Gracia Burnham: Held Captive by God’s Love

Editor’s note: All this month at Revive Our Hearts, we’re celebrating women whose ordinary obedience and everyday faithfulness changed their world for Christ. In fact, our newest book, (Un)remarkable: Ten More Ordinary Women Who Impacted Their World for Christ, was created to do just that. This week on the blog, we’re sharing three chapters from this new digital resource. And that’s not the only thing that’s new . . . each of this week’s blog posts feature audio by the authors! To listen, click the “play” button above! 

May 27, 2001. Gracia Burnham and her husband, Martin, were on a southern island in the Philippines, where they had served as missionaries for seventeen years. They had taken the night off to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Suddenly they heard banging at the door. Before Martin could answer, three men broke down the door and forced the couple at gunpoint from their room and into a waiting speedboat. 

As other hostages filled the boat, the engines powered up, and they pulled away into the darkness. The audacious way the captors yelled out, “Allah akbar” made it clear to the Burnhams that they were dealing with the dreaded Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. Gracia turned to Martin. “We are in big trouble,” she said. 

“Yeah, we are,” he quietly agreed.1

Tearful Surrender

When Gracia read missionary biographies as a child, she gave no thought to becoming one herself. But the stories of Mary Slessor’s bravery and Amy Carmichael’s compassion for prostituted children planted seeds that would eventually cause Gracia to surrender her own plans to God and accept His calling to go to the mission field herself. 

In college she met Martin Burnham, a missionary kid who had grown up in the Philippines. During an annual missions-centered chapel service, she watched Martin act out the life of William Carey, the first modern-era missionary. On another occasion Gracia watched a cast of college students perform the stage version of Elisabeth Elliott’s Through Gates of Splendor, which told the story of five missionaries who were martyred in Ecuador. Gracia later wrote,

I stood up to leave the chapel that day, unable to say a word. Will the Lord ever require me to do what those men did? To go through what they went through? I was stunned. I slowly headed out the door, tears streaming down my face.2

It eventually became clear that not only was the Lord calling both Gracia and Martin to mission work; He was also calling them to life together. What began as a first date, with Gracia in a yellow dress and Martin in cowboy boots, became a family of five and almost two decades of ministry in the Philippines. Martin served as a jungle pilot, while Gracia homeschooled their three children, provided radio flight support, and hosted a constant stream of houseguests.3

It was a busy and fulfilling life—until Martin and Gracia were taken captive. From that moment they were plunged into a year of horror—running through the jungle, drinking dirty river water, and simply trying to stay alive. 

Crying in Captivity 

As the sun went down on their first few days of captivity, one of the hostages asked Martin to pray for the group:

“Lord, all of this doesn’t surprise you,” he began in a calming voice as we all bowed our heads. “You know where we are, even though we don’t. We know that people are worried about us. But you hold us in your hands. Give us the grace to go through this trial. We’re depending on you. Amen.”4

That prayer became a battle cry as week after week passed, bringing no hope of release. Gracia found her mental state beginning to deteriorate: “It was like I could hear Satan laughing at me, saying, ‘You trust in the Lord—but you’re still here.’”5

She had not entirely given up her faith, she told Martin, but she could not believe the part about God loving her. “‘It seems to me that either you believe it all, or else you don’t believe at all,’ Martin replied.”6 Soon she realized she had a choice: she could give in to resentment or choose to believe that what God’s Word said was true: 

This was a turning point for me. It was as if God were saying to me, “If you’re going to believe that I died for you, why not believe that I love you? Why don’t you let me put my arms around you and love you?” And I did. I simply gave in and handed all my pain and anger over to the Lord right then and there.

She spent more and more time singing to the Lord. “How Great Thou Art” became a favorite hymn to cry out in the jungle under the open sky. “Maybe,” Martin told her, “God has us here just to praise him in this very dark place.”7

A Violent Goodbye

Over a year had passed since their abduction. On the afternoon of June 7, 2002, as they watched the rain move in, Martin said to her:

“I really don’t know why this has happened to us. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Psalm 100—what it says about serving the Lord with gladness. This may not seem much like serving the Lord, but that’s what we’re doing, you know. We may not leave this jungle alive, but we can leave this world serving the Lord ‘with gladness’; we can ‘come before his presence with singing’ [Psalm 100:2 kjv].”8

They decided to lie down for a nap, but just as they closed their eyes, “a fearsome barrage of gunfire cut loose from the crest of the hill.” After sixteen previous battles, Gracia’s instincts told her what to do: drop immediately. Before she hit the ground, she felt a bullet slam through her right leg.9 She slid down a steep hill, resting beside Martin. She looked over and saw he was bleeding from his chest. 

The battle raged. The pain in my leg was not as severe as the terror in my heart. I forced myself to keep lying still. Several minutes passed. Then without warning I felt Martin’s body become heavy. . . . The man I loved more than anyone in the world was gone.10

Living in God’s Embrace

After Gracia was rescued, before she could leave the Philippines and return to her children, she was moved into the embassy in Manila. One morning, she found a Bible on the nightstand and began to pray: 

Oh, Lord, thank you so much for my getting out. . . . Thank you for the joy of having your Word in my hands once again. Please go with me through these next difficult days, and make my life a blessing.11

Gracia returned home under a national spotlight. In the years since her captivity, she has become an author, speaker, and “Lola” to her grandchildren.12 In all areas of her life she has resolved “to keep living in the embrace of God’s gladness and love for as long as He gives me breath.”13 She carries the message of Psalm 100:2, words she and Martin focused on in his final days, words which model to the world how to praise God—even in a very dark place.

Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!

You may not serve as a missionary. You may never be called to suffer intense persecution for the cause of Christ. Your name may never be known outside the walls of your church or your home. But you can do something remarkable for the cause of Christ. When you give a gift toward our fiscal year-end goal of $828,000, we’ll send you the first volume of (Un)Remarkable: Ten Ordinary Women Who Impacted Their World for Christ as well as an advance digital copy of the all new second volume,(Un)Remarkable: Ten More Ordinary Women Who Impacted Their World for Christ


Gracia Burnham and Dean Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2012), 25. 

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 40.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 67.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 34.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 122.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 122.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 124.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 218.

Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 218.

10 Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 219.

11 Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 228.

12 “About Gracia,” Gracia Burnham (website), accessed March 28, 2023, 

13 Burnham and Merrill, In the Presence of My Enemies, 253.

About the Author

Katie Laitkep

Katie Laitkep

Katie Laitkep was working as a hospital teacher when God called her to join Revive Our Hearts as a staff writer. She serves remotely from Houston, Texas, where God sustains her through saltwater beaches, Scripture, and her local church. Katie's … read more …

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