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.
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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
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For the longest time, my prayer journal has had pride on the page under "spiritual life/growth."
The danger is that though we may recognize that we need to deal with these major sins, we neglect to to do more than simply identify the overall threat they represent--without getting specific to how exactly they are manifested in our lives. Which means not actually dealing with them at all. We admit our failure, but besides praying about it and feeling bad about it, "trying a little harder," we don't actually make any truly concrete changes.
So for the longest time I have been praying about pride, and yet only hazily had any idea about how I could deal with this problem.
I didn't realize that--for also the longest time--I have had a (parallel) problem with impatience. Stemming from my task-oriented and achiever personality. When something needs to be done, I value efficiency and speed, not because it comes naturally, but because it makes me feel good about myself, it gives me a sense of achievement and reassurance if I get many things done, quickly. That probably tells you all you need to know. I tend to dismiss or get impatient with people whose methods of getting things done are different from mine, who want to explore the details, or double check everything. And when my workflow gets disrupted--or criticized--it becomes something personal, something which reflects directly upon my sense of self-worth. I get impatient, tense, and resent any interruptions or criticisms as personal attacks. And I show it, unfortunately.
When I prioritize the task at hand before the person I'm working with--
When I get impatient and dismiss other opinions and working methods because they are different from mine--
When I respond badly to criticism, even when it's constructive and gently conveyed, because I see it as a personal attack on myself and the perfectionist identity I want to maintain--
When I defend my behaviour by claiming that my way is better, anyway--
--the very pride I was praying about flourished.
After an incident where my behaviour was particularly disappointing, I was challenged to see these situations as specific demonstrations of my pride, and deal with them as such. Humility, in my case, could be simply not prioritizing my agenda or way of doing things, to the extent that I behave unlovingly towards others. Humility could be having a heart of peace--amid criticism, or agitation, or tension; when it seems like the job is taking forever, or someone won't stop talking, or my mistakes are being pointed out ("I-told-you-so" situations are probably some of the most mortifying experiences possible for the human soul.) Humility could be the freedom to accept criticism without being crushed or offended.
Humility could be a restful spirit that isn't fixated on getting things done, but prioritizes people and God's timing/plan. Perhaps the main purpose of this incident is teaching me to control my temper, to deal graciously with differences or difficult people, to be loving--not the actual task at hand.
How different from our task-oriented human ideas of 'living for God', 'serving' Him.
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give me peace and wisdom to handle this sense of overwhelming inability,
of being futilely stretched,
There are so many people needs and relationships, so many areas of service needing faithful people to commit to and labour in, on top of everything else; and most of all I just don't have TIME. Overused as the phrase is.
I feel helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well as I ought or wanted to. It's as if I'm trying to donate blood to as many people as possible in an endless cue...trying to make do by giving each one less, faint and bloodless, yet it's not enough.
I feel so helpless.
God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Vaguely I recognize this as a lesson in learning to trust--learning humility--learning wisdom in loving and serving better...
I happened to flip back on an old journal entry where I was having a particularly bad case of burn-out. Discouraged. Exhausted. Verging on resentful, even as I felt guilty for failing, for not doing more.
I was trying to keep up my studies, wanting to be more active in church, uncomfortably aware that there was more I could do for my family, also unpleasantly conscious that to be an ambitious and productive young adult I should also be researching and getting my own projects done during this precious window of time before I graduated.
After all, "do all things to the glory of God," right?
We groan inwardly and resolve (more faintly each time) to try harder.
These are ugly, poisonous, unpleasant thoughts and feelings; but we shouldn't be afraid to confront them, because they indicate a serious problem in our spiritual lives, rather than our generalized diagnosis of inadequacies on our part, limitations of time and energy.
The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults by Dev Menon-- this thin little book happened to come my way recently.
I read it and realized:
1. almost every sentence was relatable
2. it was quite rare and refreshing, in my experience, to read a Christian book from a Singapore perspective.
3. though initially I was somewhat skeptical on how much of a resolution the author could provide to such a big, abstract problem, he made quite a good shot at hitting the nail on the head.
At least in Singapore, where our culture is ingrained with expectations of perfectionism and subsequently, constant assessment, this is a real issue. We really do have this unspoken ideal that we should excel at each area of our life, as Christians. "Do all things to the glory of God" has become a kind of pressurizing drive to excel, whether in spiritual or secular definitions of excellence; in every area of life, in your obligations and duties. You know how students get told that as a Christian student you glorify God by working hard at your studies and doing your best (which is true, in one sense, yet so easily gets twisted into a good grades=glorifying God mantra.)
On top of that, as young adults, we're juggling more and more responsibilities and relationships. The drive to excel, to be at the top not only of our game but of all the different games we're involved in (in Dev Menon's metaphor, the different slices in the pie graph of our lives) becomes overwhelming.
That means being a hard-working, responsible student/employee--getting good grades, promotions, respect.
That means coming for church and prayer meetings and serving in some way at church.
That means caring for our families and spending time/communicating with them.
Bonus points if you have some charity/outreach work you're involved in.
Oh, and did we mention being free enough to spend time with church friends outside of church? To be a listening ear to that needy friend in crisis?
That's the vision we all have of the "perfect Christian," isn't it?
We get burnt out and discouraged, wonder why we can't juggle everything and why, once we focus on one area, all the rest slip out of control.
The different slices of the pie graph seem to pull us in different directions and we often succumb to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anxiety. Worse, we start to cut corners in an attempt to juggle better, or we start to resent the areas which take up more of our time than we'd planned for them to in our neat little pie graph. We start to get results-oriented, self-reliant, we dismiss people and their individual needs and opinions if they don't go along with our efficient plan, or we start to resent people who are 'needier', 'high-maintenance.' And we start to wonder, tiredly, why it's so hard to 'be a Christian'; that God's demands on us seem like the last straw on top of the other demands being made on us. Just another slice in the pie competing for our (very limited) time, energy, and effort.
Dev Menon calls this 'plate spinning.' Because we have our plate full rushing around keeping all of the many plates in our lives spinning (A lame pun, I know.)
It's a matter of perspective, at least that's what I've learnt to see in my own struggles with this issue.
Instead of thinking that being a Christian is one slice in the piechart of your life, which you're obligated to maintain--to see your entire life/the whole pie as your new life in Christ. Different aspects of it, that's all, but all contributing, all part of.
This collapse of the spiritual/secular divide, this consciousness of God in every day and activity, was crucial in my own spiritual growth, and I believe is just as crucial in overcoming the sense of burn-out and insufficiency we're talking about here. During the journal entry above, I hadn't quite reached this point yet, though I vaguely knew--as I recognized--that there was something fundamentally wrong with how I saw and applied my abilities, priorities, how I understood what it meant to address the different areas in my life as a Chr
I know, I know. Maybe "perspective" alone doesn't seem that liberating. After all, a change in perspective doesn't mean that we magically get an extra two hours, or that we can wave off going to church whenever we feel like it.
There are times, Menon emphasizes, when certain areas are going to need more time and effort than others. At these times, we should not feel guilty or like a failure if we need to step back from those other areas--consciously do less than the best. For example, you might need to spend more time with your family when a crisis happens, and take a step down from work, or--gasp!--serving in church. To truly see God in all areas of your life, and trust His timing and wisdom, we would be able to accept that this does not mean failure. That we're being a lousy Christian. That we're regressing spiritually.
Rather, we accept that God allowed this to happen--we accept our limitations--we accept that we have to change our focus, that God wants us to grow in this specific area, at this time.
This can only happen when our understanding of what it means to be a Christian transcends that pie slice labeled "Christianity/church-related" in our time, isn't limited to the activities that make up that pie slice.
Instead, we would see that God is making it clear that we need to actively pursue His help and presence in this particular area. That in it, we face another opportunity to understand Him better.
Instead of feeling woefully guilty and insufficient, as if God is throwing us dirty glances because we're not clocking in the hours required on His pie slice, we see it as under Him--from Him--rather than competing with Him.
And if you think about it--isn't that a more accurate and significant application of what it means to "do all things to the glory of God?"
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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