In the first half of 2012, I wrote my future self a letter. I had just completed my final semester as a business student at SMU and had gathered with a group of schoolmates to assemble a time capsule.
At the point of writing, I had no job, no boyfriend and absolutely no clue how my life was going to play out now that the training wheels were finally removed.
How did work turn out? Are you living out your godly calling? Remember you were praying for your calling. I really hope that by now, you have a better idea about what that is.
If I know her well enough, my 23-year-old self had no idea what was coming for her as the rest of her 20s played out. She was all fire, power and passion – loving God and creative work with the same energy and earnestness. I still see it in her writing then, the hope she had for the things she truly desired. It’s like she knew with deep certainty what God could do, even when she didn’t know how.
But if I had gone to her that day in 2012 and given her the answers to her questions from the year 2019, nothing could have prepared her for at least one big thing: That she had left the creative industry to enter full-time ministry – all before the age of 30.
This would be how God gave her what she truly desired.
I’m turning 30 on May 4, 2019. It’s also a marker of the end of seven years of working and almost three full years in Thir.st. And once again I am Joanne Kwok in 2012, with no idea of what is coming for me in my 30s, now that the years of becoming are over.
With the turbulence of adolescence left behind, they say that the 20s are the years of becoming because the decade of the most transitions is a crucible of sorts that forges one’s identity, sense of security and significance. One becomes one’s true self.
This is the decade that people start finding things they were born to search for: Love, calling, passions, personal strengths, financial security, internal peace and external direction.
I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on great campaigns and changing the world with Jesus.
I entered my 20s with straightened hair, an impressive collection of coloured tights and a bunch of ideas about who I was supposed to be.
At 23, graduating from college and convinced by then that I wanted to “spend the rest of my life working on great campaigns and changing the world with Jesus” (the unchanged mission on my Facebook wall), I had my sights set on a lifetime of agency work and corporate success that would one day translate to non-profit projects to assist struggling ministries with their branding and communications.
But I also had, in my little bag of ideas, a picture from the year before that had surfaced in my consciousness as I stood in a crowd of university students during a Campus Crusade camp, praying for the destiny God had for me. In that picture, I saw myself standing on stage, speaking to a multitude of people. They were in the thousands. At that time, I had never done public speaking in my life.
And right at the bottom of that same bag, where I rarely looked because of the sorrow that would overwhelm me, were ideas other people had given me since childhood to carry. Ideas of who I could be, should be and would be if I were smarter, gentler, thinner and more of everything than I was. And unbeknown to me then, they were the heaviest ideas of all.
Looking back as I turn 30, I can see how the past seven years could have been my years of un-becoming had the divine writer of my story not stepped in lovingly and introduced a plot twist called full-time ministry in the form of a faith-based website for young adults called Thir.st.
I have written about my journey into Thir.st and even the year that followed, but I’m only just beginning to put the pieces together in the greater light of my destiny. Coming into full-time as a Creative Producer of Christian media was never a position in itself but a positioning for something much larger than my finite mind could ever conceive.
In the first two years I wrote fervently of the burning and pruning I found my life beset with; if I thought giving up my creative career was the most painful reckoning I had ever faced, this was just the earliest calls of the bid to come and die, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words.
I lost a relationship that meant the world to me. I lost a role that I had come to define myself with. These upheavals, one after another, were enough to run me to the ground. The ideas at the bottom of the bag surfaced and wrapped their hands around my neck, like they had done so many years before: Failure. Shame. Disappointment. Despair.
“Father,” I remember crying out as I walked home late one night. “I have nothing left for You to be proud of me.”
“Child,” He said so clearly in my broken spirit. “Nothing is all you need.”
Even if I failed at work or ministry, He found me worthy.
And this I know better now, that great redemption follows closely in the wake of great reckoning. Losing my life and every worldly idea I had carried for it had actually saved my life – saved me – from myself.
It saved me from a lifetime of striving and trying to prove my worth. From defining myself by what I did or who I was loved by. As the Father and I set about removing the debris of human expectation, wounding words and traumatic experiences that littered my inner life like shrapnel against my soul, I found realignment in my identity, security and significance.
Before Jesus entered His earthly ministry at 30 years old, He was baptised by his cousin, John the Baptist. And as He emerged from the water, the Spirit of God descended on Him like a dove and He heard a voice from Heaven say: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
“This is my Son” – identity. Even if I didn’t belong to the creative industry or anywhere else, I was His.
“Whom I love” – security. Even if I was not loved by Man or the man I loved, He loved me.
“With him I am well pleased” – significance. Even if I failed at work or ministry, He found me worthy.
A friend shared this lesson with me during the lowest point of my walk through the valley, and it felt like I had heard the voice of God myself. You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
In the thick of my pain, I had my 10th public speaking engagement in September 2017. It was also the first time I would take the stage to preach, not just speak. The previous opportunities had miraculously presented themselves over the years; the inaugural one had taken place a year after I received that picture of me speaking – my first TEDx talk out of two.
At the end of that engagement, I was chatting with a few participants when a friend encouraged me to receive prayer from one of the intercessors. I resonated with most things the intercessor said, but there was something that jumped out: “‘I am putting the nation of Myanmar into your hands,’ says the Lord,” he said. “I see little children. Youth. Missions. I am bringing you to the nations.”
I admit that at this point, I began to doubt his credibility. But I recorded what he had said in my journal anyway and left it there.
Three months later, I was celebrating my father’s birthday with my family when my phone rang. Right across the top, where either a name or number should have been, read three plain words: “Myanmar is calling.”
What had happened in the natural started earlier that year, when a young girl from Myanmar visited my cell group for a few weeks as she had been in Singapore looking for a job. But she returned home when she couldn’t find employment.
Back then, I’d saved her number with her name and country, just so I wouldn’t forget. That day when she’d called me again to tell me she’d found a job in Singapore, only her country showed up on the caller ID. I cannot explain it, but God definitely can.
Almost exactly a year later, in September 2018, after a series of unexpected events, I set foot on Burmese soil for the first time to speak at a conference about our work at Thir.st.
That was not all. A week after my trip, I received a call from a total stranger that would eventually have me travelling to Kuala Lumpur to meet a school of Burmese refugee children. I cannot explain it, but God can.
Even when my eyes were too clouded with grief to see it, He was always doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). He was making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
He was making me more of me.
When I contemplated meeting my 23-year-old self, I immediately thought that she would be ashamed of me. After all, I’m older, much less attractive and have no roaring career to tell of. I still have no ring on my finger to show her, not even the boy she had looked forward to in her letter to me.
But if I know her well enough, nothing could have prepared her for the woman who stands in the threshold between her 20s and her 30s today. She is all fire, power and passion – you will see it in her writing, her stories, her voice – the person she has become in the hands of her Father.
This is how her life turned out. This is how she received what she truly desired.
And if the old me could see me now, I know somehow she would be proud of me too.