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God’s dreamers are always impractical — but in the end, some of their dreams come true.
About seven years ago God gave my husband, Eric, and I the nudge to start a discipleship training college. But the idea was completely impractical. We’d been writing books and speaking for many years and had a well-established ministry, but we certainly didn’t have the resources to purchase an entire college campus. In fact, we didn’t even know of a college campus that was available. We didn’t have a large church or major organization backing us that could help fund large ministry endeavors such as this one. It was just the two of us, and a handful of faithful staff members. We knew that many people around the world were longing for Gospel-centered spiritual training. We felt burdened to answer that call. But we were at a loss when it came to making the vision a reality.
Some advisors told us that our dream of starting a discipleship training college would never become a reality — that we weren’t qualified or well-funded enough to tackle something so big and ambitious. Yet no matter what people told us, we continued to feel a strong conviction that it was His desire to establish a discipleship training ministry through us, where eager Christians would be trained to make an eternal impact for the Gospel all around the world. We had no idea where to start or what the first steps should be. So we began to ask God to infuse us with the childlike faith to believe that what He had called us to, He would equip us for. We took our impractical dreams to Him and asked Him to make them into a reality, by the power of His hand.
What happened over the next several years was truly astounding. As we wrestled in prayer to see the vision become a reality, we watched God miraculously provide a beautiful college campus just minutes from our home. We saw the funding come in, just in the nick of time. We walked through an incredible spiritual battle as the ministry of Ellerslie was being established, and many times it didn’t look like we would ever get it off the ground. And yet, each time we turned to God with simple, childlike faith, He came through — beyond what we could have hoped or imagined. Today, Ellerslie is a thriving ministry that trains hundreds of students each year. It’s not because we started with a wonderful business plan or incredible marketing strategy. It is simply because we came to God with simple, childlike faith and asked Him to build something that we could never have built on our own.
Childlike faith does not come naturally to any of us. It is far easier to come up with our own solutions and strategies than to rest securely in God’s faithfulness and providence. But I have found that the only way to truly experience the miraculous power of God in my life is to come to the place where I have no other choice but to implicitly trust Him. During the times when I can see absolutely no solution and others have told me to give up — that’s when childlike faith matters the most.
One of the women who has most profoundly impacted my life in the area of childlike faith is Gladys Alyward — one of the most effective missionaries this world has ever seen. She chose to trust her God amid impossible circumstances, time and time again. Her story demonstrates what is possible when we simply take God at His Word. As I’ve studied Gladys’ life, there are three qualities that stand out to me about her simple yet powerful trust in God:
Born into a working-class family in 1902, Gladys had very little education and no opportunities to become successful in life. She became a parlormaid at the age of fourteen, with not much hope of ever doing anything else but working a menial job. But at eighteen, she encountered Christ and began to gain a burden for the lost around the world — especially the millions of people in China who had never heard the Gospel. It was completely impractical — even impossible — for a girl like Gladys to become a missionary to China. She didn’t have the resources, training, education, or connections needed to be successful in such a bold venture. Not to mention that China was a worn-torn country full of danger for a single woman. Family, friends, and mission boards told her to put the thought of China out of her mind.
Yet as she sought God, He told her something different. After the mission board rejected her as a missionary to China, Gladys got a job as a housemaid, hoping to earn the money to pay her fare to China. She turned to the Bible for direction, and the book of Nehemiah stood out to her.
She wrote, “As I read the first chapter, I felt very sorry for [Nehemiah] and understood why he wept and mourned when he heard about Jerusalem in its great need and could do nothing about it. He was a sort of butler and had to obey his employer, just like I did. Then I turned to the second chapter. ‘But he did go,’ I exclaimed aloud and got up, a strange elation within me. ‘He went in spite of everything!’
As if someone was in the room, a voice said clearly, ‘Gladys Aylward, is Nehemiah’s God your God?’
‘Yes, of course!’ I replied.
‘Then do what Nehemiah did, and go.’
‘But I am not Nehemiah.’
‘No, but assuredly, I am his God.’
‘That settled everything for me. I believed these were my marching orders. I put my Bible on the bed, beside it my copy of Daily Light, and, at the side of that, all the money I had 2 1/2 d. What a ridiculous little collection it seemed, but I said simply, ‘Oh God, here’s the Bible about which I long to tell others, here’s my Daily Light that every day will give me a new promise, and here is 2 1/2 d. If you want me, I am to China with these’.”
Working tirelessly and saving every penny, over the next year Gladys managed to scrape enough together for a train ticket to China. She was strongly advised not to travel there by train because there was violent fighting along the route and there was no guarantee she would ever get through. Yet she saw beyond all the obstacles because she kept her eyes fixed upon the enormity and faithfulness of her God — just as Nehemiah had done.
The story of her incredible and perilous journey from London to Tientsen could be a book in itself. There were many moments along the way when she barely escaped with her life. But she knew that God had not brought her this far to forsake her now. She continued to look beyond the obstacles, knowing that she would make it to China.
Much like Hudson Taylor who, while sailing to China was nearly shipwrecked on an island of cannibals, declared against all odds that he would reach China by the power of God, Gladys Alyward had the same attitude. Whenever she faced extreme difficulties and seemingly impossible roadblocks, the unbending response of her soul echoed Paul’s when he proclaimed, “None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
When Gladys was on her way to China to fulfill the call of God on her life, the enemy must have known how powerful her ministry would be, because he tried to thwart her before she even arrived. In Russia, she was detained by corrupt government officials. As she sat in a hotel room, thinking about a way to escape, an officer tried to force his way in. Boldly she told him, “You are not coming in here.”
“Why not?” he smirked.
“Because this is my bedroom.”
“I am the master, I can do with you what I wish!”
“Oh no, you cannot. You may not believe in God, but He is here. Touch me and see. Between you and me God has put a barrier. Go!” The man stared at Gladys, shivered, and without another word, turned and left.
Years later, after Gladys had lived and served in the village of Yangchen, Gladys was summoned by the governor to intervene in a riot that had broken out in the men’s prison. When she arrived she found that the convicts were rampaging in the prison courtyard, and several of them had been killed. The soldiers were afraid to intervene. The warden of the prison told her to go into the courtyard and stop the rioting. She responded, “How can I do that?” He replied, “You have been preaching that those who trust in Christ have nothing to fear.” That settled it for her, and she boldly entered the courtyard, asking God for strength and protection.
Incredibly, she single-handedly stopped the bloodshed and commanded the men to return to their cells. They obeyed. She advocated on behalf of the prisoner’s conditions and soon the prison had been completely transformed. The people began to call Gladys “Ai-weh-deh,” which means “Virtuous One.” It was her name from then on. During her many years in China, she accomplished feats that are usually only heard of in fictional action movies or spy novels — often narrowly escaping death with bullet holes riddling her clothes. This small, uneducated woman who simply dared to trust her God possessed more courage than twenty strong men put together.
Imagine having that much confidence in the protection that God promises His children! Not just hoping God will come through for you, but knowing He will. Not cowering in fear when the enemy tries to attack, but rising up in the strength of God and trampling him under our feet.
Only someone who truly believes God to be as big and powerful as He claims to be can walk in that kind of unshakable boldness. When Gladys studied God’s Word, she didn’t analyze or question it, she simply took it as fact and built her life around it. As a result, fear was not able to control her in any situation.
While many Christians succumb to spiritual apathy because of physical weakness, tiredness, and lack of stamina, Gladys Aylward was the opposite. Thought she was not physically strong, she knew that God had called her to perform mighty exploits for His Kingdom and that He would provide every bit of strength and stamina needed for the task. She did not allow her physical weakness to control her decisions. Time and time again, she pushed her body beyond natural limits, relying on the supernatural strength of God to carry her through. Her ministry life was much like Paul’s, marked by “weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:27). Yet she never complained or gave into laxness but continued to rise up on the strength of God, resolving to conquer.
When war broke out in her village, Gladys took over 100 displaced children on a multiple-week journey over mountain passes with no food or provision, in order to get them to a safe location. The journey took such a toll upon her physically that she fell unconscious when it was over, suffering from pneumonia, typhus, and several other serious illnesses. She willingly allowed her body to be spent and broken for the glory of God. And like Paul, she made her physical body her servant in order to victoriously fulfill the call of God upon her life (see 1 Corinthians 9:27).
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Gladys Alyward’s childlike faith in God might seem illogical and impractical to many. And yet, because she dared to trust Him and take Him at His Word, she lived one of the most conquering, victorious lives this world has ever seen. To impact this world for eternity, we don’t need a long list of human qualifications. We simply need an immovable, unshakable, rock-solid faith in our amazing God.
“I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China, I don’t know who it was. It must have been a man, well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing, and God looked down and saw Gladys Aylward and God said, ‘Well, she’s willing.’”
“If God has called you to China or any other place and you are sure in your own heart, let nothing deter you ... remember it is God who has called you and it is the same as when He called Moses or Samuel.”
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