Category Archives: Stand-alone

Posts that do not fit under any series

Freedom exercised in love

If you were absolutely free to do whatever pleases you, how would you exercise your freedom?

I think that the answer each of us gives to this question is helpful in illuminating the desires that lie at the very heart of our being. It helps to expose who or what functionally sits enthroned at the center of our lives, the object or subject around which our whole world revolves.

What would my answer be? To be frank, it exposes a dark, shameful side of me that I would not want anyone to know about. To this day, I don’t think I’ll ever be fully prepared or even comfortable with confessing the full extent of my struggle to another person. My gut-feeling on this is that I’m the norm, rather than the exception. We all have deep, dark secret sins and shames that we don’t want exposed to others. To compound my shame, I am aware that I am very much responsible for my darkest sins. There was no unintentional decline into sin. I chose it. I embraced it. There are no excuses.

We are corrupted to the core. Our desires are corrupted and fallen. And they manifest themselves in sinful choices. Sometimes these leave visible scars that many can see, with the guilt and shame of it all hanging like heavy, dark clouds over us. More often than not, the scars are invisible, and our struggle with the guilt and shame of it all is internal.

For those in Christ, the struggle can be intensified. Though we are reminded over and over again of who we are – that is, that we have been adopted as children of God, and that new life runs through our veins, enabling us to live up to our true identity as children of a holy Father – it does nothing to help us. We already know these things, and we appreciate these truths, and yet they still do not aid us in our struggle with the guilt and shame of our sins. And so we push on dutifully as Christians. Though there are genuine moments of true delight in our calling and identity, the dark clouds of guilt and shame continue to rumble overhead and cast a deep and pervasive gloom over our lives.

To those of you who identify with what I’ve written above, I hope you open your heart to listen to what God has to say to one like you:

I love you.

I loved you before the foundation of the world. I loved you before you were conceived. I loved you as you were knitted together in your mother’s womb. I loved you the day you were delivered into this world. I loved you as you took your first steps. I loved you before you could even utter a word. I loved you as you grew up.

And I loved you even when you turned your back on me. I loved you even as you descended into the dark pit of your sin. I loved you when your guilt and shame hung like dark clouds over your soul.

And so I loved you by sending my Son Jesus. I loved you when He died for you on the cross. He loved you by bearing all your guilt and shame there. I loved you when I accepted his sacrifice and forgave all your sins against me. They are removed from me as far as the east is from the west. I loved you when I adopted you as my child.

I love you now in the glory of your humility, with all your scars and struggles with your guilt and shame. I love you as you try to please me. I love you even when your best attempts to do so fall short. I will love you no matter what happens to you in this life. I will always love you in life and in death, till the end of days and for all eternity.

Why – you may ask – why set your love on such a miserable creature like me?

Because I want to. My love is freely given. I love you because I love you. Even though you were the unloveliest thing in the universe, even when you were still my enemy, I loved you. If you have any doubt, then remember that while you were my enemy, I gave you the most precious thing to me in all the universe – my Son.

So you never need to fear losing my love, because it is given out of my own free will, and not in the least for any quality I see in you. If you have any further doubt that I might change my mind, remember this: if I have given you the one who is most precious to me, why will I hold anything else back? In fact, in giving you my Son, I have given along with him all things.

Do you understand why and how much I love you, my child?

I’m afraid I don’t fully understand it still.

A good and honest answer. Then do you believe I love you?

Yes.

God’s answer to the question I posed at the start is this: I am absolutely free to do whatever I please to do, and I have freely chosen to set my love on you. While we would exercise our freedom for sinful and selfish ends, he has always exercised his freedom in love to us, from eternity past to eternity future. We are chosen, called, made right, forgiven, reconciled, adopted as his children and will share in God’s glory. And so in the present, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Are you struggling with guilt and shame? Then know that God has always loved you, loves you now, and will always love you – not because of who you were, are or will be, but because of who he is. He doesn’t ask that you first fully understand his love. God’s first and most important question to you is whether you believe that he loves you. If you do, then come to him today and find the rest you seek in his loving arms.

The stink of entitlement

There is a stink that permeates our political discourse these days. It is the stink of entitlement.

From rioting in Athens and ballooning budget deficits in the US over welfare benefits, to the ingrained institution of positive racial discrimination policies in countries like Malaysia and South Africa, there is an increasingly blurred distinction between the ideals of privilege and entitlement.

What is the key distinction? The privileged owes a debt of gratitude to a benefactor. The entitled is owed a debt. The fundamental positions of the two result in very different responses. The privileged has responsibilities to fulfill. The entitled is free to live off his debtors.

Christians ought to understand this principle more than anyone else. Luke 12:48 states that “everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” The gospel that gives us all that we need for life and much more demands that we give to others in accordance with the measure of grace that has been given to us.

We should never confuse this with a gospel of works. The latter does not earn the former. The former is freely and graciously given to us through Jesus Christ. The latter is the only plausible response to the overwhelming gift of grace. When we forget the order of things, privilege sours into entitlement. We think that we deserve the gifts of God because of the things we have done for him. That will never ever be true. God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:25)

Now the problem is that the sinfulness of our hearts makes it extremely difficult to understand the idea of privilege. The self-centeredness of a heart enslaved by sin sours every privilege into entitlement. We experience this in our relationships, where we can feel that we are entitled to the friendship of others because of the service we have rendered to them. Yet this sense of entitlement ruins the very nature of friendship. True friendship is held together by the bonds of privilege, where we count it all joy to be able to count others as our friends.

The problems we see on the level of the individual is magnified in our societies. What happens in a democracy when everyone considers themselves as the entitled? First, it means you have to create a class of debtors. Second, the debtors will want to migrate to the camp of the entitled. No one is foolish enough to work hard that others may enjoy the fruit of his labour. This leaves us with a glaring problem. The entitled need sufficient debtors to fund a certain lifestyle, so what happens when there are insufficient debtors?

There are two ways to go about this. One, you stop people from migrating between the camps. We see this in positive racial discrimination policies. Two, you select debtors who are unable to migrate between the camps. We see this when governments borrow excessively with the expectation that the next generation will pay off the debts of this generation. Since the unborn have no voice, the problem is put off for yet another generation.

Social harmony cannot exist when society is divided along lines of entitlement. A social contract in which one party does all the work and the other enjoys the rewards is economically and socially unsustainable. With a degree of foresight, most societies will choose option number two, since the unborn cannot protest. Yet this does not resolve problems of economic unsustainability. It only serves to highlight the extent of our selfishness, that we are willing to sacrifice our children and the children of others on the altar of material gain.

What can we do to stop the inevitable slide of a social contract built on entitlement? We need to recover the idea of privilege. Take for example the Bumi policies in Malaysia. I don’t really have a problem with the government trying to help the Bumis to move up the economic ladder. My worry is that the privileges they have been given has soured into entitlements. As such, there is no incentive on their part to fulfill their responsibilities to society, since in their eyes, such responsibilities do not exist. There is a need to recover the biblical principle that to him who has been given much, much is required.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that the sinful heart will find it indubitably difficult to live by that principle.

Disturbingly wonderful stories in the Old Testament

What are the purpose of stories? Why did God choose to reveal himself through historical narratives, and not merely as a set of propositions or pithy sayings?

Stories are built into the very fabric of the universe. They set the imagination alight. They provide us with perspectives and experiences. To read that fire is hot is not the same as reading of listening to the crackle and watching the comforting orange glow of dancing flames radiating a gentle warmth on a cold winter night.

The Bible is full of strange and wonderful stories. To call something a story does not mean it is fictional. A story is merely a recounting of an event, either true or fictitious. The stories of the Bible are true, and give us a perspective of reality that is firmer and surer than any other.  Yet they are strange, and even disturbing at times, especially in the Old Testament. What comes into your mind when you read of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac? Or when he calls Hosea to marry a prostitute?

Have a read of this article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Our God is disturbingly wonderful.

Dealing with disappointment

If there’s a lesson God is teaching me this year, it’s how to deal with disappointment.

We were made with the organ of ambition. We have dreams we want to realise, objectives we want to accomplish, and purposes we want to satisfy. To this end, we make plans, a road map for achieving what we desire. But our plans do not always work out. Like driving with a GPS in badly mapped territory, real life seldom matches the calculated route. We have to take long detours, and dead-ends are not uncommon. Oftentimes, we are forced to abandon our journey and either go home or go somewhere else. Disappointment sets in.

Have you ever thought about the word ‘disappointment’? We all know what it means to make and keep appointments, though perhaps Malaysians tend to be poorer with the latter. But this is not the type of appointment I have in mind. By appointment, I refer to the act of designating someone for a position, as in “Joel was appointed as the country’s leader by the people in a stunning landslide victory at the polls yesterday” or (a more modest example) “God appointed David as King over Israel”. The word disappointment therefore carries the idea of being removed or denied from a certain position. When we are disappointed at an outcome in life, there is a very palpable sense of our ambitions being rejected.

Disappointment is a state of life and is as morally neutral as being appointed to something. Disappointment is God’s way of closing certain doors in our life. But disappointment is often accompanied by its sinful brother discontentment. We don’t feel disappointed; we feel discontented. Discontentment is a state of heart reflecting our dissatisfaction with our lot in life. Because we believe that we are entitled to a life that pans out according to the way we envision it, we are naturally unhappy when things don’t go our way. It’s like walking in with a winning raffle and being denied the prize, or paying $200 for a steak that is frozen and overcooked. We feel shortchanged. If we do not actively deal with our weeds of discontentment, they can choke out our spiritual life and lead us to reject God himself.

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s difficult to avoid discontentment in the midst of disappointment. As certain as the fact that thunder follows lightning, discontentment is always hot on the heels of disappointment. I am well acquainted with the loss of purpose, the gnawing sense of rejection, the churning of the mind, the turmoil of the heart, the sleepless nights, the innumerable whys, the relentless introspection, the never-ending stream of regretful if only’s, the wrestling with God, and the simmering unhappiness that flows over into everything else.

You might think that I am making too much of a small thing. But there are small things, like seeds, when nurtured grow into big things. Discontentment begins with a sense of denied entitlement. To have a sense of denied entitlement requires us to name a benefactor. Otherwise, who is it that owes us something but denies it to us? If there is a God, then surely he is the benefactor. But what kind of benefactor would deny us something that we are entitled to? Only a sadistic, malevolent deity would do such a thing. And if we believe that God is not good and not loving, then we are right to reject him.

The problem is that God is good and loving, and we have absolutely no right to reject him. He is not the one that owes us anything; on the contrary, we owe him everything, including the very breath you are currently breathing. If there is someone who has a proper sense of denied entitlement, it is not us but God. He is entitled to our honour and worship but we have denied it. Yet though we are entitled to wrath and fury, we are denied it for a while longer. God is graciously at work to save individuals from all the peoples of the earth. Because of Jesus we are richly blessed with every blessing that we have absolutely no entitlement to, and denied the very judgment which we are entitled to.

In other words, we need to remember the gospel. By keeping the gospel central to our hearts and minds, we are able to drive out discontentment in the midst of disappointment. We need to remember that all that we have been appointed to and disappointed from comes from the gracious hand of a God who loves us. Yet his love does not obligate him to fulfill our every whim and wish. This is reassuring because we are not as wise as God, and must trust that he knows which appointments are best for us. More than that, it means that the goodness of God is grounded in the reality that he loves us because he chooses to love us and not because he is obligated to anything in us.

We need to remember the logic of Paul in Romans 8:32 – if God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Our appointments and disappointment pale in comparison to God’s eternal appointment of us as his children through Jesus. By this eternal appointment, we will never lack any good thing. Because we are in Christ, God is working all things for our good. Whether he is at work to appoint us to or disappoint us from certain stations in life, it is ultimately for our good. In this we can learn to be content whatever our lot in life.

Should I read my Bible if my heart is not in it?

From an Unmotivated Christian,

Should I read my Bible if my heart is not in it?

Dear Unmotivated Christian,

Yes. Please do not stop reading your Bible, all the more when your heart is not in it. God has promised to work through his Word so that our hearts desire to be with him more.

Let me begin by saying that I understand where your heart lies in the matter. You feel that it would be dishonouring to God if we came to him with our minds distracted and our hearts desiring to be elsewhere. I appreciate your desire to come before God with a pure heart, knowing that he is holy and deserves our best.

The bad news is that none of us will ever have a heart pure enough to come before God. Our best is not enough. Jesus himself called us evil (Mt 7:11)! We are natural sinners. Paul describes us as dead in our sins, and objects of wrath. Yes, God hates our sin and is right to be angry at us. We have belittled him, and not given him the honour he deserves.

But through Jesus a new way has been opened up to God. If we believe in our heart and confess with our mouth that he is our Lord, we will enjoy all the benefits of his death and resurrection. We are forgiven. We are made alive. We are declared righteous. We are adopted as children of God. We are loved eternally.

And all this comes through no merit of our own. We can do nothing to contribute to our salvation. It is wholly of grace, wholly of Jesus. He is the basis by which we can approach God with confidence, without fear of divine wrath. As the old hymn says, “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling”. We come empty-handed before God, and are given immeasurable riches. It sounds like a crazy deal. But such is the lavishness of his grace and love towards us. Our God is a God who is happy to welcome humble and penitent sinners to him. He does not require that we clean up our act first. He asks that you acknowledge your dirtiness and come to him to be washed.

At this point you might think that I have said nothing more than the gospel. You are correct. But let me try to help you see that the truths of the gospel are just as relevant to us every day of our lives as the day of our conversion.

The gospel reminds us that Jesus is the ground of our confidence for coming before God. Because of what he has done, the throne of God is a throne of mercy. The one seated on the throne is not an angry judge but our good and loving Father. Nothing has changed since your conversion. He is just as eager to welcome dirty and wounded children as he was to welcome dirty and wounded sinners. He would not want you to think that you have to now earn your way into his presence. Our relationship with him will always rest on the work of Jesus, and not the condition of our hearts. The fact is that even on our best days this side of heaven, our sincere hearts will never be sufficient to let us enter the presence of God.

Does sincerity count for nothing then? Absolutely not! Though it can never be the ground of our coming before God with confidence, any Christian who remembers that Jesus is the basis of his confidence cannot help but approach God sincerely. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Note the order of the words. Because Jesus is our great priest, we can draw near with a true heart. What is it that makes our heart true? It is a heart that believes it can only come before God because of Jesus.

Now that you know this, I hope you let nothing stop you from reading your Bible. God your Father eagerly waits for you to come to him, faults and sins and all. Sit a while and listen to him. All that I’ve said is found in the Bible. God wishes to remind us every day that our relationship with him is of grace, from first to last. If we forget this, we have been fooled by the devil into thinking that our hearts must first be right before we listen to God. To the contrary, we must listen to God if our hearts are to be right. And where else can we hear his voice but within the very pages of the Bible itself?

Conflating free will and real choice

There is a conflation of both concepts in our churches and in our societies today. When people speak of God giving us free will, they often mean that in real life, we are confronted with real choices and have real decisions to make. But the latter can exist without the former. We can be faced with real choices and yet have no free will.

The confusion here lies in our understanding of the will. What is the will? If we define it as the mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action, then the idea of having a will that is free makes as much sense as owning a book that is talkative. If we define it as the desire to do something, then we are conflating two concepts that are better left apart as to provide us with a deeper understanding of the way we were created.

We were created in such a way that our wills are bound to our desires. We will what we desire. Simply put, we set our minds to acquire that which our hearts desire. In biblical language, where you heart is, there your treasure will be also. And if we treasure something, it will manifest itself in a specific act of the will, like the man who found treasure in a field and sold all he had to buy the field.

This means it is more useful for us to focus on our desires than our wills when we try to understand the reality of choice. We have many choices because we have many desires. Because these desires are often in conflict with one another, choosing between them becomes a struggle. This struggle is an exercise of the will, but we should not misinterpret the mere presence of activity as free will, just as we should not misinterpret a prisoner struggling with his chains as being free. It is more akin to being pulled by a pack of dogs in a hundred different directions.

Therefore the right question to ask is: why do we desire what we desire? And an even more pertinent question is: why do we desire that which does us no good? For example, we tend to eat foods that are delicious but are bad for our health. There is short term pleasure, but long term pain. A rational person would be able to weigh up the pleasure and pain and determine that in the long run it is not worth eating the foods. Because we don’t behave in such a way, we are clearly irrational and time-inconsistent people, putting infinite weight on the short term rather than equal weight across the length of our lives.

In short, our desires are pretty messed up. This is what the Bible means by sin – a disordering of our desires. We are all twisted up and broken inside, and to make matters worse we enjoy it, like a fool enjoying free heating in a burning building. What God does when he redeems us is to begin reordering our desires, enabling us to become fully human and enjoy the things that should be enjoyed in the right way and in the right proportions. He sets us free from the tyranny of our conflicting desires, whipping our desire dogs into line and setting the pace. So we are no longer leashed to a hundred dogs but to one master.

This is entirely biblical, as Paul sets forth in Romans 6. We are slaves to the one we obey, whether of sin which leads to death or of righteousness which leads to eternal life. But he goes on to qualify his argument by saying that he is speaking in human terms because of our natural limitations. In other words, to our sin-drenched minds, slavery is slavery no matter the master. If we had eyes to see reality for what it is, we would see a distinct difference between the two. One is slavery that involves clapping jangling chains on our wrists and hearts; the other is obedience of such completeness that it looks like slavery to the world. Our will is not so much free of desire as we are free to completely subject our will to the one for whom we were created.

Helping the next generation to own their faith

I’m 22. And I have a growing fear that my generation, and the generation after me, is living on borrowed faith.

I grew up in a Christian household. My parents have always gone to church, and are active members of the church, serving in various capacities. However, being first generation Christians, they have no experience of what it is like to grow up in a Christian household and the unique struggles we face with the Christian faith.

This is not a slight on their parenting. On the contrary, they gave me their best, providing for my needs, meting out discipline when it was necessary, encouraging and opening up opportunities for me to grow and develop as a person, being patient and supportive when I failed, teaching me how to relate to others well, impressing on me the importance of being faithful in fulfilling our responsibilities, and loving the church intensely. I wouldn’t trade them for any other parents in the world, and am grateful that God has blessed me in such a unique way.

Yet there are always blind spots in any parenting. One of the unique dangers second-generation Christians tend to face is the possibility of living on borrowed faith for years without suffering the consequences. Growing up, I was unaware that I was living on borrowed faith. I went to church because my parents went to church. I participated in church programs because that was what they would expect of me. I always defined my Christian identity in terms of being a child of Christian parents. It was the culture and religion I had grown up in, and I saw no reason to abandon it.

But having no reason to abandon your Christian roots does not translate into having reasons for embracing the Christian faith as your own and doing so. There is a wide divide between the two that must be purposefully bridged, and this is a divide that many Christian parents unknowingly and unintentionally ignore to the peril of their children.

There is genuine peril because true Christians cannot live off borrowed faith. Spiritual capital cannot be transferred between individuals. As children, it is easy to imagine this possible while we remain under the shelter and protection of our parents. But the real world inevitably breaks in our lives. If we do not own our faith when this happens, we will desert the faith of our parents. That leads us down the path to an unthinkable destiny.

The reason that our desertion is certain is because there is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ himself. God has not instituted a second mediator, be it our family or friends, between Jesus and man. There is no need. If we do not embrace Jesus for ourselves and not for our parents’ sake, we do not embrace God. We will either see Jesus as our own treasure, or continue searching for riches that do not exist in this world. We will either acknowledge Jesus as our own Lord, or make counterfeit gods of other vain things like money and fame and spouses. God does not question us at the end of the day what our parents did with Jesus; he will ask what we personally did with Jesus.

Borrowed faith is no faith at all. God gives faith to individuals to enable them to come to him and enjoy a familial relationship with him. If our faith is not our own, it means that we have not been given faith to believe on Jesus and all that he has done for us. It means that we are still dead in our trespasses and sins.

As God does not give faith by lottery, but does so through the hearing of his Word, Christians bear a responsibility to the next generation. God has appointed us to the task of entrusting the truths of the Bible to a generation yet to hear of his works. Through the reading, teaching and preaching of the Bible, God reveals himself to the hearts and minds of those who have ears to listen.

Our church programs and ministries exist for the sake of entrusting the truths of the Bible to the next generation. In particular, we need to tell the next generation of Jesus and his work and why it matters. But these truths are shifting from the center of the Christian faith to the periphery. The connections between the cross and Christian ministry and between the gospel and the transformed life are not being drawn clearly and explicitly. We are engaging the next generation to build structures but not teaching them to first lay the foundations.

This is an unsurprising oversight. Foundations are crucial but hidden. And what is hidden is often forgotten. But when the older generation moves on and the work falls to the newer generation, they will only know how to erect buildings without foundations. They will be like the foolish man who built his house on the sand, rather than the wise man who dug down deep and built his house on the rock. Their work will be destroyed and their faith will be shipwrecked, if it was ever theirs to begin with.

I once read some wise words from D.A. Carson, and though it lengthens this post considerably, I include them here because we need to hear a clear warning from an experienced and seasoned Christian scholar and pastor:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

If the gospel—even when you are orthodox—becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn’t all that important. You won’t be saying that—you won’t even mean that—but that’s what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.

Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.

If we do not let the gospel become the root and framework and emphasis of all that we do, we are half a generation from losing it altogether. Where the gospel is lost, faith will not be given. Where faith is not given, Jesus is not trusted and embraced and treasured for all he is. Though we did not intend or set out to do so, we have unavoidably crippled, and possibly condemned, an entire generation.

My generation and the one after me will be present in our churches for a season. They will participate in the programs, join the youth group and even serve in some of the church ministries. But if we do not use this season to help them own their faith, we neglect the one thing they need most: the gospel spoken and explained and lived out with conviction, consistency, and competency.

They need someone to sit down with them to explain what Christians believe, who Jesus is, and why he matters most.

They need someone who will challenge them to answer the call of Jesus and spend their lives for the sake of his name.

They need someone who will help them understand how the truths of the gospel transform our lives, and model such living.

They need someone to plant their feet on the solid ground of the gospel, so that they are able to stand, and stand firm, when the struggles of life press in on them.

They need someone to help them learn to navigate through this world with gospel wisdom, so that they can make wise and holy choices that bring glory to God.

They need someone who will unceasingly pray for them, that God would be pleased to give them an undivided heart that desires the name and fame of Jesus above everything else.

And having ownership of their faith, they need someone who will call them to go and do likewise for the next generation.

Will we be that someone?