How do you deal with your past?

Wooden spiral stairs (Nebotičnik, Ljubljana)

Lately I’m feeling confronted by an uneasy feeling about my journey of asking God for “what’s next” in my life. I know there are many choices and options for what I can do, but there’s a fear that whichever path I choose, I might end up regretting it later on. So during the last couple of weeks, I seized upon opportunities to talk to dear friends and mentors, and as I started telling them about my journey and my fears, they also opened up to me about their own fears and regrets in life. I’m thankful for those honest conversations because it’s not easy to admit to being weak and broken to each other. At the same time, it got me thinking about how I should deal with my fears and my regrets.

Being human, all of us have made terrible mistakes and poor choices in our past. But we need to speak truth into how these regrets reflect where/whom we put our faith and hope in. In 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 (CSB), Paul wrote:

I now rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death.

Here, Paul pointed to a “godly grief” that lead to repentance and salvation instead of regrets.

However, recently I’ve seen a rise of so-called “inner emotional healing” ministries that use prayer and teaching that deal with so-called “root issues” of the situations and regrets in one’s past. But in my opinion, even as they claim to be “Christian” and “biblical,” they’re pointing toward what Paul referred to as “worldly grief” instead of “godly grief.”

In thinking about this, I think there are 4 questions I/we need to ask:

1. Am I even qualified to deal with my past?

Some people claim healing starts with searching our repressed memories to identify what went wrong in our past that lead to the negative emotions we feel now. The assumption is that our problems are “bad feelings” or fears or a lack of “inner peace” within us.

However, this is a product of our feel-good culture. The lie is that whatever ails us is the same as whatever makes us feel bad. But Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” And this “sickness” is our sin which separates us from God. Do you know that some forms of sin can make us feel very good? For example, pride can boost our self-esteem. That is why we cannot trust ourselves to identify our problems.

No, we are not even qualified to attempt to probe our past because we are limited beings and we are sinful people. Only God is all-knowing, all-powerful, while being all-good, so only He can diagnose what my real problem is. So we must leave the probing of our hearts to God, as Psalm 139:23-24 says:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

2. Do I need deliverance from my past, or do I need repentance and sanctification?

Some people say healing comes from “releasing” or “letting go” or finding “deliverance” from your past, which empowers folks to take back control of their lives. And they even teach that this is a Christian thing by using the Bible to justify these principles and techniques.

But all that was just self-help by another name, making the Bible look like a moralistic or a therapeutic book. Instead, God’s Word is not about us, but a revelation of who God is and what He has done in Christ. Our root problem is not bad morals or bad emotions or bad self-esteem or bad behaviors, but our failure to acknowledge God to be in control of our lives.

This is why Paul said that godly grief leads to “repentance” — not something you do once but a continual process/attitude of turning back to God and yielding God the supreme place in our lives.

The change that we need is not so that we can feel good about ourselves, but to be transformed in holiness into the likeness of Jesus. We don’t need those special prayers of deliverance, because God already began the work of sanctification in His followers that will ultimately prepare us to be ready to meet Christ, as 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 says: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

3. Am I content with God’s sovereignty over my past?

For some, our desire to rewrite our past stem from wanting to place blame on circumstances, other people, or even ourselves for preventing us from becoming who we want to be.

However, who we are is not determined by us, but by the Author of our lives. Jeremiah 18:1-6 says that a lump of clay cannot question why the potter made it that way. Psalm 139:16 says God already formed every day of our entire lives even before we’re born. We need to accept God’s sovereignty over how He determined the course of our lives, including what happened in the past and what will happen in our futures.

But why did God make me so weak and so broken? All I can say is His purposes are higher than mine. As His creation, I should be content to be molded in order to display his glory and strength, as 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 says:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

4. Do I grab onto self-love or the certainty of God’s love?

I understand the negative emotions and fears that we feel could make us indecisive and affect how we see ourselves. But, sadly, if the goal of this “inner healing” is to generate good feelings, I can guarantee that those warm and fuzzy feelings will not last very long; if the goal is to boost our self esteem, you’ll find before long that you’re still driven by your regrets and fears of how people see you.

I’m glad my Facebook friend Phil nailed it in his recent (excellently written) Facebook post:

I keep a list of things I do wrong, past failures, things I could do better. But, what would getting them right accomplish? My heart tells me I would be less unworthy, more lovable.

Yet, when I dwell on it a bit, I realize the list represents my efforts to be in control. Worse, my list represents a denial of God’s love for me.

His love is wholly undeserved. I cannot do anything to earn it. Only accept it. And love Him in return.

Amen! And to wrap this up, please read 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 which says:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

A More Comprehensive Worship, A More Abundant Joy

© 2016 by Jotamks | CC BY-SA 4.0

While I seldom get any feedback after I lead worship songs at church, many years ago someone came up to me right after the service and asked in earnest: “Next time could we sing something that’s, er… more joyful?”

I asked him what made him say that, and he reminded me I had just led the congregation in singing a “sad song.” It was a song about repenting of our self-centeredness and desiring to worship God for who He is. But to him, this did not constitute “joyful worship.”

Since then, over the years I’ve heard this oft-repeated mantra claiming that “worship must be joyful or it’s not worship.” But what they really mean usually comes down to how exuberant one feels after a time of singing praise songs employing major scales, vibrant-sounding chord progressions, perhaps accompanied by grandiose instrumentation. I find this very troubling, because not only does this project a diminished view of what “worship” is, but also a diminished view of what “joy” is. I fear we’ve been blinded by our feel-good culture and a world accustomed to postmodern reductionist thinking, because many have reduced the measure of “worship” only to this so-called “joy” that’s not even close to true joy.

We need a more comprehensive understanding of “worship”

Most Christians acknowledge that “worship is not just singing,” but few understand how they worship God (or fail to worship God) in all of life, because there’s been a lack of proper teaching about the essence of worship.

In short, worship is our response to who God is and what God has done. We worship when we acknowledge God as God and that we are not, and when we acknowledge His infinite qualities while admitting our total dependence on Him in our finitude. We worship when we plead our case before God in humility and brokenness because only He can do the impossible in our lives, and also when we receive grace from Him with a heart of gratitude. Our response to Him could be in the form of direct communication, for example, in singing or praying or crying out to God. But our response can also be lived out, when our lives reflect and testify that He is Lord, for example, as we serve others in love and in attributing glory to God, or as we endure suffering for the sake of the cross of Jesus.

Because worship is so rich and so comprehensive, we cannot limit it to joy, although joy is one element of it. So while it’s true that Psalm 33:1-3 asks us to worship God in joyful singing and shouting, Psalm 32:5-6 asks us to acknowledge God as the merciful Lord as we come to Him with a heart of repentance. Also consider Psalm 22:23 which asks us to glorify God in a spirit of awe and reverence, and Psalm 71:4-6 which declares trust and hope in God in the midst of suffering and difficult circumstances.

If we claim that worship must be exclusively joyful and must not include tears and crying and sorrow, we’ve turned ourselves into Eli the priest, who mistook Hannah to be a drunken women even though she was actually pouring out her heart to the God who hears her (see 1 Samuel 1:13).

We need a more abundant pursuit of “joy”

But even more seriously, we’ve shortchanged the abundant joy that the Bible speaks of. Joy should not be primarily conjured during times of singing in church as a result of manipulative “worshipful experiences” with the aid of lighting and music and lyrics.

Many of us are familiar with 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 which says:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

… but did you know that the verbs “rejoice” and “pray” and “give thanks” here are actually plural verbs in Greek? In context, Apostle Paul was asking the church to rejoice together, as well as pray and give thanks together. And the reason for the terseness of the language is because it’s a summary of what Paul had said earlier in the same letter, where in 1 Thessalonians 3:8-10 Paul expressed his heartfelt longing toward the believers in Thessalonica:

For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

… so the joy and prayer and thanksgiving that Paul was talking about was intimately connected to his desire to see the believers in Thessalonica face-to-face, so that they could be able to encourage each other.

You see, our usual understanding of “joy” is too individualistic; if you really want “joyful worship” you could just watch worship song videos on YouTube all day long. But we need to recover the joy that Paul spoke of. It’s a type of joy that happens in the midst of fellow Christ-followers, not something you can get sitting in front of YouTube. It’s a more costly type of joy, yet at the same time a more rewarding type of joy, because there are times when you don’t feel like going to church, but you know you’re going there not to make yourself happy, but to be a part of the joy among the community of believers as you mutually “supply what is lacking in your faith.”

No wonder James also connects joy with “the testing of your faith,” a phrase that sounds painful and yet James 1:2-3 declares to his “brothers”:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

One of my most favorite movies is “Inside Out,” because (spoiler alert?) it helps us understand that joy is not just born out of happy feelings, but a fuller joy can emerge out of times of sadness. I hope fellow Christians can take this lesson to heart as well.

Ultimately we should know that joy cannot be manufactured artificially, but it’s an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, which implies that joy does not come from a “religious transaction” but an organic maturing relationship with the Holy Spirit, where the growth of joy must also happen as we grow in patience and faithfulness and self-control as well. So in closing, it’s good to remind ourselves of Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Write! Because My Life Depends On It

Homeless from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Brad Saunders, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

I kept thinking about my friend’s words to me the night before as I was driving toward the intersection of Highway 84 and Decoto Road. He said, “Tim, you should be a writer. You should write a book.” It was not the first time he said such things to me, but like the previous few times, I brushed him off. “I’m a nobody. Why would anyone want to read what I write?”

But I was at a crossroads in my life, just like this intersection that I was driving towards. At the time (which was two weeks ago), I had just submitted my resignation letter to my boss. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) what to do next. I just felt a change is necessary. Pragmatically, I knew I needed to stay home a bit more because my wife had been busy taking care of her dad, who just had a 3rd stroke in the last couple years, let alone recovering from two bouts of cancer. Spiritually, the church we started three years ago went through lots of challenges, and yet we’re seeing God’s hands guiding us to learn to embrace our brokenness and walk a journey of weakness where His strength is all we could rely on. Going through all those storms in life, it’s not been easy. I decided to take a risk by quitting my job, to take some time to sort out why I don’t feel passionate about the same things as I did before. The winds of change is in the air and I’m ready to go for a ride.

I thought and thought about my friend’s words. Did I brush him off too quickly? I used to write in this blog for a long time, in fact from 2005 to 2013 I wrote quite regularly. But after a while, I wasn’t sure why I was writing, or who I was writing to. So I stopped. But recently I was surprised when I heard from a friend that he had a friend who knew about me from this blog, and that he enjoyed my writing. And yeah, I’ve thought about restarting this blog a couple times during the last 4 years. But is that why I should write?

As I drove up to the intersection, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone among the growth of bushes and short trees on my left hand side. Since I was stopped at the red light, I looked to my left, and to my astonishment, I saw a homeless person doing something that I haven’t done seriously in a long time: he was writing some words on a cardboard. It just happened that this intersection was a popular spot for homeless people to panhandle, and I’ve also helped a few fellows before. But I’ve never caught sight of one of them in the act of writing on a cardboard.

As I drove past the intersection, this realization came to me: He was writing because his life depended on it! Not only am I ashamed that he’s written more words than I’ve written in some time, but even more importantly, he’s written much more weightier words than I’ve written in a long long time, because his very survival depended on how he crafted his writing.

That day I’ve decided to restart this blog. I’m not writing to get donations from you (although that would be nice 😀). I’m not necessarily writing to get fans (although any feedback would be welcome and it would encourage me very much!). But because I have a tendency to work out what I believe in writing, almost like I’m engaging in an internal battle of arguments. It was basically the equivalent of “talking to myself” according to what Martyn Lloyd-Jones said in the book “Spiritual Depression”:

The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’. Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have but little experience.

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ — what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’ — instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’.

So I’m writing again, because my life depends on it. I’m writing to allow my inner voice an avenue to worship the God who I trust to continue to guide the journey of my life into something meaningful, just as He’s faithfully guided me all these years.

My wish, also, is that my words will be life-giving, not just for me but for also you, my readers, as well. So I invite you all to come along for this ride! I’m curious for what the coming days, weeks, and months will bring, because I have no idea where God will bring me (and my family), but I trust that wherever we end up, He’s faithful and trustworthy to carry us through.

Church Is Like Pizza

'Pizza' photo (c) 2010, Molly Elliott - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Church is like pizza
And the secret to great pizza
Lies not in its fanciful toppings
But in having a perfectly chewy or crunchy crust
Likewise the success of a church
Is not in spinning attractional methods and programs
But grounded in the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)
And its faithfulness in living out the gospel (1 Tim 4:15-16, Gal 2:20)

Church is like pizza
And the process of making a pizza
The dough had to be kneaded and punched down
The pizza had to endure a fiery oven
Likewise the mark of a church
Involves suffering for the kingdom of God (2 Tim 1:8, 2 Thess 1:5, 1 Peter 4:12-19)
And the fruit of a church are changed lives (2 Cor 3:18)
And becoming more and more Christlike (Rom 8:29)

Church is like pizza
And the act of eating pizza
Is an inherently communal experience
Use your fingers! Take a slice or two!
Likewise the mission of a church
Is not in appeasing felt needs of individuals
But living in unity, always looking out for one another (Acts 4:32-35)
And in giving itself for the sake of its community (Matt 5:13-14, Jer 29:7)

Bon appétit!

What is social justice?

“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

'poor' photo (c) 2006, Tinou Bao - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I was reading a touching story on Christianity Today by Russell Jeung in an article entitled Saved By My Refugee Neighbors in which Mr. Jeung and his family moved into a low-income community in Oakland to try to effect social change there. But instead, he was enveloped with kindness by the residents there. It was he who was transformed more than he transforming them. And even though no Bible passage was cited, you cannot help but realize that he’s truly living out Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

And in the middle of the story, this sentence stuck with me: “… social justice isn’t about asserting [one’s] rights, but about taking responsibility for others.”

It just happened that I discovered Mr. Jeung’s story a couple days after the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA. Although I do not agree with the ruling (and I’ve clearly written about my opinion on this before), part of me feels the pain of the homosexual community for always wanting to be recognized with equal rights. In addition, I was wary of what kind of response that various groups would give. My prayer was that everyone would respond and communicate in grace.

And then, to my dismay, I read someone who posted this: “I do not support homosexuality or homosexual marriage. …… We have a right to speak what we believe, same as you have a right to speak what you believe.” I was sad after reading that last sentence. Why would anyone have the need to emphasize one’s “rights” to speak what one believes? Why is there (on both sides of the DOMA ruling) such a focus on “rights” for themselves?

Again, Mr. Jeung wrote: “… social justice isn’t about asserting [one’s] rights, but about taking responsibility for others.” Can we stop looking to defend our own rights, and start looking at others’? The mark of true social justice is in taking up other people’s causes, not your own. For example:

“Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9)

Social justice in the Bible is speaking out for others, not for yourself. And it is more than words, but also in deed and in truth:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)

Social justice is not just a suggestion, but a command. And failing to do social justice is displeasing to God:

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. … if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (Jeremiah 22:3,5)

So let me close with Mr. Jeung’s words yet again, and may we take heart: “… social justice isn’t about asserting [one’s] rights, but about taking responsibility for others.”

Stop Asking “What’s In It For Me?”

20130616-200028.jpg

While playing with my kids on our street a few weeks ago, my neighbor came over and said hi. “Wow you have four kids!” He exclaimed, paused, and then continued, “I guess it’s better for the future.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know, when you’re old, they’ll take care of you.”

I went silent for a while after that because I got a bit angry and I didn’t want to say something I’d regret. I kept thinking, “Is this the reason that you think I have children? That thought never entered my mind!”

But then I realized two things. One, although I never thought about my retirement care, I am still a sinful human being. From time to time I did stuff for my children and I secretly wanted them to appreciate me. In pride I wanted a pat on the back from people that I manage my kids well. Although by God’s grace I’ave learned to have fewer and fewer of those selfish thoughts, yet I still need to admit my propensity toward seeking self comfort and self interests.

And for another, I realize I am an Asian. My neighbor knows Asian culture, and he knows lots of us wish their children would take care of them when they get old. It’s a very typical Asian way of thinking. What he doesn’t realize is that although my primary earthly culture is Chinese, I have learned to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God.

I know this is an unusual story to share on this Father’s Day, but somehow I just felt today that I wanted to urge all my fellow father friends, especially those who are brothers in Christ, to stop asking “What’s in it for me?” when it comes to you being a father and a husband.

This “What’s in it for me?” attitude is what leads to broken families, divorces, fathers leaving children, etc. The sense of entitlement in a marriage, the insatiable need for validation in parenting, are all deadly to healthy family life. You don’t even know whether tomorrow you might die or not, so why do you want your children to serve you when you get old? No, today you should do all you can to pass your faith to the next generation.

Indeed, parenting is an exercise of making disciples for Christ out of your children. And this is the model of the virtuous cycle that God intends for fathers to start: “He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children…” (Psalm 78:5-6)

Growth happens together, not in isolation

'Tree Silhouettes' photo (c) 2009, John Morgan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The other day I was talking with some Christians, and someone said that she’s been disappointed in church, but she longs for those times when she “feels close” to God. Then someone else said, “Yeah I understand. And sometimes it’s just easier to grow in faith by yourself, focusing on your own relationship with God.”

As soon as I heard that, I went, “No, I don’t and I can’t agree to that. Let me explain…

“It is tempting to see spirituality as a pursuit that you do by yourself in isolation. Too often we make spiritual formation such a mystical exercise, and we overly uphold the virtues of solitude and meditation. But biblical spirituality is not like that…

“When you read the Bible from start to finish, God’s focus is on building a nation of priests, a people that He calls His own, and raising faith communities that encourage each other and grow together in unity. Think about those times in your past when you experience significant growth in your lives. Invariably, what comes to mind are people who were there, whether they were ones who mentored you, inspired you, walked alongside you, or were served by you. Our periods of intense growth are inevitably marked by the community we belong to (and by “community” I don’t necessarily mean “church” but people who you share your lives with)…

“It’s especially evident when you read the New Testament. Throughout the synoptic gospels and the epistles, most of the time, the reader is presumed to be a community of believers, not individuals.”

Ephesians 4:12-13 says that Christ is “… building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This process of growth in faith and spiritual knowledge and maturity is meant to happen together. And that is indeed how we usually experience it in our lives.

I’m an introvert myself, so I struggle with this as well. But it’s clear what God wants. I also need to remind myself that I shouldn’t be a lone ranger, thinking I can just grow by myself. “Personal” growth is not necessarily a good goal to have. Don’t think of yourself as more spiritually mature than other people, because as a community, we all need to attain maturity together. We need to share our lives and lives our lives with each other and to grow together. It could be messy, but it’s worth it.