Watchman Nee: 1903 - 1972
Watchman Nee was born as Nee Shu-tsu in Foochow, China, in 1903, into a third-generation Christian family. His paternal grandfather was the first Congregationalist pastor in northern Fukien province. His father studied in the American Methodist College in Foochow, and his mother was educated in the Chinese Western Girls' School in Shanghai.
Nee excelled at Anglican Trinity College in Foochow. After being saved in 1920, he adopted the English name Watchman Nee and the Chinese name To-sheng, meaning "the sound of a watchman's rattle." Through missionary Margaret E. Barber, he obtained the foundation of his spiritual life. In 1934, Watchman Nee married Charity Chang. They had no children.
Nee's preaching led to a spiritual revival in Foochow in 1923. Thereafter, he faithfully labored to minister the great truths of the Bible. He built a training center and held conferences for the perfecting of seeking believers. He financially supported Christian coworkers and needy saints. By 1949, he had been used in raising up hundreds of local churches-one in every major city of China's thirty-three provinces. Many of his messages have been compiled into book form, yielding a treasury of Christian literature. His writings and hymns continue to minister to Christians today.
His entire Christian life, Nee endured a steady battery of religious and political persecutions, culminating in imprisonment in 1952. Even so, he firmly maintained his overcoming testimony to the end. He died a martyr of Jesus Christ on May 30, 1972. Written just hours before he died, in shaking hand, are his final words:
I die because of my belief in Christ.
Framed quote in a Philippine meeting hall:
God pays attention more to what we are than to what we do. The real work is the outflow of life. The service that counts is the living out of Christ.
Let Us Contemplate the Grape Vine
Hymns. Anaheim, California: Living Stream Ministry, 1980.
Let us contemplate the grape vine,
From its life now let us learn,
How its growth is fraught with suff'ring,
Midst environment so stern;
How unlike the untamed flowers
Growing in the wilderness
In a maze of wild confusion,
Making patterns numberless.
But the blossoms of the grape vine
Without glory are and small;
Though they do have some expression,
They are hardly seen withal.
But a day since they have flowered
Into fruit the blooms have grown;
Never may they wave corollas
With luxuriant beauty shown.
To a post the vine is fastened;
Thus it cannot freely grow;
When its branches are extended,
To the trellis tied they go.
To the stony soil committed,
Drawing thence its food supply;
It can never choose its own way,
Or from difficulty fly.
Oh, how beautiful its verdure,
Which in spring spreads o'er the field.
From life's energy and fullness
Growth abundant doth it yield.
Till it's full of tender branches
Twining freely everywhere,
Stretching ‘gainst the sky's deep azure
Tasting sweetly of the air.
But the master of the vineyard
Not in lenience doth abide,
But with knife and pruning scissors
Then would strip it of its pride.
Caring not the vine is tender,
But with deep, precision stroke
All the pretty, excess branches
From the vine are neatly broke.
In this time of loss and ruin,
Dare the vine self-pity show?
Nay, it gives itself more fully
To the one who wounds it so,
To the hand that strips its branches,
Till of beauty destitute,
That its life may not be wasted,
But preserved for bearing fruit.
Into hard wood slowly hardens
Every stump of bleeding shoot,
Each remaining branch becoming
Clusters of abundant fruit.
Then, beneath the scorching sunshine,
Leaves are dried and from it drop;
Thus the fruit more richly ripens
Till the harvest of the crop.
Bowed beneath its fruitful burden,
Loaded branches are brought low⎯
Labor of its growth thru suff'ring
Many a purposed, cutting blow.
Now its fruit is fully ripened,
Comforted the vine would be;
But the harvest soon is coming,
And its days of comfort flee.
Hands will pick and feet will trample
All the riches of the vine,
Till from out the reddened wine-press
Flows a river full of wine.
All the day its flow continues,
Bloody-red, without allow,
Gushing freely, richly, sweetly,
Filling all the earth with joy.
In appearance now the grape vine
Barren is and pitiful;
Having given all, it enters
Into night inscrutable.
No one offers to repay it
For the cheering wine that's drunk,
But ‘tis stripped and cut e'en further
To a bare and branchless trunk.
Yet its wine throughout the winter
Warmth and sweetness ever bears
Unto those in coldness shiv'ring,
Pressed with sorrow, pain, and cares.
Yet without, alone, the grape vine
Midst the ice and snow doth stand,
Steadfastly its lot enduring,
Though ‘tis hard to understand.
Winter o'er, the vine prepareth
Fruit again itself to bear;
Budding froth and growing branches,
Beauteous green again to wear;
Never murmuring or complaining
For the winter's sore abuse,
Or for all its loss desiring
Its fresh off'ring to reduce.
Breathing air, untainted, heavenly,
As it lifts its arms on high,
Earth's impure, defiled affections
Ne'er the vine may occupy.
Facing sacrifice, yet smiling,
And while love doth prune once more,
Strokes it bears as if it never
Suffered loss and pain before.
From the branches of the grape vine
Sap and blood and wine doth flow.
Does the vine, for all it suffered,
Lost, and yielded, poorer grow?
Drunkards of the earth and wanderers,
From it drink and merry make.
From their pleasure and enjoyment
Do they richer thereby wake?
Not by gain our life is measured,
But by what we've lost ‘tis scored;
‘Tis not how much wine is drunken,
But how much has been outpoured.
For the strength of love e'er standeth
In the sacrifice we bear;
He who has the greatest suff'ring
Ever has the most to share.
He who treats himself severely
Is the best for God to gain;
He who hurts himself most dearly
Most can comfort those in pain.
He who suffering never beareth
Is but empty "sounding brass";
He who self-life never spareth
Has the joys which all surpass.
Since Long Ago at Bethany We Parted
Hymns. Anaheim, California: Living Stream Ministry, 1980.
Since long ago at Bethany we parted,
Within my heart there is a ceaseless void;
How can I take my harp down from the willow?
How can my songs without Thee be enjoyed?
And when at night I'm keeping lonely vigil
Grown numb alike to sorrow and to cheer⎯
Then I recall the promise of Thy coming,
But sigh: O lord, why, why Thou dost not yet appear?
Thy manger wakes the thought: I too am homeless;
Thy cross strips earthly pleasures from my soul;
Thy coming bids me seek a better country,
For Thou Thyself art now my final goal.
Since Thou art gone my joy has lost its flavor;
My song the sweetness I would fain convey.
Since Thou art gone the sense of void o'erwhelms me.
Oh, how I long that Thou wilt come and not delay.
Though even now I know Thy loving presence,
Yet in my heart there's still a sense of lack.
Enlightening and tenderest sustaining
Can no more satisfy: I want Thee back.
Despite Thy peace within, I still feel lonely;
Despite Thy joy there still remains a sigh;
When I feel most content, the silent yearning
To see Thee face to face becomes an uttered cry.
What exile cannot but desire his homeland
And long his people once again to greet?
What soul on alien soil forgets his kindred?
What parted lovers never yearn to meet?
O Lord, how can these earthly loves and pleasures
With all the joy of Thy return compare?
Then, if I cannot here behold Thy countenance,
What can I do but sigh till Thou, my Lord, appear?
Could'st Thou, O Lord, forget Thy word of promise
Soon to return and take me unto Thee?
Yet day by day and year by year I've waited
And still I wait, and no return I see!
Remember, Lord, the years I have been waiting
While Thy dear footsteps linger far away.
How long? How long? Oh! Must I wait still longer
Till Thou shalt come again in glorious array?
From generation unto generation
Thy saints have come and gone, but have not seen
Thy glorious promise pass into fulfillment.
How long, how very long the time has been!
Why cannot we, dear Lord, discern Thy footsteps?
Why are the heavens still so closely sealed?
Oh! Must our waiting be prolonged still further
Before Thou in Thy matchless splendor art revealed?
Lord, I recall the many years I've waited
For Thy return-yet, Lord, not I alone,
But Thy dear saints through many generations⎯
Beseeching Thee to come back for Thine own.
To countless tears and countless fervent pleadings,
By Thine appearing haste to make reply.
Oh, may Thou come, the echo of the ages,
Come, come and answer now this mighty corp'rate cry!
Upon laying aside his beloved, Watchman Nee wrote this hymn:
How vast, immense, and measureless
The love of Christ to me!
How else could such a wretch as I
Be blessed so graciously?
To bring me back unto Himself,
My Lord His all did spend;
So I would gladly bear the cross
And follow to the end.
My all I have forsaken now,
This blessed Christ to gain;
Now life or death is no concern-
What else can me restrain?
My dear ones, wealth, ambition, fame-
What can they offer me?
My gracious Lord for me was poor;
For Him I poor would be.
My precious Savior now I love,
Him only would I please.
For Him all gain a loss becomes,
And comfort holds no ease.
Thou art my comfort, gracious Lord!
I've none in heav'n but Thee.
And who but Thee is there on earth
With whom I love to be?
Though loneliness and trials come,
My griefs I'd rise above,
This only would I ask Thee, Lord:
Surround me with Thy love!
O gracious Lord, I now beseech,
Guide me through every stage;
Stand by and strengthen me to go
Through this dark, evil age.
The world, the flesh, and Satan, too,
Do tempt my soul apace;
Without Thy love and strength'ning power
I may Thy name disgrace.
The time, dear Lord, is running short;
From earth my soul set free.
When Thou dost come, I'll sing with joy,
Hallelujah to Thee!
Maturity in Life
Time is needed for life to mature. Other than having a big head, young people cannot really be matured. Maturity is a matter of the enlargement of capacity. You must allow God to give you time to suffer beyond measure; then your capacity will be enlarged. Some could suffer the loss of five dollars, but could never suffer the loss of five thousand dollars. Some could forgive others two or three times, but the fifth time would make their hands tremble. One discovers by eating whether a fruit is raw or ripe. Raw fruit tastes sour and bitter and is tough and hard. Only ripe fruit tastes sweet and fragrant. Madame Guyon had the flavor of ripeness. She was a teacher to the elderly and a friend to children. The Christian life grows in a natural way. It is not a matter of being artificially ripened like the ripening of a banana with mild heat. The Son of Man came eating and drinking. With some people, their eating and drinking exposes their true condition. Life does not come as a result of spiritual cultivation. If you have the Spirit, there is no need of cultivation; if you do not have the Spirit, there is no way to cultivate. Lilies blossom and birds grow feathers quite spontaneously. There is no need for them to cultivate these features. Cultivation can only produce a "saint" according to the world's concept; it cannot produce a real Christian. It is sufficient to have the seal of the cross on the negative side. There is no need to strive to bear fruit. Striving only delays the growth of life; it cannot speed it up. It is important for us to receive God's arrangement in the circumstances. This arrangement is the discipline of the Holy Spirit. To escape God's arrangement just one time is to lose an opportunity to have our capacity enlarged. This will prolong the time required for life to mature in us and will even require us to make up this lesson in order to reach maturity. A believer can never be the same after passing through suffering. Either he will have his capacity enlarged or he will become more hardened. For this reason, when believers are passing through suffering, they must pay attention and they must realize that maturity in life is the sum total of receiving the discipline of the Holy Spirit. People may see a person who has matured in life, but they cannot see the accumulated discipline of the Holy Spirit which that person has received secretly day by day throughout the years.
Crosswinds of Change
In the first half of the twentieth century, China was buffeted by turbulence from crosswinds of change. Controversy swirled on multiple fronts: political, economical, cultural, and religious.
The newly formed democratic government confronted ancient Chinese autocratic rule. Capitalism rivaled communist philosophy for the hearts and minds of the younger generation.
The growth of Western influence endured bitter resistance from an ancient social culture that sought to keep China closed to the modern world. Buddhism's adherents challenged the advances of the Christian faith.
It was an age of issues, questions, tensions, and clashes.
The Real Battle
Even so, Watchman Nee had deeper insight concerning the apparent conflicts. Beneath the unstable surface, he saw that the real battle was between God and His enemy concerning this generation-at stake were the millions of souls in China and the testimony of Christ in this vast land.
Consecrated to the Lord
Prior to his birth, Nee had been consecrated to the Lord by his mother, who was a second-generation Christian. After giving birth to two girls, she bargained with the Lord, pleading, "If I have a boy, I will present him to You."
Her petition was answered in 1903 when Watchman Nee was born Nee Shu-tsu in Foochow, China. She could not have known how useful her consecrated gift would become to the Lord's work in China and beyond.
Born into a third-generation Christian family, his paternal grandfather was the first Congregationalist pastor in northern Fukien province. His father studied in the American Methodist College in Foochow, and his mother was educated in the Chinese Western Girls' School in Shanghai.
Sacrifice Being Greater Than Giftedness
Nee was a gifted individual, possessing a photographic memory. He excelled at Anglican Trinity College in Foochow-he rarely studied for tests, but consistently made the highest grades. The teenage student knew that his future was bright, and he had ambitions to achieve both fame and fortune.
Fear of Salvation
As night fell over the city of Foochow, China, spiritual conflict arose deep within the heart of seventeen-year-old Nee:
I experienced some mental conflict concerning whether or not to accept the Lord Jesus as my Savior and whether or not to become the Lord's servant.... At that time I was afraid of being saved, for I knew that once I was saved I must serve the Lord....
On the evening of April 29, 1920, I was alone in my room. I had no peace of mind.... My first inclination was not to believe in the Lord Jesus and not to be a Christian. However, that made me inwardly uneasy.... Then I knelt down to pray. At first I had no words with which to pray. But eventually many sins came before me, and I realized that I was a sinner.... I saw myself as a sinner and I also saw the Savior. I saw the filthiness of sin and I also saw the efficacy of the Lord's precious blood cleansing me.... I saw the Lord's hands nailed to the cross, and at the same time I saw Him stretching forth His arms to welcome me.... Overwhelmed by such love, I could not possibly reject it, and I decided to accept Him as my Savior.... I wept and confessed my sins, seeking the Lord's forgiveness. After making my confession, the burden of sins was discharged, and I felt buoyant and full of inward joy and peace.
A Changed Heart
Once saved, Nee adopted the English name Watchman Nee and the Chinese name To-sheng, meaning "the sound of a watchman's rattle." His ambitions previously devoted to worldly pursuits would now be directed toward serving Christ.
Sin and Reconciliation
However, despite his efforts to bring hundreds of classmates to Christ, he was not taken seriously! Through fellowship with Miss Groves, a missionary, he discovered the hindrance: "I immediately began to deal with my sins by making restitution, paying debts, being reconciled with my classmates.... Between 1920 and 1922, I went to at least two or three hundred people to confess offenses."
Nee also began praying daily for his classmates, and soon all but one of the seventy students whose names were written in his notebook were saved. But Nee still longed to be "filled with the Holy Spirit to ... bring more people to the Lord."
A Life of Service
Convicted by the Lord
Due to his fellowship with Miss Margaret E. Barber, another missionary, Nee became convicted of a deeper matter between himself and the Lord. After a struggle, Nee felt that his love for an unbelieving girl named Charity Chang-the daughter of family friends for three generations-had to be surrendered.
Who Has First Place?
Nee confessed his feelings concerning the young lady:
When I spoke with her about the Lord Jesus and tried to persuade her to believe, she laughed at me. I must admit that I did love her, but at the same time I suffered her laughter at the Lord I believed in. I also questioned at that time whether she or the Lord would have first place in my heart.
The Lord spoke to him through the Word while preparing for a message:
One day ... Psalm 73:25 appeared before my eyes: "Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides Thee." After reading these words I said to myself, "The writer of this psalm can say that, but I cannot. I discovered that there was something between me and God.
God's Unchanging Mind
The young man made every effort to distract himself from the Lord's word given to him concerning Charity. He related,
[I] asked God to be patient and impart strength to me until I could give her up. I asked God to postpone dealing with this matter. But God never reasons with people. I considered going to the frontier of desolate Tibet to evangelize and suggested many other enterprises to God, hoping that He might be moved not to raise again the question of my giving up the one I loved. But once God's finger has pointed to something, He will not withdraw it. No matter how hard I prayed, I could not get through.... I prayed constantly, hoping that my earnest supplication might change God's mind. Thank the Lord that all along He wanted me to learn to deny myself, to lay aside human love, and love Him with a single heart. Otherwise, I would be a useless Christian in His hand. He cut down my natural life with a sharp knife so that I might learn a lesson which I had never learned before.
"The World Appeared Smaller to Me"
Deeply convicted, Nee answered the Lord's call to "have none upon the earth" but Him. He later declared, "I was filled with His love, and I was willing to lay my loved one down." Obedience was followed by elation:
On that day I was in the second heaven, if not the third. The world appeared smaller to me, and it was as if I were mounting the clouds and riding the mists. On the evening of my salvation, the burden of my sins rolled away, but on that day, February 13, 1922, when I laid aside my beloved, my heart was emptied of everything that previously occupied me.
Soon, Nee and others expanded their gospel work, and "several hundred people were saved at the same time."
A Christ-Filled Life: A Love Returned
After ten years, the earthly love Nee had previously crucified in his heart was now returned to him by the Lord in resurrection. Charity had also believed in Christ, and a new godly love was rekindled between them. They were married in 1934, and she proved to be the helpmate he needed. They had no children.
Gaining Christ through Illness: Attacks on His Physical Strength—Tuberculosis
Throughout his life, Watchman Nee suffered from numerous physical ailments. At only twenty-one years of age, he contracted tuberculosis. He came so close to death that at one point his doctor advised him to put his affairs in order, for he would not survive the night. Rumors circulated that he had already died.
But by faith in God's Word, he was miraculously healed that evening, and all signs of the disease were forever gone. Nee believed that although his illness was an intense spiritual attack, it was allowed by God.
While still seriously ill, he wrote, "What I have experienced during my illness is most profitable. From the very beginning I prayed that I would gain from this illness what I needed, for I am not willing to be ill for nothing."
Relying on the Lord's Grace—Angina Pectoris
Though miraculously healed from tuberculosis, God allowed a serious heart condition called angina pectoris to remain. For the rest of his life, he was constantly aware of his human frailty. Like Paul's thorn, which limited the gifted apostle, this unrelenting heart ailment sapped Nee's strength, causing him to rely on the Lord's grace.
Often he was in great pain while sharing messages; breaking out into a sweat, he needed to lean against the podium in order to finish his speaking. Afterward, he could only lie in bed in pain. All during these physical trials, he affirmed the positive aspects of the circumstantial dealings in his life:
To escape God's arrangement just one time is to lose an opportunity to have our capacity enlarged. This will prolong the time required for life to mature in us and will even require us to make up this lesson in order to reach maturity. A believer can never be the same after passing through suffering. Either he will have his capacity enlarged or he will become more hardened. For this reason, when believers are passing through suffering, they must pay attention and they must realize that maturity in life is the sum total of receiving the discipline of the Holy Spirit. People may see a person who has matured in life, but they cannot see the accumulated discipline of the Holy Spirit which that person has received secretly day by day throughout the years. (See "Other Works" for full quote.)
Gaining Christ in Daily Provision: Supplied in Time
As one who lived by faith, Watchman Nee also had many experiences in trusting the Lord to meet his financial needs. In a message, he told this story concerning the Lord's provision of his traveling expenses while on a gospel journey:
When the time came for us to leave [for the provincial capital by bus], there was still no money in hand [for the ticket]. I packed my luggage as usual and hired a rickshaw.... When the rickshaw had been pulled about forty yards, an old man with a long gown came from behind shouting, "Mr. Nee, please stop!" ... After handing me a parcel of food as well as an envelope, the old man departed. I was then so grateful for God's arrangement that my eyes were filled with tears. When I opened the envelope, I found four dollars inside, just sufficient for a bus ticket.
He explained that he immediately sensed the devil's bothering him for trusting the Lord each step of the way:
The devil kept speaking to me, "Don't you see how dangerous it is?" I replied, "I was indeed a little anxious about it, but it is by no means dangerous, for God has supplied my need in time." After arriving in Amoy, another brother gave me a return ticket.
He then concluded:
I can bear testimony today that God is the One Who gives.... It has been my experience that God's supply arrives when I have spent my last dollar. I have had fourteen years of experience. In each experience God wanted to get the glory for Himself. God has supplied all my needs and has not failed me once.
A Humble Testimony
Nee learned how to accept God's sovereign circumstances and considered them as opportunities to gain Christ. For example, he developed successful companies solely consecrated for the financial support of Christian coworkers, the churches, and the Lord's work.
In the latter part of 1939, Nee's family desired that he help his brother in his pharmaceutical business. Though his brother was a qualified chemist, he needed help in business management. Nee reorganized the company and rendered it profitable. He built the business on such a sound foundation that, later, a dye business was added to it.
Around the same time, the Japanese invasion of China compelled Nee to move the factory to the interior city of Chung-king, the provisional capital of China during the Sino-Japanese War. He was also working for the Chinese government at this time. His necessary busyness during the war prevented him from active leadership in ministry, a fact that brought on undue criticism and misunderstanding from his fellow servants in the Lord.
While he was anonymously financing his fellow Christian servants, the very ones benefiting from his care started rumors that Nee had become worldly through working so hard at business. Nonetheless, he kept contributing to them while accepting their criticisms as from the Lord.
Nee once said concerning humility, "The lower we put something, the safer it is. It is safest to put a cup on the floor."
After the war, Nee brought the pharmaceutical factory back to Shanghai. Samuel Chang, Nee's brother-in-law, spoke concerning Nee's businesses:
I can bear witness that his motive was absolutely not to make himself rich. He was utterly captured by the Lord. Although he was criticized for going into business, I must testify that he did not spend the profit for his own enjoyment. The money he made was for the Lord, and he spent it in the way the Lord desired.
Nee learned to endure with grace whatever came against him as he sought to advance God's purposes in China.
The Effect of the Cross: The Power of Resurrection Life
Watchman Nee renounced any self-seeking use of his natural talents in exchange for the life of a grain of wheat falling into the ground. He was convinced that the power of resurrection life carried out in godly service would be immensely more fruitful than his own power of persuasion.
Thus, he encouraged others to live under the effect of the cross:
Beloved brothers, the time of the Lord's coming back is fast approaching. We must be faithful. In the days ahead we may suffer more misunderstanding and more severe opposition; but since we have been destined for this we should remain faithful.... Brothers, please continue to remember me in your prayers so that in all my afflictions I may be able to stand fast, faithfully bearing a good testimony for the Lord.
Imprisoned for the Lord
Watchman Nee refused the opportunity to flee China prior to the communist takeover in 1949. Rather, he chose to shepherd the flock there as long as he could. Consequently, he was imprisoned in 1952 and held unreasonably for years beyond his release date.
A Martyr's Death
Although it was his legal right, he was not allowed to visit his dying wife or attend her funeral. Furthermore, he was deprived of sufficient food and care, and thus he died an uncompromising martyr's death, true to the Lord after twenty years of imprisonment.
A note written with shaking hand was found beneath his pillow and later quickly memorized by a family member who came to the prison after his death:
Christ is the Son of God Who died for the redemption of sinners and resurrected after three days. This is the greatest truth in the universe. I die because of my belief in Christ.