The Apostle Paul is perhaps the most famous missionary in the history of the church. Among other things, Paul is known for being called to preach the gospel to the gentiles. While desiring to reach his fellow Jews, as expressed in Romans 9, Paul accepts God’s calling and begins a lifelong mission to bring good news to Greece, Asia Minor, and even Rome itself. Paul’s faith and obedience in going where God called him serves as an example of obedience to the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20):
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Following Paul’s example, countless Christians have answered the call to missions worldwide, including a place I have been called to, China. I first felt called to China in the summer of 2017, when I spent two months serving on college campuses in Guangzhou. The fact that so many people in China have never heard the name of Jesus is what drew me there in 2017 and again in 2018. My second stint in China was in the city of Chongqing, where I lived and served as part of a team there for a year. While I was greatly blessed by my experience there, the Lord called me to go from the frontlines of the international mission field into a support role.
All believers are called to remain on the frontlines of the great commission. Many have been used by God to share the gospel in China. However, much like Paul, their presence is not guaranteed nor is it permanent. Paul’s calling never took him to one place for a permanent stay. He was sent to countless cities across the Roman world. Paul knew that where he was sent was not up to him, but rather it was up to God. His epistles are filled with expressions of how much he wishes to return to the churches he left. And yet he remained obedient to the calling the Lord placed on him, joyfully going to the places the Lord sent him.
While Paul wasn’t dealing with a global pandemic, he was prevented from going back for reasons outside of his control. In that light, many Christians who had been called to China found themselves locked out for reasons outside of their control, including COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Some had spent many years in China, but as a result of travel restrictions, they left behind friends, homes, and brothers and sisters in Christ. As a result of this extended absence, many have given up hope of returning to China in the short term and made plans to go to other places. This abrupt departure, from a place they considered home, may be disheartening. However, this sudden change should serve as a reminder for all believers that we are not in control of our own lives. God is.
This is a lesson one of my roommates in China had to learn. A common thing we used to say in my organization is “preparing to go, willing to stay.” Meaning, as believers, we should live our lives as if God is going to send us away from our homes in fulfillment of the great commission. But what happens when the place you are sent to becomes your new home? This is exactly what happened to my friend.
Although he is from the United States, he lived in China for over ten years and has come to view China as his home. Therefore, it was a shocking development for him when he had to leave China, and looks as if he will not be able to return any time soon. This sojourn from what he considered his home taught my friend a whole new meaning to the phrase “preparing to go, willing to stay.” That being, although he was not from China, God was teaching him that he needed to be prepared to be sent from his adopted home.
Although people like my friend are unable to return to China, he is serving elsewhere in Asia. God is still at work. Therefore, in the midst of our separation from our brothers and sisters in China, we can take solace that God’s kingdom continues to grow. Paul yearned to return to visit his fellow believers but he knew there was a moment he would have to leave them to lead their churches without his help. God used Paul to bring his word to the gentiles of the era but the church continued to grow in his absence and after his death. Likewise, many of us may not get to see our Chinese brothers and sisters on this side of heaven again.
When I served the Lord in China our organization’s goal was to prepare our brothers and sisters to lead the church on their own. We expected there would be a moment in which we would be called to move on. Although we didn’t expect that moment to look like this, for many of us, it is here. This is our “Paul moment.”
Matthew Cookson served in the Sichuan region of China from 2018 to 2019. He is fluent in Chinese and passionate about international missions. In addition to international missions, Matt has worked for the Heritage Foundation, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and the Idaho Freedom Foundation. View Full Bio
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