We Get the Smile of God Before Our Performance


Editor’s note: Sara works to train and equip women in ministry, specifically those involved in church planting. Several years ago, she made her first trip to China, where she was able to encourage and offer training to a group of Chinese women who are themselves deep in the trenches of ministry. This is her story of how that experience impacted her, and how she saw God move in miraculous ways in China.


A breeze from the South China Sea tousled the curtains enveloping our meeting room in a wintery dampness. The group of Chinese women chosen for this specific training event were sitting in clusters enjoying a tea break with mounds of freshly sliced kiwi, lychee, and mangoes. Translation had been difficult. Others were gathered around a crude map drawn during our first session when the women told me what Chinese city they were from, reminding me that I didn’t know China’s geography or even the names of their larger cities. Now, they were adding cities to the map, marking where they lived, giving me a rough idea of population, density, and apartment sizes. Finally, we were easing into the first milestone of group dynamics: “joining.” We were beginning to bond and relax with each other.

Maybe, just maybe, transformational training would be possible after all.

When I was first invited to China, I wasn’t keen on the idea.

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I was told the Chinese respect “expert” teachers; that they weren’t accustomed to facilitated learning like we do in the West. They would be looking to me for the right answers. That presented a big problem for me. Being new to this ancient culture, I didn’t yet know what the “stressors” were for women in ministry in China. Another concern was our unique training methodology. It wasn’t typical even for Westerners.

Our organization focuses on creating relational space for women in ministry, encouraging them to engage a robust gospel that frees them to embrace and to live their truest identity. We had discovered that our methodology was transferrable to other Western cultures, but Asia? Knowing so little about Chinese culture, let alone the intricacies of the many ethnicities and micro-cultures represented, I couldn’t fathom how effective our training would be. I would be asking women to donate their trust, to share stories of wounding, to begin tracing the thread of redemption through their own journeys, to listen to one another without trying to fix them, and most importantly, to consider how the truths of the gospel affect their daily living. Oh yeah, and I didn’t speak Mandarin!

But God…

After prayer and counsel, I hesitantly accepted the invitation and began enlisting faithful prayer support for this endeavor.

After a hesitant but encouraging start, the next day I returned to the training session with renewed excitement for God to work deeply among us. And then, unexpectedly, we were all taken by surprise. We had been discussing the meaning of the gospel. I summarized what had been said and then proffered a definition from Romans and Galatians. It was at that moment I realized the translation into Mandarin wasn’t matching what I had just said in English. I turned to the translator to figure it out.   

Suddenly the room got quiet as the participants listened to us interact. Just as quickly it exploded into a cacophony of voices.  How could I, whose only knowledge of Mandarin was “ni hao,” know the translation wasn’t the same as what I had said in English? My only explanation was Spirit-given discernment. These women were living under a burden, and my words were being interpreted to support their belief that they needed to add their good deeds to Christ’s work on the cross. But the Spirit intervened that day to turn that false belief on its head. Understanding that there is nothing we can add to what Christ has already done for us and living in that truth daily is the foundation of Christianity, separating it from all other religions. We get the smile of God before our performance.  Just like I do over and over again, my Chinese sisters had fallen back into relying on what they could be and do for Christ rather than what Christ had already done for them!  

It wasn’t until the next day, however, that we began to experience just how deeply the Spirit of God was at work.  The women were divided into groups for sharing early childhood stories. Using the paradigm of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, they were asked to only focus on “the Fall” as they shared a story from their lives. This is a hard exercise on many levels, especially for those of us in full-time ministry. I’ve seen and modeled the sharing of redemption stories, but often we only dip our toes into our broken pasts. I was nervous. But when the women returned to the main meeting room after group time, there was a complete shift in the atmosphere. Tears streaming, hugging, laughing, smiling. Everyone talking at once. And even the quietest person was wanting to share what the experience had meant to them. For the majority this was the first time they had ever spoken of deep hurts from the past.

As we continued to debrief, something powerful began taking place. It was clearly the Spirit of God. The Holy One was meeting us in a way I had rarely experienced. I pulled up a chair, sat down, and told the women I had no idea what to do next.  To be honest, I think the group was a bit shocked by my confession. The “expert” always knew what to do. The group quieted down expectantly. Soon one woman started praying. Another began singing, others picked up where one person left off. Singing, praising, dancing, praying.  Before long we were singing so loudly that the men in a training session below sent someone up to check on us.

In our unexpected revival, the layer between teacher and learner melted away, making way for deeper transformation for all of us.

Earlier, I explained to those who invited me that it would take time to fully prepare women to become certified trainers. They responded that I might be surprised by how fast it would happen in China. Little did I know!

In next to no time, English-speaking Chinese were invited to further training, mentored virtually, and assessed for leadership. The course work was translated and women began training and mentoring others in their own language.

The crux of this story is that God knew what these women needed and would ensure they got it! God can work in us, through us, in spite of us and even without us! It can be done whether we’re willing, hesitant, or downright contrary. Nothing will thwart the plans of God. But for a life of true joy, freedom, and even adventure, come before God with open hands and a willing heart. We will not be disappointed.  

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Further Reading

How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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A Chinese Immigrant’s Reflection on American Holidays
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