Containers of power — the impact of words and stories

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"Words are containers of power." Joyce Meyer.As someone who has recently become a medical writer, I am well aware of the power words have — power to influence, to educate, to entertain, to tug at the emotions, to change lives. I love my job and it seems a very good fit for me — it combines my love for science and for writing, my attention to detail and creativity, and my love of learning and variety. And though it’s not an obvious choice of job for someone who wants to make a difference, I do find it very rewarding. I feel I am making a difference in various ways, whether it’s by promoting drugs that can be a big help to certain people, providing good service to our clients, helping my busy colleagues with their projects, helping my company to become more successful and influential, etc. These ways of making a difference are relevant for many other types of jobs too.

I’ve always been a lover of stories and of sharing stories. I’ve been told that I write in a way that tells a story, both in scientific and personal writings. As a medical writer, I feel that I am helping pharmaceutical companies tell the stories of their drugs and their research. I love to learn and to share knowledge with others, but not just for the sake of increasing knowledge — I want what I learn to change me, and make a difference for others. I think the main way I feel that scientific knowledge changes me is that it gives me insight into the creativity of the Creator, reveals mysteries of His intricate design, and further reveals that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course, scientific knowledge about health can also make a big difference in helping people to make choices regarding their own health. When applying for medical writing jobs, I was particularly drawn to the companies who considered one of their core values to write in a way that really connects with people in order to shift their beliefs, change their behaviours, and ultimately improve their lives.

turning pageBut the stories I’m most passionate about are personal life stories — I love to share my story, and to hear others’ stories. When someone shares their story, they are sharing the depths of their heart, and I get to really know them. I am a huge believer in the power of our stories, and I think we can sometimes learn far more from a story than from simply sharing knowledge. Stories can really stick in people’s heads, and also can touch their hearts deeply. And with personal stories, people can draw parallels between their story and your story, and this can bring a change in their story. Now some of you may think that your story is insignificant or too broken, but the truth is that the power in stories is much more in how you tell them than in the content. In the song ‘Turning Page’ by Sleeping at Last, there is a line that goes “though we’re tethered to the story we must tell, when I saw you, well I knew we’d tell it well.” In life, we suffer many difficulties, & we’re not so much in control of the content of our story, but we do have power over how it is written, i.e. the way we live & how we respond to our circumstances. Another line in the song goes “your love is my turning page where only the sweetest words remain.” What I believe this means is that love can re-write our story. I have found that God’s love has so transformed me that it has re-written my story — redeeming all the brokenness and mistakes I’ve made, so that they reveal God’s goodness and faithfulness.

I do believe all words have power; often much more than we realise. I really desire for my words, whether written or spoken, to be God’s words — that they will be what people need to hear, and that they will bring positive change to their lives. I’ve been inspired by Isaiah 50:4 recently, and it has become my prayer that my tongue will be taught by God, and my ears receptive to His voice, so that ‘I may know how to sustain with a word (those who are) weary’. The bible talks a lot about the power of words, both for good and for evil. Proverbs 18:20 says that there is the power of life and death in the tongue, and in other places it says that words can deeply harm, but can also bring healing (Proverbs 12:18; 15:4). Words can feed and sustain the spirit of those who hear them (Deuteronomy 8:3, Proverbs 10:21), and when we speak life-giving words to others it also sustains and satisfies us (Proverbs 18:20–21). Pastor David Yonggi Cho believes that our words also have power to speak things into being, and writes this in his book ‘The Fourth Dimension, “Claim and speak the word of assurance, for your word actually goes out and creates. God spoke and the whole world came into being. Your word is the material which the Holy Spirit uses to create.”

sustain with a wordThere are 2 analogies in the bible that spring to mind about the power of words. One is of words being like a sword — rash words are likened to sword thrusts in Proverbs 12:18, but God’s Word is called a double edged sword that pierces through the soul and spirit and discerns our thoughts and hearts (Hebrews 4:12). God’s words have power to penetrate through our hearts and souls like a surgeon’s knife, so that things that harm us or hold us back are removed and our issues are dealt with — so that we can be healed and transformed. His word also has power against the powers of darkness, and is our weapon that enables us to overcome (Ephesians 6:17). The other analogy is of words being like a fire — James 3:5–6 describes our tongue as a small fire that can set a whole forest alight, bringing destruction. But our words can also bring God’s fire — a passionate love that transforms lives and destroys the works of darkness. Jeremiah describes God’s words like a fire in his heart that he cannot keep in (Jeremiah 20:9). When God’s love truly ignites our hearts, it cannot be suppressed — our lives become transformed and we cannot help but share it with others.

Since our words have such power, we should be careful about what we say, but also be encouraged that our positive words have more impact than we realise. We don’t need to necessarily say much to make a difference, and if we talk a lot we’re more likely to say the wrong things (Proverbs 10:19). And we don’t have to shout from the rooftops for our words to make a difference. The song ‘Turning Page’ ends with this line: “With a whisper we will tame the vicious seas, like a feather bringing kingdoms to their knees.” Sometimes the words that are whispered in an intimate moment make more of a difference then the words shouted to many people. The still small voice of God impacted Elijah more than the loud displays of God’s power (1 Kings 19:11–13). And God is a big fan of using things that seem small and insignificant to change the world. So don’t worry if you don’t feel your words are being heard by many people; you may be making a world of difference to those who do hear you. And remember that actions often speak louder than words — the story you live is just as important, if not more so, than the story you tell.

with a whisper

An un-dashable hope

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Some of you will know that I recently started my first professional job :). I’m now an associate medical writer, which mainly involves writing on behalf of pharmaceutical & biotechnology companies. The projects can be very varied, & can include scientific journal articles, drug marketing brochures, drug information leaflets, regulatory documents for clinical trials, PowerPoint presentations for conferences & other events. It’s a job that involves a lot of liaising with colleagues & the clients we work for. So it’s quite different to working in a lab, & I have a lot to learn & take on board. It can potentially be stressful with multiple deadlines, juggling several projects at once, constantly having my work critically reviewed & perhaps dealing with difficult clients. But it’s also varied, fast-paced & intellectually stimulating, & it can be rewarding for some people. I do frequently have to explain to people what a medical writer is, so I thought I’d write a description here before I get asked again :P.

So how did I end up going from researcher to medical writer? When I started my PhD, my heart was set on being an academic in biology. But the realities of research were not what I had hoped for; I found it extremely frustrating & demoralising, as my experiments seemed to be going nowhere for the whole PhD. Though I have a lot of perseverance, I just found that the work was not rewarding for me anymore, & I’d had enough of research. I still dread the thought of going back to work in a lab! I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do instead, but when I wrote my thesis, I found I enjoyed that more than the research. So I thought that doing a writing job would be ideal, as I have a passion for communicating knowledge & truth in ways that are clear & engaging. My desire is not only to inform people through my writing, but that what they learn will impact them & bring about a change in their thinking & actions. A few previous members of my lab went on to become medical writers, so I looked into it, but wasn’t sure at first if this is what I wanted to do. But eventually I got assurance from God that this was an ideal career path for me to follow, so I ran with it.

The journey of getting this job was not easy though. I spent 4 months applying for jobs, doing writing tests & going for interviews, & I did have some setbacks. This is my story of how I got to where I am now, & what I learned along the way. I hope that it will encourage you to persevere in following your dreams & help you learn to overcome the obstacles in the way.

The first job I applied to was through a recruiter, & the recruiter call the next morning completely caught me off guard! They seemed keen to interview me before Christmas, but the interview date kept being delayed, & I’d almost given up on getting an interview. I was annoyed that they made me do a writing test over Christmas, which had very vague instructions & involved a large amount of work. I felt it was a sacrifice to be spending my Christmas on this task, particularly if I didn’t get the job. But God reminded me that I’m doing this task for Him, not to get a reward, & that I need to be willing to sacrifice not just for a season, but that it should be a continual thing. This was tough for me, as I felt I had sacrificed a lot for my PhD, & I’d had enough! But I did the task, & a month later I finally got an interview date, which was 23 hours later! I had already been travelling for 2 days & then had to wake up at ~5am to go to this interview, & in spite being exhausted I did surprisingly well. I was amazed at what was coming out my mouth; I’m sure it was God giving me words to say. I didn’t get the job because I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, but really, under the circumstances I wasn’t surprised that I lacked a bit in enthusiasm.

deserts will bloomGetting turned down for the job was tough for me, as it brought back the pain of dashed hopes & frustrations from my PhD. & later that week I was knocked again when I didn’t get another job, this time after the writing test. This really discouraged me for a while, as I thought I was a good writer, but this company thought my writing was not good enough. I wondered whether I was really cut out to be a medical writer, & didn’t know where to go from there. But I realised that God was humbling me & showing me that I need to rely on Him, not on my own ability. He was also teaching me how to handle rejection, frustration & setbacks, which are things I have struggled with for a long time. I did really struggle to keep pursuing this dream for a while, but I did persevere in drawing near to God in spite of how I felt.

At this time my parents reminded me of the book ‘The Fourth Dimension’ by David Yonggi Cho. One of the main messages of this book is about the importance of praying very specific prayers & calling forth the answer to prayer. God gives us authority to ‘speak things into existence that don’t yet exist as though they did’ (Romans 4:17) because we are in covenant with Him. Now some people may think that if we pray specifically (e.g. give me a job at this company) then we may be praying what we want rather than what God wants. But I do think we should be bold in our prayers yet open to hearing God & for Him to bring His will about. & I have found that if I ask for the wrong thing then God makes that clear to me one way or another, or prevents me from getting it. So I don’t think we have to worry too much about whether we pray the right prayer, but we should pray with both boldness & humility. Prayer is not about us simply asking God for what we want; it’s far more than that. It’s about partnering with Him & taking an active part in His plans, so it requires us to not only speak but to also listen to Him & seek wisdom & a specific word from Him to guide our prayers. The book has much more wisdom about how to pray effectively, & I do highly recommend it. But it is not a magic formula; we need to have faith & perseverance in our prayers, even when they don’t seem to be ‘working’. I’ve found that if we’ve not got our breakthrough yet, then God still has more to teach us through the process of persevering.

After a few weeks I went to a conference, where I heard someone explain that to be ‘more than a conqueror’ (Romans 8:37) means that we’re not constantly battling but that we live in a place of victory. When I heard this, I nearly cried! I had been feeling for a while that my family & I have been constantly battling to overcome various things for most our lives & I was feeling weary & fed up of it. So this word was quite challenging for me to accept, but it did help me have a shift in my attitude to one of hope. I started to claim by faith that I’m more than a conqueror through Jesus, & therefore I live in victory. Though I still had battles to fight, I started to believe that I already had the victory, that I already had the job. I was convinced that the right job for me was already mine in the spiritual realm; I simply had to hold onto God’s promise to see that job manifest in the natural realm.

At this time I started to get inundated with writing tests & interviews from quite a few companies. I had almost given up on these companies, as I had heard nothing for those few weeks. But now I seemed to be getting a lot of favour, which encouraged me. I had 2 interviews in the same week, both for very good companies, & I really wanted to get one of them. When the first one turned me down, I was quite gutted. But the first thing that came to my head was this: ‘God, I don’t understand, but I still choose to trust You, & I’ll dare to put my faith in You again’. & I realised that this was a key to conquering frustration & disappointment. Though I’d not yet received the breakthrough I needed, I had received breakthrough in my response to setbacks. But then the second one turned me down a few days later, & that was really tough. I was crying, & thinking ‘what else could I have done?’ I kept having my hopes dashed with different jobs turning me down, & knew I couldn’t go on like this. So I cried out to God & sought Him for a fresh word that I could hold onto, so that I could get back up & fight again. & He gave me a few words that really inspired me & enabled me to overcome the frustration & disappointments.

Photo credit to Kelly Chan. Words added by me.

Photo credit to Kelly Chan. Words added by me.

One of the things God taught me in that moment was from Hebrews 6:18-19, which talks about hope being the anchor for our soul. These verses tell us to ‘hold fast to hope’, & I realised that this is different to raising our hopes. Raising our hopes is about our emotions but holding fast to hope is an act of the will; it’s a hope that doesn’t depend on emotions but is ‘steady & sure’ no matter what. & our hope should be based on our covenant with God, not on anything else. Any other hope is like a light flimsy anchor that gets dashed & broken, but true hope in God is like a weighty strong anchor that keeps us connected to God’s presence. This hope is a hope that doesn’t depend on circumstances but sees beyond them & surpasses them. This is a hope that is ‘un-dashable’, & it allowed me to conquer frustration.

At this time my Dad told me that ‘it’s not about the job’ but about God’s plans & purposes for my life. & then I realised that I needed a bigger picture perspective, so that my main focus was not simply to get a job that I am happy in, but to come into my calling at this time. This helped me to stop obsessively focusing on the job, but to fix my eyes on Jesus & seek first His kingdom. This also gave context to my setbacks, & I saw that God was using them to get me to the place He wanted me to be & prepare me for what was to come. I had learned to have vision of being a medical writer, but I realised that God wanted my vision to be far wider than that. God was calling me to be a medical writer to place me where I can really make a difference, influence others & bring glory to Him.

Shortly after this, I got another interview. & this is where I really started to see God’s favour. The interviewers really liked me & were interested in knowing me as a person, not just in terms of the skills I could offer. They were able to pick up on a big part of who I am as a person & were just generally very helpful & honest. Though I was flexible about where I’d move to, I was very happy with the location of the job too. They asked me to attend a second interview, as they wanted to be sure I had the confidence required for the role. Confidence is something I have lacked for a long time, & though I’ve come a long way in overcoming this, I’m not the most naturally confident person. This can mean that even when I perform well at interview, someone with more confidence is favoured more. But I knew that if this was the right job, then God would make a way for me to get it.

I had a confident hope that I would get this job, but I tried not to get too excited, as I had now learned that an emotional hope is not helpful & prone to be dashed. This was a hope that was calm & expectant, committed to trusting God whatever the outcome. This kind of hope is easier to keep consistent, as previously I would fluctuate between getting over-excited & then worrying about not getting it. But eventually the phone call came, & I was offered the job. Now I could get excited!! The next 3 weeks were a whirlwind of flat-hunting, packing & clearing out, sorting things out & spending time with my friends before I left. & now I’ve moved, & my life has changed so much. It’s new & exciting, but has been somewhat overwhelming at times. But I’m starting to settle here now, & I do find the work I do quite rewarding. God has faithfully prepared me for this new season, & I’m sure my future here will be very bright :).

I am my Beloved’s: insights from Song of Songs

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song of all songsWhen I was in the second year of my PhD, I was beyond frustrated & very lonely. Loneliness had been a part of my life for a long time, & it kept coming back to haunt me at every opportunity. In the midst of this painful time, God revealed to me that the root of this stronghold of loneliness was a belief that no one truly loved me. Though I had experienced much love from people & from God, yet my heart didn’t truly believe it was real, due to the rejection I’d received in the past. & so I was like ‘ok God, thanks for telling me this, but what do I do about this??’ I didn’t get an answer then, but I soon began to see that this is a God who goes to great lengths to get His love through to us. I found that again & again, God would connect with me, give me revelations & show me love in ways that were tailored for me. & eventually, His love did get through to me, & gradually yet dramatically changed my life. The loneliness within me broke, & though it would be a lie to say I never get lonely, but it’s now quite a rare occurrence, & I can shake it off much easier.

A 24 part bible study on Song of Songs by Mike Bickle played a big part in helping me to find this breakthrough. The study became a journey of God opening my heart towards His love. I would highly recommend going through the whole study if you can, even though it is long. The study has many great gems that won’t fit in one blog entry, so I’ll just give you some of the highlights that had the biggest impact on my life.

The book of Songs of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon, is a love song that was probably written by King Solomon. There are many different interpretations, & generally it can be interpreted to talk either about romantic love between a married couple, or about God’s love for His people. I’ll be talking about what it means in the context of Jesus’ love for us, particularly for those who choose to develop a relationship with Him. In the New Testament the Church (as in Christians in general) is referred to as the ‘Bride of Christ’, due to the passionate love Jesus has for us. So it is not the only part of the bible that compares our relationship with God with a romantic relationship. We believe that marriage was created to be a picture to help us to understand the relationship we can have with God. Song of Songs reveals God’s pattern of how we grow in passion for God. The beloved (or she) can represent the Bride of Christ, & she starts with an immature love for her Lover (or he), who can represent Jesus. Throughout the book, her love becomes more mature, until it reaches full maturity, & provides for us a picture of how our love for Jesus can also reach maturity.

Cry out for intimacy with Him

bibleSong of Songs 1:2-4:

“Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth! For Your love is better than wine; Your anointing oils are fragrant; Your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love You. Draw me after You; let us run. The King has brought me into His chambers…”

Mike Bickle mentions in his study that the mouth is often used to symbolise God’s Word. God’s Word can expand our hearts to receive God’s love & allow us to become more intimate with Him. We are meant to cry out for intimacy with Him. Wine represents enjoyment & celebration, so when it says that ‘Your love is better than wine’, it means that God’s love for us is better than anything in the world that can give us pleasure or happiness; it’s more than anything the world can offer us. ‘Draw me after You; let us run’ talks about drawing near to God in intimacy & running with Him in ministry. It’s sometimes hard to find a balance between seeking God’s presence & serving Him; we tend to do one at the expense of the other. But our life vision should be to do both, as we need that intimacy with Him in order to have the strength & ability to do all that God has called us to do. We are meant to run from the overflow of our relationship with God, so that we are not running on empty.

His love is a banner

banner over meSong of Songs 2:4 says: “He brought me to the banqueting house, & His banner over me was love.” In the Hebrew the ‘banqueting house’ is more literally translated as ‘house of wine’. So this means that God wants to bring us to a place where we celebrate in His love. Mike mentions that a banner or flag is used by a nation or group to identify who they are. So if God’s love is our banner, that means that we find our identity in His love. This verse also reminds me of Jewish weddings, where a prayer shawl is raised above the bride & groom to represent the bride coming under her husband’s covering & coming into covenant with him. This means that when we are under the covering of His love, we are safe & secure because of His covenant with us. I am also reminded of one of the names of God ‘Jehovah Nissi’, which means ‘the Lord is my banner’. This name is mentioned in Exodus 17:8-16, which describes a battle between the Israelites & Amalekites. When Moses lifted his staff in the air, then the Israelites were winning, but when his hands lowered then the Israelites were losing. Eventually Aaron & Hur had to hold Moses’ tired arms up, so that the Israelites could gain the victory. So if God’s love is a banner, then if we hold His love up high in our lives, like Moses held his staff in the air, then that is how we gain victory over the situations in our lives.

We ravish His heart

Song of Songs 4:9-10:

“You have ravished My heart, My sister, My bride; you have ravished My heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, My sister, My bride! How much better is your love than wine, & the fragrance of your oils than any spice!”

To be ravished in this context means to be overwhelmed with joy or delight. There is a lovely song by Bethel that starts with the line ‘Your love has ravished my heart & taken me over’. But in this passage it says that we ravish the heart of God! ‘One glance of your eyes’ refers to a look of devotion towards Him. Mike mentions that in the bible the neck often represents the will (e.g. the Israelites were sometimes called ‘stiff-necked’ as they were often stubborn & refusing to obey God). So ‘one jewel of your necklace’ refers to a response of obedience to God’s will. It’s an amazing thought that each look of devotion towards Him & each act of obedience, no matter how little, would actually ravish the heart of God. Some of us can often feel that we are not good enough for God & that we can’t meet His expectations for us, but that is a complete lie. As far as God is concerned, He sees us as beautiful because of our love for Him, even if it seems so small & insignificant to us. & He even says that our love is better than wine to Him, so He values our love more than all the splendour of His creation. Let that sink in!

We belong to Him

I am my BelovedsThere is a verse that is found 3 times in Song of Songs, but it is slightly different each time. 2:16 says: “My Beloved is mine, & I am His…”. 6:3 says: “I am my Beloved’s & my Beloved is mine…”. Whereas 7:10 says: “I am my Beloved’s, & His passion is for me”. These subtle differences represent a complete shift in the focus of the Beloved in her love for Him. At first, her focus is more on Him belonging to her, then it switches to a focus on belonging to Him. But in 7:10, it is not even mentioned that He belongs to her; the deepest desire of her heart is to belong to Him, because of His love for her. This part of the study is what had the biggest impact on my life; I now wear a ring that has Song of Songs 7:10 engraved on it in Hebrew, to remind me that I belong to Him, & that this is where I find my true identity & belonging. & it also represents my commitment to give my heart to Jesus first & foremost, rather than chase after men. This has changed my life, as I discovered contentment & belonging beyond what I had ever experienced, which is not dependent on having a man in my life.

The power of love

stronger than deathSong of Songs 8:6-7:

“Set Me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.”

Mike explains that a seal of wax spoke of a king’s ownership, protection & authority, & was his guarantee that what was written will be done. Jesus invites us to let Him seal our hearts with His love, which is a sign that we belong to Him & are submitted to Him, & that we are under His protection & have assurance that He will fulfil His covenantal promises to us. His love is a love that is not only as strong as death, but is stronger & defeated the power of death. His love is a jealous love in the same way that if I had a lover, I would insist that he does not go off with other girls, but would belong to me alone. Jesus wants all of us, & He relentlessly pursues us until He has all our heart. His love is passionate; it’s like a consuming fire that cannot be diminished by any circumstances. The end of 8:7 could have various interpretations, but Mike thinks that it means that if we truly gave everything for love then we’d not want recognition or honour for it, as the power to love is the only reward that we’d seek. This is the kind of love Jesus has for us, & I encourage you to not settle for a lesser love. This love has transformed my life far beyond my imagination, & continues to do so day by day.

Link:

Mike Bickle’s study on Song of Songs: http://mikebickle.org/resources/series/song-of-songs.

Treading on mountains- my PhD journey

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Looks like I’ve not blogged for over 7 months! A lot has happened in the meantime; I’ve written my thesis & passed my viva, which means I’ll be becoming a ‘Dr’ :D. The PhD has been a very difficult journey for me, which has stretched me to the limits, but by God’s grace I’ve been able to persevere & overcome. I believe that God has used my PhD as a training ground, particularly to prepare me for pioneering new things for His kingdom (which I write about in No holding back: http://wp.me/p2Vhue-3Q). This blog entry is a summary of the main things I’ve learned through my PhD.

One of the main things I struggled with during my PhD was that I was getting very little breakthrough in my experiments; most my efforts seemed to be fruitless. Over a year ago there was a moment when I was crying out to God, asking Him why I’ve not had a breakthrough yet. His answer was that He was teaching me humility & submission! My thought was ‘ouch’! & then He reminded me of Habakkuk 3:17-19 (ESV):

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail & the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold & there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes me tread on my high places.”

These verses challenge me to rejoice in God, even when my greatest efforts are fruitless & the circumstances seem hopeless. It requires humility to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’; even when God’s ways don’t seem to make sense. The key seems to be to not look to our circumstances for happiness but to find joy in God alone. Which is much easier to say than do! It has been tough to keep pouring my life into this PhD when my heart was no longer in it. But eventually I found that my joy was not dependent on achieving anything, feeling that my work is meaningful, or even in having my needs met- what really mattered was whether I was close to God. When I am close to Him, I find supernatural strength, ability & an overcoming spirit, so that whatever ‘mountain’ comes my way no longer overwhelms me but it’s under me & I tread on it! When we take on His challenge to ‘come away’ with Him to climb mountains of difficulties (Song of Solomon 2:13), we find that He endows us with His ability to bound up the mountains.

So what is humility? I believe real humility is to have confidence in God rather than in ourselves. Some people may think that humility means being weak, but actually I’ve found that being truly humble is empowering. Pride often involves keeping up appearances, which can hold you back from expressing the real you. But humility empowers you to be yourself & do daring things, as you no longer give a damn what people think of you! In order to deal with my pride, God had to change my sense of identity & worth. I used to base my worth largely on my achievements & what people thought of me, so when I was not achieving & not gaining the approval of my supervisors it really got to me. But when I learned to find my identity in being loved unconditionally by God, then I gained a new confidence that wasn’t shaken so much by circumstances. & I found that when I quit trying to prove myself, then God started to prove me- I gained new favour from people.

My old sense of identity not only resulted in pride, but also led to dashed hopes. Whenever I saw a glimmer of hope in my experiments or love life I pinned all my hopes up on this, & it was often devastating when these hopes kept getting dashed. It’s important to have hope, but I’ve realised that you should be careful what you base your hope on. If your hopes are birthed from a desperation to be loved or for people to think highly of you, then those hopes will fail you. But if your hopes are rooted in knowing God’s unfailing love, then these hopes are un-dashable. But to find these un-dashable hopes, I needed to find healing from these previous dashed hopes. The memories of my hopes being dashed held me back; I was scared to go all in with my PhD, in case I fell into despair again. My Mum felt that Psalm 86:17 was a word from God for me, & that my ‘enemies’ refer to my disappointments: “Give me a sign of Your goodness, that my enemies may see it & be put to shame, for You, O Lord, have helped me & comforted me.” This really spoke to me, showing me that God’s favour & comfort will put my dashed hopes to shame. I also held onto Psalm 126:5-6, which reminded me that though my efforts have been painful yet joy will come, & it will be worth it in the end.

I also started to learn what submission to God really looked like. Submission is something I find very difficult, & I’m still learning. But I’ve found that submitting to God has helped me to deal with life so much better, & brought so much joy. I believe the motive of true submission is love; we obey God even when it’s a sacrifice because of our love for Him. When I started writing my thesis, I was challenged to seek first God’s kingdom & His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), which meant that I put God first rather than my thesis. Writing a thesis tends to take over your life, & it did for me at times, but it was not my number one priority in my life. Though I did not have time to be engaged in lots of ‘ministry’ at this time, I was faithful in what God had called me to do, though outwardly it did not appear to be that much. I’m the kind of person who likes to do lots of things, particularly things that allow me to spend time with people &/or make a difference. But I felt God had told me to concentrate on being rather than doing, & that I needed to cut down on the things I do when writing my thesis. That felt like quite a sacrifice for me, but I realised that God had called me to write this thesis for His glory, & doing too many other things (that He didn’t call me to do) would distract me, drain my energy, & cause me not to give my best for what He had called me to do at that time. I was challenged (& still am challenged) to live my life as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1), & as ironic as it sounds, I’ve found that being a sacrifice has felt very rewarding!

So what does seeking first God’s kingdom look like when most your time is spent working by yourself, & you don’t leave the house that much? I realised that prayer is the most important part of advancing God’s kingdom. & when I say prayer, I mean proper battling & persevering in prayer, with the focus of your prayers being ‘Your kingdom come; Your will be done’ (Matthew 6:10). I’ve always struggled with praying regularly & consistently, but when my mindset was to put first God’s kingdom, I was compelled to pray & keep praying. & when I started to pray regularly with this passion, believing that my prayers are powerful, I was transformed. My prayers became very bold & anointed, I became much more spirit-led & courageous, & I started to really bless some of my friends. & I found that as I made God’s kingdom my top priority & focus, God gave me the focus & drive I needed for my work. & believe me, I would not have been able to sustain the motivation & intense focus required for writing my thesis without God. I actually enjoyed writing my thesis for the first 3 months; though it was hard work I did enjoy drawing everything together & making a story out of it. Not only did God give me focus & passion for my thesis, but He gave me the ability to handle the stress very well, as spending time with Him each day gave me peace for my soul. I don’t work well under stress at all, so this reduction in stress really helped me to work to the best of my ability. I worked very hard when I was writing my thesis; though I did not work an excessive number of hours & always had a day of rest each week, when I did get my head down to work I was usually very productive with my time & maximised the hours that I did spend working. This was very useful, as it allowed me to take adequate rest, & the balance of work & rest allowed me to sustain high levels of working for the 4 months. & it also meant that I had time to really commit to my main life group; despite being busy writing my thesis I still was able to go the extra mile in contributing to the group & supporting the other members. This enabled me to find an even deeper sense of belonging than I had ever experienced before, & being in this group really helped me to grow & to be sustained as I was writing my thesis.

Once I finished writing my thesis, it has been tough to maintain the same focus on God I had, as it was much easier to get distracted when I didn’t have such a big, important task to complete. But it has been wonderful to be free of the thesis; in the last month of thesis writing I was so sick of the thesis & really wanted to ‘get rid of it’ :P. I’ve had chance to rest & recover & do different things that I didn’t have much time for. But then I had to prepare for my viva, & it was really tough to find the motivation to look at my thesis again after all the ordeal I had with my PhD. But I felt God say to me that I have to be willing to sacrifice again, & that being a living sacrifice is not just for a season, but it should be a constant thing. So I got my head down to revise for the viva, & it was very tough at first. With other things also going on, I started to feel that my burden was becoming too much. But I went on an inner healing course, & was reminded that we should serve out of love for God, not in order to gain a reward. This hit home, as I realised that I was seeking to do well in my viva to have something to show for 4 years of hard work, frustration & struggle, i.e. to get some kind of reward. But I realised that I should be doing it for God, to bring glory to Him, & therefore the outcome shouldn’t matter so much. & then the pressure just went right off. The viva had been such a big deal for me all these years, & something I had always been dreading, so I was amazed at how un-stressed I was on the last few days before the viva!! & on the morning of the viva, I was full of joy & worshipping God! I started to feel nervous when I reached campus though. My supervisor gave me a pep talk beforehand, which started with ‘it’ll be gruelling, but it’ll be over!’ :P. Which was very true; the viva was very intense, & I didn’t enjoy it; I couldn’t wait for it to be over. But I managed to perform much better than I expected, & the examiners said that I did a good job at defending my work. & by the grace of God I passed :D.

I expected to be so happy after passing my viva, but it didn’t happen; I needed some time to recover from of the ordeal of my viva. & honestly, though becoming a Dr is a big achievement on an intellectual level, to me it paled in comparison to how much I have grown & overcome within myself during the PhD. I’m so grateful to God for all He has done, & how He’s enabled me to discover potential in me far beyond what I could have imagined. It’s been a long painful journey, but also one that’s led me to find fullness of joy.

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:5-6 (ESV).

Hope can take my tears and turn them into the seeds of my own breakthrough.

Godly sexuality

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So I’ve previously written about my beliefs about sex, & I started to explore the concept of ‘godly sexuality’. I’m now gonna expand on this concept, so it may be helpful to read ‘When 2 become 1′ (http://wp.me/p2Vhue-1v) to give you the context. But to summarise, I felt that to stay sexually pure is not about suppressing our sexuality per se, but about expressing it in a godly way. At the time I wasn’t sure exactly how that worked in practice, but felt that sexuality is much bigger than sex & romance, & that finding intimacy in friendships can be just as fulfilling as romantic relationships.

One important question to ask about this topic is actually, what is sexuality? I don’t think a dictionary definition is too helpful here, as our culture always associates sexuality with the physical act of sex, or the attraction that can lead to sex. But I reckon there is a lot more to it, ’cause I believe that there are emotional, mental & even spiritual aspects to sex, so then sexuality should encompass all these things! I believe sex is about 2 people becoming one- in spirit, soul & body. The worldly perspective puts the physical aspects on a pedestal, & the spiritual aspects have mostly been lost. But a godly perspective is the opposite- it puts spiritual aspects first, & physical last. & I think this is the key to maintaining a godly sexuality- it is committed to start from spiritual one-ness, perhaps leading to one-ness of soul, & eventually leading to physical one-ness with the one you marry. So in reality, godly sexuality isn’t about suppressing your sexuality, it’s about expressing it in a fuller way!

Now many of you may not agree with the view that keeping sex within marriage doesn’t involve suppressing your sexuality in any way. & you’ll be right to an extent- you often need to suppress your physical & emotional desires for this, but the purpose is so that your spirit can be more fully expressed. & at the end of the day, I believe your spirit is the real you, so you’ll actually be living more true to yourself. The thing is, if we always act on our emotions & impulses, we can cause a lot of damage to ourselves & others. Lust in particular has the capacity to consume you & distort the way you relate to others. Sexual brokenness has a uniquely damaging effect on our identity & our ability to connect with others, as the nature of intimacy is that it makes you vulnerable. But sexual wholeness is uniquely satisfying & euphoric, & it’s a gift God gave for us to enjoy & protect. & I believe you can experience this without having sex or even having a lover- I’ve found that it’s in God & through family that I’ve found wholeness.

So how can we put this into practice when we start to get tempted? I don’t think there’s an easy way to break free from lust. It starts with a desire to change, but that’s not enough- we need God to enable us to be strong against temptation. I’ve recently been praying for God to help me to say no to instant gratification, & that He’d set me free from its hold on me. & God will help you if you come humbly & really cry out for His help, but it may take a long while. It’s a process that can make you feel very vulnerable & uncomfortable, as it can be very hard to face your own darkness. But I believe it’s worth it in the end, & will allow you to be controlled by your convictions, rather than your feelings & appetites.

I reckon that the path to sexual wholeness is first of all, to find one-ness with God, in spirit, soul & body. One-ness with Him is really all we need, but God did create in us a need for other people. The bible urges us to have one spirit & heart, so this means that we are to experience spiritual one-ness with the whole Church. We can’t be emotionally & mentally intimate with every Christian though, as that’s not physically possible for us on earth. But God did intend for us to have people who we can become one in soul with; people we feel safe to be ourselves & be vulnerable with. & if we find someone who we can experience deeper levels of spiritual, emotional & mental one-ness with, then this is likely to be a good person to marry! If the person & time is right, then we can embark on becoming one flesh- spirit, soul & body.

But the purpose of all this should be that we partner together to pursue God & bring His kingdom on earth. When we unite together, we can synergise together to enable each other to be all we were created to be. Different people bring out different aspects of us that we may not have otherwise found out, & we are called to encourage, comfort, build up, spur on & serve one another in what ever way we can. At the end of the day, our sexuality & relationships should all point back to God, & be a reflection of the amazing crazy love that God has for all of us.

No holding back: things I’ve learnt during Lent & Hope Fest

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In my last blog entry, I wrote about my desire to pray against injustice & seek God about what I can do about it. I anticipated that this time of Lent would be a time of preparation, where God would reveal more of His calling for me & increase my heart for serving Him & others. I also felt that this would be a time of breakthrough in my life. Lent has been both very difficult & very beneficial, as God has been working in me & teaching me a lot. There were many times where I struggled with stress & despair, mainly related to the PhD, because I have less than 6 months left to finish. I have very few positive results, so I’m attempting to keep working hard in the lab plus write my thesis in my spare time. But in spite of this, I had a lot of really good prayer & worship times, & God’s presence kept breaking through in the midst of my struggles.

On the zip wire at Hope Fest.

I had been seeking revelation about what my calling is, & where my research fits in with this. I keep struggling to remain passionate about my work, but now one of the reasons is because I’m itching to do more to serve God & make a difference. This is my real passion, & it has often felt like the PhD restricts me & drains me of my time & energy. I do believe that my work is a significant part of my calling, as it gives me opportunities to reach out to people who I may not normally be able to reach. But it’s sometimes hard to see how I’m reaching people when I’m having to work like mad, sometimes by myself. So God revealed to me that my work is my training ground, & the things I’m learning through my work are equipping me for my future callings.

One thing I’ve been learning is to let passion be my driving force rather than fear. I was getting very stressed about the PhD, but I don’t work well under stress at all. I’ve found that working hard out of fear leads to burn out & despair, but working hard out of passion can be sustained. Now some people may think being passionate means you’re always feeling happy & excited about your work, & that this can’t be sustained. But in reality, passionate people are also willing to grit their teeth & make sacrifices for their work, probably more so than those motivated by fear. The actions may be the same for both motivations, but the difference is the reason- fear works hard because it can’t bear to fail, but passion works hard because it believes it’ll all be worth it in the end.

There was a time in 2nd year when I was really pushing myself to work hard, & my motivation was fear, & I resented my work at the time. I couldn’t sustain this, especially when my experiments were not working, & I felt useless & depressed. I realised that now I was scared I’d fall into despair again, & this held me back & prevented me from giving my best for my PhD. Eventually I asked my life group for prayer, then I started to break free from this fear & feel much more positive. God has been giving me insight on how to cope with the workload, & it basically boils down to committing to put God & His kingdom first, staying in the Holy Spirit’s flow & not giving in to instant gratification. Though this is easier said than done!

Isaiah 40v31 describes being in the Holy Spirit’s flow- it’s like soaring on wings like eagles, which fly by allowing the winds to carry them. It describes running without getting weary or faint- this is the kind of energy that I’ll need to complete my PhD well! But I realised I’m like an eagle who is afraid of falling, as it has been broken & damaged before. It’s not that I don’t trust God to catch me when I fall, but I know that I can still get hurt. It’s like lead climbing- I’m not afraid of falling to the ground (I have trustworthy belayers!) but I don’t like the sensation of falling, or potentially getting whacked into the wall! So I’m like an eagle who keeps flapping its wings, trying to do things in my own strength, as I refuse to lose control. But this only wears me out, so I end up falling anyway. So God is challenging me to let go of my control, & to fully rely on Him.

Recently God revealed to me that He gave me an adventurous spirit ’cause He’s called me to be a pioneer. Because my research is quite pioneering, I now know just how difficult it is to be a pioneer. Pioneering is an adventure, but it’s a type of adventure that involves hard work & discomfort, & can be messy, lonely & frustrating. It may appear unfruitful & unfulfilling for a long time, but it can be really worthwhile. This got me thinking about what it means to be adventurous, & I realised there’s a difference between those seeking adventure for instant gratification or an adrenaline rush, & those who pursue an adventure that requires tenacious determination to see the rewards. I believe the truly adventurous people are the pioneers; they find fulfilment in the journey & in giving their all just as much as the end result. I fall into both categories though; I am willing to persevere for my passions, but I also am addicted to instant gratification. I think this prevents me from finding fulfillment in my work, as the rewards are not instant, & only come through perseverence & ‘luck’. Being a pioneering researcher has been very tough, but it has been training me for future pioneering. & I hope I can use what I learn to teach others to find breakthrough & to raise up more pioneers. I believe we’re are called to be pioneers to an extent, as we’re called to make a unique contribution in our lives & our legacy.

I went to a retreat called Hope Fest over Easter, & I knew that it would be a significant time for me. It was very fitting for me that it was being held in an adventure centre called Pioneer Centre! The theme was ‘Thy will be done’, so I knew it would be challenging! God really did some big things in my heart during Hope Fest, & I believe my life is now changed.

During some of the worship times I was crying a lot, as God was doing some inner healing in me. The main thing He was revealing to me was that I had let fears & a mindset of inadequacy hold me back from what He had for me. Though I’ve come a long way in overcoming my fears, I still was gripped by fears of rejection, criticism, failure, etc. These have inhibited me from being sensitive to the Holy Spirit & hearing from Him, particularly concerning things way out of my comfort zone. They have also held me back from dreaming big & from being intentional about sharing my faith. The interviews with Jerry & Marcus struck me ’cause they both mentioned being criticised, yet they chose to persevere, as their passion for God’s call was so strong. & it’s through their perseverence that they were able to overcome & be fruitful in their ministries. So God challenged me, asking me whether I was willing to be uncomfortable, put down, criticised, rejected or make mistakes for Him. He wanted me to come out of my comfort zone, so that I could grow into new giftings, rather than just stick with what I’m comfortable with.

During the last evening of Hope Fest, I experienced a fresh freedom in worshipping God with dancing. One of the songs we sang was ‘Christ is enough’ by Hillsong, & when we were singing the bridge, I felt led to change the words ‘no turning back’ to ‘no holding back’. This was my declaration that I wouldn’t let fear or anything else hold me back in living for God anymore. It wasn’t until after Hope Fest when I discovered that the bridge is actually from a hymn (‘I have decided to follow Jesus’), & the story behind the hymn is quite dramatic (you can read about it here: http://www.hymnary.org/text/i_have_decided_to_follow_jesus). It was the last words of a convert to Christianity in India who was martyred along with his family for his faith. The crowd were so struck by how strong their faith was that the whole village accepted Christ! So knowing this story gives extra meaning to the song; it’s a declaration that we are giving our lives to follow Christ all the way, even if it leads to suffering or death. ‘Christ is enough’ is inspired by the hymn & conveys why we’re willing to live this way- ’cause Jesus is the only one who can satisfy us; He is everything we need. He is more precious than life itself to us. & we seek to say ‘not my will but Yours be done’ no matter what, because we know that ‘it’s only in surrender that we’re free’ (All that I am, Rend Collective).

Later people who felt called to pioneer new outreach/church planting were asked to come to the front. When I heard this, something just clicked in my mind. When God told me He’s called me to be a pioneer, at the time I was just thinking about science, since the PhD was occupying most of my thinking. But I knew there was something more God wanted me to pioneer too, but I didn’t quite know what that was until Hope Fest. So then I went for prayer, & pastor Vincent prayed for me. His first words were something like ‘I think God is saying not to procrastinate!’ I panicked slightly & cheekily thought ‘can’t I wait until I finish my PhD first?!’ But I knew that God would want me to start small, & I didn’t wanna delay God’s plans for me any longer. Later Jerry was asking me about this call to pioneer, & he said that for him pioneering is very fulfilling & where he gets his biggest joy. So that really encouraged me, ’cause my experience so far in pioneering in science has not been fulfilling. I guess some people find scientific research fulfilling, & I hope I will soon. But I realised that pioneering for Christ’s kingdom is the most fulfilling thing, as it leaves a legacy with eternal implications. Even if it’s unfruitful for a long while, I can be assured that I’m doing something that’s really worthwhile.

At the end of Hope Fest I went up to give testimony of what God has done in me over Hope Fest. I knew that overcoming my fears would still be a process, but I was now committed to not letting them hold me back anymore. Hope Fest was awesome but I wasn’t sad about leaving, ’cause I knew the real adventure & challenge starts when I go back to normal life as a changed person! Both me & my brother were buzzing on the journey back from Hope Fest, & I was so happy at how God was working in his life too. When I started back at work after Hope Fest, my mind was buzzing with ideas about my calling. It seems that now I’ve committed to not let fear hold me back, that my dreams that were buried were starting to be re-awakened. Though I’m not so excited about my work at the moment, I’m excited about what God has in store for me both now & in the near future.

“He’s awakening the hope in me
By calling forth my destiny,
He’s breathing life into my soul
I will thirst for Him, and Him alone,
He has come like the rain
That showers on the barren plain,
So my heart and tongue confess
Jesus Christ, the hope of man.”
– Hope’s Anthem, Bethel.
 

Fighting against injustice: thoughts for lent

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Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly

For most of my life, I’ve not done anything for lent, as I’m not keen on depriving myself of things I like just for the sake of tradition. I think there’s little point doing lent unless it brings you closer to God. There are a lot of benefits to fasting, but much more so when you teem it up with prayer. I’ve done some fasting before, particularly last year, & I found that the feeling of intentional physical hunger somehow releases a deeper spiritual hunger for God. It also increases the power of our prayers & our ability to hear from God, as it shows God that we mean business! It’s a declaration that God is more important to us than our cravings & needs! But generally lent has not been too helpful for me, probably because it’s difficult to keep the focus on God for that length of time, & the focus becomes the thing I’m giving up instead. But this year, I hope things will be different.

In the bible, there’s a challenging passage about true fasting, which is basically about getting the focus right. Fasting is useless when our hearts are not right, & it should go hand in hand with fighting against injustice:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift your voice like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression…Yet they seek Me daily & delight to know My ways, as if they…did righteousness & did not forsake the judgement of their God…they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why have we fasted, & You see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, & You take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, & oppress…quarrel & fight. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?…Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, & to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry & bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, & not to hide yourself from your own flesh (& blood)?” Isaiah 58:1-7.

I think this is quite a fitting wake up call for the church. Many Christians can make themselves look very holy & pious; they may seek God daily, even delighting to draw near to Him. But that doesn’t mean much to God if they’re fighting amongst themselves & oppressing others. A lot of people who call themselves Christians anger me, as they are judgmental & intolerant, & just generally self-centred & arrogant. This goes against the overriding message of the bible, which calls us to love others as much as ourselves. Later the passage calls us to take away pointing fingers (verse 9), which is the opposite to what many people do. I know many so-called Christians have done a lot of harm to people, & it really saddens me. This passage challenges us to not only refrain from contributing to injustice, but to actively fight against it. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by all the injustice in the world & feel that we can do nothing, but the little that we can do can make such a difference.

One reason that fasting could be linked with fighting injustice is because it allows us to have some empathy with those who are hungry, as those of us who are privileged may have no idea what it’s like to hunger. But I think the main reason is the link with prayer: in order to fight injustice effectively, we need God’s power backing us & His leading & insight for how to go about doing it. It is mainly through the power of prayer that we can break yokes & set people free. Fasting also can be an opportunity to get closer to God, so God can use times of fasting to expand our hearts for the oppressed. Though prayer & fasting has a lot more power than we realise, it is still important to take action as well. We’re called to ‘pour ourselves out’ to satisfy the desires of the hungry & afflicted (verse 10), so God wants us to get serious about fighting injustice. The passage gives some examples of practical things we can do to help those suffering, & goes on to give the great benefits that will come when we commit to this. It says that we’ll experience light instead of darkness, speedy healing, righteousness going before us, God’s glory following us, answered prayers, continual guidance, strength & continually satisfied desires (verses 8-11).

Recently I read a book called ‘Broken by beauty’ by Joy Farrington, which I highly recommend. This book has set me off thinking about injustice, & has moved my heart to do what I can to fight for justice. The book is the autobiography of a young women who has a heart particularly for the prostitutes & sexually trafficked, & it talks about her experiences & struggles. A lot of the experiences described in this book really broke my heart, but it also describes how God can redeem our brokenness. She mentions that restoration can be a long, messy & painful process, but through it God creates a beauty that far exceeds that which we previously carried.

I found the book difficult to read at times, as I get quite affected by the suffering of the world, so I have a tendency to avoid thinking about it. But one quote that really spoke to me was one from William Wilberforce, which said ‘you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know’. So I realised that God was wanting me to stop looking away from injustice but to face it head on, so that He could expand my heart for justice. I’m currently reading Ecclesiastes, & finding that it hits quite close to home, as Solomon is describing how he’d become cynical when seeing so much injustice in the world. The more he sought knowledge, the more weary he became, as he saw more of the dark side of human nature. I’m in a similar place at the moment, as I’m getting lots of insight, but also more questions, & my pursuit of answers can be wearying at times. But Ecclesiastes is a warning to me to not become cynical, but to keep holding onto God, as I believe He’s the only hope for our broken, suffering world.

So how can we go about fighting injustice? I’m currently feeling quite overwhelmed with my increased desire for justice, as I don’t know what I can do when I’m *meant* to be fully focused on my PhD at this time. I seem to be losing my passion for my PhD again, & I’m finding it quite a restriction on my time & energy. I feel I’m not making as much of a difference as I would like to. So I was encouraged to read in Broken by Beauty that ‘sometimes our presence is more powerful than words; it impacts beyond knowledge & speaks to the soul’. Joy also mentioned that our mission can be to simply affect the atmosphere of the environments we go to, i.e. to be a light in the darkness. So this gives me hope that I’m making more of a difference in people’s lives than I realise. Another thing that spoke to me was the importance of affirming people; to ‘call out the gold’ that they can’t see in themselves. I’m good at seeing good in people & loving them the way they are, but I’m not very good at articulating the good I see in them. But this is something I wanna work on, & over lent I wanna start to develop a habit of affirming people more.

“I pray that when I look at people I would see Jesus in them. I pray that I would then tell them what I see.”- Joy Farrington, Broken by Beauty.

Joy also talks about the vital importance of prayer & seeking God’s presence when fighting for justice. She says that “prayer needs to be at the foundation of every step that we make & is the bow from which our arrows of justice should be released.” Taking time to value God’s presence allows His fire to burn hotter within us, & this brings purity of heart & mind, & increased vision, insight & boldness. Prayer is the way to partner with God to see justice rule on the earth; it is the fuel behind our outreach, enabling us to keep pouring into others without running dry. Prayer also is the means of gaining protection from spiritual powers, dispelling our fears & releasing God’s supernatural power to back us up & bring breakthrough.

So now I feel inspired over lent to commit to pray against injustice in the world. My plan is to pray against a different aspect of injustice every day during lent: to pray for the church’s response, cry out for justice & to seek God about what I can do practically. I also plan to fast from meat in order to intensify my prayers. This year my church is encouraging us to do lent together, which I think is very exciting. I believe unity, especially when it comes to praying & fasting together, is very powerful. I anticipate that this will be a time when God starts to move more powerfully in us & through us to bring change in Sheffield & beyond.

“Seek first His kingdom & His righteousness, & all these things will be added onto you.”

Give me love?

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For the past few years, the run up to Valentine’s Day would be a time of painful anticipation, with the day itself filled with a desperate yearning for a man. It’s a tough day to be a single when it feels like the whole world is rubbing it in our faces! But now it’s 2 days away, & I can’t speak for how I’ll feel on the day, but at the moment I’m feeling completely ok about it! Which makes a massive change!! I no longer buy into the lie of our culture that single means lonely, & I no longer believe what our culture tells us about love. Valentine’s Day is no big deal for me now, ’cause I now know that I don’t need to have a boyfriend to be happy or to feel loved.

Take the world, but give me Jesus

This blog entry was partly inspired by hearing a beautiful bilingual rendition of ‘Give me Jesus’ (see link below). This song was stuck in my head for 2 days, & it has been an important reminder of what is most important to me. I’ve been quite stressed & frustrated with the PhD lately, & it’s so easy to let that take up all my focus. I’ve been stuck in this PhD bubble, & it’s hard to break out & see beyond that. This song challenges me to lay down my ambitions & desires to pursue Jesus above all else.

“Give me Jesus, give me Jesus, you can have all this world, just give me Jesus.”

I’ve been told that the Mandarin lyrics aren’t a direct translation, & this is the translation of the chorus back to English:

“I only want Jesus, I only want Jesus, take away my world, I only want Jesus.”

When searching for this song on youtube, it struck me that when typing in ‘give me’ the top choice is ‘Give me love’ by Ed Sheeran. I do love that song, but I thought it was such a contrast! Give me love describes a desperation for love that I am very familiar with, & which many others also experience. I think it shows how little love is understood in our culture, & that the way in which we pursue love is selfish. It’s so often the case that we think we really love someone, when actually we just love how they make us feel or what they do for us. Us Christians can have a tendency to love God in the same way; to ‘love’ Him when He blesses us & when things are going well, but turn away from Him when we are hurting or we don’t get what we want. ‘Give me Jesus’ reminds us to not want what God can give, but just Him. This is the kind of love that God has for us- He doesn’t love us for what we do, but He loves us for who we are, unconditionally, & desires simply for intimacy with us.

Chorus of “Give me love”.

I used to be desperate for intimacy & love, but my search always left me empty, as my focus was to have my needs met. I’ve learned that you can only truly receive love if your focus is on giving it, not receiving it. I found that it’s only through receiving God’s love that my needs can be met, & His love empowered & transformed me in many ways; ways beyond my expectations. His love enabled me to receive the love of others & find a sense of belonging & ‘family’ like I’ve never experienced before. This sense of belonging has changed me in many ways- it brought inner healing from past experiences & dashed hopes, which had such a hold on me. Through that, I gained a new passion for my work, a new strength to overcome & a new sense of contentment. The fact that I no longer was so desperate for a man was a big thing for me- I had finally learned to be content as a single. The secret was finding belonging, & this I found not in one person but in a group of people who became like family to me.

So what does family look like?

One of the most striking characteristics of this particular ‘family’ were that we loved spending time together. Singaporeans tend to be very busy people, yet we’d hang out together every Friday & Saturday night, often into the early hours. & we also talk to each other on a WhatsApp group chat throughout the day, & I’m still in touch with them this way. I realise that family won’t always look this way, but I do think it’s important to make time for each other & to be involved in each other’s lives. But I think the most important aspects that brings a sense of family are one-ness & commitment to each other, which are incorporated in the term ‘covenant’. In my quest to learn what love is, I’ve realised that true love is described best by the word covenant. A covenant basically means becoming one, & each individual no longer lives for themselves but for the other(s) in the covenant. God’s relationship with us is a covenant, & so is marriage, but I also believe that us Christians are also in covenant with one another to a lesser extent. 1 John 3v16 says that we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another, which clearly speaks of covenant. I believe that this is the best way to love, as the commitment to one another creates a safe environment for people to be themselves, & this therefore cultivates intimacy. I believe intimacy is the means by which belonging can be found.

So what does covenant look like practically? For this group, I found that from the first time I met them, I not only felt welcomed by them, but felt included, like I was already one of them. It’s hard to explain it, but I think it was their genuine-ness, their concern for me, their generosity & just them being themselves. It wasn’t long before this inclusion grew to belonging, & looking back it seemed to come so easily considering how I never managed to find belonging before this, despite my desperation. I think part of the reason was that God had opened my heart, so I was finally ready to receive this. But I think it was also because of the way they invested in me & sought to bless & help me in any way they could. This really inspired me to invest in them & keep looking for ways to bless them. Though I’ve always had a big, compassionate heart, I’m not always very good at showing my love & appreciation for people. People usually do notice the genuine appreciation I have for them, but I wanted to do more to express this love & show people their worth. So experiencing belonging inspired me to take more initiative in finding ways to express love in more tangible & creative ways. I also sought to be myself with the group, which is not easy for me as I struggle to express myself verbally. Verbal communication has always been difficult for me, & I often struggle to articulate what’s on my heart & mind. This has made it very hard for me to be truly known, & this made me very lonely in the past. But God challenged me to be willing to be vulnerable, which meant that He wanted me to persevere in expressing myself, even though the words may not always come out right. But I found this group was a place where I was safe to be me, a place where I wasn’t judged but was accepted, valued & noticed. Being noticed was a big thing for me, because as a very shy person I’ve felt that I have needed to make a big effort for people to even notice me! But in this group I didn’t feel I had to strive to be noticed. I was no longer so uncomfortable being the shy girl but felt comfortable being me both in my speaking & listening.

When I was preparing to leave Singapore, I worried that I’d lose the joy & belonging I experienced there once I go back to England. But God wanted to show me more fully the breakthrough that had taken place in my life, & that I wouldn’t revert back to the same person I was before leaving England. It was only since coming back to England that I’ve realised how much my confidence has grown. Considering my history of shy-ness, this is a huge thing for me. Part of this is because being in a new country forces you out of your comfort zone, & you therefore find that your comfort zone expands! But I also realised that I’m no longer looking for praise or approval from others so much, which means that I’m not as fearful of what people think of me. I’ve always felt the need to prove myself to people, & my ambition to achieve was linked with that. I struggled in the first 2 years of my PhD as I wasn’t achieving & I couldn’t win the favour of my supervisor, & this made me very frustrated & insecure. But once God helped me to find my security, identity & value in Him, I found a new boldness to be me. Knowing that I am loved the way I am, both by God & others, enabled me to stop striving to be noticed & valued by everyone. The paradox is that once I stopped trying to prove myself, that’s when I’ve started gaining greater favour with people! I’ve realised that when we quit striving to prove ourselves, then that’s when God loves to ‘prove’ us.

So this is how I found love, & how it changed me. I believe that this love brings much more hope than what our culture offers us. It offers so much more than the short-lived pleasure of shallow relationships based on sex & attraction. This is why I’m so passionate about what I believe, & why I wish to cry out ‘take away my world- give me Jesus!’. I can’t say my desire for God is that strong that I desire nothing else, but I want it to be, ’cause ‘my world’, my bubble, my selfish desires get in the way of loving Him. It’s only through knowing Him that I find my true identity, my full capabilities, complete freedom to be me & fullness of joy.

“& with every fading fear, there is healing in my tears,
Now I belong, now I belong, now I am strong.” (Chris Eaton).

Link:

Charis Chua’s version of ‘Give me Jesus’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_71-nlwJtM.

Coming out of the cave

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Looking at my blog stats, it appears my blog has been attracting a steady trickle of Mumford & sons fans :). Another one of their songs I love is ‘The Cave’, & I feel that it describes quite well part of my journey of inner healing. From what I’ve read, the song make references to Homer’s ‘Ulysses’, GK Chesterson’s ‘St Francis of Assisi’ & potentially Plato’s ‘The Cave’, none of which I’ve read. But this is just my own interpretation & what the song means to me.

A cave

The inspiration for this blog entry came when I was exploring the Lower & Upper Peirce Reservoirs when I was still in Singapore. My future career plans have been on my mind a lot, as I’d been feeling very frustrated with my PhD, & wondering whether I really want to stay in scientific research after graduating. I’d come to the conclusion that I’m not sick of science in itself, & I do still like research, but what I was struggling with was the lack of progress. I’d finally learned not to find my sense of worth in achieving, but what still got me is that I was not discovering anything new, which meant I was missing the biggest joy I got from research. I love exploring & discovering, & this is what drew me to science & research in the first place. But my PhD has felt like I’m attempting to explore a dark cave with no map or light. I once described my PhD as a maze where I keep coming against walls, & there are no doors but only holes in the wall ’cause I was banging at them for so long! So as I was thinking about this ‘cave’, I started thinking about this song. I believe all of us have ‘caves’ that we go through in life; these can be attitudes, lifestyles &/or circumstances that trap us. When we come to Christ, He sets us free from all this, but we often do not realise our freedom, or we find security in our caves & can’t imagine coming out of them. So freedom is often a process, & I think this is what the song is about.

“It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears & all the faults
You’ve left behind.

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat.”

I think the beginning of the song talks about someone trying to walk away from their past life, & it’s not easy. Though things are slowly getting better (the sun is rising) yet their heart is still empty & heavy- they don’t feel very free yet. The second part talks about this person’s past life, which they are ashamed of. I’m not entirely sure what the cannibal/meat eater bit is about, but my interpretation is that this could be referring to a selfish lifestyle. Our culture is now very consumeristic & individualistic, so people often strive to get & do anything they want, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Galatians 5 v 15 refers to people biting & devouring one another when they do not love each other. When life gets tough, it can be very easy to take it out on others, but living this way keeps us trapped in a cave. Living out of true love is the only way we can find freedom.

& I'll find strength in pain & I will change my ways

“But I will hold on hope
& I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

& I’ll find strength in pain
& I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”

The chorus shows a determination to walk from the cave into full freedom, & to also free others from their suffocating bondage. We need to keep hoping, seek to become stronger in the midst of pain, & to become who we were meant to be.

” ‘Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours & I’ll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind.

So tie me to a post & block my ears
I can see widows & orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
& despite my growing fears.”

The first part of this verse sounds like a relationship break up. But this could refer not only to relationships, but perhaps to other areas of life that we need to break away & move on from. Some people (especially me!) find it hard to let go & move on, but we should only hold onto what is ours to keep. Holding onto things that we don’t need will only burden us & drain us, & they won’t really be ours anyway. ‘Let me at the truth’ expresses a desire to find out what is really true so that we can avoid holding onto things that are not meant for us (& so living a lie). The second part talks about the author trying to come into his calling but feeling scared & inadequate. Yet he is compelled to reach out to the ‘widows & orphans’, & wants to stay true to what he is called to do. I think he wants to be tied up so that he can’t run away from his calling, & his ears blocked so he can’t hear anything that would dissuade him from it!

I need freedom now & I need to know how to live my life as it's meant to be

“So come out of your cave walking on your hands
& see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s hand.

So make your siren’s call
& sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

‘Cause I need freedom now
& I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be.”

I’ve read that this part about coming out of the cave is a reference to GK Chesterson’s St Francis of Assisi, which has this quote about the time St Francis came out of captivity: “The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit…He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.” In order to find true freedom, we need to depend on God, & this can be a humbling experience. Often it feels like we’re crawling forward so slowly in life, & we wonder if we’ll ever be free. But we can only know God’s hand in bringing us break through if we depend on Him, rather than on our own abilities or strengths. & when we come into our freedom, we see the world around us in a new & fresh way, because of what God has done for us. ‘The siren’s call’ could refer to the lies of the powers of darkness, which lure us into a destructive path. So the author is declaring that he won’t listen to these lies, no matter how appealing they sound, as he is committed to becoming free & being who he was meant to be.

It seems I’ve finally come out of this cave relating to my PhD :). It took a while, but now I have a new passion for my PhD project again, even though progress is still very slow. The song describes a lot of the main steps that enabled me to break free:

  • Starting an on-going process of learning to live out of love instead of for my own desires (verse 1).
  • Letting God’s truth get through to me & no longer listening to the lies of the evil one (verse 2 & chorus 2).
  • A growing determination to be free, become stronger & be who I was made to be (choruses).
  • Becoming compelled to live out my calling (verse 2).
  • Learning to let go of many things (verse 2).
  • Learning to be humble & depend on Him, which has given me new perspectives on life (verse 3).

I’ve grown & overcome so much in the past year or so, & am experiencing freedom & fullness of life like never before :D. I hope that as I share how I’ve overcome, that other people may learn from it & find breakthrough in their own lives.

Beauty in brokenness

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Shattered heart

Whether or not we like to admit it, we all have areas of our heart that are broken. We all go through suffering, & we’re only human, so sometimes life breaks & damages us. This damage can remain long after the experiences that caused it, & will affect the way we live life, whether we realise it or not. The long-term effects of our brokenness very much depend on how we perceive it & deal with it. Some people try to pretend they’re ok; try to numb themselves to the pain, as they do not know how else to cope. But this causes their hearts to harden, which ‘protects’ their hearts, but also prevents them from truly giving or receiving love, or from being able to experience life fully. & though they are protecting their hearts from further pain, their hearts are unable to heal, as healing can only come when they receive unconditional love.

C.S. Lewis said in the Four Loves, ‘There is no safe investment in love. To love at all is to be vulnerable. If you avoid all entanglements & lock your heart in a coffin of your selfishness, it won’t be broken but it’ll become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.’ Throughout my childhood, I did not know how to deal with my inner pain, & so I isolated myself & withdrew from people. But this didn’t protect my heart, & the pain just built up until I couldn’t keep it in anymore.

I’ve realised that emotional numbness doesn’t actually protect your heart from damage, but it can allow your heart to become more damaged than you realise. It’s like my tooth that needed a root canal this year- its nerve died in response to trauma, so the tooth became numb. Eventually the tooth became infected, but I didn’t realise, as there was no pain. I had a recurring abscess above the tooth for a while, but I didn’t think it was a serious problem, as it didn’t hurt. I could have lost the tooth had I delayed going to the dentist for much longer. In a similar way, emotional numbness is a sign that part of your heart has died, & though it gives the illusion of being invulnerable, it actually makes your heart more vulnerable. It becomes much harder to notice when bitterness & other negative feelings infect your heart, & this will slowly kill you inside, perhaps without you even realising.

‘To love at all is to be vulnerable’. I’ve found this to be very true. Being vulnerable is a prerequisite for experiencing true intimacy. Recently God has been challenging me to be willing to be vulnerable, & this has been very tough. But it has been so worthwhile- it has allowed God to be able to touch me & connect with me in deep, meaningful ways. It has allowed Him to do His work of healing in my heart, & I’ve now experienced so much change & growth in my personal life. I’m also more able to give & receive love, be myself with people & have confidence, which has made me a lot happier. Our hearts are like clay; once they’re hard they will only remain broken & shattered, but when they are soft they can be re-moulded & put back together (Jeremiah 18 & 19). In the bible, God says that He will replace our hearts of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11 v 19, 36 v 26). The process of inner healing can take a long time, as God first needs to deal with things that cause our hearts to be closed & hardened before He can reach into the areas of deep hurt. Sometimes He needs to break us before He can remake us. But the beauty of grace brings wholeness & redeems brokenness. Even our mistakes, weaknesses & limitations are turned around for our good, & made beautiful through His love.

Ezekial 36 v 26

“Fragments of brokenness
Salvaged by the art of grace
You craft life from our mistakes.”

(Second Chance, Rend Collective Experiment).

The story of my life is that in the midst of many struggles, mistakes & brokenness, God has been faithful & used it all for my good & for His glory (Romans 8 v 28). My struggles have taught me a lot & brought so much growth to my character. & I believe that my pain & the way in which I overcome is enabling me to help others to persevere & find breakthrough in the midst of pain. In any case, it has given me empathy for many people, & inspired me to share what I’ve learned with as many people as I can. Joseph in the bible was sold into slavery, & later unjustly put in prison. He probably will have wondered why God had allowed all this to happen to him. But later he was made ruler over Egypt, & his insight saved the lives of many people (45v5-8, 50v20-21). I believe that though God doesn’t cause suffering, He has a purpose in whatever we go through (despite what it seems!) & is able to bring good out of it all.

Heart jigsaw

I believe our hearts are like an intricate jigsaw, & sometimes the pieces are scattered everywhere. When we try to put the pieces back together, we may put pieces in places they’re not meant to be, have pieces we don’t know what to do with, & have ‘missing pieces’. We can feel incomplete, & so we try to look for our missing pieces in relationships, in our career/studies, in our hobbies, in material things, etc. But wherever we look, we can’t seem to find them. When we put the pieces of our heart into God’s hands, He may need to shake us & break us first in order to re-position pieces that were not in the right places. But God only breaks us so that He can remake us. He carefully puts the pieces back together again, sometimes in places we don’t expect & that don’t appear to make sense at the time. He picks up pieces we forgot about, the pieces we never knew were there, & even the pieces we wish we didn’t have, & He carefully clicks them into place, one by one. Gradually we start to see patterns forming that have a beauty to them. As more pieces are added, it becomes more & more beautiful, & the different patterns start to connect & ‘make sense’. Eventually you realise that the jigsaw is now complete, & that you had all the pieces all along; they just needed to be put in the right places. But then the jigsaw is still not over; God continues to expand the jigsaw. Therefore it is only when we put our hearts into God’s hands that we become complete & come to our fullest potential.

So my challenge is to be willing to be vulnerable & to be willing to be broken before God. Allow Him to reach into every part of your heart, so that He bring healing & restore you to fullness of life. If you are broken, be like the Alabaster jar of precious perfume that a woman broke before Jesus (Mark 14 v 3-9). In a similar way, our broken hearts can release a fragrance of God’s beauty that changes the atmosphere around us & touches others. God’s love doesn’t just fix us, it creates beauty in our brokenness, & as He brings us to wholeness, He gradually recreates His beauty in us.

“My future hangs on this
You make preciousness from dust
Please don’t stop creating me.”

(Second Chance, Rend Collective Experiment).

God can heal a broken heart, but He has to have all the pieces