For Better, For Worse, For Always
In 19 years of marriage, Tan Kim Hock and Lily Yong, both City Harvest Church pastors, have been through good times and really tough ones. In this Valentine’s Day Special, they share their love story.
In 1990, when Tan Kim Hock was a student attending a “saturation session”—a time of prayer when Christians “saturate” in the presence of God—during a crusade, a girl caught his eye. “I remembered her because she came late,” he tells City News. A few short years later, the “sotong girl”, as Lily Yong describes herself, became the object of his affection, and on October 2, 1999, his wife. Today, they have four sons: Abel, 16, Asher, 14, Aden, 13 and Ansel, 11.
Tan, the academic dean of CHC’s School of Theology, and Yong, the pastor leading CHC’s Jesus for All Minds ministry, which caters to the intellectually disabled, have worked hard to keep their marriage filled with passion and commitment. They have seen each other through some rough moments, including Tan’s fight with cancer last year. Marriage is not always a smooth journey, but as Tan says, you have to fight for it.
CN: How did you get together?
Tan Kim Hock: We were both in Pastor Eileen (Toh)’s zone. I was in the army at the time. We didn’t do anything because I was on a five-year singlehood vow, and so was she.
Lily Yong: Pastor Eileen tried to matchmake us. But I told her he was not my type.
TKH: Initially, there was no spark. She was not my type either (both laugh). It finally started when I went out of Pastor Eileen’s zone and I was in (former pastor) Karen Yeow’s zone. During visitation month—we used to go and visit members at their homes—I was assigned to accompany Lily. That’s how we got to know each other better.
LY: In time past, Pastor Eileen created opportunities for him to send me home.
TKH: We only got together about a year later, a year after my vow. I was in university at the time, and she was in full time ministry. I was 22. She was 23.
When you started going out, did you already have marriage in mind? What was your courtship like?
TKH: Last time, when we got into relationships, it was for the long term. My mindset was always commitment. I think the relationship was hard for Lily—I’m slower, and dumber (both laugh); I was inexperienced because this was my first relationship. We had communication barriers.
LY: [In the course of dating] we had our fair share of quarrels and conflicts. It got so bad at one point we decided to take a break. I was unsettled because what I expected of him was not what I got from him. So, we decided to take a break and pray.
TKH: We prayed it through. I didn’t understand women, but I was serious about this relationship and I wanted to work things out.
LY: Personally, I had had a very bad encounter with someone I liked before. It was devastating. So, when I went into this relationship, I had expectations.
TKH: I’m not a romantic person (laughs).
LY: He’s not a very romantic person, he’s very practical, so that caused some conflict. Until I got my breakthrough [from the past], then we managed to work things out.
So, has it been smooth since then?
Both: No! (laugh)
TKH: In our first two years of marriage, we’d fight it out quite often, over certain disagreements, certain lifestyle differences. But we compromised. I think this is part and parcel of every marriage. Sometimes it got so bad—I remember one time she wanted to go back home. I blocked the door and I said “You cannot go out! Let’s settle this thing here and now.” So, we worked it through. I’m the more determined person. I want to work it out.
Pastor Lily, you are a year older than Pastor Kim Hock. Has your age difference ever been an issue?
LY: No, he’s not an immature person. In many ways, he’s more mature than me. I’m the one who loses her temper.
TKH: Thinking-wise, there’s not much difference between us in our maturity. Also, both of us having been in church for a while, our thinking is quite similar.
How did you know she was the one for you?
TKH: We prayed through. We met up with (co-founder of City Harvest Church) Sun before we got together. So, I would say when we started, I was already 80 percent sure. Of course, in the journey to getting to know each other, there’s uncertainty. But I was committed to working it out.
How about you, Pastor Lily?
LY: I’m a very accountable person. I would write each week to Sun and share with her about Kim Hock. I felt that this was the man I wanted to settle down with, so one day when we were both taking Bus 14 back home after visitation, I told God, “If this is the man You want me to settle with, You make him speak to me about it first.” Then he spoke! My heart was beating really fast!
What did Pastor Kim Hock say to you?
TKH: Something like “Would you consider going into a more meaningful relationship?”
LY: And I said, “I’ll pray about it!” (laughs) Then we met with Sun about getting married, which went very fast because I had already been updating her every week about him!
What is the main thing that attracted you to Pastor Kim Hock?
LY: The main attraction for me was his commitment to God and his faith.
What was the main attraction for you, Pastor Kim Hock?
TKH: I see her heart. She’s very sincere, very genuine. She really loves and cares for people. She’s someone who is serious about God. So that was a big attraction for me. We want to serve God together.
You are husband and wife and you are also colleagues. Does working in the same organization ever pose problems?
TKH: No, in fact it’s very helpful—because we go to the office together! (laughs) We are in ministry together and that’s enjoyable, because we share each other’s burdens and ministry challenges. And since we are in charge of different zones and ministries, there are no conflict points. Instead, we help each other with members sometimes. It’s very good.
What were your biggest challenges early in your marriage?
TKH: Communication. Sometimes, when she has struggles, she’ll be quiet but I’m more eager to talk. Sometimes she’s in the mood to talk, and I want to be quiet. Because we are both introverts by nature, so sometimes that introvert timing buay zun (is off). That creates a lot of tension sometimes, because she would be thinking “Why won’t he talk to me? Why doesn’t he love me?” and I would wonder “Why does she not want to solve the problem?” Such communication barriers were our main source of conflict, because we didn’t share each other’s hearts open all the time because of our natures.
LY: Yes, communication. If I have something to ponder over, I prefer to be given space. Because as the Bible says, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” so we don’t want to speak words when we are feeling angry. So, I would tell him, “You let me cool down first,” because I don’t want to say something that is hurtful. In the first few years of our marriage, because of miscommunication and unmet expectations, the “D” word (divorce) would come to mind quite a lot. It came to a point where I told myself, if we want this marriage to work, this “D” word has to be eliminated.
TKH: Over the years, this got better. We started understanding each other better. It made things much easier—we learned to give each other space. The “D” word has never been in my vocabulary. For me, when we are married, it’s for life…until I kill you or you kill me (both laugh). Divorce is not allowed. After a while in marriage, you can have fun, you can joke about things, and the relationship becomes lighter and more enjoyable.
Was having children a conscious decision?
TKH: We waited the first two years. We understood we had differences so we gave ourselves some time to build our marriage first. I think that’s very important, because if you don’t have time for each other—to “fight it out” at the beginning of the marriage—when the kids come, there would only be added pressure and more points of argument. So, we only starting having children two and a half years later. That was our plan, and that was helpful; I think we solved quite a number of things in the first few years.
We like kids because we’re both from big families. I’m the youngest in a family of nine. She’s also from a family of nine. So, children for us is not a burden, it’s something we grew up with. We like to have a big family but we told ourselves, not too big. We decided on a maximum of four. We did plan to have children in succession because we realized there were economies of scale. When you’re young, you are more energetic. To restart the cycle [after a number of years], it’s a bit challenging. Now that our children are older, we’re more relaxed.
Pastor Kim Hock, you had cancer last year. Could you share your experience with us?
TKH: It was quite sudden. For seven to 10 days in May last year, I felt there was a bloatedness in my stomach, and then some cramps, and I couldn’t pass motion smoothly. In the beginning, it was not painful, it was bearable. Just that some nights I didn’t sleep that well. But my wife got concerned and said “Go and have it checked, it’s been a week already.” I thought I was still okay—you know guys, we don’t bother much. But I said, Okay, and so one Thursday, I finished teaching at Bible School for the week, and I scheduled an appointment for Friday. On Friday I went for the check-up and on Saturday I had an operation. It was almost immediate.
We saw Dr Francis Seow-Choen (a fellow church member) who is a colorectal doctor. We felt he was the safest choice—he’s very experienced. He put me through all the necessary scopes and scans, and had the lab expedite the results. Then he gave me advice and choices, and we decided to go for operation immediately, the next day. Everybody was surprised that it all happened so fast!
The diagnosis was rectal cancer. Initially, we thought it was Stage Three cancer, because it seemed there might have been some spread, but it turned out to be Stage Two, so it was quite well-controlled.
If not for Lily’s advice, I wouldn’t probably have ignored my symptoms. Men are like that: if we can still carry on for a while, we would, until it becomes unbearable. The pain was still very bearable (laughs), but physically I felt tired and weak. There was also backache.
Did cancer come as a shock to you?
TKH: I’ve been healthy all my life; I seldom fall sick. I eat reasonably healthily. As we grow older, we try to eat healthier. I was on a schedule of broccoli juice every day to keep myself healthy. We tried our best, but when cancer comes, it comes.
Pastor Lily, how did you feel on that Friday at the clinic?
LY: After Kim Hock had gone through a couple of tests, we went back into Dr Francis’ office and he told us his initial suspicions of what it could be. If I say I wasn’t fearful, that would be lying. I was feeling a bit fearful and thoughts of cancer filled my mind, like how long the process will take, what kind of cancer is it?
As pastors, we minister to members, and we know the impact of cancer. It is one thing to have others breaking the news to you—“My loved one has cancer”—but it’s quite another when you yourself experience it, when your loved one has cancer. So, throughout the whole time in Dr Francis’ office, while he was telling us the diagnosis—
TKH: You were trying to be calm.
LY: Not so much calm but collected. I think Dr Francis was very concerned about me, he kept asking me, “Are you okay?” He kept assuring me, “Don’t worry, he will be fine.” When Kim Hock went in to do the scope, Dr Francis came out and talked to me. There I was trying my hardest to hold back my tears, because I knew the seriousness of it all. Dr Francis kept asking me “Do you need someone to be with you?” but at that moment, internally, I was like “Just leave me alone, I need the space, I don’t need another person to come and talk to me!” But I told him “I’ll be fine, it’s okay.” I sat outside the operating room and started to text Pastor Eileen, Sun, Pastor Bob, Pastor Aries. Sun was shocked but assured me everyone was praying. That gave me calmness in my heart, that there’s someone standing in the gap for us.
What about you, Pastor Kim Hock? What went through your mind?
TKH: I only had two questions: one, if I go in, will I come out? Because if I wouldn’t, then I had to say goodbye. Two, I asked, “Can I still go on holiday to Taiwan three weeks later?” (laughs) We actually went on our holiday, then I came back for another operation.
It was the grace of God. I felt at peace, I felt calm. I don’t think I was fearful. I’m not belittling it—it’s a serious thing. But in the midst of the challenge, I felt peace and calm. Because we have been in church all this while, we know God is faithful. He has been faithful all this while, so I don’t think this thing will cause me to doubt His character. If He allows it, He has grace for it. If it’s time to go, I’m happy to go. I always tell my wife that. We have this mindset—that’s how we live our lives. To live is Christ, to die is gain. I really mean that.
LY: I always tell him, “Let me go first!” (laughs)
TKH: We weren’t so afraid, though of course we were concerned about the whole journey: the impact on our family, the impact on the church, and I was worried about Bible School, and the different needs of the students. These were our considerations. But we weren’t so worried about our lives, because I think that’s taken care of by God.
LY: In our group chat with Sun, he kept on apologizing for being out of action; “Sorry this had to happen, I cannot be around for Bible School”, till Sun had to tell him to stop apologizing! All he was concerned about was Bible School, because everything now rested on the shoulders of Sun and Pastor Bob and Pastor Aries—that was his concern: not wanting to add more burden.
TKH: At that time, the church had just received the High Court’s verdict (April 2017). So it was like it all happened at the same time. We were concerned about the impact of that.
How is your recovery now?
TKH: I’m almost back to normal. My last scan was all good—all clear. I need to do another scan next month. We have faith it will not come back, but even if it comes back, we just take it with a good heart, and we’ll leave it with God. I did one round of chemotherapy, but I realized that it’s very heavy on the body. I read up and I realized that actually, in my case, chemo doesn’t help that much. It lowers my risk only by seven percent—in cases where the operation is successful and the body is clear of cancer, if you do chemo, you only reduce chances of recurrence by seven to eight percent. So, I tell myself I’d rather have faith in God than put the body through another big strain. I did one round of chemo, and I felt I had no faith (for it to work). That was the most difficult time, going through chemo. When I stopped chemo, I felt more at ease, and my body recovered quite fast. By August last year, I was back in SOT, doing some minor teaching; by October I was travelling. But the struggle is the bowels. Because they removed the rectum, my holding power is weaker. Now it’s better, but early on it was more out of control. Certain times, even when I was at home, I would soil (my pants) because the need to go is too urgent and I cannot control it. It still happens once in a blue moon but it’s much better.
Usually during preaching I have no problem. I tell God “Please don’t let me go through that halfway through preaching!” But there are still moments when you need to go toilet quite frequently. It takes a while to recover, to get stabilized. Apart from that, it’s good.
Were there Scriptural verses that helped you both through that difficult period?
LY: I think, initially, when we got to know that it was cancer, I was in a state of “God why did You allow this to happen?” So I was feeling a bit… not angry with God, but we’d given our youth, we’ve given our all in serving God, so why did He allow such a thing to happen to us?
I remember when Kim Hock was in hospital, I was praying and seeking the face of God. One day, I read 2 Chronicles 20. It talks about the life of Jehoshaphat, how the enemy came and wanted to attack him. Instead of running into his cave to hide himself, he went to seek the face of God, and he also commanded his people to fast and pray. God showed up and God showed him three things he wanted him to do: to position himself, to stand still and to watch the victory of the Lord. Jehoshaphat didn’t even need to fight the battle because God would be the One to fight the battle.
Reading that chapter encouraged me because it felt like my situation. Out of the blue, we had to face this, and it was my battle. So, I told God, “If You need me to position myself in You, knowing once again Your character, Your nature, God, You will let relearn about You. I will be still.” But having said that, being still doesn’t mean I’m being passive. Because the Bible says, having done all we need to stand. (Eph 6:13). And that was the word that God encouraged me with, to really position myself, to stand still and watch the victory of the Lord. And as I finished the whole chapter, I was very blessed, because throughout the whole battle, Jehoshaphat didn’t fight. You know how he fought? He praised and worshiped. Through that praise and worship, God brought confusion upon the enemies’ camp and they started to fight among themselves, and that’s how he won the war. Furthermore, God brought them into a land of abundance called the Valley of Blessings. So, I believe whatever we have been through, in this season of our lives, though it’s not a battle we wish we fight, we know it’s a battle that is not ours. So, when we go through this, and we position ourselves, stand still and watch God’s victory, I’m sure God will bring us to our valley of blessings.
TKH: For me, Romans 8:28 is a key verse I hold on to. Sometimes we don’t need to know why things happen. Over the years we’ve come to know there’s no need to ask why. When it happened, I asked God, “What do you want me to do? What do you want me to learn?” [The episode] was good because finally I had time to pray more, to read more, to meditate more (laughs). So it was actually quite a good journey for me, even though there was pain. I had time to ponder, to reflect, to spend time with God and with Lily. So, it was a blessing in disguise. In the midst of all the challenges, you feel at peace and you let God work all this for good. You just have to go along with Him, and trust Him.
How did you tell your children about the cancer?
TKH: We told them much later, after the operation.
LY: They didn’t know what kind of operation he went for.
TKH: There was too much uncertainty so we didn’t see the need to confuse them or worry them. After the operation, they came to hospital to visit me, and we explained to them what was going on. It was done very calmly.
LY: They were worried. They cried.
TKH: We tried to do it as peacefully as possible, to assure them “Everything is okay, everything is under control. It will be all right, just pray.”
LY: They asked, “Is Daddy okay? When is he going to recover? Will this cancer be healed?”
TKH: When they saw me more often, and I started nagging at them, they knew everything’s okay! (laughs)
Did this episode make you more vigilant about practical matters like insurance?
TKH: Thankfully we had enough insurance cover, because the medical fee was expensive—it was close to $100,000. We had bought additional insurance and riders two years ago. The Lord provided: we had more than enough for the other expenses. So far, provision-wise God has been good—we have been blessed. But we have become more careful, especially when it comes to medical insurance. Now all the kids are covered with riders, and so is Lily. Because once you’re diagnosed you cannot buy any more insurance, that’s it. I can’t buy any more, but I’ll make sure that they’re okay.
LY: We met up with our agent to go through our policies and check that our coverage is sufficient.
TKH: I still will live a long life and serve the Lord’s purpose. Don’t worry about me.
How did this experience affect your relationship?
TKH: We grew closer. When you go through a challenge like that, it does make you rethink your priorities—what is important to you, what is precious to you. So, family is top priority. We had more time together during my recovery, so that really helped. I really appreciate her because she’s always around, always supportive, always taking care of all my needs. Sometimes when things happen, she will handle it first, she won’t wait for me to deal with it. I’m very grateful for that. So definitely we have become closer out of the whole ordeal.
LY: When this happened, my priorities shifted. Now, after God, it’s our relationship and marriage. I cherish Kim Hock more. I tell him, “Let me be the one to go first.” It would be unbearable for me to see him go.
TKH: We’ve learned to enjoy family life more. We are busy with work but at the end of day, when you come home you must have that place where you can communicate, share life with your family, loved ones, friends. It’s given me better perspective of balance in ministry and life. Enjoy life, enjoy relationships, because that’s what matters at the end of the day. We understand that even more now. So we go on holidays more regularly (laughs). Actually it’s something we have done together yearly as a couple: leave the kids at home and go and explore some place. Since my operation, we’ve been away for three trips. A honeymoon is good; it keeps the marriage going strong. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be meaningful; quality time spent together.
So, after all these years, has Pastor Kim Hock become more romantic?
LY: He’s still not so romantic. (both laugh)
TKH: So sad, after so many years.
LY: He tries! He does put in the effort. But there must be some room for improvement.
TKH: Or I’ll become complacent. (both laugh)
After 19 years, what do you know and love more about each other today?
TKH: She’s still a mystery (laughs). I realize my intuition about her was right. In the beginning, we were unsure but the more we’ve been together, the more sure I am that this is the woman I want to be with for the rest of my life. She is someone who is faithful, committed, sincere and she doesn’t pretend—she’s real. We don’t have to hide anything from each other, whether our finances or our ministries. We try to share as honestly as we can. I like it that way.
LY: For me, I still like his strength; I like his steadfastness, His commitment to God, his faith in God. Though sometimes I wish he could be more sensitive and less down to earth—he’s too practical. But I cherish him more. I thank God I found the right man, someone who really loves me for who I am.
5 Tips On Keeping The Flame Alive
Wise words for married couples from Pastors Kim Hock and Lily:
- GO FOR HOLIDAYS
Leave the kids at home. The minute the kids come along, it’s work.
- BE OPEN WHEN COMMUNICATING
Don’t sweep everything under the carpet. Communication is the key of life.
- DEVELOP TRUST IN EACH OTHER
When you’re a young couple, trust is a big issue that needs to be worked out, because you may not know each other that well. But give each other the benefit of the doubt. Trust each other, and talk things through. The stronger the trust, the easier it is to communicate.
- LOVE AND RESPECT ONE ANOTHER
There will be times you don’t agree. But when you love each other, you don’t have to understand everything about the other person. You have to make the commitment to love and respect your spouse. The more you love and trust each other, the closer you will become.
- HAVE FUN!
Have a sense of humor. Keep your marriage exciting. Laugh with each other, have fun together. This gets more important as you get older. You need to enjoy the journey together, so having fun, doing things you enjoy together, is important. Husbands, sometimes you don’t need to understand your spouse that deeply—just love her! Buy her whatever she wants, if you can.
by Theresa Tan