Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When We Are Discouraged

Staying Up When One Feels Down
But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)
This week has been rather challenging. There are projects to work on, books to review, people to meet, and obligations to keep. While these things do not normally stress me out, mood swings do. They amplify the smallest speck of error. They intensify a simple task into one big chore. They can petrify the meek in spirit into a weak midget. Like a microscope, tiny organisms normally invisible to the naked eye suddenly become huge trolls that threaten to jump and engulf everything that we ever stood for.

Do not be surprised. Even people like me, who are trained in theology, pastoral care and Christian spirituality do get discouraged. Like rains that fall on the whole land, no one is immune from the treacherous tentacles of discouragement. When caught, one of the first things that gets squeezed out of us is hope. As I was praying, and needing some encouragement, I was led to Scripture. I asked, “How do people in the Bible cope with discouragement?

I decided to read Exodus, to see how the Hebrews cope with Egyptian persecution. It is so ironical. After years of prosperity and fruitful multiplication, the Jews who were welcomed with open arms during the reign of Joseph, suddenly become the scum of the Egyptian hierarchy. The Bible did not specify the exact date, but we can estimate based on Exodus 1:6 that this period is after the demise of Joseph and his brothers, and their entire generation. Hence, we are dealing with a new generation who not only did not know Joseph, but sees the immigrant Jews not as a valuable asset but a huge liability. They forgot that it was through Joseph, that Egypt was used as a channel to save both Egypt and its neighbours from a devastating famine. The Pharaoh forgot who is Joseph. The Egyptians forgot how the Jews have blessed them economically. Such absentmindedness made the Egyptians exchange a hand of friendship for a fist of oppression. In the midst of rising persecution, there is a group who remembers the Source of all life, the God of all nations: the midwives.

Imagine having received an imperial order and willfully chose to disobey it. It is like Rahab who told a lie to keep Joshua’s spies from capture (Jos 2:4). It is like the Magi who chose to trick Herod to protect baby Jesus from being apprehended and killed (Matt 2:16). It is already hard to do the right thing all the time. However, to do the right thing at the risk of being caught and prosecuted takes courage. Like the midwives, Rahab, and the Magi, doing the right thing, and doing it the right way requires godly fear. Let me first deal with two other forms of fear.

Firstly, doing the right thing can sometimes be motivated by fear of earthly powers. It is like fearing for our jobs if we disobey the top bosses. It is like fearing for our lives when we defy vicious hooligans and gangsters. It is like fearing for our relationships if we do not please their expectations. Sometimes, these fears can drive us to perform better. Other times, it sucks the joy out of us, and pumps us back with feelings of being coerced, forced to do what we do NOT want to do. Their actions are clothed with fear of earthly powers.

Secondly, doing the right thing can sometimes be motivated by a higher purpose. It is like a boss who tells his employee to falsify the accounts before the auditors arrive. It is like Schindler who deceived the Germans so that he can protect the Jews he is sheltering from imminent death. It is like fearing a loss of our own sense of righteousness. Backed by higher principles, we justify defying the higher authorities. However, what if we got caught, and our family members get implicated in the process? Will we then back away from our ‘higher’ principles so as to save our loved ones? Highly principled actions are driven primarily on the basis of refusing to break personal values. Sometimes, actions that flow from higher principles resemble more of a negative fear of breaking them rather than positive desire for keeping them.

Fear of God
The first two types of fear have something in common: they do not last.

The midwives in the first chapter of Exodus did what they knew best. Their actions are driven by godly fear. Godly fear is not something that happens because one is afraid of retribution by worldly powers. The midwives were clearly risking themselves and their families to defy the greatest power in Egypt: Pharaoh. John Bunyan, (author of Pilgrim’s Progress), in his treatise on the fear of God, reminds us that fear of God has many faces. It is the beginning of wisdom. It is the utterly detesting sin. It is fully embracing the love of God. It is also that keen awareness of the trickeries of the evil one. I believe the actions of the midwives reflect all of them.

The feeling is strange. I started off feeling downtrodden. After reading and reflecting on the simple and courageous faith of the midwives, I felt the motivation to look not just inward (due to fear), or outward (due to principles), but upward (godly fear).

David Livingstone’s life (1813-1873) is an example of one that burns for God. As a missionary to Africa, he has witnessed countless difficulties and hardships. His physical body bore the brunt of the harsh environment. When he was invited to speak back in his homeland in Glasgow Scotland, he walks with his broken shoulder slumped, half-deaf, half-blind, but fully alive in God. He gave his all to share the gospel with many in the Dark Continent. A medical doctor, he battled against the terrible illnesses afflicting the poor Africans. Sometimes he succeeded. Other times not. Yet, one thing remained. He held the God’s promise close to his heart, that Jesus is always be with him (Matt 28:18-20). Indeed, the verse commonly quoted by people pursuing the Great Commission tends to focus too much on the ‘Go ye therefore,’ and not so much on the ‘Lo! I am with you always.’ May I humbly suggest that the key to godly fear, lies in the reverse. We go forth in faith, be uplifted in love, knowing that God is with us. Always.

Thought: If you are to list all your current pursuits, concerns and anxieties and label them either as “Fear of earthly powers,”, “Fear of betraying one’s principles,” and “Fear of God,” which list is longer?


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