This is a book about Adoniram and Ann Judson, American missionaries to Burma in the early 1800s. Adoniram and Ann (New Englanders) were some of the first Americans to enter Burma (now Myanmar). It’s a tale of faith, tremendous suffering, redemption, loss, and hope. It’s also an amazing look into Burma in the early 1800s and their first interactions with westerners and eventually the British army in the Anglo-Burmese war.
When Adoniram and Ann arrive in Burma, it’s illegal for them to proselytize their Christian faith. In fact, Adoniram is told that if he converts anyone in the Buddhist country, that the convert will be disemboweled. Adoniram moves forward in faith, eventually gets a meeting with the Burmese king, and gets off and on permission to preach. Along the way, he befriends monks, is a translator between the Burmese and British, is imprisoned for 18 months, loses two children and a third through miscarriage, is near death in sickness multiple times, and eventually loses his beloved wife. Oh, and all by the age of 38.
There is one particular theme that comes up quite often in the book – seeking the face of God. In the Scriptures, man was not allowed to see God’s face, but Adoniram had an overwhelming desire to get as close to God as humanly possible. He wanted to see his face. Sarah Boardman, another missionary to Burma, and Adoniram’s eventual second wife after Ann passes away, says this:
“You dare to try to look on the face of God–which God Himself forbade us doing.”
Later on, she says:
“…if you keep up your terrible lonely effort to see God’s face, you’ll go mad. No human being can endure the struggle.”
Adoniram, in writing to his sister, stated:
“I believe absolutely in God but I cannot find Him…”
I don’t really know what to make of this. It would seem that seeking the face of God would be man’s highest pursuit, and yet it left Adoniram unsatisfied, disappointed, and soul-sick. Was it the wrong pursuit? Was it too high of a life purpose? I’m still grappling with these questions. It’s a book that definitely makes you think and doesn’t leave you with any cookie-cutter ideas of faith.
When I think of seeking the face of God, these are the things that come to mind:
- Being face to face with a person is one of the highest points of connection. Think of the difference between talking to someone over the phone and being face to face over a cup of coffee.
- The line from Les Miserables the musical of – “to love another person is to see the face of God.” That’s not in Hugo’s book and it’s cheesy, but I it comes to mind.
- The line in the C.S. Lewis book Till We Have Faces (Cupid and Psyche myth retold) – “How can they (the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces?”
The title of the book becomes clear on the very last page. First, Adoniram says:
“And when that overpowering craving comes to know Him–for it will come again and again–instead of turning to loneliness and starvation and horribleness, I’ll think on what Christ said. For He knew that our poor minds couldn’t yet grasp God and so He told us, I am the way and the truth and the Life.”
After that, in looking out at Burma’s natural beauty, the author writes:
“One might not see His face but one could see His splendor and love it unafraid.”
The book ends with Adoniram and Sarah walking into the valley they’ve been viewing. They enter into beauty. They literally enter into God’s Splendor.
It’s a picturesque ending and the start of a new love story for Adoniram, but it certainly didn’t clear anything up in terms of Adoniram’s faith. Was he redirecting to a lesser desire? I guess it’s something that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
Overall, this was a fantastic book, one that I was hoping wouldn’t end, and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I finished reading it.