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Reading casually through Micah chapter 4, I absorbed a depiction of peace. Unity. Restoration. Healing, contentment. That most beautiful line--"every man under his vine and fig tree"--brightest of all. What a calming and comforting passage.
It was only when I read Search the Scriptures' prompt that I realized--for the first time--that the same passage was also predicting the fall of Zion and the exile of the people.
Only passingly mentioned in this chapter, the devastation and suffering it entailed would take place before the peace pictured here, and be the context from which God would deliver His people.
And that was sobering. To know that so much war, violence, heartbreak, and despair lay just around the corner, and yet, at the same time, to know that that was not the end--that in God's eyes, that was only the setting for the greater, overarching, lasting deliverance of His people.
Perhaps you are in the midst of experiencing a spiritual or emotional equivalent of the war and exile in this passage.
4 But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever.
You long for the peace, the healing, the restoration, the contentment that Micah depicts. The confidence and comfort of God's presence. The sense of security and quiet contentment, the assurance that comes from knowing we are where we belong, where we are needed. Beyond the reach of fear. Whether external or internal.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
For justice. For deliverance. When what is being used now as weapons and sources of conflict become tools to nurture and cultivate peace, growth, fruitfulness.
6 “In that day,” says the Lord,
“I will assemble the lame,
I will gather the outcast
And those whom I have afflicted;
7 I will make the lame a remnant,
And the outcast a strong nation;
So the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on, even forever.
You long for healing. From the fears and hurts which cripple you. From limitations. From imperfections, both of the flesh and spirit. You long for strength that you can only dream of now, and wholeness that wrings your heart to think about. For community, for friendship, for encouragement; for assurance of God's sovereignty in a frightening and chaotic world.
9 Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in your midst?
Has your counselor perished?
For pangs have seized you like a woman in labor.
And He answers us, directly.
Am I not here?
Am I not in control?
Do you not trust my plans?
Can you trust that the pain you're in now--
--without dismissing any of your suffering, its effects, its scars--
--may be the threshold to something greater?
10 Be in pain, and labor to bring forth,
O daughter of Zion,
Like a woman in birth pangs.
For now you shall go forth from the city,
You shall dwell in the field,
And to Babylon you shall go.
There you shall be delivered;
There the Lord will redeem you
From the hand of your enemies.
Hold on to hope, even as you face pain and suffering and what seems--as it must have seemed to the Israelites, being led out from the ruins of their city, towards exile and slavery and the end of every proud dream or ambition--crushing disappointment and despair.
You can't see it now, but there is peace and joy ahead of you.
Babylon--the heart of the storm, the fiercest depths of your humiliation, the white-hot nucleus of your suffering, the most numbing despair, the trial you dread the most--is where you will see redemption burst forth, more glorious and breathtaking and life-changing than ever for its context.
12 But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord,
Nor do they understand His counsel;
For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor.
We don't. Indeed we cannot understand Him.
His power to transcend even pain.
But we can trust Who He is.
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give me peace and wisdom to handle this sense of overwhelming inability,
of being futilely stretched,
There are so many people needs and relationships, so many areas of service needing faithful people to commit to and labour in, on top of everything else; and most of all I just don't have TIME. Overused as the phrase is.
I feel helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well as I ought or wanted to. It's as if I'm trying to donate blood to as many people as possible in an endless cue...trying to make do by giving each one less, faint and bloodless, yet it's not enough.
I feel so helpless.
God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Vaguely I recognize this as a lesson in learning to trust--learning humility--learning wisdom in loving and serving better...
I happened to flip back on an old journal entry where I was having a particularly bad case of burn-out. Discouraged. Exhausted. Verging on resentful, even as I felt guilty for failing, for not doing more.
I was trying to keep up my studies, wanting to be more active in church, uncomfortably aware that there was more I could do for my family, also unpleasantly conscious that to be an ambitious and productive young adult I should also be researching and getting my own projects done during this precious window of time before I graduated.
After all, "do all things to the glory of God," right?
We groan inwardly and resolve (more faintly each time) to try harder.
These are ugly, poisonous, unpleasant thoughts and feelings; but we shouldn't be afraid to confront them, because they indicate a serious problem in our spiritual lives, rather than our generalized diagnosis of inadequacies on our part, limitations of time and energy.
The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults by Dev Menon-- this thin little book happened to come my way recently.
I read it and realized:
1. almost every sentence was relatable
2. it was quite rare and refreshing, in my experience, to read a Christian book from a Singapore perspective.
3. though initially I was somewhat skeptical on how much of a resolution the author could provide to such a big, abstract problem, he made quite a good shot at hitting the nail on the head.
At least in Singapore, where our culture is ingrained with expectations of perfectionism and subsequently, constant assessment, this is a real issue. We really do have this unspoken ideal that we should excel at each area of our life, as Christians. "Do all things to the glory of God" has become a kind of pressurizing drive to excel, whether in spiritual or secular definitions of excellence; in every area of life, in your obligations and duties. You know how students get told that as a Christian student you glorify God by working hard at your studies and doing your best (which is true, in one sense, yet so easily gets twisted into a good grades=glorifying God mantra.)
On top of that, as young adults, we're juggling more and more responsibilities and relationships. The drive to excel, to be at the top not only of our game but of all the different games we're involved in (in Dev Menon's metaphor, the different slices in the pie graph of our lives) becomes overwhelming.
That means being a hard-working, responsible student/employee--getting good grades, promotions, respect.
That means coming for church and prayer meetings and serving in some way at church.
That means caring for our families and spending time/communicating with them.
Bonus points if you have some charity/outreach work you're involved in.
Oh, and did we mention being free enough to spend time with church friends outside of church? To be a listening ear to that needy friend in crisis?
That's the vision we all have of the "perfect Christian," isn't it?
We get burnt out and discouraged, wonder why we can't juggle everything and why, once we focus on one area, all the rest slip out of control.
The different slices of the pie graph seem to pull us in different directions and we often succumb to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anxiety. Worse, we start to cut corners in an attempt to juggle better, or we start to resent the areas which take up more of our time than we'd planned for them to in our neat little pie graph. We start to get results-oriented, self-reliant, we dismiss people and their individual needs and opinions if they don't go along with our efficient plan, or we start to resent people who are 'needier', 'high-maintenance.' And we start to wonder, tiredly, why it's so hard to 'be a Christian'; that God's demands on us seem like the last straw on top of the other demands being made on us. Just another slice in the pie competing for our (very limited) time, energy, and effort.
Dev Menon calls this 'plate spinning.' Because we have our plate full rushing around keeping all of the many plates in our lives spinning (A lame pun, I know.)
It's a matter of perspective, at least that's what I've learnt to see in my own struggles with this issue.
Instead of thinking that being a Christian is one slice in the piechart of your life, which you're obligated to maintain--to see your entire life/the whole pie as your new life in Christ. Different aspects of it, that's all, but all contributing, all part of.
This collapse of the spiritual/secular divide, this consciousness of God in every day and activity, was crucial in my own spiritual growth, and I believe is just as crucial in overcoming the sense of burn-out and insufficiency we're talking about here. During the journal entry above, I hadn't quite reached this point yet, though I vaguely knew--as I recognized--that there was something fundamentally wrong with how I saw and applied my abilities, priorities, how I understood what it meant to address the different areas in my life as a Chr
I know, I know. Maybe "perspective" alone doesn't seem that liberating. After all, a change in perspective doesn't mean that we magically get an extra two hours, or that we can wave off going to church whenever we feel like it.
There are times, Menon emphasizes, when certain areas are going to need more time and effort than others. At these times, we should not feel guilty or like a failure if we need to step back from those other areas--consciously do less than the best. For example, you might need to spend more time with your family when a crisis happens, and take a step down from work, or--gasp!--serving in church. To truly see God in all areas of your life, and trust His timing and wisdom, we would be able to accept that this does not mean failure. That we're being a lousy Christian. That we're regressing spiritually.
Rather, we accept that God allowed this to happen--we accept our limitations--we accept that we have to change our focus, that God wants us to grow in this specific area, at this time.
This can only happen when our understanding of what it means to be a Christian transcends that pie slice labeled "Christianity/church-related" in our time, isn't limited to the activities that make up that pie slice.
Instead, we would see that God is making it clear that we need to actively pursue His help and presence in this particular area. That in it, we face another opportunity to understand Him better.
Instead of feeling woefully guilty and insufficient, as if God is throwing us dirty glances because we're not clocking in the hours required on His pie slice, we see it as under Him--from Him--rather than competing with Him.
And if you think about it--isn't that a more accurate and significant application of what it means to "do all things to the glory of God?"
I am someone who is easily and heavily influenced by emotion, and discouragement is very much an emotional issue. Like depression, it often comes as the convergence of various issues which are small, which you could handle on their own, if they weren't all hitting you at the same time; the combined weight of which knocks you down. You lie limp and passive under the heavy cloud of discouragement, without strength to move, without motivation to try and get up, without hope that you could escape even if you tried; and wonder why you had ever been excited about life at all, and thought you could ever do anything.
As such, I've often struggled with discouragement--recently, to be honest; reminding me it's a lifelong battle which no amount of spiritual maturity can immunize you against--something I should expect as long as I'm human, and by correlation, emotional. Spiritual maturity helps in dealing with discouragement, but it cannot completely prevent it.
I was clearing my storage space recently. That means boxes of old diaries, letters, schedules, notebooks of stories, sermon notes, travel journals. It was sobering and yet uplifting as I flipped through the little stack of well-worn, rather shabby, but very precious spiritual journals. Reading what I'd written over all those years made me realize that the discouragement and despair I had experienced--so often the reason for an entry (if only it was natural to document happy times as it is, ironically, to document sad ones; not because I actually want to remember them, but as a coping mechanism, a therapy of sorts)--could be categorized as discouragement with my own failures, and discouragement with the failures of others.
Forgive me for falling into sin so easily, so often, the same sin. I thought I could be wiser, stronger, but I'm seeing just how pitiable and helpless I am in the grip of sin and my own weak nature...a little beast, that's what I am. O God, forgive me even when my heart is numb and cold and I don't feel as sorry as I should--when I wilfully decide to do it, when I come crawling back again in shame asking for forgiveness. Break me out of this vicious cycle of my own making and set me free.
I feel so helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well or as much as I wanted to....God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Self-pity. Despair. Loss of faith in grace (forgetting its very definition.) It alienates you from others--alienates you, most of all, from God. You draw away because you feel like you don't want them to know how unworthy you are, because they all seem so much better than you.
I feel disappointed and angry and hurt. I knew this is part of growing up but I never expected it to happen so traumatically. It makes me feel almost scared to think that everyone is as messed up and mistake-prone as myself, that perhaps being an adult doesn't so much mean you're mature now, but rather realizing that others aren't so much more mature than you as you'd always assumed...I feel so emotionally crippled by all this, unable to interact with people without feeling wary or speculating on their motives or imagining what they've heard or what they think.
Alternatively, people-oriented discouragement works the other way. Cynicism, resentment, frustration, even bitterness. Feeling disillusioned or disappointed in people. Feeling betrayed, let down, when you gave so much effort and time and invested yourself emotionally in someone. It embitters your relationships with others, alienating you from others as well if in a different way. You draw away because--to say it bluntly--you feel that they are not worth your interaction, whether specific people or just the whole of humanity in general.
I'm not sure which type of discouragement is more poisonous. Pulling yourself out of these ruts can seem almost impossible when you're lying at the bottom. How to trust grace? How to try again without feeling like a hypocrite? How to trust people, or avoid becoming cynical and defensive when a similar situation arises? How to rescue a relationship you feel disillusioned with?
I found an old post-it in my Bible, scribbled carelessly and tucked away so it obviously had been written at a time when it didn't mean as much to me as it eventually would. "What must we do if we find ourselves spiritually empty? Firstly, confess and put away any sin in our lives. Then we need to seek God's face in prayer and through His word" (this was taken from Desma Lewis' Fellowship Bible Study on 1st Samuel.)
In discouragement--regardless of what type--we must first confess and put away the sin in our lives. In discouragement with yourself, it's easy to confess. You see everything you've failed and done wrong already like a neon billboard. What's more challenging is to put it away. That means not only resolving not to continue in them--whether in sins of selfishness, idolatry, but even lack of faith--but also to move on. When we put away something we stop turning it about in our hands and staring at it from different angles.
On the other hand, discouragement with others requires a commitment to confront and confess our own sins with relentless honesty even as the sins of others loom big in our eyes--something, I think we would all know, is not easy. In bitterness, in pride, in being unloving and judgmental. I have sinned. When we acknowledge our own failures in God's eyes we stop pointing out the failures of others to God.
Why the Word? After the humbling process of confessing and putting away our sin, hopefully we've been recalibrated, so to speak, for a more balanced perspective--whether with which to see ourselves or to see others. In the first case, one which isn't so devastatingly self-centered; in the latter, one which (equally devastatingly) doesn't include ourselves. Hopefully we're able to let go of the very human prejudice of emotions and accept the objective truth of the Bible. Which means that no matter how big our sin--or the sin of others--Christ's death is bigger. Which means no matter how empty or incapable of trust we feel, God's power to enable and empower remains the same.
It's not easy. Discouragement is such an intensely personal and predominantly emotional trial that objective truth sometimes seems the last thing, in all its dryness, that can help us. But ironically, the very cold impersonality of objective truth is what we need when we're attacked by blinding, overwhelming, and often irrational or imbalanced emotion.
Looking through my journals, I was reminded of another phrase which had once been very important to me, at the time when all the uncertainties, fears, and doubts of college applications were the biggest thing in my life. That was the metaphor of driving on an unlit road at night--I experienced that once, as a passenger of course, during a violent tropical rainstorm in Malaysia; and it really was a tense, unreal experience. You couldn't see any further than the five feet in front of your headlights, in the dark and the thickness of the rain. But you had to press on, in faith, as long as those five feet were clear. The temptation to stay where you were was an illusion of safety--to stop would very well be fatal, even if moving forward posed a risk. The only way to get through was to keep going--slowly, perhaps, but ahead, as long as the five feet of road in front of you was clear.
Sometimes it was as simple--or more accurately, as hard--as that in discouragement. I might not know much but what little I knew was the right thing to do lay in front of me like that lighted space of five feet in the dark and storm. To do my best to resist bitterness and resentment. To fight for joy. To love others as well as I could with Christ as my example. Perhaps that meant the simple things I'd already been doing. Perhaps it meant something as unexciting as going back to the Bible, persevering in prayer even though it felt dry and meaningless, or simply just controlling myself.
'Show me in the way in which I should walk' (Psalm 143:8) has been a prayer of mine increasingly, in uncertainties but especially in discouragement.
Sometimes this 'way' isn't a significant choice or crossroads but simply the five feet in front of our headlights. To confess and put away our sin. To find guidance and comfort in the Word. No matter how alienated we feel from others or from God, to continue in what is right, until we hear the storm dying away, or see the dawn break through the rain.
Psalm 119: 71 --- 'It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.'
There will be times when you read this verse, and wonder what it means.
At other times it will be too painful.
Sadness is a fairly common part of everyday life, as Inside Out might have taught you. Grief, however, is different. It is not simply, like sadness, the 'opposite of happiness'. It is a complicated and extended process of emotional suffering which has a permanent effect on you. It's like an earthquake hitting a city, making your tallest skyscrapers and biggest buildings--everything that made you complacent, assured, everything that seemed so immovable and permanent to you--collapse. It negates roadmaps and street signs--what previously made perfect sense to you--and drastically changes your needs. Having faulty traffic lights fixed is suddenly not important anymore. Food, medical attention, a roof over your head--you just need the basic necessities to survive.
The process of healing, too, is like having to rebuild your demolished city--without being able to dispose of all the rubble. It remains as a foundation for the new buildings, always there as a humbling reminder of fragility, pain, and weakness--in the past, and present.
I've observed such humbling in certain people who experienced this sort of suffering. They have less assumptions. Are simpler. Kinder. Gentler. More empathetic. Less judgemental. It has truly brought them closer to Christ--closer to understanding Him--closer to being like Him. This is what Jesus is like; humble in His obedience, in His love, and in serving. He suffered too, in His time here, which is why we know He understands, and why He is so patient and gentle with us in our weaknesses. Such gentleness and empathy is only possible through humility. We can only care for others when we stop caring so much for ourselves. We can best appreciate their strengths when we have no delusions or pretensions on our own, when we aren't instinctively comparing ourselves. We can only help them discern their weaknesses when we're not busy trying to deny our own.
Watching them has taught me to have more hope and faith in suffering and in God's ability to let changes that may feel so painful to work such wonders, even in me. Perhaps the pain will never quite go away, just as earthquake prone zones experience recurring tremors. The rebuilding will take time, may be slow and constantly being set back. Sometimes that site was so badly devastated, you can never quite build something as momentous there again. But the rubble that looks so ugly, that is such a sobering reminder to you of how fragile all these buildings are, how much wreckage there once was here, is also hope in its own way. If another earthquake--and you flinch at the thought--should come and devastate this new city, you have the comfort of knowing that though you still can't withstand it, still can't predict when it will hit, you have hope of surviving and recovering again. That your first experience has equipped you to be a little--even if just a little--more able to deal with a second.
In other words, this city may not be earthquake proof, but it is proof that earthquakes are not the end.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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