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.
image by Jamie Dench from Unsplash
With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
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 tim marshall from Unsplash
"He will be their peace."
Peace has been on the top of my mind recently, simply because of the lack of it.
When a friend initiated an app-based Bible study, I didn't hesitate suggesting a study topic. Anxiety. Worry. Fighting for peace. Yes, please.
As the study discussed, those emotions of anxiety and worry--if you break them down--stem from fear and lack of trust. Sure enough, if you consider, the fear we face is basically the fear of what is beyond our control: limitations, external situations, etc.
We're afraid that we can't manage everything.
We're afraid that despite our best attempts, we won't win the love and respect of others.
We're afraid of rejection, of failure, of unfulfilled dreams.
Of pain, without any hope of painkillers.
Of grief that doesn't go away.
Of losing something we can't imagine living without.
And this reflects the self-reliant, self-centered mentality that is so ingrained in us as our instinctive coping mechanism for our life here--full of tragedy just around the corner, of devastated hopes one hair's breadth away, of happiness so fragile that we can only hope hopelessly for it to last. We're terrified of losing control, of being helpless, being uncertain. We rely on our efforts to control our lives but don't dare to acknowledge that it won't, can't, be enough.
Which clearly shows us the link, as Christians, between a lack of faith (in the One who is in control, though we aren't) and a lack of peace.
It's easy to say that we need to "trust God Who is in control"--too easy to spout another vague abstract statement about His sovereignty which only gives us a greater sense of how far off we are from achieving that peace we want so desperately.
And that very naturally leads us to the age-old question: how to increase our faith? Though we pray to God about our problems they still harass and burden us with worry. We echo the heartbroken father in Mark 9:23-25; "I believe; help my unbelief!"
As someone who is struggling with this issue now--present tense!--who is very much treading water at sea, not as someone waving nochalently from the shore, high and dry--I believe we need to realize two things.
Firstly, a deeper understanding of and love for God. Before we can actually apply our abstract knowledge about His attributes, power, sovereignty, etc. We may know and believe that He is powerful, that He's in control, that He holds all things in His hands, (and there, I've almost composed a Christian hit song.) But let's be honest, those are cold comfort when you're lying awake at 2 am trying to sleep while your heart is throbbing uncomfortably, your head is swimming with worry and apprehension for tomorrow, and you wonder drearily if a good cry would help disperse the cloud of anxiety, exhaustion, and fear--but no, you got to sleep, you need your sleep, the last thing you need is to be sleep-deprived...and you lie awake miserably for another two wretched hours before falling into a restless sleep filled with bad dreams of your teeth falling out or being endlessly chased by serial killers. All right, maybe we don't all have the same experiences of being stressed.
The strongest, most absolute trust does not necessarily depend on the ability of the one trusted but rather on the relationship you have with them. I would feel more comfortable trusting my sis than a prime minister--powerful as he might be, however much I believe he's sincere about helping me. Does that make sense? Perhaps not logically, but then when were human emotions logical?
It's a good time to ask yourself what actually is your personal relationship like with this God who is in control.
How much do I actually love and know Him, aside from how much I know about Him?
Secondly, realize our anxiety and worry stem from the nature of our priorities.
It's hard to manage our anxiety and fears when we're convinced the sum total of our happiness and fulfilment depends on them.
We all know the difficult verses like 1 John 2:15; "Do not love the world or anything in the world." Turning from that verse to examine our lives is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things any pastor could do to his congregation.
Which brings up another uncomfortable but related question: what does it mean to be spiritually minded?
We need to strive, as a long-term goal, to define our happiness less and less on how things work out on earth. Not just when dealing with worry and anxiety, but throughout our lives; the sunbathing, beach holiday times as well as the shipwreck survivor dog-paddling in the middle of the ocean. To have a long-sighted view of ultimate happiness that we're moving towards, that we can start to enjoy even now regardless of what happens to us during our time here. To let our understanding of Heaven transform the way we understand life here.
Still dog-paddling in the ocean, taking life ten seconds at a time, but knowing that behind the fog surrounding us lies the shore--however faint it may look now--a solid and dependable shore.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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