A new covenant

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My church is halfway through the sermon series in the book of Galatians and the speakers have been illuminating God’s truth in a way that I’ve never thought of. The truth preached were not new to me, yet the way that they were strung up to present a coherent narrative of the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ has been most enriching. I especially enjoyed the sermon by Kenneth Wong today. He’s truly a gifted Bible teacher, able to expound and communicate deep Biblical truth in simple yet comprehensible way.

God gave Abraham a promise of prosperity and possession, as recorded in the book of Genesis, and He established this unconditional covenant, calling for Abraham to trust and believe in His word. When the law was given through Moses the mediator 430 years later, it delineates right and wrong according to the word of God.

19 What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator… 23 Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24 So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

Galatians 3:19, 23-25

The law is preparatory to the coming of Christ. Through the law, we are conscious of sin, but it does not and cannot supply the power to overcome sin. Only in Christ has the requirements of the law been met.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

I came to know God in the late 1990s. It’s a long story, although I usually tell the abridged version, but it took me a good three years to proclaim my faith in Christ. I said ‘yes’ to Jesus because I was and still am convinced that I am dead in my sin and unable to save myself, not through good works, morality, philosophy or otherwise. I believe that I am able to come to God only through Jesus, no one and nothing else. But I admit that after I had joined the church, I had added some things to Christianity, apart from faith. Maybe it’s because of my personality. My Myer-Briggs test indicates that I’m an ISTJ – I’m what you would call a ‘law by law’ person. Rules and structures matter to me, and somewhere along the way, structures outweighed their actual importance in my Christian journey. At the end of a camp (which we called Christocentric camp), for example, I noted down a list of at least 10 health measures that I told myself that I should keep to so that I will grow in my relationship with God.  My overzealousness at that point in time prevented me from seeing that this confidence in the doing eclipsed my faith in God. I was a Pharisee, trusting that keeping the law is the duty of a pious Christian. I had sincerely believed that keeping to the laws would make me a better Christian and more acceptable to God.

Somewhere along the journey, the sense that the law can’t make me a better Christian became more acute. I tried dutifully and diligently (remember, I’m an ISTJ), but I couldn’t satisfy my expectations of a good Christian. It was tiring, and I wonder now if some of my peers left the church or the faith did so because they were too tired as well. Yet, the gospel of Jesus Christ became more wondrous and dearer, because I’m loved and accepted simply by grace through faith in Christ. Faith is such an abstract thing, too metaphysical for my understanding, but it became the only way I knew to come to God. Prayer was especially difficult, since it hinged so much on faith, yet God had to show me how much things were out of my control and beyond my doing that I simply had to pray. This new covenant that we have with God can only be realised and experienced through faith. Jesus is the Author and Perfecter of this faith (Hebrews 12:2). This faith is never my doing or my merit, but simply a gift that God bestows.

Looking back, I see that it’s simply a growth journey that God has ordained for me, which really parallels the development of a child, to grow from immaturity to maturity (still growing though). At first my personality seemed to be a hindrance to faith, yet I see that ‘all things work together for the good of those who loved Him’ (Rom 8:28). I could study the word of God diligently because God gave me an appetite for facts and knowledge, and the word of God built the foundation for my faith. Where I had lacked in faith, I had to be tested, taught and stretched to grow. It’s so good to know this God, who I know loves me.

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The Altar (1633) by George Herbert

A   broken   ALTAR,   Lord   thy   servant   rears,
Made  of  a   heart,   and   cemented   with   tears:
Whose    parts   are   as   thy   hand    did    frame;
No   workman’s   tool   hath   touch’d   the   same
A   H E A R T  alone
Is    such    a   stone,
As      nothing      but
Thy  pow’r  doth  cut.
Wherefore each part
Of   my   hard   heart
Meets  in  this  frame,
To  praise  thy  Name:
That  if   I   chance   to   hold   my  peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And  sanctifie  this  ALTAR  to be thine.

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2012 in reflection

I’m continuing with this yearly personal look-back partly out of tradition, but also because I want to give thanks to God for His work in my life. I have realised that when I don’t have a heart of thanksgiving, it’s really easy to become dissatisfied with my lacks and wants. That’s when the self takes over and I lose sight of God. But I don’t want to.

I started off the year with the prayer that I will love God more, grow in wisdom, and be more real. To tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve loved God more, but I’ve grown in understanding how much God has loved me. His love remained faithful and long-suffering when I was rebellious, apathetic and unwilling. From time to time throughout the year, I would ask myself, do I love God, and my answer would be ‘yes’ — otherwise I won’t be attending church service / serving / saying ‘no’ to myself. Yet, my love was incomplete, conditional and a ‘left-over’. During a recent solitude in December, as I read an article on Luke 9:23-24 with a few sisters, I was reminded that the kind of love God demands is of primacy, supremacy and priority — Primacy because our first love ought to be Jesus (see Rev 2:2-5 NIV1984); Supremacy, as Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37 NIV1984); and Priority, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate [i.e. by comparison of his love for Me] his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NAS). Unfortunately, I think in the end, my first love is still myself, that I love God with so little heart, soul and mind, and I love myself more than Him. That’s how pathetic my love for God is. Yet, in His mercy, He reminded me that His righteousness is for me by faith. He stirs up within me the desire for His righteousness and presence in my life.

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Luke 1:68-75

I never thought that I would write this, but I’m so glad that God broke and healed me this year. He broke me when I finally realised that a hope that I had been hanging onto was dashed, and I felt my life fall apart. There was one morning earlier on in the year when I woke up with an utter emptiness inside, not knowing what I was living for. I didn’t know how I was going to get to work, or for that matter, go through life that day. All I could do was to kneel beside my bed and ask God to give me a reason to live. When I opened my eyes after I said ‘Amen’, the emptiness remained and I just went to work. But I knew that God was there during that period, sustaining me and giving me strength. One of the turning points soon after that episode happened during a trip, when God challenged me to ‘trust His heart’, to trust His good plans and His love for me even when I can’t see what’s ahead. Another breakthrough was when somehow I saw that I was so affected by my disappointments because I was trying to live for someone else, to be this certain standard or type that one would love, yet that person is totally not who I am. That was when I realised that I must live for myself. I know that some may be concerned at the egocentricity of this statement, and would correct me, that I should be living for God. I don’t want to make this epiphany sound more religious by using spiritual lingo. When I said I must live for myself, it means taking responsibility for my own life, knowing God’s boundaries for me, and living with freedom and accountability within these boundaries. I don’t want to live to please others or to meet their expectations; I want to live to be the best that God has made me to be. This sense of liberty has given me sustained joy and a healthy love for myself. I embrace my ‘strangeness’, no longer feeling awkward that I should be fitting into others’ expectation of who they think I am. But there were times that I hated myself, when I found myself narrow-minded, insecure, and shallow. Still, I’m a work-in-progress, and I know that there’s so much that God wants to teach, show and transform me.

Because I want to live to be the best that God has intended me to be, I found an unfamiliar zest for excellence as I embarked on a part-time course in 2012. As I was stretched mentally and physically during the first semester, managing full-time work, part-time studies and my mum’s ailment, I realised that these testing was to develop my grit and align my focus. Through the studies, God granted me joy: I love the intellectual stimulation and academic rigour and was intrigued by the new knowledge gained. As I learnt new theories and ideas, I was able to connect some dots in my head, giving me a better understanding of the world. Yet, it soon dawned upon me that there’s so much more that I don’t know, and that’s another humbling experience altogether. The whole going-back-to-school experience taught me other things as well. To tell the truth, there were commitments and responsibilities that I had to give up or neglect because my time and energy was just so limited. Admittedly, my devotional time with God suffered, the attention that I could give to people dropped, and at times I wondered when I said ‘I’m stronger than this,’ was I tapping on my own willpower or God’s strength? I had to ask myself, what does it mean to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind in this season of life then? Biblical convictions that I knew as an undergraduate, e.g. Matt 6:33 ‘But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’, were challenged, producing renewed tensions between faith and reality. I didn’t have answers to these questions and doubts readily (and still don’t for some), but I just concluded that life is a journey where there are more questions than answers, and even if there are answers, they don’t come easy nor are they easy. And even when I don’t have answers, I want to learn to trust God in spite of, or perhaps, because of, the uncertainties in life.

Despite the fact that the new year means being a year older, I look forward to 2013, because I will enter the new year with God, with hope, and with prospects of new challenges and discoveries. There will be changes in my local church where I worship, meaning new and stronger relationships forged. I pray that I’ll have a greater desire for His righteousness, more wisdom according to His word (and not merely in knowledge), and increased love for my Saviour and Lord.

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Inaudible groans

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

Romans 8:22-27

Yesterday’s Adult Fellowship session on the Holy Spirit made me realise that I know so little of the work of the third person of the Trinity in my life. And it cast light on what God has been doing in my life, during moments in the valleys and darkness.

I remember a period in my life where I felt very low. There was one morning where I woke up, and there was a sense of utter emptiness inside – a gaping hole that I didn’t know if it could be filled. It was a weekday, and I didn’t know if I could go through the day with the vacuum inside me. All I could do was to kneel and pray. I remember struggling to words to plead with God to give me meaning to live. I think I barely said five sentences. When I opened my eyes, the sense of lost remained and I went on to work as usual.

I don’t know how I went through the day, or how I overcame that period (actually I do, but that’s another story altogether), but as the Adult Fellowship speaker spoke of the Holy Spirit who intercedes in indiscernible words on our behalf, I knew in the depths of my heart that the Holy Spirit groaned for me when words failed me in my own prayers. When I couldn’t pray for myself, He prayed instead.

Thank You, Holy Spirit.

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Contentment in the Lord

 

A friend commented that there was a period where I had exhibited a critical streak online, complaining about various things under the sun. Her comment disturbed me, because I didn’t want to come across as a grumbler with a lack of gratitude for the things that I have. Indeed, I have much to thank God for, and he has certainly blessed my life greatly. But does being a grateful Christian mean that I must always feel a sense of satisfaction? Will being content mean that I don’t want to change or allow status quo to perpetuate? Will contentment breed complacency? I didn’t have easy answers, and I’m thankful that I found some answers through a recent exhortation in Philippians 4:10-13:

10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Paul was in need when he wrote to the Philippians, yet he didn’t demand the Philippians to give to him for his work with them. Yes, there was some rhetoric about the Philippians’ response in verses 10 and 11, which didn’t seem very prompt, but I’m quite sure that he wasn’t using some passive-aggressive tactic. He was able to rejoice greatly because it was in the Lord. It was through relating with God that he was able to find joy even in dire circumstances. When the speaker pointed out that the original Greek phrase ‘I have learned’ points to a progressive growth, from apprentice to master, I was rather struck that it wasn’t a natural response for Paul. He learnt contentment through the years. Perhaps for every one of us, we can learn contentment like Paul did. God does not coerce us to be content, but shows us how to by revealing Himself to us.

Being content is found in relation to Jesus Christ. It is not found simply in circumstances or possessions. Perhaps only testing will show if our contentment is in the temporal or the eternal. Contentment doesn’t mean complacency. When He reveals a need for me to change, I should change. Or perhaps, it’s a revelation for me to be an agent of change in the different contexts in life. Whatever it is, I realise that I can be content yet change, all in Jesus Christ.

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War and Stillness

Gustave Doré (1832-1883), The Enigma, 1871, Oil on canvas
The Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune affected Doré profoundly. He recorded scenes of the siege in the streets around him and also made three large allegorical paintings in 1871. This painting is undoubtedly the most tragic of the three. Doré uses real elements alongside allegorical ones. The battle is over, and atop a hill strewn with bodies (possibly Montmartre, one of the areas of combat), stands a sphinx overlooking the scene. In the distance, smoke rises from a city (Paris) set alight by enemy fire. Under the dark sky, a winged woman is in tears and questions the sphinx in vain for an explanation of the chaos and horror of war, but the sphinx remains silent. (Explanatory notes accompanying the Painting at the ‘Dreams and Reality: Masterpieces of Painting, Drawing and Photography from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris’ exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore between 26 Oct 11 and 5 Feb 12)

This painting gripped me during an exhibition and my memories of it was triggered when I was meditating on Psalm 46 during my devotional time recently.

Psalm 46 (NIV1984)

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come and see the works of the Lord,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

The imageries employed in the Psalms are so vivid – God is like the bomb-shelter we can hide in when the shellings are hard and heavy. The explosions outside shake our core, but we are safe in the shelter. Desolation and war (verses 8 and 9) – yes, God ordains them, yet He is able to make them cease in His sovereignty. He is our refuge, our strength, our ever-present help in trouble (v1); He is our fortress and He is with us (v 7 & 11). One day, the wars shall cease. That will be the day that there is full admission of His sovereignty and rule, where He will be exalted among the nations and in the earth (v10). We will be still and assent that He is God.

But till that day comes, the earth gives way, the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, the waters roar and the mountains quake. Nations will be in uproar, kingdoms fall, and the earth will melt. Destruction and desolation is real, but it is not forever. It will end one day.

Maranatha. ‘Come, Lord Jesus. Come.’

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Racing with men on foot

Five weeks into my part-time course, I’m physically and mentally exhausted. I’ve never felt so stretched in my life. Not during peak periods of important work assignments, not during planning for events in church, and not even during my undergraduate years. Yes, I realised that I’ve ‘smoked’ my way through life all these years.

Yet, it feels as though this is just the beginning. God said to the prophet Jeremiah,

If you have raced with men on foot
and they have worn you out,
how can you compete with horses?
If you stumble in safe country,
how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?

Jeremiah 12:5

Somehow, this feels as though I’m just racing with men on foot; it isn’t even running with the horses. There’s more to come.

There was this sister serving in full-time Christian ministry whom I admired for her intensity. She was sold out for her vision, and her focus and perseverance was truly inspirational. As much as I admired her, I felt that I couldn’t emulate her living, because it was ‘too intense’. I realise that it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t but that I won’t, because it just takes too much. I chose a more comfortable life, and now I have ‘intensity’ thrust upon me, and I need to learn what it means to be totally focused, diligent, and to have grit to do what I need to do.

And this is just racing with men on foot. The horses can wait.

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