image by Alex from Unsplash
Looking back, when you try to grasp at specific memories, you tend to find yourself lost in a confusing blur of split second images, fragments of a phrase, and the abstract but poignantly tangible memory of emotions.
I was just musing the other day on how life goes by without us really purposefully acknowledging memories. If you asked me to think back and select any one memory that I remember the most clearly, the painful ones are often the ones you are most conscious of. We take so many photos, and we call that "making memories," but we don't often sit down to rewind those happy memories--or do you? To me, we seem to pass through them gleefully like a cloud of confetti and move on in search of more before the pieces hit the ground. Pessimistic as it sounds. I made a point to be more consciously thankful and aware of the golden moments that God gives me in life, to have them polished and accessible in my mind.
Perhaps it's because as you get older, you have so many regrets. You can't help remembering them, because those are the moments you've relived the most often, replayed in your mind, wishing uselessly that you could change what happened. And that's why you know them so well, why they leap to the front whenever you look back.
One of the greatest lessons I learnt as a Christian and as a young adult was being able to let go of guilt.
Let me take a moment to differentiate between guilt and repentance, seeing them as the "worldly sorrow" and "godly sorrow" that the Bible talks about. Repentance and guilt are similar and yet so distinct that it's well we have different terms for them. Both indicate a recognition of a mistake, taking responsibility for it by acknowledging it was your fault, and feeling regret for your actions. However, guilt implies a sense of helplessness, confined to facing the past, to what can't be undone; whereas repentance implies a sense of hope, looking forward to the future with a resolution to learn from what happened.
Learning to understand that all things--even our mistakes--even our sin--happen within the providence of God.
Also that, as children of God, our mistakes do not define us. They did, previously, branding us as sinners; but a new name has been given to us, a new identity.
"...the glory of God shall be your rearguard"--Isaiah 58
I couldn't understand this phrase the first time I read it, but I loved the sound of it. Like poetry, the cadences stuck in my mind. Why, though? How did glory become your rearguard--something which protects, which enables you to move forward confidently, which is full of military connotations and is much closer to struggle and conflict than glory?
Looking back on our pasts, as Christians, the legacy that we have in Christ also includes rescuing us from the guilt and regret that so often makes us fixate on the past, makes us feel our courage for the future fail.
To trust that even our mistakes and sins can be part of God's plan, can be part of the process of our sanctification, since they no longer define who we are. And since even Christ's death--the ultimate proof of man's sin--became the greatest proof of God's mercy and love, became the greatest manifestation of God's glory.
The doctrine of God's sovereignty, the attributes of His wisdom and providence, become truths that have a vital, direct impact on our everyday lives, on our emotions, on the moments when we weep, when we wonder how we can face tomorrow. They are so much more than musty theological jargon and abstract concepts that don't seem relevant to our struggles and experiences.
Trusting that His glory can be manifested even despite our mistakes and failures and outright sins, by His power and providence--that flawed as we are, destructively self-willed as we seemed, we are yet His instruments, and we have never fallen out of His hands, we have not ruined what He was working on.
We can look back. With regret, most likely. Who wouldn't? But without being consumed by guilt. With the knowledge that God's sovereignty transcends man's sin. With the knowledge that our lives can and will be used to manifest His glory, even our weaknesses and shame.
image by Aaron Burden from Unsplash
Psalm 51, in my Bible, is the only page that has a special fawn book tab sticker to mark it out. Partially because the moment I stuck it on I regretted it big time--I didn't realize how thin my Bible pages were, and they tore around the sticker edges if I wasn't careful turning the page. AbortMissionAbortMission--
But that's just standard characteristically bad decision making; Psalm 51is the psalm that became meaningful to me when I was seeking to be saved. Perhaps the first time that the Bible really 'spoke' to me, to use a trite phrase. When the aptness and timing almost frightened me. When I realized for the first time why reading the Bible is not like reading War and Peace or any other old thick book with tiny text.
I still remember a particularly low point, struggling with feeling depressed and hopeless because I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make it through a single day without regret, without realizing I had acted selfishly or proudly; without anger and impatience--and the list goes on. During this time, crushed by the appalling proof of the limits of my self-control, of just how useless "trying harder" was, I found myself drawn more and more--not to the deep theological discussions and records of Jesus's life in the New Testament, or the multi-faceted stories of the Old Testament that I had always enjoyed as a child, but to the Psalms--that unassuming book somewhere in the middle which I had always passed by. David's intimately personal "I" and the honest, vulnerable expressions of his emotions--his frank, child-like joy in God, or his most wretched moments of guilt and self-doubt--were something that drew my own restless, unhappy heart.
David had always been one of my favourite characters. I tried my best to forget about that horrid incident in and as a result the preface to Psalm 51--"To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba"--kind of put me off the rest of the Psalm. For the first time, however, I remember looking past the shadow of that incident and feeling verse one hit me in the pit of the stomach; "Have mercy upon me, O God..."
In the 21st century vocabulary we don't speak like that. This was what my heart had been groaning wordlessly, and it felt almost like relief, hearing it articulated so honestly and simply for me. Yes. Mercy. Simply mercy--I had no excuses, no reasons, only a wracking yearning need to be lifted out of this swampy morass of guilt and self-doubt, even self-loathing, that I could see no way out of. With a small sighing sob I felt the smart of tears, and looked through them at the rest of the psalm, blinking.
Empathy. Catharsis. Comfort. Guidance.
But more importantly, hope.
I found those as I made my way slowly through the rest of Psalm 51. And each time I reread it, I find more things to carry away, to store up, picking up pearls that only add to the beauty and significance this particular psalm has for me.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Guilt, ever-present, forcing us to realize that something is wrong with us, something is wrong with this world, that we have a gaping hole, a desperate need of Someone greater than ourselves...
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
This always caught me unexpected--a reminder to see our sin in its full scope; as primarily an act of rebellion and rejection against God Himself.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
This is not the problem of isolated acts, isolated "bad decisions," moments of weakness, as we'd like to think--because we want to think that we can manage it, we are basically good despite these small flaws.
This is something intrinsic to our human condition, from our very conception; something that underlies our whole world.
And to change--to fix it--we need likewise a transformative change. Not a quick fix or a coverup, but from the inside, from our "inward parts". You need to change us. You need to plant truth and wisdom in the very core of our being, to transform us from the inside out. Our hearts, not just our external actions, need to be changed.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
The self-aware, cringing consciousness of guilt, of impurity--washed away. Cleansed, as thoroughly and simply and effectively as physical cleansing. The satisfaction of watching the dirt being blasted away, watching the cleanliness being restored. Free!
Free, and joyful.
No longer trapped inside the swampy morass, even though we might have broken a few bones in our fierce struggle to get out. Wounded and weak and still vulnerable, still raw from the struggle, perhaps; but rejoicing.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
And here you have the new convert's earnest prayer--for sanctification, for perseverance. With a vivid awareness of how much, how intensely you need God's presence. The power and guidance of the Spirit. In order to have a "clean heart"--to persevere--to have joy. And even--I found this point especially enlightening--to spread the Gospel. David prays, not simply to evangelize as a duty, but for God's abundant mercy and joy on him, which overflows into the most powerful and effective--and sincere--evangelism. Evangelism akin to praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
And to balance that, David acknowledges that yet, all these things, all the things he promises to DO for God, they are not what is actually important. They do not earn him merit. That's not why he does them.
As John Piper said in Desiring God, our desire to be like God, to be righteous like God, should be our motivation--arising from our deep love and joy in Him; like a boy to whom the most intense, direct enjoyment of football would be to play the game himself, rather than simply watch others play.
Instead, how do we please Him?
With humility. With repentance. With faith in Him, not in ourselves.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
With that as our foundation, we are empowered to truly serve in the more common, concrete action-oriented understanding of the word. To change lives for the better, to nurture and bless and build up our communities and the people around us. To build the walls of our own Jerusalems, not because God is depending on us to get it done, but because we see ourselves as the instruments of His good pleasure, of His power. Without the pride, self-reliance, anxiety, and doubt that characterizes human achievements. With humility and purity in our personal lives as the foundation for these "sacrifices".
Those are the sacrifices of righteousness, the sacrifices that please You.
Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash
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 remember flopping back and staring up at the impassive blankness of the ceiling, baffled.
Why is this so hard?
It had been a long while since I fell back into this particular habitual sin--so long, in fact, that I'd congratulated myself, felt that I'd successfully conquered it. And then, just when I was least expecting it, I fell.
Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12.
Clenching my fists, an instinctive response, made me realize that I had done this too many times. This feeling--guilt, shame, self-reproach, and most of all a sense of confusion at my own foolishness--was too familiar. Every time I would knuckle my fingers under and tell myself, I'll try harder next time. I will be strong. I will be more prepared. I will--I will--
What completely baffled me was waking up to the realization that willpower was not the answer.
And that left me lost because, for so many things in life--so many challenges that I've faced, and overcome, in more or less messy ways--willpower and reason were the weapons I clung to.
We are so used to clenching our fists. Facing the chinup bar, cringing at the premonition of burning muscles, but willing myself to do it this time, I clench my fists. The moment before I walk into an exam, or on stage, I breathe deeper and knot my fingers over sweaty palms. Facing uncertainty in the future, hoping desperately for success, my fingers dig into my palms once again as I reason with myself.
I try. I try, hard.
In so many things in life, we push ourselves forward clutching reason and willpower tightly, propelling ourselves forward on our faith in our ability to try, try. And that is not a bad thing.
But when it comes to dealing with habitual sin we need something more than just reason and willpower.
We have to realize first of all that habitual sin is more than just one isolated act. It is a lifestyle. A state of being.
Which is why the Bible uses the metaphor of slavery to talk about our ongoing struggle with sin, the gory process of sanctification. You are born a slave, and identify yourself/are identified as a slave--not because of one or several acts of obedience, but because that is how you live your whole life, how you see yourself.
Sin is an enslaving power rather than an isolated action,
And that's why when dealing with habitual sin it's not enough to simply think I'll have more will-power next time, I'll try harder next time, the way that works with dieting or acing an exam. It is not enough.
Our lapses into sin, which are really our lapses in love, stem from our existing relationship with God, our current ongoing spiritual state. Each fall is more than one incident--it is another link in the existing chain of our slavery to sin. And when we look back, all those one-off decisions (oh, I lapsed this once; this will be the last time; I wasn't trying as hard as I could have) form a definite and damning pattern of repeated sin.
To confront habitual sin in our lives we have to re-examine our relationship with God. See the link between the state of our current spiritual life and our inability to keep away from that one besetting sin.
We need to relearn what grace means. To accept the harsh truth of our limitations, our inability to handle ourselves even with the help of reason and willpower--the two tools that enable us to accomplish so much elsewhere.
We need to pray for the Holy Spirit's help. Acknowledge our weakness, not just after we sin, but before--and ask for a strength that we can barely imagine right now, in our state of frailty.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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