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On Joy: The darkest depths of despair, and the dangerous duty of delight

by | 18 May 2017, 4:33 PM

Joy? What joy?

Minds overwhelmed, we rage, avenge and despair. Our fathers turned to booze. These days it’s mantras, happiness summits, self-improvement gurus, personality tests and “professional help”. Our quick fixes only land us in deeper darkness.

These fancy treatments to joylessness only address the symptoms. They numb. But chronic joylessness is in many places now accepted as part of the human condition.

Was it always so? Not for at least one guy, a king named David, who wrote of a starkly different condition in Psalm 16:

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. (Psalm 16:6)
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices.
(Psalm 16:9)
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
(Psalm 16:11)

Given that the words “joy” and “rejoice” and their derivatives appear at least 150 times in the Bible, I believe God wants all of us to experience joy – not just ephemeral delight, but real, full, lasting joy.

Sometimes religion (or the church) seems part of the problem rather than the solution, calling people out for the “sin” of despair and forcing ministers in the Body to a sorrowful, monastic existence. For God’s glory, they say wearily, willing dreary faces into fake smiles. There’s a sacrament/prayer/discipline for you.

Sweep it under.

But to Jesus, joy was never inconsequential (John 16:20-22, 16:33, 15:11, 17:13).

Joy motivated Jesus to the cross (Hebrews 12:2), the Apostles to martyrdom, Paul to confidently declare “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21), Mother Teresa to the slums of Calcutta, and Christians worldwide to live and die for the Kingdom.

What then is the duty of the Christian: To suffer for righteousness’ sake, or to pursue joy in God?

With the Christian’s ultimate purpose to glorify God, human joy is often sidestepped or neglected by the faithful, in the quest for the semblance of religious piousness. But joy is fundamentally mistaken.

Pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling. It is essential to all virtue and all reverence.” – John Piper

In The End for Which God Created the World, Jonathan Edwards wrote: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” In modern English, the same sentiment is summarised in the Westminister Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

In the words of John Piper, Pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling. It is essential to all virtue and all reverence.” Christian Hedonism – as it’s blatantly termed – acknowledges the human need for pleasure and seeks to ground that in God’s glory.

So we need not – dare not – choose between God’s glory and our joy. This joy, however, must come from an enjoyment of God Himself.

John Piper wrote, “if you forsake one, you lose the other. If we do not rejoice in God, we do not glorify as we ought.”

While we’re instructed to rejoice (Philippians 4:4), it doesn’t just manifest by will. Rather, it’s a natural expression of one’s joyful existence. Hence, our obedience demands that joy in God be actively sought.

C S Lewis adds in The Weight of Glory: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Lewis’ solution to human despair is not to deny our longings, but to intentionally direct them to the one ultimate thing that satisfies (John 7:37). Forget the lesser lovelies; seek the greatest satisfaction, St Augustine would’ve said.

Joy isn’t some bonus icing on the cake Christians can only hope to experience, but the essence and foundation of your entire life in God’s Kingdom.

But for most of us, this isn’t the case. It’s what we deny, starve, or neglect.

In the wake of the passing of two dear members of my extended family within just three weeks, I’m well acquainted with the scenario where life – Christian or otherwise – ends in grief. My thoughts are fixated on the sheer silliness of it all: Shallow comforts, old platitudes, plant arrangements given in the hope of comforting the grieving. All is vanity.

While we’re instructed to rejoice, it doesn’t just manifest by will. Rather, it’s a natural expression of one’s joyful existence.

Jesus acknowledges our condition and first instincts, then shows us His better way. On the cross He doesn’t threaten His enemies; He forgives – aphes (Luke 23:24). No conditions, no questions.

He now calls you and me through the flames. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t lash out. Don’t despair. Trust me. I’ll be with you.”

I’ve learnt that the experience of joy in God is clearly beyond what the sinful heart can accomplish on its own.

As Piper writes, the Christian Hedonist is “a miracle of sovereign grace”.

Here in our joyless brokenness, it’s time to come clean with God. Confess not merely our despair, but our need for Him. Our devotion to lesser lovelies (Romans 6:17), crusading activism and urge to make things right through conventional displays of power. They’ve hurt the Body more than any seed-sowing enemy and uprooted the very joy that sustains our ministry.

Our weapons are not of this world, but have divine power (2 Corinthians 10:4).

Knowing His will, ask boldly (1 John 5:14) for Him to restore the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51:12).

Finally, ask Him to open our eyes see the joy that sprouts among the weeds in our lives, the beauty in brokenness and the mysterious power of a crucified Saviour who teaches us to aphes, to forgive, even to the grave.

His joy – real, full and lasting – will be our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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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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Why we don’t call home more often

by | 19 April 2018, 12:45 PM

You may have heard this verse before, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” And we thank God that it is true. But when I read the verse, I also think of how our faith is so often dependent on crisis.

How many of us only pray when there is some sort of crisis in our lives? Something we cannot control with human means, something we’ve run out of solutions for.

I wonder if less things would boil over into our laps if we talked to God more. You’ll notice that I used the word “talk”. I’m writing about prayer in the context of it being an ongoing lifestyle – almost like a regular phone call home – not just an SOS hotline.

Today I’m thinking of prayer and reflecting on how the simple act of talking to God has changed my life.

Last year, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Leonard Ravenhill preach at my church. One of the most memorable things he said to the congregation was this: “Prayer is the privilege of stepping into the Control Room of the Universe and meeting God.”

Imagine that. We are so quick to look horizontally to each other for a word of comfort or advice, but we forget we have a similar, even more powerful vertical relationship and access to the Creator of Heaven and Earth! Jesus paid for this privilege with His own blood, and how little we use it gratefully – much less treat it as such.

Dr. Ravenhill offered a framework of “3 Ps” which really summed up who God is when it comes to prayer (the verses are my own personal examples).

Presence: Now that the veil is torn, without a need for anymore yearly mediation, God is very present and available to help us at all times. (Psalm 46:1, Hebrews 4:15-16)
Passion: He wants to help us. (Psalm 40:17, 72:12)
Power: He is able to help us. (Psalm 121:2, John 14:26)

I had such a good time researching these verses on who God is when it comes to prayer and helping us. The Psalms, especially, are bursting with God’s promises to help those He loves.

This is the point: It is rare to find someone whose help for you is always present, willing and able — but God’s help is all these things, all the time!

Some of Dr. Ravenhill’s closing words in that sermon were most remarkable, “God wants us to take hold of our power and authority in Him. No more mere looking up — look down with God and execute!

“Prayer is touching Heaven to change Earth.”

One of my mentors once said: “Prayer is the first recourse, not the last resort.” In one of his sermons, he shared an invaluable framework which he uses to pray effectively with. He calls it “ACTS.”

Adoration
Confession
Thanksgiving
Supplication

Adoration is giving God praise and worship for who He is. Confession is admitting our sins to God, who forgives and sanctifies us. Thanksgiving to God is honouring Him, recognising that we owe Him everything. Supplication is praying for our needs or others’.

It’s a very holistic approach to prayer, important angles of prayer that help foster a living, breathing relationship with God. If your prayer only sounds like a cry for help — you can go one step further and do better.

Prayer has been Christ’s chief passion upon ascension (Hebrews 7:25).

S.D. Gordon puts it far better than I ever can: “Thirty years of living, thirty years of serving, one tremendous act of dying, and two thousand years of prayer. What an emphasis on prayer!”

Prayer is what God loves. Now, I want us to step into the Control Room of the Universe for a second.

“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.” (Revelations 5:8)

Incense gives off a sweet fragrance when burned. So, what is the incense used in Heaven? It is prayer.

God values prayer. Think about it: When designing Heaven He could have chosen to perfume it with absolutely anything He wanted. Yet He chose prayer — anything else and it would have been unfair.

This is what Dan Hayes has to say on the inequitable nature of prayer: “In prayer, we all, regardless of our differences, have equal access to Him and equal love and grace and power from Him at our disposal.”

Prayer is the divine equaliser, because unlike preaching or worship-leading or teaching, all men can pray.

Thank God for the simple reason that talking to Him is something everyone can do. And when we pray, it brings a pleasing aroma into His home.

Perhaps it’s time we called home more often.

/ gabriel@thir.st

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.

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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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Am I really honouring God in my studies?

by | 18 April 2018, 1:49 PM

You’re in the middle of a sermon but your mind is somewhere else.

You’re thinking about the truckload of assignments waiting for you, or that exam tomorrow you haven’t studied for. You stand for the closing worship song, but instead of meditating on the lyrics – you’re waiting to rush home to hit the books.


I’m sure we’ve all been there. In this grades-driven nation, we’re used to the pressure of living up to the expectations of both our parents and ourselves. In fact, Singaporean youths today are more motivated in their studies than the global average.

That’s a good thing, but there’s a danger to it: Our academic pursuits so easily overshadow eternal things without us even realising it.

As someone whose identity has been tied to her grades for the longest time, I relate well to this struggle. Back in secondary school, I used to dread going to church whenever my exams were coming up. I studied my revision notes right under the nose of the preacher and would rush home as soon as service ended each week.

There are so many more urgent and important things to do.

That was one of the recurring thoughts in my head whenever I headed to church, did my devotionals or read the Bible. Though I knew they were wrong, why did they ring so true in my head?

How could anything be as important as devoting time spent to God and learning more about Him and His Word? How could I let the chase for grades overtake God’s place? My thought-life betrayed the condition of my heart.

Ever heard the hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing?

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

I realise how easily our hearts wander from him, how easily the things of this world can overtake God’s place in our hearts.

Desiring to excel in our studies is certainly something to be commended. We are all called to be good stewards of the resources God gives us. But in the case of time, is it all going into our studies? Are we neglecting to spend real quality time in Church or at home with our family?

““Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)

Being a student doesn’t exempt you from being salt and light in this world (Matthew 5:13-16). When we study for God’s glory – working in a spirit of excellence and exemplifying Christlike character – it is a testimony to our schoolmates and friends.

We must know our priorities. While it’s important to be good students, our personal walk with Him is infinitely more important. We have little issue setting aside time for the things we enjoy doing, or the people we hold dear … But is it the same for God?

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Make time for what’s important.

I’ve made it a point to do my devotionals as soon as I’m up from bed. Whenever I feel lethargic, I do my devotion at another time in the day when I’m fresher to concentrate better.

I’ve also developed the habit of using my trusty planner to note down important deadlines. I plan my time properly to spare myself the temptation of skipping Church.

It’s never easy to put God above our worldly priorities. Sometimes, even if we truly desire to pursue Him, our fallen human nature causes us to stray from Him. How we need the Holy Spirit to help us desire Him.

/ 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 Charis Tan | 17 April 2018, 2:39 PM

I think these 4 things rob us of our capacity to yield to God: Insecurity, pride, fear and impulsiveness. 

When we are insecure, our desire for the affections of others eclipses our desire for God’s. We measure ourselves by people’s opinions rather than our significance to God, who always acknowledges us as we are and is an unending source of affirmation.

Insecurity begets insecurity. Chasing validation from someone makes us forget to encourage someone else who may need it. Getting caught up in how others treat us leads us to mistreat others too. 

When we are prideful, we prioritise proving our love over actually loving others. We are impatient to see results, rather than seeing the people we are serving. We become poor stewards of the gifts we were given.

In my immaturity, I have many a time abused a spiritual gift because I was less interested in a person’s life than I was about playing a role in it.

When we act from fear, we cannot act from love. When I was afraid I wasn’t loved, I would try to verify that I was rather than finding instant comfort and support in God. My fears were always irrational and contradictory to what God says about me.

When I was afraid my love was not good enough, I was ashamed to be wholehearted. When I was afraid others perceived my love as not good enough, I was ashamed to be expressive.

Also, fear and shame desensitise us to needs around us. We don’t notice how we desperately avoid being hurt, resulting in the deep scarring pain of those we run and hide from.

When we are impulsive, we compromise our callings for something lesser. We give up pieces of our destiny, a destiny Jesus paid for.

The one time I told God explicitly I wanted to quit on something, I did not believe then that He would never ask something of me that He would not sustain me through.

God has never withdrawn grace from me, but I failed to accept it when I was blinded by pain. I forgot that all things were invitations further into His heart, and was more fixated on what my own had been dragged through. 

Feeling God’s heart is supernatural, and at the core of it, unconditional, selfless and faithful. The degree to which we yield to His perspective is the degree to which we love unconditionally, selflessly and faithfully. 

When we struggle to yield to God, we think we are ready for something He has said we are not. He can be in the middle of a process in our lives and we stop Him short. The corners we cut accumulate, snowball, and lacerate us. We may only feel the effects later.

And when we fail to embrace His process, we are too easily satisfied with stepping-stones to full breakthrough. 

Sometimes God wants to enlarge our capacity, but we lack the faith to see where He wants to take us and think we will remain small and inadequate to the task. So we give up.

But when God gives a dream, He expands us to accommodate that dream. We quit only because we do not trust Him to see things through.

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Article list

On Joy: The darkest depths of despair, and the dangerous duty of delight

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

Why we don’t call home more often

You’re never too far gone

Am I really honouring God in my studies?

We quit only because we do not trust