Review of Fire Within by Wu Yung

Most Christians in the West have very little awareness of Christians and churches in other parts of the world. The name of Wu Yung (吳勇) is well known to Chinese Christians in Taiwan and elsewhere, but is practically unknown in the English-speaking world. There is an article about Wu Yung in the Chinese Wikipedia, but not, as of this writing, in the English Wikipedia (though there is a passing mention of him in the timeline of Christian missions, noting his pivotal role in commissioning missionaries from Taiwan to other parts of the world). So the publication in English of Wu Yung’s autobiography Fire Within (不滅的燈火) by OM Publishing/OMF Publishing in 2000 is a welcome contribution to cross-cultural understanding.

Wu Yung, or “Elder Wu” as he was often called, was known primarily for his work in churches in Taiwan, but he was actually born in 1920 in Xiamen, China. His family moved to Singapore when he was still a toddler. Even as a youth, his strong, uncompromising personality was evident, as he instigated small rebellions against the injustices of Western imperialism. The authorities punished him by exiling him to Shanghai at the age of eighteen. At that time, he was strongly opposed to Christianity, which he regarded as the religion of the West. Even after the conversion of his wife Bao Lian (賴寶戀), he remained obstinate. It was not until God rescued them three times in quick succession from a series of dire circumstances after Bao Lian’s fervent prayers for deliverance that Wu Yung began to reconsider his attitude towards Christianity. His own conversion happened almost “by accident,” after they had moved to Taiwan. One day he was weeping over his own neglect of his parents, who were still in Singapore.

At that moment I was passing the YMCA and heard people singing hymns. Hardly thinking, I went inside and sat down among the Christians. These were mainlanders who, because they did not know Taiwanese, rented the YMCA chapel to hold Mandarin worship services. That day among them the Spirit of God deeply touched my heart. When a man knows that he has sinned, his heart softens, and once the soil is softened, the seed of the Gospel can be sown. Consequently on that very day I opened my heart to receive Jesus Christ to be my Saviour and began living a life of faith.

Wu Yung’s life as a young Christian was filled with drama. A natural leader with boundless enthusiasm and powerful convictions but not given to careful reflection or planning, he often found his ambitions running far ahead of his means. Yet time and time again, the book testifies to how God would miraculously provide all that was needed for his family and his ministry, despite Wu Yung’s own lack of resources and (sometimes) rash behavior.

Perhaps the most striking miracle from this period of Wu Yung’s life was his recovery from cancer. The low point came when the surgeons opened up his abdomen but sewed him back up because there was nothing they could do.

The surgery was very long. Right from the beginning things did not look good. As expected the surgical team had to separate the intestines from the peritoneum. Even as they did so, they could see that the smaller bowel was speckled, as if bitten by mosquitoes. When they cut into the cardia, the opening of the oesophagus into the stomach, they found that the stomach showed signs of the invasion of cancer cells as well. Because of this, Dr Wang decided that the operation could no longer proceed and ordered his team to sew the incisions back together. The surgical team’s inability to help me made them feel sad. Obviously my illness was already in its terminal phase. Neither surgery nor medicine could intervene. That third day of May was very black.

Despite this prognosis, Wu Yung did not lose faith. His daughter and his wife received words from God that he would be healed, and he himself received a vision of the Jews crossing the Jordan River that strengthened his faith. Wu Yung marks the moment of his healing to a bath he took in the hot springs of Yangming Mountain, when he realized that the hard lump in his abdomen had disappeared. He lived to be 85 years old, and never again experienced a return of the cancer that had seemed certain to claim his life.

The book goes on to give numerous anecdotes from the rest of his life and his ministry—too many to list here. But the same theme runs throughout: God would always miraculously provide, often in spite of his own sinful nature. Wu Yung’s zeal for Christ is evident on every page, and the way God used him to grow the church in Taiwan and elsewhere is amazing.

In addition to its obvious inspirational value, Wu Yung’s autobiography provides some revealing looks into Wu Yung’s theology and, indirectly, some of the beliefs and practices of Chinese Christian churches. For example, Wu Yung regards Gideon’s use of the fleece as a laudable example to be emulated when seeking the will of God. He also seems to favor the practice of taking random passages of Scripture out of their original context to discern what God is saying to him about his current life situation.

The chapter entitled “Standing Against Wrong” is particularly notable for its insight into Wu Yung’s theology. Wu Yung never received formal theological training, but in spite (or maybe because?) of this, he developed many unshakable theological convictions. I will give just one example. Wu Yung accused a Catholic priest of idolatry because he would kneel before a statue of Mary when he prayed. The priest vehemently denied the charge:

Protestant Christians pray in front of nothing, which makes it difficult for the mind to concentrate. With an object in front of us while we pray, our minds find it easier to keep focused. I kneel in front of the statue of Mary, not to worship her, but to help my mind concentrate while I pray.

The book continues:

His words were an excuse. Surely to kneel is to worship. Already our friend, I felt, had been brainwashed. Brother Wang and I left the Catholic residence feeling grief and sadness for the man. We had done our best to admonish him; now it was up to him as to whether or not he chose to listen.

If China continues its global economic ascent, the Western church can expect to have increasing contact with the Chinese church in the decades to come. Careful reading of books like Fire Within should promote greater understanding of the similarities and differences between East and West, which is vital if the two are to become effective partners in advancing the kingdom of God.

Posted October 2011

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