One of the highlights of our recent trip to Penang for the Lunar New Year was the visit of our dear friends Steven Sim and his wife Joreen, together with their son Shaun. We first met Steven more than ten years ago when we were part of the same cell group. The group consisted of many who wanted to take the mind more seriously in their discipleship. Steven’s intellectual ability was clear, as was his desire to make a difference in the world.
He came to a point in his life where he was seriously challenged to make a difference by becoming a pastor. He considered this possibility seriously but decided that he was to serve the Lord in public office. He has been in politics for more than ten years now and serves as the current Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam, Penang, Malaysia.
As we chatted over lunch, he shared that there were still Christians who questioned whether or not Christians should try to effect change though political involvement. After all Jesus didn’t come to set up a political party. He came to call sinners to repentance. Followers of Jesus should stick to evangelism and to works of mercy. Perhaps some followers of Jesus might end up in public office but that isn’t a core concern of Jesus or His followers.
Perhaps it is helpful to note what exactly Jesus preached. He didn’t focus on “saving souls”. He proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom (Matthew 4:23). God was breaking into history as He had promised, and He was going to redeem a world and a humankind broken by sin. He was going to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). He would effect this change through Jesus’s death on the Cross. But clearly God was concerned for more than just the saving of souls. He was ushering in a new reality, the new heavens and the new earth, God’s kingdom.
As followers of Jesus we are to serve the King and His in-breaking kingdom by calling people to a right relationship with Him. A key part of our mission as followers of Jesus is to share the good news of Jesus with all peoples and to call them back to a right relationship with the King. Nothing must distract us from that. But as the Lord’s model prayer makes clear, we are to pray and to work for His will to be done on earth until He returns (Matthew 6:10). We are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13–16). We are to bring God’s presence and values into all spheres of human activity even as we await His return to complete the job. That means He will call some of us, like Steven, to serve in public office.
For Christians in Malaysia, however, we have to grapple with another concern. While we don’t believe that any political party or politician is fault-free, the present government’s track record of corruption, incompetence, racism, and failure on issues of human rights means it is high time for a change. I need to say that there are followers of Jesus, good people, on both sides of the political divide and I respect those who want to work for change from within the present government. But for those who want to see a change in government, it appears that the incumbent parties hold all the cards and it is very difficult to remove them from office.
Many went all out in the last general election and, although progress was made, the ruling coalition still had the seats to remain in power. The odds appear worse in the forthcoming general election. Some have given up on politics as a way to effect change and are planning not to vote. My question is, do we vote only when we can be guaranteed of victory?
Recently, I have been thinking of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in Exodus (Exodus 1:15–21). They feared God and would not follow Pharaoh’s instructions to kill all newborn male Hebrew babies. What they did did not overthrow Pharaoh’s evil regime. He would remain in power for a long time after their faithful actions. But what Shiphrah and Puah did became incorporated in God’s sovereign plan, a plan that would eventually result in the fall of Pharaoh.
I have come to terms that it is God who is in control of history and He will do what He wants when He wants. The rise and fall of kings and kingdoms — that is God’s job. My job is to do what is right in my generation and leave the big things to Him. Indeed, He may surprise us yet. How many of us could have expected the results of the 12th Malaysian general election? Still, it is His prerogative to do the big things like changing governments. My job is to do the right thing in my lifetime. For some, like Steven, it means the tough decision to serve in the political arena. All of us can pray and vote.
I asked Steven how ten years in public service had changed him. He said that, paradoxically, he was more cynical yet more hopeful and inspired. I suggested that maybe it wasn’t so much cynicism he felt but realism. I then asked him what I could pray for in the light of the coming elections. I thought that maybe he would request prayer for the opposition coalition. But he didn’t. He said we should pray that the young don’t surrender to a spirit of hopelessness. Well, not just the young. And not just Malaysians.