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.
image by Manki Kim from Unsplash
The idea that stress is an unavoidable part of (specifically) Singaporean everyday life is so widely accepted that I was surprised when someone challenged that assumption.
On one hand, it is a legitimate reason that our culture doesn’t make it easy to maintain control and balance over your life. The systems and infrastructures in place often are built without any consideration for anything other tha KPI, and are not conducive for people who want more than KPI. Education, workplace culture and expectations, the goals and lifestyle standards and values that our culture subconsciously and implicitly incalcate in us, all these function on the basis that people devote themselves 100% to them. Success, at least within the context of those systems, is not programmed to come otherwise.
It's tempting to think the problem is just your culture. I’ve heard people fantasize about how working or living overseas would let them escape from the stress in Singapore, that there’s nothing we can do about it as it’s everywhere, it’s the basis of all our infrastructures, we just have to suck it up. But this minimizes the impact and role of individual responsibility. It’s naïve to think that other people in other cultures don’t face this problem—they do, perhaps manifested differently, but they do. Changing your location is just a quick-fix. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself feeling stressed again, and the answer is not packing your bags once more.
This is my own opinion, but I think of Christ’s words when He called us to “be in the world, not of it.” The importance of the individual witness we have, each in our corner—not isolating ourselves and avoiding the problems in the world, but actively doing what we can to make a difference, wherever we are.
The next easiest response to fantasizing about moving overseas is to play the cynic and shrug in fatalistic doom. Just suck it up. Everyone you know is complaining of the same thing, after all. If you don’t want to be broke or an absolute failure you just have to accept being stressed out, right?
This again is actually just another way of accepting to, and conforming to, the culture around us—not exactly a very godly culture either, as you can see if you consider its role models, goals, definition of success, and the route to get there.
How do we respond to stress? How do we deal with stress and perhaps more importantly, are we unconsciously expecting/reinforcing stress in our lives?
Like it or not, the choices you make reflect your priorities, since much of life is about trade-offs/opportunity cost. We can make choices that enable us to live more thoughtfully, more purposefully, more meaningfully; more restfully, more peacefully, with more time for others, with more time for things that matter. It sounds so ideal, doesn’t it? Everyone talks about work life balance, but it’s become just another impossibly unrealistic concept like owning your own car and house for millenials—and a whole lot more abstract.
What exactly is work life balance and how do we achieve it? Don’t wait for the perfect job to fall into your lap, a family which doesn’t give you problems, supportive friends who chio (invite out) you at convenient times, an understanding boss, the end of this big project, when you’ve caught up on your sleep debt, when you’ve gotten into the habit of getting up early instead of sleeping through six alarms every morning and rushing out of the door.
For most people, most of the time, it’s not a big drastic decision that radically alters your everyday schedule and your plan for the next five years (there are too many “taking off to travel the world for a year how about you?” posts online giving people the wrong impression that it’s all or nothing; either you continue being stressed out or you have to do something radical that usually entails you quitting your job and throwing responsibilities—financial or otherwise—to the wind. That’s nice, Karen, but we can’t all be doing that.
If you can do that, well, that’s nice; but for those of us who can’t, does it mean we can’t do anything about our current situation?
Whether this boils down to the decisions you make on saving/spending money, the goals you form for yourself, leaving a job or changing the way you work in it, finding alternatives, or managing your time, each choice you make is the same thing—you sacrifice or give up one thing in order to achieve more of the other. Which, and why?
Again, “be in the world, not of it;” be the difference. Challenge cultural expectations, when you see a need to challenge the values they're based on. Help others to see alternatives, to think twice instead of simply blindly accepting whatever is thrown at them. Redefine priorities if you need to. Let go of certain unhelpful habits. Think about whether the way you're spending your every day now is something you can thank God for sincerely, something you can present to Him with gladness. Consider that we were made for so much more than than the endless cycle of generating and using money. Remember that our lack of peace, our lack of contentment, even our lack of enjoyment of our lives, reflects our lack of spiritual understanding of Who God is, and what it means to serve Him, to glorify Him.
Be the salt and the light. Even if it means you need to sit down and think about how to live more purposefully--not exactly the activity you feel drawn to after a long day, if we're being honest...
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.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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