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No, God is not a nice concept we can figure out

by Charis Tan | 26 February 2018, 3:01 PM

God is not one being split into three parts. He is three beings – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – united into one whole.

And because God is three beings, He can be love. Three beings in perfect communion, yielding impeccably to the wills and desires of one another. 

Humanity was formed in the cradle of perfect love, but when we broke away at the Fall, things started to fracture and fragment in the way we saw everything. Till today, we seem to approach God as if He’s in conflict with Himself.

Sometimes, I feel like in trying to wrap our minds around God, we segment Him and His character accordingly.

Jesus is straightforwardly merciful and sacrificial, while the Father is a bit more harsh and judgmental.

The Holy Spirit is kind of elusive and erratic, yet at the same time kind of predictable and formulaic. If you knew the right buttons to push in a worship service, you could try to make sure He shows up and “does stuff”.

Is God someone to be dissected and figured out so that we can get what we want?

Isn’t He someone to get to know and understand on a deep, relational level?

God is not a philosophy to be manipulated and grasped, but a Person with a personality far transcending any human in depth and complexity.

Maybe the way we treat God holds up a mirror to our own splintered selves. I suspect that we are so used to compartmentalising our own lives and faith we don’t even realise we are doing it. I catch myself doing it all the time too. Hypocrisy can be subtle, unconscious and conditioned.

For instance, how often have I as a musician prepared to lead worship in the most disgraceful manner? Forgetting that the act of worship is not a means to an end – “let’s do some worship to start things off” – it is an end in itself. The adoration of God is what we will spend eternity doing, and it starts from today – in every second of today. 

How often have I let God shift from a ‘who’ into a ‘what’? Forgetting that He is not a philosophy to be manipulated and grasped, but a Person with a personality far transcending any human in depth and complexity.

And how often have I grossly disrespected God in the way I’ve talked about Him with others, literally right in front of Him? Forgetting that our actions in themselves are never levers to move Him, to twist His arm. He sees straight through to our hearts, He knows the motives we conceal.

I’m on this journey – we all are. For the words on my mouth and the meditation of my heart to be one and the same (Psalm 19:14). I must ask myself constantly whether I am expressing His character with my lips but betraying how I truly perceive Him with my lifestyle.

So when I fight for things in this life, fight for people to see and know Him, for justice and fairness on this earth, I cannot afford to let it lapse into a fight for Him and against Him both at once. 

He’s been showing me that His judgment is an integral part of His mercy. In all of His judgments we can read mercy – if we read closely. In all of His judgments He fights for the broken-hearted and oppressed, and He fights for them more than we could ever imagine in our finite capacity.

In God’s righteousness we find both mercy and judgment, until gradually, we find mercy swallowing up judgment altogether. 

In God there is no insecurity or infighting.

Neither should there be in us. It is but fear and the mindless shuttling towards self-preservation that shatters the image of perfect love we were always made to bear.

“If we don’t care about personal holiness then we don’t care about justice at all.”
Raphael Zhang
 

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How to really read your Bible

by Jonathan Pang, Tan Ai Luan and Goh Chong Tee | 21 September 2018, 2:03 PM

One of the challenges that new believers first encounter in reading the Bible is reading it in totality.

We tend to have the most trouble with the Old Testament (OT), where cultural and sociopolitical contexts differ greatly from the New Testament (NT) – let alone our postmodern society.

Nowadays, intellectual disparities form the primary barrier to spiritual insight. Yet as believers we are told to take God at His Word in Luke 21:33, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away”. We are told the same in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as well: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

What then is the correct mindset and methodology for studying Scripture within BC times, in a way which is comprehensive yet authentic in relation to its historical and ecclesiastical roots? Here are 3 handles you may find beneficial to your reading.

3 WAYS TO READ THE WORD WELL 

1. Read between the lines

“Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.  Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:5-7)

Reading between the lines is especially essential for seemingly awkward or outdated customs among God’s chosen race. Some examples include piercing servants’ ears as a sign of lifelong dedication to their masters (Deuteronomy 15:17) and the forbidden practice of seething (boiling) a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19).

It’s about pressing in for the meaning behind the verse. And admittedly, since we may not be theologians, it’s also useful to lean on doctrinally sound sources of secondary literature which give insight and clarity into the practices of the early Jews.

Analysing things like genre and writing style helps us read through the OT with clarity.

There are also multiple references within other OT sections involving history and prophecies which may mystify readers unless they look for key phrases or words within the original Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic translations.

These translations themselves borrow metaphors from nature or mythology to explain or corroborate principles, often making for awkward translations today. After all, reading the Bible in English, we are distanced from the original writers and their target audiences by language, time and context.

It helps to look up the nature of a biblical book before reading it. Analysing things like genre and writing style helps us read through the OT with clarity. It’s our responsibility to truly understand what we read (Romans 10:2-4).

2. Connect the dots

“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

God’s Word doesn’t contradict itself or His character manifested on Earth through the life of Jesus Christ. Similarly, the NT does not make the OT irrelevant to Christians today.

The moral and ethical codes first commanded by God through the Torah have been perfected through the death and resurrection of His Son. Such was the theological foundation of the early Church in the days of the apostles. In relating OT laws, prophecies and history to the observances and character of early Christians, their significance and applications to our own spiritual walk can be made clearer.

The Word is timeless and transcends even history.

Consider especially the Book of Revelation. It possesses close parallels to the books of Daniel and Ezekiel in the imagery of the visions they received about God’s judgment of the Earth, calamities befalling man owing to sin, the Resurrection and New Jerusalem.

The central themes and messages conveyed through similarities in both OT and NT texts are consistent with each other, and should therefore be identified and analysed to determine its purpose and message for Christians – dispelling misconceptions or preconceived ideas of irrelevance between the two.

The Word is timeless and transcends history.

3. Watch and pray

“Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.” (Acts 9:18)

All Scripture, however translated across tribes and tongues, is God-breathed. Our human capacity is insufficient to access and live by it.

Intellectual humility – sadly lacking in a generation that has had greater access to education than previous ones – is something Christians must possess to internalise and act upon the Word of God. The Bible is more than a religious text that Christians blindly follow, it is the critical foundation for the heart and mind to be filled with the Spirit – producing love for the Lord with all we are.

We can and should ask for wisdom in the process of nourishing ourselves with the Word.

While any doubts that we have concerning our study of the Word should be brought to our clergy or peers within the Church community, they should first and foremost be addressed through prayer.

Sin has marred the vision of many and blinded them to the Truth. What better way then, than to request for wisdom from whom Scripture is breathed? For we have the Holy Spirit to guide and counsel us.

The tearing of the temple veil upon Christ’s crucifixion was a sign which indicated the beginning of this new and living way to God. Jesus’ sacrifice allowed for the remission of our sins, so we could renew our relationship and have communion with Him as children of God.

So our understanding of the Bible is highly intertwined with our spiritual walk with the Creator. We can and should ask for wisdom in the process of nourishing ourselves with the Word.

As you continue to study the Bible, you will undoubtedly face difficulties in both the intellectual and spiritual aspect of doing so. It is both a science (in terms of critical reading) and an art (putting it into practice).

But remember: your Christian walk should never be undertaken alone. You will undoubtedly need the support of your spiritual community in translating your faith into tangible action. Regardless of the obstacles encountered, always persevere in plunging deeper into the knowledge and love of God through understanding His Word.

Ask for wisdom, and it shall be given. Seek Him, and draw near to Him by faith, and let Him strengthen you and your walk with Him.

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Tongues-tied: The gift I never knew how to ask for

by | 19 September 2018, 3:50 PM

Have you ever heard someone speak in tongues? What are tongues anyway?

Before we get any further along in my story with tongues, I’m going to run through a quick crash course so we’re all on the same page as best as we can be.

It’s in the Bible. Acts 2 is the first time tongues were spoken, on the day of the Pentecost, when the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).

Now most people, I feel, have the conception in mind that tongues are some entirely unintelligible thing — they might even think it’s a secret language. But the gift of tongues can also be the Spirit-given ability to speak a human language the speaker doesn’t know, to spread the gospel to someone else in his own language as in the example in Acts (Acts 2:11).

Finally, tongues should be translated for the edification of the whole church (1 Corinthians 14:27), must be orderly in worship (1 Corinthians 14:27-28), peace-bringing (1 Corinthians 14:33) and glorifying to God.

Full disclosure: I grew up in a Pentecostal church. But that meant I had weekly court-side seats to good examples of tongues being spoken and tongues being interpreted.

In weekly worship as a child, upon the end of the last song, a person with the gift would usually begin speaking in tongues to the congregation. He or she would be proclaiming unintelligible words for about thirty seconds. Then my Pastor would stand up to interpret whatever it was that person said — and I would be in awe because I didn’t understood a word until the translation.

How did she understand what the person was saying? How did she remember all that was said? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

But I was deeply impacted by tongues — I wanted it. Most of my family could speak in tongues. But for some reason it just never came to me or one of my sisters. Frankly speaking, I wanted the gift solely for the childish reason that it would be cool to have.

By the time I was in my preteens, I had already been trying to “receive” it for a few years — almost as if it was a problem of not praying or trusting God enough. I had gone up for altar calls, I had been anointed multiple times, had hands laid on me by many a visiting preacher … But it just wasn’t happening.

Looking back, I realise I was stumbled as a child, while no one explained to me what was going on. Tongues just became, to me, a Christian thing that (for some inexplicable reason) wasn’t part of my experience of faith.

So as I wasn’t getting what I wanted and tried for, I settled for an uneasy acceptance of God’s sovereignty in this area.

Fast forward to my young adult years: I’m somewhere between earnest desire and wistful jesting on the whole “tongues thing”.

I admit that’s just my tendency – when something makes me feel bad, my personal coping mechanism is to find a way to laugh about it.

But the one thing that constantly bothered me were fellow believers who would start speaking in tongues disruptively, at times that would be distracting. I still struggle to find peace with this.

The truth is, I still believe that tongues are a beautiful gift. But as humans do with most things, some of us might be guilty of making it our own thing.

Far be it from me to overlook all the other gifts He’s given me just to covet one.

It broke my heart when I learnt that a friend left her church because she just couldn’t speak in tongues after years of trying. I’ve been there and it sucks. No believer should have to feel like a second-class Christian just for their inability to speak in tongues, or made to wonder if there’s something wrong with them.

What I am realising is that we cannot miss the point about tongues or any other spiritual gift for that matter. It’s not about you. It’s for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7) of believers and to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:12). It must be orderly (1 Corinthians 14:40) and it must glorify God.

I still don’t speak in tongues. But now I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that. It’s just the way it is, and that’s okay.

I’ve repented of occasionally making fun of the gift of tongues. It’s just as uncool as making fun of prophecies or healing, and I don’t want to be that guy.

Ultimately, the sovereign God apportions spiritual gifts to each believer as He wills (1 Corinthians 12:11). So no longer will I sit in the seat of mockers, and far be it from me to overlook all the other gifts He’s given me just to covet one.

Whatever our gifts may be, we must display unity in the Body of Christ. May our gifts build us up as a church, glorifying God to the utmost as we lift Him up to the nations.


Have an insight into the gift of tongues? We’d love to hear them – just drop us an email with your thoughts.

/ 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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Are you serving for affirmation?

by Nicholas Quek | 18 September 2018, 3:49 PM

I suspect that many of you reading this article are serving in churches, or are at least in some position of responsibility or authority.

You might be a ministry head, cell leader, mentor. Or you might be the guy who stacks chairs after service. Whatever role we play, most of us participate in this church structure not merely as members, but as people who lead, serve and hold positions – whose roles play an important part in the weekly running of a church service.

Thing is, I believe that across many churches, it has become ingrained into the culture that one should “step up” into service and leadership as quickly as possible.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with leading and serving in church. Indeed, my very act of writing at present is a conscious act of service unto the larger church body. Paul exhorts us in 1 Corinthians 14:12 to “strive to excel in building up the church”, so we must exercise our gifts and discharge our duties in service.

I suspect that for many of us, affirmation has become the main reason why we lead and serve in church.

But here’s the potential problem: the addiction to affirmation in the course of serving and ministry.

  • “Wow, thank you so much for serving.”
  • “That was a really great point you made.”
  • “Great job today, I really enjoyed worship.”

Ever heard these before? To be clear, there’s also nothing wrong with affirmation. It’s a good thing to honour and encourage one another. But I suspect that for many of us, affirmation has become the main reason why we lead and serve in church.

Isn’t it addictive? To hear how great your Bible study session was? How amazing your voice was in worship, or how much the church appreciates your sacrifice?

And how easy it is to play by the rules! Many of us who have grown up in church are so familiar with the structures and scaffoldings of church life, that we’ve crafted for ourselves ideal ways to receive affirmation.

There are many reasons why someone might attend a church.

Curiosity, anger, romance – the people that flow in and out of a church’s doors are diverse both in appearance and purpose.

Yet I venture that this variation in purpose might well exist within the church. I say this with confidence because this same devious purpose – to receive affirmation – was what kept me in church for 12 years.

And so when I failed in my ministry tasks, or messed up during a worship set – my joy was robbed from me. My very purpose in church was taken away, and I was left with nothing but emptiness where once was the affirmation of those around me.

What robs us of our joy? Are we filled with despair when we fail at a task in church? Or when we offend those we respect? When we are not commended for what we have done?

These are important questions to ask ourselves, not just because they pertain to church participation, but because they pertain to our very salvation.

The main reason for gathering together as a church isn’t to say nice things to each other or make each other feel good – it is to glorify Christ!

Ephesians 2 clearly spells out that we gather together with Christ Jesus as the Cornerstone, in whom we all grow together into a holy temple unto the Lord.

Any affirmation must come out from sincere faith in Christ Jesus, which leads us to love and care for one another. Indeed, sincere faith in Christ Jesus might also lead us to do things that seemingly run contrary to affirmation. In Galatians 2 Paul recounts how he called Peter out on his sin – how his conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.

That is what sincere faith in Jesus Christ looks like: while we affirm, we also correct. We do this not to destroy, but to restore each other to walking in step with the Gospel.

Does that bring us joy? Do we see correction and discipline as a necessary and good part of church life? To come to church for affirmation is to completely miss the purpose of gathering together as a church.

Ask God to reveal the true foundation of your life: is it about yourself or the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:20)

It took me 12 years to fully realise that my participation in church life didn’t come out of a sincere faith in Jesus and commitment to His body – I was simply hungry for affirmation.

I didn’t have any real faith in Jesus Christ. Instead, I harboured the desire to see myself worshipped and adored.

It is my prayer and hope that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking we are worshipping Jesus when we are really just worshipping ourselves! Far better that we know now, and know rightly, than to discover too late the corrupted foundations we had built our whole lives upon.

So what gives us joy? Let the answer be Christ, and Christ alone!

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My love affair with pornography

by Mark Yeow | 18 September 2018, 2:39 PM

I am intimately familiar with sin.

I was around 12 when I had my first experience of pornography, one which started a love affair that lasted more than a decade. Porn seemed to satisfy this deep and dissolute hunger within me. I craved seeing women naked, doing things that aroused me.

Yet, each time after I was spent, I felt this cloak of shame fall around my head and heart. Heavy thoughts would weigh on me: You are worthless … You are pathetic.

Even after I gave over my life to Christ, I continued to watch porn.

I would try to resist the temptation, succeed for weeks or even months, then slip back into the embrace of my favourite performers – often just after a relationship breakdown, or an unexpected malady, or some other happening that laid me low.

And porn isn’t the only lust affair I’ve had – just the longest. I lost my virginity in the last years of high school and the sex that followed – however great it was – smashed my soul into little pieces which took years to put back together.

I went after women for how their physical beauty and sensuality made me feel, and when two of them broke my heart, I broke three more in return.

… only God’s redeeming touch was able to pull me out of this pit of lust some four months ago.

The toll of my lust has been enormous.

Constant fatigue, clinginess to female friends, shouting matches with my parents – not to mention the countless hours of masturbation both physical and emotional.

I think I might’ve written a novel, or even a trilogy, with that time alone. And “time alone” is apt, because the only word I can summarise all those years with is “lonely”.

Walking in the wilderness, only God’s redeeming touch was able to pull me out of this pit of lust some four months ago.

But the battle is by no means over.

Writing about this dark part of my past, I still feel a strange mix of shame and desire. On this side of eternity, there will always be a treacherous part of my heart that seeks earthly pleasure and rebels against the word of God.

But as a child of God, it’s my duty to whack that part as hard as I can until it runs squealing back to the cell it escaped from.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Don’t lose hope: the battle against pornography and for purity can be won. We overcome solely by the Spirit, in the community of the saints.

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How do we see people the way God does?

by Mark Yeow | 17 September 2018, 1:43 PM

The challenge – to build a cardboard version of one of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic structures – came with the usual church camp caveats.

In this case, several members of the team had to sacrifice one of their senses, by being blindfolded or gagged with masking-tape. To succeed, however, every team member had to make some sort of contribution to the building. I think the point was something to do with obstacles and perseverance … but I’m not exactly sure.

As soon as my team blindfolded me, I felt something change. Some of it had to do with the tasks they assigned me, like being the human measuring stick for the tower’s height, or creasing large sheets of cardboard they placed in my hands. Useful, for sure, and well-meaning in their sympathy, but relatively menial. Few of the group knew, however, that I’m no stranger to visual impairment.

In fact, I am going blind.

But after several minutes of struggling over an issue of structural integrity, I found myself guiding them towards a solution that had come upon me. I couldn’t see what they were building, but I could visualise it in my head thanks to my years of experience working in my mind. I had a possible fix, but it took a lot of literal blind gesturing to convince them that my plan might work, and how to put it into practice.

I realised that when the blindfold came around my head, it not only limited my sight, but changed the way others perceived me. And it made me think, do we really see those around us, especially those “in need”, for who they really are?

DON’T BE TOO QUICK TO LABEL

As Christians, we know we’re not supposed to judge others by their outward appearance.

But let’s not forget that even the prophet Samuel – who had no lack for piety – was reminded by God that he was looking at outermost qualities instead of the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Similarly, Timothy found himself on the other end of the stick as he ministered to the nascent church, and was encouraged by Paul to let his innermost virtues speak for themselves (1 Timothy 4:12).

Have we improved since then? Perhaps, perhaps not. In general, I’d like to think that we as Christians do our best to love those around us, irrespective of whether their values align with ours or not.

Yet I still hear of short-term mission teams getting excited about how they’re going to “be a blessing” to churches in poorer, less connected areas, or to the widows and orphans in our own neighbourhood – when we city-slickers are often the ones much more blessed and made aware of the paucity of our own spirits.

I know because I’ve been one of them. I’ve seen great faith and conviction in those who on the surface have so much less – yet hold in their hearts so much more.

… do we really see those around us, especially those “in need”, for who they really are?

I think part of the problem stems from our natural tendency to label people. We put people into boxes: “poor”, “handicapped”, “unbelievers”, “Christians” … but with those labels come assumptions about what people can do, why they do it, and who they are.

And while those labels may sometimes be accurate, they inevitably cause us to overlook the deeper, truer potential of those around us.

DON’T BE TOO QUICK TO ASSUME

When we seek to see what’s beneath the surface, we’re often surprised, sometimes astonished – but always encouraged.

But it’s not easy to do so. From my limited experience, I’ve found myself frequently going through three mental processes that help me to break down my preconceptions and look deeper.

First, I try to remind myself that everyone – no matter how poor, morally ugly or simply different – was created in our Lord’s image. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) without exception. And what may look small or grubby to our humanly eyes, is often beautiful in God’s all-seeing vision. Just ask the woman with the two copper coins in Mark 12.

Second, we can never know what a man can do until he’s done it. Nobody would’ve thought Paul, with his zeal for the blood of the early Christians, would end up being the one to lead the charge to share the Good News with those he had once murdered – least of all the man who helped set him on his way (Acts 9).

We all have our prejudices based on people’s pasts or presents – but, like Ananias, we can put them aside and focus on bringing out the best that God sees in them. To do otherwise could cause us to miss our calling.

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – which should be enough to sharply correct any superiority or condescension we might feel.

Finally – and this is hard – I reflect on who I am: a sinner, morally destitute, still plagued by mistakes and faults, whose only redemptive qualities come from my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – which should be enough to sharply correct any superiority or condescension we might feel. We each have something to give, but only because of what He’s given us.

There’s an anonymous poem which has a particular line that reads “He uses whom He chooses”. And He doesn’t choose according to physical, mental, or even spiritual dis/ability. He chooses based on the posture of our hearts.

I suspect the best way to fulfil that common prayer to “see what You see”, is to have the right posture first.

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Article list

No, God is not a nice concept we can figure out

How to really read your Bible

Tongues-tied: The gift I never knew how to ask for

Are you serving for affirmation?

My love affair with pornography

How do we see people the way God does?