A Prisoner, No Longer

By Gracia Burnham

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I know what it is like to not be free. And I didn’t like it. My husband, Martin Burnham, and I were missionaries in the Philippines. Martin was a jungle pilot, and we loved our ministry there. Martin was no ordinary pilot; he was born to fly in the jungle. He could put a loaded Cessna down on a short jungle mountain strip just where he needed to and get it stopped in the next few hundred feet. He did that daily, over and over, for 15 years, taking cargo into the mountains and doing medical evacuations.

In May of 2001, we were awakened early in the morning to loud pounding on our door. Moments later, three men armed with M-16 rifles broke down the door to kidnap us.

The masked men were Abu Sayyaf, a militant Muslim terrorist group with ties to Al-Quaeda and Osama bin Laden. My husband and I were forced from our room and taken many miles across the open sea to the Muslim stronghold of Basilan. For more than a year, we were constantly on the move, living in primitive conditions in the jungle, evading capture from the Philippine military, and enduring gun battles—all under the total control of our captors.

Soon after the events of September 11th, the news media took a greater interest in our plight, and began keeping our story in the national headlines. As a result, millions of people around the globe began praying for our safe release.

On the afternoon of June 7, 2002, over a year since our abduction, the bullets erupted once more. Tragically, Martin was killed during the gunfight. I was rescued and returned home under a national spotlight.

During the time of my recovery, I wrote In the Presence of My Enemies. This personal testimony of our account in the jungle landed on the New York Times Bestseller list. I have since written a second book, To Fly Again.

I now travel throughout the country, sharing the spiritual lessons I learned during my captivity and about how God has blessed me and my family since Martin’s death.

One Kingdom asked me to talk about my ideas on freedom in this issue of their newsletter.

I commented that sometimes you don’t really appreciate your freedom until it is taken away from you. I recalled how at Easter time—almost a year into our captivity—someone paid a ransom for Martin and me. 

You can imagine our excitement when some of the money came into the camp. This was it!  It is what we had been waiting for!  We could all go home!

The leaders of the Abu Sayyaf all gathered around and had a meeting. Then they called Martin and me to come and sit on the ground with them. They said, “Someone has paid a ransom for you, but we’ve decided that it’s not enough. We are going to ask for more.”

I begged them not to do that. I said, “We are sick of this. You are sick of this! Just take the money and let’s all go home.” But they hardened their hearts, because they were greedy, so they demanded more money.

You can imagine how defeated we felt that night as we laid down on the jungle floor to try and get some sleep. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, Martin nudged me and said, “Gracia. I’m so glad that when Jesus paid a ransom for us, it was enough. Christ’s death­—his payment—for us was sufficient. It satisfied God, and there is nothing charged against us anymore. There doesn’t need to be any more sacrifice for sin, because Jesus paid it all! It is finished. It’s done”

Those words encouraged me so much. I think sometimes we just need to be reminded of a few things, because we forget easily! We have been given freedom because of what Jesus did for us! I guess I needed lots of reminders in the jungle. And God often used Martin to deliver those reminders. 

I would be so mad at those guys that I would say unbelievably hateful things about them. Anger was always right below the surface. It was shocking, really, to see my heart for what it was. 

Martin saw how much I was struggling and began to gently point my sin out to me. And when I got a good look at myself—and saw the awfulness of what was happening to me—I cried out to God, “God, I don’t want to be this way. But I hate these guys. I want to be characterized by love, and joy, and peace. Not hate, and depression, and being hard to get along with. Can you help me? Can you free me from this hatred and anger? Sometimes I think we are in such a bad way—such a mess—that we think not even God can fix us.”

One day there was a huge mountain ahead of us that we had to climb. I was carrying a heavy load that day and struggling again with hatred toward my enemies. As we started up the mountain, these words from the Scriptures hit me:

Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.  Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

It was suddenly so clear to me. The weight that I needed to set aside wasn’t the extra weight in my backpack that they were making me carry that day. It was the weight of the sin of hatred and unforgiveness that I wasn’t willing to give up.

“Let us lay aside every weight,” I said. Just lay it down. Decide you are not carrying that hatred any more. Give it up.” And I kept talking this through in my mind: “And once the weight is gone, run with patience the race set before you.  Today, the race before me is getting to the top of that mountain. Do it one step at a time with patience. And when you think you can’t take one more step, look to Jesus. Because Jesus can sympathize, Gracia. He knows how you feel today.” One day, Jesus carried a heavy load up a hill for me.

God changed me in the jungle. I found freedom from a good many things as He worked in my heart. I love those verses in Galatians 5 about our freedom. “We have freedom now, because Christ made us free. So stand strong in that freedom.  Don’t go back into slavery again.”

It would be ridiculous for me to go back to being a hostage again, wouldn’t it?  I have never once said, “I wish I was back in the jungle with the Abu Sayyaf.”

Paul was reminding the Galatians that God chose them to be free—so use your freedom to serve one another. Live the way the Spirit leads you.

After Martin’s death and my recovery, God prompted me to serve my enemies. I found some of the guys who held us captive in a maximum security prison in the Philippines. I have been able to bless them through an American couple that works in the prison. So far, four of them have come to know Jesus as their Savior!

Good things happen when you let God change you. My kids are grown now, and by God’s grace, our family has remained committed to the Lord.  

Well, you can’t take ‘the missionary out of the missionary’ so I want to just remind everyone that there are people who aren’t free all around you. They are slaves to sin. They need to hear the Gospel of Jesus so they can experience salvation and enjoy eternity with God.

We have been set free. Let’s share this freedom that we have found with others and the whole world.

Gracia is the mother of Jeff, Mindy, and Zach. She resides in Rose Hill, Kansas and speaks regularly around the country. Her unique story and the captivating way she tells it makes Gracia a popular speaker for churches, conferences, and schools.

If you ask Gracia about life these days, she will say, “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness.”

To learn more about Gracia and her journey, visit her website at: graciaburnham.org