image by Andre Benz from Unsplash
My church recently had our annual church camp, and it was an unspoken understanding that the theme--Living Out Faith in a Stressful World--was uniquely relevant for Singaporean. I don't think I was the only one who went to camp with a pretty strong sense of anticipation for this topic, and I'm thankful for God's timeliness in moving our speaker--Pastor David Yan of Emmanuel Church, New Zealand--to choose this theme. God knows we all needed it. Both collectively, as a small church struggling with all the standard challenges of small churches, and individually, each one dealing with the different burdens of work, school, commitments, family problems, spiritual struggles.
I want to share some of the points from the talks which really resonated me, because they were an effective mixture of epiphany, encouragement, self-awareness, and a convicting challenge in what it would mean to apply these truths to your life.
First of all, how we handle stress and rest is important as it has a direct influence on our spiritual life. It's foolish, and perhaps even proud, to think otherwise, to imagine that our life is nicely compartmentalized such that the secular and spiritual are as neatly separated as the seaweed and Honey Stars in a child's lunchbox. As such, we can't just shrug off the stress we complain about, avoid dealing purposefully with it, on the grounds that "I just have to get used to it," "life is like that," "what can I do anyway?" or even "I don't have the time/energy to think about that." (though honestly it is a legitimate challenge; feeling, at your most overwhelmed, that you don't even have the emotional/mental energy or capacity to be thinking about how to deal with stress; that you're stretched to the utmost already just keeping up with every day, just to keep going, just surviving. That is undoubtedly the worst.)
God cares for us. He calls us to be resting in Him, not living in frantic activity, one nervous breakdown away. Living out faith in a stressful world--how, in our individual contexts, do we do this? How do we make a difference, be a difference to the others around us?
Secondly. Rest can be physical, but in many cases in our first-world context today, it is also emotional and mental.
Amen. Did this resonate with me. Feeling like a wimp because I wasn't facing the kind of physical stress that I see people like my sister, who works in healthcare with its long and draining hours, only added to the emotional and mental stress I was struggling with. Not being able to acknowledge this as a legitimate form of stress, and instead feeling like I was a greater failure for not being able to handle this, were just some things that made it harder.
But truly. Not just from work--emotional and mental stress from people and relationship problems has a huge impact on me as well, and on others, as I heard during my discussion group. It ruins your mood, your concentration, your whole day. It burdens you, haunting your mind, so that even when you're supposed to be resting you're worrying about that conversation, about that text, about what they said, replaying it constantly, trying to analyze what to do.
This kind of stress is also what Jesus promised us rest from. Acknowledging that, and turning to Him, will help us more than if we try to forget about it, frustratedly wonder why we can't stop thinking about it, despair over our inability to maintain our peace of mind--or heart.
Thirdly--what have we been defining as rest, and do we need to redefine our definitions? To be honest, this was phrased quite differently in the discussion questions: "What are the unnecessary activities that we can eliminate from our lives?" However, my personal takeaway went a bit deeper. I realized that often when work--or studies--is stressing us out, we feel strongly entitled to our rest time, our me-time. And we usually lapse into the most extreme, passive sort of rest, the sort that is the easiest to slip into; aimlessly browsing videos, scrolling through social media, looking for entertainment on our screens, generally nua-ing on an appropriate surface (think bed or sofa or even floor in some cases; I plead guilty.) For those unfamiliar with the term, nua is a very apt Singlish term, derived from Hokkien, which denotes laziness, idling, or just generally being a bum. However, unlike those unimaginative English terms, nua denotes a physical change of state, from solid to a pasty/gooey/semi-solid state (think slime, or bread dough.) If that isn't graphic enough I don't know what is.
Singlish appreciation post aside--I unconsciously think this is rest, simply because it's so opposite of what I associate with work/stress. However, upon serious examination--at least for myself--it's really more escapism. Distraction. It's not rest in the sense that I'm not refreshed and recharged, ready to go back to work after it...far from it! If anything it's the opposite; having to exit nua mode, to return to solid state, so to speak, is torturous. You're only more reluctant to return to work. I feel entitled to my nua time because I argue that it's rest I deserve and need after all that stress, but really it's more like a form of distraction, trying (only fleetingly) to escape from the mental and emotional stress. With this deluded sense of entitlement in mind, often I get annoyed when anything impinges or interrupts that nua time; seeing that as "rest," I get impatient with others, start to equate spending time with others, relationships, as merely other non-essential energy-sappers. I don't know if this is partly an introvert problem, though it's definitely mainly original sin, but you start to live with a very self-centered, selfish/miserly attitude towards your stock of energy, as I discussed previously.
So, nua consciously. It's not necessarily evil--there's a place for it, as with lumping--but see it for what is is.
I've realized that rest, specifically emotional and mental rest, is not about the actual energy levels as much as priorities. It may even be simply a change in activities. It may simply be a change of heart, or attitude. It may simply be encouragement from someone, from what you read today, from your prayer time. Just like how this camp was for me--a refreshing mental and emotional rest from the constant worries and mental burden of work. For just those few days, I felt more rested than I had for a long time. Even though camp is not exactly what you would associate with rest, at least if you're on the camp committee. Lack of sleep, keeping an eye on the schedule, last minute changes, cleaning up, facilitating discussion groups and activities...these kept me busy, yet I was conscious of a very real sense of peace and rest throughout the camp, that left me refreshed and encouraged when it was time to go back to work.
Fourthly, and lastly--rest is found in a person, not a place. At least in Singapore, where travelling is a common and even convenient norm (the British didn't choose us as a trading port for nothing) so many people I know live for their overseas trip every year, the holiday getaway that keeps them motivated for the slogging at work the rest of the time. The #tbt and scenic beach photos that keep reappearing throughout the year on their Instagram even when it's been months since their trip, as if their actual day-to-day life now doesn't count, doesn't matter. In fact, whenever you see one of those photos appear it usually means they're feeling the stress more than ever, craving for that getaway even more. I feel more sympathy than criticism here, if you feel attacked; I can actually relate, believe it or not, even though I may not have the same 9-5 job challenges or experiences that you face. What strikes me poignantly about this phenomenon is how urgently the yearning for rest, the desire to escape, becomes. It's hardly a matter of which country you go to, or how; getting away from Singapore and the work stress that you associate with it emerges as the goal instead. And, more sobering, the bleak realization that even when you manage to escape, these happy hours are only so many percentage of your whole year.
Don't you feel that something's wrong, that we aren't meant to be living like this, spending the majority of our lives yearning and enduring for brief reprieves? Surely the answer isn't throwing up your hands and saying "Well, but this is Singapore! We're compulsively stressed out, due to our culture and workplace habits and education system and etc...it's as much a requirement of being Singaporean as National Service is for boys!" Which is pretty much the response I've often heard, the end-all conclusion to the frequent discussion of mutual stress levels.
Rest is in a person. Not a place. I believe this because of real-life examples I've seen, people who made certain choices as a conscious effort to live differently; people who are in the same situation as others, yet respond differently, with grace and peace and joy. It's possible. God didn't call us to an earthly kingdom, but to a spiritual one, at least during our time here. Until Heaven, we're all on the same earth, and no matter where we are, the same challenges, the same root problems and temptations, confront us all. Rest, whether due to your attitude, your heart; due to people who support and care for you; but most of all, in a Person--in He who promised us, Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy-ladened, and I will give you rest.
image by Jamie Dench from Unsplash
With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
image by Sweet Ice Cream from Unsplash
Deadlines and tension headaches aside, let's take a look at the type of stress that impacts relationships between people. When you're running late, because SOMEONE took too long to get ready. When your computer looks like it's going to crash and everyone's trying to help and it's just making you freak out even more. When you've had a long day and it's just absolutely unfair that you should be the one washing those dirty dishes in the sink. When you're lost and each person has a different idea of which direction to go, each person reading the same map differently in a way that would make Roland Barthes proud.
One of the most effective ways to confront stress is to purposefully consider how you handle stress--as an individual--as a family--as a couple etc--before it happens. And by before it happens--before you yelp "iT's hApPeNing aLL tHe TIme"--I mean before it actively flares up into a specific stressful situation.
Because it reveals a lot about your weaknesses. Your personality. And the impact that has on your relationships.
Consider how so many parent-child relationships struggle with communication because of how they react to stress--parents scold, criticise, blame; the child gets resentful, defensive, withdraws...
And not just when you're already dealing with it! When we're full of the emotions it's easier to blame our situation, to blame others; the last thing we have the mental or emotional energy to do at that point is to examine yourself. Though from experience some of the most revealing, humbling, and soberly poignant self-realizations I have had about myself took place at such times.
I made this discovery when I realized that certain people are the ones you instinctively turn to whenever something bad happens, or you made a mistake, because you know they are the ones who--instead of blaming you and adding to your stress levels--will work together with you to come up with a solution, will help you think things over, will reassure or comfort you, have a steadying effect. One of my sisters is like this. She is the one we all automatically turn to whenever we are in trouble, whenever we need help. She keeps a calm head, she doesn't waste time telling us how we went wrong but instead sets about doing something about the problem in a supportive way that makes me feel more humbled and sorry than if she had started scolding and criticizing me (which almost always produces a tense, defensive reaction.)
And naturally, the next thought you would have after this would be, "and how about me?" This forced me to realize that--to put it nicely--I don't do well under stress. I am not, unfortunately, the kind of person you would want to have around when you're stranded on a desert island or trying to recover deleted files. In fact I distinctly remember one incident where I promptly flung myself on the sofa to bawl in despair after realizing I'd deleted several crucial photos from an event I was covering for a friend. Meanwhile said sister quietly researched on how to recover the photos, uttering soothing noises meanwhile, and interrupted my dramatics halfway with the announcement that she'd found a way to recover them. I think that tells you all you need to know about our personalities.
I have to admit that whenever my parents or other people talk to me about my plans, or correct me, I drop by default into a defensive attitude where I take everything very personally, where I feel the need to vindicate myself even if that means covering up the parts where I didn't do so well.
Pride, isn't it?
Even though at that time I know that they mean to build me up. Even though I know it's not a big issue. Pride is stronger, making defensiveness my default reaction, when I should be humbly and cheerfully accepting the help others are trying to give. When I run into trouble, I get impatient, emotional, tense, irritable, and withdraw into myself as I try to fix things on my own.
And inversely, when others run into trouble, I get exasperated, criticize, blame them instead of--or even while--helping them.
Pride, isn't it?
I realize how fragile our relationships and emotional wellbeing is if we don't prepare ourselves to handle stress--as an individual and also in relation to others--before we're plunged right into it. If we don't purposefully examine how we manage stress, it jeopardizes our relationships, even though it also shows us (often ugly) sides of ourselves in the process--the pride, the selfishness. Because once stress hits us, in the middle of our panic, anxiety, wildly trying to think of a solution, trying to calm yourself or someone else or both--let's face it, we're not exactly in a prime state to remember humility, patience, and gentleness.
Knowing my weaknesses--reacting defensively to any form of criticism, feeling entitled to the help and sympathy of others, etc--and knowing the origin of those weaknesses--pride--helps me be more critical and careful in my reaction the next time I find stress straining a relationship. When I catch myself getting annoyed and offended because I got less than praise. When I realize I'm more intent on fixing the problem and making it clear that it wasn't my fault, than comforting and supporting someone I care about.
Jesus Himself, our best example, was the kind of Person that outcasts and social rejects were drawn to, the kind of Person you felt safe and secure to confess your mistakes and admit your needs to, without being blamed or judged or looked down on. He was the kind of Person Who did not roll His eyes or get bitter when Peter, scared and nervous, denied Him three times, after bragging that he never would. He was the kind of Person who submitted meekly to His parents even when they'd scolded Him more harshly than they should have. The kind of Person who stopped the crowd following Him because He heard the cry of the blind beggar on the fringes, felt the desperate touch of the sick woman among the hundreds who jostled Him. In the midst of what so often must have been stressful situations, Jesus never lost sight of the relationship, of the person, of the individual needs above the external pressure of the situation.
Who, when we rejected and rebelled against Him, when we proved our unworthiness to be loved and saved over and over again, responded by giving His life for us, by giving His all to redeem and reconcile, to restore our relationship.
image by Marcelo Vaz from Unsplash
This past period, I find myself struggling with discouragement. Learning on the job. Adapting to a new, busier schedule. Working with new people and new challenges. Unfamiliarity, insecurity, a lack of confidence. Not that there's anything earth-shaking about this. It's the standard experience of starting a new job, a new phase in life, in managing new responsibilities while maintaining existing ones. Basically what every young adult faces as they try to be financially independent and navigate the workplace and this whole thing about being grown up, am I right?
I wondered why I was feeling so burnt out and discouraged. I knew I already had it much better than so many of my peers, and knowing that made me feel like a wimp--I couldn't even indulge in a wallow in self-pity, to put it wryly.
Every morning as I went through my devotions I would open my Bible and hope vaguely that my eye would fall on something encouraging, something comforting, something to remind me that I wasn't alone. And most of the time as I flipped through it looking for the book I was currently studying with Search the Scriptures, somehow Psalm 18 would be what I found myself looking at. A specific part of psalm 18, at that--the middle section (...mostly because I happened to have some post-its that covered the beginning and end, anticlimactic as that sounds)
If you too have been struggling with similar feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, and insecurity, do take the time to turn to this psalm.
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.
28 For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
At a time like this, pride and humility become even more relatable. Often we feel anything but proud--we feel painfully, cringingly humbled, forced to face our limitations and inabilities.
Or maybe our stress comes from the unthinking pressure to do it all and do it well. From our reluctance to accept that we can't. From our pressure to impress others, to do as well or better than others. And the pride that underlies all those concerns.
Maybe we need a reminder that this humbling experience is not so much proof that we failed, but windows for God's grace and our growth.
Maybe we need to realize that the root of our stress is pride.
Maybe we need to consider that instead of pursuing efficiency, success, multi-tasking, praise, competency, and a nice steadily growing bank account--there are other things, quieter, subtler things. Mercy. Blamelessness. Purity.
29 For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
30 As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
31 For who is God, except the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?
I remember the first time I saw these lines during this dry season of discouragement. The reckless scale of David's lavish, military-esque imagery took my breath away.
Running face on towards a troop of armed hostile soldiers, alone except for God?
Vaulting over a wall in one of those breathtakingly effortless gravity (and current body state) defying leaps that you see in Chinese wuxia movies? (I'm afraid I honestly came away with the rosy delusion that as long as you trained hard enough, you really could pull those off. I came back to earth when I saw BTS footage revealing the wires and ropes involved, and felt vaguely--no, not betrayed; just more discontented that I wasn't living in the JiangHu*)
*the world as structured by different sects and martial arts communities; the background of most wuxia and xianxia epics
By my God...
Not by trying harder!
Not by being more disciplined with my time!
Not by persevering and gritting my teeth!
Not by sleeping less or doing my best to adapt--
...which are legitimate but often overrated and overused means we resort to in order to try and get more control over our lives.
And it is at this point in life, facing these specific challenges, that I really relate to David's emphasis on courage throughout the Psalms. Courage was a very real and necessary quality for someone with his adrenaline-pumped, political and military high-profile background and context. Fighting for your life, never quite sure when someone might try to poison you or stab you in the back (literally) or which battle would be your last.
Situations most of us can't relate to today. But we need, among many other more obvious things, courage for living. Courage to face uncertain futures. To bear the consequences of our decisions and mistakes. Courage to try and fail, to pursue dreams, to develop and maintain relationships...
I remember, from Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, Amanda telling her chronically shy daughter: "I've got to put courage in you, honey, for living." That phrase sometimes echoes in my head whenever I feel that crippling sense of dread--fear--self-doubt. Courage for living.
32 It is God who arms me with strength,
And makes my way perfect.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of deer,
And sets me on my high places.
34 He teaches my hands to make war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
And there you have it!
How much more clearly could David have phrased it?
I particularly love the imagery here. Every word choice reflects David, the shepherd boy cum warrior cum king, used to the rough, merciless, unpredictable surroundings of nature, the battlefield, the court. And yet every word choice likewise speaks to me. Strength to arm me for what I don't want to face. To make my way, with the grace and sure-footed agility of a deer, through a rocky and uncertain path at a dizzying height. To be gifted the skill and talent my hands lack so conspicuously now, to be enabled to do the impossible--
Elizabeth George Spear wrote a moving book set in Jesus's time about a young blacksmith struggling with faith, bitterness, hatred, and loss. She uses this specific verse and points out how impossible it is to bend a bow of bronze. Remember how much trouble it was to bend Odysseus's bow? That would have been a bow of wood. Basically, David's reckless metaphor of a bronze bow is declaring that God can enable us to do anything. Anything.
35 You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
36 You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.
Help that is both very personal and very applicable. And gentle. Oh, so gentle. I clung to this verse especially. Yes, I need to grow--I need to learn--but deal with me gently, please, Lord. My heart feels like I can't take very much right now.
Again, the imagery of finding your way--not stumbling in the dark, frightened and slipping and bruising yourself; unsure if you're lost or not. A "perfect way," as in verse 32. And I appreciate how it is specified this time: God does not just give us the ability to travel our paths, (as in the previous verses) but also "enlarges" it for us, making it easier for us, so that our feet do not slip.
He enables but He also accommodates. The God behind 1 Corinthians 10:13; the God Who knows us in a deeply personal way, and Who understands our limitations and weaknesses to an extent that is soul-searchingly humbling, and liberating.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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