Cleaning toilets for God: A journey from pastor to full-time dad
Cliff Tam // September 21, 2020, 11:31 am
It was more difficult to be a stay-at-home father than to preach the Gospel, says the author, reflecting on Oswald Chambers' devotional, My Utmost for His Highest in his quest to find joy. With wife Wai Jia and their daughters. All photos courtesy of the Tam family.
When I stepped down from serving as an executive pastor in Canada last year, it was a difficult season. I was burnt out.
I lost confidence in myself about whether I could teach or preach again. Was this what the Lord had called me to do?
I wrestled with what Scottish evangelist Oswald Chambers wrote: When you have no vision from God, no enthusiasm left in your life, and no one watching and encouraging you, it requires the grace of Almighty God to take the next step in your devotion to Him, in the reading and studying of His Word, in your family life, or in your duty to Him.
With our second child on the way, I put those thoughts and doubts in the back burner. After all, we had to get ready to be parents again, on top of taking care of our firstborn, SF, who was then two years old.
Managing family life soon became my biggest struggle.
We returned to Singapore shortly after Baby EP arrived so that my wife, Wai Jia, a doctor, could fulfil her work contract with the government.
Even before we had recovered from jetlag, we were invited to a mission conference. Upon seeing familiar faces of ministers and missionaries, I felt the urge to jump back into full-time ministry. After all, there is a great harvest, and I wanted to be part of it.
I told Wai Jia that we needed to find a pre-school for our firstborn, SF. I saw the disappointment in her eyes but maintained my stand.
I (mis)placed my identity on my work instead of my relationship in Christ.
After a few days, as I reflected on our situation, the Holy Spirit spoke to me.
God revealed to me that my heart was not in the right place.
In our Christian life, we are often told to do something for the Lord. As William Carey, the famous British missionary, said: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
However, what is more important is the motive behind the action.
So what was wrong with my motive?
I thought I was doing it for the Lord, but I was wrong.
I wanted to go back to full-time ministry because I wanted to prove to myself and others that I was a good minister. I (mis)placed my identity on my work instead of my relationship in Christ, which was paid for by Jesus dying on the cross.
Minister of home affairs
As Wai Jia and I discussed our situation, I realised that the Lord was leading me not into traditional full-time ministry, but towards being a full-time stay-at-home dad.
How did we come to this conclusion?
Firstly, Wai Jia had to work full-time because she had a work contract to fulfil. Even if SF went to school, who would take care of Baby EP?
Secondly, it made no financial sense for me to work, since most of my income would go to childcare.
Thirdly, the Lord was not opening any doors for me. Could I go and seek ministry opportunities by asking around? Of course. But based on my walk with Jesus, this should not be the way.
Many times, when we struggle, we often ask God for a breakthrough to fix our problems.
This time, however, the breakthrough did not come from someone taking over my role as a father. The breakthrough came when I accepted my reasonable duty to take care of my family.
For me, it took much more of the grace of God, and a much greater awareness of drawing upon Him, to take that next step than it did to preach the Gospel.
If Jesus could stoop down and wash His disciples’ feet, what tasks are too demeaning for us to do?
Being a stay-at-home dad was my next step. And yes, it was much harder for me to do than to preach the Gospel.
If I had stood out in Canada as a father when I took my girls out, I stood out even more in Singapore. Wherever I go with my two girls, with EP on my shoulders and SF holding my hand, everyone stares at us.
How amazing are the spiritual lessons we learn when we seek God in our everyday lives.
I am learning that the focus is not on what others think of me. Rather, it is how God thinks of me.
Do I get irritated by those stares? Sometimes. I am learning to let go because I can’t control what others think of me. More importantly, I realise my goal is to help my daughters experience the love of God through the love of their earthly father.
Washing dishes for love
It is easy to lose interest and give up when we have no vision, no public acknowledgement, and no improvement, but only experience our everyday life with its trivial tasks.
When Wai Jia first started work, I was fine looking after the girls for a few days. But by the end of the week, I was depressed as a stay-at-home dad.
The thing that really testifies for God is steady perseverance, even when the work cannot be seen by others.
I would be so down that Wai Jia had to look after the kids so I could have some alone time. After that, I would bounce back to my normal self.
There were many nights when I confided to Wai Jia that I felt like I was wasting my time as a stay-at-home father. My routine is the same every day. Take the girls out to the food court, library, and supermarket. Then go home. At home, I do the laundry, and clean up.
Wai Jia is very understanding. Even with her hectic work schedule, she often gives me quiet time by taking the girls. Yet, I often feel insignificant with all these trivial tasks.
The thing that really testifies for God and for the people of God in the long run is steady perseverance, even when the work cannot be seen by others.
Whether I wash dishes or preach, it only matters if my motivation is out of love for the Lord.
And the only way to live an undefeated life is to live looking to God.
A few years ago, when I was energetic to serve God, I told Him that I would clean toilets for Him. Behold, the day has come!
I am also learning that my identity is not founded on what I do. I am not a bad Christian if I am not part of a Christian programme. I am also not a better Christian if I am serving in multiple ministries.
So whether I wash dishes or preach, it only matters if my motivation is out of a love for the Lord. None of these should affect my self-esteem. If I am feeling self-pity, it means my flesh, the sinful part of me, is ruling over my life.
If we ask God to keep the eyes of our spirit open to the risen Christ, it will be impossible for drudgery to discourage you.
The more I saw how I could help my girls experience God, the less discouraged I became.
During this, I reflected on Jesus washing His disciples’ feet (John 13). The more I reflected, the more I saw how I could help my girls experience God, the less discouraged I became.
At the start of the new year, Wai Jia noticed something different about me. I stopped having episodes of depression. The drudgery of being a stay-at-home dad no longer discourages me.
If you are in the same position, never allow yourself to think that some tasks are beneath your dignity or too insignificant for you to do, and remind yourself of the example of Christ in John 13:1-17.
Now when I take the girls out, I don’t feel ashamed. I am learning to up my game. I used to worry about what other people thought of me when I acted silly in front of my girls. But now, I feel that if I have to act like a fool for my children to understand the joy of our Heavenly Father, then I would gladly do so.
A while ago, a cashier at the supermarket said to me in broken English: “You … you … a house mother!”
Previously, I would have been upset.
As I continued to meditate on John 13, I smiled. At the end of the day, it is not how people think of me or even what I think of myself. Ultimately, I live for the audience of One, and He who thinks of me is the only thing that matters in life.
If Jesus, the Son of God, could stoop down and wash His disciples’ feet, what tasks are too demeaning for us to do?
I am challenging myself. Whether it is washing dishes, changing poopy diapers, or rinsing vomit off bedsheets (Baby sometimes eats too fast!), am I able to do so gladly, knowing that I am doing these things for my family, and more importantly, for the Lord (Colossians 3:17)?
Whenever I talk to parents with kids older than mine, they always say that they wish they had spent more time with their children, especially when they were younger, because they grow so fast.
Isn’t it gracious of God to put me in a season where I can invest the most amount of time with my children?
In the most profound way, God transformed my heart. Instead of feeling like I am wasting time watching my children, I thank Him for the joy of investing my life in my family.