image by Adi Goldstein from Unsplash
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
We may not like to admit it, but this word perfectly summarizes the times in our spiritual life when we've fallen into a comfortable plateau. Sure, I'm not growing, but at least I'm still coming to church every Sunday, right? Isn't that the most important thing? As long as I have that I can't be too far off. I'll work on my prayer life and deal with those petty sins when I'm less busy, at a better time. When was the last time we caught ourselves thinking something along these lines?
Laodicea was a thriving, prosperous city. Much like Singapore today. Many things, many people, many concerns; so many things to do, to earn, to enjoy, to worry about.
They had a booming textile industry, especially in producing a valuable type of black wool. They were famous for their medicine schools and pharmaceuticals. And not surprisingly, for such a wealthy city, they were also a financial center for banking and money changing.
How did the church in Laodicea fall away from their first love into lukewarmness? When did the marriage between Christ and this church first start to crumble, so to speak? When did the church become just another social club where you can get by as long as you pay the basic dues expected of the members--turn up, contribute financially, and occasionally participate in the "extra" activities.
When did Christ fade out of the picture?
When we reduce Him to a religion of habit and convenience.
When believing in Him and serving Him becomes no more than another practice--activity--habit--which adds to out lifestyle.
Like brushing our teeth every morning, or exercising once a week, or watering our plants. Just another "good habit" which gives us a sense of satisfaction, which we're used to. Ask us to do more and we get uncomfortable. Hey, that's a bit much, you know? Of course, one day I'll try harder, but for now, this is good enough, I'm getting by...
When we're willing to fulfil the "basic obligations," (and maybe, afraid to do less) but only as far as it suits our habits or convenience. As long as it doesn't infringe on the rest of our lives--our time, our energy, our resources, our pleasures, our plans, or even our concerns. As long as it doesn't challenge our current lifestyle and desires. Unwilling to commit to more, because we see it as a sacrifice.
I call this the bare pass mentality, speaking from years of experience as a frustrated teacher. That student may not actually hate the subject; they may like you, they may even like your lessons, and have some sort of interest in it. But when it comes to the hard work of finishing assignments--struggling with quizzes or essays--practicing everything, everyday, without leaving out the hardest arpeggios or the sight-reading they hate--they shirk anything more than a token minimum. I just need to pass, right? they say with a shrug. I'm really busy with my other subjects in school now, you know.
And I've lost track of the number of times I've yelped (at wit's end,) "Just cut down on Youtube for ten minutes, play one less handphone game, or put in five minutes every day--you definitely can make the time to do a better job than this. Why settle for the bare minimum? You're going nowhere at this rate. If you're don't put in the effort it deserves, you'll never experience the fulfilment and satisfaction of being good at this skill."
Similarly--what are we settling for? A false god, like Greg Gilbert describes in What is the Gospel?: "...just a good-natured, low-maintenance friend who's really easy to talk to--especially since he almost never talks back, and when he does, it's usually to tell me through some slightly weird 'sign' that what I want to do regardless is alright by him...he's grateful for any time he can get...has wishes but no demands, can be safely ignored if you don't have time for him..."
And Christ becomes a mockery of what He truly is. That's why lukewarmness is such a serious sin. To Christ, lukewarmness is worse than coldness--contrary to the lie we like to tell ourselves. "I will spit you out of My mouth..."
He tells us, urgently, to wake up. We, who feel so comfortable and complacent, are in desperate need: "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
The nakedness and blindness of the Laodiceans were problems that none of their famous black wool, their famous eye salves, their money, could solve.
We think we know what the answer is, that it lies in the things we busy ourselves with. Instead of recognizing that what we need is Christ, we draw further off from Him, thinking that He will distract us, take up more of our time. We are afraid to commit to Him, grudging the sacrifices we associate following Him with.
It's as if we have a cancerous growth on our face, but we refuse to get it removed, because we insist it's too much trouble to stay in hospital. Instead, we busy ourselves with the latest makeup skills to cover up the growth.
And even then, Christ loves us. In all our foolishness and misguided ways, He loves us and longs for our repentance:
"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me..."
image by Logan Fisher from Unsplash
I was halfway typing this post only to realize the red squiggly lines were trying to tell me I had consistently typed "drunkardness" instead of "drunkenness."
Ephesians 5:1-21 is a long passage which gives many weighty guidelines for us as Christians on what our new life should be like, and drunkenness is only one thing mentioned briefly towards the end. We tend to not talk much about this term, at least in my experience, perhaps because we limit our understanding of drunkenness to its literal definition; alcohol.
But drunkenness can be more broadly understood as a state of addiction. And in our time, addictions have only morphed into more and more mutations; it's never been more relatable.
How do we recognize an addiction? It reduces your life to two categories--when you're feeding the addiction, and when you're anticipating/waiting to feed it. That itchy, restless feeling that we've all experienced before.
Being hooked on a drama series, for example. You go to work daydreaming about it and wishing you could just stay home and binge watch the rest of the episodes, pick up where you ended last night. Wishing you could just do that all day.Waiting impatiently to get back to it, getting annoyed when anything gets in the way or delays your gratification.
Addictions could be anything ranging from the obvious ones like drugs and porn, to the where-do-we-draw-the-line ones like social media, handphone or video gaming, entertainment, movies, sports, shopping, etc.
Like an alcoholic, whose life is wholly measured in relation to his/her addiction (when they're sober or drunk,) addictions make us see our every day in light of whether we're doing It, or waiting to do It; living in anticipation of the gratification it gives us. "Drunkenness is the product of repeated involvement."
We may realize our problem, or we may not. In either case, lack of self-control keeps us trapped in it; lack of the motivation, desire, and willpower to break free of the cycle we're living in. It saps our energy, prevents us from using our abilities and resources, from taking an interest in other things, in people.
And it gets harder and harder to envision and experience joy and intimacy with God, when our experience of pleasure and satisfaction is increasingly defined by what our addiction gives us. As C.S. Lewis said, "...We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud-pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." (The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses)
And it is this joy--joy which the Spirit gives, joy in God--which is our weapon against drunkenness. This joy needs to be cultivated, to be actively nurtured and exercised by repeated involvement in the means of grace as our God-appointed means of accessing it.
Having said that, joy is so much more than simply mindlessly, if dutifully, going about spiritual disciplines.
Joy can be cultivated in our conscious mindset of thankfulness.
Joy can be cultivated in meditating on God's attributes.
Joy can be cultivated in learning to lay our hearts before God when we pray. Our sins. Our fears. Our desires. Our longings. Even our flawed, often insufficient trust.
Joy can be cultivated in the fellowship of His people, where we strive to model Christ's love.
As a Christian: what comes to your mind when you think of joy? How distant and unrelatable does the concept of joy in God seem to you?
Photo by Maulana on Unsplash
As we grow in spiritual maturity, we continue to face suffering. Reversing the order of that sentence would still be truth--as we continue to face suffering, we grow in spiritual maturity. God intended a link between the two that we often cannot--short of looking at it through the analogy of a writer developing characters--understand. That, and having experienced myself how suffering can produce growth in a way that no form of happiness could, have enabled me to accept what might otherwise seem unsatisfying or even sadistic to some.
Instead of being discouraged that no matter how holy we are, we can't earn ourselves freedom from pain or guarantee against heartbreak while we're on earth--being able to have this spiritual maturity and perspective when we face suffering is a precious gift from God, one that strengthens and encourages us. Instead of praying to be spared suffering a more mature response would be to pray that we would be prepared for suffering when it does come. There is a beautiful passage in Isaiah I stumbled across this morning which reminds us--just like Habakkuk's "Though the fig tree wither and the vine fail...yet I will rejoice in the Lord"--that God can be most present, most real to us, in our suffering.
Isaiah 30: 20-22
And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,
Yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore,
But your eyes shall see your teachers,
Your ears shall hear a word behind you saying "This is the way, walk in it,"
Whenever you turn to the right hand
Or whenever you turn to the left.
To have faith which enables us to see our "teachers" in the difficult situations and trials of our lives. To sense God's guidance, as result, leading us by the Spirit to respond blamelessly, humbly, to grow even as we suffer.
You will also defile the covering of your images of silver,
And the ornament of your moulded images of gold.
You will throw them away as an unclean thing;
You will say to them, "Get away!"
And led by these teachers, our opened eyes enable us to identify the idols that nestle in our hearts, the small petty sins we'd been doing too well to address, the pride we'd been nurturing, the self-entitlement, selfishness, or materialism. We see them, with startling clarity, at the bleak moment when we're forced to realize how destructive and empty they are
And, as David pleads in Psalm 119:37, we want to "turn my eyes away from worthless things."
'And He gave them their request, but sent leaness into their souls.'
The Israelites lusted for better food to the point that they became unable to see anything beyond their desires. We know that food became their idol because we see how they became blind to God's promises and to the past proof of His power and providence; though the very manna that kept them alive and which they were complaining about ought to have reminded them of it. They were led into greed as well as unbelief. Even when God promised to give them their request--not just for one day, but for a whole month--they stockpiled far more than they needed, unable to understand that a God who was able to provide all this was also able to keep His word.
God gave them what they wanted. And it was the opposite of what they though it would be. Instead of fulfilment, 'leaness.' Instead of life, death. Aren't all idols the same? They are not what we need. They leave us, ultimately, unfulfilled and only hungrier for that vague something we yearn for, which we glimpse in glorious sunsets, in a strain of music, in the feelings evoked so intensely and confusedly by fleeting images. The danger of desires morphing into idols is that too easily we start to see them as the solution to all our problems; the lie that 'if only I had ___ I would be happy.' I write this wistfully because like you, I grapple with discontent, with unfulfilled dreams and desires that sometimes grip me till it aches. I wonder with some trepidation whether my dreams have become idols, if my ambitions are blinders. I write this without judging the Israelites because it frightens me how easily I too could have behaved in the same way, in my own version of their situation, however foolish theirs may seem now to me.
'Your gentleness has made me great.' I am still finding new ways to understand this fascinating phrase from Psalm 18:35. Perhaps sometimes this gentleness manifests itself when God denies us what we want, forcing us--so to speak--to seek a harder, more abstract, more complex, but more real satisfaction and fulfilment in Himself. The same lesson, learnt less poignantly through discontent perhaps, but with less emotional havoc than if it had been learnt through disappointment and disillusion. Perhaps one way He is gentle with us is when He keeps us from the destructiveness of our desires.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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