“You only need one key. Let God hand it to you”: One missionary’s search – and wait – for the right door
Dr Tam Wai Jia // June 19, 2023, 2:53 pm
Even as Wai Jia (right) heard God's call to be a medical missionary, she was perplexed by the closed doors. Until her pastor told her: "Would you trust Him? Instead of knocking on more doors, muscling your way through, would you let Him hand you the keys to His kingdom?” All photos courtesy of Dr Tam Wai Jia.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
I slumped back in my chair. After sending out dozens of job applications to international NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa, all I received were rejection letters.
“God, have you forgotten me?”
Earlier this year, when I turned 36, I remembered a dream God had planted in my heart when I was 18 years old, during a six-week volunteering stint at a children’s home in Nepal that changed my life. A fluttering arose in my chest as I felt God calling me to be a medical missionary in a developing country.
Now, I recognised that familiar stirring again, calling me deeper. “Will you trust Me to bring this dream to fruition?”
But no doors opened.
I am now twice the age that I was when I received that dream of helping the poor. God, are you there?
Months passed. As I received one rejection letter after another, an old voice taunted me: “You’re just not good enough. Even the mission field doesn’t want you.”
An old voice taunted me: “You’re just not good enough. Even the mission field doesn’t want you.”
Tears brimmed in my eyes. I’d trained all my life, first as a medical doctor, then embarked on a rigorous Master of Public Health programme at Johns Hopkins University, attended several missions preparation courses and even got deployed to Africa by the World Health Organization and United Nations.
And now, after combing through job placements daily and hustling to send out applications, I felt … unwanted.
I held onto Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
But no doors opened.
Reality set in. My toddlers, 6 and 4 years of age, weren’t interested in moving away from Singapore. In our household where I am the sole, part-time breadwinner (where Cliff is an amazing stay-at-home father), our finances were dwindling. Nothing pointed us towards the mission field.
One day, my senior pastor met with Cliff and me.
“He loves you with a jealous love. He only wants you to walk through that one door He has for you.”
I appeared chirpy, desperate to conceal my disappointment at being rejected by several organisations. After all, when I’d applied last year to be a consultant with the World Health Organization/United Nations, I was deployed quickly. Why was it taking so long now?
But Ps Yang Tuck Yoong said: “Wai Jia, I don’t say this lightly. But I want you to know the doors are closed because God is closing them – He loves you with a jealous love. He only wants you to walk through that one door He has for you.
“Would you trust Him? Instead of knocking on more doors, muscling your way through, would you let Him hand you the keys to His kingdom?”
Goosebumps tingled down my spine.
That weekend at church, Ps Yang handed me a white envelope.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Open it.” There in my palm, lay a beautifully rustic, medieval-looking key.
“I want you to have it as a prophetic symbol of things to come. You only need one key. Let God hand it to you.”
Over the next few days, as I fingered the key, God spoke to my heart: “Let Me open the door.”
The key, representing access and authority, reminds me of the honour, power and responsibility as a steward of God’s resources.
Tears ran down my cheeks.
All this while, I was fixated on entering the mission field through a job with a prestigious international organisation which would provide for all our housing and financial needs.
But I sensed God closing those doors, leading us down the humbler route of going by faith, even if we have to serve without salaries.
The key, representing access and authority, reminds me of the tremendous honour, power and responsibility I hold as a steward of God’s resources.
I stopped doubting my capability and ceased my frantic hustle of sending out job applications.
Keys to the Kingdom
Even when I did not know, even when I felt forgotten, God was working.
That very week, a mentor connected me with two hospitals in a remote district of Tanzania.
I wrote in, hopeful. But neither responded.
Hands entwined in prayer, Cliff and I began to pray: “God, would you lead us?”
I remembered the words of another mentor: “Perhaps God is delaying launching your family into the mission field, not because you’re not ready, but because your kids need more time.”
I sighed. Perhaps she was right. My kids, born in Canada and raised in Singapore, loved our urban life. Every evening before bedtime, I’d encourage them: “Children, pray for missions.”
“No, Mama. I don’t want to,” they’d quip.
Missions was an unwelcome concept. I tried explaining it, but to no avail.
Weeks passed, with no replies from the African hospitals.
“Maybe we need to be there in person, Cliff.” After all, when we had served in Uganda as a couple for a year in the past, we had learnt how relational African cultures are.
But it would be absurd to spend over $15,000 for a family trip to Tanzania just to visit the two hospitals, wouldn’t it?
Yet, something in our hearts stirred. Hands entwined in prayer, Cliff and I began to pray: “God, would you lead us?”
A mission field with no lions and tigers
In January this year, one of our pastors preached about priorities. “Instead of planning your family holidays in advance, why don’t you plan your mission trips first?”
I leaned towards Cliff and whispered: “Let’s pray about a vision trip to Africa in June, over the school holidays.” He squeezed my hand in agreement.
“Oh Lord,” I prayed. “Please clear my schedule.” After all, by April in the previous year, I was booked back-to-back with a dozen speaking engagements in churches over June.
When April rolled around without a single invitation, I knew in my spirit that God was working. Again, He was closing the doors on my behalf.
I told Cliff: “I felt the Holy Spirit tell us to get ready because He’s cleared my schedule.”
“Let’s do it!” He echoed.
Meanwhile, night after night, I’d pray: “God, please work in my kids’ hearts.”
“Dear God, I pray the mission field got no lion and tiger. And the mission field will be safe. And I don’t have nightmares.”
Sometime around then, I met a missionary mother. When I shared about our desire to move to Africa, she hugged me.
“Don’t make the same mistake as I did,” she said. “My kids no longer follow the Lord. Remember, they themselves have to be convicted, not dragged around because of what you want to do. Remember, they deserve the best education and opportunities too.”
At night, alone, I’d stare into the darkness, her words echoing in my head. Perhaps, this was all a mistake. Let’s just stay comfortable in Singapore and make a difference where we are.
One evening, as I put my kids to sleep, my heart was burdened with grief.
“Goodnight, children,” I said, exhausted.
“You forgot to pray for missons!” my four-year old blurted out.
What? All this while, they’d avoided the topic. What was going on?
“Why don’t you pray?” I suggested.
“Dear God,” said my four-year-old, I pray the mission field got no lion and tiger. And the mission field will be safe. And I don’t have nightmares.”
My six-year-old followed suit: “Dear God, I pray when we get to the mission field, we will find good friends and have a nice, pretty house and there will be nice food. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
I lay in the darkness, my face wet with tears. God had done it. He was holding my children’s hands, leading them forward.
By faith, we will go
One evening, I received a phonecall from a mentor from medical school.
Without counting the cost of discipleship and actually making sacrifices to step out in faith, our faith is hollow, at best.
“Wai Jia, the International Christian Medical Dental Conference that’s held only once every four years, usually in a highly developed country, is being held in Tanzania this year. Does this mean something to you?”
Goosebumps tingled down my arms. I discovered that the conference was held in the same region where the two hospitals were.
Cliff’s eyes lit up. A crack of a door had opened. “By faith, we will go,” he said.
It all felt so ridiculous. What if this led to nothing?
Yet, it felt right. It began to dawn on me that the idea of missions is an incredibly romantic one. All these years, I had gained a reputation and earned the goodwill of others simply by being associated with humanitarian and philanthropic causes.
But the scary thing is – without counting the cost of discipleship and actually making sacrifices to step out in faith, our faith is hollow, at best.
A colourful home in Africa
As I broached the subject of visiting Tanzania for a short vision trip with my children, I asked: “Do you want to go? It’s expensive to do so. And it’s to see if this is where God wants us to move to, longer term, for missions. So if you don’t wish to go, it’s good to tell us now before we book the flight tickets.”
My six-year-old, Sarah-Faith, blinked, as if trying to recall a faraway dream.
“Mama, God told me I have to go there because He has prepared a home for me.”
“Mama, I remember a dream I had last night.”
“I dreamt we were in Africa. And there was a house and two girls. One girl was painting the house rainbow colours, and the other girl was preparing everything we needed to live there – beds, phones, cards, food. God told me I have to go there because He has prepared a home for me.”
I looked at her, holding back tears.
“Are there lions, Mama?” asked my four-year-old. As God would have it, in that little district, the nearest national park was characteristically famous for its walking safaris because all their lions had been poached.
“Guess what, Esther-Praise? No lions where we’re headed.”
“Hooray! I want to go to Africa!”
Since then, she has been asking daily: “Mama, when are we going to Africa? I want to go to my home in Africa.”
God never scrimps
As we lay ourselves bare before Him, an acceleration took place.
I felt His warm touch of encouragement: If I open the door for you, will I not provide what you need?
The hospitals replied, welcoming us to Tanzania. African missionary doctors contacted us, eager to meet. I discovered that my one prayer I’d been praying for years since I had become a mother – that our children would have a good school to attend in the field – was answered. Because in that small town where the hospitals operated was an international school.
When I discovered its fees, I could have fallen off a chair. One year’s worth of school fees for our two children exceeded the amount of savings we currently have.
But a Singaporean missionary doctor who’d served for 40 years in Africa shared: “God never scrimps on our children. My five children who studied in Africa all went to university. Two are doctors, one is an architect, two are teachers. Trust Him to provide for you and your family.”
One night, as Cliff and I had a tiff over our dwindling finances, we went to bed, heart heavy. The next morning, an email lay in our inbox from a young girl we had mentored a few years ago. “God spoke to me at church camp. I’d like to give towards your Africa vision trip.”
Her contribution stunned us – it would cover a good half of our trip costs. I felt His warm touch of encouragement: If I open the door for you, will I not provide what you need?
An inheritance for His glory
On Fathers’ Day yesterday, my family and I headed to Tanzania for a vision trip. We don’t know if this will point us to the right door.
God guards the doors in our lives and is eager to hand us the keys to the right one at the right time.
But one thing we do know is that God guards the doors in our lives and is eager to hand us the keys to the right one at the right time. And, with keys of access and authority to heavenly places, also comes great responsibility.
Ephesians 1:11-12 reminds us we are “being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” We can thus rest in Him knowing that the calling in our hearts may not be mere whims, but “an inheritance” deposited by Him for the outworking for His glory. We can trust that, as we present our dreams and desires to Him, He will orchestrate people, places and events for His greater glory.
So if you’ve been asking, seeking and knocking on doors, desperate for a dream in your heart to come to pass, hold on. The doors may be closed not because you’re incapable, or unprepared. The doors may be closed simply because He is jealous for you to walk through His door, in His way and in His time.
Would you wait on Him, for Him to hand you the key to His kingdom?
Thank you for upholding Cliff, myself and our two daughters in prayer for safety, provision and fruitfulness even as we embark on this vision trip to discern our long-term placement in the mission field.
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