One of my favorite quotes from Hudson Taylor, the very quotable pioneer missionary to China is “There are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.” Taylor knew about impossible. Impossible was going to the other side of the world to untold millions who had yet to hear the Gospel even once. To do that would take months of risky sea passage to reach them, then learning their utterly confounding language, while facing diseases that if they didn’t kill you, then the people you were devoting your life to just might. On top of all that, to evangelize such a large country of large extremes, it would take an army of Cross-bearers. Impossible.
The second and third stages—difficult and done—are not reached by Samson-like strength or Job-like patience. Hudson Taylor would be the first to correct such thinking. He said, “All God’s giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.” And, he added, “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to our work is our own imagined strength.” So the three stages are God’s work from man’s perspective: impossible—difficult—done. But the men and women witnessing this tide turn are not spectators or armchair critics—they are men and women of faith. Faith is not a warm, upward thought. Rather faith is action displayed and lived out in the arena of our days to the glory of God and the advance of His Gospel. Paul described his preaching, teaching, travel—and jail trips in between—as hard labor energized by God, “Struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29). Therefore, faith is speaking and writing for the sake of the Gospel. It is working and risking. It is winning and losing. It is going and not always returning. It is asking, seeking, and knocking. It’s what Jesus said “moves mountains.”
Reaching vast China with the Gospel at a time when it was closed, dangerous, and distant, was never impossible for God. But who could believe this enough to follow Him and see Him work? Apparently hundreds—even thousands—could! One of the treasures I “unearthed” during the making of the most recent film in the Dispatches from the Front series, No Regrets, No Retreat, was a pristine, original edition of China Inland Mission’s annual report from 1888. China’s Millions was a year’s compilation of journal entries and reports from Hudson Taylor and his fellow missionaries. The pages recount the baptisms and the beatings, riots and new arrivals. But the most striking page in the book for me was one that resembled a high school yearbook—only older in every way. Row upon sepia-tinted row of pictures of the 100 missionaries who had left for China the previous year.