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On the Death of John Allen Chau

John Allen Chau

Suddenly the whole world is talking about Christian missions. In his own way, John Allen Chau has sparked a conversation that now rages within the church and outside of it. I’ve spent the past week gathering my thoughts about his situation, and would like to offer a few points I hope you find helpful.

First, we don’t need to rush to judgment. One of the consequences of this digital world is that it demands immediate responses. News spreads quickly and we are expected to have strong opinions long before we have access to more than the barest facts. Sometimes it seems that the less we know, the stronger we feel and the bolder speak. With a situation like this, we can reserve judgment until the facts become clear. In fact, we should reserve judgment until the facts become clear. We’ve had 150 years to consider John Paton and his perilous mission to the cannibals of the New Hebrides. We’ve had 60 years to consider Jim Elliot and his deadly mission to the jungles of Ecuador. But hours after the news of Chau’s death broke, we were all expected to have and express strong convictions about a man, an island, and a situation none of us had ever heard of. That’s ridiculous and unrealistic. Don’t rush to judgment.

Second, it doesn’t matter a bit what the world thinks about John Allen Chau or Christian missions. As Christians we distinguish between the church and the world, between the people who have come to faith in Christ Jesus and those who have not. We acknowledge that those who have come to faith have renewed (or renewing, at least) minds. It’s like when we become Christians we put on a pair of glasses that progressively allows us to see the world as it really is. We come to see that the world is in peril, that people who die outside of Christ will go on to be eternally separated from God. We come to see that we have an urgent mission to tell others about Christ so they have the opportunity to repent and believe and be saved. Those outside the church will never understand this and, in fact, will despise it, be offended by it, and mock it. In the face of all that, we are to carry out our mission with boldness and confidence. However we think about Chau, we have to ensure we are thinking in biblical rather than worldly ways. We have to ensure our thinking is rooted in the Bible, not in worldliness.

Third, we ought to admire his zeal. Whatever else is true of Chau, it’s clear that he was zealous. He believed strongly in our God-given mission to take the gospel into all the world and believed he was particularly called to take it to these unreached people. He acknowledged the possibility that the mission could cost his life, but even then he was willing to go. His zeal is admirable, especially when so many of us struggle with apathy. I think the Babylon Bee nicely caught this in their headline, “Man Who Has Never Shared Jesus With Anyone Criticizes Slain Missionary’s Lack Of Wisdom.” We ought to admire Chau’s zeal, to repent of our lack of zeal, and to be willing to pay any price to carry out the Great Commission. And on a similar note, we ought to initially be willing to grant a fellow believer the benefit of the doubt, to believe the best about him rather than the worst.

Fourth, zeal is meant to co-exist with wisdom. Where I think a lot of us are uncertain about Chau is whether or not he exercised wisdom in what he did. That is something that is likely to take a lot more time and a lot more information to discern. In the days immediately following his death, people criticized him for unwisely risking the health of the people of North Sentinel Island, but more recently it sounds like he wisely took this into account and had himself inoculated against many illnesses. In the days immediately following his death, he was portrayed as an unwise, reckless adventurer, but more recently it sounds like he wisely exercised a good measure of thoughtfulness and that he really was motivated by a deep love for the people of that remote island. It will take time for us to learn the facts and then to decide whether he went about his mission in a wise or unwise way.

Fifth, we should pray earnestly for God to use this situation for his glory. The deaths of Jim Elliot and his team reverberated around the world and motivated thousands or tens of thousands of men and women to become missionaries. It motivated many more to faithfully support missions. When the story of the deaths of John and Betty Stam was written up in newspapers around the world, God used it to draw people to faith and to call hundreds, perhaps thousands, to missions. God has a long history of using the deaths of missionaries to provoke and inspire greater mission. It seems he often addresses the church’s apathy by allowing some of his faithful, zealous people to make the ultimate sacrifice. I expect the Elliots, Stams, and Chaus of the world consider that more than a fair trade. We ought to pray earnestly that God uses Chau’s death to shock unbelievers into repentance and to shock believers like you and me into greater and deeper obedience. He’s been known to do that.

Let me close with a sweet poem that was written by E.H. Hamilton, a Presbyterian missionary to China, as he reflected on the martyrdom of one of his colleagues, J.W. Vinson, who had been taken captive by bandits and executed by them. “Are you afraid?” they asked, as they threatened his life. “No,” he replied. “If you shoot, I go straight to heaven.” They did, and he did. Here is how his friend commemorated his life and death.

Afraid? Of what?
To feel the spirit’s glad release?
To pass from pain to perfect peace,
The strife and strain of life to cease?
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
Afraid to see the Saviour’s face,
To hear His welcome, and to trace,
The glory gleam from wounds of grace,
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
A flash – a crash – a pierced heart;
Brief darkness – Light – O Heaven’s art!
A wound of His a counterpart!
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
To enter into Heaven’s rest,
And yet to serve the Master blessed?
From service good to service best?
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
To do by death what life could not –
Baptize with blood a stony plot,
Till souls shall blossom from the spot?
Afraid? Of that?

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