A Clean Slate

December 20, 2020


In a touching insight, Andy Andrews wrote, “I scour my heart clean in preparation for the New Year by forgiving those I need to forgive. And I always include that person who often seems to disappoint me the most… myself.”

 

Have you done something that you are still castigating yourself for? Maybe other people have long forgotten that incident. But not you. That deed still stings as if you have done it five minutes ago.

 

Regret is basically the refusal to forgive oneself. It stems from having a perfectionistic vision for oneself, a life where we make no dumb mistakes, lousy choices or wrong turns. When cold reality reveals how flawed and foolish we really are, we refuse to grant ourselves emotional amnesty. Rather, we flog ourselves with castigating self-talk such as “How could I have been so stupid?” “I should have done or known better!” “What will people think of me now?”

 

I must admit I am the type who loves beating myself up. As I make a quick mental survey of the past year, what pops up are more of what I did wrong rather than what I did right. That speaks of how bonded I have become with regrets, as if existence cannot be imagined in any other way.

 

If regret is the refusal to forgive oneself, Christmas heralds the basis for forgiveness. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

 

Even the sins which we burden ourselves with – the clutter in our hearts, the buyer’s remorse, the high road not taken – Jesus came to forgive.

 

The Son of God has made His long-awaited debut as a helpless babe. A God so indescribably kind has reached down to a humanity so desperately conflicted. We deem ourselves undeserving of emotional pardon.

 

We fear that self-exoneration violates some cosmic justice. We assume that we must somehow atone for those acts that we regret. But Jesus’ birth overrules our myopic concepts of self-worth. The infant will increase in stature and wisdom, live the regret-free life we long to live and satisfy that justice on the Cross.

 

Bethlehem foreshadows Calvary. We are immensely grateful that God forgives us so that we can forgive ourselves. It takes courage. It takes love. It takes Christmas.

 

We have all the right to exchange our regrets with rejoicing. I gaze beyond December 25 with fresh hope, renewed commitment and yes, a lighter spirit. Let us adore Him Who was born Christ the King!

 

May you and your loved ones have a blessed Yuletide season.

​Photo credit: www.govloop.com

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Remember Frozen? Time was when people were belting Let It Go, be it off-key videoke or professional cover. But I would disagree with Queen Elsa. There are things we really can’t let go.

 

Take our past, for instance. Motivational speakers and counselors would tell us to “let go” of what we don’t like about our personal histories.


Has someone hurt us? Let it go.
Are we regretting over a certain career choice? Let it go.
Did we lose our shirt because the pandemic ruined our business? Let it go.

 

But we really cannot let them go, because our present flows from our past. We are where we are now due to a complex flux of choice and circumstances. We cannot escape cause and effect. Unless we have a time machine and start over, the past won’t let us go.

We still wince from the hurt.
We’re still unhappy at work.
We’re still broke.

 

So what do we do? Let me suggest three steps.

    1. Make peace with your yesterday.

 

Since we can’t let go of our past, we will have to live with our past. The real question is how? With blessing or bitterness? With gratitude or grumbling? With redemption or regret?

 

In my book Regret No More, I teach that we make a peace pact with ourselves. Think of it as being at war with guilt, anxiety, or sorrow. The irony is that we raise these enemies within ourselves, for example, the inner critic. We declare a cessation of hostilities. We may even write down a literal treaty, if we want to.

 

The next time we sense the enemy creeping back, we hold up the treaty and tell the negative emotion “Hold it right there. This says you will stop.” Then imagine the enemy, shamed, slinking away.

    1. Become a better person today.

 

We are not the same people we were five, ten, or twenty years ago. That’s because life continues to shape our personalities, perceptions and priorities. Ideally, we grow in love and wisdom as the years roll by. Yes, that includes the past.

Therefore, leverage the past for your maturity.
Did the hurt deepen your empathy?
Has the career mistake revealed what you really want in life?
Will the failed business train you how to bounce back?

 

There are priceless lessons that can be learned only through the college of hard knocks. Don’t waste the tuition.

    1. Create an exciting tomorrow.

 

We cannot change what happened before. But we can decide what happens next. So take the best pieces of your past and match them with the opportunities of the present.

 

The hurt can open doors to unparalleled service.
The career mistake may be a detour that leads you to your true calling.
The failed venture will remind you that purpose is more important than profit.

 

It is not really true that January 1st is New Year’s Day. Every morning heralds the next 365 days of your life. As we would do with the literal January 1st, be brimming with hope.

 

Dream again. Dream big. Take the calculated risk. Explore the untrodden path. Forge strong relationships. In so doing, you have made the past your friend.

 

You really cannot let it go. But you have successfully lived with it.

God bless you.

This article was first published on LinkedIn in two parts. Connect with me for the latest articles.

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Most of us go through times of tightness and inflexibility. We feel trapped and constrained, then frustrated, depressed or angry. I call this period the hungry years. It may be in our finances, career, love life, or physical health.

 

I had my own hungry years.

I was accusing God of being stingy, like a billionaire who hands me a bowl of bland porridge when he could have treated me to a sumptuous buffet. But one day I came across a line that changed my thinking. “[God] humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna…” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

 

Wait a minute. God causing you to hunger?

​I thought that when God blesses us, we are filled, happy or even carefree. But the more I thought about this sentence – given to the people of Israel after wandering through the desert for forty years – the more I realized that God’s blessings do not always mean that He makes us comfortable.

 

Put differently, suffering does not necessarily mean that one has lost God’s favor. In fact, there are blessings that God can only give us through hunger. Hunger can be an instrument in the hands of a God who knows perfectly what He is doing. We have to accept that God uses both the pleasant and the unpleasant, the famine as well as the feast, in a divinely ordained blend.

 

In what way can going through “hungry years” – times when our finances are tight and we wonder if we will ever prosper – serve to our benefit? We will explore this in my next blog post.

 

Photo by Lakerain Snake on Unsplash

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To Whom…?

September 20, 2019


There will be times when God will seem to contradict His character. We know Him as all-love, all-wise and all-powerful. Yet there are times we feel that He has abandoned us in our confusion and pain.

 

I had those moments. But what kept me going was this insight: There is one thing worse than desolation WITH God, and that is desolation WITHOUT God.

 

We learn this towards the end of John chapter 6. Jesus had just taught a sermon that sounded too outrageous, too incomprehensible, that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”.

 

Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked “You don’t want to leave, too, do you?”

 

Savor the magnificent response of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

 

When the night seems unending and the hurt unyielding, to whom shall we go? Certainly not to any mere mortal. Certainly not to any addiction.

 

Perhaps we are expecting that a life with God should be free of pain and problems. Yet reality affirms the opposite. That is the hope of the Gospel: the day will come when we will indeed walk with Him, this time “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

 

God will also wipe every tear from our eyes. I love to think that He won’t delegate this to any angel. I want no less than the tender hand of God to caress my face.

 

In the end, we must pray, in utter surrender to God, “Lord, I am hurting. I am disappointed with You. I do not understand. Yet to Whom shall I go, but You alone? You have the words of Eternal Life.”

 

Photo by Monica Vallson Unsplash

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A husband had an affair which devastated the wife. Later, he repented and begged the wife to take him back. She agreed, but set strict conditions: he has to tell her every hour on the hour where he is and what he is doing. He protested, “I thought you have forgiven me!” The wife shot back, “Yes, but trust has been lost.”

 

In our last blog, I wrote that forgiveness does not mean the absence of pain. Here, I will say that forgiveness is not necessarily the restoration of trust. Not immediately, anyway.

 

Forgiveness is one thing; trust is another. Forgiveness says: you have sinned against me, but I will not use your sin against you. You hurt me, but I will absorb the pain. I give up the right to retaliate or to demand compensation.

 

But the pain makes it difficult for us to trust the offender. We are afraid of being betrayed again and be exposed to further hurt. To cite a practical example, suppose you are a business owner and caught your employee stealing company funds. You may forgive him, but I doubt you will give him the keys to the petty cash box.

 

In due time, we may grow to extend grace to the offender and take the risk of being vulnerable again. But the reality is that trust, once lost, is hard to for the offender to earn it back.

 

So the next time you can’t trust the offender anymore, don’t fall for the guilt trip of “Aha! You have an unforgiving spirit.” After all, if we suffer from a broken bone, we need a safe place to heal. Why should a broken heart be any different?

 

Photo from https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/rebuild-trust-marriage-major-screwup/

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“How do you know you have forgiven someone?” asked an entrepreneur friend.

 

“I hired someone and treated him like my own brother,” he continued, “But his performance was lackluster. After learning the business, he formed his own company and became my competitor. Worse, he pirated some of my key employees.”

 

He sighed, “I know I have to forgive him. That’s what the Bible says, right? But I still feel the pain of betrayal. Does that mean I have an unforgiving spirit?”

 

I think a lot of our struggles about forgiveness lies in misunderstanding it.

 

Forgiveness is not the absence of pain. You may find it counter-intuitive, but it is possible to forgive while in pain. We are still physical and emotional beings, so to smother the pain will not help. In fact, if you don’t feel any loss, then what’s there to forgive? That is why we should not confuse lingering hurt with unforgiveness. Grief has to be processed and people heal in their own paces.

 

One fundamental definition of forgiveness is a refusal to retaliate in kind. I love the way a pastor said it: “Forgiveness is not to use his sin against him.” We still hurt, but we refuse to hit back, to smear his reputation, to plot his downfall.

 

In fact, one ideal is to say someday, “You have hurt me, but I have forgiven you. Now I wish you well. May the Lord bless you.” If you are not yet there, it’s okay as long as you have forgiven amidst the pain. You don’t have to feel guilty about your pain.

 

​Does that mean that the relationship can go back to the way it was before? Not necessarily. This is what we will explore in the next blog.

 

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Shackles

September 11, 2019


There’s a kind of prison that we carry everywhere with us. Whatever that traps our hearts in despair and darkness, that is our prison.

 

The funny thing is that the prison door is always open. Beyond that door beckons sunlight and beauty. Yet we find ourselves unable to step out to freedom. That’s because we have one ankle shackled to the dungeon floor. That shackle can be fear, hurt, loneliness, regrets, self-loathing; whatever is holding us back, that is our shackle.

 

Want to hear something even funnier? We try to break our shackles with tools that don’t work. We tell ourselves to snap out of it. We hope tomorrow things will be different. We numb the pain with myriad addictions. We might as well try to chip away at metal with a plastic spoon.
Yet there we are: still inside that prison, shackled. Meantime, we can almost hear the door saying, “Hey, I’m still open!”

 

Mind a suggestion? See your prison the way God sees it. Is God with you there? Do you believe God loves you utterly? Can you trust God to redeem your past and usher you to a wonderful future?

 

Imagine gazing at your shackle, but this time the way God looks at it. Watch that shackle melt away, unable to resist the laser beam of His love and mercy.

 

Then, let God have the pleasure of getting you up on your feet and leading you out that door, the door which He has kept open… just for you.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

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Failure Save Us

September 4, 2019


Failure saves us from our worst selves. Imagine and shudder if we were to enjoy nothing but success. We could have become arrogant, reckless, insufferable.

 

But failure is a gift. A painful gift but necessary nonetheless if we are to grow our innate nobility.

 

Consider the fine line between being fun and being frivolous. When I say “fun”, I mean being cheery even though there are reasons to be morose, playful without being childish, and considerate of others. But when the “fun” is carried to the extreme, one can become superficial, irresponsible, with nary a care for others.

 

Failure saves such a fun person from being frivolous. How? The pain of falling on our faces gives us a measure of wisdom and sensitivity. It weans us from shallow pursuits and spurs us to pursue what is truly important in life. What I consider as most important, it expands our heart to feel someone else’s pain.

 

Failure involves loss: the loss of innocence, the loss of a dream, the loss of an idealized self. And loss invites grief.

 

By all means, we give ourselves permission to grieve, but let us do so while treading the path of gratitude. As we release the regrets of yesterday, we can rejoice over the opportunities of today.

 

Photo by Andrew Le on Unsplash

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