“Love is earned” reflections on Meritocracy and Christianity

“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— ****not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.”

Christian Standard Bible. (2020). (Eph 2:8–10).

“If you don’t study hard, you’ll end up becoming a useless person like that unemployed relative of yours” – Random Aunty or Uncle

“The truth is, not everyone deserves your love” – E

Being a Malaysian Chinese, the belief in meritocracy was one that I was ingrained with since I was a boy. It was not as if it was something we were formally taught, rather it was a result of the values that were instilled in us through the pedagogical activities of our teachers and parents.

At its simplest, meritocracy is the belief that people ought to be rewarded according to what they’ve earned or deserved(i.e. merit). It is most explicitly expressed in conversations about politics: For instance, many believe that our political leaders should be elected based on skill and capability rather than their ancestral lineage, race or gender. Or take the belief that a CEO should be chosen because of his relevant skills and experience, rather through some ‘inheritance’.

But of course, meritocracy has been under fire of late- especially by those on the Left of the political spectrum. That the term ‘toxic meritocracy’ exists is an example of that.

I don’t plan to comment on the political debate, but reading about the matter prompted me to reflect on the tensions (apparent or otherwise) between my meritocratic beliefs and my Gospel convictions.

The tension is this: we’re often very comfortable talking about people deserving certain things. E.g.:

“She deserves a better job”

“He deserves to be a bible study leader” “He deserves a godly girlfriend”

This language of desert seems to be part of our everyday vocabulary, and there seem to be some prior belief about meritocracy baked into it: X deserves something only if X has earned it.

The problem for the Christian is that the core motif of Grace seems quite antithetical to meritocracy: grace is by definition unmerited and undeserved. If we are to say that all we have is by grace, then it follows that there really isn’t a space for meritocratic thought for the Christian, because it follows that we cannot deserve anything (except judgement, perhaps)

A semantical sleight of hand

One might object that the problem is overstated, surely there is some trickery in this argument.

One might reply that when one refers to meritocracy, one is simply referring to an economic system of distributing resources according to supply and demand. As an example, one might argue that the reason why surgeons get paid more than a cashier is due to the relative scarcity of (qualified) surgeons that are available to perform a given surgery relative to the amount of qualified people that exist to become cashiers. In this case, while it might take a few days (or hours!) to train a cashier, it normally takes decades of training and commitment for someone to become a qualified surgeon; explaining why there are fewer surgeons than cashiers and also explaining why it is natural to allocate more resources to them.

In this instance, the surgeon’s deserving of a higher pay than the cashier seems to be a merely economic description devoid of the weighty value-laden connotations involved in talk about God’s grace. The tension is thus resolved.

But this reply isn’t without it’s problems:

The first problem is that meritocracy seems so ingrained in our psyche that it’s almost impossible to reduce it to mere economics. Firstly, we don’t just reward people who have “earned it” with money- with money comes power, respect and influence. A surgeon who earns $1 million dollars a year will have more influence over people than a cleaner who earns far less. With influence comes respect: do you honestly think that most people will respect them both equally?

This is especially pertinent in Asian cultures: the running stereotype is that our parents only have three options for our future career choices: a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I suspect that it’s largely because of the respect these professions bring upon the individual and their families. Notice how it isn’t just because they believe these professions to be the best means of generating a good income. The emphasis on bringing “honour” to the family is an important one, and many of my fellow asians can surely relate to instances of aunties and uncles boasting about the achievements of their children at big reunion dinners.

While “respect” might seem like an innocent word, it is important to clarify what we really mean when we say we ‘respect’ the ‘successful’. It’s likely that for many people, “respect” is synonymous with “dignifying” and “valuing”- in other words, the rich surgeon is considered more dignified and worthy in our eyes relative to someone who earns less. Why else do so many of us experience “status anxiety”, constantly comparing our worldly achievements with others while constantly pouring nearly all our efforts to build “respectable” careers at the cost of all else?

But the problem doesn’t stop there. Platitudes like “respect is earned” highlights how we naturally perceive some people to be “worthy” or “unworthy” of our attention, time and love. Successful people like hanging out with other successful people because they deem each other “worthy” of each others’ companionship (Also likely for economic reasons; making “connections” is the prime determinant of some people’s business successes). Self-help gurus tell us to get rid of the “toxic” people in our lives- people who are negative and don’t “vibe with us”. Yet for some reason the only people who we think “vibes with us” are those who are either within or above our “level” of respect within a social hierarchy – because we believe that some people simply do not deserve our time, effort and love.

They just haven’t earned it.

Therefore, I contend that is our natural predisposition to identify our self-worth with our ability to achieve. We tie in our identities as Human Persons with our successes and our failures, we want to believe that we are ultimately responsible for the achievements in our lives. The bleak picture is that on the flip side, we equally correlate our self-worth with our failures. And more dangerously, we weigh the dignity of others according to their achievements and their failures; one author pointed out that in the age of meritocracy, we’ve stopped referring to those in poverty as “the unfortunate” (indicating that they’re in the state that they’re in because of factors outside their control) but rather as “failures” or the “lazy”. (do you remember your parents or teachers talking to you about the importance of studying hard lest you become like one of the failures on the streets?) [2]

Let’s call this “dignity inequality*”* as opposed to other forms of inequality (e.g. income inequality)

Creatures of grace

Consider the problem of favouritism facing the audiences of both the apostles James and Paul (cf. James 2:1-10, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 [3]):

Those who practice favouritism are rebuked because of how it makes distinctions among those redeemed by the grace of God (i.e. a hierarchy vs equality). Then consider the desire to want to separate yourself from those who are less acceptable (e.g. the poor) or the desire to want to be associated with the privileged and rich: it involves wanting to climb some sort of social ladder that involves being above others.

A metropolitan Christian might read the texts above and agree wholeheartedly, but think that it’s not a problem for them because there are no “poor” people among them to show favouritism against.

But notice how one can have this desire for one-upmanship without necessarily being materially rich ourselves, or that material wealth might just be one of the many worldly scales by which we use to construct a social hierarchy. E.g. A woman who prioritises looks will judge other women along the scale of how they look and might only want to associate herself with those who either look better than her or is at her ‘level. An intellectual snob might only want to associate himself with those smarter than him or are at his level rather than those ‘under him’.

So I contend that an obsession with meritocracy (imo, an expression of pride) will result in the formation of social hierarchies that the Bible disapproves of. To be clear, there are forms of social hierarchies that the Bible mandates, but more on that later.

I alluded to the fact earlier that meritocracy is almost never merely just about the distribution of material wealth. Consider the sort of comparisons frequently made within a given community: employment statuses (Professional workers vs. Blue Collared workers), social adeptness (the well-connected individuals who is liked by many vs. the socially awkward introvert that nobody wants to sit next to in church), cultural pedigree (I remember a Korean friend whose parents disapproved of her boyfriend simply because he was Malaysian, and not Western), or even intellectual knowledge (the ‘enlightened’ reformed guy who knows what words like ‘supralapsarianism’ or ‘hypostatic union’ means vs everyone else whom he deems to be ‘plebeian’ Christians) The list is not exhaustive…

All of these points of comparisons are gradient by which we rank ourselves against others with, and depending on what your predispositions are, you’d probably be tempted to think that one gradient is more important than another. For example, if you’re a Young Asian Professional (YAPPIE) who is socially awkward and who has no interest in theology, you might look to another Christian who might be a builder and patronise him solely on the basis of his career choice, regardless of his other qualities. We love elevating ourselves based on our perceived strengths. And of course, the caveat in Christian circles is that it’s easy for us to paint our instinctive divisiveness by saying things like:

“Oh I’m just looking for more like-minded friends. That’s why I only sit with my friends during church socials (i.e. those exactly like me)”

“It’s not that I’m ignoring him/her, I just want to spend my energy on people who I get along with”

“I think you should only ‘plant seeds’ where there is fertile soil, and we should be strategic in our discipleship, just like Jesus was. So you ought to use your efforts to reach out to Bob (boisterous uni student with extensive social circles who rarely shows up in church and is surrounded by many Christian friends who have all “tried”) instead of David (the shy and awkward uni student from a foreign country without many friends who shows up to church every week, but have developed few relationships in church)”

If we acknowledge the reality of the problem, then we will stop reading these passages and think that it is not applicable to our metropolitan churches because we think we don’t have “poor” people in our churches to actively sin against. It’s then that we are able to understand and feel the full weight of the argument as to why favouritism is wrong: there are no distinctions among those redeemed by Christ!

As Paul says earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (see 1 Cor. 4:6-13) [4], in other words, there is nothing we can boast about (and hence, “ranking” ourselves above our brothers) because really there is nothing we possess, be it our careers, intellect, social skills, wealth, upbringing etc., that hasn’t been givento us by God.

“But I studied and worked hard to become a Doctor when everyone else was playing video games in high school, I gave up all of that. I deserve to be praised for my commitment and sacrifices”

But who gave you the drive to study in the first place? Who put you in an environment that was necessary for your educational flourishing? Who secured your funding for medical school? Who put you in a country safe from disease, famine and poverty that allowed you to even be alive to pursue your dreams?

Secular progressives argue against meritocracy on the basis of a similar argument. They call it the problem of luck [5]. For when we realise how much of our achievements are dependent on so many external factors outside our direct control, it is hard the sort of credit we think we deserve. But for the Christian who believes in a sovereign God who is actively involved with His creation, ‘luck’ is merely God’s way of providing for the needs of His creation. As the Psalmist says:

“Unless the LORD builds a house, its builders build in vain; Unless the Lord watches over a city, the watchman stays alert in vain.” Psalm 127:1 CSB

Add to that the belief that we are all guilty before our Creator and rightly deserving of his condemnation, yet have received by pure grace alone the pardon and inclusion into his family, how foolish would it be to boast of our gifts?

Some Historians say that Christianity turned the value-system and the social hierarchies of the Roman (and Jewish!) world upside down- slaves and women were treated as property to the rich and the powerful, Jewish ‘Christians’ thought they were superior to the Gentiles because they had the Law; But then comes the Gospel and so says Paul:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise English Standard Version. (2016). (Ga 3:27–29).

So maybe our cultural affinities to meritocratic beliefs can make us forget just how significant it is that Jesus has died for them.

Appendix

An objection: Worthy of honour and submission

One objection weighing on my mind is that scripture itself seems to mandate the existence of social hierarchies. From Elders being “deserving” of double the honour and the mandate to submit to them to wives and husbands to masters and slaves, we can’t deny that these hierarchies don’t seem to vanish even in the context of a community of grace.

Consider this passage in 1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV)

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

A simple reading can result in the application that Elders who are good at what they do ought to be respected more in the community of the saints relative to other individuals in the church. So much so that Timothy is instructed by Paul not to entertain a charge against an Elder unless there are two or three witnesses. Couple that with the mandate across scripture to submit to our elders (Hebrews 13:17), one cannot help but think that a hierarchy is being mandated here, and a ‘meritorious’ one too, since earlier on in 1 Timothy we are told about the particular qualities that an individual must have in order to qualify for the office of an Elder (see ch.3:1-7).

But I think it must be noted that the type of hierarchies mandated by scripture is of a very different nature to the types of hierarchies that can result from a merit-driven community.

Consider the classical defence of complementarianism (i.e. the view that the gender roles as prescribed by the Bible are real): While wives must submit to their husbands, no reasonable person would assume that this implies a lower view of women relative to men; power does not equal dignity- just because an individual has a different role within a hierarchy does not mean that they are more or less dignified than anyone else.

If this move of de-coupling of Power and Dignity works, then it follows that the laity, even while assuming a submissive role relative their elders, are equally dignified before the Lord.

In a similar vein, consider the great “Christ hymn” in Phillippians 2:5-11 (CSB) :

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

God (the Father) did not count Jesus’ humility and obedience (i.e. earthly submission) as a great de-valuing of His worth, rather the Father glorifies the Son because of it! In fact, we are explicitly told to emulate Jesus here.

References:

  1. I am not alone in making this assessment. I think this (atheist) author has made similar observations about meritocracy: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/oct/19/the-myth-of-meritocracy-who-really-gets-what-they-deserve
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTDGdKaMDhQ
  3. Gordon Fee, in his NICNT commentary of 1 Corinthians, argues that the problem is not about “drunkenness” at the Lord’s supper, rather that the Corinthians were partaking of the Lord’s supper in a divisive manner along sociological lines. (maybe with the rich having privileged meals in the presence of the poor during the Supper, or maybe the rich and privileged were seated at better places with better portions separating themselves from the poor- as is expected in the class-conscious Roman society of the day. Fee even goes on to label the problem in this section as an “Abuse of the Lord” (p. 545), for it’s the Lord’s supper where we remember how all have been made One in Christ. It’s also worth noting that the following chapter(s) hammers home this point even more (cf. 12:12-13)
  4. “If the first question marks the Corinthian conceit as presumptuous, the second marks it as ungrateful- and is singularly devastating:”What do you have that you did not receive?” This is an invitation to experience one of those rare, unguarded moments of total honesty, where in the presence of the Eternal God once recognises that everything – absolutely everything – that one “has” is a gift. All is of grace, nothing is deserved, nothing earned. Those who so experience grace also live from a posture of unbounded gratitude. Those, such as the Corinthians, who think of themselves as especially gifted with the Spirit and wisdom, thereby enabling them to judge another, reflect a total misunderstanding of grace, and quite miss the “humility of God” expressed in the crucified One.” Fee NINCT 1 Corinthians p171
  5. For a more explicit picture, read: https://www.vox.com/conversations/2016/11/22/13652860/income-inequality-meritocracy-robert-frank-success-luck-ethics While I know Vox is unlikely to be popular among Christians because of how explicitly left leaning they are, it’s worth considering the ideas presented here.

***For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Gospel being true means that we should completely ditch the language of desert in our vocabularies. E.g. we can still say things like: he deserves to be punished for being a corrupt politician. Moral desert seems to be independent of meritocracy, I think.

Also here’s a thank you to Hung and Dr Chiong for reading a draft of this and giving some feedback.

Resident Aliens

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“You are an outsider, and you will always be an outsider…”

Those words were uttered to me by a pastor of a local church during my 2nd month in Melbourne, after I told him that I’ve decided to commit to his Church.

 

Out of context, these words might sound harsh, but those were some of the wisest words uttered to me in my time Melbourne.

 

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After spending nearly 5 years away from home, being an “outsider” for so long has got me asking  existential questions about personal identity and community.

 

“Where do I truly belong?”

 

I find myself asking as I move from community to community, struggling to find comfort in the midst of a gnawing loneliness, being a foreigner far from the friends that have given me comfort in the past.

 

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As a Christian, I thought the answer was easy: all I needed to do was join any local church which faithfully taught the Bible- there I will find community, there I will find family. After all, I had previously written about the glorious truths about the church found in the Bible: through Jesus, Jew and Gentile have been reconciled to each other and to God; the Church was God’s family, they were the new People of God who were made up of people of every tongue, nation and tribe yet they were single-minded in their worship of God and their love for each other flowed out of that.

 

 

“Oh, my growth group is full of FOBs (fresh off the boats), but they’re the cool FOBs”

“I know that this sounds heretical, but Christ is not enough: sometimes there are people you just can’t get along with in church even though you’re both Christian. You need to have a connection too”

“What? You thought I was born in Malaysia? That’s offensive! Of course I was born here”

“Congrats! But I want to warn you that in my experience I’ve never seen it work out between a Malaysian guy and an Australian- it’s literally never happened before so just be careful”

After reading a long passage during Bible study…

…“Declan, is English your first language?”

 

 

These were some of the things said to me by leaders of churches that had great and faithful preaching, by people I still love and respect even today. Most of these comments were made with good intentions, but to me, these and many other experiences have repeatedly made it clear to me that while I was like-minded in the faith, there is a sense in which it has been made clear to me that I don’t belong in their community the same way that an Australian would.

 

At first, I was angry, disappointed and hurt. Why should I be treated differently because of my nationality and cultural upbringing? How is patronising a brother for his nationality in any way consistent with the values in scripture- after all, Jesus consistently warned those who were proud because of their wealth. Why else would people (including Christians) consistently refer to immigrants from developed nations as expats, while those of us who come from developing countries are merely “foreigners”, if not because they show more respect to the brother from a wealthy background?

 

“Wow, your English is so good even though you’re from Malaysia”

 

Comments like these simply highlight the low expectations of us, and hence the low perceptions of our capabilities. Traditionally, many Malaysians living overseas have faced this problem, and have tried to defend themselves in order to show that we are just as capable as any other “Westerner”.

 

 

But I will do no such thing, because I don’t want to be a part of a gospel-community through any of my merits, but because, like them, I have been welcomed into the family of God through Jesus by grace alone.

 

But deep in my heart it became clear to me: while I don’t need to earn God’s love and favour, I will need to earn the love and favour of other Christians.

 

But this did not sit easy with me at all.

 

 

 

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“I’m Malaysian first before I am Chinese”

 

This was an utterance by a politician in Malaysia highlighting how he valued his nationality over his ethnicity. This sense of camaraderie amongst Malaysians (especially among those from the middle to upper-middle class) is common- and my own experience is that Malaysians get closer to each other while overseas. I loved the community I had in the Malaysian Society as a student in the UK.

 

In Australia, I found myself constantly longing for a similar community: a community where I can fearlessly speak in the accent that I was brought up with, where we would share jokes that can only be understood because of our shared cultural experiences (e.g. the ‘Doraemon’ reference made by a certain Malaysian Minister).

 

And even better, what if they were Christian too?

 

My vision of being a member of a multicultural church, united by Christ and Christ alone was shattered at some point. I was once a vocal critic of culturally homogenous churches overseas: I thought these churches valued culture over Christ.

 

But now, I find myself being far more sympathetic to their cause. To some local churches, we were always going to be outcasts.

 

I attended small groups and even university groups that were well-known for being dominated by other Malaysians, hoping to find a sense of community there.

 

But again, I felt like an alien.

 

It was refreshing and fun being around my countrymen again; but over time it became clear there was still going be tensions- and this time these differences were outrightly theological.

 

There was one group that did not believe that Jesus was the only way to salvation- it was outrightly stated that “good” people who didn’t know or trust in Jesus can still be reconciled to God. And in another group, we were taught that the Old Testament doesn’t point to Jesus, but only remotely? The important thing when reading the OT is to learn moral lessons from the characters involved, not to see its relevance to Jesus.

 

It became clear that I had major theological differences with my fellow countrymen. I had a lot of fun with them, but my conscience wasn’t clear. If I were to officially join a church or Christian group, supposedly in the name of Christ, shouldn’t our primary goal be to glorify God? But how do we glorify God if we don’t even agree on some pretty fundamental stuff, like whether or not Christ alone is necessary for a right relationship with God?

 

At some point, my conscience became clearer: I am Christian before I am Malaysian. My immediate identity is found in my new creation in Jesus. And thus my immediate family has to be those who have also been renewed by Jesus.

 

It became clear to me that I will not find satisfaction in a community that was gathered around mere shared cultural experiences, however appealing that may be to my lonely soul.

 

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“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.

Feeling jaded yet conflicted, I turned to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together to guide help me think better about the intellectual and emotional storm within me.

His words were both enlightening and piercing. I resonated with his repeated insistence that the Christian community is formed through and in Jesus Christ, he argues that the Christian is dependent on others because of Jesus Christ (I hear echoes of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians here), and that we can only come to other Christians because of Jesus, for we have been chosen before the foundations of the World in Him. But his warnings against idealistic visions of Christian community was piercing, as demonstrated by the quote above.

 

Bonhoeffer showed me that Christian community is not an end goal that needs to be realised, rather it has already been realised. It is a divine reality, not an ideal reality. That Christian community is full of sin and broken relationships does not stop making it a Christian community. It’s rather God’s intention that we’re brought together with other sinners in Christ that we are able to be challenged to constantly love and forgive one another. Furthermore, Bonhoeffer pleads with us to consider that it is precisely in the messiness of Christian community that we learn to be thankful to God always. I think he expresses it beautifully here:

 

“…Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment [the realisation of the sin in Christian community] with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together-the forgiveness of Sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

 

So it seems that my constant desire for a better community was one that didn’t come from a posture of constant thankfulness to God for the gospel; pride made me lose sight of the big picture of the gospel. I kept complaining to God about what I didn’t have, without properly being thankful for the fact that he’s been so incredibly gracious towards myself and others in spite of our elitist tendencies.

 

Speaking of my own elitist tendencies, my experience as a foreigner has also opened the eyes of my heart towards my own attitudes towards other foreigners. I think I speak not just for myself, but many other upper-middle class Malaysian Christians that we, too, would treat a foreigner from a poorer or less developed country (e.g. Bangladeshi/Nepalese workers in Malaysia) who walked into our midst with the same attitude. One reason why many of us don’t realise this is because many churches in Malaysia are incredibly homogenous (much more so than in Melbourne, in my view) in socio-economic status. So the sin that I accuse my Australian brethren of can also be found in my own culture.

 

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…But as an outsider, you understand how other outsiders feel. You can connect with them in a way that a local will find it hard to. Because actually like Paul says in Ephesians, we were all outsiders, but through Christ have been brought into God’s family through Jesus!” – same local pastor from the introduction

 

So maybe it’ll be a long time before I stop feeling like a pariah for as long as I stay here- But there is a peace in knowing that “all things work together for the good of those who love God”, even in the messiness of Christian community, God demonstrates His glorious grace and wisdom not just to us, but to the “rulers and authorities in the heavens”.

 

 

 

Postscript: As a point of clarification, I don’t think that “cultural jokes” are always wrong- I think there is a risk that we minorities can become too sensitive, such that we end up imputing motives that were never really there to begin with. (e.g. I don’t see any moral failure in someone saying “ni hao” to a Chinese person as a friendly gesture) So I don’t routinely take offence when someone banters with me and plays the “Malaysian” card.

It is especially hard to take offence if the person who made a potentially offensive joke about my nationality is someone who has consistently treated me like a brother in love- Their actions speak louder than their words.

Whereas in some of the examples I’ve alluded to above, both their words and actions have consistently demonstrated to me that these are people who have a patronising heart. The problem is not the naïveté about the general capabilities of Malaysians (one of my close friends actually told me that he didn’t know we had tall buildings in Malaysia!), but that extra step of “separating oneself from the plebs”.

So if the only take-away you have from this is that you should be more politically correct in your speech around me, you need to read it again.

Hope in existential dread: why I am a Christian

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It is late.

 

I lay awake in my bed, asking myself:

 

“What if I fail this exam? What will do with my life? What can I do with my life?”

 

For context: I have recently sat for an exam that would allow me to start the process towards full registration as a pharmacist in Australia, if I pass. If I fail, I will incur another significant delay to the start of my career, “wasting” the “energy” of my early adulthood as I approach my mid-20’s.  Oh and I also had an agreement with my current employer that I’ll have to leave the job if I fail.

 

I think about how virtually all my peers have already begun their careers and I dread to be left behind. I worry about being looked down on even more, as I learn the bitter truth that people attach value to our careers and income even in a generation that preaches “you do you”.  I mull the possibility of heading back to Malaysia, realising that coming to Melbourne might’ve been a “mistake” after all.

 

But then I close my eyes in prayer, telling God to give me the faith I need to trust that whatever happens, I can take comfort in the hope that I have knowing that I have a right relationship with Him, and that’s all that will matter in the end anyway.

 

It is 8pm.

 

I catch up with a friend from home about the challenges that he is facing in his life. X has always been a dear friend to me despite my disagreeing with his recent life choices. X tells me that he, too, is struggling with life. He tells me about the purposelessness he’s been experiencing with his work, he tells me about his painful longings for a companion. X is discontent with his life; there is an emptiness in him that constantly drains him.

 

“Hmm, I’m pretty anxious about my future too. But I know that Jesus loves me, and that’s all that really matters in the end anyway!” I tell him, trying to remind him of the joy and hope he once found in Christianity.

 

“But isn’t it such a useful fiction? Isn’t it more likely that religion is but a made up fairy tale for adults to cope with the anxieties of this life?” [1]

 

That conversation reminded me of particular time in my life. Back in Uni, while my peers were developing useful skills for their future careers, I was busy being in a nearly incapacitating state of existential dread; I was wrestling with questions about the foundations of reality; I wondered if, perhaps at the bottom of reality there is nothing but blind pitiless indifference; I wondered if morality was but a social construct; I wondered if hedonism (the ethical arch nemesis of Christian ethics) is actually the best way to live life. If my friend was right, my hope is futile- not just in dealing with the anxieties of the young adult life, but also in dealing with my existential dread.

 

But to this day, I am convinced that my hope is not futile. I am convinced that the Christian worldview is the best explanation of reality. While I still get anxious about the uncertainties of life, I am still convinced that the hope that I have in Jesus is the best, and only, hope that I have to face them.

 

The following will be an essay “briefly” outlining a defence of these beliefs. I will sacrifice depth for the sake of space and time, but I’ll attach relevant links in the footnotes for those interested in pursuing a certain line of thought further.  [2] My aim for sharing this is simply to provoke thoughts (even if you end up disagreeing with me!) and to hopefully show that the Christian worldview is one that is more robust than people make it to be. More selfishly, it’s also a useful journal of my thoughts that I can refer to when I am older and start to forget stuff.

 

If you are less interested in “logical” (I am using this term colloquially, will elaborate later) arguments for the existence of God or Christianity but are more interested in the “personal” or “existential” reasons for my faith, you can skip all the way to the final section- not that I think the “logical” and “personal” reasons can be easily separated though.

Laying the ground work: How do we know what is real?

“I am a man of science; you are a man of faith.”

 

After reading my introduction, a skeptic’s first reply would be to scoff at the obvious bias I have for Christianity. I was raised as a Christian, so obviously I would be really uncomfortable (e.g. experiencing existential dread) if I ever questioned its truth, and so I would obviously want Christianity to be true and so make up ad hoc rationalisations to justify my belief in it.

 

Two things.

 

Firstly, this line of argument is one of the most common I find among Malaysians- given that we have been raised in a multi religious background. Their conclusion is not that “all roads lead to God”, rather that the sheer diversity of religious beliefs is evidence that people just believe in things because of their upbringing. “You are only a Christian because your parents were Christian!” So they complain.

 

But this objection commits the “genetic fallacy”. [3]

Here’s an analogy: Sean was raised by “progressive” parents. His parents taught him that without a woman’s consent, it is always wrong to have sex with her. Bob on the other hand, was raised in a “rough” environment: His father taught him that when a woman says “no”, what she is really saying is “yes”- and that they always enjoyed sex, even if you “forced” it on them.

 

Sean meets Bob in uni and they go out for drinks with a mutual female friend. She gets tipsy and passes out. An argument ensues: Bob tries to have sex with her but it was to Sean’s disgust. “It’s rape!” Sean argues. But Bob disagrees: “You only believe that having sex with a girl without consent is wrong because your parents brought you up to believe that!”

 

If you, like me, find Bob’s argument utterly unconvincing, then you should also find the parallel argument against Christianity utterly unconvincing. The idea is this: just because you’ve identified a possible source/contributor towards the formation of a belief (e.g. the belief that consent is essential for sex, the belief that God exists), you have not shown that said belief is either false or irrational.

 

It may very well be that some Christians believe in Christianity simply because their parents told them to. But for many others, this is only part of the story: many Christians have also reflected on their beliefs and formed their own beliefs about what is true. Also, I’m not sure if upbringing is always an irrational means to obtaining beliefs: why would a parent teach their kid something that they (the parents) believe to be false? The sane parent would always teach their kid what they think is true. My parents taught me that “1+1=2”, “it is wrong to murder”, “it is wrong to rape” etc. Does this necessarily mean that my belief in these propositions are automatically false or unjustified because I was brought up with those beliefs? Surely not.

 

“But it still means you’re biased because of your wishful thinking!”

 

Sure. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that I am being irrational. In fact, this argument, if correct, is too powerful: most people are comfortable with their beliefs; some atheists find the ethical implications of Christianity appalling (e.g. the belief that sex is designed for marriage), and so do I have an “argument against atheism” by simply accusing the atheist of wishful thinking (because they don’t want Christianity to be true since it would have implications that they will not be happy living with)? No, I do not. Such arguments put the attention on the people defending a view rather than the actual content of the view itself. [4]

 

Secondly, what does it mean for a belief to be justified?

 

Apparently this is a huge topic in philosophy. We ascribe a set of judgements on someone’s belief with words like “rational”, “justified” and “logical”. But what do we mean? Popular critics of religion charge that religious belief is irrational because it is “belief without evidence”. The idea is that belief in God is like belief in Santa Claus; If we agree that belief in Santa is irrational, so too should belief in God.

 

But we have compelling arguments against believing in Santa: We know that there is no elf factory in the North Pole, we know that the story of Santa (and the flying spaghetti monster, Harry Potter etc.) were intentionally created fictions meant for entertainment etc. While there are arguments against the existence of God, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the force of these arguments are anywhere as strong as the arguments against Santa.

 

“But you still haven’t given us evidence for belief in God!”

Well many have tried and I myself will, but notwithstanding that, I think there’s plenty of ambiguity in these debates that need to be sorted out before moving on. First, I’m not sure if people are on the same page when defining what they mean by evidence. Some atheists mean this:

 

(1) For a belief to be justified, it must be substantiated by scientific evidence for it to be true.

 

Clearly if (1) is true, any form of theism is irrational. By “scientific evidence”, we are talking about evidence that can be replicated via the scientific method (via observational studies, replication etc.). I doubt theists can produce that type of evidence to justify their beliefs.

 

But (1) is false. We just have to ask ourselves whether there is empirical/scientific evidence that (1) is true. And it is obvious that there is not, because (1) is not a claim about the laws of nature and matter (stuff that science is REALLY GOOD at studying), but it is a claim about a “right” way of knowing things. So it seems like (1) is self-defeating. [5]

 

Notice an interesting implication of (1) though: if it were true, then a belief like “rape is wrong” is irrational (and every other moral belief), because there is no way of using the scientific method to prove moral claims. Science might tell us that rape causes severe psychological and physical trauma to a woman, but this data doesn’t tell us how to act. Science is really good at telling us what is, but not how things should be. We also don’t need science to tell us that contradictions like a married bachelor or a squared circle cannot exist, we can just infer these truths.

 

The point of this exercise is to show that “evidence” can come in the form of intuitions that we all have that help us make sense of the world, and not just in the form of a peer reviewed scientific journal article. [6]

Something instead of nothing

You return to your car after catching a movie with your new date. You realise a huge dent on your car.

 

You immediately wonder what the explanation for the dent is. Could it be a hit and run? Was this the work of your date’s jealous ex-partner?

 

What you wouldn’t do is conclude that there simply is no explanation as to why there is a dent on your car- that it was just an act of pure randomness.

 

Explanations seem to lie at the heart of human reason and science itself. When scientists spot a possible causal trend, none of them throw up their hands in surrender and conclude that things happen for no reason at all. They might not know what the best explanation is at the moment, but they work hard to find one.

 

Yet there seems to be a rational “stopping point” to explanations. Take these propositions for example:

 

(1)A man cannot be both married and be a bachelor at the same time

(2)It is always wrong to torture babies for fun

 

When asked to explain why facts like (1) and (2) are true, we usually end up simply restating or rephrasing the statements instead of appealing to an external fact to explain them. And intuitively, it seems perfectly reasonable to accept that there are some facts that don’t require explanations because they just don’t seem like they’re the type of things that require any explanations. We seem to be satisfied that there isn’t a further “why” that can be reasonably asked of us. Let’s call these types of facts or things, necessary facts / beings. Remember, these are facts or things that don’t require explanations for their truth or existence.

 

But the vast majority of things or facts require some sort of explanation. Let’s label them dependent “things”

 

Observe that the relationship between an explanation and its explanandum is one of some sort of dependence. The dent in your car is dependent on the blunt force applied on it by the jealous ex-boyfriend: If there were no blunt force applied on it by him, the dent would not be there.

 

Given all that I have said, it would seem intuitive to accept the fact that dependent “things” always have an explanation for their existence; either by another dependent thing or by a necessary “thing”. Because reality is made up of dependent things (humans, atoms, planets etc.), and because all dependent explanations have to terminate somewhere, we can conclude that there exists an independent and necessary being that can explain why all of (dependent) reality exists; this necessary being would be the foundation of all reality, it cannot not exist and must be so powerful as to be able to explain all of reality. [7]

 

One quick objection might be to appeal to a chain of infinite chain of dependent explanations, so that we don’t end up running into an explanatory stopping point that would require the existence of a necessary being. But then this dependent whole would still be itself dependent, and we would still require an explanation for the existence of the whole.

 

Essentially, the answer to “why is there something rather than nothing?” Is because it is impossible for nothing to exist. There is a necessary foundation; a “prime mover” or “first cause” of all that exists.

 

“But you have not shown that this “foundation” is the God of Christianity!!” Someone might complain.

 

And I concur. But we have narrowed down the possibilities: if I’m right, then reality couldn’t have poofed into existence out of absolutely nothing, with no explanation at all, as some seem to think. It also means that we can coherently start asking questions about the nature of this foundation. [8]

 

Morality: a divine signpost

 

We’ve established that there is a necessary foundation to all of reality. It is an explanatory stopping point. What else can we notice in reality that might give us more clues about the properties of this foundation?

 

Recall that I gave moral facts as an example of necessary “truths” earlier. It seems that truths like “it is always wrong to torture innocent children for fun” or “rape is wrong” or “we ought to love our neighbours” lie at the foundations of reality.  Some might argue that these facts are merely social constructs; they are not facts that can exist apart from the existence of human minds.  They point to the fact that human beings disagree all the time about moral issues, that there is no scientific “proof” of morality [9], to argue their point.

 

But human beings disagree all the time about scientific and logical facts; yet no one complains that therefore there is no such thing as objective truth [10]. As to the point about science not being able to “prove” morality, the same circularity problem that I brought up earlier arises: what scientific “proof” do we have for the claim that we should only believe what can be proven by science?

 

That these moral truths exist does not rule out the fact that human beings can be mistaken in their perceiving of them, yet morality dominates most people’s lives; it is the standard by which people judge their own decisions and the decisions of others by. The feminist activist is driven by the moral maxim: “women should be treated equally to men”. The socialist is driven by the moral maxim (or something like it): “wealth ought to be redistributed fairly and equally.”. The humanist rationalist who campaigns for the abolishment of religious education in schools are driven by the moral maxim: “children should only be taught what is useful and true”. You might not agree with all of these maxims or with how they have been interpreted, but the point is that (almost) everyone is driven by some moral maxim, whether they are aware of it or not.

 

So moral facts seem to be built-in into the fabric of reality. But notice something odd about these facts: These facts are about how people should behave, they do not simply describe the way things are.  Moral facts are prescriptive, not descriptive. That rape is wrong necessarily implies that you must not rape- it is action guiding in a way that scientific facts (facts that are really good at describing things). So how do we explain these prescriptive facts? [11]

 

My thought is that the prescriptive nature of these facts are a hint that they are facts that have some sort of connection to a personal, conscious being. Prescriptions of the moral sort are like the sort of requirements you find in man-made laws and regulations. That you are required to stay within the speed limit implies that someone (or in this case, a large group of legislators) have the intention and desire of wanting you to keep to the speed limit. You can still violate this requirement by speeding, but by doing so you go against the intentions and desires of the legislators and are therefore at odds with them. If I am right, then the best way to make sense of these moral facts are that it expresses the intentions and desires of a personal being (because only conscious beings can have intentions and desires). This explanation fits in very well with our earlier conclusion: these ethical laws ingrained in the fabric of reality are expressions of the intention and desires of the “prime mover” or “first cause” that I mentioned above.

 

I’ve wrestled with one alternative; maybe the “prime mover” is some mindless body of matter or law of nature that explains all of reality and it is independent of these moral truths; which are simply brute facts that are just mindless facts. There are some issues with this combination of views. If morality is this abstract truth that just exists out there, why do we care so much about morality? If there is no mind behind the universe, it means that the universe doesn’t care about what we do. Yet the sheer force of these moral truths in motivating human action seems to say otherwise- we seem to care a lot about whether we (and other people) live our lives according to these laws. [12]

 

So after plenty of thinking about the foundations of reality and of ethics, I was convinced that there was some sort of higher being who is the creator of all physical reality and who also cares about how human beings behaved.

 

Looking at the historical data, I was also quite convinced that Christianity as a religion would not have grown at all were it not for the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection was what convinced his earliest disciples that he was who he said he was despite being crucified on a roman cross, that it was a group of disciples (along with an initial enemy like Saul of Tarsus) who all suddenly and rapidly came to the belief that Jesus physically rose from the dead counts against alternative hypotheses like a conspiracy theory or that they all had joint hallucinations.  I acknowledge that literally any other explanation would be better than the fact that a dead man rose to life 3 days after dying, but only if you believed that the universe was a closed system and that there is no external power that would ever contravene the laws of nature.  [21]

 

One might object that every religion makes miraculous claims to support the truth of their religion. Growing up in a multi-religious Malaysia, this always was a problem for me: all the other religions have stories of religious figures performing miracles- what was so special about Jesus? To my mind, the difference is that Christian theology stands or falls by the historical event of the resurrection: yes, one might equate the gospel narratives of Jesus turning water into wine to stories of eastern deities performing equivalent miracles; But the earliest Christians were adamant that the resurrection was central to their faith, if Jesus was left hanging on the cross or if his body was left in the tomb, there would’ve been no Christianity. And this was not a miracle that could’ve easily been ‘misunderstood’ or believed by hearsay. One might excuse the people of Jesus’ time to have confused what we call “magic tricks” for a miracle because of their lack of scientific knowledge, but that dead men stayed dead (at least physically) was something that they would’ve known for a long time. Sure, belief in the afterlife or “ghosts” might have been far more common back then, but what seemed outrageous about the resurrection is that it was a physical one! This would’ve surely been outrageous to Jesus’ contemporaries, and I think this is why Jesus’ own disciples, who were supposed to be the early founders of Christianity, expressed so much surprise at the resurrection. In fact, if Jesus’ disciples made up the whole thing, one has to wonder why they were willing to include such embarrassing facts about themselves in the founding documents of the faith (like having Peter, probably the “lead” apostle among the 12, be addressed as “Satan” by Jesus for understanding his Messianic role wrongly)? Much more can be said about this, but for the sake of brevity (lol) I’d have to refer the interested reader in checking out the links in the footnotes.

 

 

In spite of all this, I have 2 reservations:

1) There are really really smart people who would disagree with me- and I can see where their objections are coming from. So I don’t think that they’re being irrational by not being persuaded by these arguments. Reasonable doubt can still exist in the case of these arguments, and to think otherwise is foolish, I think. So I reject claims that believing in Christianity can be simply reduced to simply being “smart enough” to grasp these arguments. [13]

2)For many people, it would seem that these “dry” and “logical” arguments are insufficient in convincing anyone that Christianity is worth believing in. My younger self would simply object to these people by arguing that they are just being irrational. But I’ve grown to appreciate the complexity of our cognitive faculties and can start to see where some of these people might be coming from. Firstly, as I grow older, it is becoming clearer to me that for the vast majority of my peers, their problem with Christianity is not so much the “logical” aspects of the faith, but rather the practical implications of it. To many of them, if Christianity is true, then Christian ethics must be followed; an ethic that they find to be outdated, boring, and devoid of any happiness or meaning. It is to this charge that I will be responding in the next section. [14]

 

The best story

 

 

“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.” C.S. Lewis

 

 

If you are not a Christian but have plenty of Christian friends, I might not fault you for thinking that we are the most miserable lot; we believe that sex before marriage is wrong, we have to give our hard earned cash to the Church, we won’t break “small” ethical boundaries in the workplace (like making a false declaration to increase revenue, giving out medicines that we know won’t work for profit, breaking the law because “they can’t catch us and we’ll be able to make money”), we can’t date non-Christians (massively reducing our “pool” of  potential mates) etc.  The Christian life is charged for being childish: it leads to a joyless and deprived life in the real world. The Sunday school stories of a loving father (who some discover later to be strangely silent in our times of need/vulnerability), cannot possibly fulfils our deepest desires for intimacy, happiness and purpose.

 

 

In this section, I’d like to argue otherwise. I’d like to argue that the Christian worldview not only provides all that, but that it best explains the source of our deepest longings.

 

First, consider the moral law: notice how most, if not all, of these laws are about how we ought to put the needs of other people first. e.g. your need for emotional satisfaction cannot trump another person’s need to live (i.e. don’t murder out of anger). Morality seems to be “other” person centred. [15] So maybe a helpful summary of the moral law is to love. By love, I am not referring to a mere description of the feelings attraction felt toward another, but the act of putting the needs and desires of the other person first.

 

So if I’m right, that means the moral law-the law of love- lies at the foundations of reality. I also think there’s something intuitive about this idea: we all think love is one of the highest virtues; it is one of the the most fundamental needs of  human beings (animals included!), though we might disagree on how it looks like in practice. It seems like love is intimately tied to the purpose of our existence as human beings.

 

But then consider something else: humanity sucks at abiding by this law of love. We murder, steal, rape, pillage, manipulate others. History testifies to this time and time again. Let’s call this the “human condition”: we acknowledge the existence of the law of love, yet we constantly fail to abide by it. Many different narratives seek to explain it and some offer solutions to it; some argue that the root of the problem is poverty and inequality. Others argue that it is a systemic problem caused by the patriarchy. There’s no denying that there’s some truth in what they are saying: misogyny is arguably a source of many sexual atrocities, poverty causes people to rob and steal out of desperation… But these explanations seem to be susceptible to glaring counterexamples: women are capable of violating the law of love too, some of humanities most deplorable crimes have been committed by the rich and powerful (not the poor and uneducated). The solutions fall short for the same reasons: if giving everyone money makes people love others better, why do the rich still do evil? These explanations don’t seem to do justice to the scale of the problem, let alone get close to solving it. [16]

 

Maybe the problem is with all of us-not just some- but all. Maybe it’s because we all tend to want to elevate ourselves above other people, wanting to become our own kings and queens having no one above us, but everyone else below us. In other words, maybe misogyny, inequality and all sorts of horrendous evils are simply the result of the pride and arrogance that lies in the very nature of humanity. The problem is with the human heart.

 

But if pride is the chief vice, then humility (which is intrinsically loving!) is the chief virtue. [17]

 

Consider then, the narrative that lies at the heart of the Christian worldview:

 

 “There is but one God, who created all things (including multiverses, energy, matter etc.). This God also created human beings (be it ex nihilo or via some clever mechanism like guided natural selection). He created us to have a relationship with him, but we wanted to be gods over our own lives, so we pointed our ‘middle fingers’ to Him and rebelled against Him. In doing so we have not only caused enmity between us and our all-powerful creator, but it has also led to enmity among ourselves, because we all want to one up one another in our desire to be gods over our own lives. We rape, kill, steal and pillage because we love ourselves more than anyone else in the world. God, being perfectly good and just, would do no wrong in punishing us for our anarchy. But God is also infinitely merciful and loving: in our rebellion He takes on human flesh to pay the penalty for our offences by dying on the cross for us. Jesus is then raised on the third day as a display of God’s victory over sin and evil. Those who belong to Jesus have now been reconciled to God are no longer at war with God. “[22]

 

Here, God’s ultimate love and humility is displayed. Jesus humbly and lovingly submits to God’s (the Father’s) will to save sinners. So humility and love are not just “free floating”, “platonic” abstract truths that just exist, but they are properties of a person.

 

But what does this have to do with the charge that the Christian life is unfulfilling?

 

1) We seem to find some fulfilment in doing good i.e. abiding by the law of love. If I’m right that these laws are transcendent (I.e. not manmade fictions), then it seems like we were created with the intention to love and be loved- to form relationships. This explains why some of our deepest desires as human beings are for other persons (i.e. intimacy, romance, friendship). The Christian story tells us that creation started with a relationship: God’s loving relationship with his creatures- us.

 

So maybe all our desires for the love and intimacy from other humans are just an expression of a deeper desire for union with God. Because it certainly seems like human relationships, however satisfying it may be, are temporal and often times imperfect; they seem incapable of satiating our deepest longings for love.

 

One might argue that romantic love can satisfy these longings. Perhaps the sheer dominance of romantic themes in modern film and literature are expressions of this line of thinking. It’s quite a powerful one: I’ve had many Christian friends who all spoke of this “God-shaped hole” in their “hearts” back when they were passionate about God in high school, only to have renounced their faiths after being in romantic relationships that were not in line with the commandments found in the Bible.  So maybe these deep longings are actually our desires for romance.

 

The Christian affirms that romance is a beautiful thing. In fact, marriage is described as an analogy for Jesus’ love for his church. But it is never depicted as our ultimate ends, for good reason!

 

Firstly, the euphoria of finding romance almost always seems to fade away with time. Think of the couple who declares their “eternal” love for each other on Facebook, only to fall out of love in 2 months. Or the celebrity couple with the fairytale wedding who were described to be “made for each other” but have a very public divorce only a few years later. It seems like romance doesn’t have the clout to provide this lasting contentment that everyone seems to be striving for. Secondly, if we say that romance is what ultimately fulfils the human life, then what are we suggesting about the many great people of history who were single all their lives? Are their lives any less fulfilled than those who have found romance?

 

If Christianity is true, we are all very lonely because we are all separated from God because of our sin; the ultimate relationship for which we were created for has been severed. We are all broken and sad creatures, severed from the only being that can bring us true comfort and true joy. But Jesus gives us hope, his death on the cross meant that we can be reconciled to God and have our deepest longings met. [18]

 

2) Remember that the charge is psychological in nature- the argument is that the living out of the Christian life is one that leads to a lower quality of life in a psychological sense (i.e. we will be more depressed, anxious and unfulfilled). [19]

 

Before I begin, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between irrational mental states and rational mental states. Take anxiety for example: someone who gets extremely worried that his house might be set on fire by some random stranger is experiencing an irrational fear (this is probably more akin to mental illness, where people cannot suppress irrational fears and cannot help but to act on them. Their reaction to their fears are way out of proportion with the actual risks involved). Contrast that to ‘rational anxiety’: the lone woman walking back to her car while a group of man catcall her and tail her- she is right to be anxious in such a situation. When someone says that the Christian life is one that is depressing, they often mean it in the ‘rational sense’ i.e. Christians have a good reason to be depressed because of what they can/cannot do.

 

Firstly, I think the Christian worldview provides the believer with a myriad of tools to deal with these negative mental states. Take my own personal example at the beginning of this essay for example: If Christianity is true, then being successful in my career and accumulating wealth as fast as possible isn’t of utmost importance to me- my standing before God is. According to the Christian narrative (what we Christians call ‘The Gospel’), my biggest problem- my status as a rebellious human being before a holy God that ought to justly punish me- has been solved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Because my biggest problem has been solved and my most important needs met, the worries I have for things of this life need not be overwhelming.

 

Furthermore, the Christian believes that God is in absolute control of the future and that He will guarantee that all things will work together for the good of those who love God [20]. If things of this life do get out of hand (e.g. getting blind, losing your job, war breaks out), the Christian can be comforted that God has not forsaken him and give him strength to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

 

Contrast this to the resources that the secular humanist has. With only the blind forces of nature to appeal to, what comfort can this worldview actually bring? In the context of our present discussion, some people might answer that non-Christians, by virtue of their more “liberal” ethic, can earn more money, have more sex and have lesser restrictions in general. Yet don’t we have plenty of live examples of people today who have earned lots of money, become “worshipped” by their fellow man, had plenty of sex, yet are still the saddest of people? Maybe it’s easy to think that these things will give us a fulfilled life given that we are privileged and optimistic twentysomethings with unrelenting sex drives, fueled by a culture that promises that romantic intimacy is the only true way to true fulfilment. Such a view is myopic; not all of us will have successful and fulfilling careers, biology tells us that with age our desire for sex will decrease (and so will other people’s physical desire for us!)…

 

Maybe the secular humanist might agree that this picture of materialistic hedonism is one that will ultimately lead to futility. Maybe they will argue that it’s all about living the “good” life and being content with whatever you have. While I see more promise in such a view, it invites us to ask deeper questions about what exactly the “good” life is, and more relevantly, the original argument they had about how the Christian life leads to psychological harm is robbed of its force- a more “liberal” ethic doesn’t necessarily lead to a more fulfilled life.

 

 

Closing thoughts

I hope I’ve presented and summarised most of my most important thoughts behind my reasons for finding the Christian faith both intellectually and existentially satisfying. Not only do I find the claims and teachings of the Christian faith to be the best explanation of reality, but it’s the worldview that can best satisfy my personal existential worries; it quells my feeling that nothing in this world is going satisfy my restless soul by pointing to something beyond this world.

 

Of course, this is far from even a comprehensive summary of the debates involving Christian theism- I have not even touched on the big problem of evil and many “negative” arguments against the Christian faith. But that was not my intention for writing this anyway. Some of the resources that I’ve linked here will give you an opportunity to dig deeper into some of the issues I’ve discussed here and beyond.

 

Ultimately, I believe that I wouldn’t have come to the beliefs that I have if not for the grace of God. My prayer for you, dear reader, is that you too will come to know God and will find peace, comfort and joy in being united to Him.

 

 

 

 

My thanks to Tim Xie and Cassandra Chung for going through the hard work of reading early drafts of this essay and giving me helpful feedback.

 

Also, the idea for this essay was inspired by a similar piece of work by Aron Wall, a Christian theoretical physicist who, I think, is now working at Cambridge. He wrote an incredible series of essays about his thoughts on the existence of God in a systematic way. It’s quite deep and detailed, but I’d encourage anyone with a philosophical bent to read it. He also has insightful posts about ‘God and Science’ that I’ve found to be really helpful. You can read his series here: http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/fundamental-reality-index/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] This is not an actual reconstruction of the conversation. My real-life catchup’s with friends has far more senseless banter inserted between these deep and meaningful conversations.

 

[2] Almost all of my thoughts are borrowed and/or inspired by other great people, so I hope that this essay will not be a space for me to “flex” my intellectual muscles but as a demonstration of God’s faithfulness in my life in providing me with helpful “teachers” who have been essential in helping me navigate the complexities of philosophy, science and theology (and life too!). While there are many, I would like to use this space to personally thank Randy Everist, Joshua Rasmussen and Aron Wall for patiently dealing with my many questions and for making difficult concepts easy to understand.

 

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_fallacy

 

[4] To be clear, I do think that there are cases where wishful thinking precludes rational belief in a proposition. But it would require an almost perfect access into a persons mental state (i.e. his desires and intentions before forming said belief), an access which I think is impossible to have. Unless you’re God.

 

[5] Some might reply by citing the great achievements of science as a “proof” of (1). But this misses the mark of the objection: no one is denying that science is an incredible tool for knowing things about our world, but we are denying that it is the only method of knowing anything at all!

 

[6] As an important side note, most people hold to a more tenable position of (1 *): For a belief to be justified, it must be supported by evidence.  Where “evidence” is loosely defined as some external, non-question begging reason for believing said truth e.g. a philosophical argument for the existence of God that doesn’t presuppose God in its premises. I’ve started to doubt even (1 *). For what external evidence do we have that (1 *) is true? This doesn’t do justice to both (1 *) and it’s objectors of course, so I will leave a link to a long but helpful article fleshing out what I mean here. Theologically, I’m getting more and more convinced that belief in Christ is not a belief that is founded on mere probabilistic arguments that I’ve had to offer here, rather it is based on a “sure and certain” hope. Alvin Plantinga has, I think, developed a really rigorous argument defending the rationality of such a view that denies (1 *).

Helpful summary of the view(but by no means exhaustive): https://www.bethinking.org/truth/religious-epistemology

 

[7] I’m not sure if this short summary of the contingency argument is a testament to more rigorous and in-depth presentations of the argument. It took me awhile to understand the force of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the heavy philosophical concepts like contingency and necessity. The most powerful objections to the argument are often complex as well. Here are some helpful resources for deeper understanding of what I’m trying to portray.

http://capturingchristianity.com/updated-contingency-argument/

http://alexanderpruss.com/papers/LCA.html

 

[8] Josh Rasmussen has spent some time trying to develop some supplementary arguments in favor of this. Try: https://www.academia.edu/630287/From_a_necessary_being_to_god

 

[9] Science can explain how we come to have the moral beliefs that we do, but it cannot prove that these beliefs are grounded in some external reality.

 

[10] Maybe the postmodernists do, but they do so at great cost: for then their own postmodern beliefs will be invalid!

 

[11] Some might argue that these facts just have no explanation at all and they might be onto something: just like how the explanation of dependent things has an explanatory “end point” (as demonstrated in my argument above), the explanations of moral actions find their explanatory stopping point at some moral maxims. e.g. when a child asks you why it’s wrong to steal, you’d probably end your explanation with something like “it’s just wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you”. I see merit with this view, but I also think we can offer explanations even for necessary facts- and some explanations can be better than others.

 

[12] Here’s another argument: suppose we think that the Prime Mover is this mindless law of nature that randomly spawns universes, and it exists independently to these mindless ethical facts. What a coincidence it would be then, for it to have generated a universe with rational beings who have evolved to come to perceive these ethical truths? Under the theistic explanation, we have a neat answer: God is both prime mover and divine legislator, so he can create a world where there are rational beings that can perceive his will and commandments.

 

[13] I especially think that Christians of the Reformed tradition should be careful holding to a similar belief about religious epistemology like the one just mentioned. The Bible is clear that the main obstacle between a non-believer and faith is an unregenerated heart, not mere intellectual incapability. To be sure, I think the effects of the fall were noetic, that it did not just affect our morality but also our cognitive faculties. But I’m not sure if mere philosophical argumentation is enough to undo the effects of the fall.

 

[14] To be clear, I do think that it is irrational to think that a believe is false only because you don’t like it. But I think something deeper is going on: the logical proposition that “Jesus is the risen Lord” is not just a “dry” truth claim, it has follow-up implications about e.g. who you can have sex with (because of what Jesus says about the topic)- this is an ethical claim. A non-believer might be convinced that this ethical proposition is false and therefore conclude that the logical proposition that precedes it must also be false. So the Christian can have two approaches: 1) demonstrate the veracity of the “dry” truth claim and/or 2) shake their confidence of their ethical beliefs.

 

[15] I’m not sure if we have moral obligations to ourselves that don’t involve other persons (God included!). Maybe you might argue that the prohibition of suicide is an example of a moral obligation that we owe to ourselves- not even to God. But even if this sort of obligation (or virtues) exist, I still think it doesn’t take away from the  heart of what I’m arguing here.

 

[16] There are those who don’t think it is a problem at all- a radical naturalist might think that the moral law is just an illusion given to us by evolution. Human evil is simply an example of the randomness at work in our brains-. The only reason why someone should “solve” it is so that it will maximise their own chances of survival (or something along these lines).

 

[17] maybe love is the chief virtue, but humility is a precondition for love

 

[18] This does not mean that the Christian cannot be sad or lonely in this world- The Christian believes that while Jesus has already reconciled us to God, we are not yet rid of the suffering and longings of this world. Our hope for ultimate satisfaction lies in the future!

One might argue that this defeats the purpose of my argument: but I think there’s a difference between having a “this worldly” hope in romance and an “other worldly” hope. If your hope is in this world (e.g. romance), then all I need to do is to point out that even people who have experienced romance are deeply lonely and dissatisfied. But if my hope is in another world, the same strategy doesn’t work, because I am saying that ultimate satisfaction simply cannot be found in the here and now (at least not yet!). Your only strategy is to show that it is either irrational to believe in this other world, or that this other world simply does not exist.

 

[19] Well as a side note, there might actually be empirical data suggesting quite the opposite. It seems that there are studies suggesting that people who are more involved in religious communities (christianity included!) are associated with lower risks of depression and anxiety, lower incidences of divorce etc. [Religious Service Attendance, Marriage, and Health | Institute for Family Studies   While I tend to be quite skeptical of sociological studies like these (too many variables, not sure how to prove causation etc.), it certainly doesn’t help the person making the opposite case!

 

[20] Note: “Good” here does not mean health and prosperity in this life. The best thing (hence, the “most” good thing) that can happen to the Christian is to be united with God (fully known and fully loved) in eternity.

 

[21] For a comprehensive summary of this argument from the historicity of the resurrection see: http://capturingchristianity.com/fact-fiction-resurrection-jesus-comprehensive-case/

 

[22] Not the clearest definition of “The Gospel” that I can come up with, but I was advised (rightly so), that I needed to simplify my summary of the gospel such that it doesn’t confuse the uninitiated with complex jargon.

 

 

Single like a Pringle: Singleness and the Christian life

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Your alarm rings.

 

It’s 6 a.m.

 

You reach to your phone to turn off your alarm; while you’re at it, you check all your social media accounts for messages and updates, trying to find something to grab enough of your attention to wake you.

 

You start to notice pictures of couples publicly dedicating their love for each other & you realize what day it is…

 

Valentine’s Day.

 

You don’t know what to feel: on one hand, you feel happy for your friends who have someone to spend this “special” day together. On the other, you realize that it’s another year spending this “special” day alone. Deep down inside you envy your friends; you want to have a special someone too.

 

Your well-meaning friends try to help. Some of them tell you to try a dating app, sharing success stories (maybe even their own!) while urging you to be more proactive. Others are surprised that you’re still single. “Don’t you go to church? Isn’t that the main reason why young people go to church these days?” They say.

Still, some of your other friends tell you that it’s okay to be single; they tell you that singleness is a good thing and that you should spend more time with God and be completely dependent on Him before finding a wife.

 

How should you feel? What should you do, if anything at all? Does the truth of the Christian faith affect any of your answers at all?

 

There is a common ‘wisdom’ floating around Christian circles saying that the unmarried shouldn’t talk or write about marriage/relationships. Despite some reservations with this view, maybe there’s some truth to it. But if that saying is true, then maybe it’s also true that people who aren’t single (i.e. the married/in-a-relationship’s) shouldn’t talk or write about singleness. [1]

 

& so, seeing that I’m single, I figured I should reflect on some of the things I’ve learned and experienced as a single person in light of the Christian faith. Primarily, I want to write from the perspective of a young-ish heterosexual with desires for romance who believes that Jesus has (literally) risen from the dead, as is Lord of all creation.

 

The latter bit is important: It will make sense later.

 

i. Contentment

Let’s take the example of the friend who tells you to “spend more time with God” before finding a wife; that you ought to be “content” before seeking out romantic interests.

 

But what is contentment? Why is it important? What does a content person look like?

 

In the context of this topic, single people are often warned to be content before dating for fear that their future romantic partners will become an idol. This is right: to give anyone else but God all our affections, desire and worship is a great and terrible sin; it is the loving thing to do to caution others.

 

However, my experience is that for many people, contentment is defined as a purely emotional state; it’s all about expressing happiness. So it follows from this view that the person who expresses sadness at the event of any failed romantic pursuits is someone who is discontent. To grieve at all is a demonstration of idolatry.

 

I don’t share this view. It seems that if people who have this view want to be consistent, then it follows that the man who mourns the loss of his family in a tragic car accident is also guilty of the idolatry of his family, because he does not express happiness in his state of loss ergo he is discontent. Yet the Bible doesn’t seem to command us to feel happy all the time: we are commanded to mourn with those who mourn, the Psalms express a variety of emotions (sometimes sad ones) before God, there’s a whole book in the Bible that is literally titled “Lamentations”…

 

How then, does the Bible define contentment?

 

To my mind, the content person is someone who is faithful to God in spite of how we feel towards any given circumstances. One way I came to this view is by studying and reflecting on 1 Cor. 7. In the midst of addressing issues pertaining to marriage, divorce and staying single, Paul tells the Corinthians to “stay as they are”:

 

17 Let each one live his life in the situation the Lord assigned when God called him. This is what I command in all the churches. 18 Was anyone already circumcised when he was called? He should not undo his circumcision. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised. 19 Circumcision does not matter and uncircumcision does not matter. Keeping God’s commands is what matters. 20 Let each of you remain in the situation in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Don’t let it concern you. But if you can become free, by all means take the opportunity. 22 For he who is called by the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called as a free man is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of people. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person is to remain with God in the situation in which he was called.

1 Cor. 7:17–24 CSB

 

What stood out to me was in v19b, when he says that “Keeping God’s commands is what matters”. This imperative seems to be of ultimate importance when considering our circumstances and trying to be content with it; notice how Paul does not forbid the slave to become free if the opportunity arises, so Paul is not saying that to be content is to not desire a change of circumstances at all: But that you are to “remain with God” in your circumstances (that might vary) by making sure you keep His commandments!

 

If I’m right, that means that the single woman who desires a husband is committing no sin (insofar that she doesn’t think of her being married as a higher spiritual state, but we’ll get to that later), what ultimately matters is that she honors God in her singleness by keeping His commands, instead of trying to pursue this zen-like state of having no desires for a husband at all.

 

Practically speaking, the difference this makes is that a person who is nearly devastated by a failed relationship but continues to hope and trust in God by not relenting in her love for Him by not succumbing to temptations (a friend once told me how she felt tempted to flirt with a  non-Christian guy as a means to punish God for not giving her a godly boyfriend), by being relentless in her love for God’s people (i.e. serving in church, encouraging others in spite of the massive heartache), is actually content, even though emotionally speaking, she is anything but happy.

 

Conversely, this means that the guy who remains happy after a failed romantic pursuit, but who uses pornography and other sorts of hidden vices to keep him happy, is actually the discontent one, in spite of his outward happiness; The woman who uses a dating app to find a godly boyfriend is more content than the boy who tells everyone how content he is considering a marrying a non-Christian woman.

 

This is liberating: Firstly, it means that we can still honor God in light of our ever-changing emotions that are often difficult to control, and we no longer have to feel guilty about grief [2]. Secondly, it means that we are actually more free than we think! We don’t have to overthink the opportunities that present themselves to us so long as we honor God in taking them.

 

 

On another note, this also means that people who are romantically involved can also be discontent! Think of the bride-to-be whose only thought is of her wedding day, who is unconcerned with loving God’s people around her; Or the inward looking couple who gets angry and bitter at their pastor for putting them in different small groups; Or the man who will only attend church if his girlfriend is there… Examples abound!

 

& yet it seems that all the focus on contentment in the church is put on single people: as if singles are the only ones who have a problem with being content. Given the thin view of contentment that I outlined above, you can see why (especially in youth/young adult dominated christian environments): most singles express desires and longings to find someone (especially in a culture where romance is viewed as the dominant means of finding happiness), while those who already have it seem to appear happy with where they are at. So if emotional appearance is all that matters, then of course single people appear less content.

 

Perhaps this is a symptom of a deeper problem: people are caring more about overt and outwardly displays of spirituality, akin to a modern kind of asceticism: the practice of removing oneself from all desires to pursue a higher spiritual plane. They are obsessed with coming up with new rules and regulations: using the hours someone spends on their quiet time as a gauge of how spiritual they are, prohibiting people from making romantic advances in church/christian conferences because it “pollutes” the sanctity of a “holy” gathering, insisting on a particular set of dating “strategies”, insisting on praying loudly to cast out territorial demons… [3]

 

I call it Evangelical Virtue Signalling, because this focus on outwardly displays of spirituality and adhering to these new “rules” is just that: a desire to draw attention to one’s own spirituality and how better they are at it compared to others.

 

But this is all not new. The Christians in Colossae were probably introduced to such practices, but Paul says to them:

 

 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ.  Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.

If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”?  All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.

CSB. Col. 2:16–23

 

ii. Christian, what is your only comfort in life and death?

I think I can’t write an essay about singleness without also writing about the feelings of despair, loneliness and hopeless that comes with it. I’m also hesitant to say that I can fully sympathize with everyone who is single, especially when you consider that the category of singleness includes those who were once married (i.e. the divorced, widowed etc.).

 

…But I can talk about the hope that keeps me going!

 

 

But first, a bit about me: I grew up in a culture that values romance more than anything else: I used to be made to watch cheesy Hong Kong/Korean dramas with my mother and sister as a child and was frequently exposed to narratives where the themes of romantic love is most prominent. & so, it naturally became something I grew to value very much (even though at many times in my life I was in denial of this, but on retrospect: who was I kidding?)

 

So I am quite familiar with the weighty feelings of disappointment and despair that come from a rejection or failed expectations; I am also intimately familiar with the temptation of attaching my self-worth to my ability to find a ‘special someone’/the qualities of who I am “good enough” to attract.

 

On the latter, I think it is far more common than assumed that people often do this: who you get together with (if any at all) seems to say a lot about you. & we, by nature, are obsessed with glorifying ourselves. Couple our intrinsic narcissism with a culture that highly esteems romanticism and you get a recipe for plenty of brokenness, unmet expectations and wounded egos.

 

I’m not just talking about the common Hollywood stereotype of the rich playboy millionaire who flanks himself with supermodels to symbolize his status. It might not be so explicit, but it’s there. The subtle remarks about how so and so is underserving of dating so and so, the constant bombardment of social media posts praising the qualities/good looks of the beloved, comments out of frustration like “she’s 40 and single for a reason”, the boy who resorts to self-hatred after a rejection because he thinks this is a clear sign that he’s “worthless” or the pompous declaration by an individual that s/he is single because “my standards are simply far too high” (thereby implying that they are so elite that there simply isn’t anyone good enough to deserve them, when actually it is their pride finding a flattering explanation as to why they are still single, since they believe that singleness is a prima facie lowly position)

 

The realization of this (not just in others, but in myself as well!) made me think about how obsessed I was with how other people viewed me & how I was measuring my performance as a Christian on how girls viewed me, and I beat myself up for not measuring up in the event of failure.  Of course, as with all the other guys (well, most of them) who thought like this, we quickly learned how there wasn’t a correlation between a person’s godliness and “sexiness”. People get attracted for all sorts of reasons, many of them completely arbitrary (and so out of your control), so it’s not like romantic love is something you can earn.

 

But the deeper problem was the terrible idolatry involved in such thinking: In those times I was not seeking to please God because of who He is and what He has done, but I did it (or at least, gave the appearance of it) so that I could please myself.

 

So, I guess sometimes the “misery” experienced in singleness is our own fault, and we should thank God for disciplining us in this way because:

 

      11 Do not despise the LORD’s instruction, my son,

and do not loathe his discipline;

12 for the LORD disciplines the one he loves,

just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.

 

 

CSB Proverbs 3:11–12, quoted in Hebrews 12:5-6

 

 

 

But on another level, there seems to be a nagging pain that won’t seem to go away: maybe you’ve gained clarity in your intentions, and all you want to do is to glorify God as best as you can. You are clear that your identity is found in Christ and that your conscience is clear before God…

 

But every failed opportunity and every rejection still hurts (albeit lesser than before).

 

The loneliness and despair still bite at your soul: more and more of your friends are getting paired up and married, the ever-mounting pressure from your friends/relatives at catchups/reunion dinners reminding you that “the clock is ticking”. Perhaps you’re like me: a foreigner in a strange land, far away from familiar faces and the warmth of the community you once enjoyed- this makes the nagging far louder, and the temptation to compromise stronger.

 

But with time, I’ve grown to appreciate these episodes of apparent despair. As Spurgeon says: I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me against the rock of ages.

 

These episodes eventually remind me of the only hope that I really have in both life and death. I am reminded of the fleeting nature of romance, how quick the euphoria fades and how “our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed they pass quickly and we fly away” (Cf. Psalm 90:10). The momentary despair begs me to ask the deeper existential question of what hope any of us mortals have at all.

 

It is in these moments of existential dread, I am reminded of the hope that I have in Christ! I think about my sin and how it is so incompatible with a holy God; how I deserve his punishment and how much I don’t deserve to be united with a being who is the source of all goodness and beauty. I think about His great love and mercy in saving me through Jesus’ work on the cross and the punishment that He had to endure for my sake. I think of all the spiritual blessings that I have because of my being united with Christ; I have now been forgiven by and reconciled to God! Surely no woman can compare to His beauty and goodness; for even the most beautiful of them are only but a shadow of a far greater reality!

 

Consider the depths and riches of God’s love through Jesus. As a brief reminder, this is who Jesus is (in terms of his status!):

 

 

”      15 He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn over all creation.

16 For everything was created by him,

in heaven and on earth,

the visible and the invisible,

whether thrones or dominions

or rulers or authorities—

all things have been created through him and for him.

17 He is before all things,

and by him all things hold together. ”

 

Col 1:15–17 (CSB)

 

Jesus literally owns all of creation: everything was created for him. This is how important Jesus is…

 

And yet, the same Jesus whom all of reality depends on, and was created for, endured His father’s wrath on the cross for our sins:

 

Though my mortal mind cannot brain the Trinity, we are taught that there is this perfect, eternal love and unity that existed between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit before anything was even created. But on that cross, something happened when Jesus was bearing the wrath of the Father on our behalf, such that the Son cries out “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?”. Now, I’m not too sure whether human language can properly describe what happened to the relationship between the Father and the Son on the cross, or if we can at all; but it seems to me like Jesus’ suffering on the cross was far deeper than we make it out to be, and perhaps he endured some crushing level of loneliness when the Father poured out his wrath on him..

 

The author of Hebrews writes (after he establishes the importance of Jesus’ human nature!):

 

5 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.

 

Heb. 4:15–16. CSB

 

 

 

Such is the incomprehensible cost of our redemption! Yet Jesus willingly endured it, and the Father willingly sent him! What wondrous love is this? What other love can compare to it?

 

Reflecting on these great truths gives me a comfort that transcends mere experience; it doesn’t instantly transform my sadness into mere happiness, rather, I become hopeful knowing that because of Jesus, far greater things await me than the things I’ve left behind.

 

Remember, the Christian hope is forward-looking even though we often look back to what God has already done for us. All is not yet right: that beautiful vision of God dwelling with His people in the new heaven’s and the new earth while wiping away all their tears has not yet been fulfilled. Sin and death are still with us (to be relevant, the many disaster stories involving couples is proof of this!).

How sad would it be, then, would it be for someone to confuse this hope that we already have with the momentary euphoria of romance?

Think of the “ex-Christian” who denounces Christ for a girlfriend or the couple who finds ultimate satisfaction in each other instead of Christ… It is like Esau trading his birthright for a “bowl of soup”; one is far more valuable than the other.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that it is far from simple; it’s not as if through reciting these truths to myself I immediately feel 100% happy and all the temptation to compromise just vanishes, or that once I have ‘recalibrated’ my thoughts, it will never go haywire again… But it seems like this is how God wants to teach me how to be content and what it means to see the gospel as my only real comfort in a world full of false gods; a lesson I might not have learned were it any other way. After all, God wills all things for the good of those who love him, right?

 

 

When I first learned how to read the Bible properly, I used to poke fun at how Philippians 4:13 is used out of context to motivate ourselves to achieve our (worldly) goals. But I didn’t put a lot of thought into what it really meant and why God put it there, but maybe now I know: Paul was talking about how we can be content in any and all circumstances because of “Christ who strengthens us”, and perhaps to be strengthened by Christ is to simply allow the Spirit to speak to us through His word, by keeping our eyes on Him who is the author and perfecter of our faith.

 

 

iii. The good ‘gift’ of singleness

In light of the sexual revolution, the need for Christians to uphold the sanctity of marriage and to argue for its goodness has become more urgent.

 

There’s no doubting that marriage is indeed a good gift from God. Paul argues that God instituted marriage as a means to point people to a union that is far greater: Christ and the Church. (cf. Eph. 5:25-32).

 

But what about singleness? Should marriage be the goal of every Christian? If people’s (even non-Christians!) point to Christ and the church, does it mean that the life of the single person cannot do so?

 

When thinking about these questions, one of the most interesting things that someone pointed out to me was that Jesus himself was single! And so was Paul! So if the most complete and perfect human being who has ever existed was single [4], maybe it very easily and simply demonstrates that marriage and romance are not essential to our humanity (this is probably blasphemy to the ears of post-sexual revolution moderns!).

 

But what is this talk about singleness being a gift? This is likely an inference made from 1 Cor. 7:7. After changing my mind a few times, I’m not sure what to think of it:

 

One view is that this ‘Gift’ is very specific: it is a lack of desire for sexual relations. Gordon Fee seems to hold to this view, for textual reasons. [5]

 

The other view is that this ‘gift’ is more general: it refers to the circumstances of someone not being married. So you can have sexual desires, but by virtue of being unmarried, you already posses this gift. [6]

 

Ultimately, what is clearer from the whole chapter is that:

  • Paul had a preference for singleness. Regardless of how you understand what the “present distress” in v26 is, it’s clear that Paul thought that there were good reasons to remain unmarried.
  • Paul does not see marriage as sin; nor does he see those who get married as “second-class” Christians. This is clear not just from his insistence in saying that he’s not giving a commandment AND from the rest of his theology of justification by faith alone.

 

Point 1 would refute people who say that there’s nothing special about singleness, and that married people can do/possess everything that the Single has. Because it seems like Paul is saying that there are specific advantages for being unmarried.

 

Point 2 would refute people who see celibacy as a sign of closeness to God (i.e. Roman Catholicism?); these are people who might be tempted to see the specific advantages of being unmarried as a means of spiritual boasting. It is marriage, not singleness, that is a foreshadowing of Christ and The Church. Paul has great stuff to say about marriage elsewhere.

 

 

Practically speaking, it seems to me (I am expressing genuine uncertainty here!) that to Paul, marriage or singleness does nothing to determine one’s standing before God, but in each circumstance there are particular benefits that a single person might have that someone who is married might not have, and vice-versa.

 

My guess is that the extra time and capacity of the Single will allow him/her to do a certain type of ministry that would be more challenging for someone who is married; or that they might be more perceptive to issues that married people are not (and vice-versa)

 

Personally, I’ve particularly benefited from what ministers who are celibate (e.g. Sam Allberry, Wes Hill, Ed Shaw…) in how they articulate specific ways the Church has succumbed to the sexual revolution and adopted some of its (unjustified) beliefs.

 

Take for example how thin a view of friendship we have in the Church: you’re (implicitly) taught that you cannot have genuine friendships with members of the opposite sex. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat myself here. But in summary: I doubt reducing members of the opposite sex to be merely sexual temptations to be avoided is consistent with how we are taught in scripture to see each other (as brothers and sisters).

 

 

Hence, it looks like scripture is pretty clear that one can honor God whether single or married (albeit in different looking ways), and one position is not superior to the other. And it looks like God has given some of us the freedom to choose.

 

So we are all like a can of Pringles. Eating a single Pringle is good, and eating a whole can of Pringles at once is good as well, whatever floats your boat so long as you don’t forget to burn all the calories afterwards. (this is my attempt at justifying the title for no good reason at all.)

 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed here are my own. They have nothing to do with Pringles or its manufacturer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] This is bad logic. Truth is independent of experience and feelings: the unmarried person has every right to tell a husband not to beat his wife regardless of his marital status.

 

[2] Maybe the act of grieving is how God shows mercy on all of his creation by giving us a biological coping mechanism for the brokenness of our world.

 

[3] To be clear: some of these are sometimes helpful and loving to advocate. I am talking about an advocacy of these rules that is not rooted in a love for Christ or His people.

 

[4] I’m talking about Jesus here, not Paul. Also, technically Jesus is married to His Church! But that means technically no Christians are unmarried. But you get the point…

 

[5] This is Gordon Fee’s view in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. Pp. 284. he seems to think that the corinthians were using Paul’s singleness as a justification to pursue celibacy (because they have a flawed view of spirituality and viewed it as a higher form of spirituality, this seems to be a recurring theme in the letter) within the confines of marriage (not having sex with their partners). Overall, my impression is that Fee has this view because it fits better with the overall tone and context of the letter.

 

[6] My current view is that the gift is probably referring to the absence of desires; mainly because I’ve only ever read one commentary (Fee’s) on 1 Cor and he presents a textual argument, and all the other arguments that I’ve heard put against this view are practical arguments (e.g. arguing against the impossibility of having such a gift by referring to personal anecdotes and pastoral difficulties). Not that I don’t think such arguments bear no weight on the text, but I think textual arguments need to take priority of practical ones- but it’s all really complicated and I can’t pretend to hold very strongly to one view especially because I haven’t read what the other commentators have to say about it.

“He is risen…right?” Musings of a doubting Thomas

It’s Easter.

Christians all around the world celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus- the cornerstone of our faith.

Good Friday is usually associated with expressions of thankfulness, sorrow and awe as we reflect on the radical love, mercy and grace displayed to us by the triune God on the Cross. Easter Sunday is associated with expressions of joy and hope as Christians remember the Grand Miracle that gives us a reason to trust and hope in the promises of God.

Without the resurrection, “we should be pitied more than anyone”, so says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. If Jesus’ corpse is still rotting in the ground  (or in the bellies of the rotting corpses of dogs who would’ve ate his flesh if he was left to hang on the cross, as some scholars believe), then it seems that God had not vindicated him; the prophecies of the Old Testament would remain unfulfilled- we are still dead in our sin and have no hope of being reconciled to God. Or maybe it just means that God doesn’t exist; Jesus was simply an eccentric and charismatic prophet who made apocalyptic claims that turned out to be untrue. Or maybe God exists but he doesn’t actually care. Whatever it is, Christianity stands or fall on this belief that Jesus rose physically from the dead.

Growing up in a tradition Chinese culture meant that I had little or no problems believing in miracles. But as I grew older, I learned that there was a near unshakeable regularities in nature: apple’s always fall from apple trees, strong acids always react with strong bases to form water and a salt (if they are of equal volume and strength), a human being will never be able to live after having their brains blown out etc. It seems that science is so powerful because of these law-like regularities found in nature. We can make powerful and accurate predictions (e.g. The sun will rise tomorrow) about nature by observing these regularities.

But here’s another regularity: dead men stay dead. You might believe that their “souls” (undetectable by empirical science) move towards an afterlife, but to assert that a dead man, with no help of some theoretical medical device only found in sci-fi novels, walked out of his grave after being dead for 3 days is a whole other story: we literally have millions of dead bodies and bones to show us that dead people stay dead. So how can Christianity stand against the scrutiny of a very well established truth about human biology?  Christian apologists like to assert that the resurrection is an event that is easily provable because of “multiple eyewitnesses”.  Yet is it not also possible that all of these eyewitnesses experienced some sort of mass hallucination primed by grief for their beloved leader? Sherlock Holmes once said that once we rule out the impossible, whatever the alternative, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. So it seems however improbable mass hallucinations are, it is not as improbable as a dead man rising from the dead.

Consider though, that the claim of the Christian is not that Jesus randomly rose from the dead by mere accident.  Rather, the claim is that God raised Jesus from the dead. If an all-powerful God exists, surely it isn’t impossible for him to break the laws of nature (of which He himself is the author of) to declare to all humanity that “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; Listen to him”. One might object that if a God like that exists, He would’ve performed a lot more miracles (i.e. violations of the laws of nature) than we currently observe today. But maybe this is precisely why miracles are so rare; to highlight the uniqueness of the Grand Miracle of which there are cosmic implications to.

In the past few years, my mind has been a battlefield of arguments; I spent hours diving into arguments for and against the resurrection (to illustrate how obsessed I was, I actually paid for a subscription to an atheist New Testament scholar’s blog to read his thoughts on the matter). Ironically, it was in the darkness of my doubt that I learned of the joy of Easter. In my deepest of doubts, I realised how radical my worldview would have to change if I indeed came to believe that Jesus never rose from the dead- my view on ethics for example. (Imagine knowing that you had 1 year to live and that there was no afterlife, how would you live? I find it hard to escape hedonistic conclusions) There was a feeling of dread and hopelessness that was so piercing, it made unrequited love feel like a mere itch in comparison to it. But there was some value in the experience. Reflecting on the rarity of miracles and the sheer “unexpected-ness” of it all has made the joy of easter all the more powerful and more precious: Imagine if God resurrects 1 random person per century. We would then be able to make a prediction that at least 1 person will be raised from the dead every 100 years. Jesus’ resurrection then, would not be able to establish His supreme authority because we would expect resurrections to happen randomly anyway.

Being nearly “robbed” of the joy that I had in Christ showed me just how important it was to me. Learning about the biology of death (i.e. what happens to a mammalian body after its heart stops beating), it makes the resurrection even more amazing. The cosmic implications of the laws of nature being tampered with by it’s Creator is that Jesus had an authority that transcended the universe; it gives me reason to trust in his words and promises, even when things seem prima facie contrary to them; a reason not built on mere conjecture or wishful thinking, but on an objective fact about the relationship between the creator and his created natural order.

I wrote this after spending my 24th birthday curled up in a foetal position as I, once again, succumb to the worries and pains of this world. But I remembered that Easter Sunday is approaching- I remembered the true despair and hopelessness I felt in my periods of doubt- I am reminded of what is of cosmic significance, and what is not.

Christ is risen!

P.S. Here’s an obvious reply that I envisage some might have to this post: If you’re so emotionally attached to the truth of the resurrection, surely you’re believing in the resurrection out of wishful thinking.

But such an argument is fallacious, I think it commits something like the genetic fallacy. A person having an emotional response to the truth of a proposition (e.g. Jesus physically rose from the dead) does not have a necessary connection to why they believe such a proposition to be true. For example, an atheist might find Jesus’ teaching on sexual morality to be repulsive and so have an emotional reason not to want Jesus’ resurrection to be true. But this does not mean that the atheist cannot have other independent reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis. Simply put, don’t confuse:

(1) Having an emotional response to a truth claim

With

(1*) Having an emotional argument for a truth claim

Old, Tired and reformed

DSC04387Last year was the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation. Some of you might’ve realised this because of the constant sharing of “Reformation500” events on your Facebook newsfeed. Most people would’ve heard of how the event was attributed to Martin Luther or how it caused a big split in Christianity.

 

While you might not doubt that the reformation was a significant event in history, you might wonder why on earth some protestant Christians are separating themselves from their already “protestant” churches by identifying themselves as being “reformed”. If you happen to be a Christian who is studying in a University in and around the Klang Valley (Malaysia), you might’ve heard of this “new” kind of Christianity that seems to be growing in campus- these christians might self-identify as “reformed” or “calvinist” and a lot of them seem to say really provocative things about God and Christianity.

 

For some people, these “reformed” Christians are set apart by their radical belief in predestination. For others, being “reformed” is logically equivalent to “not-charismatic/pentecostal”.

 

But what explains the growth of these “reformed” groups? Is it because there are more cute guys/girls in reformed churches? Is it just a momentary hype destined to die down eventually like the “kendama culture”?

 

As someone who’s spent most of his life in a “charismatic” church and who, like many others, moved over to a more “reformed” church later on in life, I decided to write this to flesh out my reasons for favouring this tradition and a few practical experiences I’ve gained along the way. My hope is that it will offer some insight to those looking at the tradition from the “outside” and from those already on the inside.  I hope that these insights might add some clarity to people thinking about these issues.

 

Prologue: Definitions

Much has been written about how  being “reformed” can mean different things to different people. Some insist on a strict historical reading, whereby a person is only Reformed if s/he subscribes to a certain historical confessional document/s (e.g. The Westminster Confession of Faith, 3 forms of unity etc.). There is some debate about this (the debate might be about which creeds to consider etc.). Others believe that all you need to believe in to be reformed is to hold to the 5 Solas of the protestant reformation…

 

While I see some value in coming up with a precise definition of what being reformed means, that is not within the scope of this post nor do I know enough about the subject to say much about it.

 

For my purposes, I will speak about the particular beliefs/attitudes that I think 95% of Christians who self-identify as reformed would assent to. (P<0.05 xD)

 

I will also be making a contrast between the reformed tradition and the dominant form of evangelical christianity that I’m accustomed to- the charismatic/pentecostal tradition because of who I think my readers will be. Though I’m pretty sure any christian will find most of what I will be writing about relevant to their beliefs, whether they agree with it or not.

 

Creatures of the Word

One of the most attractive features of the reformation to me is how it is based on a desire to always go back to scripture as our ultimate authority, so as to constantly check our doctrines, theology, attitudes and practices against the word of God.

 

Being raised in a background where I get told stuff like “God told me in a dream yesterday that we need to build a new church building!”, I didn’t have a very developed idea of how I could know what truths to believe about God or how he could speak to me. At one point in my life, I recall opening my bible to a random page and reading the first verse that catches my eye, believing that this was how God was going to communicate with me. (Don’t laugh, I bet many of you did this too!). As I grew older, I vaguely remember how I was told that I could simply feel what God’s will for me was. Sure, everyone I knew said that the Bible was important- yet during Bible Studies, people just took turns talking about what they felt the text was telling them. This resulted in very divergent interpretation of the same text without any rational rule to discern between them. It was heavily implied that the meaning of scripture is a wholly subjective affair.

 

The problem with these practices is that they these practices renders God’s revelations arbitrary. Joe can say to Steph that God told him to marry her; But Steph can reply that God told her otherwise. Anyone can claim to represent God in their propositional claims with no easy way to resolve contradicting claims like the one above. Furthermore, given our human tendencies to manipulate others, these practices are  dangerous given how a power hungry person can claim to represent God in commanding obedience to certain practices/ teachings. For example: A power hungry pastor commanding his congregation to donate to a dodgy ministry because God told him so.  The crux of the problem is this: If just about anyone can claim to receive a personal revelation from God, how do we find out what God is really saying (unless we want to concede that God often contradicts himself)?

 

But then I was introduced to the idea of “reading the Bible in context”. It wasn’t until a friend recommended a big book titled “Grasping God’s Word”. It taught me that the Bible wasn’t a a random ensemble of words and propositions that had changing meanings over time, but rather they were made up of various ancient writings of different genre’s by people from very different historical contexts addressing a variety of different concerns. I learned the basic practice of “exegesis” (a term very commonly used in reformed circles): the practice of critically interpreting a given text to find out the intentions of the author. Combine that with the belief that all of scripture in inspired by the Holy Spirit (e.g. even though Romans was written by Paul, it was also authored by the Spirit!), I had a non-arbitrary way of discerning between theological truths and falsehoods.

 

This was a game-changer for me. See, because of the problem of arbitrariness, I found it hard to make sense of many theological and practical claims that Christians were making.

 

Here’s a personal example: I was brought up being told that sex before marriage is sin. This was usually defended by referencing a host of psychological/practical arguments. Some might bring up the possibility of accidental pregnancies that could destroy a persons life forever. One unforgettable example was when I heard a pastor at a youth camp say that pre-marital sex is wrong because it will rob a woman of the greatest gift she can give to her future husband i.e. her virginity. I think the view that was being perpetuated was that a woman’s purity is somehow a large determinant of her worth to her husband. I’ve heard similar anecdotes about how some youth pastors would argue against pre-marital sex by saying that a woman who’s slept around with many men would become like a “crumpled rose” after being passed around between many people. This was followed by a rhetorical question “Who would want a rose like this?”. Of course, there was also the occasional reference to a prooftext about “avoiding sexual immorality”…

 

Anyway, given puberty and my continual exposure to “western media”- I started to question this view (and everything else under the sun, damn hormones!). Why would God want to deprive us of pleasure? Why would pre-marital sex be wrong if it’s between two people who genuinely love each other? Then I remember stumbling upon Christians who were arguing that the Bible never mentions pre-marital sex and that our modern English rendering of the greek for “fornication” is one that has been strong influenced and distorted by Victorian-era ideals. I remember actually holding to the view that pre-marital sex wasn’t wrong for a short time (Thankfully I remained single throughout that period).  Regardless, I was pretty confused and didn’t know who to believe. The psychological/practical arguments claimed that pre-marital sex would result in disastrous implications to society yet the most prosperous societies in the world were the most sexually liberal. Furthermore, it also seemed to me that people had an expectation that they wouldn’t be marrying a virgin anyway- so that whole argument about how attractive purity is in a woman didn’t seem persuasive enough. [1]

 

Anyway, as I started to learn how to read the bible for myself, it slowly became clearer to me that scripture is clear that sex was designed by God for the purposes of marriage alone. I slowly developed a theology of sexuality and marriage that went beyond mere conjectures about human psychology- the best part was that I could actually see for myself how this theology could be fleshed out from scripture- God’s living and breathing word! Furthermore, a pastor/blogger made a compelling case against what I now see as a misogynistic and destructive view of women and their worth: Jesus wants the (crumpled) rose! See, Romans teaches us that all of humankind are deserving of God’s judgement because we are “under sin”. But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us- making peace on the cross with God for us. So here’s the thing: why its it that a woman’s sexual sin in her past enough to have some mystical “damning” effect on her identity even after she’s been declared righteous before God through the atoning work of Christ? Furthermore, Jesus taught us that any man who looks at a woman lustfully in his heart has already committed adultery with her. Surely this would mean that the pornographic habits of us men is also seen as a serious sexual sin in the eyes of God. Yet why do we men think that it is far worst for a woman to commit sexual sin (such that she would become less valuable, spiritually) and yet when it comes to the failings of the male species we shrug our shoulders?

 

I think what was taught to me in my youth was a combination by a sincere desire to encourage purity among us youths- but it seemed to be more fuelled with a combination of patriarchal and Chinese-conservative cultural beliefs and a vague idea of what Christian orthodoxy taught than a pure desire to point people to the direction of Christ. This example brings me to a bigger point: having a clearer picture of how I could understand God’s word wasn’t just intellectually satisfying, it also didn’t just help me work out what I had to do in a practical sense… It helped me look to God with wonder and awe as I read about who He is and what He has accomplished through the gospel! The effects of this was life-changing… (and it still is!)

 

Hence, I am greatly indebted to the reformed tradition’s desire to keep returning to scripture and submitting our cultural and personal views to the authority of it. The practice of eisegesis (reading our own meaning into scripture) is strongly discouraged as we are often encouraged to read the Bible for what it actually says. This loyalty to scripture is perhaps my greatest criticism of the “charismatic/pentecostal” movement: scripture is now forced to submit to our cultural and personal beliefs as we put our words into God’s mouth.

 

To God be the glory, alone.

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon.

 

You take out your phone and habitually scroll through your newsfeed. A post by a christian friend catches your eyes. It says something like this :”Promoted! After spending only a year working at this firm, I managed to climb the ranks more quickly than a normal person would through hard work and determination! Always believe in yourself and trust that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you! #GodIsGood #ToGodBeTheGlory”

 

This is accompanied with a well-composed self-portrait.

 

While I made this up, I’ve definitely encountered posts like these. It is all too common for Christians to “give God the glory”, but this phrase has been thrown around like a platitude- I struggle to understand what someone means when they use it. One cause for doubt is that it’s a quick and easy way to sound humble; one can be as boastful as he wants yet still sound humble by adding that last bit at the end about “giving God the glory”. I wrestled hard with this in my time in a church with a strong celebrity culture- not that all of the celebrities were proud and arrogant jerks- I was just struggling to understand what it meant to “give God the glory” when it seemed like it was often me trying to stay in the limelight.

 

This is where I find the reformed tradition’s emphasis on the sinfulness of all humankind to be immensely helpful and convicting. A central belief among reformed Christians is that all of us were once dead in our sin (cf. Eph. 2), that our sinfulness is not simply us accidentally stepping on God’s toes, but rather it is described in scripture as a rebellion against our creator (cf. Romans 5). Our sin is so serious that Jesus had to die for us to be reconciled to God. I think our chief sin is in wanting to be god over our own lives instead of accepting God’s rule i.e. pride. We have a natural disposition to want to put all things below us. We like looking down, not up.

 

One common complaint about the tradition is that we spend too much time talking about sin and it “turns off” non-Christians. But I think it’s not really about the discomfort of non-christians (although I don’t doubt that some people are genuine about this worry), it’s rather the discomfort experienced by Christians who have a really “high” view of humanity (and by extension, of themselves). And I can speak with conviction about this because this was once me.

 

C.S.Lewis’ insights on pride, which he calls “The chief vice” in Mere Christianity further illustrates our deep problem of pride: when we get angered or triggered by the boastings of another person, it is because of our own pride. “How dare he think himself the better man?! I’m obviously the better man!”. Pride doesn’t just result in enmity, it is enmity. Pride easily corrupts other virtues. A man can display outward virtues (godliness is a virtue) simply as a means to bask in the praises of others (look up “virtue signalling”).

 

Even after being saved, it seems that our sinful natures stick with us. Paul, even after going on and on about how our salvation is not through obedience to the Law, but through Christ, tells the believer to “by the spirit, put to death the deeds of the Body “ (Cf. Rom. 8:13)  We are work in progress.

 

That the reformed tradition takes this “low” view of humanity is important for several reasons. Chief of all of these reasons is that it only makes the gospel of Christ so much sweeter; Unless we properly acknowledge the sheer weight of the righteous judgement that we deserve from God for our offences against Him, we won’t be able to see just how wide and how deep is His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! How can we appreciate our saviour if we don’t know what we are saved from?

 

Secondly, because it is God alone who saves, ALL the credit goes to him- not in the righteousness/intellect of the convert. I say this because while I haven’t met a single christian who would take credit for his or her salvation (i.e. pelagians / semi-pelagians), sometimes christians act as though we are responsible for the salvation of others. I once heard an anecdote about how a big shot at a megachurch insisted on hiring non-christian musicians for Sunday services because “it will help attract non-Christians”. This anecdote is evidence of a “target driven” culture that has “conversion rates (i.e. the number of non-christians converted per financial quarter)” as the KPI (key performance indicators) of a church. If plenty of people are becoming Christian in your church, it’s strongly attributed to a new initiative by one of the leaders/ pastors. Sometimes I hear pastors talk about the big numbers of conversions they’ve facilitated and use it to validate their ministry decisions (e.g. collecting funds for the construction of an extravagant new building) and I can’t help but to suspect that he (mistakenly) believes that these conversions are a result of his “wise” decisions rather than a supernatural act of God. The reformed view of sin and salvation makes it impossible for a person to boast about his /her salvation or the salvation of others. God alone deserves the glory. And don’t get me started on the “worship” band members who believe that they’re job is necessary for the “ushering in” of God’s presence- as if God would refuse to dwell with his people if it was not for their music…As if Jesus, our great High Priest, isn’t enough to bring us into God’s presence.

 

Thirdly, being reminded of the depth of human sin helps me see myself and others through the lens of grace. There are two extremes: 1) pretending that the sin of your brother doesn’t exist 2) lashing out on your brother with harsh words of condemnation and fury. A low view of sin allows us to properly acknowledge the sin in others yet treat them with love and grace because we know that our rebuke is “from one sinner to another”.

 

Young, Restless and Reformed?

So I guess it’s obvious by now that I’m a pretty big fan of the reformed tradition. I can say a lot more about the merits of the tradition if time and space wasn’t a constraint.

 

But having said all this, I feel the need to briefly talk about some legitimate concerns that I have after only a few years of being part of this broadly reformed tradition:

 

1) The reformed view is not immune from hype

“Calvinism” recently enjoyed a resurgence among people my age  and I thank God for plenty of good has come out from the popularisation of reformed theology. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that there would be people who buy into reformed theology out of pure hype. Our desire to sound impressive to our friends can sometimes cause us to adopt views that we actually haven’t thought hard and much about. (This problem is not unique to christian beliefs; Take campus socialism for example xD)

 

2) Always reforming

Given the reformed view of scripture, we need to keep reminding ourselves to let scripture be our ultimate authority. That means always reforming so that we conform to the teachings of scripture. We need to be humble before the Word and be willing to admit that we could’ve misunderstood or misread scripture.

 

Given this, I feel uneasy when we quote “famous” pastors/preachers to justify a certain reading of a text. While I’ve benefited much from the ministry of The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, John Piper, Keller, Lewis etc. I think there is a temptation to rely on these authority figures to do our thinking for us and ultimately forget that they are fallible.

 

While these resources can and often are helpful,  we need to be able to keep going back to the text and let the text itself shape our thoughts, beliefs and practices. Personally I don’t think this is easy at all, exegesis can be hard, tiring and frustrating- but it is rewarding! I remember nearly pulling my hair out as I worked through just half a chapter of the book of Hebrews with a more knowledgeable friend- it was nearly an hour long just to work through a few verses! But the end result was pretty rewarding, I got a glimpse of how the author of Hebrews drew on many OT references in order to show who the glory of Christ!

 

3) Arrogance

A frequent criticism launched against the reformed folk is the charge of “arrogance”. A common reply is to simply argue that the critics are simply being unwilling to be disagreed with. While this is sometimes true, I think there’s some substance to this popular charge.

 

I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that “to truely love someone is to tell them the truth”- But I think there’s a lot more to love than merely telling someone the “truth”. It’s hard to read 1 Corinthians 13 in Paul’s original context and to come away with thinking that “truthbombing” someone is what Christian love looks like.

 

And as someone who has both dished out (many times, in fact) and witnessed this “righteous fury” to our charismatic brothers and sisters, I wonder if it’s a result of a lack of understanding of the central tenets of the reformed faith- maybe we take pleasure in the “truthbombing” of our brothers and sisters because it makes us look smarter and more pious than them. But in fact this is pride at work; and thus the charge of arrogance hits the mark.

 

Some rejoinders

I welcome disagreement. Here are some brief rejoinders to some common objections that I am anticipating:

 

1)It is arrogant to say that one branch of Christian tradition is “better” than another.

Arrogance is a charge directed at persons. I’m not sure if it is relevant when evaluating the merits of belief systems. It is not arrogant to say that the iPhone 8 is a better phone than the iPhone 3G because of the speed of the processors etc. So I don’t think it is arrogant to say that one set of theological beliefs is better than another because of factors like “fittingness” with scripture, lack of arbitrariness etc.

 

2)You can be charismatic but still take scripture seriously.

This is so true! There are even groups of Christians who call themselves “reformed charismatics” and it includes people that  take scripture very seriously e.g. Andrew Wilson, John Piper.

 

What I learned is that there is a distinction to be made between Charismatic (big C) theology-which is essentially just the belief that the spiritual gifts described in the NT still exist today- and the “charismatic culture” that pervades most of Malaysian evangelicalism, inspired by the likes of Planetshakers, Hillsongs etc.

 

I think all charismatics (small c) are Charismatic in their theology, but it’s not true the other way!

 

3)Reformed theology is all head but no heart.

While I can see where a view like this can come from, I think it’s pretty false if you really think very hard about it: How can a soul not be moved with love, joy and peace when you reflect on the doctrine of justification by faith alone? How can a person who has truely understood God’s love for her not be moved to express compassion and kindness to the stranger?

 

On a personal note: despite spending more of my life in churches that purport to be “all about loving others”, most (if not all) of the people that have loved me the most were from a reformed heritage. The immense kindness demonstrated to me by a brother who would make a 30-minute journey just to send me back from church (despite him living nearer to church); the unrelenting compassion from a sister in my darkest hours… I do not think that they would’ve loved so intensely without a proper understanding of God’s love for them, or a proper understanding of what it means to love the Church.

 

Tying it all together

I hope that I’ve shown that for many of us, the decision to be a part of this movement/tradition was not one simply born out of mere personal preference (like how Rob might prefer chocolate over vanilla), but one that was motivated by a desire to truly know who God is as revealed through His word. By doing so, we learned that Christianity is actually all about Jesus, not us!

 

If you’d like to learn more:

 

1)Below is a link to a series of YouTube videos given an overview of the Bible and a very simple introduction to the practice of properly understanding the Bible in context. They have heaps of other content (such as overviews of Books of the Bible) that might be helpful too!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak06MSETeo4&list=PLH0Szn1yYNedn4FbBMMtOlGN-BPLQ54IH

 

 

2)Here’s a link to the book that really helped me get to grips with what the Bible is. It’s really thick but that’s because it’s formatted like a textbook as the authors provide many helpful illustrations and even practice questions to test your knowledge!

 

https://www.amazon.com/Grasping-Gods-Word-Hands-Interpreting/dp/0310492572/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518866325&sr=1-1&keywords=grasping+god%27s+word

 

3)If you’re like me and have a long commute to work, I’d highly recommend this series of sermons that I’ve been listening to while commuting. The topic is on “Worship”. I think the preacher does a really good job with showing how the Bible’s picture of worship is very different from how many of us use the term. There are even Q&A’s after every sermon where some helpful questions are asked for clarification too!

 

http://www.st-helens.org.uk/resources/media-library/src/series/5051/title/revolutionary-worship-6pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

POST-SCRIPT

Some in my old circle of friends might want to point to the fact that several “reformed” people have now officially left the faith. Perhaps some might be tempted to look at these guys and say “look, reformed theology/calvinism didn’t save them from their lusts and pride. Maybe that is a reflection of the failure of theological thinking to sustain the believer”

 

My reply

  • The beliefs of the reformed tradition are wholly consistent with people falling away! The New Testament is not shy to disclose that there were some early followers of Jesus who, due to the pressures of the World, choose to forsake Christ. We don’t believe that merely stating the great truths of the gospel is enough to save a person- this is God’s doing, alone.
  • This criticism fails to take into account the many who have given up the faith who have grown up in charismatic/Pentecostal circles. It also doesn’t take into account the many who turn up to church semi-regularly under the guise of being “Christian” while in actual fact, they are not. Some “apostates” are more honest than others.
  • It further emphasizes my point that this movement is not immune from hype: perhaps it is easy to call yourself a Calvinist when all the cute girls were interested in “Calvinism” and when it was the hot topic to talk about in school/college etc. But it’s only a matter of time before you realize that the message of the gospel goes against the way the world is currently heading. But when glorifying God means denying your deepest longings for romance, can you still cry: “all glory to God?” The truth is that we are more sinful than we have ever dared believed, but we are also more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we have ever dared hope!

 

 

I am thankful to Mark and Johnson for helpful comments on an earlier draft! 

 

 

[1] I am not saying that these practical arguments have no weight- surely God’s commands for us is good for our flourishing. It’s just hard to see that living in a post-sexual revolution era.

 

 

Here I stand: on Christian identity

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2: 1-8 

Bob is in his mid-20s. Like most modern people his age, he spends his days thinking about his career and his future. He puts in extra hours in work daily and goes for extra courses in order to climb the corporate ladder. He’s also been texting this girl his friend recently introduced him to; She seems interested and he’s excited yet nervous at the same time. He’s also excited that he’s finally saved up enough to buy his first house.

Lena is in her early 30’s. She’s just returned from attending her best friend’s wedding. Single at 30, she struggles hard with her singleness.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me” She asks herself, almost daily.

In her youth, she was almost always described by her friends as a confident woman. However, after attending her 33rd wedding in 2 years, her confidence erodes as her insecurity grows- causing her to grow desperate for the affections of a man.

A pastor once told me that marriage and career is one of the most important issues to a young adult. Given his years of experiences of being a pastor of a mainly YA congregation, he’s probably right. It’ll be quite difficult to find a young adult whose thoughts are not almost always dominated by issues relating to money, career and romance (MCR) . Stories of Bob and Lena aren’t foreign; it’s quite normal. But if I tell you that Bob and Lena are Christians, will it change the way you perceive them?

Everyone has a worldview; They are the lenses through which we see and interpret the events in our lives. They do not have to be religious to count as a worldview.

John is a proponent of a view called “Radical Naturalism” (RN) [1]. John believes that there is nothing that exists in reality apart from what our senses can detect; He believes that unless something can be proven by science, it is false. For John, all there is to the foundations of reality is nothing but blind and pitiless indifference. Human beings are merely more intelligent animals that are guided by our evolutionary instincts to survive and reproduce.

Suppose Lena is deemed by all her male friends to be physically unattractive, and has never had a guy find her physically attractive before. John’s view is simple: She’s single because  the randomness of evolution has simply given her a set of physical attributes that signal to potential mates that she will not be able to provide them with healthy offspring- and so naturally she is undesirable to the males she encounter in her life. John, being a proponent of RN, believes that the ideal human being is one who can successfully attract mates and produce healthy offspring- and so by his standards Lena is of little objective value (at least compared to her best friend who has a figure that has guys lining up for her.) The same assumptions can be tailored to explain how MCR determines value on John’s worldview: Maybe Bob has a physical deficiency in his brain that limits his work efficiency; To John, having a successful career is an important feature that a potential mate looks for (maybe because it means he’s powerful, can protect her offspring etc.) and so someone who is more successful in his career than Bob is simply someone who has better chances at producing healthy offspring and reproduction and so on John’s view he is more valuable than Bob.

Although this is just a rough sketch of how our worldview can influence the way we see our struggles, a worldview like John’s seem to explain our obsession with MCR and how we so closely associate our (and other people’s) dignity to them.

 

The difference-maker

How is the Christian worldview different?

Our identity is found in Christ

…so utters the Christian (especially within evangelical circles) whenever the topic of MCR comes up. But what do we mean when we say something like this? In my experience, people hardly double-click (disambiguate) these catchphrases that we tend to throw around. It’s all too easy to make such an utterance when you’re rich, successful in your career and are involved in a romantic relationship/married, so that those around you will know just how pious you are. Take them all away and you’ll notice how the mere utterance of this magic phrase does nothing to help resist the temptation of devaluing ourselves and/or others.

The power of this phrase is not in the mere utterance of it but in understanding it. So what does it actually mean?

I am of the view that a big reason why we are so tempted to attach our dignity and value with MCR is because of the social elements in them. We desire glorious careers because it makes us feel significant by giving us power- not raw physical power (not the result of a unit of work divided by a unit of time, for you physics people)- but power over people. Being a CEO of a big multinational company doesn’t mean you can lift heavier weights and hence are powerful, but it means that people will respect you (or act like they respect you) because of your position and what you can do for them. The more successful you are, the more valuable you will be to people (or so we believe). The way Money has a social element is closely connected: in our modern society, power is being more and more associated with money. Money has no intrinsic value- it’s worth is in what it can potentially bring about. Given my shallow understanding of economics, money is meaningless without other individuals to trade and barter with; if you were the only person on Earth, money would be useless. More can be said here, but I think it’s apparent that it’s easy to see how money can help increase our valuation by other persons. Romance is most obvious: we desire romance not just because we want to experience an orgasm, but because we want to be intimately connected to another person.

Even in a secular context, it is obvious that society recognises that among Money, Career and Romance, there is a hierarchy- Romance being the top (well, for most people at least). Ultimately, all of us seem to desire love- our pursuit of honourable careers and our yearning for money is simply a means to achieving the love and respect of our fellow human beings. We are by nature social beings. It seems that the key to our dignity and value is in understanding it in light of how we are valued by other persons.

This neatly explains why we are so anxious when it comes to MCR, because just as we can earn the affection of our fellow men, we can also lose it very easily.

But what does this have to with Christianity?

A better story

Christians believe that we are not accidents (contra RN); we were created by a Creator who intended that we exist. Yet we (humanity as a corporate unit) rebelled against him, making us deserving of his just punishment. Yet while we were still sinners, God shows his love for us by sending his son, Jesus, to bear that punishment on our behalf so that we might be reconciled to God, being now called his children.

We are loved, not just by another mere person, but by our Creator- his affection should be infinitely more important to us than the affection of other people because of his perfect attributes (his goodness, power, knowledge etc.). Yet we don’t deserve his love, rather we deserve his wrath, but he still loves us anyway and he shows his great love for us by sending his beloved son to die on the cross for our sins! God the father and God the son, existing in perfect eternal loving harmony- yet on the cross and Jesus bore his father’s wrath for our sake as he cries out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”. And because we don’t deserve God’s love and mercy in the first place, we don’t have to be anxious about not being good enough to be loved by God. Our value system is turned upside down by this, because while we are right in saying that we’re not good enough, God loves us anyway and we are valued by virtue of being made in his image and by being loved by him.

Perhaps this is why our struggles with identity related to MCR actually point us to the grand narrative of the gospel, for we are restless for value and love and we try to find ultimate fulfilment in the love and affirmation of others, but they disappoint. So says Augustine:

“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” (Augustine, Confessions (Book 1))

Our yearning for love and affirmation from others, whether through power, money or romance, is merely a shadow of our deepest longings and desires to find solace in the love of our creator.

Whatever I’ve said is not news to a Christian (hopefully). But how should things play out practically given such beliefs?

 

Imperatives?

Take the example of Lena: if she understood that the love of God is enough to ground her value and dignity, then she would not see herself as being of any lesser value than her married friends and she will not need to resort to looking for love in the wrong places, as so many seem to do when in her circumstances.

I do not propose that such a living out of the Christian worldview is by any means easy, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is something anyone who takes Christianity seriously need to pursue. I speak from personal experience, as a fellow millennial living in the post-sexual revolution, self-esteem obsessed and materialistic culture. I have, at many moments in my life, judged my self-worth according to how likeable I was to members of the opposite gender, such that any suggestion that I possessed a trait that would render me unattractive to girls would instantly offend me, making me want to aggressively defend myself as if my very self-image depended on it. This was certainly not consistent with someone who’s supposed to view God’s love as /the/ defining factor in my value and dignity!

The Christian worldview brings hope to those who have little to place elsewhere. To those with nothing: the unpopular, the poor, the sick- the message of the gospel introduces this radical idea that they are as valuable as some famous actor in Hollywood that everyone swoons over in the eyes of God; the only person whose opinion and affection really matters at the end of the day.

But just as this view uplifts the humble, it also humbles the proud. It is one thing to use your identity in Christ to uplift yourself when you feel devalued. It is another to view other people through the lens of the gospel.

Given my earlier quip about how dominant a role MCR plays in our current age such that it defines our own individual value, it shouldn’t be surprising that we measure other people by those same standards as well. Why is it that we find it more comfortable serving the rich, powerful and attractive over others? Surely it doesn’t simply boil down to like-mindedness. In examining my own heart, I have come to the conclusion it is far more deceptive than I want it to be. I find myself valuing people the way the world values them instead of how God values them.

 

 

Why write this post?

I want to conclude by talking about the inspiration behind this post. I remember being filled with nervousness and anxiety as I was talking to an older friend about a big decision that I was about to make: it was one that could’ve either resulted in great happiness or great shame and I wasn’t sure how things would’ve turned out. I was expecting him to give counsel on the practical aspects of my decision; whether, given the evidence, I should expect the outcome to be a good one or a bad one (as most people talking about this would). Yet his first priority was to tell me that regardless of the outcome :”Jesus loves you, and that’s all that matters anyway”.

It was a simple statement, one that a Sunday school kid could’ve easily resonated with. Yet it hit me in a very profound way and gave me a deep seated comfort that has carried me through the crazy emotions that followed from that decision (it ranged from immense happiness to deep disappointment). That my identity is found in Christ was something I presumed to have understood a long time ago- this “identity” thing was supposed to be part of “Evangelical Christianity 101”- yet why did my friend’s simple statement hit me so hard? Maybe I didn’t really understand the full implications of my Christian identity. But maybe it’s the sort of thing we Christians tend to forget as we grow up. We are exposed to the messages of different worldviews in our day-to-day lives and there’s no contesting that one of the most dominant messages that we are fed is that MCR is something that defines who we are as people. And so maybe that’s why we need to keep preaching to ourselves the gospel of Jesus; for it is our only comfort in life and in death.

 

I would like to thank Johnson Wang for his thoughts on a draft of this essay.

 

 

[1] RN is a view held by some atheists but not all of them. This is probably a rough sketch of the beliefs I see some militant atheists seem to be espousing; whether their views are fully justified by evolutionary psychologists is questionable.

Spiritual friendships, Risky friendships

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“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

I am currently working through Wesley Hill’s book titled Spiritual Friendship. This is a beautifully written book about friendship from the perspective from a same-sex attracted Christian who believes that marriage is not an option for him i.e. he is celibate.

“A book on…friendship?!?!”

I was once met with this sort of incredulity when I told my friends that I was attending a seminar on friendship. It was joked that sometimes churches take themselves too seriously by organizing seminars on very simple and mundane topics. Friendship seems like that sorta topic that doesn’t need any elaboration or sophisticated thought about. Yet similar things have been said of a whole host of topics such as Christianity itself; I was once told by a Christian that Christianity was an absurdly simple religion. I think the early church fathers who labored to formularize the core tenets of Christianity rolled in their graves when he said that.

Ignorance is bliss. And I too didn’t expect to learn much from this seminar as I was pretty sure that friendship wasn’t something that didn’t require any serious pondering or thought to understand it. Yet I was so wrong.

The speaker for that conference was Sam Allberry, someone in the same situation as Hill. It wasn’t as if there was some complex philosophizing going on or him preaching from a very unknown text in the Bible, but it was more of his perspective given his situation that lead to a paradigm shift in the way I thought about friendship. Although Alberry has reviewed Hill’s books and had some disagreements with it, there was plenty that he agreed on and I will address this later.

Perhaps the most important claim I’ve taken away from both of them is that our culture (& by extension, the modern church) has vastly underplayed the value of friendship. We have succumbed to the influences of the sexual revolution in the second-half of the 20th century and bought into the idea that there can be no intimacy apart from romantic relationships and by extension, sexual relationships. Sex and intimacy became synonymous.

The idea of an intimate friendship became one painted with sexual tension. Sam and Frodo were no longer brothers who loved each other to the point of nearly dying for each other, but rather confused men trying to suppress their deepest sexual longings of their subconscious. A man and woman who genuinely care for each other can no longer be seen as “just friends” without someone gossiping about how they just know that one of them must have a sexual attraction for the other or that they are indeed involved romantically despite the pair’s constant public denial.

Romantic love triumphed and it became seen as the only way to achieve intimacy. Yet we all desire intimacy; to be fully known yet truly loved. The result of this is that romantic relationships became ultimate; it became a necessity to live a fulfilled life. In other words, a single person is incomplete.

Yet it is plainly obvious that this is false for the Christian. Jesus was single. Paul was single. John Stott was single. What went wrong?

Both Allberry and Hill seem to agree that we made a mistake by believing that the only way to achieve intimacy was through romantic relationships alone. In his book, Hill gives a couple of biblical and historical precedents for friendships that went beyond mere pub-crawling and weekly mamak banter. In fact, Hill cites John 15:13 (the verse quoted in italics at the start of this essay) a lot. Interestingly, here’s some context:

 

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. – John 15:12-14 ESV

 

It is interesting that Jesus commands his disciples to love one another (i.e. they have an obligation to love one another) as he has loved them. How has he loved them? By embodying “greatest love” by laying down his life for them! More importantly, Jesus calls his disciples (us Christians!) friends. If friendship were a second-rate relationship, surely this will not do!

 

While the book itself is an excellent read, I want to digress by talking about focusing on a related issue. If both of them are right in thinking that we need a more robust understanding of intimate friendships, should these relationships be reserved only for people who cannot be romantically attracted to each other?

In one of the chapters of the book, Hill shares a very personal and painful story of how he fell in love with a very close friend. One day, he gets a call from this friend, notifying him about his plans to ask a woman out. It didn’t end well. Despite trying very hard to be happy for him and trying to believe that he hasn’t lost a friend in this but rather gained another, the depth of their relationship couldn’t continue. It is a heart-wrenching story. Worst is the fact that no one could console him by telling him that there is plenty of fish in the sea, for his convictions throw out the possibility of romantic relationships.

Notice how similar stories are told by heterosexual people as well. Familiarly, we all know of at least one person or maybe our own experiences, the story of two very good friends of the opposite sex eventually becoming strangers or mere acquaintances because one party eventually developed feelings for the other. The frequency of such hurtful relationships has caused many (ESPECIALLY within the Malaysian evangelical circles that I am familiar with) to come up with a general principle that I shall call “Wisdom”.

Wisdom: While not sinful, it is always unwise and potentially sinful to be engaged in a close friendship with a member of the opposite gender.

But given Hill’s personal experience above, the principle needs to be modified slightly:

Wisdom*: While not sinful, it is always unwise and potentially sinful to be engaged in a close friendship with anyone that you can be potentially sexually attracted to.

Apart from the many shared experiences of such intimate friendships (including Hill’s own) that seem to justify “Wisdom*“, it seems easy to conceive how these friendships can lead to sin : the married friend who confides in a friend of the opposite gender about her dissatisfaction with her husband that eventually leads to infidelity with this same friend; the broken friendships that sours church communities and stumbles others etc.

The underlying principle seems clear: we are fallen beings who cannot control our primal urges.

However, after being inspired by the works of Hill, Allberry and others, I want to argue that “Wisdom*” is too general and broad sweeping. I might be wrong, so I plead with the reader to engage with my thoughts in a critical yet open manner.

 

My first argument is that it isn’t clear in scripture that a principle like “Wisdom*” is true.

Defenders of the principle might resort to texts that explicitly tell us to flee sexual immorality and temptation, or to preserve the unity in the Church, yet the extension of those imperatives to something as broad as the principle being discussed is far from clear. For example: it isn’t clear to me that being a close friend with a woman entails that I must spend time alone with her in the darkness of my own room.

Which leads me to my biggest gripe with such general principles: they are too general and rigid. While it has some practical utility in guiding our reasoning, it neglects context and conscience. Most of my conversations about this issue tend to involve people invoking a principle like “Wisdom*” while citing their personal/received stories of how these sorts of friendships tend to end in sin or disaster before generalizing the lessons that they’ve learned to apply to everyone, everywhere in every circumstance. But surely we need to be open to real stories that serve as counterexamples to the principle. While I’m sure there many such stories from people of different sexual orientations, I’d like to tell a real story of how the friendship between a heterosexual male and female who were both single, lead to God being glorified in their lives. Names were changed for the sake of privacy:

Sam is a Christian student who had the privilege of furthering his studies overseas. Being a Christian with plenty of baggage, his faith faced threats from every direction and the new living conditions made things harder for him. Sam had a best friend who was a guy; Sam knew that in all his trials, he always had a brother who would “get” him and care for him. But because of events out of his control, Sam lost his best friend. In fact, he lost most of his closest friends as he moved overseas. He was surrounded by people there, but no one came close to understanding him. He was depressed and distraught, not just because he lost most of his closest friends, but also because of the challenges to his faith given the new environment.

His condition continued to deteriorate and at one point he thought of harming himself. The World tells him that the solution to his problem is to find a girlfriend; this way, his every need (emotional and physical) would be met, and once the loneliness ceased he would be depressed no more. Yet Sam, despite his many doubts, knew and believed that Jesus was his king and he was to be loyal to his Lord’s commands. But deep down inside, Sam knew that he was breaking, as if God was forsaking him.

Meet Helen. She was a good friend of Sam’s before he left to the UK. Yet they only knew each other for a short period of time. Sam briefly texted Helen after he left. At some point, he made some of his inner struggles known. At first, Helen was careful not to violate “Wisdom*“. But Helen was moved by compassion.

“How can I let a brother suffer alone without a lifeline? How can I walk away knowing that he’s running out of options?” She persisted in caring for Sam, even if it meant that she had to be the one initiating conversations sometimes. In all of this, it was clear to both of them that there was nothing romantic going on, and that nothing romantic can ever happen between the both of them because of obvious incompatibilities. At one point, Helen’s best friend (who was also a good friend of Sam’s) gently reminded her of “Wisdom*“, yet she persisted, being compelled by her compassion.

Sam was a realistic guy. He knew that it was nothing that was in him that attracted Helen or that it was anything he ever did for her that made it such that she owed it to him to look out for him. In fact, Helen always made herself clear to him that she was doing this out of Christian love. Regardless of geographical location, Sam was still a brother, and she was compelled by God’s grace to her through Christ to extend such grace to him. At the end of it all, Sam survived and is faithful to Jesus till this day. (or at least that’s what he says)

This friendship was key to his survival and his eventual road to recovery. Firstly, through her love for her brother, he was reminded of an even greater love that never actually left him: the amazing love of God. Being intentional throughout the friendship, Helen didn’t just *listen*, rather she was also persistent in reminding him about the promises of God in the Scriptures. Secondly, because of this friendship, Sam could never buy into the lie that he was unloved and uncared for. For he knew that if he ever needed an ear, she was just a phone call away. Furthermore, he could no longer use his self-pity and his alleged loneliness to justify his giving in to compromising relationships with members of the opposite gender.

This is not a mere anecdote, I know “Sam” very well.  While there were many other factors that lead to his road to recovery, his friendship with Helen was vital to this.

I’ve demonstrated a narrative that runs counter to “Wisdom*“, but I even have an account where the blind following of such a principle actually leads to potentially damaging results.

 

There was once a Christian small group that was getting quite big. There were plenty of newcomers who were men, and they didn’t have enough male regulars to follow-up. Most of the mature Christian women didn’t want to go beyond surface level questions like “what do you study, where do you study etc.” because of “Wisdom*“. Eventually, some of the guys just stopped coming because they just didn’t feel welcomed. No one was asking them(the girls) to initiate one-on-one Bible studies with these guys or ask them out for coffee alone. Confusingly, anything that went beyond shallow questioning was deemed as unwise. Yet these same girls had no issue forming deeper friendships with guys they didn’t mind hanging out with (?!?!).

Surely there is something wrong with this. This is my other beef with the principle: it’s far too ambiguous. People seem to redefine what constitutes a “close friendship” whenever they please. The principle suddenly becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card if you want to escape your duty of showing Christian love and charity to a newcomer that you find repulsive. The principle suddenly becomes a way to piously ignore our call to love and encourage the people put in our lives. I say this not as if I am not guilty; I am. When some very unattractive girl is placed under my care, I suddenly become guarded and careful of what I do or say, citing the “Wisdom*” in my heart, thinking that it will justify my inaction (e.g. not talking about the sermon, asking her how her week was).  Yet when an attractive looking/popular girl comes in (& I don’t necessarily have to have any feelings for her), I suddenly find it completely okay “talk about the sermon”.

I am not contending that this principle is completely false. It is undeniable that friendships that have potential romantic interests involved is intrinsically riskier than those without. It is a simple matter of rationality that we avoid taking unnecessary risks. My argument is that the broad strokes of “Wisdom*” encourages an uncritical examination of both the risks *and* the benefits involved. Helen, for example, weighed the potential risk of having to deal with Sam having feelings for her and the discomfort that would follow against the benefit of not just preserving his faith but to potentially save him from self-harm. Everything has risks: to love at all is to be vulnerable, so says C.S.Lewis. Marriage is risky. Having children is risky. Friendships without any potential attractions is risky as well.

1 Corinthians 13 contains the infamous “love” passage. But many falsely assume that Paul is describing romance here. The Corinthian church was bickering about who had the better spiritual gifts in the earlier chapter, and it is in this famous chapter that he tells them that love triumphs all these other gifts. He was describing, the sort of love he expected to be displayed between Christians. Love is not a mere feeling to Paul but it has visible characteristics. Being impatient and unkind to a member of your church, therefore, is to be unloving. We were commanded by our Lord to love one another as He has loved us. Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural in how we treat one another. My view is that the Church should not and cannot give in to our culture’s tradition that sex is the only cure for our loneliness. While I don’t deny that it is wise to seek such deep and genuine friendships where romantic attraction is an impossibility (e.g. David describes his love for Jonathan to be greater than his love for women!), we need to be open to the fact that some riskier friendships are worth it. To avoid a meaningful friendship with a same-sex attracted brother, despite what we have in common and our circumstances, doesn’t seem very loving to me.

 

I completely agree that such friendships cannot be a replacement for marriage and that there must be boundaries. My only charge is that these boundaries have been made unnecessarily high. Asking a brother how he’s doing in his studies while it is public knowledge that he recently lost his family in a car accident yet somehow thinking that the simple action of uttering words to him is an example of “Christian love” is foolish. I fail to see how neglecting a brother/sister’s suffering for fears of them developing a romantic interest in you is in anyway an expression of kindness.

 

Practically speaking, scripture *is* clear as to how we ought to treat members in our church of the opposite gender. Paul tells Timothy to “treat older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:2). Perhaps true wisdom is asking ourselves whether our activities with a friend of the opposite gender is something we would do if they were biologically related to us. If you have no issue talking to your mother about how you feel like you’re being bullied in your workplace, why should it be a problem talking about it to an older woman in church that cares for you? Likewise, if you think it’s inappropriate to actively strive to meet up with your sister alone (i.e. intentionally not wanting people to be around you both, even without private conversations), then why do you think it’s appropriate to do so with a female friend from church? [1]

I want to conclude by saying that I am not speaking from a moral high ground; As I’ve alluded to above, I am guilty of abusing “Wisdom*” for my own selfish gain as well. I’ve also lost a very close friend because of my foolishness of wanting something more and I know, firsthand, how painful it is for both parties. My purpose for writing this is to add to the choir of voices calling for a deeper inspection of how we understand something as seemingly simple like friendships. Much more can be said about the theme of friendship as a whole including many practical ramifications. I urge you to read about the subject especially from voices like Wesley Hill. While he doesn’t fully address what I write here, much of what he’s written is what helped me articulate my views in the first place.

 

I am thankful to Cassandra Chung and Elena Chia for their helpful comments and criticisms of the first draft of this essay.

 

Related reading:

[1] I totally stole this idea from Aimee Byrd who authored this brilliant piece http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/why-cant-we-be-friends#.WX8ACMZL3XE

 

[2]http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/intimate-friendships-among-christians#.WX8ADcZL3XE

Of Ghosts, Science and Religion

The idea of ghosts and hauntings used to scare me as a kid. (I remember not being able to sleep properly for 2 weeks after watching a documentary about hauntings on Discovery and had to run to my parents room as a kid).
But no one really believes in ghosts or the “paranormal” anymore because…science. In fact, I personally buy this argument. But what does this argument actually entail?

One view is that science is the only way to know what is true, and since the scientific method cannot demonstrate the existence of ghosts, they don’t exist.

I think a similar argument has been used by popular atheists as an argument against religious belief: Since God cannot be proven by means of the scientific method, God doesn’t exist.

Although this is merely a sketch of the argument, I think it is phrased too strongly and has obvious problems: You can’t prove the proposition “The scientific method is the only way to know truth” using the scientific method. The belief is self-defeating.

Perhaps one might respond by saying “but science works! Planes flies, diseases are cured etc.” as if it will somehow prove the above proposition. But all it merely does is prove the weaker claim that science is a reliable way to gain knowledge.

But then there’s something to the argument that is convincing: it’s hard to believe that a rational man of science could believe in things like hauntings, ghosts, Pontianak’s etc. At the same time, it’s not obvious to me that the same argument against the paranormal can work against religious claims.

I think the best sketch of such an argument against the paranormal is by clarifying what we mean by “science”. Science seems to be about regularities and laws of nature. There is a regularity in nature that is almost never violated. That the laws of physics and biology teach us that elephants don’t fly means we can almost be certain that we won’t see a flying live elephant (unless someone attached some technology to it or something, but that isn’t the point). Experimental proofs are basically rigorous use of our 5 senses to observe some part of reality. That millions of people over thousands of years have observed that elephants don’t fly is pretty damning evidence against someone who would think otherwise (of course this is not all the evidence we have, there is also arguments from physics to be made).

Take a paranormal claim like hauntings: The idea is that people often claim to hear/see/feel the presence of a being that was thought to be dead at a specific location. Some people believe that these experiences represent reality. A conscious being is really interacting with them from the afterlife. Others explain such experiences by appealing to things like infrasound: sound waves of a certain frequency able to cause small vibrations in your eye that make you *think* you’re seeing something or some prefer more simple explanations like how people often make up stories (especially when you can make a great deal of money from it).

At this point we have natural explanations pitted against supernatural explanations. Which ones are better? It’s not as straightforward as you think, but I think a good idea would be to look at which one explanation is the simplest. This is in line with Ockham’s Razor that causes should not be multiplied beyond necessity. For example, if I wake up to see my window open, it is more rational for me to conclude that my mother walked in to open the window rather than to conclude that space aliens paid me a visit that night and happened to leave my window open.

The biggest obstacle for the believer of hauntings is his inability to explain why only some houses are haunted and a large majority of houses are not. Presumably, the believer might appeal to the conditions of death i.e. someone who was murdered violently would haunt the location at which they were murdered. The problem is that this claim is a claim of regularities. The question is then why so many cases of violent murders are not followed up with hauntings given the incredible amount of murders/rapes/wars that has happened across human history. Notice how the claim of the believer is one that invokes some sort of regularity. This is where science can do the debunking, since if someone claims that a regularity in reality exists, then science should’ve been able to detect it, yet it didn’t, so it is much more likely that a natural explanation is the correct one.

I think most paranormal claims hit this problem, whether it is something like persons having the ability to read minds or the existence of vampires etc. They all have a difficulty accounting for why these events don’t happen more frequently, and usually invoke some random ad hoc explanation (e.g. I just happen to be born with some amazing ability to talk to the dead). Ad hoc explanations can sometimes be justified, but like the example of a child saying that a dog ate his homework, they are difficult to believe unless more evidence is provided.

If I am right, notice how this doesn’t touch most religious claims. E.g. The claim that 2000 years ago a Jewish carpenter was crucified and was raised from the dead, or that a messenger from God received holy scriptures in a cave. These are events that specifically not regularities. For these claims presuppose the existence of a being who is the foundation and author of the regularities of nature itself, and wanting to reveal himself to the created beings, he makes an exception to the regularities as proof of his authority and power.

Notice how this is completely consistent with our scientific observations of the regularities of nature. Especially if a particular religious system is committed to a deity who is said to love order and hates chaos (imagine a world without the regularities of nature, there would be so much uncertainty and chaos!).

“O Christian, where is your hope?” A reflection on unrequited love

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“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.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

“For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?

-Romans 8:24 “

I remember lying in bed one morning thinking about a girl whom I had deep affections for. She was not only one of the prettiest faces I’ve known but also a beautiful person. All her flaws I could easily list, but all of them were null in light of the kindness and humility she displayed in her life- qualities that were only made apparent when she learned and understood the gospel and was transformed by it. Those early morning thoughts usually don’t end well though, for along with all the happy reflections on how beautiful she is, reality usually sinks in pretty quickly: It won’t happen, it can’t. Almost immediately my joy turns into sorrow as a part of me-the rational part- quickly reminds me of the impossibility of ever being in a relationship with her. Thoughts of inadequacy and bitterness quickly follow suit: Why can’t I have her? Am I not good enough, not rich enough, not attractive enough? God, why didn’t I choose that University X instead of Y? Why must you make it such that her first day here will be my last? Have I not done enough for You and Your kingdom to be worthy of this one blessing that will finally make me happy?

Quickly this bitterness turned into doubt and anger against the Ruler and Creator of all things. Like a child throwing a tantrum at his parents for not buying him a toy he wanted, I was quick to turn my emotions towards my Heavenly Father. Thankfully, all of this is in the past (well, mostly).

Yet while not everyone might have experienced this in the same way, the pain and sorrow of unrequited love is a common one among Christians. Given the intensity of such experiences, it is of no surprise that for many of us Christians, this heartbreak is an experience that will challenge the very foundations of our faith. Indeed, it is challenging to be faithful with a broken heart. Deep down inside we feel that God has let us down by not granting us one of our deepest desires as human beings. The need for intimacy seems to be second only to our need for food, water and air to survive.

At this point, the simple replies just don’t seem to help. “Christ is enough for you!” “God is slamming shut one door so that another one will open!” “There’s plenty of fish in the sea” etc. but anyone who has been in such situations would know how these simple truths just aren’t convincing enough to fix anything! In fact, the utterances of our mostly well-meaning friends can sometimes make things worst. I once had a good friend tell me about how I should be content with my singleness and find my satisfaction in Christ alone, yet instead of feeling edified or encouraged, I only felt irritated and agitated: the same person who is telling me to be content in singleness is the same person who has never been single since she was high school and has since jumped between 3 boyfriends.

Here we see another mark of a sufferer of unrequited love, the experience of bitterness and anger not only against God but also towards our well-meaning friends. Suddenly, the happiness I felt for my friends when I hear about their successes in their relationships turn to bitterness and jealousy. In fact, of the many challenges that life has thrown at me, none has shown me the depth of the darkness in my heart than in heartbreak. Also, I am confident that I am speaking not only for myself: almost all of my closest friends who have experienced such heartbreaking moments have struggled with the darkness in their hearts and some of them have allowed themselves to be utterly consumed by the anger and bitterness that they have become people that their younger selves would’ve been disgusted at. But can you blame them? In brokenness, temptations and actions that our younger selves would never consider suddenly become close realities. Heartbreak is terrible, and we wonder what good reasons God might have for allowing such a fate to happen to us. Our hearts yearn for answers we know we cannot get.

But the light shines out of darkness, for our God is a God of hope. For hope is one of the main themes of Christianity: We see it in the earliest chapters of the Bible in the Fall, even as God curses mankind he offers them a hope that one day an offspring of Adam will crush the head of the serpent and we also see it at the very end of the Bible, where God’s people are told to be faithful in light of their sufferings as they await the return of their King who is making all things new.

What does this have to do with unrequited love and heartbreak? One of the most helpful things that have helped me in my own brokenness is the constant “nagging” that I get from my friends about the centrality of The Gospel. I call it nagging because it was in a time when I was, at one point, quite sick of hearing the same few lines being repeated over and over again, but it was what I needed to be constantly reminded of, even today. I was pretty intrigued by a quote of Tim Keller about joy. Keller says that the opposite of joy is not sadness, it is hopelessness. The gospel is all about a fulfilled hope: While we were dead in our trespasses and sins, we were made alive in Christ through his death and resurrection. Not only are we as Christians now reconciled to God, but through Christ, God is reconciling all of creation to him i.e. he is making all things new. For the Christian, our ultimate hope is in Christ, in what he has already accomplished and what he will accomplish in the future. This meant that every time a dear friend lectured me about the hope of the gospel, somewhere in my soul was a reminder that whatever crushed hopes I am experiencing because of the feelings I had for this girl, it cannot and must not rob me of my ultimate joy found through the hope of the Christian message, for if it does rob me of that joy, then it follows that my ultimate hope is not actually found on and rooted in Christ, but is in fact actually in this girl. Yet this sometimes seemed to be the picture because sometimes I felt like I was ultimately hopeless because of my feelings for her. But then it made me question myself further: Is this woman really more attractive than Christ? If she became my girlfriend and then my wife, will this give me the same fulfillment that I found through knowing and understanding the gospel? It slowly became obvious that however great this girl was, she would never surpass the riches of Christ and his gospel. More ironically, a significant reason why I found her so attractive was because of her love for Christ and how I could see the work of the Spirit in her life as she is being conformed to the image of Christ. But this meant that she is merely clay that is exemplifying the beauty of her potter, which begs the question: If I was really so attracted to her godliness, how could it be even possible for me to even consider putting her above Christ?

I was and am more foolish than I would like to believe, but praise be to God for loving me in spite of what I am!

Therefore, while I think we should be slow to speak and quick to listen (that means not shoving theological truths down our mourning friends throat), the message of the gospel is not a “one off license to heaven” but a message that will keep transforming us through the renewing of our minds, and it is the joy and hope that will shine out of the darkness.

Yet it was not as if I was strong enough on my own to constantly fix my mind on my true hope and true joy: I was not. In fact, I’ve never felt more mentally frail in my heartbroken state. So another thing I learned was that I am not alone in my trials: though I pushed many friends away in my brokenness since I am naturally an introvert that needs “energy” to sustain certain friendships, yet the theme of my life seems to be one of grace as a few faithful and loving friends never left my side as they constantly encouraged and tended to me in spite of my ugly state.

Let’s face it, many of us would prefer to hang out with people who give out “positive vibes”, people who have everything going for them and people whose Facebook posts are filled with their happy lives and accomplishments, why else would we love to associate ourselves with celebrities and their perfect happy lives? I have learned the value of deep meaningful friendships that went beyond “eh I know this guy!” and the meaningless banter that is the new measure of the “depth” of relationships these days.

Unrequited love is a painful experience that can bring the worst out of people and can tempt many Christians to lose sight of the hope that they have in Christ. To my dear friends who are suffering such an experience, I hope that this reflective account is of some encouragement to you. I hope and pray that while our hearts may never get the answers we desire, our minds can be at peace knowing that our hope and joy is in the God whose love for us surpasses what any man/woman can give us, no matter how attractive they are. Keep on keeping on!

Disclaimer: The bulk of this was written in the confines of a cramped plane/car and was not written with significant planning involved. Excuse the odd sentences structure.