Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Contentment

TITLE: CONTENTMENT
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 30 Nov 2010

“But godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Tim 6:6)
MAIN POINT: Material things are like drugs. They fill us and lock us in with an insatiable addiction for more things. Materialism makes us think that MORE is BETTER. It tells us what we have is NEVER ENOUGH. Break Free! Let contentment be the lubricant to free us from the jaws of Mammon, into the arms of God.

What are these messages telling us? They tell us this world is not enough.
Last weekend marks the traditional start to the Annual Christmas shopping spree. Almost every day, there is a sales event going on somewhere, especially online. There is a Black Friday Sale on the 26th of November, the traditional big sales event after Thanksgiving Thursday in the US. Through the weekend, the sales continue with dramatic commercials and advertisements. Even Canadians are enticed by these glitzy American deals South of the border. The deals are getting ever more creative, making people buy more of what they already have, and more of the stuff they don’t really need. Even Christian retailers are hopping onto the bandwagon, selling books and all kinds of Christian-themed memorabilia.

Then, there is the Cyber-Monday sales event, which anybody around the world can shop with a credit card and an Internet connection. Unfortunately, in rich societies, great sales events are often temptations to store up more stuff that we do not really need. Think about it.
  • How many times have we given in to impulse buying?
  • How many things are accumulated in our storerooms, and considered misplaced when we fail to find them?
  • Are we buying out of a real need, or simply because there is a sale going on?
What has contentment to do with Christmas shopping? More importantly, how does contentment play out in the lives of Christians? I will be suggesting a three-leveled approach toward contentment in Christian spirituality. Then I will make some recommendations about our buying behaviour, with Christmas shopping temptations in mind.

1) Level One: Be Contented with What We Have
I have been thinking of a terrific deal recently. A 2TB computer hard disk is being offered for sale at a mere $69 bucks. That works out to be 2000 GigaBytes of computer storage at 3.5 cents per Gigbyte! Just a few years ago, we were talking about dollars per Megabyte. Now, we are talking cents per Gigabyte (1GB is about a thousand MB).

Three-Leveled Contentment
I have to pinch myself to resist this deal. After all, I have ample storage inside my computer right now. Yet, the thought refuses to go away. It is hard to develop contentment in this materialistic world we live in. Moreover, the deals keep appearing in our radar. This is the shopping problem, the problem of a disguised discontentment, simply because we have too much opportunity to spend. The problem with materialism and dissatisfaction is also a struggle we all have with Money.

Without money, one cannot shop, except to browse offline, to surf online or simply window ship. If we turn on the TV, the shopping comes to us instead, right at our favourite program channels! A popular quote goes like this:

“Money cannot buy everything, but everything needs money.”
Money is an important part of life. It is highly efficient and fair way to do transaction. Historically, before money was invented, people barter goods, sometimes at weird equivalents. For example, five chickens for a cow. What about size? What about gender of the animal? What about age? There are too many factors that threaten to disrupt the tricky and precarious equivalents. Perhaps, the desperate party is usually the one who tends to give in.

These days, desperate retailers do all kinds of crazy deals to make us part with our money. Commercials scream out saying, “You need this stuff!” Adverts make us believe that “You are important enough to deserve this new toy.” Worldly messages flood our senses to tell us that money can be a happy meal for our kids, an expensive ring for our spouses. In a nutshell, Materialism says to us: “Money can buy you happiness.” How can we be learn contentment in this kind of an environment? The key is in recognizing that we need to worship God, not Mammon. One of the founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin once said:

"Content makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor."

Remarkably, American society nowadays while considered rich materially, is ironically proving Franklin true in many ways. Think of it this way. If one is already contented with what they have, why do people throng shopping malls and jacking up huge debts on their credit cards? The first secret of contentment is to be satisfied with what we already have. This leads us to our next challenge, to be content even when we do NOT have.

2) Level Two: Be contented with What We Do NOT Have
The last commandment tells us,
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour's." (Exodus 20:17, KJV)
Covetousness is essentially our attention on things that do not belong to us. Eyeing our neighbour’s house incurs jealousy. Lusting after another person leads to adultery. Covetousness in general leads one toward idolatry of Money or Mammon. In fact, if you were to put everything together, this last commandment is a direct affront on the First Commandment to worship God alone. Jesus highlights this in his words:

No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13)
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, note the huge divide. The Rich Man had everything while on earth, while Lazarus has practically nothing. Yet, even in death, the Rich Man is never satisfied. He continues to ask for things, albeit for his descendents. The difference is stark. Lazarus when he was poor, longed to ‘eat what fell’ from the table. The Rich Man on the other hand starts begging for relief. Lazarus long. The Rich Man lust even after death. The difference lies in their inner hearts.

What is most striking is in the way Jesus calls Lazarus by name, and the Rich Man remains unnamed. Is ‘Rich’ the firstname or lastname of the wealthy man? This is an astonishing finality to a person sold to Money and Riches. His wealth has usurped his very own identity, so much so that he has not only lost his own identity, he allows MONEY and RICHES to become his very precious identity! Like a parasite, money can start controlling our soul.

Those of us coveting after things we do not have, beware. We can become the very things we lust after. Proverbs talk about lusting that reduces humans to a loaf of bread.

for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread,  and the adulteress preys upon your very life.” (Prov 6:26)

Our race after material things, our careers, our precious possessions, our Money could very well shrink us down to these things respectively. We need to fight them. Yet, we cannot remain stuck in this stage. Even if we can deny ourselves adequately to be content with or without certain things, our spiritual journey is not complete. There is one more level: Contentment in Christ alone.

3) Level Three: Be Content in Christ Alone
The Samaritan Woman at the well is an amazing display of grace and sufficiency. In John 4, Jesus invites the woman toward drinking water that gives life.
“Everyone who drinks this water (from the well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13, italics mine)
By lowering the standards of entry to a triple downgrade (in that culture), that is, a woman, a Samaritan, and a woman living in sin, Jesus is welcoming the least of the least, and enlarging his net of salvation to all. His ‘whoever’ is extended to all who will willingly come and drink of the water Jesus offers. This small gulp of water will quench past, present and future thirst. This mini lapping of water will satisfy the soul. This drinking of the water of hope will reduce our dependence on what the world gives, and enlarge our capacity to let God be enthroned in our lives. When we learn to say Christ is sufficient, we are truly free.

Imagine this. Shall we come to God fully clothed with our worldly tuxedos? Do we come to God via our BMWs of speedy achievements or to show God our fat bank accounts? Should we enter into heaven with our huge storehouses of possessions? Will God be pleased with that?

No.

On Judgment Day, God will only be looking for one thing: “Do we have Jesus in our heart?

4) Resist Materialism, Resist the Doctrine of More-ism

In our culture, we are being indoctrinated with more being better. If we have a car, a bigger car is better. A bigger TV LCD screen is better. A fatter bank account is better. All of these are based on the premise that more is good and better. Even among Christians, we replace the desire for accumulating things in terms of excellence. This is a grave deception. Be careful that our acts to want to improve become acts of collecting material goods, instead of using them for the betterment of our relationships. Is more better? Then why are many rich people unhappy?

A story was told of a poor woman named Ruby who comes to Church each Christmas with a smiling disposition. When asked why she is always so happy, even though she does not have many things, she replied:

I can see. I can hear. I can walk and I can talk. When I am all finished here, I can go straight up to heaven.” With a smile, she leaves singing praises to God.

Wow. Such an attitude is priceless. Godliness with contentment is great gain. It begins with the heart. It leads one to be contented with or without material gains. It pushes us toward becoming contented in Christ alone. It helps us to be thankful for what we have, to be trusting God in what we do not have, and to cleave to God in Christ alone. Perhaps during your moment of temptation, sing the following chorus.

Turn Your eyes upon Jesus; 
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of the earth will grow strangely dim;
In the light of His glory and grace.

On that 2TB computer drive, I think I do not need it. It shall have no ‘byte’ on me. Bye drive, bye!

Thought: Are you contented? Will more things make you contented? Beware the tyranny of more 'things.' They create addiction. Seek Christ, and learn to live in contentment in Christ alone.


sabbathwalk
p/s: Next week, I'll provide some thoughts on shopping. Stay tuned.


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Growing as Christians

TITLE: Growing as Christians
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 26 Nov 2010

"All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth." (Col 1:6b)

MAIN IDEA: Christianity is a relationship exemplified by a new beginning, a steady belief, and a life of committed behaviour in Christ.

How many years have you been a Christian?” Easy question.

Have you matured as a Christian?” Not so easy answer.

Do you know how to grow?” This question is simple, but can be quite hard to answer.

I came to the Christian faith back in 1985. As a young eager beaver undergraduate, I struggle with schoolwork. I struggle with relationships. I struggle with family. I struggle with thoughts about the meaning of life. I struggle with perceptions of fairness and unfairness. I wrestle with why some people seem to have it all, while others suffer. Life is grossly unfair. When unfairness hits close to the heart, life sucks.

How many years have I been a Christian? More than 25 years.

1) Beginning as a Christian

It didn’t take long for me to understand that becoming a Christian is not like a path strewn with roses. In fact, thorns, thistles and the troubles of life appear more plentiful. I learn that if God is a salesman trying to sell Christianity, He will have few takers, for becoming a Christian does not guarantee prosperity and success. Instead, becoming a Christian almost always guarantee trials. The same year that I confess Jesus as my Lord and Saviour was the year when my academic grades went down the pits. That year becomes a black spot in my otherwise illustrious academic life.

I didn’t begin well, though I must admit I have good friends who help me to start. My first Bible is an easy to read “Good News Bible.” Inside, the contemporary language is easy to understand. The illustrations within make it a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, the words just do not seem to stick in my head. I needed then something more substantial. I opt for a heavier translation, the King James Version. My faith in Christ is largely due to the kind and loving friends who were truly good testimonies for Christ. Humble, unassuming and patient, they walk with me through the ups and downs of undergraduate life. My Christian beginning has a strong does of godly relationships around me. A good beginning in Christian growth always starts now.

2) Christian Belief
By 1987, my faith starts to grow deeper, as I observe a particular group of Christians from a Bible-Presbyterian denomination. They are staunch believers and advocates of the King James Bible. Though the language is hard to read, it certainly comes across to me as stately and elegant. There is a certain mystery in the beautiful prose inside the KJV that captivates my attention. Even though some of the phrases are not so easily understood, it allows me to meditate and memorize them more readily.

Most crucially, I observe how dedicated and fervent the leaders of the Church were. They revere the Word of God. Typically, when they start quoting verses, they will say the words respectfully and attentively. They will speak out strongly against liberal Christianity. Without fear of negative consequences, they are prepared to stick their neck out for the truth, even though the world around them tries to hem them into a mold.

Through their example, I learn to memorize God’s Word in my head and my heart. I will carry with me a small King James Bible, memorizing passages everywhere I go. At the bus stops; waiting in lines; waiting for people; riding on the buses; resting after a meal etc. Those formative years are largely due to the Word of God meticulously remembered in my head. I memorize whole chunks of the Bible from both Old and New Testaments, like some books in Psalms, and the Sermon on the Mount.

Growing as a Christian is exemplified by keeping the Word of God in my heart. Some of my friends from the Navigators have also encouraged me with their Bible memory program as well. Unfortunately, Bible memorization is lost art nowadays. People download Bibles into their iPods or iPhones but fail to ‘upload’ them back to their heads, let alone read them! I know of people who have all the best Bibles on their electronic gadgets. Yet, they hardly read them.

If we want to grow as Christians, we need to read our Bibles. More importantly, we need to read the Bible with a keen focus on the person of Christ. Growing as Christians requires us to grow in our relationship with Jesus. John Stott mentions four aspects of growth. Firstly, we need to grown in faith in Christ. Secondly, we need to grow in love for one another. Thirdly, we need to grow in knowledge of Christ. Fourthly, we need to grow in holiness toward God and fellow people. As I reflect on my personal growth, I didn’t have all four. Mine was particularly focused on strengthening my belief by reading the Bible more fervently. With this insight from Stott, I think I would have benefitted more. On hindsight, my growth as a Christian is simply a means of grace from God. It is this recognition of God’s grace upon my life, that I learn not to take pride of all I have done. I learn not to regret the things I have not done. I learn to live by grace. This demonstration of growth is in terms of living out my Christianity through behaviour. Growing as Christians is putting our beliefs into practice through commitment.

3) Commitment in Christian Behaviour
For John Stott, ‘Basic Christianity’ is not about the right belief or being able to say the right creeds. It is not about having all the right doctrines or saying the right things. It is about commitment. It is about translating our faith from belief to behaviour. Christian growth is about living out our faith. Any Bible study, any Bible reading, or discussion must be about seeing what God sees, hearing what God hears, touching what God touches, tasting what God tastes, and doing what God does.

Our intellectual belief may be beyond criticism; but we have to translate our beliefs into deeds. What must we do, then? We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust him as our Saviour and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.” (John Stott, Basic Christianity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, p9)

Christian growth is about commitment to a relationship. It is a commitment to a new beginning in Christ. It is a commitment to a daily communion with God. It is a commitment to a demonstrable behaviour in Christ.

4) In the Word; In the World; In Christ
Have I grown as a Christian? I will like to say yes. Yet, my state of imperfection tells me that it is more true of I am trying to grow as best as I can. My God tells me that I can only grow, not on my own strength but by the grace of God. Whatever faculties, talents and gifts I now have, is purely a means of grace from God. God has given. God has forgiven. It is now our turn to give and to forgive.

Let us remind ourselves that when we say we live for God, we need to demonstrate it by becoming compassionate in what God is compassionate about. Stott writes against spiritual complacency that hampers growth:

Christians are not a self-regarding coterie of smug and selfish prigs who are interested only in themselves. On the contrary, every Christian should be deeply concerned about all his fellow men. And it is part of his Christian vocation to serve them in whatever way he can.” (John Stott, Basic Christianity, p140)

My friends, do not be discouraged if you do not have a lot of Bible knowledge, or all the grand theologies that some people may have. If you are able to put into practice a small verse or Word from the LORD, you would have done far better than big-headed knowledge filled church goers who are more interested in hearing the Word than doing the Word.

Every one of us can grow, beginning with whatever Word of the LORD we know. The main thing is not to stay discouraged by our lack of knowledge. Be encouraged by knowing God has given us a means of grace to grow in Christ.

Thought: “The balanced Christian who takes Scripture for his guide will seek to live equally and simultaneously ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the world.’ He cannot opt out of either.” (John Stott, p142)

sabbathwalk

Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Friday, November 19, 2010

When God is Silent

Title: When God is Silent
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 18 November 2010

MAIN IDEA: What should we do when God appears to be silent? Why does He not speak when our heart is troubled? God speaks in the silence. When we talk constantly, how can we then listen intently? It is more important that we listen before we speak. Prayer involves listening to God, especially in silence.

O To Thee, O LORD, I call; My Rock, do not be deaf to me. Lest, if Thou be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.” (Ps 28:1)

We press the play button on our iPods. When there is no sound, we fiddle with the switches, pull our earphones, and check the player. We get flustered by the non-response.

We place a phone call to a customer service agent. After three rings, when there is no answer, we can get upset with the inadequate customer service.

We try to send an email. If there is no Internet connection, nothing is ever sent. We will then check our computers. We modify our system settings. In some cases, we reboot our computers. If there is still no response, we get irritated.

What about pressing a prayer request to God, placing a desperate call to heaven, or sending an urgent message to the King of kings? What if there is no answer? Amid the frantic calls and pleas, what if the only sound from the celestial end seems to be silence and more silence?

1) Slighted by Silence

Interestingly, during moments of need and despair, we tend to rush God into doing something about it. When life is cruising along, we have a greater capacity to wait as we busy ourselves with our routines, programs and things to do. However, when a crisis hits home, we scramble to press the GOD-button for quick answers. We raise questions like:

  • “Why does God allow evil to happen?”
  • “Why must this man suffer?
  • “Why is such pain happening right now?”
  • “Why me!!!!”
This is a common human reaction in response to trials and tribulations. We have been so conditioned in solving problems, that the moment a problem cannot be fixed, our world rocks with confusion and despair. Pain and suffering is not a problem that can be fixed.

2) Trapped in a Problem-Solution World

We seek answers in a world of problems and issues. When we get sick (the problem), we see the doctor to get some medication (solution). When we get hungry (the problem), we buy food to eat (the solution). When our wallet is empty (the problem), we go to the bank to get some cash or to borrow some money from a friend (the solution). When we get a headache (the problem), we pop in some aspirin to relieve it (the solution). When our plans fail (the problem), we seek alternative methods (the solution). When we suffer, our paradigm of ‘problem-solution’ gets shaken up. We struggle because there is no ‘solution’ that can explain away our pain and suffering.
Does this pill exist?

These ‘problem-solution’ paradigms appear logical and necessary. Until we encounter a problem that has no easy solutions. Until we realize that we are helpless in ourselves. Until we recognize that we are not masters of the universe; we will remain frustrated, discontent and depressed.

Is there a solution to death? Is there an antidote for incurable types of cancer? Is there a way to recover spilt milk or a shattered glass plate? Is there a time machine that can turn back or alter history? No. Nay. Nought. Zero. Only Silence. Briefly put, a pill to answer pain and suffering simply does not exist!

3) Unrequited in Silence

This problem of silence is particularly hard on believers who honestly and earnestly believe. They have the faith to pray and to hope. They have the courage to give and to love. Yet, bad things do happen to them. The tormented man shouts:

I pray faithfully. I tithe regularly, and I perform my duties without complaints. Why then must this setback happen to me!”

I feel for him as he struggles with the unanswered question. Along with unanswered prayer, unrequited or un-reciprocated deeds are hard to explain.

Sometime ago, I remember hearing some people praying intensely for healing of a loved one. I do not doubt their faith. Neither do I suspect their earnestness. My main discomfort is in the way they try to ‘force’ God’s Hand. When anyone prays as if God HAS no other choice but to answer their prayers according to their way, arrogance and worldliness has entered. Unwittingly, such prayers for a specific way for God to answer try to lock God into a single method. It streamlines the God of infinite strategies into a single man-made technique.

4) Invited to Listen in to the Silence

I like to suggest that when we encounter pain or suffering, to first jump out of the problem-solving box. then, ease into the world of silence. When we get rid of the noises generated by the world, we become more conscious of the soothing whispers from heaven. We begin to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. We remove our proud “I can solve it” stance, and put on a humble “God will handle it” attitude.

There is a story of a man driving a jeep in a jungle terrain. The powerful four-wheeler can overcome all kinds of obstacles. It runs over rocks and tree branches. It drives easily over puddles of water. It even climbs the steepest hills without any huffing or puffing. It meets its match eventually, when it encounters soft muddy soil. As the wheels grind away, the driver prays for more power in the wheels. He floors the accelerator. He spins the wheels to release all its ferocious power. Instead, the powerful jeep digs deeper into the mud. The more the jeep is forced to move horizontally, the more it sinks vertically into the mud trap.

Sometimes, I feel that when we pray arrogantly, to insist that God answer our prayers according to our ways, it is like trying to use God’s power (extra horsepower to the engine) to deliver ourselves from the muddy ground (through sheer brute force). The end result is that we sink deeper and deeper into the trap, thanks to our stubborness.

Suppose for instance, we pray for wisdom from the Lord. We ease the jeep by slightly orientating the wheel. We get out of the vehicle and carefully put rubber mats or planks at each of the four wheels stuck in the mud. Then, we release the jeep to do its work. We will overcome the mud.

When we expect God to answer our prayers in our way, we are not longer praying. We are simply ordering God like a heavenly servant to serve our needs. True prayer involves both surrender and submission. We surrender to God as the Overall in Charge. We submit to God for the fulfilment of God’s will according to God’s time. Sometimes, in the midst of silence, God speaks to trigger us to open ourselves to other ways, especially God’s.

5) Facing Pain

One more thing. In many approaches to pain and suffering, the frustrations at God’s apparent silence stems from a perilous desire to run away from the pain and suffering. When we seek answers to such pain, it is an indirect way of running away rather than facing pain head on. One of my favourite authors says it so well.

There will always be people who run from every kind of pain and suffering, just as there will always be religions that promise to put them to sleep. For those willing to stay awake, pain remains a reliable altar in the world, a place to discover that a life can be as full of meaning as it is of hurt. The two have never cancelled each other out and I doubt they ever will, at least not until each of us – or all of us together – find the way through.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009, p173)

Encountering pain and suffering is part of being human. We can run away from some, but not all of them. A life that frankly acknowledges the presence of pain and suffering, is far more meaningful than a life that constantly runs away from them. Such meaning is best discovered as we sit with God in a world of silence. In that sacred space, Scriptures come alive. In that precious moment, our souls are stirred by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In the divine company of the Triune God, we will discover that God is never silent. As we sit in silence with God next to us, we may even discover that pain might very well be God’s ‘megaphone to rouse’ our deaf spiritual ears. When pain comes, ask for courage to face it. When suffering falls, ask for God’s presence to be with us, through friends, loved ones, or the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

May our hearts then learn to shout out:
"The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song." (Ps 28:7)
Thought: "But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." (CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, NY: HarperCollins, 1996, p91)

sabbathwalk


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reactions to Pain

Title: Reactions to Pain
Date: 12 Nov 2010
Written by: Conrade Yap

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)

MAIN POINT: For people in pain, meaning eludes them. Meaninglessness engulfs them. During such times, sin and temptation is on the prowl to mislead. They are like cracks in the well of faith that leaks away hope. Such hope-killers seek to destroy one’s faith by sowing seeds of doubt. Let our presence re-fill sufferers with hope; the Holy Spirit with Everlasting hope.

Within the past 24 months, I have known at least three fathers who have buried their child. One of them just buried their daughter who died at the age of 41. Another one cries out in anguish:

Sons bury their fathers; not the other way round!

I feel a small part of their pain. As a father, I cannot even dare to imagine going through what these men are going through. It is perfectly understandable, for any father if they can, to do a swap; their own life for the child. This week I cry with one father. It is heart-breaking. It is gut-wrenching. It is pain and suffering at its most intense level. At that moment, life seems meaningless. Physical pain on the outside is nothing, compared to the vexing spirit inside. At some point, one experiences emotional numbness.

I ask one mother how she manages to cope with sleep and rest. She tells me: “With lots of sleeping pills.” I ask the father how he is coping. He says: “Not well.

The Psalmist weeps:

“My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?” (Ps 42:3)

SOME RESPONSES
There are varying responses that the world suggests. I shall list four of them, all of which are inadequate in itself.

1) The Atheist Approach

For people who do not believe in the existence of God, they will simply say that pain and suffering is only proof of that there is no God. In fact, people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who vigorously speak out against Christianity, will use the first 2 chapters of Job to attack the meaning of God. Hitchens says in his book “God is Not Great,” directs 4 accusations against religion. Firstly, he says religion misrepresents the origins of man and the world we have. Secondly, he accuses God of egotism. Thirdly, he lambasts the Bible of repression such as sexual denial, and finally calls the Bible a book on ‘wishful thinking.’ Seeing how Job suffers, atheists will explain it all away by saying that if there really is a God, God is certainly not that ‘great.’

Unfortunately, even if atheists can convince us that because of evil, God doesn’t exist, what about the good in this world? How do we explain that? Instead of 4 accusations, are there 4 similar affirmations of the virtues of living?

The atheist approach is often a lopsided approach. It is also judgmental and arrogant to claim that its belief is superior to any beliefs in God. It saws away the branch that any hope sits upon and offer in place of hope, an attack on biblical hope. It attacks much but assures little. This approach limps.

2) The Fatalist Approach
There are various ways this has been practiced. Harold Kushner’s bestseller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” suggests a form of theology that God is powerless against good and suffering. He suggests instead that man forgives God!

. . to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.” (Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, NY: Quill, 2001, p147)

Another fatalist approach is a type of Buddhist approach. In its Four Noble Truth claims, Buddha says that all of life is suffering.

What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, aging is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering.” (Buddha)

Thus, the end goal of Buddhism is nirvana, a state of nothingness. At this state, suffering is no longer meaningful, life is meaningless. Nothing matters anymore when one is in a state of permanent tranquility.

The fatalist approach certainly digs its own grave. If life is indeed meaningless, their approach is in itself meaningless and hope is clearly missing. The fatalist approach hobbles in hopelessness.

3) The Blamer Approach

This is the approach taken by the wife of Job. Curiously unnamed, she instigates her husband Job, to ‘curse God and die.’ She has already blamed God in her heart for her misery and loss of her children. After seeing how Job himself also suffered, she may be thinking to herself,

Enough is enough! I’ve had it with God. What’s the point of believing and worshiping a God who allows such suffering to fall on my family? I’ll curse God and die. But wait, I’ll get my husband to do the same. Ok, Job. You too. Curse God and die.

Some of us may be thinking that Job’s wife is only human. Norman C Habel understands such a reaction, and writes that such a response is “realistic, honest, unequivocal.”

She is moved, it would seem, by a genuine sympathy for her husband; her honesty stands in sharp contrast to that of the three friends who are later rebuked by God; she is only rebuked by Job.” (Norman C Habel, Job, AT: John Knox Press,1981, p24)

The problem with Job’s wife approach is that it is judgmental. It accuses and blames God for everything. It places herself as the God of God. She rules over God by claiming that God is only ‘God’ when good things happen. God becomes Someone to be cursed upon when bad things happen. In the ‘Blamer Approach,’ the idea of a Sovereign God only partially exists. There is a deeper problem. If God is not Sovereign over ALL, how can we say that God is God?


4) Job’s Approach
Up to the end of chapter 2, Job has the approval of God, that Job is a righteous man and did not sin. Scriptures record Job’s response.

“He replied, ‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.” (Job 2:10)

This is a profound statement. Job understands that unless God is over ALL THINGS, God is not God. His view of God is far more superior than the previous three approaches above. Unfortunately, cracks are beginning to appear in his faith-fortified wall of hope.

After chapter 3, Job caves in to his wife’s influence. Job curses his birth, his own life. He indirectly gives in to the influence of his wife, and blames God, albeit indirectly.

AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH - Not Answers But . . .
How should we approach pain and suffering? If all of the above are not good choices, what responses are most appropriate for people in states of hopelessness and despair? Is God non-existent as claimed by atheists? Is God powerless as claimed by Harold Kushner? Is God a imaginary entity as claimed by fatalists? Or suffering and life’s pain an opportunity to blame God when things go horribly wrong?

Let me suggest three ways.
a) Not Answers but Laments
Many things in life are not problems to be solved but journeys to go through. The Danish philosopher says it very well.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

When a child falls on the ground and gets hurt, do we start analyzing the whole situation? Or do we do the most loving thing: To hug them, and assure them we are there to comfort them in their pain?

b) Not Answers for God but Questions from God
In times of pain and suffering, the last thing one needs is a model answer. Answers may tickle the head, but they seldom comfort hearts. Can a good answer take away pain? Perhaps, trials and troubles are opportunities for God to question us, about our faith, our resilience and where our true hopes lie. During the recent financial turmoil, I read about rich billionaires taking their own lives when their fortunes collapse. A German billionaire, Adolf Merckle throws himself in front of a coming train when his powerful financial interests went into trouble.

When we seek answers, we tend to look for a final chapter or a lasting solution. We behave as if we are the ones demanding to be appeased. Unfortunately, we forget that we are actually not the ones in control. Only God is. When God chooses to withhold certain answers, should we not accept His choice?

Let God’s questions of us, teach us about life, that we are not in control. God is, even though we do not know how.

c) Not answers but accompaniment
This is the single most important approach that we can take to aid people in pain. We need to become less paranoid over explanation of the trouble. We need to be more sensitive to walking with and to accompany those in pain with our presence. Philip Yancey says it very well.

“Today, if I had to answer the question ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ in a single sentence, I would make that sentence another question: ‘Where is the Church when it hurts?’ We form the front line of God’s response to the suffering world.” (Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts?, MI: Zondervan, 1990, p243)

This week, I had the privilege of watching how my Church walked with this dear family as they bury their daughter, sister and friend. When the emergency was triggered, the church was there. When the parents wailed, the church is there. When the doctors delivered the bad news, people from the church were there. When the family called to express their heartaches, the church was there. When the life support systems were shut, the church was there. Toward the last hours of the girl’s final breath, the church was there, praying, singing, giving thanks, and loving. From the memorial to the interment, to the final burial rites, the church was there grieving with them. This week I learned. When in pain, answers may seem important but being able to lament is more important. Answers may be directed of God, but perhaps we need to be open to questions from God. The presence of answers is nothing in comparison with the presence of people and the church. Lest we forget, when we suffer, God is there with us. Whether we realize it or not is besides the point. God knows truly and fully well. May our presence re-fill sufferers with hope. Then we will learn NOT to curse God and die, but our hearts will praise God and live.

Thought: People in pain do not need answers. They need love, understanding and your presence. Learn to suffer with them by being present with them. You may be the greatest gift they can have at that time.

sabbathwalk

Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Friday, November 5, 2010

No Such Thing as 'Nominal' Christians

TITLE: Nominal Christianity?
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 5 November 2010

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15-16)

MAIN POINT: There is no such thing as a ‘nominal’ Christian. Christians are committed to Christ. They are committed to a community. They are committed to be Christlike.


When I meet with pastors and talk about our Churches, we sometimes ask one another: “How are your Church members?” Answers vary, but a typical response will be

“Well, some are really passionate, while others are plain and decent Sunday-going folks. You could call them nominal.”

‘Nominal’ is a common way of saying that a person wears a ‘Christian’ label but does not really believe in Christianity. In other words, the person is ‘Christian’ in name only. In Churches I know, there are people from various phases of their Christian life. Like most organizations, about 10% or less of the congregation do about more than 90% of the work in Church. From the Sunday School to the Ushering team; from the weekly running of Church administration to the weekend Sunday services, those who work the hardest remain a tiny minority. What about the rest of the people? Is there such a thing as a 'nominal' Christian in the faith?


A) Portrait of the Nominal Christian

There is another word for ‘nominal’ Christianity. It is the word ‘lukewarm.’ This word is used to describe the Church at Laodicea in the final book of the Bible. A lukewarm person is neither hot nor cold. He stays in the middle thinking it is safe. He sits on the fence thinking that he does not need to commit to either sides of the divide. He basically thinks that the best position to be in is to be in a non-decided position. That way, he can have the best of both worlds. He can enjoy the worldliness available. He can reap the harvest of religious works. In fact, for some businessmen, having a stated religion is the icing on the cake for a successful business. It plays well into the mantra of many businesses:

  • “Money is not everything.”
  • “There are more important things in life than simply making a living.”
  • “There are things that money cannot buy.”

Having a religion can be very attractive. It is a single word answer to an alternative lifestyle. The sayings are popularly captured in this popular set of sayings about money.

With money you can buy a house, but not a home.
With money you can buy a clock, but not time.
With money you can buy a bed, but not sleep.
With money you can buy a book, but not knowledge.
With money you can buy a doctor, but not good health.
With money you can buy a position, but not respect.
With money you can buy blood, but not life.
With money you can buy sex, but not love.

(Source: Anonymous)

These seem to be very common sense indeed. However, there is a problem. While it highlights the limitations of money, it does not offer us a clear alternative. It simply tells us not to focus on the money-making mindset. That unfortunately leaves a vacuum that can potentially be filled with something more inferior or sinister.

The nominal Christian is neither hot nor cold with regards to following Jesus. Likewise, he can be lukewarm about the affairs of this world. John Stott calls it a distinct possibility that one can "be a Christian in name without being a Christian in heart.”

I know of Christians who regularly go to Church. They might even give 10% of their earnings faithfully each month. Yet, their hearts remain unchanged over the years. They fail to grow further than merely saying the sinners’ prayer. They tell people they are ‘Christian’ but that is all. Their actions and behaviour seem to resemble the rest of the people in the world. These people are not committed to the cause of Christ.

Sigh. It is far easier to tell people you are ‘Christian’ than to show people your Christlikeness.

B) Portrait of the Committed Christian

Those, especially the younger believers exhibit an excitement to grow and to learn more about the faith. They ask questions. They seek out older believers to find out what it means to grow in faith. They eagerly sign up for discipleship courses. If none is available, they pester the pastors or elders to start providing one. They come in their Sunday best, and are satisfied about the Sabbath rest. Their zeal is like a little child jumping up with glee at a playground. They lap up whatever knowledge there is available about the Christian walk. They memorize Scripture. They read their Bibles daily. They pray faithfully. They will be constant learners. If they are not getting the spiritual food on Sundays, they will take up Bible lessons during the week to supplement their Sunday diet.

I think the Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) is one of the best Bible learning opportunities available right now. My wife goes there, and finds warmth and good fellowship among like-minded believers. All want to study the Word. In fact, sometimes I am intrigued that people going for BSF is much more fervent than cell-group attendance in Churches. In BSF, there is a rather strict code of attendance. Miss about 2 classes and you have to start over. The call is about commitment. John Stott describes Christianity as follows:

“If the essence of Christianity is neither a creed, nor a code, nor a cult, what is it? It is Christ! It is not primarily a system of any kind; it is a person, and a personal relationship to that person.” (John Stott, Christian Basics – An invitation to discipleship, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, p15)

We are Christians not because we recite a creed, observe a code, or to participate in a cult-like atmosphere. We are Christians because we follow Jesus. We are Christians because we are committed to a growing relationship with Christ. Apart from this, there is no other way we can be more ‘Christian’ than to be ‘Christlike.’ We are ‘Christlike’ and ‘Christian’ when we commit to Jesus. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus.

C) Commitment is a Mark of a Christian

I think ‘commitment’ is so important in the Christian life. Without commitment, one easily sways to be either cold or lukewarm in their faith. Without commitment, how can anyone grow past the valleys of depression and darkness? Without commitment, it is so easy to fall prey to the deceit and temptations of this world. Without commitment, one is susceptible to weather changes, both physically and emotionally.

The best way to describe our commitment to Christ, is in our commitment to a community of believers. The late Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Illinois says that he remained a non-Christian because he had seen how the church had ‘failed him’ when he was a teenager. He says:

The church has never learned the secret of community.” (quoted in John Stott’s Christian Basics, p40)

That is so tragic. For the Christian disciple, the call is simple: Either you are in or you are out. There is no middle. We do not follow Christ half-way. We obey Jesus all the way. There is no such thing as a nominal Christians, no matter how you put it. You are either hot or otherwise. Cold and lukewarm people are no different. You are either a Christian, or you are not. If you are a Christian, the most Christlike thing is to be involved in a community. It is to be committed to Jesus. It is to follow Jesus. It is to share burdens with one another in a community of believers. It is to be committed to one another in the faith through thick and thin. It is commitment through moments of ups and downs. It is that honesty to speak the truth in love to one another. We are committed to love one another. Christianity is commitment to Christ; commitment to one another; and a commitment to self to grow to be more like Christ each day. There is no such thing as a ‘nominal Christian.’ There are only committed Christians or not at all.

It was character that got us out of bed, commitment that moved us into action, and discipline that enabled us to follow through.” (Zig Ziglar)

Thought: Better to be a Christian in action, than to be one in name only. May you learn to demonstrate Christlikeness so much that people can see that you are a Christian.


sabbathwalk


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.
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