I think I first read Rosalind Goforth’s first book, How I Know God Answers Prayer, maybe in my twenties, so about 30 years ago. I don’t remember how many times I have read it since. It is a testimony of how God has answered prayers both small and great in her life through the years, spurred by people’s occasional response that perhaps what seemed an answer to prayer was just a coincidence that would have happened anyway. She wanted to demonstrate through a lifetime of her walk with God that prayer is just a child of God asking her Father for what she needs, and seeing Him answer – not always just the way she originally wanted, but with love and wisdom nonetheless. Of her three books, including Goforth of China (a biography of her husband) and Climbing (a book she was asked to write concerning some of her own experiences and perspectives), Climbing is my favorite, but this book is very good as well.
Since I was reading it this time for Carrie’s Reading to Know Classics Book Club, I tried to view it as others might who have not read it before. For the first time I thought perhaps a little of the effect of what she relates might have been lost by the description of events taken out of context. For instance, when she writes near the end about finding “that the Lord could guide me even in trimming my hat to his glory,” some people might think, “What?” In Climbing, one of the difficulties she underwent was criticism of her dress when she would come home on furlough. There was no Internet, Facebook, or even Wal-Mart in those days to keep up with what was going on in the fashion world back home, and she had no idea what would be stylish or out of style or different from the last time she had been there. It is really ridiculous that people would criticize under such circumstances, but they do. Once when a lady offered to get new outfits for her when she was home, she was relieved, until the lady brought her garments entirely in black, which she evidently thought was appropriate for missionary ladies. Jonathan told her she looked like she was in mourning, but she felt she couldn’t refuse the gifts without causing offense. She didn’t necessarily want to be up-to-the minute in the latest styles (in fact, when Merry Widow hats were in style at one point, she thought they were ridiculous and tried to find a way not to wear them), but she didn’t want to be a distraction, either, as they visited churches and conferences. In that book she relates some of God’s leading and answers to prayer regarding that whole issue, represented here just by the sentences, “I found the Lord could guide me even in trimming my hat to his glory! That is, so that I could stand before an audience and not bring discredit to my Master.”
She mentions the anti-foreigner sentiments and some of the dangers involved, but I don’t know if readers will understand just how pervasive and dangerous it was. China was a very closed-off country then, and anything “foreign” was suspicious (one reason why Hudson Taylor advocated dressing like Chinese rather than British). She does mention here that one of the ways she and her husband tried to combat this was to hold “Open House” where they’d let their neighbors come in and tour the house so they could see there wasn’t anything dangerous about them. In one of her other books she writes that one of these times, someone saw her daughter’s dolls in her bed and spread the word that the Goforths kidnapped children and shrunk them. It seems ridiculous now that anyone would think that, but it was a very superstitious and suspicious time. Rumors like that could at the very least cause people to avoid them, and at the worst set off a powder keg of anger. Sudden mob violence was not uncommon, especially leading up to the time of the Boxer rebellion. I remember reading in another book (I forget whose) about a missionary having in her school a skeleton for educational purposes, and then trying to decide how best to dispose of it so people wouldn’t think they had killed someone. Trying to preach a gospel that the people were probably going to react negatively against at first in such a setting indeed required a lot of prayer and faith.
But even with some events taken somewhat out of context, she presents a testimony full of grace in how the Lord dealt with her. Some of the answers she relates were major – a sudden breakthrough in her husband’s grasp of the language when he was discouraged and near giving up, found later to have happened right at the time that a group in his old college had met to pray for him, response in meetings found to have happened when others were praying (incidents that should remind and encourage us to pray for others), healing when all other help had been exhausted, protection from danger, especially in their escape during the Boxer rebellion. Of the last, she was asked why God spared them so miraculously but not others. She responded:
Truly a vital question, which could not lightly be set aside! Humbly and prayerfully we pondered this “Why” in the light of Scripture. In the twelfth chapter of Acts, we read of Herod’s succeeding in putting James to death by the sword, and directly after comes the story of how Herod was hindered in carrying out his intention to kill Peter who was delivered by a miracle. Then who could read that marvelous eleventh chapter of Hebrews with its record of glorious martyrdom and miraculous deliverances without being thrilled? In face of these and many other passages, while still unable to answer the “why,” we saw our Almighty God used His own prerogative to glorify His name whether in the glorious martyrdom of some or in the miraculous deliverance of other.
I referenced this a few months ago in a post on our pastor’s cancer, how God heals some but not others, for reasons only He knows.
Such big and dramatic answers to prayer can be thrilling, but what touched my heart even more were the smaller, “everyday” answers: a lost key found, provision for clothes, a gift of fresh fruit, the need for a telephone and a coat and help during a speaking engagement when she felt ill.
Some of the incidents were deeply personal, such as the time her husband wanted to go touring out among the people, and she said no at first, for the safety of the children (smallpox was rampant and the Chinese then had no thought of keeping sick people home). She had to learn that “‘the safest place’ for myself and the children ‘was the path of duty.'” Though several of her children died from other causes, none died during this time in their ministry once she yielded to the Lord about it. Another personal situation was finally understanding what it was to rest in the Lord and trust Him for salvation from the power of sin and not just the penalty of it, after feeling like she had been on something of a roller coaster spiritually for 40 years.
Something else I thought some people might have a problem with in reading her book were the times she mentioned prayer being hindered by a wrong attitude or bitterness on her part, or, in one instance, the fact that she felt God allowed something to bless her for responding in a right way. These days what we often hear is that God deals with us on the basis of His grace, not our “performance.” That is true. Yet there are instances in Scripture, even in the New Testament, of disobedience hindering. We’re told that some people are sick and some have died because of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in a wrong manner, that we should reconcile with our brother before offering a gift to God, that confession of sin is a part of praying for healing, that we can’t expect forgiveness if we don’t forgive. We’ll never be perfect, but we can’t expect the Lord’s blessing if we are hanging on to known sin. As to the other, does God ever do a special little something for us when we obey in some area or do the right thing? I don’t know – I can’t think of a Scripture reference that deals with that exactly in the New Testament. We tend to think, especially when reading the Old Testament, “Be good and God will bless me, mess up and He will come after me hard.” But even there Job experienced great calamity even though he was doing everything right, and the wicked seem to prosper even when they are not obedient. Ultimately everything that God allows comes from His wisdom, love, and grace. But I have felt at times, especially in my very early days as a Christian, that some blessing or answer to prayer came just after taking an important step in the right direction, not as a reward or as God patting me on the head for doing right, but just as a little encouragement from a Father to His child. Don’t we do the same for our children? When we see them struggle in an area and do the right thing, don’t we give them some kind of encouragement, even if it is just a smile or a nod or a thumbs up or a “Well done”? Of course, we need to do right even if no one seems to notice or care or no “blessing” comes in response. I don’t think this nullifies the fact that it all comes from God’s grace because we can only obey and make right decisions with His grace. (I’ve written earlier that grace does not nullify the need for obedience but rather enables it. See Of grace, law, commandments, rules, and effort and What grace does not mean). God blesses us far beyond our ability to obey as it is, and obedience should be an outgrowth of love and reverence for Him rather than a “work” to “earn” blessing. This is too involved a topic for this post, but I feel sure she isn’t advocating that prayer and obedience are like vending machines where we put in out part and then expect God to do His – not at all.
Since this is a testimony of answered prayer, naturally most of the anecdotes involve those answers. Yet she also shares some times when God didn’t answer, at least not in the way she prayed for. In one instance, years later she could see and was thankful for the fact that He hadn’t granted a particular request, one that would have changed the path of her life away from China. In other instances, like healing that did not come and the deaths of several of her children, she continued to trust even though she couldn’t understand.
I don’t think Rosalind shared any of these answers to prayer with the attitude, “Look at me and my wonderful answers to prayer. Aren’t I special?” I think she would have been horrified that anyone would think that. I think rather, she just wanted to show forth His provision and willingness to take care of His dear children’s needs, like the psalmists, whose testimony was, “Hear what great things the Lord has done and how He delivered me.” Every Christian walking and talking with God would have a record like this whether written or not, though admittedly probably not with situations like being delivered from an angry mob on the list. But like the Ebenezers I mentioned a few weeks ago, we should all be able to look back on those times where God met with us, provided for us, and answered prayer for us in a way that only He could. It’s good to share things like this with our families, so they know God didn’t just meet people’s needs back in Bible times, but He still does today. Such things redound to His praise and encourage us in the Lord when “when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:5-8).
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)