Langdon Gilkey was a young American teacher at Yenching University near Peking. Then, in February 1943, the Japanese invaded mainland China. The Japanese rounded up all the foreigners and put them into an internment camp. Gilkey was sent to this camp.
The camp had once been a Presbyterian mission compound. It was about the size of a large city block. There were Americans, Brits, and Australians. There were married people without children and with children. There were single people too. There were bankers, lawyers, doctors, monks, missionaries, prostitutes, and people from all walks of life in this camp.
The Japanese guards kept the prisoners from escaping. Raw food was delivered, but food preparation, sanitation, housing, law and government were the responsibilities of the prisoners. They had to create teams to cook, to clean, to bake, to build, and everything else. It was a situation like Lord of the Flies, only for adults. Here is the plot: Take a diverse group of 1,500 people, shut them up in close quarters for two and one-half years in an internment camp, feed them barely enough to survive, let them rule themselves, and see what happens.
During the two and a half years that Dr. Gilkey was imprisoned, he kept a journal of the events and his reactions. In 1966, Landon Gilkey wrote a book based on his journal called Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. It contains some incredible observations about human nature, law, politics, government, work, religion, and morality. Here is what Gilkey showed me:
1. People are sinners and instinctively practice wickedness. The unbelieving world wants us to believe that man is getting better and better. They say that with enough education, the eradication of poverty and stopping disease, man will find Utopia. Gilkey entered the camp believing in man’s basic goodness too. But his time in Shantung forced him to believe in the depravity and sin nature of man. Some people refused to work. Others stole. There was sexual immorality. Many prisoners were lazy, immoral, obtuse, difficult, and mean. Some informed and even lied about their fellow prisoners to the Japanese.
The Bible has taught this for millennia. Psalm 53: 3 says: “Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Jeremiah 17:9 says: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…”
2. People of faith were the only ones who were able to cope with the injustice, loss, and pain. Gilkey found that Christians were able to cope with the hardships and live with joy. Gilkey saw how the saving work of Christ transformed the selfish and sinful human nature into a loving, caring persons. Gilkey saw how Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) were demonstrated in the people who lived for Christ. Christians had confidence to face the long-term imprisonment because they walked with God every day.
One of prisoners at Shantung was Eric Liddell. Liddell’s story was featured in the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Movie in 1981. The movie was called Chariots of Fire. After winning a gold medalist in track in the 1924 Summer Olympics
in Paris, Liddell went on to be a misisonary to China. Although Gilkey changed the names of the prisoners in Shantung, it is easy to figure out that Gilkey is talking about Eric Liddell. Gilkey noticed that Liddell’s kindness and unselfishness was unique in this camp. Liddell did not seem to have anxiety or fear as others did. Gilkey attributed Liddell’s Christian faith as the reason for the difference.
Gilkey wrote: "From this we can perhaps now see what the man of real faith is like. He is the the man whose center of security and meaning lies not in his own life but in the power and love of God, a man who has surrendered an overriding concern for himself, so that the only really significant things in his life are the will of God and his neighbor's welfare. Such faith is intimately related to love, for faith is an inward self-surrender, a loss of self-centeredness and concern which transforms a man and frees him to love."
The Bible has been saying for thousands of years what Gilkey observed in Shantung. Nehemiah 8:10: “…for the joy of the LORD is your strength." Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” Romans 6:6 “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin…”
3. People who selfish are defeated and bitter people. Gilkey found that they people -who were self-absorbed and more concerned about themselves felt the imprisonment more acutely. The people who were more concerned about getting their fair-share of the food only did the bare minimum of camp’s work. In Shantung, selfishness compounded unhappiness, loneliness, fears, and so much more. The ones who lived self-centered lives became angry, acrimonious, and intensely unhappy.
Long before Gilkey, the Bible has been teaching this as well. Look at the villains and anti-heroes of the Bible, people like Cain, Saul, Ahab, Manasseh, Judas, and so many others who lived for self and were destroyed. Look at the joyless life of elder brother in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Sons in Luke 15. Philippians 3:19 tells us that this is what happens to inward-focused people: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.” That’s why Jesus told us
4. People who look outward and upward find happiness, contentment, and joy. Gilkey found that the prisoners who served others and put others ahead of themselves coped far better. They found purpose and meaning in helping others, serving others, and honoring God.
Here is the basic teaching of Scripture: When you live for God, you become more grateful, more at peace because you see how God blessed you. When you see other’s struggles and pain, you are more likely to be thankful. When you step outside yourself, you find greater peace, greater joy, and greater purpose. When you live for God and others, your own problems don’t seem so large. When a person loses himself for Christ’s sake, that is when they find themselves. When you get an outward focus, you find real and meaningful life. Proverbs 11:25: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” In Matthew 16:25, our Lord Jesus said: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it.” Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”Romans 8:6 says: “…the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”
5. People who look to political structures for answers will be very disappointed. From his time in Shantung, Gilkey found that no society or political structure can ever solve the world’s problems. It was man’s heart that need to change, not the political system. He wrote: “A man's moral health or unhealth depends primarily on the fundamental character, direction, and loyalty of his self as a whole.” Only when a society has an inward change can it ever change. Only when people seek God can there be any hope of equality, prosperity, and peaceful change for the improvement of the human condition. Gilkey began to see that the only way to change the world was to change the human heart. Gilkey maintained that only God can do that!
The Bible teaches that heart change happens when people surrender their lives to Jesus Christ. In Ezekiel 36:26 , God promises: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
Gilkey’s conclusion on this one is not new either. Our Lord never came to run for political office. In John 18:36 Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” God did not call us to change the political systems. Jesus called us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
6. People who seek God find Him. Gilkey's reflections about the human longing for God and trust in providence are excellent. In Shantung, Gilkey saw people cry out to God in their fear and anguish and find God in their need. Gilkey concluded that humans need the power and providence of God that He offers it to anyone who will receive it by faith.
This is what the Bible has taught for generations too. In Jeremiah 29:11-13:God said to Israel and to anyone who Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek me with all your heart.” Matthew 10:28-30: Romans 10:13: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
7. People who hold to both free will and election are probably right. Gilkey began to see that Calvinism and Arminian are both right on these points of doctrine. His experience made him re-think predestination and free will and agree with both. Gilkey wrote: “… the man of real faith knows he is justified by a grace from beyond himself and never by his own works is the heart of the message of God's love in the New Testament.” He saw how man could do nothing to save himself or redeem himself. But he also saw that man chooses whether to accept God’s grace or not and that salvation is offered to all men.
God’s Word said this long before Gilkey. Ephesians 2:8-9 says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” 1Timothy 2:4, 6 speaks of God in Christ: “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth ...“who gave Himself as a ransom for all men…”
8. People who suffer are people who grow. Gilkey observed the positive benefits of deprivation, imprisonment, injustice, and suffering. After Shantung, Gilkey wrote from life experience, not from the ivory tower of detached academia. He noted that God uses hardship and suffering to mold, melt, teach, and change people.
Long before Gilkey, the Bible teaches the value of suffering. Romans 5:3-5 says: “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” James 1:3 says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” In his personal testimony of 2 Corinthians 12:10, the Apostle Paul wrote: “… for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Here is the crux of what I learned from Gilkey’s book: That God’s word is demonstrated in human experiences. One of the greatest proofs for the Bible is life. The longer I live the more the Bible shows me that it is the truth! That’s why our church publicly and unashamedly holds to the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of teaches the Bible. That’s why we encourage you to read the Bible daily in your personal life. That’s why we teach the Bible week after week in our Bible studies and in our worship services.
Folks, these are the same lessons we are learning during this Covid time. These lessons that should cause us to love God more dearly, follow Him more nearly, and see things more clearly.
I love being your pastor!
Pastor Mark Platt