I once read somewhere that when you look back at your spiritual journey you should be able to see specific, distinct points where you grew--over an experience, maybe, or learning something; through reading a book; through a person; or simply a realization, or development on your own. To be healthy spiritually requires progress, forward movement which is overall greater than the constant (inevitable) lapses into sin, the failures, the weaknesses.
To me, many of these points of growth, if you want to call them that, were books.
Others were people whose lives made me think twice about my own, my faith, my impact on others.
Or certain events--usually painful ones--which, in John Donne's words, battered my heart into a better receptor of God. But also beautiful ones--like discovering, through the unlikely idea of using daily commute time on a bus along a tree-flanked highway during off-peak traffic, that prayer could be joyful worship, could be wonderfully comforting, could be everything David tried to show us, the essence of
One significant one was my discovery of the Holy Spirit's significance. I don't know if I've wrote about this before, but for background, the Holy Spirit had always been the most vague and abstract, the most unrelatable and mysterious, of the three Persons of the Trinity. I prayed to God the Father and felt a personal relationship with Him. I had the Bible to introduce Jesus to me, and His relationship to me as my Saviour gradually deepened my understanding and love for Him. I could see clearly the place and distinct roles of God the Father, and God the Son, but God the Holy Spirit almost threw me off. I remember, as a very young believer overhearing an argument between a Christian and a non-believer on the logic of the Trinity, and suddenly feeling, very strongly, what was the point of adding the Holy Spirit in anyway? (from a writer's point of view, I realize, as if the whole of Christianity was just one wonderful story)
My lack of understanding of and relationship to the Holy Spirit made me feel like I was teetering on a crisis of faith at that point of time. Thankfully, if years later, this changed, and it was one of the greatest points of progress in my spiritual life.
When I found out more about the role of the Holy Spirit, I realized why the struggle against sin, the struggle to grow in spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading the Bible, had been so hard and so flagging.
So many places in the New Testament Jesus repeatedly tells His disciples how important the Holy Spirit will be to them, and why:
"But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:26)
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
"At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit..." (Luke 10:21)
"Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers." (Acts 9:31)
"If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)
Knowledge and understanding. Power/ability and courage. And yes, joy. Encouragement. There is so much that we can receive from the Holy Spirit. Greatest of all, He is a gift that we can look to God for, that we can even expect.
As I study the role of the Holy Spirit I realize that He is not just there to make sure we get smarter or holier. He is helper, comforter. Talk about guardian angels. We have One greater than angels; here to gently, lovingly help us in our feeble struggles, and even comfort us in our confused heartaches.
He is the One who enables us to understand what we read in the Bible or what we experience. Who enables us to benefit from it, by opening our eyes to see what that means when applied to our lives; and moving our hearts to take that action.
He is the One--perhaps most significantly of all--Who first changes our hearts to desire God, to see our sin, to want righteousness, to yearn for forgiveness and repentance and change, for Christ. I can't stress this enough when I teach Sunday School (I believe in a Christ-centered, gospel-approach to Sunday School) because I remember all too clearly from my own experience, how my own conversion began, and the role that the Holy Spirit played in it by showing me and convicting me of my sin.
So many times as a young believer I had went about tackling temptation without realizing the importance of the Holy Spirit. It was very much me, on my own, struggling to put off sin with only the help of my flimsy willpower. I would beat myself up for it afterwards, in a morass of confused guilt and shame and self-reproach--why can't I do better? I love Him, why am I so weak and silly? Naturally, after a while I slipped into a phase of disillusionment and discouragement. I gave up trying so hard, because don't I fail anyway? I guess I really don't love Him as much as I thought I do. I don't know why I can't make my love for Him and my desire for holiness translate into concrete action in my life. Somehow I just can't do it. It's not that I don't want to...
I struggled along, flaggingly, at that level for years, the longest plateau in my spiritual life, if not actually downward slope. It was only a new understanding of the Holy Spirit that made me realize hey, I'm not alone in this. God knew how hard this would be. He's not asking me to do this based sheerly on my willpower and wisdom. He's actually given me a Helper. A Comforter. A source of power to change me and enable me and empower me...
I finally understood. That was Jesus talked so often about the Holy Spirit as He tried to prepare His disciples for His leaving them. That was why it was possible to resist sin, to understand the Bible, to be moved to repent.
"God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them..."
When my brother and I went busking we had the opportunity to see many different types of people in the hours we spent playing music at the shopping mall, and specifically, different types of givers. Some were young parents who gave their toddlers coins to drop into our box; others tried to take photos of us; some lively teenagers cheered for us; and some
I remember mainly two types of people: those who gave on the spur of the moment, fumbling in their pockets and flipping a coin or two; and those who actually stopped to listen for a while first. The second category made those hours worthwhile. They would clap, give a thumbs-up, or tell us they enjoyed the music; at the least, a warm smile--and usually they would give a bill. Not simply clearing their loose change.
It was a good reminder to me, as I realized that when I give to buskers I tend to be the first category of people-- smileless, probably a harassed expression, one eye on the watch, almost dutiful; you couldn't tell whether they actually enjoyed the music or not. My head full of my destination and my to-do list. Giving this was just an impromptu, by-the-way idea that I went with because it wouldn't cost me too much, and was a nice thing to do...
The last chapter of 1st Corinthians gives detailed instructions on giving. Paul's directions about how the donations were to be collected seem at best unimportant admin instructions which, like the reminders to Timothy to bring his cloak and books at the end of 2 Timothy, I usually dismiss as little personal details without much theological significance. Search the Scriptures, however, challenged me to reread those directions on giving with the intent to learn what the Bible had to say about Christian giving.
I thought back on my own experiences of giving, and realized that true enough, Paul's reason for asking that the collections be prepared beforehand weren't just for efficiency's sake. How many times had I been caught at a Christian concert, or visiting a church, where the collection was suddenly handed round and I absolutely panicked. Heavens, did I bring enough cash? I'm broke, but I'm too embarrassed not to put anything in--can I just give a five dollar bill? Wait is that a fifty dollar bill the woman next to me is putting in--I've got to give at least a ten then--do I have a ten--I'm so flustered let's just stick a hand in and pretend I gave something--but then it's for a crisis relief--it's not like I don't CARE about all those little kids--well, if I'd known sooner--
Alright, you can laugh. Spontaneous giving can be one of the nicest feelings in the world. Sometimes.
At other times, it can be really bad for us.
That is why Paul insisted on encouraging intentional giving, rather than spur-of-the-moment giving.
The giving which the Bible depicts is a two-way thing, which emphasizes the effect of the exchange on the two parties involved rather than the object itself. The same old theme: the heart first, always. 2 Corinthians 8:12 reinforces that.
Paul reinforced the need for thoughtful and orderly giving, knowing that purposeful, intentional giving ensures:
the act of giving doesn't become a flashy display that encourages comparison and pride. Instead, it becomes a humbling act which, at a calculated, conscious cost to self, encourages a genuine love for the person you give to.
the act of giving, in being orderly, remains sincere and intentional. Just like impulse buys, it's easy to give or promise someone something in the spur of the moment, and only later, when you actually think through what that costs you, regret the decision.
As a high-functioning introvert this is always my problem. At that moment I'm predominantly eager to please the person, airily convinced that I can handle this on top of my other commitments, and happy to do it. Once I come home, the party's over, and I'm recuperating in bed, reality kicks in and I start to realize it's actually the last thing I want to do, it's a busy week already, I'd much rather catch up on sleep after all, and why did I say yes anyway? Impromptu giving is fun, but often neglects to consider the costs of giving, so that we may end up with regret and even resentment.
True giving, like the gift we received on the cross, comes without regret or resentment, because it is intentional and purposeful--it has counted all the costs, and accepts them joyfully and willingly. Without pride, only love; thought through, and prepared in advance; in this case, before the dawn of time.
In my living room, there is a beautiful piece of art. (Which doesn't say much, as there are many beautiful artworks by my sister all over the house. I am proud to say that without being an art connoisseur, I have enjoyed all her artwork so far with only one exception, which was a particularly obnoxious object called Worm Baby. Not a horror movie person; that Thing was. I think the name is graphic enough to suffice without description.)
This particular one, however, is 1 Corinthians 13 in Chinese calligraphy, framed in white, and without a backing so it looks like it's floating against the wall. It was done by a friend's father, given to my dad as a present, and one of my favourite things about it is that every time the word 'love' appears, it's written in a different way. I knew there was 'old' and 'new' Chinese script, but it's fascinating to see how many different legit ways the same word can be written, and still read as such.
To me, that reinforces how love is in essence so simple and universal, and yet in application so myriad.
All those Facebook quizzes on What is Your Love Language, and Asian Parents humour videos; and #growingupwithsiblings, for example.
Search the Scriptures challenged me to read 1 Corinthians 13 as 15 ways of describing love, and then summarize and apply it. 15 ways to love. Boiled down to what is most directly, personally applicable to your life. Which is not easy, if you take a look at those verses.
Love suffers long and is kind;
love does not envy;
love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
The first three times I read them through I felt hopeless: "okay, I need them all, every single one of them--I'm just adding a growing number of ticks at the end of each line! How to pick the most important one, or summarize all of this??" But that's precisely why--it breaks down an otherwise overwhelming or abstract list into specific, personal, and most of all, applicable articles.
I finally decided the best approach was to describe it as two general categories:
1. longsuffering /patience /fortitude
All these terms, at least for me, translate to having a higher threshold of forbearance when things don't go your way, by cultivating humility and sincere love and concern for others. This is really difficult for someone who thinks there's a specific format even for hanging up the laundry. I mean, obviously my way is the best, right? Usually, I close my eyes as much as possible whenever someone helps me, (I'm tempted to write, 'attempts to help'!) but that's where the second part comes in. Not merely for the sake of avoiding a petty quarrel over socks and underwear, but out of greater humility; ok, maybe my way isn't flawless after all, you do have a point about bedsheets--
--and love for others; I appreciate you wanting to help me, and I want to remember this could be a fun and pleasant opportunity for us to work together IF ONLY I CAN STOP NOTICING HOW YOU'RE DROPPING CLEAN LAUNDRY ON THE FLOOR AND NOT PUTTING THE PEGS INTO THE BASKET but yeah, those don't really matter in the big picture, do they? *sweats*
In how you interact with and care for others. To be interested in them--not how they reflect upon or affect you or compare to you (which may sound immature and and at the level of teenage friendship problems, but which extends even to parent-child relationships--both ways, at that.) To be less self-conscious; which, as has been so rightly pointed out, is true humility--not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. So your love for others is more genuine. Again, this is challenging in a culture where we are constantly aware of how we look, how others see us, how others reflect upon us; where we zoom in on group pics to see ourselves first, where there are people it's uncool to be friends with, where we squirm when certain people comment on our Facebook page or spoil our feed.
I feel disappointed with myself when I think about how flimsy my love for others is, how it hovers so precariously upon my threshold of forbearance, and how much selfishness is mixed up in it. I remember one quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov which really struck me: "The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular."
It's easy to feel a benevolent, if vague and undemanding, compassion and love for others; you feel soulfully convinced that you, too, have a heart to end world hunger or smooth fevered brows and generally be the next Mother Teresa;
but when it comes down to everyday life, to individuals, to toothpaste tubes not rolled neatly, to hairs on the floor you just swept, to unmade beds and apologies and grumpiness and yes, the right way to hang out laundry--we need the Spirit to teach us how to love.
We need Him Who loved us first, and enabled us to love in turn...
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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