image by Angelina Litvin from Unsplash
How do we pray for the haggard-eyed students with absent expressions and highlighter-stained fingers, anxiously sharing about that upcoming exam they've been preparing so hard for?
God, please give them the grade they want.
God, please don't discourage them by the grades they get.
God, help them to have peace in their hearts to accept whatever grade You give them.
God, please give them the grade they deserve after all the hard work they've put in.
God, help them to have the right mentality towards exams and grades, to have perspective.
God, help them to trust You and rely on You better through this experience.
I've heard all these alternatives, and have myself prayed variations on them.
I no longer have to worry about exams and grades, something I am thankful for; but with memories still fresh, it's only natural to feel a helpless, heavy compassion on behalf of the students who are so burdened by it. What should we be praying for them, exactly? We all want God to just give them the good results they want so badly, but we have to acknowledge that "if it's Your will"--wondering uneasily how we would deal with it, if it really isn't.
As students in a society that only increasingly emphasizes education as a means of safeguarding your future, measuring your worth, and determining how others see us, we all constantly struggle to maintain a God-honouring, balanced, healthy mindset towards grades and being assessed. Easier said than done, right.
Bob Schultz, the author of Boyhood and Beyond, had a simple but sobering insight that really helped me adjust the mindset I had towards grades: rejoice in the truth.
It's easy to rejoice in the truth when the truth reflects well on us; we don't need to be reminded to do that.
What's more difficult to live out is when it doesn't.
If you were lazy, procrastinated, shirked the work you should have put in--if your grades reflect that, the right response would be to humbly accept it and treat it as a difficult, but necessary lesson for yourself.
But if you worked hard, yet still struggled--couldn't understand, couldn't get it--and your grades reflect that, it would be much more painful to accept.
However, why not accept that it's the truth? There should not be so much stigma in admitting that you just didn't know your stuff, and need more time, need another chance. Your hard work is not negated just because it didn't end up with the results you wanted. It might simply be a step in the process.
Let's be honest. Even if we barely understood what the paper was about, if we somehow got a good grade on it, we'd celebrate and feel like it was a kind of achievement. Regardless of whether we actually knew our stuff or not, we'd settle for getting a good grade just so we can move on, and feel happy about it. We're prioritizing results over the truth. We've been taught that it's better to reject the truth, if the truth reflects badly on us.
I remember crying when my mom made me repeat a grade once (maths was the bane of my childhood existence) overwhelmed that I had been officially branded as stupid. I had resorted to cheating, peeking at the answer key, because I wouldn't admit I didn't understand the concepts, even though I could barely do the questions. Interestingly, it was the end of the world for me, but not because I didn't understand my maths--it should have been, but that was not the real issue at stake to me. I was more concerned that it was now public knowledge. To accept the facts and acknowledge that I didn't understand was a blow to my pride.
Maybe this sounds like a detour into educational philosophy, and maybe it is. But it reminds me of how, before we can bring ourselves to confess "I have sinned," there is no chance for repentance, for life.
It is no longer a condemnation of who we are, because it isn't the sole indication of our identity or our worth. Just as we are no longer defined by our sin, and are free to live out our identity as God's children, we are not defined by our grades, by our achievements, by how a certain educational system assesses us. And that's why we can rejoice in the truth.
We need to not be so afraid of the truth, as it liberates us and enables us to truly progress, to grow.
"The truth will set you free."
image by Brigitte Tohm from Unsplash
I used to complain that of all my siblings, my parents gave me the most difficult name. The Chinese character for慈 (ci) has exactly 13 strokes--just for that character alone--and is a rather unusual one that is not easy to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. Over the years I have learnt to endure it being butchered in a mind-baffling multitude of ways, some of which almost come close to ingenious, without any facial muscles flinching. Chi. Chee. Zee. Zhi. Zzz. Jrrr. Qi. Si. See. And the list goes on. I even got called "Silk" by a class of kids I taught once, because the teacher I was assisting couldn't get it right and I was too embarrassed to correct her.
What gets lost is the meaning behind that difficult character; love--to be more specific, mercy/compassion; love from a higher being to a lower one. Just like how the Greek words agape, philos, eros differentiate between different types of love. God's precious and enduring love, if you want to take the complete meaning of my full name. Not easy to pronounce, maybe, but not easy to comprehend either!
I remember many years ago thinking about this, and feeling how apt it was that my parents chose this name for me, as my personality could be pretty well described by that Audrey Hepburn quote: "I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible desire to give it." People categorized me (and I accepted it) as kind/loving/tender-hearted; I hated violence or conflict, I loved animals and children, I was easily moved when I saw suffering of any kind--I remember crying inconsolably once because an old man on a bicycle pulled up along the bus I was on, and as I watched him cycling precariously with his skinny legs among the big cars and flashing lights of Orchard Road I was suddenly, terribly aware how vulnerable he was, how easily he could be knocked over by one of the cars, how his bicycle didn't have any lights and it was late at night...
Which all sounds very sentimental and sweet, perhaps, (or maybe just a morbid and hyperactive imagination haha) but doesn't actually come under love. Let's be honest. English, though my favourite language and the strength of my being, has some deceptive limitations. We use the word "love" way too easily and too carelessly. When we talk about learning to live out a Christ-like love, we sometimes end up reducing it to a warm fuzzy inborn capacity to be tenderhearted; that sensitivity, that empathy, which is just innate in some people's personalities, right? Well, that's not enough. In fact, it's painfully inadequate.
Peter broke down the process in a way which reminds us how real love--far from being a natural, spontaneous, simple thing--is rather the product of spiritual discipline and maturity, of godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, the labour of studying the Word, of knowing God. It ought to be all those things, granted, but in our fallen world, it just isn't. Our hearts are still in the process, and painfully so, of being transformed.
2 Peter 1: 5-7:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
Love, from the very overuse of the term and concept, may have been reduced to a deceptively simple concept--or at least a seemingly straightforward one. But in this list we see the progression through other different virtues, finally only culminating with love.
Being able to truly love someone isn't just something that has to do with how nice a personality you were born with, or how nice a person you usually are. It's something we work at. Something incredibly hard to achieve as it's not only a progression but also a culmination of the other aspects of our spiritual life.
Think about why Peter chose each word in the verses above, and why they came in that specific order. We need hope to love, or cynicism and despair and human limitations would kill us. We need to know what perseverance and hard work and self control are, to love. We need to be wanting to obey God, desiring to obey God, actively seeking to obey God. And--I love how mutual affection comes right here, a perfect balance--we need to love the other person as an individual, to understand and embrace who they are, to affirm their strengths even as we recognize their weaknesses.
Here Peter is not describing a condescending generic love for the masses, for the "unworthy lost," for humanity in general but divorced from the actual gritty reality of loving individual, imperfect people.
Remember how Jesus, in all of the hundreds of people He ministered to, never once lost sight of them as individuals, never treated them as just another needy person, just another applicant. He stopped to heal those who would have been passed by and ignored, like the lepers. He affirmed the potential in those who were labeled unworthy, like Zacchaeus. He comforted the outcasts, aware of all their sins, all their struggles.
Are you struggling to forgive someone? Are you trying to love someone, to love wisely and well and selflessly as Christ did? Don't sit there expecting God to magically take away your irritation, and fill you with a warm fuzzy desire to "be nice to them." We can only truly love when the Spirit is working hard within us, when we are dealing with our own sin, when we are seeking God in our everyday life.
image by rob bye from Unsplash
continued from part 2
This is going to sound like a long rant on the woes of being grown-up, but I promise this is the last installment (was that just a confession? No, it's not a rant. There's a lot to be thankful for and a lot to enjoy and appreciate as well...but to be honest, what we're most conscious of are always the challenges. So here are a few of the things that were/are significant to me, in the hopes that you might find some encouragement if you're struggling with the same.)
As your time and mental energy are increasingly all taken up by work, what little that remains to yourself (after you add in family, church, friends, etc etc) seems incredibly precious. Whether it's a ten-minute pocket of procrastination, the evening after you get home, or the weekend, you feel entitled to spend it however you want, uninterrupted and undisturbed. I don't know if this is more of an introvert thing but I'm sure extroverts experience it as well, just manifested differently. This sense of entitlement has an understandable basis--you're tired! you were stressed out the whole day and finally you can relax!--but it's also self-centredness finding more reasons to justify itself.
This is life. It's not going to be any easier for you to be more patient and selfless. There's not going to be a "more convenient" time and context for you to be loving, when you feel more like it. Dying to self, living out Christ, and ultimately living without regrets, starts in the small moments, the small choices. Put the phone down. Give your full attention to the conversation. Your show can be paused. Listen. Live each moment, don't just recover from work.
As your time and mental energy are sapped, you tend to go for what's easiest, what calls for the least amount of energy. We're contented to settle for superficial conversations, for low-commitment relationships, to avoid anything that threatens to step inside our comfort zone or take more than its allotted amount of energy and time. I'm talking to myself here; this is a very valid temptation, and an understandable one, which I've found myself increasingly experiencing.
Whether that means avoiding
opportunities for deep (and maybe difficult) conversations,
addressing and dealing with needy moments (of our own or others,)
going the extra mile for a friend in times of crisis,
dealing with social issues and needs that lie outside our immediate circle or community (or even within!)
or challenging ourselves in growing spiritually and addressing weaknesses in our spiritual life,
superficiality is a very real temptation. I guess you could call it a form of laziness. There are times when you legitimately need distance/down time; but more often not dealing with it, procrastinating, or avoiding actually becomes more unhealthy.
And we've probably heard this before! We get disillusioned. People. Expectations. Dreams. Reality. Your past achievements which seemed so promising yet don't seem to matter much now, what you thought was your dream job, your ambitions which seem increasingly impossible no matter how much you sacrifice for it. Inhumane bosses. Unfairness or corrupted values in biased systems/institutions. Underhand behaviour. Unreliable, unreasonable people who have no qualms being selfish and inconsiderate, or simply take advantage wherever they can. Snakes, to sum it up in one heavily used millenial term.
It's so easy to respond by wallowing in the bog of cynicism (which promises that pulling others in will help manage your own disappointment.) Ah, wait till you're my age. Wait till you get your first REAL job. Don't have any expectations at all for other people or anything, that's the only way to avoid disappointment.
This is at stark contrast with a God Who has "given us richly all things to enjoy," isn't it?
Doesn't it contradict our professed trust in an Almighty God Who is working out His sovereign plan right now on imperfect earth, with all its flaws...just as He is bringing us all day by day closer to the perfected new heavens and new earth.
I've said this before but one thing I love so much about Christianity is its paradoxical ability to sustain the tension between two simultaneous but absolute extremes. God's mercy and God's justice. Man's depravity and our born-again identity as God's children. The helplessness/weakness of man and God's power in using us as His instruments. Even the flawed state of the world, and how God nevertheless hasn't abandoned us to suffer until it comes to an end--to an end preceding a glorious start.
Yes, there's a lot to get depressed about where we are. You don't have to look far, at all.
But because we can look Up, we have hope, to sustain us; to give us courage for the future, because we know what the end is. To give us courage for today, because He is with us; because each day is a gift, is an opportunity chosen for us--even, and especially, the tough parts. Maybe this is how we live out faith, by remaining hopeful and joyful...
image by Hernan Sanchez from Unsplash
I started by typing a disclaimer and then changed my mind. Experiences differ from culture and context, but at the root of it are the same challenges, the same temptations, the same pitfalls. It's tough navigating so many things simultaneously; in the wake of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, inadequate, and anxious, the same temptations tend to attack us.
The first few months I started working full-time I remember adding up my total income and feeling very insecure. I found myself googling "average monthly salary of full-time retail/F&B worker" after passing by some job advertisements at the mall, and suddenly wondering if I was even making as much as the students I saw working during their holidays. It was the first time I so unabashedly evaluated myself by money, and unsurprisingly it was a rather depressed point in life.
As you start work, as you start accumulating the most money you've ever earned in your life--as you compare salaries with your peers, calculate bonuses, try to pay your living expenses and bills like a proper responsible adult, or weigh the pros and cons of different jobs--money increasingly becomes a measurement or indicator of success. Whether that means being financially stable, having a certain kind of lifestyle, being able to afford bubble tea every day (I'm convinced Singaporean millenials spend a quarter of their living allowance on bubble tea and I can see why) or being respected and admired by others. How much you make every month and how much you can afford to spend become the rubric by which we are--consciously or unconsciously--learning to evaluate our lives, the time and effort we invest in our work, and ultimately ourselves.
Money is great. Financial independence is awesome. Being able to treat people, to pay for the cab, to take care of household bills, to give someone something you know they'd really like, and make decisions on "nice but not necessary" things--is very satisfying.
It's a satisfying feeling because not only is it a form of power, you earned this power, there's this sense of affirmation in your ability and worth. Which is why retail therapy is such a real coping mechanism for so many of the people you see in malls (and in Singapore, malls are just part of your everyday; it's just a matter of which one, and how big.) After a tiring day at work, spending money becomes a way to distract yourself, but also to validate to yourself all that time, all that energy, all that stress.
Spending money feels great because it's instant gratification; we can immediately taste the results. We can dig into that photogenic shibuya toast, we can wear that shirt right now, we can go for that holiday or watch that movie. And when gratification is in short supply in other areas of our lives, that's what we go for.
What are the standards we evaluate ourselves by, what is the definition of success that we are living by--constantly trying to reshape ourselves into--comparing ourselves to?
What do we find our satisfaction in--in the long-term scope of life, in what motivates and refreshes us every day?
As Christians, we may not realize that we profess to have certain goals and certain principles, yet fail to apply what that means when it comes to our everyday life. There is a hazy disjunct between "lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven," and what makes you look forward to each day, what you prioritize, what you consider when drawing up your five-year plan.
Escapism. If you've started working fulltime for the first time in your life, navigating new skills and new people and new expectations/challenges, (not to mention all your pre-existing commitments and cares) you've likely entered a whole new ballgame of stress. Not just the kind of stress when you're actively working on the job, the kind which continues to haunt your mind and wear you out with anxiety even when you're in your pajamas and bunny slippers, supposedly all relaxed and recuperating in bed. We don't address and deal with mental/emotional stress as much as we should. We may not even be aware of it, focusing only on the obvious physical stress because at least we all know the remedy for being sleep-deprived, it may not be available but at least it's concrete and straightforward!
And we develop a lot of (often unhealthy) coping mechanisms to deal with this stress. Retail therapy and etc as mentioned above, but escapism is another very prevalent response for our generation. Come home from work and deflate in front of your current favourite series, whether it's the latest Korean drama or the next big thing on Netflix; living the whole week in anticipation of the next episode, or for that movie to be released in cinemas. Tunnel into whatever video or handphone games you're into now, because virtual reality offers you a more tangible, structured system for achievement and success, for excitement. Browse social media endlessly, craft your own page/feed/wall/list of followers, find which parts of your life can be documented as aesthetically and appealingly as possible...
We do this because we crave a mental break from anxieties and insecurities. We crave a straightforward, uncomplicated, attractive, simple life like we see on screen, like our game ranking, like our favourite influencer's feed.
But this is only a (very) short-term solution, one that only lasts until the episode ends or we have to put down our phones. It's naive and unhealthy--and unrealistic--to rely solely on these breaks in order to cope with larger problems or issues in our lives. Instead of escaping from what we dread, sticking our heads like ostriches in the sand until we're forced to come back out, we should acknowledge our need for courage, wisdom, peace, comfort. We neglect to pray.
Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life, and rest, and joy, and peace.
(Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus
by Louisa M. R. Stead and William Kirkpatrick)
These lyrics sound almost naively child-like in their simplicity, but reflect a deep spiritual maturity and intimacy with God which we are so far from, which we are not even seeking. Our need of Christ should be mostly clearly felt in our stress, just as how those are the times in which we learn to know Him best.
We have a great God, who can supply our greatest needs; yet we are content to relegate Him to Sundays and devotions time, since we're too busy struggling to manage on our own the rest of the week.
Expect more fulfilment, more comfort, more peace, more joy in God than you're currently settling for.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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