There was a time when I would be angry at Malaysian Christians who chose to emigrate or who refused to return to Malaysia after their education abroad. Islam was the official religion of Malaysia. It was increasingly difficult for non Malaysian missionaries to enter the country. Surely it was God’s will that Christians in Malaysia remain in the country to fulfill the Great Commission. Those who chose to leave were cop outs. I received many invitations to remain in Canada to minister after my theological studies there. The needs there were real. But I had been called to minister the Word in Malaysia. I came home.
I am glad to report that I am no longer that condemning angry young man. (I also need to disclose that I am residing in Singapore at the moment.) I have changed for two reasons.
One is my growing conviction that the New Testament is totally against any form of legalism. I now use the preface “you must” very reluctantly apart from clear biblical commands. Secondly I have come to terms with the sheer diversity of God’s dealings with His children. His journies for each of us are so different. I repent of any attempt to use my own journey as a bench mark for anyone else. What I need to do is to be true to my own calling.
I have also come to appreciate the many ironies of life. I am a Malaysian because my forefathers chose to emigrate from China in pursuit of a better life. My Christian life had been nurtured by key missionaries and lay leaders who were themselves immigrants from other countries. In the Scriptures I note that most Christian fled Jerusalem when a great persecution broke out while the apostles stayed behind (Acts 8:1b-4). I note that God used both those who had fled and the apostles who stayed behind for His purposes. Life is not that neat and tidy.
Still the question remains: Is there a Christian perspective on emigration? This continues to be a hot topic both sides of the Causeway. Some believe that our default position should be to remain in our own county and to see emigration as an exception to the norm. Some give their own biblical rationale for emigrating. Some do not even bother, believing that emigration is an amoral issue especially in a global world where national boundaries no longer hold the same significance as before.
My own take on this question is to begin with three of Paul’s convictions as found in 2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 15:
“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade people. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (TNIV)
1. First is the principle of accountability. We live life knowing that everything we do in this life will be audited at the judgment seat of Christ. (v.5)
2. Next is the principle of gratitude. Because Paul understands the great love that Christ has shown him (v.14) he now lives his life as a big thank you to Him, living not for himself but for the Christ who saved him (v. 12), indeed making his goal in life the desire to please His Lord (v.9). We are called to do the same.
3. Third is the principle of faith. We are to live by faith and not on the basis of the obvious circumstances of life (v.7). Surely this includes choosing not to run away from difficult circumstances because we know the real help that comes from the presence of the risen Christ and the assurance of the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes.
Hence any decision in life, and that includes the decision to emigrate or not, must take these principles seriously.
Firstly I do not make the decision as an independent being. I do not belong to myself. I belong to the Lord who created me and who saved me and who will one day ask me to give an account of my life. So I must approach the question of emigration from the perspective of His desire not mine.
Next I struggle with what choice will best please Him. This includes making decisions on the basis of faith and not on the basis of fear.
I know that discerning the Lord’s will is more art than science and an art that seems to take a life time to master. And I still believe that God calls different people to do different things at different points of their lives. Therefore we are not to judge others (James 4:11-12) especially on matters that are not covered by direct biblical commands.
What we should do is to encourage one another to be true to the Lord. We are to struggle to discover what we believe is God’s will for our own lives and seek to be true to our own callings. And we are to take seriously Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:25-34:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (TNIV)
Maybe emigration is not the real issue. The real issue is the issue of faith. Do we really believe Jesus’ promises? What does it mean to seek first the kingdom and its righteousness? For ourselves? For our children?
If we have some clarity as to the answers to these questions then we should be able to begin to answer the other questions of life including the question of whether we should emigrate or not.