1. Suffering as a wake-up call to lukewarm Christians

The Bible says suffering is a part of discipleship. But those who come from relatively comfortable countries without tangible persecutions and sufferings may have overlooked the great teaching on suffering in their life. In addition, if affected by the secular worldview which says that comfort and convenience are essential human rights, our perspective on suffering might be skewed. Suffering may have little chance to contribute to our growth in Christ while we try to ignore or view it as a curse to be avoided.

For example, Japan has enjoyed a peaceful society for more than seventy years. Japanese Christians love religious freedom since it means there is no public persecution of their faith. In accordance with the Japanese value of social harmony, many do not proactively seek opportunities to bear witness to their faith in public, as this might upset harmony. As a result, their presence is often that of the “hidden Christian,” as the statistics show the number of Christians is less than 1% of the population. They sneak in and out of church without telling their friends. When they are encouraged to share the gospel, they view themselves as being unworthy to tell the good news. They feel that sharing the gospel brings shame rather than honor. The church and mission societies should address this reality. Interestingly, when faced with unexpected suffering due to natural disasters, Japanese Christians took it as a wake-up call to share the gospel. Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, even though Christians were a bit confused regarding a biblical response to such an unprecedented disaster, they have done much good work in the disaster area.[50] The preparation for suffering is crucial, as is developing a sufficiently deep knowledge of the Bible and a strong, vital prayer life so that we are not surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon us to test us and we don’t conclude that something strange is happening to us (1 Pet 4:12). Christians need to present their understanding of biblical truth to those who are suffering. We must proclaim and teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

5.3.2. Suffering as a threat to gospel workers

Second, failure to develop a theology of suffering could threaten the Christian worker’s life. In most cross-cultural and pastoral settings, Christian workers face numerous challenges, including suffering. If they are unprepared for it and do not understand the meaning of suffering biblically, they cannot survive and often terminate their service prematurely.

John Stott’s classic dictum remains relevant.

The place of suffering in service and of passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be a death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride (by the use of modest methods in reliance on the Holy Spirit), or to racial and national prejudice (by identification with another culture), or to material comfort (by adopting a simple life style). But the servant must suffer if he is to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply.[51]

It is important to recognize that we are tempted by such things as popularity, pride, material comfort, and racial and national prejudice, and that these temptations often challenge us in a difficult and stressful situation and become a stumbling block for the kingdom of God. If dying to these things is suffering, we would like to suffer well. Sunquist rightly sums up, “Mission is from the heart of God, to each context, and it is carried out in suffering in this world for God’s eternal glory.”[52]

5.4. Narrative research as a powerful tool for mission

While interviewing Christians about their life stories, I came to realize that narrative research is a powerful tool for opening up a people’s worldview. That is clearly so when it comes to their perspective on suffering. As noted at the beginning of this study, one’s perspective on suffering is obviously subjective, and it is never easy to understand each person we evangelize or disciple. While it is wonderful to find many books being published on suffering, we cannot apply these studies and findings uncritically to the people in our context. Narrative research provides a strategic tool to help us accomplish our vision and mission. It helps us to practice incarnational ministry—one of our core values. Though it takes time and requires local language proficiency in the case of cross-cultural settings, it is worth doing for God’s glory.

6. Conclusion

It is critical that every Christian understands suffering from a biblically sound perspective and lives out their faith through the difficult situations they face. By God’s grace, the Cambodian church continues to grow through varied sufferings. Narrative research could address the questions of what kind of suffering Cambodian Christians face and how Cambodian Christians recognize their sufferings and keep their faith in Christ Jesus. The battle against the prosperity gospel is right before us. It is necessary not only to defend the gospel apologetically but also to proclaim the whole gospel effectively in our context. If suffering could be our cross, we would like to live out our suffering well. Indeed, if we obey his calling, God will glorify his Name through that cross.

I end with the words from the OMF General Director’s admonition at Urbana 15.

Your talents, your gifts, your profession cannot change the lives of people. That cannot bring hope to the people. It’s only in Jesus. So my encouragement to you is love the Word of God, the Truth will bring change. Love the Word of God. Study the Word of God. And live out the Word of God by your lives because as you live out the Word of God people see that and are attracted to Jesus Christ. That will change people. Let God be using you as a change agent. But in the end it has to be the Truth that brings changes. So let the Word of God be in your life as you study, meditate, and live out the Word.[53]



[1] Daniel McLaughlin and Elisabeth Wickeri, Special Report: Mental Health and Human Rights in Cambodia (New York: Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, 2012), 12, (accessed 9 October 2017).

[2] Oxford Dictionaries 2015, s.v. “Suffering,” (accessed 9 October 2017).

[3] The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, Revised ed., Millard J. Erickson, ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), s.v. “Suffering.”

[4] Kaizen is the famous core value of Toyota. The infamous Toyota Production System (TPS) is a corporative decision-making process which is essential for the success of kaizen.

[5] C. L. Tieszen, “Redefining Persecution,” in Sorrow & Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom, William D. Taylor, Antonia van der Meer, and Reg Reimer, eds. (Pasadena: William Carey, 2012), 43.

[6] Tieszen, “Redefining Persecution,” 43. On the one hand, extensive hostile actions could include beating, torture, isolation, or imprisonment. On the other hand, mildly hostile actions would include ridicule, restriction, certain kinds of harassment, or discrimination.

[7] Timothy Keller surveys these three areas in chapter 2 of Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin Random House, 2013), 35–63.

[8] The author contributed to the content of this module.

[9] Keller, Walking with God, 5–6.

[10] Joni Eareckson Tada, “Theology of Suffering,” recorded 11 February 2009 in Dallas Theological Seminary chapel, (accessed 12 October 2017).

[11] Dan McCartney, Why Does it Have to Hurt?: The Meaning of Christian Suffering (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), 60. Quoted in Keller, Walking with God, 152.

[12] John Piper and Justin Taylor, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 87–89.

[13] The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, s.v. “Theodicy.”

[14] Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), s.v. “Theodicy.”

[15] J. Paul Ellison, A Short History of the Cambodian Evangelical Church known in Cambodia as the Khmer Evangelical Church with Particular Attention Being Given to People Movements and Some Factors Related to Church Growth. Paper presented at Cambodian Christian Services Conference, San Jose, California, 1991.

[16] “Cambodia Profile,” OMF International, (accessed 20 January 2016).

[17] OMF International, Pray for Cambodia (Littleton, CO: OMF International, 2012), 12.

[18] The Minister of Commerce announced that General National Income (GNI) for 2015 would be estimated as US$1096. The definition of Low Income Country according to World Bank is one with GNI in the range of US$1046–1985.

[19] Some sources say that there were 200 Christians. For instance, Veritas College International. (accessed on 12 October 2017).

[20] Interserve New Zealand, “The Cambodian Church,” Go Magazine (Second issue 2012): 18–19, (accessed 12 October 2017).

[21] This number of churches is from Keith Carey, ed., Global Prayer Digest (Pasadena: U.S. Center for World Mission, 2011): 9. Others cite different numbers of churches. Some say there are 750 churches (e.g. OMF International), others mention 5,000 to 7,000 congregations (e.g. Interserve), or 1,224 Protestant churches (e.g. the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report published by U.S. Department of State, (accessed on 28 March 2016). Steve Hyde, in his 2012 report, suggests that the different numbers of churches given would be caused by “different definitions of what a church is or incomplete research”. A nation-wide statistics research by MK2021 is now ongoing. The number of 2,920 churches is registered as of 25 August 2017.

[22] John Tully, A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm, 2006), 119–121; Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Khmer Issarak,” (accessed 25 December 2015).

[23] Don Cormack, Killing Fields Living Fields (Crowborough, UK: MARC 1997), 75–79.

[24] Cormack, Killing Fields, 130–133.

[25] Cormack, Killing Fields, 133.

[26] Cormack, Killing Fields, 169–171.

[27] Cormack, Killing Fields, 326.

[28] Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 178.

[29] M. Hennink, I. Hutter, and A. Bailey, Qualitative Research Methods (London: SAGE, 2011), 8–9.

[30] Natasha Mack, Cynthia Woodsong, Kathleen M. MacQueen, Greg Guest, and Emily Namey, Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector’s Field Guide (Durham, NC: Family Health International, 2005), 1–2, %20-%20A%20Data%20Collector%27s%20Field%20Guide.pdf (accessed 12 October 2017).

[31] In this method, the relationship between interviewer and interviewee is affected by the way the interviewee is interpreted.

[32] His story was published in a different form in Yuzo Imamura, “#Iwitness: Joyful in the Midst of Sufferings: A Life Devoted to Christ in Cambodia,” EMQ (January 2016). (accessed 9 October 2017).

[33] Tertullian, 50.13, quoted in An Expository Commentary. Vol. 3 God and History, Romans 9–11, James Montgomery Boice(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 1323.

[34] Jason Mandryk, Operation World, 7th ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 216.

[35] Cormack, Killing Fields, 371.

[36] Cormack, Killing Fields, 135–136.

[37] Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, “Mission Kampuchea 2021,” unpublished Occasional Report (Cambodia, 2012).

[38] Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, “Mission Kampuchea 2021,” unpublished Occasional Report (Cambodia, 2012). Updated statistics from 2011 onwards are not available yet.

[39] Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2009), 148.

[40] Johnson and Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity, 147, 149.

[41] Cormack, Killing Fields, 317.

[42] Cormack, Killing Fields, 137.

[43] It is interesting to look at the number of missionaries per capita in Cambodia. For East Asia as a whole (excluding China, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam due to lack of information), the average is twenty-five missionaries per one-million people. But Cambodia has thirty missionaries per million people. Yuzo Imamura, “Approach to the Buddhist and Animist in Cambodia,” Unpublished paper presented at OMF Cambodia Training Session, Cambodia, 2007.

[44] Personal Communication with Rev. Sho Sugaya (OMF worker) in 2003.

[45] Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia.

[46] Rev. Heng Cheng (the then General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia), Personal communication with author at the Annual Congress of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, 24 February 2011.

[47] World Bank, “Gross Domestic Product,”!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:KHM&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false (accessed 27 October 2017).

[48] Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment, Part 2, Section IIE, 5, (accessed 9 October 2017).

[49] The full text of this Statement can be found at (accessed 9 October 2017).

[50] “Lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Suggestions for future” [in Japanese.], Disaster Relief Christian Network, (accessed 9 October 2017).

[51] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), 322.

[52] Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), xii.

[53] InterVarsity ISM, “Dec 30 Interview with Patrick and Jennie Fung,” Urbana 15, (15 Jan 2016), (accessed 9 October 2017).

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