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My complete, imperfect family

by Pauline Wong | 3 November 2017, 3:58 PM

My Kindergarten teacher often encouraged us to draw portraits of our families.

With squiggly lines and less-than-perfect circles, I produced masterpiece after masterpiece to the best of my 6-year-old ability. I don’t remember most of my illustrations, but I do recall one vividly.

It was a picture of my parents, my sister and I. We were on rollerskates, holding hands and looking happy. In the background, I’d placed a Christmas tree.

I have lost that piece of drawing since then, but something transferred from paper to mind and etched itself deeply in my heart.

A complete family is a happy family.

My family is a complete family.

While some of my peers were born into less than desirable circumstances, I grew up with both of my parents present. I never knew what people meant when they said, “I don’t have a dad/mum”, much less the pain and hurt that separation inflicts.

Overtime, “complete” became synonymous with “perfect”. Of course my family wasn’t without flaws – we had our fights and disputes. But we were what you would call pretty normal. Average. Okay. And as I looked at the broken world as a child, okay became good enough a standard. I had both a dad and a mum, and a sister to boot. Okay was perfect.

Until I came to know Christ. That was when I began to understand how love should truly look like.

I can’t adequately put it into words but it was as though I could finally see. Everything became crystal clear yet, at the same time, everything lost its lustre, too. Kinda like putting on a new pair of glasses – you suddenly see everything with fresh clarity, but that also means suddenly seeing every imperfection that was always there.

I recall now hugging my younger sister tightly as we recoiled in fear, angry voices punctuated by threats of divorce reverberating from the next room.

When I came to know Christ, everything became crystal clear yet, at the same time, everything lost its lustre, too. I suddenly saw everything with fresh clarity, but that also meant suddenly seeing every imperfection that was always there.

As we got older, my mom started to rake up the past whenever she got angry. She would throw in snide remarks about how my dad was unpunctual to their wedding whenever we’re running late for something.

Instead of fighting back, my dad would tune out of arguments, block out complaints, and zone out of confrontations. Taking his cue, my sister and I also detached ourselves whenever we felt a storm brewing.

I had stopped communicating with my dad years ago due to a misunderstanding that I thought had caused him to stop loving me. It didn’t help that he was a man of a few words. Our conversations never lasted for more than 10 seconds, and never deeper than a “What do you want to eat?” He was physically present in my life, but never emotionally.

My family had also stopped eating together for years as it was almost impossible to comply with everyone’s schedule. The four of us ate at different times, at different locations.

From the outside, my family seemed okay – perfect. The issues we face weren’t major enough to threaten our family structure, so we simply brushed them aside.

But when God came into my life, His love illuminated the concealed hurts and frustration that undergirded the way we related to each other.

Yes, my family was intact and worry-free.

But it was far from perfect.

I’m not unappreciative of what I have; my family loved each other in the best way we knew how. I know that I’m blessed to have grown up in a relatively functional family, and I’m thankful for that. It’s just that functional isn’t the end point for God. His is a higher standard of love.

It says in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.”

A holy discontentment started to grow in my heart. And while it’s easy to settle for what’s convenient and familiar, I decided that I had to do something, rather than hand down the imperfect love we received, learnt and passed on from generation to generation.

Changing family culture that has been set in stone for decades wasn’t easy. I had to be intentional in striking up conversations with my dad, intentional in planning family outings, intentional in speaking truth and life. All while being consistent.

I remember my parents got into a huge argument once, and my dad moved out of their room to sleep in the living room for weeks. Seeing that my dad was giving her the cold treatment, my mum began to vent her frustrations on me.

Functional isn’t the end point for God. His is a higher standard of love.

I resented it. I hated how my mom tried to use me as a pawn to get back at my dad. I hated how they just threw the burden of being a responsible parent to me, when it was not my job to begin with. I hated how I was suffering the brunt of their conflict even though I was just an innocent victim.

I refused to do anything about the situation, refused to be embroiled into their conflict. It’s their fight, not mine, I reasoned. Why should I have to do the dirty work? But I eventually caved because I knew it was the right thing to do.

I remember approaching my dad in the balcony. I asked him if he remembered his marital vows to my mum.

“Papa, you promised to take care of Mummy. I know how naggy Mummy can be, but when J (my sister) and I eventually move out, the primary responsibility lies with you to care for her.”

My dad didn’t say much – simply grunted. But he moved back into the bedroom that night, and their relationship gradually improved.

My family has come a long way since then. Nowadays, we try to be more involved in each other’s lives. We celebrate birthdays and special occasions. We still aren’t perfect, but out of love, we try.

I think back to the picture I drew as a kid – my family in the foreground, and a Christmas tree in the background.

Very much like the circles my little hand had drawn, we were complete, functional, but undeniably imperfect. I’d like to think, however, that God would have received my masterpiece with joy and stuck it on His fridge.

Without allowing Him into every area of my life and placing my family into His hands, I wouldn’t have known what true love is; wouldn’t know how to truly love.

For He is love’s definition through and through.

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In trying to be a friend, I let myself be emotionally manipulated

by | 20 April 2018, 2:02 PM

I grew up with love stories.

When I was younger, it was about how true love made a mermaid abandon her home for a prince.  When I was older, it was the Korean dramas which showed how true love perseveres in spite of disapproving parents, illnesses and rivalries.

I’ve had my perception of love shaped since I was a child: Patient, selfless and forgiving. And that’s great! Selflessly loving others is a good thing as long as we exercise discernment in doing so. That was my problem: Story books and dramas never taught me about discernment.

So I loved like a high-speed ambulance without brakes.

I met Tim when I was in school and clicked with him almost immediately. He shared his life with me, gradually letting me see how broken his family was. His real life was a stark contrast to the facade he put up for others to see, to convince everyone that his life was put together.

It didn’t take me long to realise that he was running away from the emptiness in his heart. To rid himself of loneliness, he worked his way up the social ladder. And to feel better about his self-worth, he took care of his appearance and won girls’ hearts.

But these were just temporal pleasures. What he truly needed wasn’t the love of men – but the love of God.

As I disagreed with his actions and perception of life, I rebuked him and tried to point him to a better way. I struggled to love him as a friend because he was a ball of depression and anxiety, frequently lamenting how not even God would love him.

He pinned the blame for his brokenness onto his broken family, and guilt-tripped me for not being loving enough to stay. He was emotionally manipulative, threatening me with his suicidal thoughts whenever I wanted distance from the friendship.

I often shared about my friendship with Tim to friends and mentors who also knew him. But because I thought I would be gossiping, I left out all the parts where he was toxic or emotionally manipulative. I didn’t want to taint what they thought of him in case he ever decided to come to church.

Because of the partial truths I had shared with my peers, they were unaware of the severity of the situation. So their advice was generically encouraging – not what I truly needed to hear because I was never transparent with them. And so I continued to invest in my friendship with Tim.

I continued to suffer for months until I told my friends the truth, who immediately persuaded me to get out of the friendship.

Selflessly loving others is a good thing as long as we exercise discernment in doing so.

I was heartbroken. I knew how much he needed God and had believed it was my duty to make every effort in showing Christ’s love to him. I cried as I told my mentors how I felt like I’d failed as a servant of God. But a friend shared a verse with me.

“”I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

I didn’t realise that what I thought was long-suffering love, was actually me just blindly remaining in a toxic friendship.

But I don’t want this article to discourage anyone from showing love to others.

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9-11)

That’s from Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. I could use that prayer myself: God, help me to love others wisely.

I’ve learnt to know when a friendship has turned toxic, and how to be more accountable. I am heartened to hear from friends that Tim is doing well and pursuing a deeper understanding of God now. I know that God wants to minister to Tim – maybe just not through me. And that’s OK.

I just want to serve the Lord, who sees plainly our hearts.

/ helene@thir.st

After surviving the chaos of Poly life fighting the evils of sleep deprivation and academic stress, Helene now spends most of her free time repaying her three years accumulated debt of not doing household chores.

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by Li-ann Chee | 19 April 2018, 2:06 PM

Since young, I hated looking at myself in the mirror because of how ugly I thought I was. I wouldn’t even take pictures with anyone. It was suffocating, living with this fear of mirrors and photographs. And I hated believing that I was ugly, alone and somehow judged by the people around me.

It was my worst pain that my family could not understand this, not because they didn’t care, but because I had no idea how to accurately tell them about my misery. On the inside, I felt useless, worthless and without a sense of belonging everywhere I went. There was no joy in my life.

Despite my struggle with my self-image, the irony was that I really craved attention. All I wanted was for people to notice me – the real me – for once. But the more I craved for attention, the more I could see it being a burden on those around me.

Unable to express myself well and left with almost no close relationships, I sank into a depression, hiding in my room and crying myself to sleep every night.

Eventually, I started questioning my own existence on Earth: “Does anyone really care about my life?” There were several times when I looked out my window from the 18th storey and thought, “Will there finally be peace if I fall to the first floor?” 

I tried my best to fix my eyes on the Cross and read God’s word daily, but things took a turn for the worse last year when my grandmother passed away in April, followed by my mum being diagnosed with cancer later in September.

All the old feelings surfaced again. Worthless. Useless. Insecure. Helpless. I couldn’t do anything to change what had happened to those I loved. I found myself crying alone again; the pain was so great that I scratched myself until I bled, hoping to numb my heartache

But God proved His love to me again and again. I questioned Him, “If I am really your friend, give me a sign and put the right people in my life.” In response, He gave me a vision where I saw a river that I had to cross, and then I saw myself dancing on stage, with Jesus standing in the audience and waving at me.

In a step of faith and obedience, I joined the dance ministry in church, although I had no background in dance. And it’s been the best thing I could ever ask for, where I get to serve Him alongside a great community.

If I didn’t have Jesus, I don’t think I’d still be here. But I’ve learnt that even if people don’t love me or want to be my friend, He is the one and only true friend and Saviour who loves me – and you – unendingly.


This is a submission from a participant of our Greater Love Giveaway.

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You’re never too far gone

by | 18 April 2018, 5:20 PM

Some time ago, I sat in a conflict resolution meeting with some of my cell members.

Simply put, the conflict was caused by mistakes I had made. There was a lot of unease going into that meeting as I didn’t know how would my cellmates react: Would I be rebuked for my incompetence? Were they going to tell me that they were right all along?

As I sat in that meeting, I was instead surprised by how quickly my cell members forgave me and take me back into the cell. It happened in a blur – undeserved but freely given.

What did I do to merit such favour? By all accounts, it was me who messed up – why were they so gracious?

I realised my quick reinstatement resembled the prodigal son’s homecoming (Luke 15:11-32). You know the story: The prodigal son runs away from home and lives as if his father was dead. He then squanders his inheritance on every vice imaginable.

Sin tries hard to take us as far from God as it possibly can. It makes us grieve God. And yet our God is like that father who endures the heartbreak of watching his child waste his life – living for the next high.

Deep in trouble, the son thinks of home – he misses being in his father’s house and love – and makes a plan to ask his father to take him back as a slave. Speech prepared, he picks himself and trudges on home.

In the moments before our meeting, I could empathise with the prodigal son’s pain. He had made a complete wreck of his life and his only option was to return to his father he had rejected. What kept him going past the shame of failure was the memory of his father’s house and love. It was similar for me: I remember doing nothing but praying the entire journey there.

The grace God gives to us surpasses all logic and rational thought.

It’s just like how we are when we come back to God after yet another sinful escapade. In the mess and muck, upon remembering His love and providence, we realise the best course of action is to return to our Father.

The younger son thinks he’s finally crossed the line – he’s too far gone. But as he walks home, instead of being yelled and jeered at by a man on the horizon, the Father runs toward him and embraces him. Remarkably, the Father cuts the son off midway through his apology speech. He can’t wait to get a feast started. He can’t wait to celebrate his son’s return!

That’s our God. He never forsakes us – even when we forsake Him. He doesn’t just wait for us with open arms – He runs to us when we come home. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.

The grace God gives to us surpasses all logic and rational thought.

My friends demonstrated God’s love to me when their forgiveness and grace sprinted to meet me. The grace extended to me that day wasn’t something I could ever earn. But they looked past my mistakes and welcomed me home.

Have you run away from such a love? Maybe you feel your life’s an empty shell, like you’re too far gone. Well, you’re not. God’s love is waiting to wash over you the moment you turn around and come home.

So come back, brother. Dad is home and dinner’s ready.

/ junheng@thir.st

JunHeng is a 100% extrovert who loves caffeine – lots of caffeine. He also likes HTHTs, jamming and eating good food. Did he mention he loves caffeine?

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by Esther Toh | 18 April 2018, 10:45 AM

I grew up in a Christian family.

We attended Church every Sunday, my parents taught me to pray and they read the Bible to me. Everything was smooth-sailing – until my parents got into a fight that ended their marriage when I was 10 years old.

I was thrown into confusion – I thought God did not approve of divorces? If my parents truly loved God, why would they do that? I remember pestering them for an answer. I needed to know why they could not be together anymore, why I had to choose between my dad and mum.

As they blamed each other, I learnt that my dad was guilty of an extramarital affair.

This period was too overwhelming for my mum, who fell into depression.

I don’t know how I coped. I was afraid of my mum and her emotions. Not knowing how I could help her – I distanced myself from her.

In desperate need for comfort, I became too emotionally dependent on my friends. I did anything to get attention and affirmation from them. Many of my my friendships failed: It was too exhausting to be my friend.

But the biggest issue I struggled with was that I could not bring myself to forgive my dad. Through this period, I continued to attend church where I learnt the importance of forgiveness and how to forgive. So I knew I needed to forgive my dad, but I was just unable to do so.

Even though I met up with my dad regularly, I was always reluctant to see him. Our relationship was strained and he knew it. As much as I wanted to fix it – and as much as he tried – we couldn’t fix it by ourselves.

Over the years, my relationship with God grew deeper and I started serving consistently in church. But I always carried this heaviness in my heart – a burden of unforgiveness.

One day in Church, my pastor led us in a prayer to forgive our parents. She asked us to list out all the things our parents had ever done to hurt us. We had to go down the list, pray over each item and verbally forgive our parents for the specific action that had hurt us.

Going through my mum’s list was heartbreaking as I realised that many of the things she did to me was the result of overwhelming stress. It was different for my dad’s list. It was extremely tough for me to verbally extend forgiveness to him. I took time to pray and asked God to work in my heart. After praying and asking God to help me, I was able to go back to my dad’s list, to forgive him for the things he did to me.

As I was doing so, God brought a memory to my mind: I was 10, my mum was breaking down in her room – screaming and shouting. Sobbing in fear, I ran behind the sofa. I called my dad and begged him to come home from work. He said he was busy and hung up.

No matter what situation you’re in, remember that God is always there with you. Cry out to Him and He will surely answer – He loves you more than anyone on this earth can.

Immediately, I felt the presence of God surround me. God revealed to me that I could not forgive my dad because I felt abandoned by him. When I needed him the most, my dad failed to be there for me. God then told me, “Your dad was not there for you, but I was and will always be.”

God showed me that as little 10 year-old me wept behind that sofa – He was right there with me, comforting and watching over me. I felt an indescribable release as I allowed God to minister to me. I knew there and then, that God had broken my chains and set me free.

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)

God led me to this psalm. He had indeed proven Himself as my refuge and strength – even while I was unaware.

My relationship with my dad has gotten so much better ever since.

I treasure the time spent with him as I no longer bear unforgiveness in my heart, and our conversations have become meaningful and filled with love. Though there may be disagreements here and there, I always remember to go back to God and allow Him into my heart.

I have grown to be dependent on God and not man; I seek affirmation from the only One who matters. Though my life has not been one of bliss and happiness, God has still proven to be faithful and loving to me.

No matter what situation you’re in, remember that God is always there with you. Cry out to Him and He will surely answer – He loves you more than anyone on this earth can.


The author’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. This is a submission from a participant of our Greater Love Giveaway.

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Why was I born into a dysfunctional family?

by Brenda Chew | 11 April 2018, 3:58 PM

I’ve been a straight “A” student all my life.

I constantly topped my cohort – and was Head Prefect to boot! But while my life seemed perfect on the surface, it was far from that in reality.

My dad used to own a construction company, but because my mum mishandled the funds, our family ran into debts. To maintain her life of luxury, my mum borrowed money from our relatives – money which was supposed to be for our education. So my dad went back to drugs and started being abusive towards my mom.

Police visits were common due to the 3 am shouting matches and suicide attempts. I was only 12 when I had to pick my parents up from prison. At 14, I started working because I had to top up $50 to have electricity and water at home. At 17, I lived out of a luggage because there was no house to go home to.

Life in my family was tough. I was taught that family stands for “Father and Mother, I Love You.” But my sister came up with her own acronym: “Father and Mother, I Leave You”. She told her counsellor that she will never forgive my dad and wanted my parents to get a divorce.

For years, I’ve gone up for every altar call about family. I bawled my eyes out, pleading for God to intervene in my family, but disappointed and hardened – I eventually just learnt to suck it up. After all, the only breakthroughs I saw were loansharks breaking the doors of my house down.

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19)

I could never apply that verse to the context of my family. God often nudged my heart to love and forgive them – but I wouldn’t and I couldn’t. I even told God I didn’t care if they weren’t saved. I just wanted to be distant – numbed to the pain that they caused.

Sometimes I just went up to the altar for the sake of going up. But no matter how jaded I felt, I always saw a small glimmer of hope. Each time I placed my heart at the altar – God restored me. And when my heart was ready, breakthroughs began to appear.

One of my leaders met me and asked if I was willing to forgive my father. I told her I had forgiven my father in my heart, but she asked me to verbalise it. Crying, that was when I gave up any last rights to be angry or to be the victim. God’s love helped me to forgive.

I knew I could either continue to hold onto my anger, or remind myself that He forgave me even when I didn’t deserve it.

In 2005, there was an occasion where my youth pastor suddenly looked at me and said, “I believe your family will come to Christ.”

I had dared to harbour hopes – but nothing miraculous happened. Instead the next thing to happen was being locked up with my sister in the study room by my mum, as my dad stood outside its glass door demanding it to be opened. I cried and told him to stop. He walked away, only to come back with a butcher’s knife – threatening to smash the door down if if I didn’t open it.

Subsequently, another leader prayed for me and told me he saw two pillars. One pillar represented me – holding my family together. God was that second pillar beside me.

I saw that because God was holding me – I could hold the family. Knowing I wasn’t carrying the burden alone gave me courage. Because God was shouldering my family with me, I had strength and I could persevere.

The process was long and arduous, but after 14 years, peace and reconciliation finally came to my household. Today, there’s no more shouting or fights in the house. The loudest sound these days you might hear from my home is my father’s snoring.

With the storm finally past, I now understand why God placed me in this family: My role is to bring restoration.

I used to wonder why I was born into such brokenness, but I now know that God wants to use me to bring true healing. What Jesus did for me – I was to lead my family to it as well. It sounds difficult, but knowing that I’m dearly loved by Christ no matter what, makes it easier for me to forgive and love others too.

Because He has made me victorious, I now live a life that is beyond my situation.

I gave up any last rights to be angry or to be the victim. God’s love helped me to forgive.

Filled by the love of God, I’ve come to love my own family by praying for them and speaking life into their lives. I’ve also started leaving countless of love notes filled with Bible verses on doors, cans of beers, and computer screens for them!

God wants to restore the family through me – an ambassador of Christ. I know that reconciliation within the family isn’t the end of my story. I’m still holding on to the hope that my family will come to know Jesus and be reconciled to Him.

One day, me and my household, we will serve the Lord.


The author’s name has been changed by request for confidentiality. This is a submission from a participant of our Greater Love Giveaway.

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Article list

My complete, imperfect family

In trying to be a friend, I let myself be emotionally manipulated

I would have left this world if not for a friend

You’re never too far gone

How I forgave my dad for having an extramarital affair

Why was I born into a dysfunctional family?