Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting in the Assignment of John G. Paton

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“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”[1] These almost immortal words from L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, have become a favorite among historians who want to show the practicality of studying the past. But when it comes to missions, does history have anything to teach us?

Well, if prospective missionaries want to take their task of cultural understanding seriously, then they must also take seriously the “foreign country” of church history. As we examine the lives and thoughts of brothers and sisters in Christ from different times and different cultures, we learn about our own shortcomings and presuppositions. Along the way, the Holy Spirit can use these inspiring figures to shape our ministry today.

This is exactly why we should look at the life of someone like John G. Paton, especially when discussing the concepts of “opportunity,” “desire,” and “gifting.” As we examine Paton’s ministry, we’ll learn that we do not always think the same as our brothers and sisters of the past.[2]

John G. Paton (1827–1904) was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to the New Hebrides Islands, now the Republic of Vanuatu, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of what we know about his ministry comes from his own, creatively titled autobiography: John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides. His story has proved to be one of the most compelling and moving of the last 100 years, inspiring so many with his masterful storytelling and his high view of God amidst the hardships of ministry. Let us now turn to Paton’s own understanding of how he came to this ministry in the New Hebrides and why this different thinking might be helpful for us today.

Opportunity

For Paton, opportunity and desire were closely mingled. His desire to go to the New Hebrides was not random but based on the unique need and opportunity which he saw among the “heathen” as he would call them. Paton’s desire for ministry in general was nothing new; the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland regularly described the need to send missionaries to the New Hebrides. Paton himself had served in the Glasgow City Mission for several years, proving himself to be a capable minister on his home front. At a particular Synod meeting of his denomination, various parish ministers put forth names of potential missionaries to serve in this new venture in the Pacific. Every single young man who was submitted decline. Paton looked at the grim state of this meeting and saw an opportunity before him.[3]

Desire

Paton realized that no one else would step up to do this hard work. This stoked his own desire to go. But at the same time, he was careful to make sure his desire was not just unbridled emotion. He wrote,

“The Lord kept saying within me, ‘Since none better qualified can be got, rise and offer yourself!’. . . But I was dreadfully afraid of mistaking my own emotions for the will of God. So I resolved to make it a subject of close deliberation and prayer for a few days longer, and to look at the proposal from every possible aspect.”[4]

Let us not skip by this too quickly. Even though Paton had great zeal and strong desire to go to the New Hebrides, he immediately responds by wanting to make sure that he wasn’t just letting his emotions get the best of him. Elsewhere, he says that would not leave Glasgow until his ministry affairs there were already taken care of.[5] Though opportunity and desire were present, Paton refused to leave his current ministry in a bind.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Paton didn’t make a choice without speaking to his pastor. After all of his careful considerations, Paton goes to his pastor and tells him about his desire to be a missionary. Paton recounts,

“Oh, how Dr. Bates did rejoice, and even weep for joy, when I called on him, and offered myself for the New Hebrides Mission! I returned to my lodging with a lighter heart than I had for some time enjoyed, feeling that nothing so clears the vision, and lifts up the life, as a decision to move forward in what you know to be entirely the will of the Lord.”[6]

Notice that Paton is confident only after receiving external affirmation, particularly from his pastor whom he trusted.

Gifting

Lastly, we need to speak about Paton’s gifting. Paton himself understood the importance of giftedness for the mission field. In speaking about his preparedness to go to the New Hebrides, Paton primarily looked to his education. He saw the fact that God gave him the ability to be trained in divinity, literature, and medical studies as no small coincidence.[7] Paton knew that all of these would be of exponential use in the New Hebrides, as he and his family would be on their own for medical care. His education also prepared him to do much work in the local language. And, of course, every missionary needs some kind of theological training—formal or otherwise. For Paton, God had clearly used his education to “qualify [him] for the foreign field.”[8]

Conclusion

Do we tend to let our emotions get the best of us when we catch wind of a new ministry opportunity or a new missions practice? If so, Paton will help us rein that emotion in and be slower to say that a particular desire is from God. Do we think that we can serve on the field without preparation or training, whether formal theological education or local church discipleship? Paton shouts to us from the past with a warning that to go to the mission field unprepared is dangerous.

Christians from other cultures can teach us about our shortcomings and help us better think through how to live the Christian life. So too can Christians from other times. So consider the example of our brother John G. Paton. Read his autobiography. How might his life then help us to be better missionaries today?


[1]  L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (New York Review of Books, 2002), 17.

[2] One of the biggest examples of this is the term “calling.. Paton never used “calling” as many Christians use it today. He spoke more in terms of desire.

[3] John Gibson Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides : An Autobiography (Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 86.

[4] Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, 86–87.

[5] Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, 87.

[6] Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, 88.

[7] Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, 87.

[8] Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, 87.

Jared Mays

Jared and his wife, Zoe, are being sent from Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY to serve at a church revitalization in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After they were married, Jared and Zoe moved from East Tennessee to Springfield, MO where they both got degrees in Biblical Counseling at Baptist Bible College. They then moved to Louisville for Jared to study at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Mays, along with their two sons, Knox and Callum, will be moving to Belfast in 2022, where they will be involved at Great Victoria Street Baptist Church, a historic church founded in 1811 in city centre Belfast.

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