The “Minor League” of Life

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There’s something about minor league professional sports that draws me to it. I like the type of crowd that shows up to these games and the family-friendly atmosphere. I also like the fact that wins and losses don’t really count; rather, it’s a place where up-and-coming young players are put in various situations so that they can learn to grow. And if you know me well, you’ll know I love watching people grow.

So a couple weeks ago we went to see a Santa Cruz Warriors minor league basketball game. We had lots of fun, the arena food was surprisingly delicious, and I also got to see a couple of players that are on the precipice between minor league and NBA. It was funny that the cheers were the loudest during halftime when they brought out those tiny kids playing basketball 😄.

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One player who’s got mad skills especially caught my eye that night, but it wasn’t because of his skills. During one sequence, when he was driving the ball on offense, he was bumped hard by an opposing player who took the ball from him, but the official didn’t call a foul. He got angry and complained agitatedly to the official but to no avail, so in retaliation, he rushed back to the other side of the court and whacked the opposing player who had bumped him. And of course he was whistled for a foul, and the coach pulled him out and put him on the bench.

Why am I pointing out this seemingly minor incident that perhaps happen all the time? I think sometimes we focus on what seems to be “major”, such as skills and accomplishments, but what seems “minor”, such as character, is what really counts. In a way, as a parent, my kids are spending their first 18 years or so in the “minor league” of my house. I don’t really care about their “wins and losses” or skills and accomplishments (I know, I’m not a typical Asian parent… 😛), but I care a lot more about how they develop characters of integrity, humility, service, love for each other, etc. I care that during this time they would discover a love for God and His Word. I hope they will grow in these seemingly “minor” things and eventually become a solid player in the “major league” of their worlds.

As a child of God, our time on this earth is also like a “minor league”. There are those who thought that this is a time for accomplishments, but Jesus told them in Matthew 7:21–23:

‪“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Instead, we might be surprised that what we think as “minor” things done to the “minor” people of this world are the things that count most to God in Matthew 25:34–36,40:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 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. …… Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

So we shouldn’t overlook faithfulness even in the minor things. Because, after all, we are actually in the minor league of life.

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My Dog Doesn’t Know It’s New Year’s Day


Sometimes I think taking the time to walk my dog Hachi is beneficial to my spiritual health.

Hachi woke me up this morning around 5am, as he usually does, to ask me to take him out for a walk. But today is New Year’s Day 2018, the day many people look forward to after an almost universally hated and despised 2017. People partied the night before, so it was (yes, noticeably) quieter than most mornings at 5am.

But my dog doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. So I tried to lecture Hachi, “Don’t you know it’s New Year’s Day? Of course you don’t! For that matter, you don’t care if today might be Christmas, or Independence Day, or my birthday, or…” And then, I realized I picked those dates because those are days that people usually come together to celebrate or to party. But then I, as a human, don’t even have the knowledge of certain days that could have more importance than just fun and games.

For example, I may not be aware if today will be the day I’ll have the opportunity to say some encouraging words to someone that might change his/her life (or vice versa). I may not know if today I will start doing something that I will look back with significance years from now. I would not know if today is the day I die.

My dog seems ignorant to me, but I’m equally ignorant about telling days and times when compared to God’s infinite knowledge about the world and about me. And not only am I ignorant about my destiny, I’m also ignorant about how to run my own life.

Jeremiah 8:6–7 compares humans to animals, and it interestingly gives even more credit to animals than to humans:

I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the LORD.

Perhaps there is an anti-New-Year’s-resolution right there. Today, many people are asking “What should I do?” But if we accept our ignorance about the future, if we accept our limitations, if we accept our “created-ness” under our Creator and Lord, perhaps the question we should ask more often is “What have I done?” It’s a more humbling question to ask, and it is the question that helps us reflect and appreciate our limitations and our capacity for evil, while yielding to a God of unlimited power and love and grace.

We are all runaways

Life and circumstances caused me to put a hold on this blog for the past six weeks, but I’m determined to get back into writing again. A lot has happened, not the least of which is, by God’s providence, I now have an exciting new position at an amazing startup company! I’ll be talking about that more later, but what drove me to write today relates to something that happened at work this past week.

It had been a strange year in terms of weather in the Bay Area. Even though we’re having a typical California summer in which most days are warm and dry, a few days ago it suddenly got very windy and cloudy and chilly and even a little rainy throughout most of that day. Right from the morning, everyone at the office caught a weather-induced feeling of gloominess.

But then the day got worse. A phone call brought the unexpected and concerning news that the 14-year-old sister of one of my co-workers had run away from home. My co-worker was teary-eyed, but there’s nothing much she could do about it, being that her home is 2000+ miles away. I wanted to offer anything to help her out, but really all that could be done was to wait anxiously for her sister to come home. For my part, I silently prayed that God would keep her sister safe in His hands.

As the hours trickled past and there were no updates on my co-worker’s sister’s whereabouts, I started getting distracted from work as well. Because I’m passionate about youth, and I work with several teenage girls in the youth group at my church, those girls’ faces kept popping up in my head, and I asked myself: how would I feel if one of them ran away from home? I started getting more and more nervous and I read some online articles about runaways.

Then, at the end of that long day, my co-worker finally received a phone call that her sister has come home! She was relieved, and so was I!

During my drive home, finally feeling some happiness after a long and gloomy day, I remembered how Jesus told the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It aptly describes what we’re like when we are lost — like the son who denied any meaning in continuing to build a relationship with his father, but instead choosing to run away to find a life, a meaning, and an identity for himself. So in a way, we are all runaways.

Many people misunderstand that the message of Christianity is about condemning people for doing “bad things.” However, the gospel actually repeatedly talks about people trying to do good and moral things on their own without the need for God. The main issue is not about one’s deeds, but about one’s denial and usurpation of God’s place in one’s life. Instead of relating to God and depending on Him for our lives, we run away from Him to try to build our value and identity on our own.

The amazing thing is that the gospel also reveals God as a loving Father longing for us to come home. As Augustine said back in 4th century A.D., “You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

A couple days ago I just happened to have shown a Jackie Chan movie to my kids (I wanted them to learn who Jackie Chan is!) called “The Spy Next Door.” It was basically a fun laugh-out-loud action comedy, but if you look deeper, the movie is also about three children who ached in their hearts because of a missing father. Those who run away will soon find that home is not just a place, but a part of their heart. God created us in a way that our hearts can only be fully satisfied when we have a restored relationship with Him. Even though we are not lovable, by His grace He calls us His children, and He asked us to call Him our heavenly Father.

When the prodigal son returned, Jesus described how the father ran out to meet his son and lavished on him such love and forgiveness. Likewise, that’s what our God is toward us. As Ray Ortlund beautifully put it in the book “The Gospel”: “Our willful denial of God is the mega-offense above all our other offenses that God challenges by his massive love in Christ.” And on that gloomy day during those anxious hours in the office, I was fortunate to be able to feel just a little bit of what it’s like for God to wait for His runaway children to come home, and what kind of celebration it would be to welcome the lost child back where he/she belongs.

Actually my own story of coming to faith in Christ also mirrors the story of a runaway. When I first went to Austin, Texas for college, I tried to avoid Christians, but the love among the local Christians drew me hard to that community. After a few months with them, they asked me to go with them to a winter retreat, and so I did what I did best: I ran away. I left town and went to my favorite uncle and aunt’s place, intending to spend the winter there and away from those pesky Christians. But my uncle and aunt were also Christians (that’s why they were/are my favorites — because of their genuine love and care for me), and after spending a few days with them and their friends, I had the chance to again witness their faith and conduct. A few hours before the winter retreat was about to start, they suddenly asked me again whether I wanted to go there. This time, I said yes. Someone arranged a ride for me to get there, but during the journey, the car broke down! Fortunately, not even a broken down car could prevent me from getting there. At the winter retreat, I heard the gospel clearly, and it was there I realized nothing in this world except God alone could satisfy the hunger deep within me.

That was many years ago, but from time to time, I’ve wanted to run away from God. There’s something in our sinful nature that wants to stir up our self-centered desires and to propagate the lie that it’s more liberating to be free from God and to live the way I want however I want. But in the end, it would never satisfy. The runaway must come home.

The harvest at the end of a life

“The prime of your life will be 40 years old,” the professor told me as I sat across his desk. It was the final day of my college life, and I had walked into his office seeking some advice as I sat on the verge of stepping out into a new phase of my life in the world. But his advice sounded queer: how am I supposed to feel about this? Should I live to the age of 40 and then just resign to a time of despair and gradual degradation until the bitter end?

Old age is not looked on favorably these days. Increasingly, we romanticize the young and disrespect the aged. Yesterday I was helping an 80-year-old neighbor fix his virus-infected computer. I’ve often visited him and learned, to my horror, how many people ruthlessly tried to use technology to trick him into giving up his passwords and bank account numbers, and he did succumb a couple times. At best, society looks at the elderly as senile, but at worst as easy targets for exploitation.

After I came back from fixing my neighbor’s computer, as I looked out into our backyard during lunch time, my son Chase said, “Look at the flower bulbs on the green onion!” In our backyard, we had planted a few different kinds of flowers and plants, but the beautiful lilies and tulips always attracted all the attention. So I had never really noticed much about the green onions, which were planted there by our 60-year-old domestic helper.

Seeing my interest in the green onions, she proceed to explain to me: “Yes the green onions will mature to an old age and then sprout these flower bulbs, and then we can take the seeds from them and plant more green onions.”

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I was amazed by the whole concept, so I looked it up. Green onions belong to a class of biennial plants that, near the time of its death, its sole purpose is to sprout these flower bulbs that produce a harvest of seeds. Because it has to focus all its energy in producing these flowers, it will not taste as good as green onions, but it’s basically giving itself up in order that other green onions will live on.

God in His wisdom used these plants in nature to be our “professor” about the paths of our lives. In fact, Jesus even used the same metaphor:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25, ESV)

Fruitfulness is not through a path of gain, but a path of loss. Gain tends to lead to selfish possession, and so it “remains alone.” But the amazing thing is that the fruit comes from dying, and its effect is generous and life-giving. It reaches both outward and upward. Apostle Paul also said this:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9:10-11, ESV)

It reminds me of what Gary Black Jr. wrote in the excellent book “Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me About Living, Dying, and Eternal Life” (that I cannot recommend more highly enough) about what he saw from Dallas Willard near the end of his life:

The process of death presents an opportunity for a heroic culmination of the wonder and potency of the gift that our lives have been up to the present moment. Viewed this way, death becomes a curtain call, a celebration, a joyful look at what has come from the investment of the time and gifts given us. We can then present our lives as a bountiful harvest to our loved ones, to the world, and to God.
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The pinnacle is not reached, the finish line not crossed, at midlife, but at the end of life. Such a perspective can only become a reality for us if or when we begin to realize death as just the end of the beginning that leads to eternity, not as an end in itself.

So don’t think you’re ever over the hill. The story of your life might end today or it might end many years from now, but with the hand of God, write it as a life of giving and multiplication with the anticipation that, as the story of this earthy life is all told, it will be a story yielding a harvest at the end of your life, and then leading to the beginning of a glorious life eternal.

Funhouse Mirrors and Distorted Self-Images

mirror madness from Flickr via Wylio

There’s a shoe store near our house that has a couple of funhouse mirrors. Last time we went to that store, we spent a whole hour inside without buying any shoes because my four kids had too much fun just laughing themselves silly posing in front of those mirrors. They remember what they really should look like in a normal mirror, and that made those distorted images in the funhouse mirrors so amusing to them. With those mirrors, my children tried on “enlarged foreheads,” “enlarged bellies”, and “enlarged feet.” Time flies when you’re having such enlarged fun.

I realized these funhouse mirrors are a metaphor for identity and self-image. For those of us who have grown out of youthfulness, we have experienced the brokenness of life, not only because of our broken world, but also because of our sinful nature and our propensity to turn the good things in life into idols. So we have forgotten what a healthy self-image looks like. We are constantly holding on to distorted funhouse mirrors thinking that what we see inside are normal.

Virtually no one is immune to this distortion and self-deception.

For some of us, we turn “achievements” into an idol, and we like looking in our own mirror to look for areas in our lives where we have succeeded in our work and in our parenting (and in other areas of life), and then parade those accomplishments in front of others. We might even push our kids to succeed and “use” our kids’ achievements to bolster our own image. This leads to irrational fears of failure, constant comparison with others, and using other people to maintain your self-image — the image that you think you’re seeing from your distorted funhouse mirror.

For others, the part of the distorted self-image that’s enlarged in our distorted mirror could be “approval” (which we elicit by obsessively posting in social media and waiting for Likes) or “money” (which makes us constantly evaluate how much money is something worth before we make choices or before we spend time on something or with someone) or “control” or “morality,” etc. We might even try to put excessive demands on “family” or “friendships” or “career” in order to satisfy our false sense of identity.

This is especially poignant for me recently, because as I’m pondering the “what’s next” of my life, I have felt the temptations to build my identity on my next career move.

In the past few years I’ve read books covering a wide range of topics such as work, marriage, parenting, church, ministry, theology, philosophy, psychology, etc. and a common thread is that many of our problems can be traced to our distorted identity, and that even when we (after some difficulties) realize how our self-image got distorted, we still struggled to let go of those distortions.

These self-image distortions ping-pong us between the foolish extremes of indulgence and misery. They also incorrectly color our view of the world, and they damage our relationships with others. Worse, we are unaware how much we project our distorted images onto God, turning Him into an agent who’s tasked to feed our distorted egos and identities, and blaming Him for withholding from us anything that could appease our idolatrous pursuits.

We are made in the image of God, yet our brokenness has made it hard to find that perfect image again. This is why we should be thankful that Jesus came to be the perfect God-man to show us what the image of God should be like. As Corrie ten Boom said:

If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God, you’ll be at rest.

Other writers have written about this. Paul Tripp used the metaphor of carnival mirrors in the book “Dangerous Calling” to show how pastors might idolize ministry knowledge, experience, success, and persona. And Tripp urged us to look toward the perfect mirror of God’s Word.

Brennan Manning wrote in “Abba’s Child” regarding the idea of the imposter, which he himself struggled with. As a child, his mother was cold and harsh toward him, so he painted an “imposter” or “false self” as a perfectly obedient kid to attempt to gain love and approval from his mother. But this only began a lifelong struggle that led to depression which fostered his alcoholism. When he finally discovered the imposter deep in his heart, he wrote:

Define yourself radically as beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion.

This is why we need to look to Jesus, who is the perfect imprint of God, and who showed us what someone assured of a healthy self-identity is able to do:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5, ESV)

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.