October 08, 2020

“You quit law to become a church intern? Are you crazy?”

Jeffri Chiam

9 Minute Read
stop collecting shells

(Click here for the Chinese version of this article)

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

~  Mark 8:34-38

“You love to argue, you should be a lawyer when you grow up!” 

I had always been a rebellious child. Whenever my parents or teachers said something against me, I would retort endlessly. Many around me would tell me, “You love to argue, you should be a lawyer when you grow up!” To be fair, I did have a deep interest in matters of law and justice. Hence, upon realizing that my basketball skills would not qualify me as an NBA player, my only ambition was to be an outstanding lawyer.  

Praise God, I successfully secured a scholarship, allowing me to finish my law degree and obtain my qualification. Throughout the 4 years in law school, every moment felt so fulfilling. Law gave me a purpose, a desire to contribute to society. After graduation, I went on to become a lawyer, and eventually got into the law firm I wanted. At the firm, I had the freedom to develop my abilities with the support of my team and a caring boss. Unlike some of my friends, I was given fair treatment in terms of working hours and salary. In the short span of a few years, my boss took us on vacations to Japan, Korea, Australia and more, with 5-star service throughout. 

That seemingly ambitious childhood dream of mine, had finally come true. 

“You’re gifted in Bible teaching, why not consider full time gospel ministry?” 

In the 5 years working at the law firm, I never compromised on serving in church due to my job. As usual, I regularly attended services, small groups and courses. I also taught in Sunday School and led Bible study groups. When I saw how many Christians around me (especially those who just joined the workforce) couldn’t serve at church due to heavy work commitments, I realized what a blessing it was to be able to have a good balance between work and church life.  So, I continued enjoying this “Christian/Lawyer” life that I had. From time to time, my pastors and church members would ask me, “You’re gifted in Bible teaching, why not consider full-time gospel ministry?”  

Whenever this question cropped up, I would quickly dismiss it (and at times even felt annoyed). I thought, “I’ve been serving God in the marketplace and in church. Why should I give up being a lawyer? I have the best of both worlds!” 

As a lawyer, not only could I contribute towards social justice, I could also be a gospel witness in my workplace and earn a comfortable salary at the same time. So, whenever the question of full-time ministry arose, I would also always reply with a polite smile, “I’m sorry, but I have no plans to do so at the moment”. 

“Doctor, I’m no longer afraid of death” 

I conveniently pushed all thoughts of full-time ministry to the back of my mind. But as I continued to lead Bible study groups, I gradually saw the great power of God’s Word, and how the gospel could transform human hearts. 

My small group members started shifting their trust from worldly material pursuits to the eternally priceless gospel. Their awe for the gospel totally changed their lives, causing them to want to live God-pleasing, holy lives. 

I was struck – how great and awesome is the power of the gospel!

Only the gospel can change human hearts and turn people to God. This is something that neither a perfect justice system, nor the most outstanding lawyer can achieve.  

The latter half of 2016 was a turning point in my life. At the time, my pastor’s mother-in-law, who was a new believer, was suffering from a terminal illness. 

To help the pastor’s family encourage and strengthen his mother-in-law’s faith in the gospel, a few of us from church got together to translate a book by a Christian author who suffered from terminal lung cancer so that the family could read it to her by her bedside (Hope Beyond Cure by David McDonald). In a mere few months, God caused her to go from unbelief to belief, from belief to a strong conviction, and from a strong conviction to having a deep awe of the gospel. While receiving treatment in her critical state, she even told the doctor: “I’m no longer afraid of death, because I know that my Saviour Jesus is waiting to receive me into heaven!” 

Walking alongside the dying had taught me a valuable, shocking lesson! Death would mercilessly erase all power, wealth, relationships, pleasure, health and freedom. My pastor’s mother-in-law made me realize this: In the face of death, the thing that matters most is faith in Jesus Christ and the hope of eternal life. 

I started to question my desire to ‘have the best of both worlds’: to serve the gospel and be a lawyer; to serve the church and have a comfortable life. If the gospel is really the only thing that saves and gives hope and comfort to all humans in the face of death; if God gave me the gifts and resources to serve the gospel, why was I so unwilling to consider giving more time and energy for the sake of the gospel? 

“Stop collecting shells!” 

As I was reflecting on the direction of my life, I heard a sermon that forever changed the course of my life. 

That day, I was at a clinic for a medical check-up. While I was waiting for my turn, I was listening to John Piper’s sermon entitled ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’. The sermon’s conclusion was challenging: A lot of people are wasting their lives, chasing and enjoying the world’s dreams. A lot of people want to retire early, move to the seaside, enjoy life and collect shells all day long. But at the last chapter of your life, when you stand before the Creator to give an account of your life, all you have to offer is: “Here Lord – see my shells”. 

After listening to the sermon, I sat in my chair at the clinic as tears flowed down my cheeks. All this while, I’d been busy collecting shells. My hands were full of shells, and I didn’t want to let go. I was chasing the shells of financial freedom, human validation and a comfortable life. 

Even though I had witnessed the power of the gospel and the world’s urgent need for it; even though God granted me salvation along with all kinds of blessings, I was only willing to give back a little time and energy to God in return. I wanted to use all the resources I had to chase after shells, just like the rest of the world. 

That day, my plan was to do a medical check-up, but God’s plan was to give me a spiritual check-up. I realized the spiritual symptom I’d been ignoring. I had to stop wasting my life, I had to stop collecting shells. Because one day, I would stand before God. I would have to give a detailed account for my life, and whether I had really responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ with genuine gratitude. 

That moment made me start considering full-time gospel ministry and to pluck up the courage to embark on a two-year full-time church internship. 

Are you collecting shells? 

I have now come almost to the end of my 2-year church internship. The journey was far from easy, at many times even tougher than being a lawyer. But by God’s grace, I’ve been slowly letting go of my shells, and instead grasping tightly the eternally glorious gospel.  

Law, at its best, can only bring humans temporary justice and freedom; but only the gospel can bring people into the eternally just and free Kingdom. Working as a lawyer, at its best, can give me a few decades of a comfortable life; but only the gospel can grant me a life that is eternally rich, glorious and abundant. 

What about you? Are you also busy collecting shells? 

I realize that not all Christians should pursue full-time paid gospel ministry, because our circumstances and gifts are different. And of course, full-time ministry is not the only way of serving the gospel. 

Nevertheless, Jesus has called each one of us to take up our crosses wholeheartedly, not to aimlessly collect shellsThe gospel ought to be the centre and goal of our lives. So, whether you’re a lawyer, doctor, teacher, office worker, housewife, or a student, let me encourage you to ask yourself:  

In the final chapter of my life, as I stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of my life to God, will you be able to say with Paul: 

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”

~ Philippians 3:7-8

If you know you can’t, ask God to do a spiritual check-up on you and don’t ignore your spiritual symptoms. May God help us leave our shells behind and make us vessels who wholeheartedly love and glorify Him! 

Giving up everything for the gospel is not crazy. 

Gaining the whole world yet losing our soul is. 

This article was originally published at the author’s blog and was republished with permission of the author. 

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Jeffri Chiam is a ministry intern at St. Mary's Anglican Church (Kuala Lumpur). Jeffri was a boring lawyer before embarking on this exciting gospel ministry journey. Jeffri is married to Lydia, together they are committed to Chinese ministry in Malaysia. Currently, they are preparing for Jeffri to study M.Div at Sydney Missionary & Bible College. Jeffri is also the founder of '福音语Jef' a Chinese Christian website and Facebook page which aim to deepen our conviction for the Gospel and drive our desire for God.

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