Stay in China. This inexplicable message came from the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.) to Eric Liddell in late February of 1941.1 He, his pregnant wife Flo, and their young two daughters had just evacuated Xiaochang in the Hubei Province to Tianjin on the northern coast. The Japanese army had wrecked havoc on the countryside. Helpless Chinese peasants lay in their wake. Liddell had seen their corpses and rescued a man laying among them who somehow had survived near decapitation. The Japanese soldiers generally left the foreign missionaries alone, but there was no guarantee of their safety. The world had devolved into chaos.
Surrendered to God
In calmer times, Liddell had chosen to surrender his Olympic career as a gold medal winning runner. He moved to Tianjin, China to teach at a school for missionary kids. A few years later, he and his wife willingly transitioned and moved their family into the countryside of Hubei to reach more Chinese people with the gospel.
Now, Liddell’s hands were tied, but he would not shirk his duty and leave his coworkers and the local believers. Maybe the mission leadership did not understand that events were leading to World War II. Some biographers with 20/20 hindsight severely criticize the L.M.S. for not evacuating their missionaries. However, Liddell knew his family needed to leave China even if he could not. In May of 1941, Flo and their two daughters boarded a Japanese ship to cross the Pacific to safety in Canada. They would never see him again.
During this harrowing time, Liddell had been writing a discipleship book for young believers. Some of what he learned during the upheaval is reflected in his writing:
Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God’s plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins. God’s love is still working. He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out His wonderful plan of love. 2
Liddell then quotes Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” This faith in God’s love and sovereignty would soon be severely tested through a prolonged period of helplessness.
Today, the world seems to be whirling out of control. Never before in my lifetime have I faced such helplessness. The virus, the world’s response to the virus, widespread social upheaval, international unrest, war flaring up once again in the Middle East, obvious lies promoted as truth, economic consequences of unwise policies—these all work together to unnerve and disquiet us. Liddell’s words of trust in God can encourage us today.
1. God is not helpless.
We may feel helpless. In fact, we may benefit from the recognition of our own helplessness. When times are good, we can live under the illusion of control. We make a wise plan, and then work that plan out. God provides resources, and we achieve our objectives. Our lives are steady and comfortably predictable. We take for granted God’s sovereign provision and do not see the pitfalls His hand graciously guides us around. Then, when all goes to pot, we see what God saw all along—the dangers, the uncertainty, and the helplessness. God was not helpless when we felt in control, and He is not helpless when we realize we are not in control.
2. God’s love is still working.
We may feel unloved, especially when life does not go our way … for a very long time. We may ask, “Where is God? Doesn’t God care?” He does, and His love is still working. God knows what is best for us. He uses wrecked plans and unmet expectations to mold us and change us—to turn our eyes to His purposes.
3. God will win the victory.
We may feel like failure is inevitable. God may be refocusing us to overcome in areas that matter most, rather than succeed in areas that are inconsequential to His purposes in this world. If we brood about the economy, politics or pandemic restrictions, we may have our eyes on the wrong target. We need to look to God. Adding his own thoughts in the ellipses, Liddell quotes 1 John 5:4: “This is the victory that overcomes the world, [the world of disaster] even our faith.”3 Yes, this world is a world of disaster. It always is. But do we trust a sovereign God in a world of disaster? God will win the victory, but do we have our eyes on the right battle?
God Shining Through Our Helplessness
What Liddell said in the run up to World War II still rings true today:
Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God’s plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins. God’s love is still working. He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out His wonderful plan of love.
Circumstances did appear to wreck Liddell’s life. Not long after his family arrived in Canada, Liddell found himself imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. In the literal ruins of that camp, God’s love shined through Liddell to the boys and girls and men and women he served. God took the calamity of the Japanese invasion and used it victoriously in Liddell’s life. Those who suffered with him there never forgot his testimony.
How is God shining through your testimony in these days of upheaval? How is the recognition of your helplessness increasing your trust and dependence on God?
Read more of Liddell’s stirring testimony in my book, Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises. Two chapters are devoted to Liddell’s time in the Japanese internment camp and how God used his influence there that reached beyond that camp and into Japan itself.
1 The official instructions from the mission read, “The present situation does not warrant any general withdrawal of the L.M.S. missionaries from North China. We should aim at maintaining the work until conditions render this impossible.” David McCasland, Eric Liddell: Pure Gold (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 2001), 225.
2 Eric Liddell, The Disciplines of the Christian Life (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1985), 121–122.
3 Liddell, 121–122.
Photo: Rolfmueller CC license.
Dr. Conrad serves in urban Asia. He, his wife, and their four children squeeze into a 700 square-foot apartment where he seizes rare moments of quiet to write amidst homeschooling, a cacophony of musical instruments, and the steady stream of visitors they so enjoy having in their home. He enjoys birding, board games, and basketball. He is the author of Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises.