Pray to God and Ply your Paddle!
John Paton was a missionary to the New Hebrides in the late 1800s. His first station was on the island of Tanna. During his five years on the island he lost his wife and newborn child, his health was frequently broken by tropical diseases, and his life was under almost constant threat from cannibals who did not receive this white man and his “Worship.” In the face of this difficulty and danger, Paton was nevertheless able to erect a church and school, translate large portions of the Bible into Tannese, and see “a small harvest” of the natives come to worship “Jehovah Jesus.”
Following the death of a sympathetic chief who had been his protector, Paton’s property was destroyed and his life endangered as a young chief turned the tribes on the island against him. Being “by conviction a strong Calvinist but not a Fatalist” (one of my favorite lines in the book!) Paton saw that “escape for life was now the only path of duty.” He and three co-workers slipped away in a small canoe trying make it to a missionary station on a nearby island. Here is his account of their journey:
For a mile or more we got away nicely under the lee of the island, but when we turned to go south for Mr. Mathieson’s station, we met the full force of the wind and sea, every wave breaking over and almost swamping our canoe. The native lad at the helm paddle stood up crying, “Missi, this is the conduct of the sea! It swallows up all who seek its help!” I answered, “We do not seek help from it, but from Jehovah Jesus.” Our danger became very great, as the sea broke over and lashed around us. My faithful natives, overcome with terror, threw down their paddles and said, “Missi, we are all drowned now! We are food for the sharks. We might as well be eaten by Tannese as by fishes!” I seized the paddle nearest me and order the others to do the same. I cried, “Stand to your post! Where is now your faith in Jesus? Remember, He is Ruler on sea as on land. Abraham, pray and ply your paddle! Keep up stroke for stroke with me, as our lives depend on it. Our God can protect us. Don’t look round on the sea and fear. Let us pray to God and ply our paddles, and He will save us yet!”
What a powerful illustration of the way God works to accomplish His purposes in, for, and through His people! Perhaps you have heard questions like: do I have to pray, or will God accomplish what He has purposed? Do I have to evangelize, or will God save those He has chosen? Do I have to think, or will God give me understanding? And to those we could now add, “do I have to paddle, or will God save us? Should I paddle or pray?”
The biblical answer, so beautifully illustrated by Paton’s exhortation to his canoe-full of a congregation, is both! We pray to God. We ply our paddle! And we trust in Him to save us! We give everything we have (such that when they landed, Paton described “our skin sticking to our paddles”), and we give it in the confidence that our efforts count for nought unless God saves us! This means there is no tension between praying and paddling! Praying (trusting in God) does not remove the importance of paddling. Paddling (exerting human effort) does not argue against the importance of praying! We work, and God works, and ultimately the reason our paddling lands us safely home is that God has saved us!
This is the mental image I want to take into my intercession, my evangelism, my missions, my preaching, and even my parenting. I must pick up my paddle “as my life depended on it.” But my work is soaked in prayer and surrendered to the hope that God will save us! What a beautiful illustration of this biblical truth you have given us John Paton, and that in your most desperate hour! “Pray to God and ply your paddle! God will save us yet!”
You can read more of this encouraging autobiography, including the incredible harvest that later came to Tanna as a result of Paton’s ministry, here.