Since Jacob was in love with Rachel, he told her father, I’ll work for you for seven years if you’ll give me Rachel, your younger daughter, as my wife.
Agreed! Laban replied. … Jacob worked seven years to pay for Rachel. But his love for her was so strong that it seemed to him but a few days. (Genesis 29:18-20)
Jacob didn’t really know what he was getting himself into. Neither do any of us when we commit ourselves to the call of God. We see visionary pictures and dreams. We are moved by stirrings in the heart. We don’t necessarily see the snags and snares hidden beneath the surface.
Perhaps it’s better that we don’t. Had Jacob known of the lies and deception awaiting him at the hands of his future father-in-law, would he have made the deal? It’s doubtful.
When my wife and I first met in Students For Christ in 1991, Melanie was studying engineering at Melbourne University. I was studying education at Monash. We went on a SFC mission trip later that year to the Philippines. Perhaps a bit romantically, I can say that we’ve been together ever since, first in preparation and then in service, in a cross-cultural setting overseas.
Like Jacob, a rare flame had been ignited in our spirits. We were sure that we were called to live outside of our home language and culture. We were idealistic enough, believing that God would make the way, but wise enough to know there were sure to be some hard miles ahead. Our ministry (Bible translation) is necessarily long term, and many things, most of which had not yet come over the horizon, would need to come into line.
When stepping out with God there are not always firm hooks to hang your hat on; no fixed term contracts, indexed salaries, or guarantees. The foremost promise for Jesus’ disciples is that he would make his presence a constant reality. And we marvel at how he scripts his drama to complete his story.
Just as Jacob initially had to work seven years for free, we also took seven years (1997-2004) of full time effort just to adequately prepare ourselves before arriving at our place of ministry. And I hate to think what would have happened if those two Melbourne city slickers, still wet behind the ears, had been dropped directly into a rural village in Cameroon.
Those seven years started with Bible college, followed by linguistic and cultural training, building team support, French language acquisition, and in-country training and internship before investigating possible project localities.
Along the way we’ve seen friends and colleagues with similar dreams and similar histories to ourselves who did not arrive at their dreamed of village – and these through circumstances far beyond their control. For example, when war breaks out in your intended country of service, forcing you to go home, this is not a reflection of your lack of faith, or lack of perseverance or anything else. It’s just part of the reality of life. And God is sovereign.
When we finally entered our village in Northern Cameroon in 2004, Buwal had no shops, no paved roads, no pipes, no electric wires, and no mobile phone signal. And in the last seven years, not much of that has changed. But, funnily, by grace, it now somehow feels like home. The village does now have a medical clinic operated by a registered nurse. And a new bridge over the river allows reliable entrance, where previously the village could be cut off from the wider world in times of heavy rain.
During these seven years of village life, in our tougher moments of sickness and isolation, we needed to be certain of our calling, knowing that God was causing everything to work together for good, for us and for those in our village. Temporal winds blow and certain plans, strategies, and directions are adjusted en route but the current of the calling runs deep.
We could never have attempted this ministry alone. That God has always sent the right people at the right time to propel us and give the needed courage and support is evidence that this is his work and not ours.
Jacob was tricked into working his second lot of seven years by his deceiving father-in-law. Did he feel cheated? No doubt. Yet he agreed to work his 14 years. Would we have agreed to our 14 years (seven pre-village and now seven serving in the village) if we knew beforehand what challenges we were to face? I cannot say.
Yet Jacob persevered, and by the time he had finished his 20 years working for Laban he was well rewarded. We too, feel we are coming to a more fruitful time where we can see our Scripture translations being produced and read in Buwal language.
I chuckle to myself when I consider whether the story of Jacob sounds a bit far fetched to our modern, Western ears. But there’s quite a lot culturally to which a Buwal person can relate. For instance, it is forbidden for a younger sister to marry before an older sister. Polygamy is common. We even have one neighbour, a young man named Gari, who through some unusual, unforeseen circumstances married two young brides in the same week.
With our team we have just finished translating the story of Joseph (i.e. the story of Jacob’s sons), with its challenges, sibling rivalries, and grain shortages (these being especially close to Buwal sensitivities.) These chapters from Genesis speak clearly of destiny and God’s sovereignty. We know this story will speak to the Buwal people, even as it speaks to us now.
So we are grateful to God for putting that flame in our hearts, and perhaps also for not showing us every twist and turn on the map before we left. We’ve experienced the pleasant surprises along with the hurdles, and would not want to be anywhere other than where God destined for us to live and minister. We are confident he will bring what he started to completion.
Michael and Melanie Viljoen have one son, Aaron.
They work with Wycliffe Australia and SIL Cameroon.
Melanie is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Buwal grammar through
the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology and La Trobe University