Leaving it all behind

For many of us, the idea of leaving the comforts of home, friends and family to serve God as a missionary overseas is an idea we find impossible to consider. It stubbornly remains, year after year, in the box labelled ‘Things I’m not ready to trust God with yet’. In this article, Philip Nicholson gives us his candid reflections on what life has been like for him since he took ‘mission work’ out of the box.

I am different. I’m different because I am a missionary. In non-Christian company, I am often regarded as either strange, a misfit, or reprehensible in today’s pluralistic world. Even amongst Christians I am part of a tiny and little-understood minority. The fact that I have made the decision to give up a career and the wonderful lifestyle of Australia marks me as somewhat abnormal.

My decision for mission was made when I was just out of university: young and idealistic, with no financial commitments and a simple desire to be used by God. Along with my wife Irene, I went through the process of theological training, applying to a mission agency, and departing Australia with little understanding of what being a missionary would mean in reality. It wasn’t until our last night in Australia that we looked at each other and burst into tears, the reality of our decision having hit home, but it was too late (and embarrassing) to change our minds when we were expected at the airport the next morning!

I’m not sure that I was more obedient or simply more naïve than my friends who stayed in Australia.

Now—12 years later—we are still in Taiwan, having just returned for our third term of service to share the gospel with Taiwan’s university students. In many ways living here is as difficult as it has ever been. We still miss the beautiful country, our precious family and friends, and the marvelous lifestyle in Australia. Taiwan is not primitive: as we deal with high-rise living, pollution and crowds in a city with 25,000 people per km2, it is hard to think of things we enjoy about the lifestyle here. There is still no cricket or football, and green grass and beaches are a rare luxury. And close living? Our neighbours downstairs complain about flakes falling off their ceiling when our kids jump out of bed!

So why are we still here? Better still, why did we come back—for the third time?

Upon reflection, I realize that although God may have used our ignorance about what we faced to get us on the mission field, it has not been a decision we have regretted in hindsight.

In the Gospel of Mark, Peter questioningly says to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). He has just seen that the rich young ruler is unable to give up his wealth to follow Jesus. Peter now seems to want some reassurance in light of the fact they (the disciples) have left everything behind. Jesus’ response is a good way of answering the question of why Irene and I continue to make the choice to ‘leave it all behind’. It is easy to fear the cost of obedience, or to feel self-pity when we have made a sacrifice. In the early days of our time here it was comforting when people realized how much we had given up!

But Jesus turns our attention away from the costs to the results of leaving. He makes some outstanding promises to Peter and to us. If we took them seriously then we would be clamouring for opportunities to make some sacrifices, and we would be envying our missionaries rather than pitying them.

What does Jesus promise in response to Peter’s need for reassurance?

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

Note that these are promises for anyone who makes sacrifices for his sake and for the gospel. These two really go hand in hand. The gospel is about Jesus, and you can’t really say you are living for him if your priority is not proclaiming that message which brings him glory. Jesus’ promises are for those who make his mission their life.

In this passage, Jesus promises three things. Firstly, a hundredfold return on any losses suffered. I don’t think this is meant to be understood as a literal ‘hundred’ or necessarily a return in kind, that is, 200 new sisters to replace the two I left behind (what sort of promise is that?!).

But nor should we spiritualize it away. Jesus makes this promise for ‘this time’, the here and now. It is real and concrete.

Looking back now, I can begin to appreciate what Jesus is promising. Our lives have been enriched in so many ways through our decision to leave Australia. This is not just in learning more about God and trusting him. It has also been through wonderful relationships with Christians from around the world, and through experiencing the daily encouragements and prayers of many for our family and work. We have seen God provide our needs in so many different ways, so that even though our salary is low we worry less about money now than ever before. Our kids have had the opportunity to grow up bilingual and bicultural. They have been surrounded by godly role models and have had excellent educational opportunities. We have the privilege of doing a job that is frequently challenging, but never boring, futile or meaningless. God has been good to us in many ways.

And that is the point of Jesus’ outrageous promise. He wants us to stop thinking about the cost, and instead see the wealth of God’s grace.

Living with Chinese people, we have learned that we can never out-do them in generosity. We have learned that whenever we visit someone’s home we should take a gift. But in most cases we find ourselves showered with gifts and going home with more than we brought. God is like that. God never owes us. We can never out-give him. Any sacrifice just becomes another excuse for him to bless us in countless surprising ways.

This is not prosperity theology. It is not a foolproof plan to profit from God. Jesus’ second promise makes this clear. God’s blessing is in the context of persecution. Obedience does carry a cost. We don’t escape the normal problems of life in a fallen world. In fact, we add to them as we face opposition in different ways from those who hate the message we bring. We can’t skip the cost if we pay attention to the gospels. But in this passage it seems that Jesus’ focus is on the blessings, and so he passes quickly to the third promise—eternal life.

This is a reminder that Jesus’ words here are not just a comfort to missionaries who feel the cost is too great. They are a challenge and a reminder to all of us: eternal life is for those who have left it all behind for Jesus. This is not an optional extra, but the normal Christian life. The practicalities may be different for each of us, but the principle is the same: eternal life is for those who make the choice to leave everything behind for the sake of Jesus and his gospel. His words are not just a comfort, but also a challenge to our priorities and our loves. Why have we left it all behind and moved to Taiwan? Taiwan is a society steeped in idolatry and superstition. We are here for the sake of God’s glory, which is currently being robbed by countless idols and false gods. We have come for the sake of Taiwan’s people who know fear (of the supernatural, of SARS, of China) but remain ignorant of God. But we have found that coming here is also for our own sakes. It has been an excuse for God to extravagantly bless us, and we would not have had it any other way.

Philip and Irene Nicholson come from Sydney, Australia. They have been in Taiwan since 1992 and are presently the OMF Coordinators for Northern Taiwan. They are involved in university student ministry and leadership training with Campus Evangelical Fellowship.

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