Monday, June 01, 2020

A most unlikely revival

The following is from the foreword of Greg Beale's little book Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom:

A Most Unlikely Revival

I asked my longtime friend Andrew White to write a foreword. Andrew is a medical doctor and former student of mine from when I taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is an excellent doctor and perceptive theologian. The true story he tells here exemplifies many of the ideas in this book.

My story is thirty-seven years old, yet every time I tell it (which is often), my listeners encourage me to tell it to more people, using mass media. Greg Beale and his wife, Dorinda, have been the most persistent and persuasive listeners. So I am finally putting to pen a personal, historical account of a spiritual revival in 1980 among the Khmer Rouge in a refugee camp at the Thailand/Cambodia border called Sa Kaeo. This story is amazing because a revival was so unlikely for two reasons: (1) The Khmer Rouge (many of whom were converted in the revival) had been vicious murderers in the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. That genocide had a greater percentage of the population killed than in any other genocide in the history of the world. (2) Those who spearheaded the revival were the most unlikely people at best—a murderer, an over-the-hill missionary, and a severely depressed doctor. In spite of these two serious problems, a wonderful revival was clearly authored by God, and it brought him great glory.

In order to set the stage for this true story, I must give you a brief history of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 (the period of time detailed in the award-winning movie The Killing Fields). My main source for this history is from the website Cambodian Tribunal Monitor.1 The Khmer (Cambodian) Rouge (Red), otherwise known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia in 1975 in the wake of a civil war that ousted Prince Sihanouk. Pol Pot wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society not unlike communist China. People were not allowed to leave their rural cooperatives, and if three or more people gathered together in unapproved conversation, they risked being charged as enemies of the state and executed. Others worked twelve hours a day, and many died from inadequate rest, starvation, and lack of medical services. Cambodian soldiers, military officers, and civil servants under Prince Sihanouk, as well as intellectuals, city residents, and minority groups, were detained, interrogated, imprisoned, tortured, and executed.

Many who escaped execution were members of Prince Sihanouk’s Free Khmer, who fought against the Khmer Rouge. For the most part, the Free Khmer were overpowered by the Khmer Rouge. Many of the Free Khmer fled into neighboring Thailand. When the Vietnamese fought their way into Cambodia to conquer it in 1979, the Khmer Rouge had killed nearly two million of its own people. In the wake of the Vietnamese offensive, the Khmer Rouge, like the Free Khmer, fled into neighboring Thailand. For obvious reasons, the Khmer Rouge and Free Khmer were housed in different refugee camps. One of the Khmer Rouge refugee camps at the Thailand/Cambodia border was Sa Kaoe, where I served as the attending physician on a malaria ward for just two weeks in the spring of 1980. But I am getting ahead of my story.

I was a resident physician in family medicine in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1978 to 1981. My wife and I heard of the genocide in Cambodia at a church service in the winter of 1979, and on our way home from that service, I told my wife that I would really like to help the Free Khmer refugees. That was not possible, however, because I could not be released from my duties as a second-year family medicine resident. My wife and I decided that at least we could pray for the refugees.

When I went to the residency center the following day, I found a remarkable memo in my mailbox. The memo, from the dean of the Medical University of South Carolina, said that in response to the refugee crisis in Cambodia, resident physicians could be released from their duties to serve in Cambodia and that the service would be credited to their diplomas. Additionally, all service provided would be financed by the Southern Baptist Church. I immediately called my wife and told her that I had received a handwritten message from God. I could hardly tell God no to what couldn’t have been a clearer calling. Even though we had a six-month-old son, my wife fully supported my decision to help in this potentially dangerous mission.

In preparation for our departure to Cambodia, a group of Charleston resident physicians and faculty from many different medical disciplines met together regularly to plan our mission and create a strong support group. By the spring of 1980 we had bonded and were ready to fly to Thailand. However, when I stepped off the plane in Thailand, I had a panic attack, which rapidly precipitated a severe depression. I have had a history of severe depressions since the age of ten (seven depressions in all, with the seventh lasting thirteen years). I experience depression as terror, searing mental pain, poor concentration, inaccessible memory, mental exhaustion, a seeming inability to do even the smallest tasks, and a longing for death. Needless to say I could not understand why God allowed me to become so depressed when I had been so excited about my six-week mission to the Cambodians in Thailand.

I was initially assigned to a mission hospital in Thailand, for two weeks, to be initiated into the Thailand culture and local medical practice. Fortunately I found some imipramine (an antidepressant) in the mission pharmacy. Unfortunately it takes four to six weeks for the antidepressant to take effect. So despite the medicine, I remained severely depressed. After two weeks I was transferred back to my mission team at a camp for the Free Khmer. When I arrived at the Free Khmer refugee camp, I found that there were too many physicians for the number of refugees, and I was left with nothing to do. With this new reality, I became even more depressed since I couldn’t understand why God had sent me to Thailand if there was no need for my medical services. After two weeks of doing almost nothing except drowning in my depression, our mission group received a memo from Sa Kaeo, a Khmer Rouge refugee camp in northeastern Thailand. The memo said Sa Kaeo was in need of a physician for a malaria ward, since the attending physician had become ill and had to return to the United States. No one in our mission team wanted the assignment because we were such a cohesive group. I, however, experienced a remarkably clear sense from God that I needed to accept the assignment. I knew that from a mental health perspective, leaving my support group was the worst possible choice, but somehow I knew that God would take care of me. I also knew that God would help me get over my well-founded prejudice against the murderous Khmer Rouge.

When I arrived at the Khmer Rouge refugee camp in Sa Kaeo, I was assigned to a malaria ward. Upon being admitted to the medical ward, most patients were too ill to talk to, apart from their medical history. By the second day, however, most were more attentive. God had impressed upon me that I needed to share the gospel with every patient through an interpreter. I was, however, so depressed that the only thing I could communicate was to ask all the patients whether there was sin in their lives. The response was uniformly yes. Given the recent history of the Khmer Rouge, it is not surprising that so many would recognize their sin. Still, I was amazed at the honesty of 100 percent of my patients, and I then told them that I would bring good news about their sin the next day.

As I made ward rounds the following day, many of the patients had big smiles on their faces. They told me they had not been able to wait to hear the good news from me and so had sought out the ward chaplain. The chaplain was a retired Cambodian Methodist missionary. He had had only a small harvest of faithful believers while he was in Cambodia, but he could speak Cambodian fluently and had translated the biblical book of John into Khmer (Cambodian). The missionary chaplain lacked a charismatic personality, but he clearly loved Jesus and was a channel of the Holy Spirit.

There was only one Khmer Rouge patient on my ward who could read. In Cambodia he had been a vicious leader. Somehow, he had escaped death—the majority of those who could read had been killed because they were considered intellectuals. He was very ill, suffering with the most fatal form of malaria, complicated by bacterial pneumonia. His chest X-ray hung over his bed on a clothesline for easy viewing. During the day when this patient felt stronger (a strength I felt was miraculous, given the severity of his illnesses), he stood up on his cot and read aloud in a strong voice from the beginning to the end of John, over and over again. Periodically he would point to the abnormality on his chest X-ray and tell his fellow patients that God was healing him of the pneumonia. While he read, the Holy Spirit was a palpable reality throughout the ward.

When I made rounds the second day, I very briefly shared the good news to those who were not smiling. I simply told them that Jesus Christ had died for their sins, and if they trusted him, they would be completely forgiven. A full half of them accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. The missionary chaplain had to explain to them in more detail the meaning and necessity of salvation. I was too depressed to do that. Two of my patients died but not before they favorably received the good news of Jesus, the forgiver of their sin and the joy of their salvation.

Also remarkable was that God was rapidly raising up a Khmer Rouge evangelist who had been discipled by our missionary chaplain. He had been a Christian for only three weeks. The evangelist was no Billy Graham, but daily he went to the scores of new house churches in the camp (which were really just shacks). There he evangelized and discipled the Cambodians all day at great risk of martyrdom at the hand of the unconverted Khmer Rouge leaders. Those who were part of the house churches were also at great risk. The Khmer Rouge leaders told the people that if they converted to Christianity, they would have to "lay on the ground" when they returned to Cambodia, a euphemism for digging your own grave. At the end of each day the evangelist was exhausted but was unable to sleep and was visibly trembling from anxiety. Each night I would give him a shot of Valium (a tranquilizer and sleep medicine). Each morning he woke up refreshed and continued his vigorous ministry.

I was at Sa Kaeo for only two weeks but participated in a spiritual revival that ultimately led to the salvation of several thousand Khmer Rouge refugees. I heard some time after I left Sa Kaeo that the new Christian refugees asked the Thailand government to allow them to build a Christian church. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, so the government told the Christian refugees that they could not build a church until there was a Buddhist temple. Seeking the Lord’s guidance, the Christian Khmer Rouge first built a Buddhist temple, which was hardly used, and then a large, thriving Christian church.

As I began this story I recounted the two reasons a revival was so unlikely at Sa Kaeo. First, the converts were among the vilest and most hardened sinners the world has ever known (every bit as evil as the Nazi SS). Second, the leaders of the revival were the least suitable people for participation in a revival. The four leaders of the revival whom God had raised up were (1) a severely depressed doctor (me) of a busy malarial ward who was mentally capable only of sharing the most elementary gospel message; (2) a retired missionary minister who had seen little fruit while serving in Cambodia but knew Cambodian and had translated John; (3) an exhausted, anxious, brand-new Khmer Rouge evangelist; and (4) a rare Khmer Rouge patient who could read and was sick with the most fatal form of malaria, complicated by pneumonia. Nevertheless, he read the Gospel of John over and over again.

These four weak vessels were used by the Lord in an astounding way. During the time I was in Thailand, I had no joy despite the many conversions I witnessed, because I was so depressed. But now I am full of great joy thinking about the way the Lord used weak vessels, including me, in order to maximize his glory. Jesus clearly led this great revival, leaving no doubt that the Holy Spirit was responsible for it.

I continue to have recurrent severe depressions, so I look forward to the day when my feeble mind is completely renewed in the eternal new creation. Even during my deepest depressions, however, I can take some comfort in the way God used me in a Khmer Rouge revival in a refugee camp at the Thailand/Cambodia border in 1980. Over the years I have come to trust God increasingly. If God could use me when I was so severely depressed, how could I not trust him with all other things? God always brings glory to himself, and being a weak vessel is no obstacle to the accomplishment of his will—his good and perfect will.

My life is a testimony that God uses weakness to produce strength and thus accomplish his gracious rule. Indeed, Jesus said to the apostle Paul, "'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore [Paul says] I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses . . . with distresses . . . with calamities, for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9–10). This is the irony of Christian living, upon which this book by my friend and former teacher, Greg Beale, will elaborate.

Andrew A. White, MD, MATS, 2017




  1. So apparently the problem with getting a kindle is how much easier it is to buy books. Just bought this, and then The Book of Leviticus (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) since it was recommended. I'm not even done with the commentary on Matthew yet (which is a huge physical book).

    1. Lol, I think I must have a dozen or more Kindle books I haven't read! :)

    2. I'm about to join you it seems.