"...in Jesus's name we pray, amen!"
When teaching children about Jesus, I try my best to maintain a balance. On one hand, they need to see Him as a saviour, and yet on the other hand they need to see that He is even more than that, He loves us and is with us in a very real and personal way, far more than just Someone who died for you long ago, or Someone Who was nice and said we could go to heaven.
I keep my own experience in mind.
One of the things I realized when I was seeking salvation was that I had a weird relationship with Christ. I knew He was supposed to be my Saviour and Friend, but He felt strangely distant and unreal. I ended my prayers in His name but I didn't really like to talk too much about Him otherwise. I think a visit to a more 'contemporary' church when I was little made a bad impression on me of people throwing Jesus' name around and getting all gushy and undignified (here you can probably tell the kind of baby I was; intense eyes, observing everything, silently judging you, silently disapproving. At least I was cute.)
After all, I always prayed to God. If anything God was the one I felt I had a real sort of friendship, or at least relationship with, a sort of strange mysterious friend whom you didn't really understand, and didn't really know, and weren't really sure how much they cared for you, but had always been there, and you found comfort from knowing they had always been there and would always be there. That is, when I wasn't thinking of Him as a Judge. Then that was scary.
I knew the Gospel, but Jesus still seemed rather superfluous to me--as it clearly would to someone who was not convicted of my own sin.
Even after I was converted, Christ remained rather distant--someone I was in awe of, and respected, and cared for, but not in a personal or intimate way; it was still at a stage where I felt I wouldn't dare. It was like claiming to be best friends with a national hero just because He had saved your life along with a ton of other people's during some crisis. Jesus, I loved You--respectfully, from a distance, with sincere and deep gratitude, but mostly awe.
It took me a while to see Him not only as a Saviour but as a Friend, in the realest sense of the word.
God had brought into my life a family who would become and stay dear friends even years later, despite being in different countries, despite not having seen each other since then, despite not even having regular correspondence. They were Americans who, unlike me, were very much in touch with Christ as a friend, and who often spoke of Him as such. They were an eye-opener to me, and their relationship with Jesus came to my mind afterwards many times over the years, forcing me to see that this was an area I lacked, this was something I needed to think about.
It took me years.
It took me books like Greg Gilbert's What is the Gospel and Steve DeWitt's Eyes Wide Open, it took me books like Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamzov and C.S Lewis's Narnia series which wrung and warmed my heart, and even the overwhelming evil in the world, a frightening glimpse of His absence--
to unfold knowledge, one leaf at a time, about Him. Not just 'knowledge'--Jesus Christ--Son of God--Saviour; like those impersonal words on your identity card; but real knowledge. Like memorizing your mother's smile. Lip synching the words to your favourite song. The little freckles on your best friend's hand, or that passage in a book you love so much it falls open naturally at that place.
And after knowledge, love followed, naturally, simply.
I often regret it took me so long to love Him as a friend. But love for Him should always be based on His relationship to us as our saviour. If we love Him only as a friend, it places Him on par with other things, in the same way we can have many friends; and puts us in danger of not seeing clearly how our relationship with Him is so different from a mere guardian angel-mortal friendship.
He is so much more.
Search me, O God, and know my heart
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the path everlasting.
Psalm 139: 23-24
The first thing that came to my mind when I read this verse a few days ago was a shocked Wow how did David dare to say this??
I don't know about you, but there is something frightening in such complete honesty and humility. Search me and know my heart! Here are all my anxieties, all my insecurities, everything about my limits and fears and weaknesses!
Here are my failures.
Here are the things I don't want anyone to know about. That I wish I didn't know about myself.
Here are the things that are killing me.
Here are the darkest and most destructive things inside my soul.
(cue Imagine Dragon's Demons)
And by the way, you're not saying all this to a human you could possibly control. Of course, it's one thing to say that we couldn't hide any of this from Him anyway. But David is willingly accepting, even inviting this. Not being able to stop someone from reading your diary is one thing; telling them, "Here, read. Don't skip pages 356 and 127--they're especially enlightening" is something else.
I wondered--as in the past tense verb of the word wonder, and not the synonym for pondered. Such fearless honesty was something I shrinked from. How on earth could David declare this so confidently? Remember, this was the Old Testament, before the New Covenant, before grace as we know it in Jesus Christ. David saw Uzzah struck dead for touching the Ark, he had the guilt of Uriah's death on his past, and yet he could say this, knowing how holy God was, and how sinful he was.
David could say all this because he was willing to give up all the pet sins, all the bad habits or weaknesses, all the idols in his heart when he surrendered it to God. Because he knew and acknowledged honestly and humbly--ah, humbly!--his own unworthiness, and God's holiness. Because when he asked God to lead him in the way everlasting, he was going to follow--to actively, purposefully, and wholeheartedly follow.
He could say that.
He could say that because of this.
Part of my new year routine is taking time to answer Donald Whitney's 10 Questions for the New Year, as you would probably know if you've been reading this blog for a while.
It is always meaningful reading through last year's answers, and realizing how much you'd forgotten or fulfilled since then. What I found most interesting was that each year, one particular thing seemed to repeat itself, to reappear in several answers like it was the theme of that year.
Last year's emerged as knowing God better. Learning to love His attributes. Learning more about the person of God. Learning to see how His attributes applied to my life in a concrete way. I phrased this idea differently in several answers but in essence that was it.
This time, it was simpler. I need to protect my devotions and prayer time, I found myself writing several times in my answers, using almost the same words each time because somehow they were the right ones.
I was surprised at myself. Protect wasn't a word I'd ever used in this context. But I thought back to how I had lapsed for weeks because oh, it was the holidays; I slept late last night; I'd just take a quick scroll down this feed, or check those pesky unread messages first; or there were so many things waiting to be done, I'd just get a head start on clearing them today and be so productive....!
Protect, I realized, was an apt word.
I need to protect that short pocket of time every day from distractions, from work, from laziness. There were so many reasons and excuses one could pick from, and it got easier everyday. I'll start next week, on Monday, get up early and all that, put my life back into balance again, I would think. Like so many (doomed) diets and exercise plans this thought has seen, it didn't quite work out.
I had to protect the time I spent on prayer and devotions from my own excuses.
This was a humbling realization. It was not so much my schedule and all the responsibilities on me. It was not so much whether I'd slept late last night or not. It was just making small decisions--the same small decisions--every day, faithfully. Put down the phone. Those messages can wait, it's not like reading them now accomplishes anything. You don't need to be immediately updated on what the world has been doing for the past few hours you were asleep. Don't look at your schedule yet. You'll be spending the rest of the day looking at it, after all.
It's like training a child to make their bed in the morning. Growing up we all had to do what my mom called the Five Morning Duties. (always in capitals, in my mind. They were important in a basic, pragmatic way; they existed, simply, the way the Seven Wonders of the World or the Four Great Beauties of China did, regardless of your existence.)
Make your bed. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Comb your hair. Change your clothes and take out the dirty ones.
Making the bed was the first one, which led to the others, and it took as little as a minute--fold your blanket, pick up your stuff toys if they had fallen onto the ground, and pull the quilt over everything. (or prop the mattresses against the wall, in the early days before we got our bunk bed.) It was a decision you made in those first few seconds after you sat up in bed, it didn't take a lot of effort, but you had to make it every day, and it was being able to make it every day that was the greatest accomplishment of all to your mom.
But small decisions, to be made every day, are easy to fail in.
That's why the word protect kept coming to my mind when I looked back soberly upon the weeks which had slid by this past year, each day a chance I had knowingly passed by.
In 2017, I want to protect the time I give for prayer and devotions every day. Even if I wake up late. Even if my phone is blinking with unread messages and notifications. Even if I'm itching to plunge into the to-do list for the day and slap some nice satisfyingly long tailed ticks in there.
We make choices, every day. Small choices which mean great things in the big picture.
Journal excerpt, 2014:
'Cause me to know the way I should walk, for I lift up my soul to You.'
I am thankful that You have transformed me since I made the realization of my sinful attitude towards an uncertain future and then the decision to live out a better definition of trust. I've truly felt Your peace. Whereas this verse previously wrung my heart in an anguish of yearning, pleading with You for guidance, I read it now as a confident and peaceful declaraton of trust. I don't 'lift my soul' in desperate pleading. I lift it. Simply, as an offering; in trust that it is Yours to bless, that You will bless. I still crave Your guidance. But I have the peace of knowing that however this guidance is manifested, what it leads to, it will be good. I know You will bless. I know You will be with me. I am convinced, not just in mind but in heart of Your goodness as manifested in Your plan for my life.
You are good. So good that I am constantly discovering new depths and shades of Your goodness that I never knew before.
2016 has been an eventful, if not downright tumultous year, for the world as well as for myself.
Now that the year is starting to draw to a close, I see quips online complaining about the bleakness of the future and of the past year. Since my finals and graduation-minus-the-ceremony are approaching soon next year,
(read: having to face the big what are you going to do after you graduate question, and be able to justify my answer to myself as well as to others by actions and not just words) I'm afraid I'm also tempted to join the bandwagons of prophets foretelling doom and destruction.
So it was very timely that I happened to grab my journal the wrong way, and the first page flapped open revealing the very first entry; far back from 2014, at a time when university was the huge and terrifying question mark looming ahead of me.
There is a new one now--when isn't there?--but this reminds me that it will be another opportunity to learn to lift up my soul in trust.
"But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring him into the land where he went, and his descendents shall inherit it."
I used to see those beginning books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (an impressive word I learnt from a Sunday School teacher) as rollicking adventure stories, with more than a dash of PG scariness (the book of Judges, for example, isn't quite bedtime reading.) The Gospel seemed relegated to the New Testament. Overall, my childhood impression of the Old Testmanet was kind of like the impression one may get from watching Hollywood's takes on the Bible--great movie material, perhaps, but not what you would/should expect to learn much about actual Christianity from!
These parts of the Bible are actually quite fascinating. As stories, they are great; and precisely for that reason, easy Sunday School lessons for little ones (12 spies, 2 good obeyed God, 10 bad were punished, now colour the picture of the giant bunch of grapes and remember the names of the good ones, Joshua and Caleb.)
However, when we force ourselves, as Christians, to consider why they were included in the Bible, and what they contribute to the Gospel and the person of God, and human nature in response, it gets more complicated.
The Old Testament depiction of God, to me, is sobering. It reminds me that I cannot understand Him. It reminds me that holiness is the foremost of His qualities--something which should add reverence and humility as well as comfort in His justice. It reminds me of the immensity of the gap between Him and I, which Christ in the New Testament bridged, and which we take for granted when we forget to look down.
Caleb was commended for his trust in God's power and person, as a God both able to and committed to fulfilling His promises. He applied this trust into action--the willingness to work hard, to embrace the challenge. This was the 'different spirit,' the sole factor which made such a great difference between the ten spies and Caleb and Joshua's perspective of the promised land.
It may sound rather anticlimactic, but I realized that I'd had a similar experience. When my two older sisters both left within months of each other to study overseas for several years, it was a traumatic change that I agonized over months before the actual parting took place. We had always been pretty close for siblings, but as sisters the thought was even harder to bear. Between the four of us, each one's personality contributed a unique aspect to the family dynamics; I couldn't imagine having to get on without the two of them, as moderators so to speak between my brother and I (who had grown up fighting in the classic cat-and-dog sibling style.) I prayed about it, torn but clueless about what I wanted, and I remember writing anguished journal entries trying to find out why I felt so miserable and what could be done.
I knew, even then, that this was something for my good; that it'd be an opportunity for me to become more mature, force me to take more initiative. I could see, even in the midst of my unhappiness, that it would make me grow as an individual, in relationships, and in serving--whether I liked it or not. The problem was that I didn't like the idea at all. It was too hard. It flung me far out of my comfort zone relentlessly. I saw the potential, I saw God's purpose for me in this experience already, but I didn't want it.
Thankfully, God didn't give me a choice; otherwise I would have missed out on significant lessons and chances to grow--spiritually, emotionally; in wisdom about people, relationships, and most of all in my own sense of selfhood. I would have missed getting to really know my brother, and develop the relationship we have today, one of the most valuable ones I have been blessed with.
It was hard. Definitely. Being forced out of my comfort zone; the burden of new responsibilities; finding independence, emotionally and physically. Having to trust and rely on God even though I felt aggrieved against Him. Having to work on relationships which challenged my selfishness and complacency. To use a corny phrase, however, looking back I know it was all worth it, that it couldn't have happened any other way except the hard way.
That is precisely what happened with the spies. The pessimistic ten preferred to focus on the challenge that the land presented. It was going to be hard. They would have to fight, some of them might get injured or even killed. It would take time, plenty of effort, and it would be uncertain as well as dangerous, even with God on their side.
They wanted an easy way out; a land flowing with milk and honey, but in a giftbox. No need to think too much or try too hard.
God's gifts to us sometimes take shape as challenges. Sometimes we can even see the goodness offered to us; the grapes are just in front of our eyes, crisp with juice; we can see the swathes of buttery sunlit meadows spread out before us. But the challenge is there. What matters is the 'different spirit' with which we face it. When we are able to apply trust in God's person and power, as Caleb did, into active willingness to accept the challenge, accept the hard work and effort it entails, with hope and humility.
'And He gave them their request, but sent leaness into their souls.'
The Israelites lusted for better food to the point that they became unable to see anything beyond their desires. We know that food became their idol because we see how they became blind to God's promises and to the past proof of His power and providence; though the very manna that kept them alive and which they were complaining about ought to have reminded them of it. They were led into greed as well as unbelief. Even when God promised to give them their request--not just for one day, but for a whole month--they stockpiled far more than they needed, unable to understand that a God who was able to provide all this was also able to keep His word.
God gave them what they wanted. And it was the opposite of what they though it would be. Instead of fulfilment, 'leaness.' Instead of life, death. Aren't all idols the same? They are not what we need. They leave us, ultimately, unfulfilled and only hungrier for that vague something we yearn for, which we glimpse in glorious sunsets, in a strain of music, in the feelings evoked so intensely and confusedly by fleeting images. The danger of desires morphing into idols is that too easily we start to see them as the solution to all our problems; the lie that 'if only I had ___ I would be happy.' I write this wistfully because like you, I grapple with discontent, with unfulfilled dreams and desires that sometimes grip me till it aches. I wonder with some trepidation whether my dreams have become idols, if my ambitions are blinders. I write this without judging the Israelites because it frightens me how easily I too could have behaved in the same way, in my own version of their situation, however foolish theirs may seem now to me.
'Your gentleness has made me great.' I am still finding new ways to understand this fascinating phrase from Psalm 18:35. Perhaps sometimes this gentleness manifests itself when God denies us what we want, forcing us--so to speak--to seek a harder, more abstract, more complex, but more real satisfaction and fulfilment in Himself. The same lesson, learnt less poignantly through discontent perhaps, but with less emotional havoc than if it had been learnt through disappointment and disillusion. Perhaps one way He is gentle with us is when He keeps us from the destructiveness of our desires.
I had heard so much about this book, and about Timothy Keller after the whole splash that The Reason for God made; but I put off reading it in a fit of perverse contrariness (book lovers, beware how you rave to friends; your well-meant but condescending pressure may just set them off the book, if for no better reason than sheer human nature! I dread to think how many friends I may have unwittingly turned off from my favourite books in this manner.) Sure, I put it on my to-read list, but loudly proclaimed that I had plenty of other good books to read, and wasn't in any particular hurry to start on this one, just because it seemed so wildly popular. Misguided hipster mentality or just plain pig-headed?
Grudgingly, when a copy was actually pressed upon me--how more direct could you get--I overcame my prejudice and opened the book.
It was a familiar feeling (I'm afraid) of realizing that my silly assumptions or prejudices made me miss out on something good. I'd had this experience with Greg Gilbert's deceptively simple What is the Gospel, years ago, as I documented here; but apparently I hadn't gotten wiser since!
My favourite passage from The Prodigal God was Keller's explanation of the gospel, versus Christianity as a religion:
"Religion operates on the principle of 'I obey--therefore I am accepted by God.' The basic operating principle of the gospel is 'I am accepted by God through the work of Jesus Christ--therefore I obey.' "
Basically, the mentality that equates good deeds as a way to earn ourselves something good (or save ourselves from something bad) is a very natural aspect of human nature, a far cry from the grace and mercy of the gospel, and something we actually have to actively let go of: "...A fundamental insight of Martin Luther's was that 'religion' is the default mode of the human heart."
Keller discussed the significance of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) in this light:
"There are three groups of people who 'receive' and accept the gospel, but two of the groups do not produce changed lives. One set of people do not have the endurance and patience to handle suffering, while another group continues to live an anxious, materialistic life. The only group of people who produce changed lives are not those who have worked harder or been more obedient, but those who 'hear the word of God and understand it.' (Matthew 13:23) Bonhoeffer insisted that people whose lives remained unchanged by God's grace didn't really understand its costliness, and therefore didn't really understand the gospel. They had a general idea of God's universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ's death on our behalf. In the end, Martin Luther's old formula still sums things up nicely: 'We are saved by faith alone [not our works], but not by faith that remains alone.' "
I love the emphasis on understand. Not those who simply 'respond in the right way', which is all too easily the emphasis we may unconsciously end up with when teaching this parable (this makes me look back uneasily on when I taught this in Sunday School. Oh gosh. I wonder what kind of ideas my kids got?) Because when we truly understand, when we grasp the significance of what the gospel is trying to tell us about ourselves and about God, how can we not respond?
Along this line, Keller reminiscences about a woman he met whose response to the grace of the gospel was " 'That is a scary idea! Oh, it's good scary, but still scary.' "
Asked 'why scary?' her reply was: " 'If I was saved by my good works--then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace--at God's infinite cost--then there's nothing he cannot ask of me.' She could see immediately that the wonderful beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her--she was not her own. She was bought with a price."
Wow. Just let that sit for a while.
I enjoyed Keller's ability to present truth with disarming simplicity and clarity, something which to me C.S Lewis will forever epitomize, and which never fails to give me a thrill whenever I find it in other writers. Here he wrote about the gospel in a way which addressed both readers who came from non-Christian as well as Christian backgrounds, in a fresh and insightful manner--something which is challenging to say the least. In my own limited experience of writing for this blog I have yet to achieve that!
I have yet to read his other works (Counterfeit Gods, of which I've heard much praise for, will probably be the next, unless any Keller fans out there has a better recommendation!)--but I think I'm going to enjoy this writer.
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
This is a beautiful passage from the Bible which is justifiably famous.
I always saw this verse for its comfort, but one day suddenly realized that 'continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing'--isn't exactly what you expect a weeping person to be doing. You want to be alone at home, preferably in your own room, with plenty of tissue and water, and maybe some melancholic background music for ambience; or walking aimlessly in the rain (if you've been watching too many movies.)
The verse depicts the farmer who has to sow to live. It is a necessity to go out sowing--not only because it benefits others, but for his own survival in the long run.
This reminded me of a passage in one of my favourite books, and my favourite romance; Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. (Which, with its politics and social issues and philosophy, is not exactly your typical romance, though John Thornton is/ought to be up there alongside with all the other famous Byronic, broody fictional heroes like Edward Rochester and Fitzwilliam Darcy--the Collin Firth interpretation, that is.) I admit that I did watch the BBC adaptation before I actually read the book; but Richard Armitage aside, I genuinely love the book for a whole lot of reasons; and a main one is the character of Margaret Hale, who proves herself a resilient, courageous, self-sacrificial if very human and flawed heroine; and is one of my most deeply admired female protagonists. Let me try not to become incoherent here, and if I relapse into raving you have my permission to tell me off.
At any rate, Margaret goes through some horrible experiences, one of which is the sudden relapse and death of her mother. Her brother Frederick--who has been wrongly accused of mutiny, and cannot return to England on pain of death--manages to come secretly back for the funeral, and when Margaret finally breaks down under the pressure of supporting her father and bearing her own grief, encourages her:
"Come, come, come! Let us go upstairs, and do something, rather than waste time that may be so precious. Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life. My theory is a sort of parody on the maxim of 'Get money, my son--honestly, if you can; but get money.' My precept is, 'Do something, my sister--do good if you can; but at any rate, so something.'"
Life must go on. It sounds callous sometimes, and is callous if you disregard the fact that one must first of all confront grief, allow oneself to grieve instead of repressing or denying it...as an introvert, I'm the last person to advocate not having time alone, or a space of quiet. I remember funerals becoming terrible, traumatic events if I did not first have some time to myself to grieve, before I had to be plunged into all the activity of the living commemorating the dead--itself a natural part of the process, but secondary.
From a Christian's point of view, sowing can be seen as continuing to actively trust God--whether this means in service, in perseverance of prayer or the fight against sin, or simply continuing faithfully in one's duties. Somehow, the image of the farmer, going faithfully out into his field to sow his seeds even as he is weeping, even as the tears run down his face and he chokes back sobs, is very poignant to me; and I know that my sense of pity and empathy is nothing compared to God's.
And God's encouragement to us is that this weeping farmer will 'reap in joy,' come back carrying the fruits of his labour and trust, radiant with fulfilled hope; 'rejoicing.'
These seeds are so much more than just 'character training,' or therapy to help distract us from our feelings; more than just 'going on;' they are necessary; they are part of the joy to come that God promises us.
How beautiful is that?
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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