He was only five when it happened.

In those days, young Ian loved watching his father play Chinese Chess with the neighbourhood’s older residents. In fact, he looked solely to his father for pretty much everything: Providence, counsel, instruction and protection.

After all, this man had taught him to ride a bike, play chess and everything else that fathers taught their sons in 1980s Singapore. On his father’s strong shoulders, he soared without care in the world.

But that day, everything changed. While his father was preoccupied with his game of chess, another man sat down by Ian’s side. Ian recognised the man – his mere presence unsettled him.

“He slipped his hands down my pants. I didn’t understand what was happening. I knew I was being violated. And yet, I could never bring myself to tell anyone.”

The man’s next deed would haunt Ian for the next 30 years.

“He slipped his hands down my pants and stimulated me. I didn’t understand what was happening. It was all very confusing because physically it was pleasurable, but I knew I was being violated. And yet, I could never bring myself to tell anyone.”

Sexually awakened at five, boyish curiosity drove him to chronic masturbation.

And this landed him on the receiving end of his father’s discipline. One occasion was extremely bad, he remembers. His father came home to find him touching himself in the presence of his mother and grandmother. 

“It was the beating of my life,” he sighs.

In typical Singapore Chinese authoritarianism fashion, Ian was no stranger to physical discipline. But this time, the sting of physical blows was overshadowed by the shame of being chastised by the man he adored and wanted to become.

In that moment, father and son were estranged, and Ian blamed himself entirely for the rift.

Biologically, his body was responding to his habits. His parents brought him to baffled doctors, where he underwent invasive examinations of his intimate parts. “Those experiences were far worse than the time I got molested,” he says, laughing at the thought.

Convinced he wasn’t normal, Ian drifted into reclusion, often going fishing by himself late into the night. He relegated his father to merely a chauffeur, otherwise giving him the silent treatment. Maybe it’s just a phase, his father recalled thinking then. The storm will pass.

But the wind and waves were only just beginning.

In his teens, Ian was exposed to pornography through polytechnic classmates. Given his troubled past, he quickly slipped into addiction. It was both a crutch and a poison, comforting and destroying him all at once.

“I’d lock myself in my room and watch videos late into the night. Before long I was missing lessons and skipping school entirely just to get my fix. Didn’t help that I was in IT and knew my way around.”

He describes the vicious cycle: Frustration over bad grades would land him deeper into throes of vicarious sexual fantasy, which would in turn undermine his academic goals. “My father wasn’t rich. But he still bought me a $4,000 computer for school – which was really a lot in those days. I just had to use it to watch all that filth.”

He allows himself a wry laugh through tears and trembling fists.

“Back then I had no idea, but God was already doing His healing and liberating work in me.”

Something had to give – and school was the first thing to go. But dropping out of school only brought Ian more shame, isolation and anger. He applied for enlistment as early as possible to avoid having to deal with his family, with whom the pent-up tension was overbearing, he said.

All he wanted to do was get away. On enlistment day, he trudged into camp alone and almost signed-on because he desperately wanted a new life – any life other than the one he had.

But little did he know, a very different kind of awakening lay just around the corner. And while its effect on his life was to be equally dramatic, it was going to pull him in an entirely different direction.

His girlfriend had been bringing him to church on the weekends. After a gracious officer granted him five days’ leave to attend a church camp, he personally encountered God.

“For the first time I felt this great, great love wrap around me. I knew I was a sinner, but there was no guilt, no shame, no anger – only love. Down on my knees, I wept uncontrollably. I think that was the first step towards healing for me.”

Of course, coming to faith didn’t solve everything immediately. But it was a step in the right direction, a recalibration of his inner compass. For the first time in his life, there was clarity, purpose and joy.

His response was dramatic: At the post-camp thanksgiving session, he decided and declared in front of the congregation that he wanted to serve God full-time in church!

Credit: 3:16 Church / Austen Chua

And so, once he was done with Full-Time National Service, he started work in church as a ministry staff.

Still struggling with the darkness of his private life, an inner tension pulled within him as he served. Most of his mentors didn’t know about his secret.

But with the few he confided in, grace always abounded, Ian recounts. He never felt judged, only loved and encouraged to press on in the good fight of faith. “Back then I had no idea, but God was already doing His healing and liberating work in me.”

After 10 years of serving the youths, he was ordained as a pastor and his ministry was remarkably fruitful. But God was just about to shake him up again for a new season.

On a mission trip to the Philippines, he witnessed a young boy crossdressing and speaking with a high-pitched voice. The kid was about the same age as Ian was when he had been molested. Immediately, God spoke to Ian’s spirit, giving him a glimpse of His love for the boy.

“I knew right there that God was calling me to reach out in unconditional love to the broken: Those on the fringes of society, who struggle hard and often alone. God wanted me to love them.”

It was the piece of the puzzle that gave Ian a glimpse of the big picture. His journey of sexual brokenness equipped him specially for the task of restoring the brokenness of others. As he found grace to overcome, God now challenged him to show grace to others.

Leaving his old church, he teamed up with a group of friends with the same vision and started what he calls the 3:16 movement – after perhaps the Bible’s most iconic verse in the book of John, where Jesus describes His Father’s unending, transcendent, unconditional, transformational love.

Credit 3:16 Church / RY

Today 3:16 Church is a vibrant, growing community grounded on that same love – where every member is empowered to love everyone in society, so all may experience it for themselves.

Recently, God challenged him to a deeper level of vulnerability as an example to his congregation.

Hoping other church leaders would follow suit, he shared his past on the pulpit. His dad, who sat in the crowd walked up to him after the message and confessed the guilt he carried from 30 years before, when he beat his son badly.

Though the emotional scars remain, God gave Ian the strength to forgive his father.

As the Tohs shared a tearful embrace that day, father and son experienced complete reconciliation.

They now make up for the lost years by building the Kingdom of their Heavenly Father together.

About his sexual struggles, Ian confesses that his temptations remain strong as ever. The difference now is they no longer have power over him. “Now I have a choice, and that choice can only reflect the incredible love that I have experienced in Jesus. I never want to go back there again.”

With eyes fixed on his Lord and Saviour, Ian continues to walk out his faith as a loving son, husband, father to his family; pastor to his church; and neighbour to every lonely soul spiritually left for dead from the Detention Barracks in Yew Tee to the streets of Geylang.

Today, he’s visibly tired, but a deep sense of purpose and joy drives him to the second mile. “If I could put a smile on their faces, that would be one life changed for the better.”