Written By Judah Koh, Singapore
When I first started dating the woman who would eventually become my wife, my pragmatic and decisive nature got the better of me, and I declared to her, “I am called to missions, and I will eventually leave; are you? If you’re not, I think we don’t have to explore this relationship further.”
On hindsight, not only was this unromantic, but was actually a rather harsh conversation.
My girlfriend immediately asked me, “What makes you so sure?”
For seven years, I had my heart set on missions, but had never been bothered by such a question. I was always able to rationalize away the need to explain my call. It is a personal call after all, isn’t it? Yet this time round, I had to search deep; I couldn’t say that it was none of her business anymore, since we were dating, and might someday marry.
Thinking back, I remember that my journey towards missions began when I visited a church seven years ago. I was not yet a Christian at the time. I had been reading the Bible for the sake of disproving it, and various friends had invited me to different churches. That Sunday, the preacher of the church I was visiting shared testimonies from different missionaries. Against the logical personality that I prided myself on, I felt my heartstrings tugged by the stories. I did not know it at the time, but that was when I first said “yes” to missions. I was called, period.
Sometime during my exploration of Christianity, I became a Christian myself. That tug on my heart that I experienced became central to my faith journey. As soon as I was baptized, I tried very hard to get involved in my church’s missions. I joined my church’s monthly visits to a neighboring country. I plugged in to longer-term missions and joined the church’s missions committee, eventually taking over leadership of that very committee.
My girlfriend, in the meantime, had arrived at a missional calling in her own journey. When we later got married, she joined my church and helped me run the missions ministry in my church.
Because my faith journey had such a focus on missions from the beginning, I grew frustrated when people did not share my passion for missions. Relying on my own strength, knowledge, and planning skills, I tried to grow my church’s emphasis on missions. I connected with other missions agencies and explored partnership opportunities. I established policies, procedures, systems and structures, all in the name of facilitating missions. I even had a catchy tagline—“Come and be discipled; go and make disciples.”
In short, I saw myself as a savior, one who was responsible for helping others see and catch the heart of missions. In reality, I was being very self-righteous and ambitious. I was running ahead of God. And in running ahead of God, I was actually damaging the work that was already ongoing. My ambitions were causing unhappiness, suspicion, disunity, and grievances: in some corners, people were commenting that “that young punk is up to something new (unrealistic) again.”
For nine years, it felt like I got nothing done. While I never doubted the call to missions, things were difficult and I was beginning to feel frustrated.
But recently, one of the missions organizations I was connected with introduced me to a book, Plum Tree in the Desert. This was a collection of missionary stories. Reading about the successes and failures, the strengths and weaknesses of these missionaries, really encouraged me in my own journey. Here are three particular points I hope to remember as I continue on my path to missions.
1. God’s divine plans surpass human failures
The first story in the book was about a missionary couple who had been repatriated from the country they were serving in—right when their service was beginning to bear fruit. In fact, they were ousted from the country several times. Even at the time of writing, this missionary couple did not have an answer for why these things happened to them.
I wondered how difficult it must have been for the missionaries, to leave when such critical work was happening. I tried to put myself in their shoes—I imagine I would have been frustrated, questioning, doubting, lamenting—all natural responses to such circumstances.
And yet, though the missionaries must have been disappointed at no longer being able to serve in the country, there is a church there now. God has been faithful and carried out His own good work.
So many missionary stories that I had heard in the past focused on the successes—the number of conversions, the building of churches. It was almost as if missionary life was all glamor and success. But here was a story about failure, about disappointment.
It was refreshing to be told that the missionary life—in fact, any Christian life—is costly but a beautiful and worthy privilege. As Christians, we are called to deny ourselves, to surrender, to trust, to lean, to persevere, to take heart, to be settled and anchored in the soul and spirit. Our own strength and plans cannot accomplish anything. But even in our own failures and weaknesses, we can testify that God’s strength and sovereignty endures.
2. Serving God is about Him, not us
Another story in the book was about the wife of a missionary doctor. While the husband was an active and impactful part of the ministry, the wife struggled with her call and purpose. Women were very limited in their roles in the region these missionaries served in, and the wife had to “settle” for homeschooling her children and largely staying at home.
For me, in all those years, the temptation was to think that we were too ordinary, too limited in spiritual power, too few in number . . . What had I actually achieved in those years in the desert, sitting at my kitchen table? But the answer for me is that it doesn’t matter how significant we appear to the world at large, or to ourselves; we are to do what God has called us to do. . . because we never know what spiritual fruit will come, and is still to come, from the friendships we’ve forged and the conversations we’ve had.
Contrary to expectation, the writer arrived at a state of contentment and purpose, knowing full well what it meant to be faithful in all that God has given and purposed for her, all the while striving to only please the Audience of One. I am reminded that God’s definition of greatness cannot be measured by human standards, and what matters most is that I am faithfully serving Him.
3. He works all things for the good of those who love Him
The final story I want to share is about a missionary couple who served a secluded tribe for a very long time without seeing any fruit. They sacrificed their finances and even their health with no result—the husband died from medical conditions at the young age of 44. After this, practically everyone warned the young widow against continuing the work, but she returned anyway.
When she returned, the villagers exclaimed, “You see, she loves us. She came back. The God she loves must be real.”
The missionary’s pain and perseverance birthed beauty and fruit. Like Jim and Elizabeth Elliot’s story, this helped me put things in eternal perspective: God makes all things—including deaths and sufferings—work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
To sum up, these stories from men and women who were willing to give everything for Christ helped me better understand risk and suffering—not that we seek them, but we embrace them as they come, knowing that the Bible has said they would come, and that God will not waste them.
Right now, my wife and I are candidates with a missionary organization. We are enrolled in some of their courses, and are seeking to be discipled and equipped to serve wherever God might send us. We are learning to rethink everything, from career choices to little daily choices, in light of this preparation.
These missionary stories profoundly impacted me because they are so raw and transparent. Yet, in such rawness and transparency I began to see the heart of surrender and trust, and above all, God’s faithfulness that surpasses all deaths and hurts, disappointments and fears. Plum Tree in the Desert amplifies the tug in my heart, and I strongly recommend it to any aspiring missionaries.