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
“It takes a millennial to understand a millennial.”
I was intrigued by this line from Grace Chong’s Foreword for Take Heart: Letters of Faith, Hope, and Love, published by Church Strengthening Ministries (CSM) this year. So I grabbed a copy and read it.
Take Heart collects 30 short letters, written by 14 millennials (30 years old or younger) for an imagined millennial going through tough issues such as joblessness, unanswered prayer, heartbreak, self-esteem, tight finances, pregnancy out of wedlock, and more. As the subtitle says, these letters are arranged in three clusters: faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
It is a beautiful book for at least three reasons:
First, each letter begins with a portrait of the hypothetical recipient in a particular dire strait. The writing is so picturesque that I found my heart aching with empathy. You can practically feel the sorrow, see the tears and hear the groan. Consider:
Second, the writer then identifies with the recipient. Transitions such as “I, too…” or “I once stood where you are right now” shows how the writer had trudged through similar dark valleys and shed the same tears. In so doing, the letter has earned its right to be read.
Third, the writer points the recipient to Christ. This echoes the structure of the Psalms: the unabashed woe, followed by an unflinching trust in God’s goodness. There are some paragraphs which I feel borders on being preachy, but overall the book encourages out of experience.
I rejoice at this. Millennials have gotten a bad rap for being narcissistic, entitled or shallow. Take Heart debunks that stereotype. Each letter sparkles with compassion and wisdom, showing how a youngster can be mature beyond his years.
Be ready for delightful turns as you go through the book. Check out, for example, the touching symmetry of “Loved with an Everlasting Love”. The last four words of “Loving Even from Afar” left me saying “awwwww”. “Confronting the Plight of Superman” has a stirring, triumphant coda that still gives me goosebumps whenever I think about it. “Waiting for God’s Best” proves why it’s worth the wait.
I also savored the sympathetic salutations (“Dear Missing Stone”, “Dear Pressured Provider”, “My dear shattered one”) and closings (“Waiting to see your real beauty”, “Looking forward to see you smile again”, “Rooting for you”).
If there is something I wish this book can be improved on, it is that out of the 14 writers, only one is male. One of his two pieces is a passionate love letter to his future wife. (Sorry, ladies, I don’t have his mobile number.) While doubtless this was outside of CSM’s control, a gender balance would be nice. Spirituality is not feminine; the world needs more tender warriors of the Gospel.
Back to Grace Chong, her Foreword muses why millennials are different from her generation and mine, the Baby Boomers. For example, why do millennials love to take photos of themselves? With due respect to her, such differences are superficial. Take away their Facebook and YOLOs, and you will uncover aches and angst that are true for every generation. Heck, I wrestled with the same issues when I was their age, 30 years ago!
Oh, by the way, in those days, instead of smartphones, we had those bulky Olympus cameras that store images on Kodak film (remember ‘em?). It was difficult getting selfies with those babies. But I digress.
All in all, Take Heart is a book you’d like to hold close to your… well, heart. While one may say that it takes a millennial to understand a millennial, a millennial can also understand Baby Boomers, too. All we need is to listen to each other.
Two words: character counts.
We have to be a certain kind of person in order to make marriage work. That character must be such that when trouble comes in a marriage—as it inevitably will—our natural response will be one of patience and forbearance, one that refuses to retaliate but is willing to listen. Otherwise, our carnal, selfish nature contaminates what would have been a blissful union.
There is no short-cut to character building. It takes time. Speaking for myself, my character was formed while going through much heartbreak before I met my darling wife Lucy. After tasting pain, I certainly don’t want to inflict it on others, let alone my wife. It also births a spirit of empathy and long suffering.
Sadly, many people get married so young, their character didn’t even have a chance to form. Even more tragic, many people get married without knowing the Christ who wishes to imprint His gracious and holy character in their hearts.
I don’t know about you, I am more terrified of displeasing God if I should treat Lucy shabbily. Thus, an indispensable ingredient to a strong marriage is a healthy fear of God.
I am not sure what God’s reward will be for an excellent husband or wife. Will it be the words "Well done!”? A crown? Some wag would say, “A T-shirt that says ‘I Survived Marriage!’”
But I do hope that God will honor me for being affectionate, faithful and understanding to my wife while on earth.
Now that’s character!
Oh, Lord, may it be so!
Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash
The person who wants to “make an impact on the world” is not the one who just jumps in and charges headlong into the fray. Rather, God must first impact that person before he can make an impact for God.
Consider Moses. Raised in Pharaoh’s palace, he was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. One day, he made the strategic blunder of killing an Egyptian. When Moses’ murder of the Egyptian leaked out, he fled to the desert and stayed there for forty years. He toiled as a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks.
When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, gone was all of his bravado. God called him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt… and Moses stammered excuse after excuse. He even told God to appoint someone else. The Lord’s anger burned against Moses, which I suspect finally persuaded him to sign up for the job.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Moses’ name is revered all over the world.
The wilderness is God’s crucible where He purges all our self-sufficiencies and sin-tainted ambition. Those of us who dream of doing great things for God must first pass through this arduous phase.
Take heart. God chooses His heroes. He then takes great care in preparing them. There are no short cuts. Such are the men and women whom God is pleased to use.
Let us submit to Him as sturdy and sharpened arrows so that in the proper time, He brings us out of His quiver, directs us to His targets and unleashes us in power.
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 Valls on Unsplash
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?
“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.
Every once in a while, Lucy and I would take breakfast together and I’m usually the one who finishes my plate first. Lucy would tell me, “You can go ahead and do what you need to do next, so that you can be productive.”
Chances are, I stay at that breakfast table and linger on a few more minutes. Why? Because I want to share my presence with her, and hers with me.
Can one say that during those minutes, when I was literally doing nothing, that I was being unproductive?
Here’s the thing: productivity is not always activity. One can be productive by being with the person you love. In those silent yet tender moments, the marriage bond is being strengthened, maybe even being repaired in unseen areas. To spouses whose love language is time, this gesture is pure gold.
Conversely, beware of equating activity with productivity. We know that at the workplace: you can be busy, yet be busy with the wrong things. Similarly, being busy at the expense of quality time with your spouse is counter-productive.
So the next time your spouse – bless his or her soul – grants you permission to leave and do something else, stay put. There will always be work waiting for you, but the happiness of your beloved cannot wait.
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