image by Arif Riyanto from Unsplash
Sometimes life seems too much to bear.
We want to give up. Hide. Escape. A great weariness fills us--weary of struggling, persevering, labouring on.
I dreaded these times because that weariness itself often made me feel worse about myself. Was this proof that I was a wimp, that I was weak, fragile, and incapable of dealing with life like everyone else seemed to be? Proof that I was a feeble Christian, lacking the peace and assurance that we ought to have in Christ. That my faith was a flimsy thing, wilting at the first breath of trouble. Why was I so easily plunged into despair?
In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul talks about this exact same feeling: "burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life." However, he goes on to identify what this feeling is--the "sentence of death," or sin, in us: "Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us." (verse 9-10)
Times like these remind us that this body--and this earth--are mortal ones. Sickness. Damaged relationships. Failures. Disappointments, in ourselves or others. They make us see the pervasive effects of sin everywhere, and teach us to long for things as they should be; for Heaven.
But more than that, they teach us not to trust in ourselves, not to think that the outcome of our lives depends wholly on ourselves. Which leads to enormous pressure to ensure that every decision is the right one and that no mistakes can be afforded, feeling that failure is always lurking around the corner; a crippling and intimidating mindset to approach life with. Instead, we learn to trust in God, Who in sending Christ delivered us from the ultimate death, and since then ceaselessly, tirelessly, continues to deliver us daily from the power of sin, from the sentence of death that continues to plague us in the old man. Since His power over sin and death was proven once and for all in Christ, we are enabled to hope that this is not a losing battle, as much as it may feel like it at times.
image by Christian Erfurt from Unsplash
(continued from part 1)
What then, are possible reasons why we find it so hard to rest?
Smith discusses a few insightful possibilities:
1. Are we functional atheists--living in fear and anxiety due to a lack of faith in God's sovereignty and control? Often, the fear and anxiety that makes us feel unable to rest stems from a sense that without our direct, constant involvement/labour, our world will come crashing down around us. That the church will collapse if we don't shoulder every burden (this, of course, with qualifications; not to be taken out of context.) Though this might be successful at driving us to constantly work harder and better, it's neither healthy nor godly. Needless to say, this is a huge self-imposed burden of responsibility on our own shoulders, as well as a toxic sense of guilt and insecurity whenever we try to rest. Like the typical rat-race, we're ceaselessly toiling, afraid to lose out.
Without mincing any words about it, Smith identifies "if I don't do it, who will?" as a prideful claim of self-sufficiency which is unhealthy. It reflects a lack of understanding that in God's providence, His will is accomplished without needing us. Whether He chooses to do so through us, or not, it is part of His plan. We tend to place too much emphasis on the contribution our hands make, forgetting that all things are in His hands; those "hands that flung stars into space" are not depending on us to achieve His purposes.
2. People-pleasing. We may think that we're concerned for others, that we serve out of love for them, but if we do so because we want to make them like us, or we want them to think well of us, it's really just a perverted form of self-love. We do not manipulate people by doing things for them, or labour under the delusion that we can only love them if we constantly give them whatever they ask of us or whatever makes them happy. "Decisions based on love are about the welfare of the other person, not what they think of you."
So we shouldn't say yes merely because we want to make the person asking us happy. This is something I struggled massively with as a teenager; I couldn't bear to disappoint anyone, be it taking on a new task, helping them out with wedding prep, or joining them for dinner. Even if I knew it was not a wise decision based on my schedule. At that moment, I just really wanted to please them, not to spoil the mood with a refusal.
Similarly, Smith notes that constantly leaping to shoulder every need that arises may also deprive others of opportunities to grow. Do we encourage them to trust us instead of God?
3. Motivated by insecurity, do we keep ourselves busy to distract ourselves from a unhealthy shame and inadequacy?
Perhaps there are areas in our life that we know we need to face, yet--like productive procrastinators--we distract ourselves instead with busyness.
Or perhaps we rely desperately on the fleeting sense of achievement, success, or praise from others for our work, to boost our sense of self-worth and identity.
"How much of our busyness is really an effort to prove our worth and escape from the sense that there is something very wrong with us?"
In contrast, Christ is the only way to acknowledge our sinfulness and flaws, with truth and yet also with hope and empowerment. As Smith points out, Christ is "our Sabbath rest;" having attributed to us His perfection and holiness, and taken the full punishment for our sins, we can experience true freedom from the otherwise relentless drive to prove our worth, to make up for our failures.
(continued in part 3)
image by Abbie Bernet from Unsplash
Recently, I facilitated a study on a small booklet titled Burned Out? by Winston T. Smith. The topic immediately caught my attention because burn-out seems to be one of the increasingly relevant challenges we face in this period of our lives. At a time when we're struggling to juggle new responsibilities and commitments in multiple different areas in life, when our energy and time is always in short supply, burn-out is never too far away. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed out to the brink of tears? When was the last time you wanted to just throw everything aside and sleep for days?
This booklet was short, refreshingly simple, and probingly insightful with some of its questions. I felt it helped me examine myself and discover some realizations, convictions, and applications.
The 4th Commandment to keep the Sabbath is also understood as God's command to us on the importance of rest, a concept most Christians are already familiar with. However, Smith probes further into the greater consequences of this commandment. Realizing that God's creation of the world was not a exertion that He needed the Sabbath to physically recover from, but rather an effortless display of His power, meant that the first Sabbath functioned more as a dedicated day of appreciating and declaring the sovereignty and power of God. "And God saw that it was good." As such, when we keep the Sabbath--or when we rest as God intended us to--we are living out an active trust in God, demonstrating our belief that He is in control of our lives and our world. Rest is not just a necessary but regrettable concession to our human frailty. When we rest, we are not just taking care of our bodies; we are proclaiming His sovereignty.
Secondly, rest also works (pun unintended) as a means for us to experience God's providence, abundant blessings, and the freedom He gives to us. Smith quotes the sabbatical year in Leviticus, where the Israelites were commanded not to plant anything every seventh year, letting the ground rest. God promised to provide for His people through this year by blessing their fields abundantly in the sixth year, so that they would harvest enough food to last them through three years: the sixth year, the seventh of rest, and the eighth year when they resumed planting, before the harvest was ready. Without the seventh year of rest, the Israelites would not have the chance to experience how abundantly--even miraculously--God could provide for them; to witness His power. It also helped to disrupt an increasingly blind devotion to their work or materialism, creating a sense of balance and perspective.
Here, Smith again draws from the laws in Leviticus. The Jubilee year, every 50th year, was another example of rest imposed by God in which slaves were freed, property was restored, and debts were cancelled. Smith foregrounds the correlation between rest and freedom in the Jubilee year. God's command for us to rest has also to do with the freedom we are given to enjoy in Him: "the focus and purpose of all of our labour, ultimately, is to serve Him. No other person or institution may own our allegiance; any other allegiance is ultimately slavery."
And though this may sound strong, think about it. If we're giving almost 24/7 of our time to our job, making decisions based on fear, insecurity, guilt, and pressure, feeling helpless about our inability to have more time for church, for others, for ourselves--it is a kind of slavery, isn't it? Feeling like we don't have much say in how we spend our time, or how we live our life, because work? (or exams etc)
According to Smith, how we observe God's command to rest--or whether we keep it at all--reflects our allegiance: what controls our world, who we serve, and whether we live as a slave or in God's freedom.
part 1; to be continued
image by Andre Benz from Unsplash
My church recently had our annual church camp, and it was an unspoken understanding that the theme--Living Out Faith in a Stressful World--was uniquely relevant for Singaporean. I don't think I was the only one who went to camp with a pretty strong sense of anticipation for this topic, and I'm thankful for God's timeliness in moving our speaker--Pastor David Yan of Emmanuel Church, New Zealand--to choose this theme. God knows we all needed it. Both collectively, as a small church struggling with all the standard challenges of small churches, and individually, each one dealing with the different burdens of work, school, commitments, family problems, spiritual struggles.
I want to share some of the points from the talks which really resonated me, because they were an effective mixture of epiphany, encouragement, self-awareness, and a convicting challenge in what it would mean to apply these truths to your life.
First of all, how we handle stress and rest is important as it has a direct influence on our spiritual life. It's foolish, and perhaps even proud, to think otherwise, to imagine that our life is nicely compartmentalized such that the secular and spiritual are as neatly separated as the seaweed and Honey Stars in a child's lunchbox. As such, we can't just shrug off the stress we complain about, avoid dealing purposefully with it, on the grounds that "I just have to get used to it," "life is like that," "what can I do anyway?" or even "I don't have the time/energy to think about that." (though honestly it is a legitimate challenge; feeling, at your most overwhelmed, that you don't even have the emotional/mental energy or capacity to be thinking about how to deal with stress; that you're stretched to the utmost already just keeping up with every day, just to keep going, just surviving. That is undoubtedly the worst.)
God cares for us. He calls us to be resting in Him, not living in frantic activity, one nervous breakdown away. Living out faith in a stressful world--how, in our individual contexts, do we do this? How do we make a difference, be a difference to the others around us?
Secondly. Rest can be physical, but in many cases in our first-world context today, it is also emotional and mental.
Amen. Did this resonate with me. Feeling like a wimp because I wasn't facing the kind of physical stress that I see people like my sister, who works in healthcare with its long and draining hours, only added to the emotional and mental stress I was struggling with. Not being able to acknowledge this as a legitimate form of stress, and instead feeling like I was a greater failure for not being able to handle this, were just some things that made it harder.
But truly. Not just from work--emotional and mental stress from people and relationship problems has a huge impact on me as well, and on others, as I heard during my discussion group. It ruins your mood, your concentration, your whole day. It burdens you, haunting your mind, so that even when you're supposed to be resting you're worrying about that conversation, about that text, about what they said, replaying it constantly, trying to analyze what to do.
This kind of stress is also what Jesus promised us rest from. Acknowledging that, and turning to Him, will help us more than if we try to forget about it, frustratedly wonder why we can't stop thinking about it, despair over our inability to maintain our peace of mind--or heart.
Thirdly--what have we been defining as rest, and do we need to redefine our definitions? To be honest, this was phrased quite differently in the discussion questions: "What are the unnecessary activities that we can eliminate from our lives?" However, my personal takeaway went a bit deeper. I realized that often when work--or studies--is stressing us out, we feel strongly entitled to our rest time, our me-time. And we usually lapse into the most extreme, passive sort of rest, the sort that is the easiest to slip into; aimlessly browsing videos, scrolling through social media, looking for entertainment on our screens, generally nua-ing on an appropriate surface (think bed or sofa or even floor in some cases; I plead guilty.) For those unfamiliar with the term, nua is a very apt Singlish term, derived from Hokkien, which denotes laziness, idling, or just generally being a bum. However, unlike those unimaginative English terms, nua denotes a physical change of state, from solid to a pasty/gooey/semi-solid state (think slime, or bread dough.) If that isn't graphic enough I don't know what is.
Singlish appreciation post aside--I unconsciously think this is rest, simply because it's so opposite of what I associate with work/stress. However, upon serious examination--at least for myself--it's really more escapism. Distraction. It's not rest in the sense that I'm not refreshed and recharged, ready to go back to work after it...far from it! If anything it's the opposite; having to exit nua mode, to return to solid state, so to speak, is torturous. You're only more reluctant to return to work. I feel entitled to my nua time because I argue that it's rest I deserve and need after all that stress, but really it's more like a form of distraction, trying (only fleetingly) to escape from the mental and emotional stress. With this deluded sense of entitlement in mind, often I get annoyed when anything impinges or interrupts that nua time; seeing that as "rest," I get impatient with others, start to equate spending time with others, relationships, as merely other non-essential energy-sappers. I don't know if this is partly an introvert problem, though it's definitely mainly original sin, but you start to live with a very self-centered, selfish/miserly attitude towards your stock of energy, as I discussed previously.
So, nua consciously. It's not necessarily evil--there's a place for it, as with lumping--but see it for what is is.
I've realized that rest, specifically emotional and mental rest, is not about the actual energy levels as much as priorities. It may even be simply a change in activities. It may simply be a change of heart, or attitude. It may simply be encouragement from someone, from what you read today, from your prayer time. Just like how this camp was for me--a refreshing mental and emotional rest from the constant worries and mental burden of work. For just those few days, I felt more rested than I had for a long time. Even though camp is not exactly what you would associate with rest, at least if you're on the camp committee. Lack of sleep, keeping an eye on the schedule, last minute changes, cleaning up, facilitating discussion groups and activities...these kept me busy, yet I was conscious of a very real sense of peace and rest throughout the camp, that left me refreshed and encouraged when it was time to go back to work.
Fourthly, and lastly--rest is found in a person, not a place. At least in Singapore, where travelling is a common and even convenient norm (the British didn't choose us as a trading port for nothing) so many people I know live for their overseas trip every year, the holiday getaway that keeps them motivated for the slogging at work the rest of the time. The #tbt and scenic beach photos that keep reappearing throughout the year on their Instagram even when it's been months since their trip, as if their actual day-to-day life now doesn't count, doesn't matter. In fact, whenever you see one of those photos appear it usually means they're feeling the stress more than ever, craving for that getaway even more. I feel more sympathy than criticism here, if you feel attacked; I can actually relate, believe it or not, even though I may not have the same 9-5 job challenges or experiences that you face. What strikes me poignantly about this phenomenon is how urgently the yearning for rest, the desire to escape, becomes. It's hardly a matter of which country you go to, or how; getting away from Singapore and the work stress that you associate with it emerges as the goal instead. And, more sobering, the bleak realization that even when you manage to escape, these happy hours are only so many percentage of your whole year.
Don't you feel that something's wrong, that we aren't meant to be living like this, spending the majority of our lives yearning and enduring for brief reprieves? Surely the answer isn't throwing up your hands and saying "Well, but this is Singapore! We're compulsively stressed out, due to our culture and workplace habits and education system and etc...it's as much a requirement of being Singaporean as National Service is for boys!" Which is pretty much the response I've often heard, the end-all conclusion to the frequent discussion of mutual stress levels.
Rest is in a person. Not a place. I believe this because of real-life examples I've seen, people who made certain choices as a conscious effort to live differently; people who are in the same situation as others, yet respond differently, with grace and peace and joy. It's possible. God didn't call us to an earthly kingdom, but to a spiritual one, at least during our time here. Until Heaven, we're all on the same earth, and no matter where we are, the same challenges, the same root problems and temptations, confront us all. Rest, whether due to your attitude, your heart; due to people who support and care for you; but most of all, in a Person--in He who promised us, Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy-ladened, and I will give you rest.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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