THE COURAGE OF JOHN G. PATON
a study in communion with God
Our annual North American Baptist Missions Conference will take place in several NAB area churches February 24-26. It is a special time every year to hear of the work of the Spirit of God in distant places. The life of John Paton is particularly stirring in fanning the flame of our love for the spread of the gospel. In our church library there are two books giving the account of the life of John Paton, missionary to the New Hebrides Islands in the late 1800's. One book is Paton's autobiography entitled John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides. A second book contains short biographies of Paton, William Tyndale, and Adoniram Judson entitled Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations, by John Piper.
John G. Paton (1824-1907) was a missionary to the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific. The New Hebrides, a chain of some 80 islands, gained independence from Britain and France in 1980 and today is known as Vanuatu, with a population of about 190,000. The life of John Paton is a study in courage.
In 1839, 19 years before Paton traveled from his homeland of Scotland to the New Hebrides, the very first Christian missionaries landed on the islands. Within minutes after going ashore, John Williams and James Harris were beaten to death and eaten by the natives who lived there. On more than one occasion during his work as a missionary, Paton's life was threatened. He repeatedly displayed the kind of courage that stands in the face of savage cannibals, as the following statement demonstrates: "I assured them that I was not afraid to die, for at death my Savior would take me to be with Himself in heaven and to be far happier than I had ever been on Earth. I then lifted up my hands and eyes to the heavens, and prayed aloud for Jesus either to protect me or to take me home to glory as He saw to be for the best."
Not only did Paton face the constant threat of death, but four months after beginning his work in the New Hebrides, his wife, Mary, died suddenly and very soon after her death their newborn son, Peter Robert, also died. Paton dug their graves with his own hands and buried them next to the house he had built. As he recalled that dreadful experience he writes something that helps us see one of the roots of his uncommon courage.
The ever-merciful Lord sustained me . . . and that spot became my sacred and much frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I labored on for the salvation of the savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers, and deaths. . . . But for Jesus, and the fellowship he vouchsafed [granted] to me there, I would have gone mad and died beside the lonely grave!
It was the sweetness of communion with Christ that gave Paton the unshakable resolve to go on, with determination, in the work God had laid on His heart to do.
There were no doctors on his island and Paton’s records reveal that he was laid low 14 times with the same fever and sickness which claimed his wife. In addition to the sweetness of communion with Jesus, Paton's courage was firmly rooted in a confidence he had in the sovereignty of God. He said, "We felt that God was near, and omnipotent to do what seemed best in His sight." To trust God to do what is best in His sight is the essence of trusting in the wisdom and goodness of the Almighty. We do not hope in some impersonal force in the universe, but in a personal, wise, God whose goodness and mercy pursue us all the days of our lives. We trust Him because His wisdom is infinitely greater than ours and His goodness is infinitely better than our most honorable motives. Paton said:
Whatever trials have befallen me in my earthly pilgrimage, I have never had the trial of doubting that perhaps, after all, Jesus had made some mistake. No! My blessed Lord Jesus makes no mistakes! When we see all His meaning, we shall then understand, what we can only trustingly believe, that all is well - best for us, best for the cause most dear to us, best for the good of others and the glory of God.
Communion with Christ, confidence in the sovereignty of God, and third, Paton was upheld by the pleasure of giving his life for the eternal work of the living God. Near the end of his long life, he wrote:
Let me record my immovable conviction that this is the noblest service in which any human being, can spend or be spent; and that, if God gave me back my life to be lived over again, I would without one quiver of hesitation, lay it on the altar to Christ, that He might use it as before in similar ministries of love, especially amongst those who have never yet heard the Name of Jesus.
This driving passion is not just the rejoicing of missionaries, but of every Christian who is consumed, heart and soul, by the mercy and grace and goodness of God their Father. The life of John G. Paton is a study in courage, the kind of deep-seated resolve everyone needs to live life well. This courage is necessary not only for missionaries, but for folks who are raising children, teaching a Sunday School class, facing surgery, doing the honest thing at work, trusting a wounded heart to a spouse in the spirit of forgiveness, or saying what is true in a world which is hostile to the truth.
Paton's courage did not come from nowhere. It rose like a fountain from the sweetness he experienced in communion with Christ, from a bedrock confidence in God’s holy sovereignty, and from being consumed by the work of Christ in the world. He knew the truth of what Jim Elliot, one of five missionaries martyred in Ecuador in 1956, wrote in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
Standing with you for the sake of the gospel,