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.
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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.”
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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?
“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.
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.
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.
Had the first man not given up too soon, he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams.
A man was strolling through his land and found a nugget of gold on the ground. Excitedly, he grabbed a shovel and began digging around. He dug dozens of pits. He dug wide and he dug deep. But instead of more gold, he only uncovered more dirt.
Fatigued and disgusted, he sold his hole-ridden property to someone else.
The new owner took a closer look at one of the holes. Out of curiosity, he dug a few inches further down and discovered what turned out to be a rich vein of gold. Had the first man not given up too soon, he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Too often we struggle with problems and pressures and, like that disgusted owner, we give up. But we may miss out the “gold” that comes with sticking it out.
I am not saying that there are no circumstances under which we quit. I am saying that we think carefully before we do. Don’t sacrifice what may be a good place right now in favor of the temporary relief of surrender.
If today you want to raise the white flag, don’t. Hang in there.
Persevere. Keep the faith. You’ll be glad you did.
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It is impossible to lead a perfect life. But it is never too late to lead an excellent one.
I remember hitching a ride with a friend and he accidentally bumped his car against a post. As he drove on, this time with a pronounced bump on his fender, he muttered “I’m so ashamed of myself.”
Why are some people quick to forgive others but they just can’t forgive themselves? The root cause is that we are clinging to an idealized image of ourselves. In the case of my friend, he wanted to be a flawless driver, with nary a scratch on the paint job. When his car “kissed” that post, it wasn’t just the fender which suffered a dent that day.
Are you still wincing over a bum decision you made ages ago?
Perhaps the perfectionist image you are harboring (and you may not even know it) is one where you are so smart that you will always make the right choices. Then when the opposite happened, that image taunts you “How can you be so stupid? You should have known better!”
And you, poor you, moan “Yeah, yeah! Guilty!”
So what’s the solution? Loosen up on that perfectionism. Instead, pursue excellence.
Let us admit that we will inevitably do something that we will later wish we didn’t. Then, armed with lessons from the past, we will make wiser decisions and do more of the right deeds.
It is impossible to lead a perfect life. But it is never too late to lead an excellent one.
In fact, it is never too late for a friend to become a careful yet happy driver.
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