One of my favorite quotes from Hudson Taylor, the very quotable pioneer missionary to China, is this: “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. Such a mission would require months of risky sea passage, then learning their utterly confounding language, all while facing diseases that might kill you if the people you were devoting your life to didn’t kill you first. On top of all that, to evangelize such a large country, 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. 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.” These three stages of God’s work (impossible—difficult—done) are considered from man’s perspective. However, believers cannot be mere spectators; they must be men and women who live by faith. Living by faith is not a warm, upward thought. Rather, living by faith is action displayed 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, saying he was “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29). Therefore, living by 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 China with the gospel at a time when it was closed, dangerous, and distant was never impossible for God. But who could believe this strongly enough to follow Him there? Apparently, hundreds—even thousands—of men and women could. And whether through a lifetime of faithful ministry or through the witness of an untimely grave, the gospel advanced deep into unreached China. God was moving these followers from the impossible through the difficult. Though these missionaries would plow and plant and reap, they would not see the work completed, because God had a bigger plan far beyond what anyone at the time could think possible. Today there is a vast army of Chinese believers—sixty to eighty million by conservative estimates. And despite the political, religious, ethnic, and geographic barriers in China, the gospel continues to advance—from the teeming coastal cities westward to the walls of the Himalayas and beyond. No great walls and no great armies can stop Christ from building His church. The impossible is now being done all over China.