Nations Media is built around four core values: Advocacy, Beauty, Life-Risk, and Reformation. These values shape the skeleton of every story we tell, animating each with form and forward movement. In this series, four essays will consider each pillar through a narrative lens. (Read previous essays here, here, and here.) In this next installment, Thaddeus Tague reflects on Life-Risk.
In 1773, Captain James Cook mapped a small chain of islands far off the north-east coast of Australia, which he dubbed the New Hebrides. In 1839, the first missionaries—John Williams and James Harris from the London Missionary Society—set foot on the New Hebrides. Within minutes of stepping out of the boat, they were killed, skinned, and eaten by cannibals.
A fellow missionary would write, “Thus were the New Hebrides baptized with the blood of martyrs, and Christ thereby told the whole Christian world that he claimed these islands as His own.”
The author of that quote, John G. Paton, would go to those exact islands at the age of 33 in order to spread the Gospel. From an early age, Paton felt an insistent prompting of the Spirit, and later a un-ignorable calling to go and make disciples. Paton spent his educational years setting up the foundational pillars of relationship with Christ so that when he traveled abroad, he could better experience, interact with, and lean on the Trinity. He landed on the island of Tanna in New Hebrides twenty years after Williams and Harris were killed.
Within the first year, his young wife and child both died of fever. He continued his missionary work through anguish and despair before being driven off the island four years later by the local people. When he left Tanna, his missionary achievement sparse at best. Yet after a short sabbatical, he returned.
In his biography Paton details how, on a whim, local tribespeople would go to war with each other. Sometimes whole villages would be enslaved or cannibalized. During those times, Paton would endeavor to de-escalate the situation and mediate between opposing chiefs. Most of the time, he would fail and a fatal skirmish would ensue. Time and time again, he cried out to God in frustration and anger.
Paton’s story reflects something we often feel but seldom admit. As we follow Christ, the lack of perceived or concrete change can feel futile. We feel called to walk in step with the Spirit, but ill-equipped by our own nature to do so. Christ tells us that his death on the cross gives us a regenerated heart, but how exactly does that help us transform into his image? How did Christ’s death help Paton in his moments of greatest weakness?
“We feel called to walk in step with the Spirit, but ill-equipped by our own nature to do so.”
Christ’s death and resurrection is the catalyst-of-catalysts. It makes available to every human the opportunity to be transformed. Paton experienced a slow and painful transformation thousands of miles away from home because he postured himself to hear the voice of the Spirit in his life. Changing posture is a physical act of shifting. Indeed, when we map backward from transformation, a posture of surrender seems a dependable instigator of more visceral manifestations of the fruits of the Spirit.
Paton’s missionary work was rife with setbacks. Even years into his second trip, amidst being welcomed by a few local tribes, he faced rejection and persecution at the hands of what was a complex and ingrained culture of island warfare. It would take generations for others to recognize the impact of his ministry on the chain of islands he called home.
“When we map backward from transformation, a posture of surrender seems a dependable instigator of more visceral manifestations of the fruits of the Spirit.“
Not everyone can be a missionary, but everyone can give up their life and their worldly identity to follow Christ. This is what Nations calls Life-Risk. The story of John Paton is not necessarily a call to missions work. It is, however, a call to give up whatever you hold dear for something more valuable. Life-Risk is not anti-fun or puritanical; it is an invitation to a higher, better good: placing the calling of Christ above any individual goal, endeavor, or pursuit.
In the synoptic gospels, the most noteworthy command to “go” is during the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). But prior to that is an ancillary command to come to a place where Jesus ascends. Jesus invites his disciples to participate in an event that precedes the transformative acts. “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go” (Matthew 28:16). Before we move outwardly to act, we are invited into a sacred space to be filled up with Jesus’ love.
Paton went on to transcribe the language of the island, teach the inhabitants to read (amongst many other things), and translate the Bible into their own language. When British elite argued that “heathens” and “aborigines” were sub-human, incapable of conversion or civilization, Paton refuted this dehumanization with anthropological data and biblical truth. He recalled how, within the space of a few years, he saw the message of Jesus Christ transform lives. The people of the villages he ministered to were so impassioned after hearing the good news that they themselves served as missionaries to other tribes, extending the message that had set them free.
Paton’s work not only spread the kingdom of Heaven but also helped correct the narrative that had, for so long, pervasively demeaned non-Western islanders. He showed his community in New Hebrides and rest of the world that God wishes none should perish but that all should inherit eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). Today, over 85 percent of the New Hebrides island chain identifies as Christian. He saved lives, enriched a whole indigenous group, brought light to darkness, and hardly anyone has ever heard his name.
“Paton’s work not only spread the kingdom of Heaven but also helped correct the narrative that had, for so long, pervasively demeaned non-Western islanders.”
John Paton’s story is unknown to the larger world, but God knew him intimately. Pursuing transformation often means giving up the pursuit of being known by the world, in favor of knowing God more. Life-Risk is the posture of risking the things you hold dear for Christ. Idols and characteristics not attached to God literally break when you change posture; think of 1 Samuel 5:3, where the Philistine idol’s head and hands broke as a result of being correctly postured in front of the Ark of the Covenant (God’s manifested presence on earth at the time). A posture that doesn’t involve breaking idols or re-orienting your life around Christ is not the posture that will bring about heart transformation.
Nations seeks to advocate for reformers engaged in Life-Risk around the world. These people rarely brag, let alone pause long enough to catch their breath and self-promote. The side effect is that while they are busy transforming themselves and the world around them, their example is untold to the broader church. Nations contributors and supporters risk their life and wellbeing in order to tell the story of those who originally risked everything going about their Father’s business.
“A posture that doesn’t involve breaking idols or re-orienting your life around Christ not the posture that will bring about heart transformation.”
Amidst today’s culture of social media and idolizing constant travel, Life-Risk can sometimes be confused with things it is not. Traveling and experiencing outside cultures is not the goal, it’s a byproduct. In the New Testament, the Greek words for “risk” are translated into phrases such as, “Those who handed the fate of their lives to God” (Greek Berean Literal Bible, Acts 15:26). Life-Risk doesn’t always mean risking your physical well-being (though it can, and many times does). Instead, it means risking what constitutes your life. It asks you to risk your identity and what you hold dear for the sake of following Christ in action.
Choosing to subjugate our lives to God allows once-strong vice grips on our heart to loosen, and to become peripheral white noise to the voice of God as Christ leads us into a life of transformation.
“Nations contributors and supporters risk their life and wellbeing in order to tell the story of those who originally risked everything going about their Father’s business.”
Fulfilling Jesus’s command to “go” means leaving where you are now. But before you go, make sure to come to the foot of the cross, and center your walk with Christ. While you may come back geographically, you will never return spiritually. True transformation doesn’t reverse itself; a butterfly doesn’t transform back into a caterpillar. Jesus will never un-transform from his state of glory, and neither will we.