Something has been weighing heavy on my heart and mind for a while now.
You see, I am on this continuing journey of self-discovery, and there are many things that I can easily admit to. I am unashamedly Malaysian, a long-suffering supporter of the Liverpool Football Club, cannot cycle to save my life and I can barely swim (thanks to my metropolitan upbringing).
I have no political inclinations and I love music, especially ballads (read: boybands), bossa nova, jazz and a little bit of soul and R&B. I cry easily at sad movies and always look for the humour in most situations. I love the thought of exercising although my execution is lacking and my eating habits have very little correlation to my actual hunger. I hate organising trips overseas although I am a great tourist once I am actually there. I love my wife, my family and my friends and I recharge both in the company of people and alone.
One thing that is not cool for me to admit, though, is that I am Christian. I have been a born-again Christian since I accepted Christ at the age of seven in Sunday School, and being a Christian is a very important part of my whole make-up. (I am certain that I have prayed the sinner’s prayer a few more times in my lifetime – just to be sure, you know. In case God didn’t hear it the first time, or I wasn’t sincere and didn’t know what I was getting myself into.)
Mention to anyone that you are a Christian, and their impression of you in no particular order will be:
2. Legalistic Bible basher
4. Potential axe-wielding murderer
5. Oh no, here comes the conversion speech.
And who can blame them?
Mahatma Gandhi once famously said that ‘I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’
I have been attending church and Christian Fellowships since I was a child. I have been taught how to “act” Christian – attend church on Sundays, listen to Christian music, serve in the various ministries and have an overwhelming sense of shame about my sin and lack of discipline. I scrunch my eyes, lift my hands and I speak in tongues. I am more worried sometimes about what the people around me are thinking about me than about my worship to my Creator God.
We revel in secret schadenfreude when someone’s sins come to light.
‘Oh, did you know so-and-so’s daughter is now pregnant? Not married, you know!’
‘How’s the job hunt coming? I think you need just a little more faith, brother.’
‘Look, I have a prayer point for _____. Just keeping it between us and these four walls, I have heard the husband’s having an affair. Poor___. ‘
I cannot remember the last time I have met someone who is homeless, divorced or gay at church.
I have learnt so well to label things Christian and non-Christian, as if only parts of the world belonged to God. I have been taught that homosexuality is abhorrent and pre-marital sex is wrong, wrong, wrong. My friends raise their eyebrows when I swear because that is not Christian of me and my parents were convinced for the longest time that I would be brain-washed by the church and end up a struggling pastor or a pauper missionary, where I would die in my service to an idea.
What I can say now is that I am slowly unlearning all that I have learnt about what it means to be Christian.
Heaven. Heaven for me used to be an aspiration – where we would leave this flawed Earth once and for all, and be taken far, far away into our holiday homes with streets of gold waiting for us to come and claim our well-deserved real estate. I have this terribly Asian idea in my head that if I please God and do everything right, my mansion in heaven will be bigger.
Here’s an interesting thought exercise – if Adam and Eve had never eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and sin had never entered this world – where would we be right now?
That’s right – right here on Earth.
What if Earth was not an afterthought, not a failed messy project that God just can’t wait to scrunch up and throw into the bin and get on with Project Heaven? What if Earth was the intended heaven, and that the same Paradise that was Lost is the same one we are seeking to reclaim?
How then would treat the Earth differently? How would we view each other differently?
The book of Mark proclaims that the ‘kingdom of God is at hand’, and heaven is essentially where God is King. Where the spirit of love, forgiveness, generosity and serving humility prevail, the kingdom of God is already among us. And if really our treasures should be stored up in heaven, then our money should really be going to developing communities, building schools and hospitals and towards environmental efforts to protect His creation.
Rethinking evangelism. I’ll be honest. I hate the Great Commission and how hard the church pushes it sometimes. I hate how guilty it makes me feel when I have not won anyone over to the Kingdom of God. I feel like I have failed as a Christian and that the real Christians are the tele-evangelists and missionaries and street preachers.
I feel sometimes like an underperforming Christian multi-level marketing agent who will one day stand before the great Sales Manager who will shake his head and say ‘I’m sorry, you haven’t met your Converted to Christianity Quota in your lifetime. You can go to hell.’
I know for a fact that my salvation is not tied in with what I can do, but what Christ has done on the cross, and yet it is my humanity to think that I would have to work to earn my place in heaven.
So how should we think about evangelism?
My friend once said this to me ‘I don’t think religion should be a hard-sell. It should be sold softly to people.’
I don’t have the answer. I’m not even sure how many people look at my life and see something there that would even interest them in what principles I live by. All I know is that I know that God values my unconditional trust in Him and His purposes, and that we need to usher in His Kingdom by being generous, forgiving others, loving this life and His creation.
Guilt. The world has expectations of Christians. Heck, even our parents have expectations of Christians. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘Oh, that’s not very Christian of you, is it?’ or the Asian equivalent ‘Hah? Christian like that one ah?’
We are meant to be nice, be doormats, be boring, be prudent, honour our parents, love little animals and set up charitable foundations. We are not meant to swear, or have premarital sex, and should shun our gay friends. Come to church in your Sunday best and keep up the appearance that you’ve got everything together. Join our cell group and fit in, otherwise let’s figure out what’s wrong with you and work on it. How can you be a Christian and talk to your mother like that?
Well, here’s my answer. Yup, Christians are exactly like that. No different from the rest of the world. We are flawed, sinful, selfish, self-righteous and try to control everything to soothe our anxieties as well.
We are still learning what it is to fully trust this God that we can’t see, but whose existence we cannot deny – His Hands are evident in the testimony of our lives and in Nature; and whose forgiveness we embrace and try (although we fail sometimes) to extend it to our loved ones. We are fallen and imperfect, but perfectly forgiven.
To think that anything we do or do not do will make God think any less of us would be to discount Christ’s completed work on the Cross. It would be to say that what Jesus has done is not enough and I dare you to go up and tell God that.
Go on, I’ll wait.
Does that give us a license to sin? Of course not! We should truly first understand what we have been blessed with, and then respond out of love rather than be motivated by guilt.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
Justice. How do I understand all the injustice in this world? How is it that the good die young and the greedy seem to live forever, and if there is a God, why is there suffering? If Creation is perfect, explain mosquitoes. And flies. And cockroaches. Tell me about hurricanes and earthquakes and disease and death.
We sometimes look at this world and come to the humble conclusion that if we were God, things would get done differently around here. This world and all its inhabitants naturally groan for justice for perceived injustices, either to ourselves or humanity as a whole.
The book of Job in the Bible somehow deals and doesn’t deal with this question all at once. Job is understood to be a hypothetical play in the Bible written to illustrate how we should respond to suffering.
Job is a man who is wealthy and blessed with a loving family, a thriving landlord and most importantly, was righteous before God. There is a great chess game between God and Satan over Job, with Satan saying that the only reason that Job is a faithful servant is that he has been blessed abundantly by God. God says that this is not so, and hands Job over to Satan to be tested. Over the course of one day, his children are all killed and his wealth taken away, and Job himself is afflicted with ‘terrible sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.’
Even his wife told Job to ‘Curse God and die!’, so terrible and sudden were the overwhelming calamities that befell Job. Four well-meaning friends come up to Job and try to explain why all this is happening to him – the response is similar to what me may hear today. You are suffering because you have sinned, quickly ask God for forgiveness.
This link explains the rest of Job more eloquently than I ever will. Suffice to say that Job goes through cycles of grief, anger, depression and cynicism before God finally appears before him to answer him. God does not directly answer Job but instead details many aspects of his creation, essentially saying ‘I am God, and You are not. Who are you to question Me?’
Wait. What? That sounds like a cop-out from God, surely. But think about it. Who are we, really to demand answers from God about how He runs this world. Who are we to question His wisdom and timing and goodness? The sooner we accept that He is God and we are not and that it is fatal for us to try and manage Him, the happier our lives will be.
Job also illustrates one more point – that we do not live in a fixed moral universe. God causes the rain to fall on both the good and the evil, and we do not deserve the bad things that befall us, just as we are not deserving of the good things that happen to us.
We shouldn’t be surprised when tragedy strikes us, personally, or as a race, and wonder what we have done to deserve it, but rather, remember that our God is not a safe God. He is a good God, but he is not safe one. He is the wild, untameable, creative Almighty Spirit, the Divine Disrupter who comes to cripple and to bless, who longs for us to know Him as He knows us – to know that He is trustworthy and continues His work in the stillness and the storm.
Anxiety. We have this terrible need to control everything about our lives. We need to make sure our kids get the best nutrition and best possible education. We want to eat well and exercise more, and worry whether or not our handphones will give us brain tumours or whether we have made the right decisions with our careers, our life partners and our soccer teams. We suffer great status anxiety and worry about how we are perceived and ultimately, we want to be seen as to have won in life.
Jason Mraz has a remarkable song called ‘5/6’ from his album ‘Love is a Four-Letter Word’ and essentially the chorus tells us this truth – ‘It will all fall in place if you just let go.’ We try to hold on too tightly and micro-manage our lives when we need to learn that there are things that are just beyond our control.
There is a refrain in the song where he breaks into this almost azan-like call of ‘Be Loved’. A lot of our anxieties stem from a lack of security and understanding that we are worthy to be loved, and that we are loved.
So loved that God sent His only Son to die on the cross for our sins and introduce us to a new way of being.
Wait a minute. Jason Mraz? He’s not a Christia… One of the biggest things that I am unlearning is all this labelling of things – this is Christian, this is not Christian. This is good, this is evil. Our exclusivity has estranged the very world that we were meant to be witnesses to, and how can we be salt and light of the world if we remain in our Christian cliques, and irrelevant. We believe ourselves to be the last bastion of morality, the only opinion of all that is good and right in this world, and blind ourselves to the work that God continues to do in spite of us.
We are so engrossed in being right that we forget to be kind.
I believe that the Christian themes of love overcoming evil, of forgiveness and redemption can be found in the secular world, and we don’t even have to look very hard. It is evident in our fairy tales – in the redemption of Cinderella, in the resurrection of the Sleeping Beauty, movies like Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and The Dark Knight and in songs like John Mayer’s ‘Something’s Missing’ or Hoobastank’s ‘The Reason’ or Linkin Park’s ‘What I’ve Done’.
I’m finally learning to be Christian again, to see and engage the world afresh, to pick up clues about God’s existence and to see His little love notes everywhere, and I am excited about it. Excited about being a Christian – words I would have never imagined myself ever saying.
Not by anyone else’s standard, but I must say I feel like I am being born again. Again.