Book Review: “If I Perish” by Esther Ahn Kim (1977)

As I read of the power and reality of the Holy Spirit in Francis Chan’s in Forgotten God (p.62-64), I was reminded of one of the most impactful biographies I’ve ever read. If I Perish is the testimony of Esther Ahn Kim, a woman who prepared herself both spiritually and physically for six-years in a Japanese prison camp during WWII by memorizing countless chapters from Bible and Christian hymns and by eating garbage food or by fasting. The closeness she enjoyed with God left a lasting impression on me, and it was the first time I was challenged to reconsider the idea of across-the-board cessationism (the ceasing of the gifts of the Spirit) which I’d been taught all my life.

Several specific themes stood out to me as I read If I Perish while I was traveling in Asia during the early months of my engagement. I now realize that these themes have left a lasting impact on my thinking all these years (corroborated by the convicting works of other strong believing authors), the mark of a truly excellent book. First was Kim’s habit of seeing God in absolutely everything that she saw, heard, or experienced. Her ability to turn everything in her life into a personally spiritual adjustment was admirable. I can only hope that I would be able to see such truth in the mundane and offensive sides of my own life as Kim did in hers. Second was the extreme presence of the Spirit in Kim’s life. Healings, hearing God’s voice, seeing visions, having prayers answered miraculously, dreaming dreams, raising the dead, praising God for what He does and what He says no matter the response of others—all of these real-life experiences just made Kim’s faith so palpable! These events reminded me so much of the accounts recorded in The Insanity of God or The Heavenly Man, yet without the romanticism that Brother Yun tended to use. Third was Kim’s passion for God’s Word. Throughout the book, denominationalism is absent. All the reader witnesses is the faith of truthful believers who read the Word, memorized it, lived it, trusted it, believed it, and followed it. They followed what the Word says, not simply what they thought it implies, and this emphasis on Truth over Spiritualization reminded me of the lessons taught in David Platt’s Radical.

If I Perish is not a book that simply teaches by example, but one that also convicts and challenges by the doctrines it implies, specifically those surrounding the works of the Spirit. [And be forewarned: I might get a little preachy here.] Since we Americans have never known such persecution as that endured by Kim and her fellow Korean believers, we Fundamentalists must honestly question if we can rightfully and emphatically state from our cushy church pews that our God (the same yesterday, today, and forever) “does not ___ anymore.” Because some denominations have so abused the Holy Spirit, their magic pet, we can certainly state with conviction that God does not behave (and never has behaved) in the way that many world-faith jokers profess (just watch this video from Master’s Seminary Strange Fire Conference to see what I’m talking about). Yet thinking outside our box of Biblical saturation, can we really understand or limit God’s power to work where His Word doesn’t exist?

Jesus Himself told His disciples that with the faith of a mustard seed, they could move mountains. Did that promise expire after thirty, sixty, or even three hundred years? Doubtful, since “without faith, it is impossible to please Him.” If our faith in God’s power has not changed, why would we think that our changeless God’s power (or at least His desire to use that power) has? When evil, godless men destroy the presence of God’s Word inside their borders or their prisons, who are we to say that God’s Spirit would never use supernatural means to speak to His children whom He has sovereignly placed inside such godless places? We who arrogantly argue over our many translations and innumerable copies of the Bible know virtually nothing of what it means to truly hunger and thirst for God’s Word and to cherish ever scrap that we can find, as did Kim and her fellow-prisoners. The thought of their passion for Scripture ignites a fire inside me, to consider how this girl memorized in just a short time more Scripture than any American I’ve ever known. She knew more Bible than most, and she spoke of faith more personally than anyone I’ve ever read.

It’s uncomfortable to believe that the Spirit works in such ways anymore, I admit, because I’ve never heard His voice or had a vision or dreamed a dream—and there’s a reason for that: I’ve been blessed with the grace to hold His Word in my own two hands since infancy! But for everyone like me, can we really deny Kim’s or Yun’s or Ripken’s testimonies? Must we call this woman a “weak Christian who mistook evil spirits for the Spirit of God” when she dreamed her dreams or answered the call on her life? Dare we say “she was either mistaken, insane, or crazy—but certainly not accurate in her accounts”? After reading this biography in the light of God’s Word, I just can’t do that. Because Esther Ahn Kim lived at a time and in circumstances that we (by God’s grace, perhaps) will likely never see, we cannot know how our book-smart faith (an oxymoron, if I’ve ever heard one!) would change for the better when God’s written Word is stripped from our hands, when our whole world turns against us, and when we are faced with the duty of knowing God in Spirit and Truth without the crutches of our commentaries and Bible apps. What truths from God’s Word that we’ve so long ignored would we start accepting when we’re ripped from our La-Z-Boys and forced to live or die for the faith we claim to have?

This was a book of enduring and convicting faith, and even this simple recollection of it has reignited my passion for knowing God more. I hope you feel the same after you read it, which I recommend you must.

©2015 E.T.

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