Obeying and Following God in Missions

Obeying and Following God in Missions header Prov 3 v 5-6

Obedience to God happens in both the big and small decisions in life and certainly, Christians are called to obey Him every day. For some of us, the call to obey God can take the form of obeying Him to go into full-time missions. This may not be a common career move for many pragmatic Singaporeans (and Malaysians). Or, we may think that it is something we seek later on in life, after we have achieved some financial stability or have even retired from work.

So, what prompted our missionary, Esther, to consider becoming a missionary? She shares more about this journey here.

An interest in missions

Going into full-time missions was not an overnight decision for Esther, but rather, took years to clarify. She became interested in missions at about 16 years of age, when she read about William Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Townsend was a young missionary in Guatemala when he developed his conviction that everyone should be able to access and read God’s word in their heart language (the language they love and know best).

Spanish is Guatemala’s official language, but as he went around giving out Spanish Bibles, Townsend noticed that many of the indigenous Guatemalans did not read or speak Spanish. He wondered how he could reach out to them with a language they do not understand. Instead of insisting on Spanish, he began to learn the language they spoke and translated the Bible into their language. Over time, Wycliffe, with its focus on Bible translation, grew from a linguistic training program started by Townsend into the missions organization we know today.

This account stuck with Esther and sparked a determination to commit her life to serve God, but she did not immediately go into full-time missions. Her parents knew of her interest and intentions, but advised her to wait and discern this calling. She was 29 when she finally went into missions! Indeed it could take a while between the call to becoming one.

Discerning the call and preparing for the work

What did she do to prepare in the meantime? Esther shared that she enjoyed reading biographies of missionaries of old to learn how they prepared for the mission field. She also found attending missions conferences (such as the GoForth conferences) helpful. It was at these events that she got to know of different missions organisations, met different missionaries, and was exposed to the various work and ministries being done. She also spoke to a few of GBC’s own missionaries, such as Tony Chan and Yoke Meng, and Lily Pang.

In hindsight, Esther was thankful for this “preparation” phase. It was a time to discern and crystallise her calling and desire. After all those years, she was still interested and convicted about missions, especially in areas where access to literacy or Bible resources are limited. Issues surrounding language and culture preservation or the relevance of language translations in an increasingly globalised world continue to fascinate her. It was not just a youthful passion and desire, like her parents feared.

The period of waiting and working in the secular world helped her to clarify her calling and build skills that could be useful in the field. This process of waiting allowed her passion to be tempered with maturity. She was also determined to be free from debt by the time she goes into full-time missions. After graduating from university, she was under a work bond. She made sure to fulfill her bond and not to have unnecessary financial obligations before she joined a missions organisation. She also knew the time was ripe when her parents were supportive when she spoke to them of her decision. All in God’s good timing!

Before she made the switch, she considered different options, such as going into missions later in life. Perhaps she should build her career first, pad up her retirement fund, and then go into missions after a few decades of working in a corporate setting. After all, there is value in doing missions as an older woman, when she could bring alongside her wisdom and experiences.

On the other hand, being older has limitations too. For example, energy and health concerns could restrict the work she could do. She was also challenged by 2 Chronicles 31:4-5, which spoke of the people of God giving Him their firstfruits. A similar idea is expressed in Proverbs 3:9—“Honour the Lord with your wealth and with the first fruits of all your produce.” What is God calling her to give to Him? Her youth? Her health? Or is she looking to give God what is left over? She decided to offer to God what she had at that time: her prime of life, the best of her energy and time.

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Making the switch

Esther was 29 when she made the switch from a secular job to missions. Some may ask if it was a difficult switch. It definitely meant some changes to her lifestyle. She was comfortable living in Singapore and she enjoyed her single life. It was difficult to give up the comfort that came from working and building up a steady financial pool over the years. Moving into this new role meant expecting a less stable source of income and warranted a change in lifestyle. She also had to change the way she thought about career progression, as the mission field does not really have the conventional model of career progression.

These changes meant she had to think biblically about issues such as managing one’s finances or preparing for retirement. From conversations with older missionaries, she learnt that "retirement" or a withdrawal from the mission field could happen anytime and for various reasons. This made her realise that she could never really know for sure how things will work out. She learnt that it is important to prepare well, and that meant forgoing certain lifestyle indulgences, stewarding her money and savings wisely, saving up for rainy days, and planning for her retirement early on.

Struggles at work

Esther has been with Wycliffe Singapore for seven years now and the work is different from what she imagined it to be. In biographies of missionaries, key triumphs and struggles are highlighted and written as big themes. Daily struggles that are smaller or mundane may not be covered as much in these books. Moreover, the years fly by as only milestone events are highlighted. In real life however, things happen a lot more slowly. Fruit and growth may not be readily apparent. It’s no surprise that Esther sometimes struggles to see progress in her ministry.

The nature of the work is also different from her experiences working in a corporate setting. In her previous job, it was easy to know the expectations of her company and see quantifiable goals in the form of KPIs. In missions, the goals are different. It is a lot more relational, with successes and achievements being harder to measure. The reality of sin in this world and in people’s lives mean that conflict and disappointments arise. It can be challenging to build relationships sincerely and not to be cynical and bitter when faced with disappointments. Missionaries, when they meet, may focus more on discussing their struggles and disappointments.

What are some struggles? There is the tendency to doubt the effectiveness of one’s ministry. Often, it can seem like there is no impact, progress or fruit because of the constant disappointments. Sometimes the people whom Esther has worked with for some time walk away from the faith or convert to another religion. Making comparisons and feeling like an imposter is another struggle. Comparing her work and ministry and its seeming lack of fruit with another missionary’s fruitfulness is an ever-present temptation. This comparison can extend to friends who are not in the mission field, where her peers working in government and corporate jobs appear more accomplished.

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Joys and God’s provisions

Despite these challenges, Esther has experienced joys in the field. She can readily testify to God’s provision through the years. Her needs have always been met and there has never been any lack. In her initial years of being in the field, she felt homesick and alone being in a new place and having to adjust to a new culture.

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But God knew what she needed and faithfully showed her the promise that is in Mark 10:29–30. At situations where she was vulnerable or during challenging moments, God brought the right people at the right time to help and encourage. Disappointments and unhealthy comparisons became less of a persistent struggle as she grew in maturity in her own faith and learnt to discern the illusion of success. Most importantly, she has come to appreciate living out Proverbs 3:5–6 on a daily basis:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

What a privilege it is to lean on God and trust in His timing, His ways, His goals and His desires for His people.