That phone call you're dreading. Forgetting someone's name when they remember yours. Clearing the sink hole (you wouldn't believe how much foul-smelling gunk there is in there.) Spilling Ribena on someone's beautiful white shirt. Having to tell your friend that the goldfish you so confidently offered to babysit while they were on holiday died on you almost immediately.
Up there along with all these other squirm-inducers is the word 'witnessing.'
As Christians we often talk about how important a Christian witness is, as a church, as an individual, to your non believing friends and family etc...
But perhaps for you--as for me--that doesn't exactly equate to passing out tracts on the street and sharing your testimony every day. I'm afraid the reality of being a Christian witness, for most Christians, doesn't mean simply sharing the gospel. Sometimes you're not allowed to. Sometimes there's too much hostility or sensitivity. Sometimes it just isn't the right opportunity. Sometimes your relationship or friendship just isn't at that level yet when it can be discerned as sincerity instead of a threat.
And that's okay. Since we strive to be like Christ in all areas of our life--when we're in church singing hymns, when we're eating out, when we're on the bus, when we're in a meeting, when we're in our pajamas watching our favourite TV show...
One of the best ways you can witness is by not being afraid to apologize.
An apology is a rare phenemonem now. Remember as kids how your parent would drag you over to that annoying kid and watch you sternly until you ground out a "sorry"? Insincere much? Well, adults don't even do that. Even insincere apologies are rare. People prefer to pretend they've forgotten about it, or ignore what happened. (I'm not talking about people who chronically and automatically apologize for everything, whether it's cold coffee or you didn't like their shirt colour or that you didn't find that joke as funny as they did...that extreme warrants another whole post for itself.)
Situations where real apologies are needed, when someone has offended or hurt someone, when the two of you are strained and uncomfortable, if not downright hostile, around each other.
If--when everyone around you says it's okay, just pretend nothing happened, maybe she didn't hear you, anyway he's said nasty things about you too, who cares what they feel--you can bring yourself to apologize with courage and honesty and humility, with sincerity and kindness, showing grace where you didn't have to, showing humility when you did wrong, showing kindness when you could have responded with coldness--you have, just for that moment, taken others aback by demonstrating that there is an alternative, in Christ's love. In Christ's example.
I remember I first started thinking seriously about what it meant to be Christian because of the witness of my parents in their everyday, normal home life with us. Doctrine I knew in heaps. I thought I knew every single Bible story. I'd memorized the Shorter Catechism, okay (at one point, I could recite it so fast it almost sounded like rapping.) But what really made an impact on me wasn't so much all the good decisions, the wise words, the love from my parents, as when they apologized. When they had made a mistake, they apologized to us. When they lost their temper, they apologized. The mistake itself wasn't so important--as I got older, I realized that yes--drumroll--even parents made mistakes! The first stage of growing up.
But they were able to apologize. Humbly and honestly, without making excuses or grudging the apology, simply admitting they had done wrong and needed to be forgiven. This was something I couldn't have imagined bringing myself to do, what more if I put myself in their shoes as the parent, as the authority figure; didn't it, humanly speaking, logically speaking, undermine everything they'd been working for--earning their children's respect and obedience, showing their wisdom and authority--?
This was something I couldn't understand how they could bring themselves to do. Heck, as a teenager apologizing was something you hated having to do, and didn't see other people do. It was literally telling the world that you weren't the perfect image you tried so hard to convince others you were. That stuff hurt. Not in a glamorous way either--it hurt in the most embarrassing, unattractive way. I remember brainstorming glamorous injuries for my lead characters in so many of my stories; broken collarbones were a favourite, they were non-fatal and yet impressive enough (sorry nurses, I know I'm probably being idiotically ignorant and unrealistic here.) Well, apologizing was like giving your lead character diarrhoea in the middle of the climax. There is nothing glamorous and everything to dislike about it.
And that, I slowly realized, was what dying to yourself meant. The Bible kept using that phrase and I always felt it a bit extreme, like those Taiwanese soap operas where every slap or punch or kick is replayed five times from different angles, in slow-mo...when you try to convince your mom it's bad enough to warrant skipping school for the day--"I feel like I'm dying! Serious, mom! "
Apologizing in today's culture--where appearances are so important, where insecurity and the pursuit of glamour and popularity are so prevalent--is like dying. Shooting yourself in the foot, as some worldly-wise people would doubtless say. "You're just showing that you're soft, and that they can treat you like a doormat! Even if you did make some mistakes, so did they, and if you apologize, they're going to assume it means you're accepting responsibility for everything, and they'll happily treat you as if you're responsible for their mistakes--they're never going to face up to what they did wrong--"
But that's why it can make all the more impact. I saw this (below) on Pinterest and found it very moving for that same reason. It's so rare when someone is brave enough to apologize, humbly and honestly and sincerely. Especially if you are put in a position where one's 'face' is important. The next time you face an opportunity to apologize, don't just forget conveniently about it or get away with a cup of coffee or an awkward shoulder pat. It feels like dying, but as John 12:24 reminds us, death can be the start of something new--something far greater--something far more alive.
The idea that the church reflects and witnesses for God to the world is something you probably hear in church at least eight times a year.
However, focusing too much on this may not--actually--be the best way to bring people to Christ.
Insert standard disclaimer--please don't automatically jump to the conclusion that I'm advocating the other extreme; that we ought to dissolve our churches and focus only on our own spiritual lives, reject the idea that the communal group identity of a church is at all important to being a Christian.
Of course it is.
Of course it is.
(I say that twice in case you blinked.)
Perhaps for some of you this isn't the case. Maybe in your churches now you're struggling with the opposite challenge, where people are too self-centred and unwilling to reach out, unwilling to love. If so that definitely is a bad witness, leading people to form a wrong idea of the God we profess to worship and live by (unfortunately don't we all misrepresent Him at one time or another?) and in that case you may not need to read this post at all in case you get the wrong idea, and take my thought out of context.
But the basic fact is that faith is a personal thing. It's not something that we can grow in someone, or that can spillover from others, nice as that would be; if that were the case there would be no heartbreak for Christian parents whose children have grown up to reject their parents' beliefs. Faith is something essentially personal, and essentially between God and the soul through Christ. There are no other interceders or parties concerned. If someone's professing faith depends on how kind you are to that person, if you think that you being able to remember everyone's birthdays means they will keep coming to church, if how bonded the youth group is is a direct correlation to how close they are to salvation, stop and think. When did salvation become so heavily dependent on our social interactions? As if the Holy Spirit took a backseat in His all-important work, and we somehow became His substitutes, trying to use niceness to convict and move hearts.
The witness which the love of God shining through a Christian can be to someone who does not believe is surely, in a world like this, truly beautiful, truly a glimpse that there is an ideal we've fallen short of, but an ideal that mercifully still exists in heaven. I have seen that in other lives. I have experienced it myself, and know how it helped me before and after becoming a Christian. And I believe that it is the very high, but inexpressibly beautiful calling of all Christians, to love. All the more beautiful for the contrast that it makes to the headlines we wake up to everyday, to the evil and hatred and incredible selfishness and cruelty we see in ourselves and others.
But when this becomes out focus, when we unconsciously equate 'being nice to people = bringing them closer to professing faith' then we've messed ourselves up. We set traps for ourselves. Thinking we are giving and caring unconditionally as Christ would have us, but actually building up expectations or a sense of entitlement (very naturally! aren't all other human relationships wired like this after all?) which cause us to recoil in hurt and anger when things don't turn out as we thought. When they are never able to believe, to see their need, to repent. When they hurt us. When they leave. When they backslide.
And we get angry. Struggle with resentment and bitterness, confused and bewildered where all those black emotions came from when we thought we'd been busying ourselves doing what was right. It becomes so easy to fling the blame on them, to accuse them of ungratefulness or--worse--hard-heartedness. I tried so hard, I did so much...it must be your fault.
And there it goes. Our nice image of a unified loving church, 'so close' to the vision of the body working in perfect harmony and beauty under its glorious Head in 1 Corinthians. Disillusion and cynicism follow the hurt and bitterness, maybe. Or long festering grudges we know we shouldn't have, but have grown so close to our hearts and egos that we can't bear to cut them out, knowing we have to radically rebuild ourselves if we do.
I heard once of someone who lamented, exactly with this attitude, about longtime visitors who had had 'years of meals with us but they still haven't believed in Christ!' I find this attitude in myself as well when I let myself get consumed by the enslaving assumptions that Christianity=niceness and being nice to people=part of the process of them becoming Christian. If this kind of attitude is present in how you look at or think of someone today, perhaps we need to stop being so unthinkingly 'nice and kind', and instead reconsider why we think it's so important to be 'nice and kind' in the first place.
In 2014 I wrote on this idea, if from a different angle, the idea that Christians = nice people.
It's worth taking a look at again, if I may say so, because it gives additional perspective to the same idea. (Looking back at that article I'm actually rather amazed I wrote it at all, and how I was bold--or thoughtless--enough to think I could discuss such a sensitive and tricky topic without being misunderstood and lashed out at! After all, I very nearly didn't post this, wondering if I really could explain and express myself clearly enough to avoid stumbling anyone.)
I hope I'm expressing my thoughts accurately because again, I recognize it may seem disturbing; yet, if you look back at the Bible, should be based on truth.
Likewise, we don't judge other Christians for not caring in the same way we do, or judge ourselves for not caring the way someone else does. All these petty details matter--if we're talking about people and how they respond. They don't if we're talking about God and His eyes which look not as men see, but at the heart--whether our heart, or the hearts of others.
Salvation by faith, not works.
The just shall live by faith.
Not by being nice.
The focus always ought to be Him--the why always ought to be Him. If our focus becomes 'so that they will believe', then we are no longer loving selflessly. Even though, and I stress this, it is and should doubtless be our desire that they do believe. But it should not be the underlying reason why. If it is, our actions become manipulations, like it or not. If it is, that explains why we don't actually love disinterestedly, unconditionally, but feel personally hurt and betrayed or offended when things don't work out as we assume they should ('after everything I've done.') If it is, then that explains why we're so shocked and dismayed when it becomes obvious that our church isn't perfect after all, that Christians aren't actually all nice, always nice, to each other or unbelievers.
If it is, then that's why we're so paranoid about preserving the appearance of a perfect church, why we feel a (unnecessary) personal pressure and pain when people don't come to faith or behave a certain way.
If it is, then we've subscribed to a cult of niceness that is most definitely not Christianity, even though Christianity is supposed to revolve around love. Because, though we may have gotten confused, the two are not the same thing.
We love because He first loved us. Not--even--because it can make others love Him.
3. What's the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life? (and, I want to add, that probably applies to most other relationships as well)
I found myself thinking about this.
Especially as Chinese New Year approaches, and we are given time with our family and extended family--for better or for worse.
Be all there.
--as Jim Elliott said; Wherever you are, be all there.
This is a whole lot more challenging than it sounds, though it may be just three words.
In this world of multi-tasking, it is so hard to focus. So hard to just listen and do--nothing else.
Nowadays when we listen to music we have a music video to watch, or the miles whizzing by through the windows of a subway; or a dinner to cook, or laundry to fold, or a street that we're crossing, the white paint stripes flashing underfoot like the traffic light above our heads. Going somewhere while we listen, or doing something while we listen, watching something while we listen.
And when we talk, our conversations are often haunted by little ghosts. I mean the ghosts that live in our jeans pockets and hover in our hands and appear with a little ghostly aura of light, to float between us and our friends or transmit their ghostly aura to our faces.
(yes, smart phones)
Talking about Chinese New Year, I gather nowadays it's a common experience to have the ghosts invade your reunion dinner. Sitting around the coffee table and all its glorious spread of new year snacks and tidbits, relatives who haven't seen each other in months if not since the last reunion, you peer doubtfully at each other over lattice work pineapple tart faces and the red lids of love letter tins. A thin trickle of shallow conversation, which easily loses to the cracking of peanut shells and rustle of wrappers. And then out pops one ghost, soon followed by another, and then a whole family of ghosts have their reunion, hovering comfortably around the coffee table.
Unfortunately the ghosts get their reunion more than once a year; we summon them up almost every day. Even our own family or close friends, whom we can't possibly plead shy of talking to, often appear to us through that white glow, and we process their words at the same time as we like a post, scroll expertly down our Instagram feeds, or pin another cute guinea pig photo (guilty as charged.)
We are so skilled at keeping within our comfort zones, and such expert multi-taskers, that we seldom give 100% when we talk or listen.
This is a problem that probably can apply to different types of relationships, but easily to family--because sometimes they're so close we take them for granted--or because sometimes, we don't know them as well as our relationship would suggest.
This year, be all there. Leave the ghosts in your pockets for once.
Psalm 86 verse 11 has a simple but intriguing phrase: Unite my heart to fear your name.
Everything in me resonated with that line when I read it--YES.
Our hearts are complex.
Despite all those cute Awkward Yeti Brain and Heart comics that paint those two organs of ours in a oversimplified, basically oppositional relationship, our hearts are pretty complex just on their own.
We know--or we should know--that our words and actions reflect what is already present in our heart, and that our hearts are the root of whatever behavioural problems or issues we're trying to solve. Our hearts should be what we're addressing in our struggle with sin. The renewal of our hearts is one aspect, and a very significant one, of our sanctification as Christians; in conjunction with the other, equally significant aspect: that of concrete, active decisions to resist sin, which we make every day.
This is basically the jist of that post written more than a year ago (phew.) Now, though, I want to look at another perspective on the relationship between our hearts and our mouths.
Take a look at Psalm 39. I remember being astounded the first time I read this psalm--it was so direct, so straightforward, so honestly personal, I felt that if I looked up I would see the Psalmist materializing in front of me. Heck, I could even hear myself saying these words (though I would probably have phrased everything just a bit less elegantly...)
The heart-mouth relationship is a two-way road. Just as our hearts affect what comes of our mouths, what comes out of our mouths can also affect our hearts. The Psalmist learnt not to encourage the anger and bitterness in his heart by letting his tongue run away expressing it. His response when his heart was 'hot within me' was to 'guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.' Obviously, this didn't resolve his anger within--but it was valuable for something else: not exacerbating it. The result? The 'fire burned' still within, yes; but ultimately, it made him turn to God in frustration, where there was hope for a true resolution:
'Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am...
...Certainly every man at his best state is but a vapor.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions...'
If I had had the insight to discern it, I could have learnt this from personal experience. After all, if you're struggling to forgive someone, obviously it won't help if you let all these emotions blast-- it tempts you to feel more aggrieved, to downplay your own wrong, and encourages you in your bitterness, pride, anger, unforgivingness.
If the person you're dumping all these grimy emotions on sympathizes with you, well, how nice for our fallen nature--we already were 100% sure we were in the right; now we're 200% sure. If they don't, you're very likely going to feel even more defensive and aggrieved because they downplay or disregard your feelings. Either way, it doesn't seem a very promising move towards forgiveness and restoration. It's running a nice bathtub for you to wallow in self-pity. And preparing a nice safe equipped with dehumidifiers and a nest of cotton wool for you to carefully cherish your grudge in.
Be careful. Our hearts, after all, are complex. Maybe we have sincere desires to forgive, to be humble, to resist bitterness. But those aren't going to be the only emotions in our messed up hearts.
Those complaining, selfish, arrogant, bitter (and the list goes on, unfortunately) words express what's in our hearts. And they also exacerbate the feelings they stem from.
Of course, we must qualify, as any statement nowadays--especially on the internet--must in order to avoid being grossly misinterpreted, misquoted, and misunderstood. (and sometimes it still happens anyway, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.) Talking, especially in times of emotional crisis, is important.
Of course. I would be the last person who dares to question that, for the unpleasant reason that I often talk too much too fast (they tend to come together.) It's the way we talk, how much we talk, maybe even who we talk to, depending on the context--all highly subjective details that I won't even attempt to address. At any rate, I am not about to bother arguing for something fairly obvious.
Talking about our emotions is important, yes. A not so popular aspect of that, however, is talking about our emotions to the person who evoked them. We're cowards at heart, all of us. If only our problems could be solved by us talking about them to third party sympathizers who are comfortably distanced from the person we're talking about, and we're insured against negative consequences. (yoohoo,Youtube comments.) Actually, a surprising amount of of people problems could be resolved if we were brave and humble enough to honestly confront the person who's causing us unhappiness--confess our own wrong--gently tell them of theirs--and work together for reconciliation. That is, after we've asked God to help us with our complex hearts. To genuinely love and care for the person. To keep our motivations from self-pity and arrogance and just basically being nasty and obnoxious. After all, if prayer reflects our relationships with people, being able to pray for the person who offended you is a good sign that you've made the first move away from prideful self-centeredness, towards forgiveness and humility.
May our hearts be united in the right desires; in humility and a desire to please God.
'...And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions.'
Doing Search the Scriptures on the Lord's Prayer made me see prayer in a different perspective--as a mirror.
Really? you think silently at this point. I think she's running out of ideas for this blog.
It isn't as absurd as it may sound, I promise. After all, the type of relationship we have with someone, for example, determines how many times a week we call them--why we call them--what we talk about when we call them--how long our calls are--and even what sort of language we use when we call them. Understandably, then, examining how we pray can function as a mirror that reflects the state of our relationship; either with God, when we pray to Him, or with others, when we pray about them. Our relationship with God is many-faceted, like a--alright, I needn't complete the simile. We relate to Him as children, dependents/creatures, and sinners/debtors, to name the first few that come to my mind. Each facet of our relationship with Him is important, and how we pray should reflect that. In other words, you could say this is the theology behind the ACTS prayer mnemonic. (yes, it took me so many years to see this) Without the corresponding prayer for these different facets, our relationship with Him is in danger of being imbalanced. As children, our prayer should include love, sharing, confiding, asking. As His creatures and dependents, gratitude, praise, and acknowledgement of our need for Him. As sinners and His debtors, confession and repentance...and so on, as you can go into detail somewhere else.
Seeing prayer as a mirror of our relationship with others, however, is a bit more messy and unsettling. That's what happened when I applied this perspective to the different people I was praying for (and the different struggles I had in praying for them--umm please help her with whatever upcoming exams she's going to have...she's having exams right?...ohh I forgot to pray for him AGAIN...err...can I skip this one...I'll pray for that tomorrow...GOD MAKE THIS PERSON STOP BEING SO ANNOYING...)
It helped me to see that I should be praying for the opportunity to get to know this person better.
That the fact I wasn't praying for someone, or kept postponing to, reflected the unacknowledged strain in our relationship.
To realize that surprisingly, even for people I cared deeply about, it was easy to neglect praying for them, revealing in me an underlying carelessness about their spiritual conditions.
And that the first step in dealing with difficult or unlovable people is always to pray for them--instead of conveniently pushing them from my mind, or praying only that God would take away the challenge they presented in my life.
Take a moment to think about your last interaction with someone and see if how you prayed for them--or your failure to do so--affirms the assumed status of your relationship. Chances are they may not correspond as you'd expect. Seeing this disparity has helped me be more aware and critical of my relationships with the people I'm praying for, rocking me in my otherwise comfortable complacency; it's challenged me to pray more honestly, accurately, and humbly.
Your hand, at some point in life--hopefully--has been a guiding hand to someone.
Definitely if there are children in your life. Or young (perhaps I should say, younger) believers who look up to you as a mentor.
Reading Matthew 18:1-10 with Search the Scriptures made me see, for the first time, that our attitude and duty towards young children are similar to those towards young believers. In a sense, you could call them mentoring relationships--friendship based on a tacit understanding that one learns and is guided by the other. Friendships with a great capability for mostly one-sided influence.
How loving Christ's words are in this chapter, and how piercingly aware of the condescension, pride, and carelessness that can warp such mentoring relationships, making them more destructive than nurturing.
Studying Christ's words was a reminder to:
1. Be humble in accepting, appreciating, and learning from them (v 4-5, 10)
Humbly learn from them--the childlike spirit of trustfulness, which is so easily patronised as naivety, is really something incredibly rare, and a great honour to have, in contrast to the cynicism that being street-smart cultivates.
Don't abuse or despise it. No matter how silly it is, don't make them feel foolish for being confiding. No matter how trivial their secret is--or how great a joke it would make--don't betray their trust, or treat it lightly.
(I'm still learning this! I'm afraid my sense of humour is not always very helpful...)
For younger believers--don't feel supercilious over their eagerness, energy, and exuberance. Rejoice with them! And instead of seeing it as an instance of their immaturity, (as we generally do with eager-beavers in any other field) humbly recognize it as a reminder of how far you have fallen away from your first love.
And these are just two of the most obvious areas.
2. Give them respect. See them as individuals. (v10; note the repetition of 'one of' in v 5 and 10!)
As a mentor, respect may not be the first thing you think of giving to your--how shall I say this? mentoree?
And all the more so, we mustn't neglect it.
This could be something as simple as listening, a lesson that could take a whole lifetime to learn.
In William Deresiewicz's book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, he describes what he learnt from reading Mansfield Park--the importance of listening in a friendship:
"Austen...knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories--entering into their feelings, validating their experiences--is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness."
This, in my experience of working with children, is entirely and wholly true. You'd be surprised; kids don't actually want you to entertain them so much as they want you just to listen to them. Not just with the engrossed grown-up's spasmodic 'Umm' and 'Really?' but with the same respect, interest, and engagement you would give to another adult.
Even if you're dying to laugh.
3. Be purposeful in loving, guiding, and caring for them. Take your mentorship and relationship with them seriously, just as you would take serving the Lord in more glamorous or 'grown-up' ways. (v 5) You may only have these three kids to teach every Sunday, or that one teenager who confides in you. You are no less significant (and probably more) to them, than if you had twenty.
And as Christ so clearly warns, be careful we do not cause them to stumble. (v 6) As teachers, mentors, and friends, we have been given a great trust.
I need to keep in mind how receptive children are to your approval and criticism, once you have won their love and friendship. A careless comment or impatient remark can make a much bigger impact than you would think on a child who loves and looks up to you.
Similarly, in your relationship to a younger Christian. Be especially careful of imposing your opinions! Having--sadly--done this before with children, I daren't think of the consequences this could have on a spiritual level.
Oh dear, how depressing this is! someone may be saying at this point. All these warnings, as if I needed any more to think and worry about, when I'm just struggling with the time and effort costs of friendship!
Yes, we fall short most of the time. We make mistakes.
But as Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend, (a helpful and insightful guide on friendship!) notes,
'We can only do this when our lives are being transformed by God.'
And as another comfort to us discouraged souls--God intends friendship to be a two-way blessing.
Even mentoring friendships.
'We gain and we give. We gain what we do not expect or deserve. We give what cannot be bought.'
(To Be a Friend, by Jerry and Mary White)
a quiet voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
all images from Pinterest unless otherwise specified. thanks, Pinterest!