Have you longed for God to use you on the foreign mission field? Is there a specific area of the world on your heart? Perhaps you feel convinced it’s God’s will for you to serve there, but he hasn’t yet sent you—although you’re willing. Do you wonder if it’s because you’re unqualified for the task? Or if he would rather use someone else?
Gladys Aylward probably had similar feelings. Born in Britain in the early 1900s, she became a Baptist missionary to China and served among poor children for 25 years. But her success on the mission field came only after great difficulty.
As an adult, Aylward stood less than 5 feet tall in her ragged clothes, and she had little formal education. This small woman looked unlikely to make much of a difference in the world. According to her credentials, it was doubtful she would affect thousands with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When our lives feel stagnant and ordinary, Aylward’s life can encourage us. God uses the weak—not the strong—so that no flesh should glory in his presence (1 Cor. 1:27–31). Aylward didn’t set out to become a well-known missionary. She didn’t expect to be a world-changer. She simply set her face on Christ, then toward China. God accomplished the rest.
Aylward’s life can teach us six things about gospel success:
1. Our Goal Should Be God’s Will
Aylward felt God wanted her to go to China, but many people urged her to continue gospel work at home instead. Her labors among England’s poorest citizens proved good work indeed, yet the thought of lost souls in China tormented her, making her unable to shake the sense that God wanted her there. Aylward didn’t want to merely do good works; she longed for God’s will, which meant doing the specific work he called her to. This meant going to China.
2. Our Plans May Fail
Aylward’s mentors insisted she join a missionary society, enroll in their college, and be sent to the mission field under their care. The missionary society committee, however, found her unfit in terms of education and intellect. They rejected her and told her the Chinese language would be far too difficult for her to learn. With her rejection by the missionary society, Aylward’s dream seemed impossible.
3. We May Face Obstacles
Without the support of a missionary organization, Aylward was without qualifications. She possessed little money and had no contacts. Aylward eventually reached China by traveling through a war zone with a one-way ticket and a rationed amount of food.
These struggles are similar to those faced by many modern would-be missionaries. Whether we struggle to find the missionary organization fit for us or fear the inability to raise enough support for our family, we can’t boast that we’ll get on the field no matter what.
Instead, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:13–17). Like Aylward, we set our faces where we think God wants us to serve; and if God wills, he will get us there.
4. We May Possess Unexpected Qualifications
At the beginning of her time in China, Aylward lived with a veteran missionary and innkeeper. Having not yet learned the language, she took care of the guests’ mules while the missionary taught Bible studies nearby. Listening night after night to God’s Word taught in Chinese, Aylward eventually learned the language.
God also uniquely equipped Aylward in another way. The Chinese custom of foot-binding was a cruel practice to stunt girls’ growth. Since Aylward had not been born in China, she walked on unbound feet. To her surprise, a government official approached her with a mission. He wanted her to travel to every surrounding village and enforce the new law that outlawed foot-binding.
Aylward obliged under one condition: She would preach the gospel in every home she visited. He agreed, and she had countless opportunities to share the gospel with Chinese families.
5. God’s Plans Won’t Fail
Aylward’s initial plan to get to China may have failed, but God’s plan to use her there succeeded. She put her hope in his sovereign plan, knowing whatever he willed would succeed. She trusted that this was the way God would be most glorified.
After adopting a child she found for sale in the street, the Lord brought hundreds of other children to Aylward. During the wartime, God used her to lead this group of little ones across dangerous terrain, among opposing soldiers, to safety. Aylward rejoiced that this was God’s doing—not hers.
6. God Uses the Weak
Riots broke out often in the local prison, and the guards asked Aylward to come calm them. The first time she visited, she took an ax from a rowdy prisoner. Eventually, even convicted murderers listened with awe to the small woman who stood on a mound of dirt and fearlessly proclaimed truth.
Many of the prisoners trusted Christ, not because Aylward studied how to be an effective missionary, but because God opened their hearts when she boldly spoke his Word—even when she was inwardly frightened.
Success in Which We Can’t Boast
We often despise the thought of failure, but Aylward’s story encourages us that even our failures lead to success—when we define success as God does. If we set our minds on Christ and his will, we can be confident. Our plans may fail, but God’s most certainly won’t.
Gladys Aylward didn’t know God would lead thousands to Christ through her. She didn’t know she’d save the lives of hundreds of children and have books written about her. But she knew God wanted to use her in China for his name’s sake—despite her weaknesses.
To learn more about Gladys Aylward:
- Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God by Noel Piper
- Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman by Gladys Aylward with Christine Hunter
- Gladys Aylward: The Adventure of a Lifetime by Janet and Geoff Benge