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For the longest time, my prayer journal has had pride on the page under "spiritual life/growth."
The danger is that though we may recognize that we need to deal with these major sins, we neglect to to do more than simply identify the overall threat they represent--without getting specific to how exactly they are manifested in our lives. Which means not actually dealing with them at all. We admit our failure, but besides praying about it and feeling bad about it, "trying a little harder," we don't actually make any truly concrete changes.
So for the longest time I have been praying about pride, and yet only hazily had any idea about how I could deal with this problem.
I didn't realize that--for also the longest time--I have had a (parallel) problem with impatience. Stemming from my task-oriented and achiever personality. When something needs to be done, I value efficiency and speed, not because it comes naturally, but because it makes me feel good about myself, it gives me a sense of achievement and reassurance if I get many things done, quickly. That probably tells you all you need to know. I tend to dismiss or get impatient with people whose methods of getting things done are different from mine, who want to explore the details, or double check everything. And when my workflow gets disrupted--or criticized--it becomes something personal, something which reflects directly upon my sense of self-worth. I get impatient, tense, and resent any interruptions or criticisms as personal attacks. And I show it, unfortunately.
When I prioritize the task at hand before the person I'm working with--
When I get impatient and dismiss other opinions and working methods because they are different from mine--
When I respond badly to criticism, even when it's constructive and gently conveyed, because I see it as a personal attack on myself and the perfectionist identity I want to maintain--
When I defend my behaviour by claiming that my way is better, anyway--
--the very pride I was praying about flourished.
After an incident where my behaviour was particularly disappointing, I was challenged to see these situations as specific demonstrations of my pride, and deal with them as such. Humility, in my case, could be simply not prioritizing my agenda or way of doing things, to the extent that I behave unlovingly towards others. Humility could be having a heart of peace--amid criticism, or agitation, or tension; when it seems like the job is taking forever, or someone won't stop talking, or my mistakes are being pointed out ("I-told-you-so" situations are probably some of the most mortifying experiences possible for the human soul.) Humility could be the freedom to accept criticism without being crushed or offended.
Humility could be a restful spirit that isn't fixated on getting things done, but prioritizes people and God's timing/plan. Perhaps the main purpose of this incident is teaching me to control my temper, to deal graciously with differences or difficult people, to be loving--not the actual task at hand.
How different from our task-oriented human ideas of 'living for God', 'serving' Him.
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I could start this post off by asking, what's your prayer life like? and induce plenty of uncomfortable squirms (in myself as well.)
After years of struggling at prayer--trying to pray more, to pray better--I've come to the conclusion that we should first address how and why we pray before we start talking about how long or how often.
Too many times as a young Christian trying to pray better, I ended up making yet another list for myself, ploughing through pragmatically and finishing rather out of breath and complacent for the wrong reason. And then I wondered why it seemed so dry and difficult to pray, why prayer isn't the relief, the "sweet hour of prayer"--goodness, I could barely pray for five minutes, one hour?? This is why we mustn't only focus on the activity of spiritual disciplines without understanding the purposes behind them. We end up dutifully consumed by the externalities, by deeds, convinced that like some magic formula we should be upgrading spiritually if we keep doing it long enough.
In teaching Sunday School and working with children in church, I've learnt about prayer in the process of trying to teach them to pray. As I try to answer the questions my students fire at me, and guide the children as they learn to pray, I find myself thinking more, deeper. Simplifying, going back to the very basics of the basics--what does it mean to pray?
Instead of focusing on the externalities--
making a big deal about whether they close their eyes...
fussing if they don't put their hands together...
saying how to begin and end 'the right way'...
telling them what they should or shouldn't pray for...
...we should help them first see why we want to pray in the first place, rather than how.
I think once they have properly grasped the why and Who behind the concept of prayer--a proper understanding of who God is and what prayer means as such--the how will come naturally, whether that means a due respect for God, or being able to pray openly from their hearts.
It was a good reminder to me to examine: how does the way I pray reflect the person of God?
Is He a divine vending machine?
A 24/7 Aunt Agony?
A holy God?
A loving and merciful One?
If I'd not (fortunately) realized how nitpicky and naggy I was becoming I might very well have given my kids the impression that God was like some eccentric elderly relative you have to visit during Chinese New Year for formality's sake, and be polite to because they might give you an ang pow (red paper packet with money inside) if you were polite and did all the weird things they insisted on--close your eyes, sit still, remember to begin and end with those phrases, put your hands in your lap and don't wriggle...
Sometimes it's downright frightening being a Sunday School teacher. So many small things you do or don't do may have such significant spiritual impact!
I'm afraid the God my prayers reflect would be rather too task-oriented, and not extremely interested in having a relationship with His people.
I'm learning to see prayer, like spending time with a loved one--a loved One--as building a relationship; not just working together, reporting back, or fulfilling a duty. Spiritual growth and maturity, all the things we worry about as young Christians, come naturally from there.
With that realization comes a new appreciation and capacity for the "peace that surpasses all understanding"--a peace that we are promised, when we told to "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7, emphasis mine) The "sweet hour of prayer" that otherwise seems so hard to comprehend when our mind is full of anxiety and guilt, that we can't reconcile with our task-oriented, mechanical, and joyless understanding of prayer. The restfulness we need comes when we talk to Him--earnestly, simply, intimately, seeking to grow our love for and relationship with Him.
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Reading casually through Micah chapter 4, I absorbed a depiction of peace. Unity. Restoration. Healing, contentment. That most beautiful line--"every man under his vine and fig tree"--brightest of all. What a calming and comforting passage.
It was only when I read Search the Scriptures' prompt that I realized--for the first time--that the same passage was also predicting the fall of Zion and the exile of the people.
Only passingly mentioned in this chapter, the devastation and suffering it entailed would take place before the peace pictured here, and be the context from which God would deliver His people.
And that was sobering. To know that so much war, violence, heartbreak, and despair lay just around the corner, and yet, at the same time, to know that that was not the end--that in God's eyes, that was only the setting for the greater, overarching, lasting deliverance of His people.
Perhaps you are in the midst of experiencing a spiritual or emotional equivalent of the war and exile in this passage.
4 But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever.
You long for the peace, the healing, the restoration, the contentment that Micah depicts. The confidence and comfort of God's presence. The sense of security and quiet contentment, the assurance that comes from knowing we are where we belong, where we are needed. Beyond the reach of fear. Whether external or internal.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
For justice. For deliverance. When what is being used now as weapons and sources of conflict become tools to nurture and cultivate peace, growth, fruitfulness.
6 “In that day,” says the Lord,
“I will assemble the lame,
I will gather the outcast
And those whom I have afflicted;
7 I will make the lame a remnant,
And the outcast a strong nation;
So the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on, even forever.
You long for healing. From the fears and hurts which cripple you. From limitations. From imperfections, both of the flesh and spirit. You long for strength that you can only dream of now, and wholeness that wrings your heart to think about. For community, for friendship, for encouragement; for assurance of God's sovereignty in a frightening and chaotic world.
9 Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in your midst?
Has your counselor perished?
For pangs have seized you like a woman in labor.
And He answers us, directly.
Am I not here?
Am I not in control?
Do you not trust my plans?
Can you trust that the pain you're in now--
--without dismissing any of your suffering, its effects, its scars--
--may be the threshold to something greater?
10 Be in pain, and labor to bring forth,
O daughter of Zion,
Like a woman in birth pangs.
For now you shall go forth from the city,
You shall dwell in the field,
And to Babylon you shall go.
There you shall be delivered;
There the Lord will redeem you
From the hand of your enemies.
Hold on to hope, even as you face pain and suffering and what seems--as it must have seemed to the Israelites, being led out from the ruins of their city, towards exile and slavery and the end of every proud dream or ambition--crushing disappointment and despair.
You can't see it now, but there is peace and joy ahead of you.
Babylon--the heart of the storm, the fiercest depths of your humiliation, the white-hot nucleus of your suffering, the most numbing despair, the trial you dread the most--is where you will see redemption burst forth, more glorious and breathtaking and life-changing than ever for its context.
12 But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord,
Nor do they understand His counsel;
For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor.
We don't. Indeed we cannot understand Him.
His power to transcend even pain.
But we can trust Who He is.
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give me peace and wisdom to handle this sense of overwhelming inability,
of being futilely stretched,
There are so many people needs and relationships, so many areas of service needing faithful people to commit to and labour in, on top of everything else; and most of all I just don't have TIME. Overused as the phrase is.
I feel helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well as I ought or wanted to. It's as if I'm trying to donate blood to as many people as possible in an endless cue...trying to make do by giving each one less, faint and bloodless, yet it's not enough.
I feel so helpless.
God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Vaguely I recognize this as a lesson in learning to trust--learning humility--learning wisdom in loving and serving better...
I happened to flip back on an old journal entry where I was having a particularly bad case of burn-out. Discouraged. Exhausted. Verging on resentful, even as I felt guilty for failing, for not doing more.
I was trying to keep up my studies, wanting to be more active in church, uncomfortably aware that there was more I could do for my family, also unpleasantly conscious that to be an ambitious and productive young adult I should also be researching and getting my own projects done during this precious window of time before I graduated.
After all, "do all things to the glory of God," right?
We groan inwardly and resolve (more faintly each time) to try harder.
These are ugly, poisonous, unpleasant thoughts and feelings; but we shouldn't be afraid to confront them, because they indicate a serious problem in our spiritual lives, rather than our generalized diagnosis of inadequacies on our part, limitations of time and energy.
The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults by Dev Menon-- this thin little book happened to come my way recently.
I read it and realized:
1. almost every sentence was relatable
2. it was quite rare and refreshing, in my experience, to read a Christian book from a Singapore perspective.
3. though initially I was somewhat skeptical on how much of a resolution the author could provide to such a big, abstract problem, he made quite a good shot at hitting the nail on the head.
At least in Singapore, where our culture is ingrained with expectations of perfectionism and subsequently, constant assessment, this is a real issue. We really do have this unspoken ideal that we should excel at each area of our life, as Christians. "Do all things to the glory of God" has become a kind of pressurizing drive to excel, whether in spiritual or secular definitions of excellence; in every area of life, in your obligations and duties. You know how students get told that as a Christian student you glorify God by working hard at your studies and doing your best (which is true, in one sense, yet so easily gets twisted into a good grades=glorifying God mantra.)
On top of that, as young adults, we're juggling more and more responsibilities and relationships. The drive to excel, to be at the top not only of our game but of all the different games we're involved in (in Dev Menon's metaphor, the different slices in the pie graph of our lives) becomes overwhelming.
That means being a hard-working, responsible student/employee--getting good grades, promotions, respect.
That means coming for church and prayer meetings and serving in some way at church.
That means caring for our families and spending time/communicating with them.
Bonus points if you have some charity/outreach work you're involved in.
Oh, and did we mention being free enough to spend time with church friends outside of church? To be a listening ear to that needy friend in crisis?
That's the vision we all have of the "perfect Christian," isn't it?
We get burnt out and discouraged, wonder why we can't juggle everything and why, once we focus on one area, all the rest slip out of control.
The different slices of the pie graph seem to pull us in different directions and we often succumb to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anxiety. Worse, we start to cut corners in an attempt to juggle better, or we start to resent the areas which take up more of our time than we'd planned for them to in our neat little pie graph. We start to get results-oriented, self-reliant, we dismiss people and their individual needs and opinions if they don't go along with our efficient plan, or we start to resent people who are 'needier', 'high-maintenance.' And we start to wonder, tiredly, why it's so hard to 'be a Christian'; that God's demands on us seem like the last straw on top of the other demands being made on us. Just another slice in the pie competing for our (very limited) time, energy, and effort.
Dev Menon calls this 'plate spinning.' Because we have our plate full rushing around keeping all of the many plates in our lives spinning (A lame pun, I know.)
It's a matter of perspective, at least that's what I've learnt to see in my own struggles with this issue.
Instead of thinking that being a Christian is one slice in the piechart of your life, which you're obligated to maintain--to see your entire life/the whole pie as your new life in Christ. Different aspects of it, that's all, but all contributing, all part of.
This collapse of the spiritual/secular divide, this consciousness of God in every day and activity, was crucial in my own spiritual growth, and I believe is just as crucial in overcoming the sense of burn-out and insufficiency we're talking about here. During the journal entry above, I hadn't quite reached this point yet, though I vaguely knew--as I recognized--that there was something fundamentally wrong with how I saw and applied my abilities, priorities, how I understood what it meant to address the different areas in my life as a Chr
I know, I know. Maybe "perspective" alone doesn't seem that liberating. After all, a change in perspective doesn't mean that we magically get an extra two hours, or that we can wave off going to church whenever we feel like it.
There are times, Menon emphasizes, when certain areas are going to need more time and effort than others. At these times, we should not feel guilty or like a failure if we need to step back from those other areas--consciously do less than the best. For example, you might need to spend more time with your family when a crisis happens, and take a step down from work, or--gasp!--serving in church. To truly see God in all areas of your life, and trust His timing and wisdom, we would be able to accept that this does not mean failure. That we're being a lousy Christian. That we're regressing spiritually.
Rather, we accept that God allowed this to happen--we accept our limitations--we accept that we have to change our focus, that God wants us to grow in this specific area, at this time.
This can only happen when our understanding of what it means to be a Christian transcends that pie slice labeled "Christianity/church-related" in our time, isn't limited to the activities that make up that pie slice.
Instead, we would see that God is making it clear that we need to actively pursue His help and presence in this particular area. That in it, we face another opportunity to understand Him better.
Instead of feeling woefully guilty and insufficient, as if God is throwing us dirty glances because we're not clocking in the hours required on His pie slice, we see it as under Him--from Him--rather than competing with Him.
And if you think about it--isn't that a more accurate and significant application of what it means to "do all things to the glory of God?"
Somewhere along with the plasma, platelets, and hemoglobin, list-making is in my blood. As flipping through the notebook I've been using for the last four years indicates, even my journal entries are spotted with lists, especially if I don't have time to compose my thoughts. I thought that lists might be more direct and straightforward for readers as well--or you could just say I'm typing this in a hurry--so this week's post (and perhaps several others to come) is in the shape of a list.
A list of several small reflections I've had over the years, over the process of several difficult relationships with people I don't like/who don't like me/whose interaction with me is usually characterized by tension and conflict. This goes for people who don't see eye to eye with you on significant issues; on people with very different personalities from yours; or even people whose habits and characteristics annoy you. I think I don't need to spend too much time elaborating. If you've ever been tempted to gossip (read: "rant") you probably can explain this better--with more colourful language too probably.
1. Pray for the person. My mom told me this when I was very small, and it sounded so ridiculously, unrealistically simple that I always remembered it. Years later Ken Sande also reiterated this in his book The Peacemaker, and for good reason. If you're struggling to love someone, start by praying for the person. Almost like clockwork, the Holy Spirit gets to work on your heart and prepares it--you might not be able to start making advances then, but eventually you will; and you'll find yourself motivated increasingly by sincere concern instead of animosity/duty.
2. Pray for yourself, for grace, humility, love. As you probably already know, just the thought of it sometimes truly feels like part of you (the old man, according to the Bible) is dying. And boy, it hurts. We need to be greater than that bitterness, that grudge, that pride, that anger, that self-righteousness and entitlement, and yes, hatred.
3. Start spending more time with them, whether physically or communicating.
4. Focus on the things you can connect on. You need to have non-sensitive/explosive things you can relate over, or every time one of you just opens your mouth the other will flinch.
5. Examine what is the ratio of criticism/negativity to positivity/neutral in your communications. Be honest. This is often quite sobering and makes me realize, I'm not their favourite person either; this is what I come across to them as.
6. Give extra thought to tension, whenever you're tempted to criticize, scold, argue. As with dealing with children, it's important that you don't act in the flush of the moment's anger, or from personal reasons. We have to honestly ask ourself: how much of this is out of sincere love and care for the person's well-being, how much of it is just because it offends my own personal sensibilities and preferences, what I want them to do so that I will feel at peace, I will feel good? Because if humans have any defining characteristics besides two eyes, two ears, two legs, and an affinity for terrible decisions, it's a deceptive heart. If you are more concerned with them stopping a certain particular action than the state of their heart--well, just be aware that is the main message they're already receiving. To qualify: if destructive and harmful habits/actions are the case we might have to take decisive action and not just withdraw piously citing this as a reason.
On the flip side--and I've seen myself lapse into both extremes--are we too hesitant, too afraid of conflict to bring up these issues? Do we repress our concerns, telling ourselves that we're being considerate, we're controlling ourselves, only to end up bitter and resentful over time, or exploding unreasonably one day?
7. Appreciate them for who they are, see their strong points, their individual gifts and strengths. Challenge yourself to, if you can't see this.
8. It won't kill you to be silent whenever you want to say something hurtful, even if you feel convinced then that it's warranted or necessary. Often our emotions in the spur of the moment lead us to say things we regret, or things which are foolish and do more harm than good.
9. Sometimes, if you are in a more advanced stage where both of you are mutually working on the relationship, you could muster the humility and courage to ask them what makes it most challenging for them to open up to you/ warm up to you. Maybe you've never realized it before, or meant to come across like this, but you come across as the kind of person who responds negatively to anything that you don't like/that went wrong--blaming/scolding them instead of being supportive and trying to help. Which causes them to simply avoid telling you about anything problematic (dear parents! parents!!) Maybe you've ignored them or hurt them before, and they hold it against you. Maybe you have certain traits which make it hard for them to trust you or take you sincerely. And the list goes on. This takes courage and humility to bear, as the one listening. It also requires trust that the other person will answer honestly and constructively, without giving in to the temptation to tear you down indiscriminately. But when it works, it's hugely helpful in teaching you to see yourself with their eyes, and grasp some of the obstacles in your relationship.
10. And most importantly--not just when it comes to dealing with difficult people, but with everything else--
--meditate on Christ's love for us, and our unworthiness.
True empowerment and freedom comes when we can accept the life-changing significance and hope that lies in both truths, taken concurrently.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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