One of my greatest regrets in China ministry is that I did not spend time early on memorizing scripture verses from the Chinese Bible.
I grew up in a North American Christian family, and benefited from a lifetime of Sunday School lessons, sermons, discipleship mentors, and even received advanced theological training. My mind is full of many different bits of scripture, and I routinely draw on those precious phrases in my thought life, my prayers, and my conversations with others. I suspect that in this sense I am not all that different from most of the expats who come to China for expressly ministry-related purposes.
When I first arrived back in 1990, I waded confidently into conversations about the faith, secure in my ability to share advice grounded in scripture with whomever I encountered. While my language skills were still limited, I trusted in the Holy Spirit to help me out. When believers told of their struggles to trust God in their daily lives, I used my best Mandarin to share with them the scripture in my head, specifically the 2 Corinthians 12:9 promise: “My graciousness is just enough.” When believers discussed the impracticality of breaking social norms for the sake of the gospel, I warned them that God was not pleased using Revelation 3:15 “like the Lay-uh dao-si people not-cold not-hot Christians.” When Christians worried about their inability to convert people to faith in Jesus, I reminded them that their job according to 1 Peter 3:15 was to be “good and ready to reply to people’s questions, expressing your faith.”
The lukewarm reactions I received to my encouragements saddened me: this Matthew16:4 “ferocious age” seemed so resistant to the prompting of the Spirit delivered through God’s Word!
It took me several years before I began to realize that the problem was not the lack of spiritual openness or scriptural knowledge of my Chinese brothers and sisters but rather my own biblical illiteracy.
Hours and hours of Chinese language sermons and Bible studies led by local Christians finally helped me realize that regardless of what I thought I was saying, I was not in fact speaking scripture into people’s lives. Paraphrasing my remembered English verses into Chinese through the medium of my middling Mandarin skills was, it turns out, not the best way to share scripture with people. More often than not, I left people confused, wondering what my words of wisdom meant (and I thought I was sharing God’s words of wisdom!).
If I could go back in time, I would put much more energy into memorizing the Chinese versions of those verses and phrases that mean so much to my personal faith. Looking back after all these years, who knows how many more lives might have been reached with God’s Word had I made Chinese scripture memorization a priority? Lest anyone misunderstand, I am talking explicitly about the memorization of texts from the Chinese Union Version (CUV), the heart-language of Mainland Chinese Christianity. When your speech is sprinkled with the terms and phrases of the same Bible that Chinese Christians know and love, your words of encouragement—but also your prayers, your testimony, and especially your theological training—will begin to resonate with Chinese believers in new and exciting ways. Whereas paraphrased translations of remembered scripture often leaves Chinese Christians struggling to enter into your understanding and experience of the faith, facility with the actual language of the CUV does the exact opposite, allowing you to enter into the spiritual lives of the local believers as you speak in the cadences that they themselves treasure.
Today, thanks to my growing familiarity with the CUV text, my conversations tend to be more fruitful, and I am often blessed to see the light of understanding in people’s eyes as they hear the scripture they love applied to their lives. They find great comfort when I remind them that God’s “grace is enough for you to use.” They are spurred to action by the warning to be different from the “Lao-di-jia not even cold, not even hot Christians.” They are encouraged with the knowledge that “when someone asks them the source of the hope that is within their heart” their job is to “just be always prepared to answer each person with a soft and respectful heart.”
Far from being captive to these “evil and sexually promiscuous times,” Chinese believers are rooted in scripture and eager to share their Christian walks with us, if only we will take the effort to learn the Bible they so adore.
The autumn issue of ChinaSource Quarterly will focus on the Chinese Bible, exploring its history, both in the Protestant and Catholic churches, the staying power through the years of the Union Version, and the question of availability to Chinese believers. If you aren’t a regular reader of the Quarterly, you can subscribe here to be notified by email or by RSS when it’s published.
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