I enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies. Usually, someone who was particularly influential in the course of history is worth investigating, if for no other reason than because there seems to be a correlation between magnitude of influence and curious mental or emotional attributes. For some, such as Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs (whose biography I have not read), there is a sort of pop-culture spirit of fascination which expedient biographers seek to cash-in on. For others, there are great depths to be mined, the least of which is the satisfaction of our passing inquiries.
John Piper, in the Legacy of Sovereign Joy, commends the study of the saints:
“God ordains that we gaze on his glory, dimly mirrored in the ministry of his flawed servants. He intends for us to consider their lives and peer through the imperfections of their faith and behold the beauty of their God” (p.17)
For the past few weeks, I have been reading a couple chapters per day of John Paton’s autobiography. Paton, a missionary to the New Hebrides islands (modern day Vanuatu), lived an arduous life. As a young man, he served as a city missionary in Glasgow, working among the poor and desperately sick. However, despite the success of this ministry, he jumped at the opportunity to serve a people that had never before heard the Gospel. So, with his shorty to-be pregnant wife, he set sail for the New Hebrides, unsure of many things but steeled in his trust of God.
After only a few months in his new home, Paton suffered the loss of his wife and newborn child. Alone on a spot of land in the Pacific Ocean, he dug the first graves the islands had ever seen. Among a ruthlessly violent and cannibalistic culture, Paton daily gave his life to the service of God’s Kingdom. Assuming the role of a peacekeeper among the warring tribes, he thrust himself into the middle of conflict after conflict. Trusting that his life was in God’s hands, and as long as he remained alive, God must yet have a purpose for him.
Naturally, the things he taught about the ultimate power and authority of Jehovah were infuriating to those spiritual leaders on the islands, whose viselike authority hinged on the people’s belief in their superstition. Assassination attempts were a regular part of life, and he responded to them in a way that must have been confusing to his would-be attackers:
Next day, a wild Chief followed me about for four hours with his loaded musket, and, though often directed towards me, God restrained his hand. I spoke kindly to him, and attended to my work as if he had not been there, fully persuaded that my God had placed me there, and would protect me till my allotted task was finished. Looking up in unceasing prayer to our dear Lord Jesus, I left all in His hands, and felt immortal till my work was done. Trials of hair-breadth escapes strengthened my faith, and seemed only to nerve me for more to follow; and they did tread swiftly upon each others heels. (p. 87)
It is true that life was difficult for John Paton. However, he may not describe it that way. Today, his words are inspiring and challenging. They remain, over a century later, a gift from God to weary travelers here below. His trust and faith in God’s trustworthiness and faithfulness have been tested and proven true. His passion was serving God by serving people, even if that service demanded the highest price. But our goal should not be to imitate John Paton, who, like us all, was dead in his sins and transgressions prior to the work of God in his life. Instead, let us see a glimmer of the glory of God reflected in the life of his servant. His passion to serve god by serving people was merely a shadow of ultimate service. His willingness to pay the highest price is a reflection of the One who paid the highest price. For as long as we recognize transcendent glory in John Paton’s service to the Kingdom, he remains not only a blessing to the people of the New Hebrides, but – a century later – to us as well.