John Sung – Spirituality and Spiritual Power

 

Patrick Fung is the 10th General Director of OMF International and the first Asian to hold this position. Patrick and his wife, Jennie, are medical doctors by training. He joined OMF in 1989 and previously served with Jennie in South Asia. His book on the medical work of the China Inland Mission (in Chinese) was published in July 2007.

 

 

Mission Round Table Vol. 6 No. 2 (Jan 2011): 12-15

Introduction

The name, John Sung, though a household word to some sectors of the Chinese Church, is not so well known to contemporary Christians, particularly to those in the West. This, despite the fact that Bishop Hwa Yung (from the Methodist Church in Malaysia) has commented that “Dr. John Sung was probably the greatest preacher of this century.”[1] He further suggests that “John Sung demonstrated an anointing which far exceeds that of most Pentecostal-charismatic preachers today. Yet few of us have bothered to learn from him (Hwa 2003, 1).” Leslie Lyall, a former China Inland Mission leader has called John Sung (Lyall, 1976) “the greatest evangelist China has ever known.”[2]

Born in a Methodist pastor’s family in China in 1901, Sung was already known to be a “little pastor” when he was a teenager assisting his father in preaching and distributing tracts (Sunquist 2001, 807). After finishing his time at high school, he had the opportunity to undertake further studies at Ohio University in the United States where he completed his doctoral studies in Chemistry in just under six years. A man with a brilliant mind and a potentially bright career waiting for him, he made the unpopular decision to return to China in 1927 with only one ambition, that is, to preach the gospel so that men and women could turn to Christ. John Stott has commented that “John Sung had a strong will but a hot temper. He could be abrupt and even rude. He desired to live unto God only and was alarmed by the plaudits of the crowd. He was on fire for God, ‘a living flame of gospel zeal.’ He never spared himself!”[3]

With his academic training, evidenced by his doctorate in science and his extraordinary temperament, Sung was both a man of significant intellectual gifts and a man of intense emotions. Like some Old Testament prophets, he was considered to be somewhat eccentric. While he was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a seminary with a reputation for a more liberal approach to theology, he was admitted to hospital where he spent six months in a psychiatric ward because seminary authorities considered Sung to be mentally unstable. Sung burned his theological books as “books of demons” and ceased to attend lectures. The Seminary has long since officially removed his name from the roll of students. One of the professors has said, “Union Seminary has nothing to do with John Sung.”[4] During those 193 days in the psychiatric hospital, Sung read the Bible through 40 times (Shubert 1976, 21). No doubt, the Word of God took effect in his life.

Though different people may alternative different views about this highly individualistic preacher, one thing is evident: Sung had an unusual and striking spiritual power which was combined with the idiosyncrasies of a prophet. Hundreds of thousands of people were converted through Sung’s ministry not only in China, but across South East Asia, in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and beyond. Spiritual revival swept across different parts of Asia in the fifteen years between 1929 and 1944 under the ministry of Sung, with what can only be described as “crowds of people” renouncing their sins and turning to faith in Jesus Christ. This brief paper attempts to look at some of the elements of Sung’s spirituality and the source of his spiritual power.

‘Holding the Word and Spirit Together’ [5]

Sung was known to be a student and a minister of the Word – almost to an extreme. He loved the Bible and he disciplined himself to read about a dozen chapters every day. Indeed, he read almost nothing else except the Bible and the daily newspaper (Hwa 1999, 9). This intense focus on the Christian Scriptures could explain why he could effectively expound chapter after chapter from the Bible in many of his sermons. John Sung’s preaching was never known to be “scholarly” but always “fearless”: the message of the cross was always central to his teaching. Whenever Sung preached, people could identify a man completely soaked in the Word of God and filled with such power that it was felt to come from above. Sung first visited Singapore in August 1935. He preached 40 times in fourteen days with unusual energy. Over 1300 people accepted Christ with over 80 young people dedicating their lives to future full-time ministry (Lyall 1976, Foreword).

Stott commented that Sung’s great spiritual power was generated when “the Word of the Cross is preached in the Holy Spirit and with prayer” (Lyall 1976, Foreword). However, some of Sung’s ideas from the Bible may at times seem fanciful: for example, he believed that heaven must be in the northern firmament because the stars are fewest there; he reckoned that hell was in the centre of the earth, because that is where there is fire (Lyall 1976, 145). Despite this, Sung made every effort to help his audiences to understand long sections of the Bible. He was not an academic theologian, but he constantly defended the truth, and spoke with passion “from above.” He held his convictions and debated unreservedly with those with liberal interpretations of the Christian message (Lyall 1976, 146).

Despite his passion in preaching, Sung never saw a conflict between being a faithful preacher of the Word of God and in embracing a full experience of the Holy Spirit in signs and wonders. He had no hesitation in praying for healing for those who came to listen to his preaching. Though not everyone was healed, Sung made it a practice always to include a service of healing at the end of his preaching sessions (Lyall 1976, 133). During one of Sung’s ministry trip to Southern China in 1934, he wrote in his diary:

I laid hands on 500 to 600 people as I prayed for their healing, and found this to be very tiring. I was held up by the Holy Spirit, however. A blind child, known as Zhang Shun, recovered her sight in a flash, and the congregation sang praises to the Lord. A thief, who was suffering from festering sores, confessed his sins. The pus miraculously discharged from his sores and his pain left him after I laid my hand on him and uttered my prayers!” (Levi 2008, 275)

In many of Sung’s ministries, signs and wonders were often accompanied by repentance of sins and reconciliation between long-standing enemies. Public apologies were made for wrongdoing. A new spirit of love and unity came into being in place of hostility and division in many of the churches where he preached. It is very obvious that John Sung, in all his ministries, held the Word and Spirit together. He always emphasized the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit in his teaching. In his personal devotional life, Sung not only regularly prayed, but he also often prayed in tongues, a gift he first received on the 25th March 1934 (Anderson and Tang 2005, 47).

Right from the beginning of the book of Acts, we can see that one of the key ways in which Jesus prepared his apostles for spiritual renewal at Pentecost was to give them sound teaching (Acts 1:2). In the records of the book of Acts, when we see the presence of a renewal of God’s people, as the one following the events of Pentecost, it is often accompanied by the presence of strong Biblical teaching. The book of Acts is also full of stories of signs and wonders. Contemporary evangelicals have too often dichotomized effective biblical teaching from signs and wonders, by embracing the former and rejecting the latter. Both are works of the Holy Spirit: the two are not incompatible. On the other hand, there is a danger among Pentecostal and charismatic movements to put too much emphasis on experience at the expense of the Word of God, whereas, Sung always tried to hold the Word and the Spirit together in his work and ministry.

Denouncing Sin Without Fear

Sung was never known to be a man of diplomacy, but he was a very genuine person. As John Stott has once commented, there was in Sung no trace of “the humbug.” Stott went on to explain this phrase saying that “Like Jesus, he loathed hypocrisy. He never hesitated to denounce with scathing candour the hollow mockery of nominal Christianity in people and pastor alike.”[6] Sung was not slow in pointing out the human sins of individuals in churches and congregations. Often during his preaching, he would ask searching questions. He would name sins, and have seekers all over the big church raise their hands when he mentioned their particular sins.

At one of the meetings in Nanking in May 1937 with 2000 people, Sung specifically asked the audience these questions (Shubert 1976, 52).

Do you hate? Father, mother, brother, sister, teachers, grandmother, daughter-in-law, husband, wife… Do you hate them in your heart? You must ask forgiveness, face to face, or write. If you will, raise your hand.

Do you borrow and forget to return money or don’t want to return them? On the train, did you borrow from a friend, and not return a handkerchief, books or umbrella? Raise your hands.

Did you steal from your parents, from your husband, wife, friends, or your business partner? Did you steal $500? $60? One cent? Return it. Did you ride on a pass when you had no right? Pay back the fare!

Do you look at pornographic pictures? Burn them!

Do you beat members of your family? Will you write a letter asking for forgiveness?

Many who came for these long-drawn seekers’ meetings confessed their sins and turned to Christ. There were many records of the work of the Holy Spirit where confession of sins from young and old, from laymen to leaders of the church took place when Sung spoke with such power from above. There were often scenes of deep distress and tearful repentance. Often the meetings became very “noisy” as people leaped for joy sensing liberation from their sins.

The Old Testament prophets and servants of God were not slow in condemning sins, sometimes in a very dramatic way. When Nehemiah heard the outcry of those who suffered from their own countrymen who exacted usury from them, Nehemiah was very angry. (Nehemiah 5:6). Nehemiah called all the nobles and officials together and told them, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God?” (Nehemiah 5:9). When Nehemiah found out men of Judah married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, he called curses down on them, beat some of the men and pulled out their hair! (Nehemiah 5:25). When Moses found out that the people of God had worshipped the golden calf, his anger burned and Moses threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces. Jesus vehemently denounced the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:25, 33) Jesus’ speech was certainly not meant to be misunderstood as entertainment.

One of the ideological challenges we face today is that of pluralism in the context of post-modernity. Sin is condoned and wrapped in the euphemism of “political correctness.” One Asian theologian, Carver Yu summarized the meaning of pluralism well. “It is an ideology that proclaims that truth is a cultural construction valid only for the culture that constructs it. It has therefore no bearing on another culture or system of meaning. There is no truth that can claim to be truth for all. All truths are relative to one another. The pluralist pushes the point further from cultures to individuals. The individual is “autonomous” in the sense that she is the law to herself ” (Yu 2010). Today, many cultures are more concerned about political correctness than about truth. There is a general aversion to talking about sin and judgement. Many people have commented that Sung was a gift from God for a time when China needed a prophetic voice in challenging people to repent and return to God. Is it not true that in every generation we need more “John Sung” type servants of God to challenge us to repent of our sins and return to the holy and awesome God?

Self-denial for the Sake of the Cross

Even in external matters, Sung did not conform. His personal appearance was never impressive with pictures of him always showing a man with a lock of unruly hair falling over his forehead. He ate simply and dressed simply; he often resented the praise of men and his seeming lack of graciousness did not give him many friends. His unorthodox ways often seemed to annoy the orthodox. For example, in 1927, as he returned to China from the United States ready with the one ambition to preach the gospel, he took all his diplomas, awards and medals and threw them overboard as the vessel was approaching Shanghai, retaining his doctoral diploma alone to satisfy his father (Lyall 1976, 41). There was one thing, however, that he clung onto throughout his life – namely, the cross. To Sung, the cross was not just to be embraced, but to be shouldered. “If any anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew. 16:24). Sung understood that Jesus’ basic call to follow him was a call to self denial and suffering.

In 1930, his three-month old son, Moses died of a sudden illness and Sung’s wife, Jin Hua, was herself ill. Three days after the son’s funeral, Sung left home for another bout of itinerant preaching ministry. “Without further delay,” he wrote, “I said farewell to my wife who was still on a bed of sickness and to my family and took a ship to Shanghai. I dared not look back to see my ailing, sorrowing wife, but steeled myself to follow Christ in the way of the Cross” (Lyall 1976, 54). For fifteen years, he travelled tens of thousands of miles and preached to hundreds of thousands of people. He was often away from home. His wife and family must, at times, have felt neglected.

Sung’s physical health was often problematic as he suffered from recurrent tuberculosis and had agonizing pain in his hip. During one of his itinerant trips to Surabaya, Indonesia in 1940, he had to preach in a kneeling position to lessen the pain in his hip but the pain continued. So long as he was preaching or praying he was not aware of the pain, but as soon as he stopped the pain returned. He told people that this was the Lord’s discipline for his bad temper and regular irritability (Lyall 1976, 177). In his diary, Sung wrote extensively about suffering. Near the end of his life at the age of just 42, he wrote, “It is through suffering that the Lord teaches me lessons in humility, so that I do not lose my abilities” (Levi 2008, 534).

The American minister John Piper has commented that afflictions are not merely the result of missionary fruitfulness but also the means. God has appointed our pain to be part of his powerful display of the glory of Christ (Piper 2009). We live in a culture of pain-aversion, where comfort becomes a right. “Suffering for Christ” is not a theme that is often preached in today’s world. Yet it would be wrong to preach about suffering without preaching about joy. Suffering and joy coexist for those who carry the cross and follow Him. The New Testament record is that suffering is hardly ever mentioned without also a mention of the blessings of suffering – and often the blessing mentioned is joy (Fernando 2007).

If self-denial was an outward journey in following Christ for Sung, then the spiritual battle against self was his inner journey. “I have been a fisher of men for many years and take great pride in this work. I gave all glory to the Lord at the first few catches, but became boastful about my own experience after many successes. Such is human nature indeed!” (Levi 2008, 535). While hospitalized because of a serious illness in 1941, he wrote in his diary:

I would like to invite Dr Zhu to come over and pray for me. I confessed to the Lord that 1) I had chased noisy children away whenever I saw them during my sermons. This shows that I am lacking in love. 2) Whenever I shared my testimony, I hoped to see as many salvations as possible, and as a result, I tend to exaggerate. 3) During the initial stage when I was blessed, I had spent much time in devotional studies, but when I had to deliver three sermons each day, I did not have enough time for this. 4) I stole the glory of God. 5) I was arrogant and looked down on others… (Levi 2008, 461)

Sung’s confession before God was blatantly direct and unpolished. There was a real yearning for the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit and this from a man whom God had used to bring thousands and thousands of people to repentance in Jesus Christ. On 27 Sept 1941, on his birthday, John Sung wrote in his diary:

I recalled that I had committed many sins over the past 40 years; arrogance, inability to work with others, lack of love and hidden sins. I can only ask the Spirit’s fire to burn, yes, to burn through all my filth so that the passion for souls in me will continue to burn. (Levi 2008, 497)

For John Sung, the source of spiritual power and spirituality is the same. His aspiration for the filling of the Holy Spirit – to enable him to preach with power, to perform signs and wonders, and to win people for the Lord – was paralleled by his deep longing for the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit in his own life. How often we long for the power of the Holy Spirit in order to see success in ministry, yet we do not have the same longing for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we may be holy and blameless, pleasing to God.

Conclusion

This poem, written in 1940 as John Sung lay ill in his bed, summarized his life (Levi 2008, 464):

Glory that we’re bearing the Cross!

Sweetly often do our tears flow!

Narrow indeed, Way of the Cross

God clears the path I now go!

 

Trials, sufferings and agonies,

In these I see God’s great care;

Accusations, tribulations,

Anguish of the Cross I bear!

 

Look up to God, O, Precious Cross,

Heavy burdens, now behind me!

Running onwards, the path ahead,

To Heaven I go, Lord with thee!

The cross remained at the heart of whatever Sung did. It would be a very sad mistake to conclude that John Sung was just a man to be admired because the Holy Spirit bestows His blessings upon a very few spiritual giants like him. On the contrary, God’s people have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ in the heavenly realms. The transforming power of the Holy Spirit is upon everyone who fearlessly walks the path of obedience to Christ. As such, John Sung’s life is to be carefully considered.

 

REFERENCES

Anderson, Allan & Edmond Tang, (eds.) 2005. Asian and Pentecostal – the Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Oxford: Regnum Books International.

Fernando, Ajith. 1998. The NIV Application Commentary on the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p.53 & 65.

Hwa, Yung. 1999. Beyond AD 2000 – A call to Evangelical faithfulness. Kuala Lumpur: Kairos Research Centre.

Hwa, Yung. 2003. “Sundar Singh, John Sung and the future of Asian Christianity.” Methodist Message October 2003: 7-9.

Levi. 2008. The Journal once Lost – Extracts from the Diary of John Sung (translated by Thng Pheng Soon). Singapore: Genesis Books.

Lyall, Leslie. 1976. Flame For God – John Sung and Revival in the Far East. London: Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

Piper, John. 2009. Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.

Sunquist, Scott W. ed. 2001. A Dictionary of Asian Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Shubert, William E. 1976. I remember John Sung. Singapore: Far East Bible College Press.

Tow, Timothy. 1985. John Sung – My Teacher. Singapore: Christian Life Publishers.

Yu, Carver. 2010. “Truth Matters – Stand up for Truth”. Advance Paper for the Third Lausanne Congress, Cape Town, 2010.

 


[1] Hwa Yung quoted from William Shubert, a long term missionary colleague with John Sung.

[2] In the Foreword of his book.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lyall 1979, p.39.

[5] This phrase has been used by Hwa Yung in the section entitled ‘The Holy Spirit and Revival” in Beyond AD 2000. Hwa Yung. 1999. Beyond AD 2000 – A call to Evangelical Faithfulness, Kairos Research Centre.

[6] John Stott, in the preface of the book, Flame for God – John Sung and Revival in the Far East.

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