image by Marcelo Vaz from Unsplash
This past period, I find myself struggling with discouragement. Learning on the job. Adapting to a new, busier schedule. Working with new people and new challenges. Unfamiliarity, insecurity, a lack of confidence. Not that there's anything earth-shaking about this. It's the standard experience of starting a new job, a new phase in life, in managing new responsibilities while maintaining existing ones. Basically what every young adult faces as they try to be financially independent and navigate the workplace and this whole thing about being grown up, am I right?
I wondered why I was feeling so burnt out and discouraged. I knew I already had it much better than so many of my peers, and knowing that made me feel like a wimp--I couldn't even indulge in a wallow in self-pity, to put it wryly.
Every morning as I went through my devotions I would open my Bible and hope vaguely that my eye would fall on something encouraging, something comforting, something to remind me that I wasn't alone. And most of the time as I flipped through it looking for the book I was currently studying with Search the Scriptures, somehow Psalm 18 would be what I found myself looking at. A specific part of psalm 18, at that--the middle section (...mostly because I happened to have some post-its that covered the beginning and end, anticlimactic as that sounds)
If you too have been struggling with similar feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, and insecurity, do take the time to turn to this psalm.
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.
28 For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
At a time like this, pride and humility become even more relatable. Often we feel anything but proud--we feel painfully, cringingly humbled, forced to face our limitations and inabilities.
Or maybe our stress comes from the unthinking pressure to do it all and do it well. From our reluctance to accept that we can't. From our pressure to impress others, to do as well or better than others. And the pride that underlies all those concerns.
Maybe we need a reminder that this humbling experience is not so much proof that we failed, but windows for God's grace and our growth.
Maybe we need to realize that the root of our stress is pride.
Maybe we need to consider that instead of pursuing efficiency, success, multi-tasking, praise, competency, and a nice steadily growing bank account--there are other things, quieter, subtler things. Mercy. Blamelessness. Purity.
29 For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
30 As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
31 For who is God, except the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?
I remember the first time I saw these lines during this dry season of discouragement. The reckless scale of David's lavish, military-esque imagery took my breath away.
Running face on towards a troop of armed hostile soldiers, alone except for God?
Vaulting over a wall in one of those breathtakingly effortless gravity (and current body state) defying leaps that you see in Chinese wuxia movies? (I'm afraid I honestly came away with the rosy delusion that as long as you trained hard enough, you really could pull those off. I came back to earth when I saw BTS footage revealing the wires and ropes involved, and felt vaguely--no, not betrayed; just more discontented that I wasn't living in the JiangHu*)
*the world as structured by different sects and martial arts communities; the background of most wuxia and xianxia epics
By my God...
Not by trying harder!
Not by being more disciplined with my time!
Not by persevering and gritting my teeth!
Not by sleeping less or doing my best to adapt--
...which are legitimate but often overrated and overused means we resort to in order to try and get more control over our lives.
And it is at this point in life, facing these specific challenges, that I really relate to David's emphasis on courage throughout the Psalms. Courage was a very real and necessary quality for someone with his adrenaline-pumped, political and military high-profile background and context. Fighting for your life, never quite sure when someone might try to poison you or stab you in the back (literally) or which battle would be your last.
Situations most of us can't relate to today. But we need, among many other more obvious things, courage for living. Courage to face uncertain futures. To bear the consequences of our decisions and mistakes. Courage to try and fail, to pursue dreams, to develop and maintain relationships...
I remember, from Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, Amanda telling her chronically shy daughter: "I've got to put courage in you, honey, for living." That phrase sometimes echoes in my head whenever I feel that crippling sense of dread--fear--self-doubt. Courage for living.
32 It is God who arms me with strength,
And makes my way perfect.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of deer,
And sets me on my high places.
34 He teaches my hands to make war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
And there you have it!
How much more clearly could David have phrased it?
I particularly love the imagery here. Every word choice reflects David, the shepherd boy cum warrior cum king, used to the rough, merciless, unpredictable surroundings of nature, the battlefield, the court. And yet every word choice likewise speaks to me. Strength to arm me for what I don't want to face. To make my way, with the grace and sure-footed agility of a deer, through a rocky and uncertain path at a dizzying height. To be gifted the skill and talent my hands lack so conspicuously now, to be enabled to do the impossible--
Elizabeth George Spear wrote a moving book set in Jesus's time about a young blacksmith struggling with faith, bitterness, hatred, and loss. She uses this specific verse and points out how impossible it is to bend a bow of bronze. Remember how much trouble it was to bend Odysseus's bow? That would have been a bow of wood. Basically, David's reckless metaphor of a bronze bow is declaring that God can enable us to do anything. Anything.
35 You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
36 You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.
Help that is both very personal and very applicable. And gentle. Oh, so gentle. I clung to this verse especially. Yes, I need to grow--I need to learn--but deal with me gently, please, Lord. My heart feels like I can't take very much right now.
Again, the imagery of finding your way--not stumbling in the dark, frightened and slipping and bruising yourself; unsure if you're lost or not. A "perfect way," as in verse 32. And I appreciate how it is specified this time: God does not just give us the ability to travel our paths, (as in the previous verses) but also "enlarges" it for us, making it easier for us, so that our feet do not slip.
He enables but He also accommodates. The God behind 1 Corinthians 10:13; the God Who knows us in a deeply personal way, and Who understands our limitations and weaknesses to an extent that is soul-searchingly humbling, and liberating.
image from Unsplash
What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
(cf Acts 17:11)
The Bereans are often held up to us an examples of how we should receive the Word, of how we should thoughtfully respond to preaching and teaching.
This is a difficult challenge, especially nowadays when there is so much information available--we've become desensitized, complacent, jaded.
From a Christian angle--how many Bible devotional apps, lists of "must-read important Christian books," theology courses, and catechisms are out there making you feel guilty? How many books are sitting on your shelf waiting to be read some day, some forcefully lent to you by a zealous friend? (please don't force books on people, no matter how excited you are and how convinced you are that it will change your life. Rave about it but do not hand the book to them unless you're prepared to never get it back, and make them permanently awkward and uncomfortable around you. Nothing sets the irrational side of human nature more stubbornly than being forced to do something "good for you.")
By far the most natural reaction is that of jaded complacency, passive acceptance. We absorb, we don't consider and question. Just coming up with the energy to absorb is enough for us, since there's so (overwhelmingly) much more to absorb.
We read books, take note of one or two phrases, and move on.
We listen to sermons, dutifully make notes, and go back to everyday life.
We read an online article and nod assent, then click back to Facebook.
I don't know about you, but whenever I read "spiritual books" my guard actually tends to be down. I'm complacent in the fact that I'm actually reading a spiritual book, making the effort to do so, so that's pretty good already! I just need to absorb the wisdom laid out here for me, as trustingly as if it's from the Bible. We get uncomfortable when we're challenged to meditate on, to think over, to break down what we're passively absorbing (not actually processing;) we feel that it's vaguely unfair to expect us to do more than make the effort to read/listen.
We need to realize that pastors, book writers, theologians, are human. Just because one book you read was helpful doesn't mean you might agree with everything that author says, with every other book he or she writes. We tend to think, "everything by this author should be ok"--or "everything on this website should be fine", not realizing that the Bereans questioned what Paul the apostle himself preached, using only the Bible as their benchmark.
Not Calvin, or John Piper, or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, or your favourite Christian writer, or that devotional app or that Christian classic that everyone seems to agree is blessing incarnate.
Are we hiding behind labels, complacent readers with lazy minds who want to passively absorb truth, who assume that we can get it in pure unadulterated form with the minimum effort on our own part?
We become more and more afraid of using our mind, of asking questions, of considering implications--we lapse into the comfortable, easy conformity of accepting whatever we're told to accept, whatever we're told is right, a pack mentality that is deadening EVEN IF (note!) what we are being fed is the truth. In that case, we are relying solely on our church leaders or pastors to make choices for us--a dangerously man-centric move.
We are regressing, like Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, to settle for bottle-fed milk instead of moving on to spiritual solid food.
What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
To recognize and apply the belief that all men are fallible, even those with great gifts, even those who have been used greatly to bless already. To realize that all books, and sermons, may be influenced by the contexts and personal experiences of the men or women who write them. To realize that having written one great Christian classic doesn't necessarily mean all the other books by the same author automatically are "good". To realize that we don't have to accept 100% of what is presented to us but can still be helped and blessed--to pick out, with discernment, since books, like people, don't fall easily into the binary of "all good" or "all bad." To realize that rather than taking a judgmental "Paul vs Apollo" stance, where we blindly follow certain names and figures that have been stamped for approval by some authority figure for us, and boycott or avoid others, we are called to use our minds. To think over and question, if necessary. To qualify. To decide whether a syntax, context, or content issue is at stake.
And ultimately, as I've realized, to better appreciate the Bible, as the one infallible word, our benchmark amid all this confusion and chaos.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and of a sound mind.
2 Timothy 1:7
image by Ryoji Iwata from Unsplash
I can't handle everything.
To be honest--I'm overwhelmed.
When I look around, other people in the same situation as me seem to be thriving, to be managing everything.
I'm struggling so hard but the results that I get hardly pay off--do I just have to work even harder?
Am I a wimp for feeling like I'm overwhelmed, when I already have it so much better than some people?
Am I dumber than other people? Why do I feel like I'm working so hard, am so stretched already, yet I can't seem to get everything done?
How do they do it?
Why can't I do it?
I don't have answers for these questions either. I often hear them whispered in my head, see them written in the eyes of others when they share about how their week has gone, in the sighs, in the sleep-deprived eyes and the helpless shrug, "well, what to do about it?"
Since I reached the end of my course and started looking towards the future, an attractive vision hovered in my mind's eye. In it, I'm able to manage the different jobs I'm currently working at, learning and honing new skills while I affirm my strengths and what I enjoy. I'm disciplined--I get up early every morning, spend time with God, exercise, and get in a good block of writing before I go out to teach. I diligently work at a running list of writing projects, pursuing my dream to be a published writer while serving actively in church, caring for my family, earning my keep, and developing my own business. I manage to balance all these commitments through the magical formula of hard work, efficiency, and discipline--I am happy, productive, useful, enjoying my work and excelling at it. And of course, eventually, after an impressive amount of hard work and perseverance, that long-awaited acceptance letter comes and everything makes sense...
I close my eyes and see this image get yet more faded, yet more unreal, as it seems further and further away from reality.
Feeling confident, in control, and on top of everything is seldom the means God uses to bring about growth.
The problem is that we tend to equate "excellence" with "glorifying God."
Glorifying God in all we do means it extends to much more than simply "excellence"--a problematic term already once you consider how we understand it. Excellence as defined by ourselves? As defined by our society? As defined by our boss, our co-workers, our peers, our parents, our role models? What exactly is the excellence we're striving at, building our lives around, and why did we decide to settle for this particular definition?
And once we accept it, we end up being sucked into a constant, vicious cycle of comparison, trying frantically to match up to the definitions of success and happiness held up for us, trying to squeeze ourselves into this mould and wondering why it hurts when it--doesn't fit.
Worse--feeling like God isn't helping you by giving you the supernatural time and strength you asked for. Feeling like you're failing Him, for not managing to do it all gracefully and happily, for not managing to be the role model others can point to. Wondering why it's so hard; feeling guilt and resentment and helplessness all mixed together.
Glorifying God often has much more to do with acknowledging our need of Him, our brokenness, our longing for something greater than the hum and buzz and shiny lights of our life here--than with achieving our society's definition of a balanced life, of a successful career, of a functional family. Even though that may seem the most straightforward and logical way of glorifying God to us, with all the best intentions in the world, we serve a God Who has "chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and...the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.." (1 Corinthians 1:27)
When we let His strength be made perfect--not in our strength--but in our weakness.
We glorify Him most in the way we react and respond to what each day brings us. Especially the failures. The struggles. The routine. The tears in the dark, the weariness, the dreariness. Those parts you are the most ashamed of, the parts that the world would least envy and admire, are the most precious to Him. The most significant.
Those are the times when He is the closest, when we are closer to understanding fully just what it means to have Him, because we are closer to realizing how much we need Him.
The next time you feel hopelessly out of control, overwhelmed--consider that feeling confident and in control (desirable as that is) is the direct opposite of learning to put our faith in God, and trusting Him to work out our lives, to provide for us.
How else can we learn, if we do not first realize how inadequate we are?
My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.
2 Corinthians 12:9
image by Fabian Bazanegue from Unsplash
"Divine Interruptions"--Elisabeth Elliott's term for learning to understand (and respond to) events, people, needs, etc which are not part of what we might have planned--and in fact might actually get in the way of the nice, neat plan we made for ourselves.
It's tempting to see them otherwise. As hindrances. As interruptions. To get frustrated when they prevent us from getting things done in the quick, straightforward way we had planned to. Trust me, I know all about that.
I had planned for a productive afternoon at my desk, ploughing my way through a to-do list, hammering at the keyboard and hitting wordcounts. I find myself playing Monopoly with a child in need of babysitting, scribbling essay drafts and doing speed reading in between turns.
I planned to sleep early, wake up early, go for a morning jog, have my devotions, all before I had to leave the house to teach. I found myself staying up past midnight listening to someone's struggles, and waking up barely in time to scramble out of the house.
I was looking forward to a leisurely lazy weekend after a hectic week, catching up on what the Singapore Army calls "personal admin time;" doing laundry, clearing my cupboard, and other small tasks that make a "down day" so productive. By lunchtime I found myself in the busiest part of town (on a weekend at that!) for some social event that I didn't see coming but didn't have much choice over ("your introvert is showing" moment)
Divine Interruptions, I reminded myself, drawing a deep breath. Don't get impatient. Don't feel frustrated. Thwarted. Resentfully fixated on just how productive your original plan would have been if people and life would just leave you alone (ha what naivety.)
This is not just a strategy, a coping mechanism. Accepting that God uses everyday people, experiences, etc to aid us in our spiritual growth is central to how we see the whole concept of "spiritual growth" and in fact the whole understanding of living as a Christian.
Perhaps this was just something I went through as a new believer, but I think that many of us tend to understand spiritual growth in the same way we typically understand, say, university education. (having just went through a graduation ceremony!) Concrete, specific, demarcated classes; a certain number of hours put in, of quantifiable efforts--enough of that and you get a degree.
Spiritual growth doesn't work the same way. You may start a year-long theology course, become an expert on church history and denominational doctrinal differences, embark on a study of the whole Bible. Those are good things. I should like to grow in those aspects, myself. But those are also concrete, specific, purposeful decisions and actions which by their very nature tend to cultivate a sense of false complacency. The same way that we can comfortably tell people "I've graduated," and both we--and them--immediately assume that we've reached a certain level of progress based on that self-sufficient statement.
But did you learn more about yourself?
Did you learn more about people, at their best and their worst?
Were you challenged to think more about your assumptions and perspective on life?
Were you moved to think more deeply on what makes life and work meaningful?
Did you form friendships or meet people who left their mark on you--for better or worse?
Ask anyone about their university experience and what most often comes out is the things like the friends they made. The lecturers, good or bad. Or certain concepts that changed the way they looked at things or thought about life. Self-realizations. Those are the things that actually change you, that actually matter in the long run.
The degree itself is possibly the least important part of that. It doesn't reflect the extent of what those few years meant to you.
Likewise, spiritual growth, and God's goal for His sovereignty over our lives, goes so much beyond the quantifiable hours we put in doing "spiritual" things, and those things in themselves. Just as our relationship with God and our understanding of Him goes so much beyond simply being there every Sunday in church, ready to say Amen at the right time with everyone else, to go through the little ritual of sit--stand--sing--close-your-eyes-when-praying...
The rest of the week is the real thing. Every day. Every boring, lonely, difficult, lazy, self-centred, complacent, painful, productive, hectic day.
Whether trials, unpleasant people, realizations about ourselves, unpleasant things other people said/did etc... they are also "divine interruptions," things we might not like to see as spiritual growth, but exactly the means that God uses to bring about spiritual growth. Often not in the neat, quantifiable, tidy way we'd like it to be, like in a college transcript.
Those seemingly small things which bother you, which seem like interruptions in the grand course of your life--the needy people, the unpleasant poky corners of relationships, the unexpected--and your response to them, matter. See each of them as part of the process of growing spiritually.
Spiritual growth doesn't just wait for great, life-changing events or tragedies to happen--it is continually before us, in the little things which make up each day and together form the substance of our lives and who we are. It reflects how, as a Christian, our understanding of God's sovereignty and Person has a direct impact on our whole perspective on life--with its unexpected, unanswerable nature, with all its terrifying capacity for overwhelming pain, for overwhelming beauty; for overwhelming proof that we were made for more than this.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
Click to set custom HTML
ALL IMAGES FROM PINTEREST UNLESS OTHERWISE SPECIFIED. THANKS, PINTEREST!