image by Arif Riyanto from Unsplash
Sometimes life seems too much to bear.
We want to give up. Hide. Escape. A great weariness fills us--weary of struggling, persevering, labouring on.
I dreaded these times because that weariness itself often made me feel worse about myself. Was this proof that I was a wimp, that I was weak, fragile, and incapable of dealing with life like everyone else seemed to be? Proof that I was a feeble Christian, lacking the peace and assurance that we ought to have in Christ. That my faith was a flimsy thing, wilting at the first breath of trouble. Why was I so easily plunged into despair?
In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul talks about this exact same feeling: "burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life." However, he goes on to identify what this feeling is--the "sentence of death," or sin, in us: "Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us." (verse 9-10)
Times like these remind us that this body--and this earth--are mortal ones. Sickness. Damaged relationships. Failures. Disappointments, in ourselves or others. They make us see the pervasive effects of sin everywhere, and teach us to long for things as they should be; for Heaven.
But more than that, they teach us not to trust in ourselves, not to think that the outcome of our lives depends wholly on ourselves. Which leads to enormous pressure to ensure that every decision is the right one and that no mistakes can be afforded, feeling that failure is always lurking around the corner; a crippling and intimidating mindset to approach life with. Instead, we learn to trust in God, Who in sending Christ delivered us from the ultimate death, and since then ceaselessly, tirelessly, continues to deliver us daily from the power of sin, from the sentence of death that continues to plague us in the old man. Since His power over sin and death was proven once and for all in Christ, we are enabled to hope that this is not a losing battle, as much as it may feel like it at times.
image by Christian Erfurt from Unsplash
(continued from part 1)
What then, are possible reasons why we find it so hard to rest?
Smith discusses a few insightful possibilities:
1. Are we functional atheists--living in fear and anxiety due to a lack of faith in God's sovereignty and control? Often, the fear and anxiety that makes us feel unable to rest stems from a sense that without our direct, constant involvement/labour, our world will come crashing down around us. That the church will collapse if we don't shoulder every burden (this, of course, with qualifications; not to be taken out of context.) Though this might be successful at driving us to constantly work harder and better, it's neither healthy nor godly. Needless to say, this is a huge self-imposed burden of responsibility on our own shoulders, as well as a toxic sense of guilt and insecurity whenever we try to rest. Like the typical rat-race, we're ceaselessly toiling, afraid to lose out.
Without mincing any words about it, Smith identifies "if I don't do it, who will?" as a prideful claim of self-sufficiency which is unhealthy. It reflects a lack of understanding that in God's providence, His will is accomplished without needing us. Whether He chooses to do so through us, or not, it is part of His plan. We tend to place too much emphasis on the contribution our hands make, forgetting that all things are in His hands; those "hands that flung stars into space" are not depending on us to achieve His purposes.
2. People-pleasing. We may think that we're concerned for others, that we serve out of love for them, but if we do so because we want to make them like us, or we want them to think well of us, it's really just a perverted form of self-love. We do not manipulate people by doing things for them, or labour under the delusion that we can only love them if we constantly give them whatever they ask of us or whatever makes them happy. "Decisions based on love are about the welfare of the other person, not what they think of you."
So we shouldn't say yes merely because we want to make the person asking us happy. This is something I struggled massively with as a teenager; I couldn't bear to disappoint anyone, be it taking on a new task, helping them out with wedding prep, or joining them for dinner. Even if I knew it was not a wise decision based on my schedule. At that moment, I just really wanted to please them, not to spoil the mood with a refusal.
Similarly, Smith notes that constantly leaping to shoulder every need that arises may also deprive others of opportunities to grow. Do we encourage them to trust us instead of God?
3. Motivated by insecurity, do we keep ourselves busy to distract ourselves from a unhealthy shame and inadequacy?
Perhaps there are areas in our life that we know we need to face, yet--like productive procrastinators--we distract ourselves instead with busyness.
Or perhaps we rely desperately on the fleeting sense of achievement, success, or praise from others for our work, to boost our sense of self-worth and identity.
"How much of our busyness is really an effort to prove our worth and escape from the sense that there is something very wrong with us?"
In contrast, Christ is the only way to acknowledge our sinfulness and flaws, with truth and yet also with hope and empowerment. As Smith points out, Christ is "our Sabbath rest;" having attributed to us His perfection and holiness, and taken the full punishment for our sins, we can experience true freedom from the otherwise relentless drive to prove our worth, to make up for our failures.
(continued in part 3)
image by Abbie Bernet from Unsplash
Recently, I facilitated a study on a small booklet titled Burned Out? by Winston T. Smith. The topic immediately caught my attention because burn-out seems to be one of the increasingly relevant challenges we face in this period of our lives. At a time when we're struggling to juggle new responsibilities and commitments in multiple different areas in life, when our energy and time is always in short supply, burn-out is never too far away. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed out to the brink of tears? When was the last time you wanted to just throw everything aside and sleep for days?
This booklet was short, refreshingly simple, and probingly insightful with some of its questions. I felt it helped me examine myself and discover some realizations, convictions, and applications.
The 4th Commandment to keep the Sabbath is also understood as God's command to us on the importance of rest, a concept most Christians are already familiar with. However, Smith probes further into the greater consequences of this commandment. Realizing that God's creation of the world was not a exertion that He needed the Sabbath to physically recover from, but rather an effortless display of His power, meant that the first Sabbath functioned more as a dedicated day of appreciating and declaring the sovereignty and power of God. "And God saw that it was good." As such, when we keep the Sabbath--or when we rest as God intended us to--we are living out an active trust in God, demonstrating our belief that He is in control of our lives and our world. Rest is not just a necessary but regrettable concession to our human frailty. When we rest, we are not just taking care of our bodies; we are proclaiming His sovereignty.
Secondly, rest also works (pun unintended) as a means for us to experience God's providence, abundant blessings, and the freedom He gives to us. Smith quotes the sabbatical year in Leviticus, where the Israelites were commanded not to plant anything every seventh year, letting the ground rest. God promised to provide for His people through this year by blessing their fields abundantly in the sixth year, so that they would harvest enough food to last them through three years: the sixth year, the seventh of rest, and the eighth year when they resumed planting, before the harvest was ready. Without the seventh year of rest, the Israelites would not have the chance to experience how abundantly--even miraculously--God could provide for them; to witness His power. It also helped to disrupt an increasingly blind devotion to their work or materialism, creating a sense of balance and perspective.
Here, Smith again draws from the laws in Leviticus. The Jubilee year, every 50th year, was another example of rest imposed by God in which slaves were freed, property was restored, and debts were cancelled. Smith foregrounds the correlation between rest and freedom in the Jubilee year. God's command for us to rest has also to do with the freedom we are given to enjoy in Him: "the focus and purpose of all of our labour, ultimately, is to serve Him. No other person or institution may own our allegiance; any other allegiance is ultimately slavery."
And though this may sound strong, think about it. If we're giving almost 24/7 of our time to our job, making decisions based on fear, insecurity, guilt, and pressure, feeling helpless about our inability to have more time for church, for others, for ourselves--it is a kind of slavery, isn't it? Feeling like we don't have much say in how we spend our time, or how we live our life, because work? (or exams etc)
According to Smith, how we observe God's command to rest--or whether we keep it at all--reflects our allegiance: what controls our world, who we serve, and whether we live as a slave or in God's freedom.
part 1; to be continued
image by Brooke Lark from Unsplash
A few weeks ago, I dug out my journal, dusted off the dog-eared copy of Donald Whitney's 10 Questions, and sat down to give some thought to the year that has gone by.
2018 has been another tough year. Constantly feeling stretched and worn out, struggling with anxieties and fears I was reluctant to admit to myself. Carving out a living as a fresh grad. Learning on the job. Comparing myself, consciously or unconsciously, with peers, with our society's definitions of success and achievement. More and more rejection letters.
But what's new under the sun?
Stress is a given.
What matters is how we cope with it, and how we react to it.
Looking back, I acknowledged that I'd survived 2018 by God's grace, had the strength (more like simply the endurance; I don't remember feeling strong at all in 2018) to push through. It was my first time feeling so needy and crushed, so starkly aware of how inadequate I was, over such an extended period of time. Talk about teenage insecurity. At this point in life, it felt like my whole future--and my whole past, which led up to this!--and my whole identity, or worth, depended on how responsibly I made my decisions, how successfully I managed to prove myself. A good article I saw recently on the Gospel Coalition (I wish I'd seen it sooner) reminded me that the symptoms were pretty much those of the Quarter Life Crisis. Well, apparently I'd gone through it without even knowing. *shrugs*
Humbling. That was the main takeaway from 2018. Realizing that our goals, beautiful and worthy as they may be, don't work out in the way we want them to--and that's ok. It's not--as we're so tempted to feel--the end of the world.
Realizing how fragile and needy I am, on my own, how inadequate just "trying my best" is, for myself and for others. Realizing how much we need God; and paradoxically, how little we tend to rely on Him. That we can get so consumed by our goals and visions they become part of ourselves, become glorified idealized visions of ourselves that we can't bear to relinquish. I was so determined to prove to myself that I was a "real" (read: published and paid) writer, it was devastating to be forced to admit that perhaps...that wasn't going to work out. It was too painful, too terrifying, to examine who you were without this dream/goal. I had forgotten who I was, forgotten that I had any identity other than what was found in my dreams and plans.
So as I look back--reluctantly--I try to avoid regrets, focus on the sobering, humbling lessons I learnt, focus on the grace I experienced when I so needed it, when I was so blind to it. Grace at a time when I was desperately trying to prove myself. Grace at a time when I was plumbing the depths of self-worth and trying to earn success as well as deserve it.
But let's not throw the whole year away like that. There were good things too. I found an old phone note I had made halfway through the year, when I was finally starting to get out of my mental rut, where I made myself note down all the notable achievements and good things which I had been able to do so far. Some of these things were small, some were big--bigger than I realized then. Again, grace; grace, God being gentle with me. Reminding me that He Whose strength is made perfect in weakness, values the seemingly small and foolish things of the world, above the wise. To rethink success and fulfilment from the narrow and shallow definitions I had been clinging to, crying over.
In 2019, I hope:
to be less self-absorbed.
As we build our careers, try to use our educations, reach out to people, fulfil all our roles and responsibilities, serve in our churches, find a life-partner, and still have time to pursue our dreams (who are we kidding, who even manages to do all this??) it's so easy to be mindlessly, unquestioningly, self-absorbed.
I want to let go of that. I want to live with a mind and heart that's purposefully open to others, open to God, and not just ceaselessly--unthinkingly--consumed by my own goals, concerns, and desires.
to live with less fear, and less self-consciousness.
A lot of the stress I went through in 2018 was due to the importance I had attached to certain things. So much fear. So much self-consciousness. Because I unthinkingly accepted that they affected what I was. Not daring to risk failure or rejection, because my crushed ego and self-sufficiency were already floundering.
To live with less fear and less self-consciousness is also to live with less pride. I think, in my determination to do well, I forgot that there's a fine line between confidence and pride.
to cope with stress in healthier, more God-glorifying ways
We all get stressed. Heaven forbid I try to sound like I had it worse than others. I know so many coping with even more insane amounts of stress, from family issues, financial and job situations, mental health conditions, everything else you can imagine. What little I experienced this past year only opens my eyes to the crippling and devastating effects it can have. Regardless of stress levels--this is not a competition on who can claim to be most stressed, though that's sometimes how it feels like chatting with your friends in Singapore haha--each of us needs to find ways of coping with stress which actually help us.
One of the humbling things I learnt in 2018 was how stress brought out several negative aspects of myself. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms which I at first excused on the grounds of stress. I'm so exhausted and sick of worrying, I just need a little distraction. I've got no energy or time to listen; there's too much on my mind. And the list goes on.
As Christians, do we cope with stress by giving ourselves license to do things we wouldn't otherwise consider? Do we resort to consumerism, self-indulgence, mindless entertainment, addictions, relinquishing self-control? Do we redeem the time? Do we fill our minds and hearts with what is "good, noble, pure..." (Philippians 4:8), do we rest in ways that truly refresh us? Most importantly--does our stress teach us to draw closer to God? To trust in Him more. To know Him better. To rely less on ourselves.
to live with perspective and priorities
Hustle, hustle. I recently observed to a friend that for this generation of millennials, it feels like you need a new game plan every single year. Every year, a sense of instability and flux haunts you; you're driven to try and pin down more of that intangible dream of success, whether by moving house, changing your friends group, finding another job, getting promoted, improving yourself, and the list goes on. Have I made it? you wonder. What else do I need to do to make it? (cue Quarter Life Crisis theme song)
Work towards your own goals. But seek first God's work in your life, and through you.
Don't form your identity--self-worth--definition of success and happiness--on the wrong priorities. Keep your perspective, actively protect it, because it comes under threat so easily.
Treasure it as something which empowers you to live freely and fully.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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