I first heard of Isobel Kuhn either in college or in the church where we were members when we first married, where there was an emphasis on reading missionary biographies. I’ve read her books By Searching: My Journey Through Doubt Into Faith and In the Arena (as well as her others) several times and know some parts of her story as well as my own. But I always enjoy reading them again, going over what’s familiar and being reminded of what I’d forgotten. Her name is well-known in some areas but not as well known, perhaps, as some of the house-hold names of classic missionary biographies, so I want to keep her story before people. She herself would probably be loathe to read that sentence, as she wouldn’t want her name to be promoted, but rather the God who worked in and through her. I feel the same, but by presenting her story I’m ultimately promoting His grace and work.
In By Searching she shares how she came to know the Lord. She had been raised in a Christian home in Toronto, Canada, and when she went off to a secular college, her parents took care to drill her in arguments against modernism and other affronts to truth that she would encounter there. In one of her first classes, her professor asked if anyone believed in heaven and hell, in Genesis, etc. Only Isobel and one other student raised their hands. The professor didn’t present arguments against the Bible: he only said, “Oh, you just believe that because your papa and mama told you so.” On the way home from class, Isobel examined why she believed what she believed in light of what she was learning in her classes and concluded the professor was right: she only believed because of what her parents said. She determined to “accept no theories of life which [she] had not proved personally” (p. 7). She wouldn’t say there was no God, but rather that she didn’t know whether there was or not, and instead of seeking out the answer to such an important question, she determined that, since one can’t know, then it really didn’t matter what one did. So she gave up going to church so she could sleep in on Sunday to rest up after parties and dances through the week, she set aside Bible reading, and she gave herself to the activities she had always been taught were “worldly.”
At first everything was pleasant and fun, but she discovered before long that nothing satisfied. One night she was so low that she even contemplated taking her own life, but a groan from her father in his sleep in another room reminded her of the devastating effect that would have on her family. She prayed, “God, if there be a God, If You will prove to me that You are, and if You will give me peace, I will give you my whole life.”
The rest of the book tells how He answered that prayer. “To find that He is, this is the mere starting-point of our search. We are lured on to explore what He is, and that search is never finished, for it grows more thrilling the further one proceeds” (p. 94).
The title for In the Arena comes from the thought that God brings His children to various platforms, or arenas, to show Himself not only to them but to anyone observing. The book overlaps a bit at the beginning with parts of By Searching, but it’s done for the purpose of showing God in various arena experiences. One of the earliest was the staunch opposition of her mother to her going to the mission field, even though her mother was an earnest Christian and even a president of the Women’s Missionary Society. Her mother wanted her to marry well and move in “good society,” and the thought of her daughter depending on the charity of others was more than she could bear. I’ve always thought Isobel’s response to this was ideal, praying and seeking wise counsel rather than adamantly opposing her mother (though there might be times when a person has to obey God in opposition to a parent’s wishes, but when possible it should be handled gracefully.) God did turn her mother’s heart, and continued to manifest Himself to Isobel through Bible college, leading her to her husband, calling them to China, various problems, frustrations, losses, needs, rewarding work, up through facing cancer at the end of the book.
There is so much I’d love to share with you that the Lord spoke to me about in these books…but I’d end up copying most of them here if I shared everything. But here are a few of the most memorable.
On the ship on the way to China, a veteran missionary was meeting with the new girls going over, and one day she said, “Girls, when you get to China, all the scum of your nature will rise to the top.” Isobel “was shocked. Scum? Was that not a strong word? All of us were nice girls, were we not? Scum? A bit extravagant surely. And so I was totally unprepared for the revolt of the flesh which was waiting for me on China’s shores. The day was to come when on my knees in the Lord’s presence I had to say: ‘Lord, scum is the only word to describe me.'” (In the Arena, p. 37.) She then went on to explain some of those “revolts of the flesh” included, in going to a poor area, the realization that it costs to be clean, being unprepared for true poverty even though she had tried to prepare herself, fleas, lice, bedbugs and such, food that she couldn’t take at first, the tribespeople’s lack of understanding the “odd” desire for a bit of privacy sometimes, etc.
In By Searching, she tells how one by one God led her to give up various “worldly” practices, and I feel I should say here that a modern reader might disagree with whether some of them were worldly. But suffice it to say she felt led to lay them aside (“All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.’ I Corinthians 6:12; 10:23), and she didn’t miss any of them. The thing that most stood out to me was her calling them “extinguished tapers” in comparison to the “Rising Sun.” I’ve often thought the emphasis in combatting worldliness shouldn’t be so much in opposing some practices that people can argue over, but in emphasizing love for Him, for in that love lesser things will fall away in themselves.
In another vein, when I first started reading missionary biographies, I felt they were such godly Christians that I should do everything they did. You run into trouble after a while, though, as some of them might do different things! She mentions one of those extinguished tapers was voracious reading of romance novels, “not the modern sexy novels, but clean, exciting love stories” (By Searching, p. 47.) She had trouble putting them down and felt the untrue-to-life plots would make her discontent with everyday routine. One night after staying up until 1 a.m. reading an exciting novel, she then tried to read her Bible, and it seemed flat to her and the Lord seemed far away. She felt it was like filling up with candy and ice cream and spoiling her appetite for good nutrition. So for about fifteen years she gave up all fiction, but she came back to the classics when she had to spend a lot of time alone in China while her husband traveled, because they were wholesome and, since she had read them before, they didn’t have the grip on her that some other books might. I would say that it is right and noble to give up anything that you feel might hinder or hamper your love for the Lord, especially in light of the verses in Corinthians mentioned in the previous paragraph, and some people may feel led to give up some things that aren’t necessarily wrong in themselves but they feel the Lord would have them put aside for various reasons. But I obviously don’t feel the same way about fiction as she did, though I know some who do. I don’t think there was anything in the way of Christian fiction then (this would have been in the 1920s or 30s), and even ice cream and candy aren’t inherently sinful but rather need to be kept in moderation. There is some fiction, even Christian fiction, that I would avoid, and if I felt even the good kind was a hindrance in any way, I’d have to reexamine it, but I don’t feel led to toss it out as a genre.
Something that stood out to me in this reading that I hadn’t remembered from before was that for a time she suffered from stage fright in leading meetings with a group of working girls while waiting to go to China. She had had to give a speech at her college graduation and her mind went blank during it, and that seemed to set off a fear of being in front of people. At times while girls were setting up for the meeting, she had to go to the bathroom for privacy and cry to the Lord for the nerve to do what she had to do. That touched me because I have done the same thing in bathrooms before meetings!
Another quote that stands out to me was in the context of seeking God’s guidance in whether to try to leave China when the Communists were taking over the area. A Bible verse on a calendar seemed to give direction one way, yet she knew not to take a verse at random out of context. She remarks “You only learn to discern His voice by experience. If you want to be able to hear it in the crises of life, you must first seek it in the common places of life” (In the Arena, p. 190).
I could go on, but suffice it to say that Isobel Kuhn’s life is an inspiration to me. She readily admits her flaws, but she steadfastly followed her Savior, and He worked mightily in and through her.
I have read all of her books, some of which tell more of the work in China. One, Green Leaf in Drought (linked to my review) tells of the last China Inland Missionaries to be released from China after the Communists took over. Another, Whom God Has Joined (also linked to my review), was originally titled One Vision Only and focuses on her marriage. It’s both poignant and humorous. One of my favorites is Second Mile People where she tells of some of the main people who influenced her life: I mentioned one in a previous post, A sense of Him. I want to read that one again soon. Also due to her writings I read two biographies of the man who influenced her for China, gave wise counsel in regard to her mother, and was her missions director in China, J. O. Fraser, in Mountain Rain by Eileen Crossman and Behind the Ranges by Geraldine Taylor. I’d love to read those again some time, too.
I hope you’ll explore some of her life and writings and will be as blessed by them as I have.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)