St Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) is supposed to have told God once when she was bucked off her horse into a river on the way to visit one of her monasteries: “Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”
Quite a number of God’s friends perished in the recent crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501. Forty-one of those who perished were from the same church. Then there was the Korean missionary family, husband, wife, and their infant daughter. There may have been more followers of Jesus who perished in the crash. I am not a young Christian. I have followed Christ since 1969. I still ask why.
God, couldn’t you have reached out with some special air pocket and saved all your people and all the other passengers with them? When you saved Paul in Acts 27, the whole crew of his ship was saved as well. Why not this time? You wouldn’t even have to work up a sweat to do this. But you didn’t. No, I am not asking for some triumphalistic apologetics — the “see, my God is so powerful” type. I am just thinking of the broken hearts of all those left behind.
My life has been broken a few times in the years that I have followed Christ and I have had to struggle through to some framework to help me through such times. When terrible things happen to God’s people, I bear in mind three things.
Firstly, whatever pain and tragedy a follower of Christ goes through this side of heaven is but one chapter of story that ends well. We were at a funeral service on 6th January when my spouse, Bernice, led by the Lord shared from Revelations 21:1-5 at the graveside. “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth… “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Whatever horrors a follower of Christ may have to endure this side of heaven, it is but a chapter in a story that finishes in the new heaven and the new earth. I force myself to look beyond the pain of the present to the time when God will usher in the new order.
Secondly, it is precisely because followers of Jesus share the same broken world with those who do not know Christ that we are able to build bridges to them. We stand together with a broken humanity looking for healing and answers and it is in that posture that we share about the Christ who came to make us whole.
Thirdly, pain makes us teachable. It humbles us. It reminds us of our dependence on the Lord. It removes any arrogance that blocks His working in our lives. As CS Lewis reminds us: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps the greatest lesson I need to learn and relearn is the lesson of faith. And that lesson is often learnt best when God appears to be absent.
It has been a tough start to 2015. We have already been to two funerals. And we said goodbye to papa Lee not too long ago. Bad news beckons on all sides. And no, God’s people will not get any automatic special favours from the Lord. But we just celebrated Advent. And so we remember: the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. (Matthew 4:16 NIV)
It’s just dawn. It’s still dark. But the sun is rising. We look to its warmth for ourselves and for others.
Footnote: This is an edited version. The full version is available at www.graceworks.com.sg.
In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean struggles with his identity after many years of incarceration as Prisoner 24601 – his self-image had been reduced to that of a number. How do you answer the question, “Who are you?”. What is your identity and significance?
Jer. 9:23-24 says, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth, glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me”. Dr Walt Henrichsen, a friend and Christian author whose messages I have found very meaningful, said that people generally derive their identity from three areas.
The first is “wisdom”; the world is impressed by “smart/clever” people – what school they are in, how they performed in exams, the university from which they obtained their degree and what notable thoughts they are expounding to their audiences. One way of deriving your self-identity is by recognition through academic and intellectual achievements.
Next, is “might” or power. We generally either admire or fear those who are powerful. Attainment of power is certainly one way of gaining recognition. When we meet someone new, a common question during introductions is, “What do you do?”. The answer you give determines the degree of respect you receive. If you respond that you are CEO of a large corporation, you are highly regarded; if you say you are a casual labourer, the response is completely different, isn’t it?
Thirdly, comes “riches”. Wealth is associated with success and power. When Jack Ma, who founded Alibaba, was a poor school teacher, nobody knew of him or perhaps even wanted to associate with him. Now that he is possibly the richest man in China, everyone wants a piece of him, and he remarked that the challenge he faces now is, “everybody is surrounding you for money”.
If you are concerned with being known by people, and you want to have a building named after you, you will be striving for “wisdom”, “might” or “riches”. However, in God’s economic framework, a person’s significance is not determined by who you are, but by whose you are. Jeremiah reminds us that our self-identity and significance should be derived from one source alone – that God knows us and values us sufficiently to be worthy of acceptance through Jesus’ blood to be part of His family. Whenever we look to any other source of recognition and significance (outside and also within the Christian community) we become servants who obey that source and no longer God. So, who are you?
In 1 John 4:7-12, the Apostle John explained three things about God’s love.
First, love is shown and not hidden. Verse 9 tells us that “This is how God showed his love among us”. The word used for “shown” may also be translated as “manifested” or “revealed”. In this short passage, it is mentioned twice “how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son”. The Bible not only tells us that God loves us, but also how God shows His love for us. In fact, He sent the best, “His one and only Son”, so that we might live through Him. This demonstrates to us the importance of love being shown. How wonderful it is to know that the next time you see a cross, remember that God loves you. How will you show your love today?
Secondly, we learn that love is a choice and it is not based on condition. Verse 10 says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us”. Love in today’s language is often conditional; we ask our loved ones, “what can I get in return?” or say, “you do this for me, and I will do that for you”. Yet the Bible tells us that “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8), and “not that we loved God”. Christ died for us while we were still sinners and enemies; while we have not yet repented, God took the first step. Love is a choice made for the other person. It is independent of whether the person has earned the right to be loved or not.
There is a story of two boys talking in the school courtyard. One of them was an adopted child. The other boy was laughing at him for being an adopted child. In retort, the adopted child replied, “My parents chose me from the orphanage! But your parents had no choice! They are stuck with you!” When our love becomes conditional or runs dry, let us go to God, for love finds its source in God. “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
Thirdly, love requires action and not just words. Verse 10b tells us that God “loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins”. God demonstrated His love by sending and sacrificing His Son. There is a quote that goes, “Love is just a word until someone comes along and gives it meaning.” God did not love us with words alone, He acted. In the same way, God’s love is revealed through our caring for one another. Let us be that someone that comes along and gives meaning to love for another person.
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:11-12).
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:13-14
The juniper tree (translated as broom bush in the NIV) is mentioned in 1 Kings 19:4. It is a small bush tree found in the wilderness. In this instance it provided shade for Elijah the prophet, after a tiring day’s journey fleeing from the threats of Queen Jezebel.
When I was a young believer, it puzzled me that the Prophet Elijah was afraid and ran for his life after receiving the death threat from Jezebel, especially after the spate of victorious deeds recorded in 1 Kings 18:
At Mount Carmel, Elijah stood bravely against 450 Baal prophets – proving the true and powerful LORD God of Israel.
After the demonstration of God’s “fire” on Elijah’s sacrifice, all the Jews turned back to God crying “The Lord – he is God!” [Only King Ahab, Queen Jezebel and officials did not repent.]
Elijah prophesized and the rain came on the land after three years of drought.
When the heavy rain came, Elijah was filled with the power of the Spirit and ran ahead of Ahab on his chariot, all the way to Jezreel.
As I studied Elijah’s emotional breakdown (1 Kings 19), I realize that his answers were from a self-centered prophet in answer to the Lord’s question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“I have enough, Lord, take my life”
“I am no better than my ancestors”
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty”
“I am the only one left”.
(Note the common word “I”)
As I reflected on the struggles of Elijah, I learnt a number of personal lessons:
In my zeal for God’s ministries I forget that I am human and cannot work without rest, retreat and refreshment. The first things God did for Elijah were his physical and emotional needs – food, sleep, comfort and a listening ear.
My rigorous activities and ministry work do not determine how the Sovereign Lord is going to work among His people and those who do not know Him.
While I have some strengths and gifts, I am still a vulnerable servant of God. The devil works hard on my vulnerable spots and then I hit rock bottom. Often the things I get upset are really trivial matters. Reminder: I am a channel for the Spirit and he moves in ways I don’t understand; mysteriously reaching the hearts of men.
Sometimes I get very emotional when God does not answer my prayers in the way I “desire” Him to do so. There is this “ego” in me that I feel that God owes it to me to reward me with “my” results, especially after so much effort on my part.
In a similar way I think like Elijah that I am indispensable and without me God cannot fulfil His plans on earth.
Let me exhort all who serves (as a leader, disciple and follower) that God is Sovereign and will fulfill His plans for our lives, the church and the lost world. He is Supreme and His timing is perfect and He is in control. It is our privilege to be used by Him; partnering in the ministry of the Gospel, praying and participating in various ministries.
God restored Elijah and taught him that the LORD’s presence is not in the “powerful wind”, “earthquake”, “fire” but in the “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11). We need to listen to the Holy Spirit and draw close to our Lord so that His name will be glorified!
“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul … Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.” – G. K. Chesterton.
It is often said that New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken. I certainly hope that is not true of us. I do believe that it is a good time to make some simple resolutions.
Since people do not care about what we know until they know that we care, it is good to resolve to walk the talk. It is cheap to talk about loving God without showing that we love our neighbours. We should resolve to love our neighbours, for by doing that we are obeying the commandment of God (Matt. 22:39). How can we do that?
A friend of mine who manages a cleaning company created a calendar for 2015 with a series of cartoons. It is titled “Kindness and Consideration”. It occurs to me that that is precisely how we can practically show love to our neighbours. For each month of the year, we are reminded to do the kind and considerate thing. Here is the list: Do not squat on toilet bowls; Use the hand dryer or hand towels, Return food tray after use; Bin your litter; Save electricity; Be considerate to other moviegoers; Give way to alighting passengers; Move further in when boarding a train or bus; Offer priority seats to people in need; Signal before changing lanes; Clean up after your dog; and Wring laundry dry before hanging.
By being thoughtful, we are helping to preserve a better environment for our neighbours, making life pleasant for all. That is kindness and kindness is love in action.
Being kind generates its own benefits for our own health and well-being. Please take at least 10 copies of my booklet “5 Amazing Benefits of Being Kind”. It contains a digest of the most recent researches on how kindness improves our health and wellbeing. Read it and pass the other 9 to your friends.
And participate in our Let’s Makan Project (http://www.kindness.sg/letsmakan/). It is a great way to connect with our immediate neighbours. Perhaps God may use you to touch their lives and open the path for them to seek the Lord.