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 Brigitte Tohm from Unsplash
I used to complain that of all my siblings, my parents gave me the most difficult name. The Chinese character for慈 (ci) has exactly 13 strokes--just for that character alone--and is a rather unusual one that is not easy to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. Over the years I have learnt to endure it being butchered in a mind-baffling multitude of ways, some of which almost come close to ingenious, without any facial muscles flinching. Chi. Chee. Zee. Zhi. Zzz. Jrrr. Qi. Si. See. And the list goes on. I even got called "Silk" by a class of kids I taught once, because the teacher I was assisting couldn't get it right and I was too embarrassed to correct her.
What gets lost is the meaning behind that difficult character; love--to be more specific, mercy/compassion; love from a higher being to a lower one. Just like how the Greek words agape, philos, eros differentiate between different types of love. God's precious and enduring love, if you want to take the complete meaning of my full name. Not easy to pronounce, maybe, but not easy to comprehend either!
I remember many years ago thinking about this, and feeling how apt it was that my parents chose this name for me, as my personality could be pretty well described by that Audrey Hepburn quote: "I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible desire to give it." People categorized me (and I accepted it) as kind/loving/tender-hearted; I hated violence or conflict, I loved animals and children, I was easily moved when I saw suffering of any kind--I remember crying inconsolably once because an old man on a bicycle pulled up along the bus I was on, and as I watched him cycling precariously with his skinny legs among the big cars and flashing lights of Orchard Road I was suddenly, terribly aware how vulnerable he was, how easily he could be knocked over by one of the cars, how his bicycle didn't have any lights and it was late at night...
Which all sounds very sentimental and sweet, perhaps, (or maybe just a morbid and hyperactive imagination haha) but doesn't actually come under love. Let's be honest. English, though my favourite language and the strength of my being, has some deceptive limitations. We use the word "love" way too easily and too carelessly. When we talk about learning to live out a Christ-like love, we sometimes end up reducing it to a warm fuzzy inborn capacity to be tenderhearted; that sensitivity, that empathy, which is just innate in some people's personalities, right? Well, that's not enough. In fact, it's painfully inadequate.
Peter broke down the process in a way which reminds us how real love--far from being a natural, spontaneous, simple thing--is rather the product of spiritual discipline and maturity, of godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, the labour of studying the Word, of knowing God. It ought to be all those things, granted, but in our fallen world, it just isn't. Our hearts are still in the process, and painfully so, of being transformed.
2 Peter 1: 5-7:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
Love, from the very overuse of the term and concept, may have been reduced to a deceptively simple concept--or at least a seemingly straightforward one. But in this list we see the progression through other different virtues, finally only culminating with love.
Being able to truly love someone isn't just something that has to do with how nice a personality you were born with, or how nice a person you usually are. It's something we work at. Something incredibly hard to achieve as it's not only a progression but also a culmination of the other aspects of our spiritual life.
Think about why Peter chose each word in the verses above, and why they came in that specific order. We need hope to love, or cynicism and despair and human limitations would kill us. We need to know what perseverance and hard work and self control are, to love. We need to be wanting to obey God, desiring to obey God, actively seeking to obey God. And--I love how mutual affection comes right here, a perfect balance--we need to love the other person as an individual, to understand and embrace who they are, to affirm their strengths even as we recognize their weaknesses.
Here Peter is not describing a condescending generic love for the masses, for the "unworthy lost," for humanity in general but divorced from the actual gritty reality of loving individual, imperfect people.
Remember how Jesus, in all of the hundreds of people He ministered to, never once lost sight of them as individuals, never treated them as just another needy person, just another applicant. He stopped to heal those who would have been passed by and ignored, like the lepers. He affirmed the potential in those who were labeled unworthy, like Zacchaeus. He comforted the outcasts, aware of all their sins, all their struggles.
Are you struggling to forgive someone? Are you trying to love someone, to love wisely and well and selflessly as Christ did? Don't sit there expecting God to magically take away your irritation, and fill you with a warm fuzzy desire to "be nice to them." We can only truly love when the Spirit is working hard within us, when we are dealing with our own sin, when we are seeking God in our everyday life.
image by Frances Gunn from Unsplash
Wet sand between my toes, committing ravages on my nail polish. The grumbling roar of the sea and the waves torpid from a recent downpour, dull and heavy like folds of carpet. A buried beer can, dented in half. The lightest drizzle of rain every time the wind changed. Wading into the water, squinting, feeling the sand shifting uneasily under your feet, roiling around your toes and heaving like a living animal. The silence as you stand there, waiting, tense yet calm, keenly alive to the wetness of the water soaking into your clothes, the blurred faces watching you on the shore. The words, sounding strangely distant and hollow with the sea pounding in the background, and the quick gulp of air before you go under, feeling the water gush upwards to meet you...
I had the honour of attending a friend's baptism yesterday.
When I was sitting down writing a note for her, I found myself thinking. What was the one thing I wanted to tell her based on my own experience, all these years since I was first converted, since my own baptism nine years ago?
As a new believer--if my own experience isn't unique--you'd be full of enthusiasm and determination. I'm going to do my best to please God! I feel immature and ignorant about many things but I'm going to improve myself, and grow spiritually at a tremendous rate, put myself on a regime like one of those straining guys working the benchpress in the gymn like his life depends on it. I'm going to go for all the prayer meetings and Bible studies and talks, and show everyone that even though I'm young and inexperienced, I'm going to do everything that I can, I'm going to do everything right, I'm going to do my best.
I think we're so hung up on spiritual growth because we feel our need for it so acutely, at this point of time particularly. We feel so unworthy and unprepared compared to the other more mature Christians we know, we feel that even though we've taken the big step to ask for baptism it truly is just the beginning.
And we go about dealing with this in the only way we're used to, the way we use for everything else in life. Work hard! Make a list of things you need to do in order to get there, and make sure the heck you plough your way down that list like a steamroller. Keep doing it and you're bound to get somewhere someday. Practice makes perfect and all that. And everyone around you encourages that, gives you endless lists of must-read Christian books, theology courses, Bible study plans, Bible study apps, devotional material, talks to attend, and so on.
These are good things. They are indeed tools to help us grow spiritually. But if we attack them with the same formulaic mentality that we have when we attack practice papers, drills, and mock exams, we're misusing them.
As a new believer, you face a dizzying spread of all the things you could do, all the helpful, useful, and most of all reassuringly concrete things which seem to promise direct spiritual growth, like protein powder or a shampoo advertisement or the latest teeth whitening product. Use this consistently for ____ time and see the results!
Looking back at myself, I remember how I pushed myself to accomplish many things with a mentality like this, and proud of my success, lapsed into complacency that belied a lack of real spiritual growth. It was the things which I didn't take pride in, the things which I didn't see as earning me any merit, which most helped me grow spiritually. A Christian book which I read because I felt drawn to the topic, not because it was one of those "must-reads for Christians" on my list. A random talk with a friend. Hearing about someone's conversion. Seeing someone's relationship with Christ. Having someone tell me they had been praying for me for years. Going through several of the greatest hurts and heartaches I'd experienced as yet. Thinking through things which had troubled and disturbed me, despite being afraid to. Finding that the sources I had always relied on for comfort and peace failed me, being forced to rethink what it meant to find those things in God. Realizing more and more what it meant--practically--specifically--personally--to live out faith, to live out in application who God was. The connection between His attributes and my life.
These things were what helped me grow. Understanding Him better, finding new reasons to love Him more, learning to love Him more--learning, because that requires putting away the idols which make this so difficult...
Don't get too caught up in the "do." Our purpose is not proving to God that we're worthy of our salvation. Not giving Him new reasons to love us. Not making ourselves more like the image of the ideal Christian in our mind. We're trying so hard to grow spiritually, but we often fall into the trap of doing things for--about--Him, rather than actually knowing Him. Though "do's" are important and helpful, we need to be careful about the attitude with which we approach them. It's so easy to make them our idol. To focus on doing as many of them as we can, under the mistaken assumption that they give us some sort of merit in God's eyes, or somehow automatically improve our spiritual state.
When we get to heaven, how much of that matters? What is heaven, anyway? Being with God, in perfect unity and reconciliation. Are we, therefore, preparing ourselves for that--in the best, happiest way--? We think we know, but it's so easy to get increasingly narrow-minded, to lose focus...
It's so hard to discern that line, however.
Like someone with their significant other--
you don't take her shopping to make her happy, you do it because you want to see what styles she likes, and what colours she prefers.
You don't watch a soccer match with him because you feel obliged to show some token interest, but because you want to see why he loves it so much.
You do it because you want to know them better, so you can love them better.
Let's take this mentality instead towards all those "do" things.
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What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
(cf Acts 17:11)
The Bereans are often held up to us an examples of how we should receive the Word, of how we should thoughtfully respond to preaching and teaching.
This is a difficult challenge, especially nowadays when there is so much information available--we've become desensitized, complacent, jaded.
From a Christian angle--how many Bible devotional apps, lists of "must-read important Christian books," theology courses, and catechisms are out there making you feel guilty? How many books are sitting on your shelf waiting to be read some day, some forcefully lent to you by a zealous friend? (please don't force books on people, no matter how excited you are and how convinced you are that it will change your life. Rave about it but do not hand the book to them unless you're prepared to never get it back, and make them permanently awkward and uncomfortable around you. Nothing sets the irrational side of human nature more stubbornly than being forced to do something "good for you.")
By far the most natural reaction is that of jaded complacency, passive acceptance. We absorb, we don't consider and question. Just coming up with the energy to absorb is enough for us, since there's so (overwhelmingly) much more to absorb.
We read books, take note of one or two phrases, and move on.
We listen to sermons, dutifully make notes, and go back to everyday life.
We read an online article and nod assent, then click back to Facebook.
I don't know about you, but whenever I read "spiritual books" my guard actually tends to be down. I'm complacent in the fact that I'm actually reading a spiritual book, making the effort to do so, so that's pretty good already! I just need to absorb the wisdom laid out here for me, as trustingly as if it's from the Bible. We get uncomfortable when we're challenged to meditate on, to think over, to break down what we're passively absorbing (not actually processing;) we feel that it's vaguely unfair to expect us to do more than make the effort to read/listen.
We need to realize that pastors, book writers, theologians, are human. Just because one book you read was helpful doesn't mean you might agree with everything that author says, with every other book he or she writes. We tend to think, "everything by this author should be ok"--or "everything on this website should be fine", not realizing that the Bereans questioned what Paul the apostle himself preached, using only the Bible as their benchmark.
Not Calvin, or John Piper, or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, or your favourite Christian writer, or that devotional app or that Christian classic that everyone seems to agree is blessing incarnate.
Are we hiding behind labels, complacent readers with lazy minds who want to passively absorb truth, who assume that we can get it in pure unadulterated form with the minimum effort on our own part?
We become more and more afraid of using our mind, of asking questions, of considering implications--we lapse into the comfortable, easy conformity of accepting whatever we're told to accept, whatever we're told is right, a pack mentality that is deadening EVEN IF (note!) what we are being fed is the truth. In that case, we are relying solely on our church leaders or pastors to make choices for us--a dangerously man-centric move.
We are regressing, like Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, to settle for bottle-fed milk instead of moving on to spiritual solid food.
What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
To recognize and apply the belief that all men are fallible, even those with great gifts, even those who have been used greatly to bless already. To realize that all books, and sermons, may be influenced by the contexts and personal experiences of the men or women who write them. To realize that having written one great Christian classic doesn't necessarily mean all the other books by the same author automatically are "good". To realize that we don't have to accept 100% of what is presented to us but can still be helped and blessed--to pick out, with discernment, since books, like people, don't fall easily into the binary of "all good" or "all bad." To realize that rather than taking a judgmental "Paul vs Apollo" stance, where we blindly follow certain names and figures that have been stamped for approval by some authority figure for us, and boycott or avoid others, we are called to use our minds. To think over and question, if necessary. To qualify. To decide whether a syntax, context, or content issue is at stake.
And ultimately, as I've realized, to better appreciate the Bible, as the one infallible word, our benchmark amid all this confusion and chaos.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and of a sound mind.
2 Timothy 1:7
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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