John Paton (1824–1907) was a missionary to the New Hebrides at the end of the 19th century. His first post was on the island of Tanna. During his five years there he lost his wife, his newborn child, and his health. His life was under constant threat from cannibals who were suspicious of this white man and his “Worship.” In the face of this difficulty, Paton was able to erect a church and school, translate large portions of the Bible, and see “a small harvest” of the natives come to worship “Jehovah Jesus.”
Following the death of a sympathetic chief who had been his protector, a young chief turned the tribes on the island against him. Being “by conviction a strong Calvinist but not a Fatalist,” Paton saw that “escape for life was now the only path of duty.” He and three co-workers raced to a small canoe and attempted to make it to a missionary station on a nearby island. Here is his account of their journey:
For a mile or more we got away nicely under the lee of the island, but when we turned to go south for Mr. Mathieson’s station, we met the full force of the wind and sea, every wave breaking over and almost swamping our canoe. The native lad at the helm paddle stood up crying, “Missi, this is the conduct of the sea! It swallows up all who seek its help!” I answered, “We do not seek help from it, but from Jehovah Jesus.” Our danger became very great, as the sea broke over and lashed around us. My faithful natives, overcome with terror, threw down their paddles and said, “Missi, we are all drowned now! We are food for the sharks. We might as well be eaten by Tannese as by fishes!” I seized the paddle nearest me and ordered the others to do the same. I cried, “Stand to your post! Where is now your faith in Jesus? Remember, He is Ruler on sea as on land. Abraham, pray and ply your paddle! Keep up stroke for stroke with me, as our lives depend on it. Our God can protect us. Don’t look round on the sea and fear. Let us pray to God and ply our paddles, and He will save us yet!”1
It is a gripping scene. And it is a powerful illustration of the way God works to accomplish His purposes for His people through His people. It seems common today to separate these two sides of the one coin. So we get questions concerning whether God will work or we must pray, whether God will save or we must share the gospel, whether God will heal or we should see a doctor, whether we should think hard or God will give us understanding. And to this list we could now add, whether God will deliver or we should paddle!
Looked at carefully, these questions assume that God is only sovereign over either the ends (what will happen) or the means (how it will happen). But the biblical picture, so beautifully illustrated by Paton’s exhortation to his canoe-full of a congregation, is that God ordains both ends and means. God chooses to work, and He chooses to work by means of our prayer. God chooses to save, and He chooses to save by means of our evangelism and missions. God chooses to heal, and He chooses to heal by means of modern medicine. God chooses to grant understanding, and He chooses to grant it by means of our careful thinking. God chooses to deliver, and He chooses to deliver by means of our paddling.
When Patton landed safely at Mr. Mathieson’s station, he wrote in his diary of “our skin sticking to our paddles.” That is some meaningful paddling! He also recorded a prayer of thanksgiving that testified to the same hope he urged in the canoe – we don’t look to the sea to save us, or even to our own paddling, but to Jehovah Jesus! This is a parable of the biblical balance between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. Because God has ordained both means and ends, paddling (human effort) does not argue against praying. We work, and God works, and the ultimate reason our paddling lands us safely home is that God has saved us.
I invite you to take this image into your intercession, your evangelism, your missions, your preaching, and even your parenting. We must pick up our paddle “as my life depended on it.” But our work is soaked in prayer and surrendered to the hope that God will save us! The banner over all our work is this: “Pray to God and ply your paddle! God will save us yet!”