The Three Signs of A Christian

If you were passing by Town Hall last Saturday, you might have glimpsed some bright orange shirts and a big sign with the words – Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong Gospel Rally 2024. 

Just last week, we at IREC Sydney were blessed to receive God’s Word from Dr. Stephen Tong who is currently touring Australia in what might be his last gospel rally. Dr Stephen Tong is a servant of the Lord who has been greatly used in a variety of fields, from the ministry to promoting the quality of culture in Indonesia and China. Today’s article is a reflection on what I’ve learnt from his sermon, and I hope it can bless you as it blessed me. 

All that aside, back to the topic of signs.  

There are some things in life that are simply universal. Try picturing this: a red background, with a bright yellow M on top. It’s pretty easy to guess what brand this sign belongs to. 

Almost everywhere we go, we’re confronted with signs that let us recognize what lies inside. From that bright yellow M that sits on red, to those red and white stripes featuring a very familiar old man (you can tell I’m feeling a bit peckish), it’s easy to see how important signs are. 

So, what are the signs of a Christian? 

1. Love

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-34)

Love. It’s one of those words that have been used so many times that its meaning has almost been lost along the way. Every song, book, movie, and even person has their own definition of love – how do we even begin to navigate them all? 

The Greeks had eight words to categorize the different loves we experience. We won’t go through them all in today’s article, but there’s one love they identify that’s the most special and unique of them all. Agape: 

Unconditional. That’s what really sets this love apart. 

Usually, we love based on the merit of the objects of our affection. We love to lavish our love on things we see as cute, beautiful, perfect, awe-inspiring, extraordinary; things that are ‘love-worthy’ and that are better than us. When we see these – a favorite movie, an idol, a crush – we’re filled with joy and affection, and we’d do almost anything for it. After all, they deserve our love. 

But the unique thing about agape – God’s love – is that it’s wholly underserved. No one is higher than God, and He is perfectly content in the holy love of the Triune God. He doesn’t need to love us. But He chooses to love us – those who are far lower than Him, and who don’t deserve His love. In fact, we reject it and throw it away for what we think can bring us happiness, trading the grandest castle for sandcastles that are so easily washed away in the rain. 

And even so, His love pursues us, even to the point of the cross. Giving up His Father’s love in exchange for His wrath, all that we may receive true underserved mercy and love from Him. 

Undeserved love. 

Unconditional love. 

And it is this love that Christ teaches us to love others with. If we loved others according to how much we love God, it wouldn’t be a very consistent standard – oftentimes, our fervor for God depends on our mood or the trials we face. Many times, the length of our mealtime prayers fluctuate depending on how hungry we are! 

But that’s not what God teaches us. Rather, he tells us to love others just like how He loved us first. Forigiving others just like how He forgave us first. Serving others just like He served us first. 

This principle is aptly expressed in the following verses of Matthew 25:30-40. I won’t be going through these verses extensively in today’s article, but I truly hope you can take the time to read these verses for yourself. May we, along with His disciples, be able to hear these words from the One who loved us first – ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The first sign of a Christian is love. 

Unconditional love for the undeserving. 

2. Eager witness

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Say there was this amazing restaurant that had just opened in your neighborhood – not only does it serve the most delicious food you’d ever tasted, but it does so at an impossibly low price! You wouldn’t keep this great news all to yourself, right? It’s much more likely we’d be posting all about it and sharing the news with as many people as we know. Sharing our joy with others, that others may enjoy it too 

Why is it that we often do not have this same attitude towards the Good News? 

The Good News is more than good: it’s the best news in the world for broken sinners! The Good News promises unconditional and unlimited peace and joy – all for free. 

Why then do we keep it to ourselves? In the Bible, there are countless examples of eager witnesses who unashamedly seek to share the good news they recieve. Take the Samaritan woman in John 4 as an example. As soon as she experiences the life-giving water that Jesus offers, she immediately rushes into her town and shouts, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” See the transformation in this woman’s life? Before, she was trapped under the shame of her sinful life, hiding away and avoiding others, and even willing to come to the well for water in the sweltering noontime heat if only to avoid the scorn of the other woman. But now, look at her. Never mind any embarrassment. Never mind other people’s scorn. 

May we have the same energy and passion to bring others to taste the same grace and life and joy we enjoy. 

I won’t pretend that evangelizing is going to be easy, or that those you evangelize to will accept your message. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be counter-cultural. There will be sacrifices. There will be scorn. 

This is why we must hold on tightly to these two things: the grace of the Holy Spirit, and a firm foundation in God’s Word. The only way we can have culture-defying courage is through the power of the Holy Spirit – and the only way we can tell others about His Word is by knowing His Word in the first place. 

But, I pray that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we may be able to say with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) 

3. Fruitful

“For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44). 

From a young age, we’ve been taught to name a tree based on the fruit it produces. A tree with apples is an apple tree, a tree with oranges is an orange tree, and so on. And, in the same way, others know us through the fruits that we produce. 

Try reflecting back on the past week, or even just yesterday. Was the fruit of your life – something that others keep coming back to enjoy? Could your family, friends, peers, community taste the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in your life? Or was the fruit bitter or prickly to taste instead? 

When a tree bears fruit, not only do we know what kind of tree it is, but we also know that the tree is alive. It’s healthy – its roots dig deep into the water that is its source of life. So, as Christians, how can we grow, let alone bear fruit, if we are not rooted in God’s Word? Grow strong and daring, and healthy. Then, when others see the tree that flourishes and stands tall through winds and storms, they’ll start to look for the source of water that sustains you so. 

Even as I write these final words, there’s this one song from Sunday School that comes to mind. It’s a hymn by Baylus B. McKinney, called “Let Others See Jesus in You”, and I feel its words are a fitting encouragement and reminder. 

Let others see Jesus in you,

Let others see Jesus in you;

Keep telling the story, be faithful and true,

Let others see Jesus in you.

Can others see Jesus in me? 

Do others see Jesus in you?

I truly pray that it may be so. 

Paradoxes and Promises

What’s the difference between an antithesis and a paradox? 

Or juxtapositions and contrasts?

Despite how much I love English, I’ve never really understood the difference between these literary techniques. After all, they all seem to refer to basically the same thing: the contrast or opposition of two things. (Don’t quote me on this in your essays though!)

But these conflicting themes don’t only occur in literary texts or lengthy English essays. Throughout the Bible, we encounter countless juxtapositions from the Old Testament and all the way to the New Testament. 

From Isaiah’s prophecy that the virgin would give birth (Isaiah 7:14), to Jesus’ various seemingly outlandish statements such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit .. those who mourn … those who are persecuted for righteousness…” (Matthew 5:3-12), the Scriptures are full of these conflicting (and often confusing) themes. 

As hinted at by the title, today’s article will explore two important contrasts that Jesus’ coming introduces (and learn a few definitions of these seemingly identical terms along the way!)

1. An Antithesis to the World

Definition: an antithesis is something that is a direct opposite of someone or something else. 

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ statements and actions pose clear contrasts with what the world holds as truth and real. 

From making the blind see, the lame walk, the sick heal, the hungry full, to even making the dead alive, the coming of God turns the world upside down. For good reason! The very fact that God becomes human – that the Creator joins the Creation – is a paradox in itself that I still can’t even start to grasp. 

What Jesus promises for His followers is also the complete opposite to what the world offers. The world offers a range of paths to salvation, but Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except me.” (John 14:6)

The world says we must be number one, no matter what tactics we use, but Christ says, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43) In fact, this is what Christ does, throughout His life and in His death.

The world preaches that, to succeed and be happy, we must aim to reach a certain level or quality of life, but Jesus says that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Instead, he says that those who are truly blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and those who hunger for thirst and righteousness. (Matthew 5:3-12)

And finally, the world clings to a comfortable and pleasant life, but Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35) 

So, what does this mean for us? 

One thing that’s important to take away from all this is that the Christian message is one that’s radically counter cultural. You can’t claim to be a Christian, but hold onto the ways and beliefs of the world. You can’t take both sides. You have to choose one. Jesus Himself stated, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

What this inevitably means is that following Christ won’t be easy. Jesus Himself warns us of this countless times- “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15:18). The way of the cross isn’t a nicely paved pathway with neat flowers on the sides: it’s hard, and it’s lined with pain and heartbreak and sacrifices. 

Jesus has laid out the risks. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. 

2. The Paradox of Happiness in Suffering 

Definition: A paradox is a statement that’s made up of two opposite things that seem impossible, yet is indeed possible. 

The way of the cross is hard, yes, and filled with trials, but Christ doesn’t leave us to go through it all alone. He gives us this amazingly paradoxical promise: that we can be happy despite and in suffering. 

Now, before exploring what this paradox means for us, it’s important to clear up what it is not. The fact that Christians can be happy despite suffering doesn’t mean we find pleasure in pain, or that happiness itself is bad. 

Rather, it’s because our ultimate happiness – our peace, satisfaction, contentment, joy – relies on something apart from anything the world offers. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, such as our friends and family (after all, these things are also gifts from God), but in the end, the ultimate basis of our happiness aren’t (and can’t be) any of these things. When we receive gifts from our family or friends, what makes us more happy: the gift itself, or the loved one who gave it?

Hearts that are eternal need something eternal to fill it: otherwise, anything else is just like a single drop in an empty ocean basin. 

One of my favourite quotes on this topic is by Blaise Pascal, who puts it this way: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every person that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God. “

In Christ, the foundation of our joy is something both eternal and can fill the bottomless depths of our heart to the point of overflowing! 

Unchanging and constant, our joy becomes an anchor and rock to cling to as the tides of life come in and out.

What’s more is that Jesus’ wonderfully paradoxical promises don’t stop there. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he points out one of the greatest truths we as Christians receive: “all things work together for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28)

All things – this includes all the bad, sorrowful, painful moments too. On the cross, Jesus defeated Sin and vanquished its hold over us. Although we still deal with the consequences of sin on this fallen world, Jesus has transformed the meaning of suffering – in fact, it works for our ultimate good, as God, in control whatever happens to us, uses whatever trial we go through to teach us, shape us, and instruct us, or to point out to us a hidden sin or idol that takes away from our happiness. 

Such a promise is invaluable for the struggling Christian: for me, and for you. After all, the way of the cross is as it suggests: it’s hard and filled with countless opposition. But in Matthew 5:14, Jesus paradoxically says that Christians are blessed “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. ”

How can we be happy when we’re in this pain? “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15)

What is this reward? That our joy, that persevered through suffering, will finally find its complete fullness when we are united with Him in heaven. 

So there it is: suffering is paradoxically redefined for the Christian, because our joy thrives beyond any suffering we face. Even more, we have hope in suffering itself – that God uses the trials we face to bring us to more and more, and eventually complete, joy. 

In Christ, the sinful world faces an antithesis never seen before. 

In Christ, suffering and death has been paradoxically and wonderfully transformed. 

And in Christ, we find a Saviour and Friend who will be with us all the way. 

The Flickering Candle

With a single click, the lighter bursts into flame and the candles on the cake are lit one by one. But as I gazed at the welcome sight, I noticed one candle held a flame much smaller than the rest. Only the tiniest speck of orange clung to the wick, and it looked as if the smallest sigh would be more than enough to blow it out. 

That was exactly what I wanted to do, but it felt wrong somehow to blow out a candle before the birthday song ended. So I continued to watch the tiny flame (if you could even call it that) struggle to stay alight and wondered when it would finally flicker out.

Now, half a year later, as I’m gazing into the fastly approaching New Year of 2024, I feel like I’ve become like that flickering candle. Living for God, serving Him in ministry, had and has its victories: but it’s also come with countless temptations, sacrifices, and failures.

I find myself losing that initial spark of joy driving my ministry, and even forgetting why I strive in the first place. I start to forget these spiritual realities for worries that seem far more real, such as friends, family and HSC. Even as 2024 bursts in with showers of fireworks, I’m scared that what this new year brings will burn out what is left of my flame completely. 

So is that that, then? Is that how it ends for that little candle, and for me?

Diagnosing the Problem 

It wasn’t until one Saturday morning, during the prayer service, that I realised what the problem was. The topic that day was about ministry, and the talk that day centred around the issue of ministry ‘burn out’. Why did churches, or individuals, who gave their all to serve God eventually burn out and lose motivation? Was it because they didn’t have enough resources? Or because they weren’t willing enough? Strangely enough, no. It was because they, like me, had forgotten the purpose of their ministry. 

In fact, so often we fall into the trap of loving the ministry more than they love Jesus himself. Without us realising, the purpose of our ministry shifts for other people’s praise, our own validation, or even ministry for ministry’s sake itself. 

But if a candle has lost its wick, can it burn? If we have  forgotten why we were doing all this in the first place, then how can we ever hope to bear fruit?

So, what is this purpose? What are we missing?

Contrary to what I had thought before, the ultimate goal of ministry, and in fact our very lives, doesn’t centre around letting others know about Christ and the salvation He offers (although that certainly should be the end product of all we do). The main reason we serve God is to know Him more. It’s in order that we come to know our Creator, King, Saviour, and Father: not just theoretically, but practically and personally. 

After all, it is when we obey Him, and take up the cross we are called to carry,  that we come to experience for ourselves the beauty of His person and the unfailingness of His promises. It is then we come to see what it really means when  ‘God is for us: who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). 

And it is when we know Him that all our ministry is not done in vain, because this light we shine comes from a love for our Creator, Saviour, Father and Friend.

A Spark Relit

Once we’ve re assessed our direction and purpose, then what? Here’s three checkpoints for the journey ahead…

1. Cast Every Weight Aside 

In his letter Hebrews, Paul points out to his readers that to run the “race marked out for us”, it is inevitable that we “throw off everything that hinders” and “entangles” us from finishing it. (Hebrews 12:1) 

As runners in the “race marked out for us” then, these words apply to us more than ever. Before we start this new leg in the  marathon of life, take a moment to pause. Pause to reflect on the struggles and misdirections of the past year, while also rejoicing and giving thanks for the victories God has granted. More importantly, take this time to also introspect, bringing to light the parts of your heart maybe you’ve tried to ignore or hide this past year. What bosom sins still drag us down from running our fastest? What hidden idols still trip us, and cause us to fall? Are our eyes still fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1), or have we wandered from the path?

Can a runner run if he is burdened by weights, or trapped by snares along the way?

Can a candle burn if it does not flee from the winds that threaten to extinguish it?

Can we live for God if sins and idols tear our eyes away from Him?

2. And Confide in Others 

With Christmas only a week ago (how time flies!), we’ve had several candle light services at my church.  What I love about these services is watching how the flame from the first candle is passed on, person to person, to everyone in the room. Sure, some candles only hold tiny flames, while others take longer and more encouragement to light, but it’s truly beautiful watching the dark room come to life in the combined light of small and large flames alike. 

And, this is the image I see when I read 1 Peter 2:4-5, where it describes the church as a temple built up of living stones (that’s us!) each nurtured by God and encouraging one another. 

To live a life for God – to live radically counter culturally against the world – would be an impossible task if we were to do so alone. 

As a church, God calls us to “encourage one another and build each other up”  – and that command applies more than ever when we’re struggling. So, to the struggling believe, I encourage you to reach out this new year. Confide your struggles in a trusted brother, sister, mentor, mother or father in Christ, and in turn, also be a listening ear, a cheerful comforter, and a patient encourager. The world sees this light, church as an example 

Together, even the smallest candles can burn as bright as the sun itself. 

3. For His Promises Never Fail 

Finally, I urge you to seek, seek, seek! Seek to know Him for yourself, by seeking Him in His word. 

I’ll be the first to admit that studying His Word takes hard work. At times, it almost even feels pointless, like digging for a treasure that never comes into view. But when we lose the motivation to read His Word, that shouldn’t be a reason to stop: in fact, it’s then we need His Word more than ever. 

That’s why, at the same time, we must also “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Plead with God to transform in you a heart that “that delights in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2) and pray that the Lord who brings the dead to life may also bring to life in us a flame of joy for His Word and to do His will. 

Persevere in these prayers: for if even the unjust judge answered the persistent pleas of the widow, how much more would a God who loves as His own children be eager to answer our prayers?

And finally, know that as we persevere, we have an infallible hope to strive towards. Cling to the certainty of His promises; that “everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

The Bruised Reed, the Smouldering Wick

To finish off this article, there is one final encouragement I want to share as we enter together into this new year. 

I hope it can be the same source of comfort for us in 2024 as it was for Isaiah hundreds of years ago. 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 42:3) 

The God who destroys cities and tames storms with a single word can apply this same strength to gently nurture and coax a dying spark into a flame. 

As we strive to know God and live for Him, know that we don’t have to do so in our own strength alone – in fact, that would be impossible! Yet our one wondrous promise is this: that within His hands, even the smallest and most hopeless spark, is safe. 

In the end, who knows what 2024 will bring?

What joys or sorrows will we face, and how much will we change?

Will our light shine on, or will it falter?

Whatever the answer, there’s one thing I’m sure of: the hearts of those who know their God burns with a light that can never be quenched, not even by the powers of darkness itself. 

Extra reading: 

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-bruised-reed-he-will-not-break

From Slavery in Sin to Alive in Christ

Maybe you’ve seen it before, or something of the like: it’s small, slightly dodgy looking, and on the front, a large sign names the shop ‘Free Choice’.  What does it sell with such a name? Cigarettes. 

The word ‘freedom’ is tossed around in our lives. We call the nation we live in a ‘free country’, because here, we have so much freedom: freedom of speech, belief and autonomy. Freedom is so highly valued that laws are dedicated to guarding our freedom.

Yet, at the very same time, we follow whatever our body demands of us right now and then, even at the cost of hurting ourselves or others, and call this our free will. We call shops that advertise binding addictions ‘Free choice’. We sin, and sin, and sin, and call it freedom. 

The world’s version of freedom, for all its good aspects, is ultimately flawed. 

So, what does the Bible define as true freedom? 

Let’s take out our Bibles and flip to Romans 6:11-18. I won’t put in the entire passage here, but it’s well worth a read. Here, Paul tells us three primary truths about what type of freedom has been purchased by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. 

Freedom from Death

Many of us have probably heard this verse countless times – “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

The fall didn’t only bring about lasting bondage to sin (“Surely I was sinful at birth,  sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” – Psalm 51:5),  but the bondage of humanity and nature under the consequences of this sin.

The chains of death that all humans have been and are bound to cage us in so many ways. 

Not only is our life quite literally limited by the deadline of death, but life, as we live now, is trapped: by the fear of meaninglessness, fear of what happens after death, and the fear of loneliness and leaving behind loved ones.

As dire as this truth is, however, even more powerful is the truth of the freedom Christ offers. 

  1. Life’s Meaninglessness

The meaninglessness of life that the author of Proverbs mourns (“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2)  has been defeated by Christ with meaning far beyond what we can imagine. As Paul puts it, we are free to live life to the fullest and happiest, “because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:53). This promise rings incredibly comforting when I wonder whether all my efforts in ministry, school and even chores, have any value at all. Work, no matter how small and hidden, done in and for the Lord has meaning, because it is used by Him for His great purposes: giving our work a meaning far greater than we could ever comprehend.

  1. Death’s Power 

Something that struck me as unique in class recently was the popularity of the worship of Isis, an Egyptian deity, in Pompeii (remember that city that got pulverised by a volcano? ) After all, I’m not the best at Geography, but Egypt was miles away from Rome. Furthermore, there were plenty of other religions circulating in Pompeii, not least of all the common religious practises deriving from Rome itself. However, the distinct fact that set this religion apart was its promise of an afterlife and a resurrection. 

Humans have always sought to find an answer to what lies behind the intimidating veil of death. But Christ tore this veil in two by dying Himself in our place. He removed the chains of death on us by ensuring that Death can no longer hold the punishment we deserve over our heads; instead, we have an assurance there is hope and life beyond the grave. And, most wonderful of all, Christ has already experienced death, so not only has He defeated its power over us, but He knows what we will go through, and He will be there every step of the way. 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” (Psalm 23:4-6)

Rather than the end, death becomes an object of hope. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” After all, what heaven, in all its beauty and hope, really is: to completely be with God, our Creator, Friend, Lover, and Father. The difference with this world now is that there will be “no more sin” nor its consequences: suffering, loneliness, pain or death – “We will be done with the inner war and the heartrending disappointments of offending the Lord who loved us and gave himself for us.” (John Piper)

“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:8) 

Freedom from Sin

Yet, death isn’t the only chain that Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice has broken apart.

But to understand how Christ sacrifice frees us from sin, we need to understand what it is that He frees us from. After all, we still have free will even in this world of sin, right? Why does Christ need to free us anyway? To tackle this, let’s use an analogy of an autonomous ball. 

Picture a ball. That’s you! The ball has free will because it is able to roll around wherever it pleases. On the ball’s travels, the ball encounters a hole, which represents sin. The ball can choose to roll into this hole or not, because it has free will. However, once the ball has rolled into this hole, it does not have the ability to escape, because, in the end, all it is is a ball. It can still roll around wherever it likes within the hole, but it simply cannot reach the surface again. 

The same applies to us. We can choose what we want to do, but not everything is good for us – that includes sin (1 Corinthians 6:12). Even after we have fallen into sin, we still have free will, but it’s limited. Sin overpowers us so easily, and we find ourselves falling into the same trap over, and over, and over again, even though it never really makes us happy. And, stuck in this hole, we cannot please God because we simply cannot do what we do not want to do. 

But that’s not the end of the story for this unfortunate ball, and neither it is for us. Just like this ball can regain its freedom if someone reaches down, picks it up, and places it back on the surface, Christ came down to our sinful level and lifted us out of our sin. Of course, it’s inevitable that we’ll sin again, and fall into that hole once more. But we don’t have to stay stuck there. Christ’s freedom means that He will pick us up again, and all the while, work in us a heart that grows to hate and resist sin that hurts us and the God we love. It’s in Christ’s freedom that we are given the spiritual strength and ability to obey His law and purpose for us through the Holy Spirit. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

Furthermore, we grow to love and enjoy this obedience to God.

God will never force us to obey and love Him, because coerced love is not love at all. So, when we have the freedom to obey, it means that we obey not unwillingly or forced; we grow to enjoy and love Him, and as a result, to trust and love “His statues and decrees”. This incredible truth is aptly summarised in verse 17, “..thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart…” 

And finally, no one can take this freedom away from us. Not Satan, nor any power on heaven or on earth: “Who then is the one who condemns? No one.” (Romans 8:34)

Freedom to… what? 

We’ve been freed from sin. We’ve been freed from the demands of the law: death and suffering as punishment for our iniquities. Now, what is all this freedom really for? 

It only takes one look at the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) to see its similarities in how we often treat our own blood-bought freedom. The servant owed a debt to the King that was impossible to pay off, and so deserved imprisonment, but in a twist of mercy, his entire debt was pardoned. 

And they lived happily ever after, right?

Not quite. We see the very first thing the servant does with his new priceless freedom is… to throw another servant into jail for owing him way less than what the King pardoned him for originally. I remember the first time I heard this parable, I immediately felt afraid. Why? Because I was afraid I too was guilty of taking the King’s freedom for granted. 

After all, I’ve grown up in a Christian family all my life, and I’ve been taught of Jesus’ death on the cross and what it means countless times. But what have I done with the freedom that Jesus has given me? Am I, like the servant, taking it for granted: or even worse, using my freedom to take away the freedom of others? (Galatians 2:11) Am I content only to keep my freedom for myself, that I will ignore those in chains next to me? 

Food for thought, huh? 

As every minute, second, and breath passes by, it’s vital that we remember that we are people whose freedom has been dearly and fully bought. I hope that we can learn and grow together, not taking this freedom for granted, but truly discovering how radical and life-changing it truly is. 

The Fearful Life

The very first time I saw Voldemort, I was terrified. Maybe it was the fact that the guy literally didn’t have a nose or how unnaturally creepy it was seeing a face on the back of another person’s head, but regardless: my primary school self was not a fan. Years passed, and I realized that I didn’t have to fear noseless book antagonists. It turns out there were much scarier things in life – teetering relationships, broken friendships, growing up, missing out, and of course, bad grades. 

The world is and has always been a scary place from the moment that sin first crept in. Ever since fear has become an unmistakable presence in our lives. Even those Bible heroes that God used weren’t immune to fear either. Abraham, the “father of faith” (Galatians 3:6), lied twice that Sarah, his wife, was his sister out of fear for his own safety – leaving Sarah vulnerable to both kings (Genesis 12, 19). 

Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, had originally run away from Egypt out of fear of the Pharaoh (Exodus 2). 

Even spiritual giants such as Peter were frightened enough to deny that he even knew Jesus after previously swearing, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you” (Matthew 26:34) – not only once, but three times. But it’s in the Bible, and in fact, in the lives of these fearful people, that we can clearly see the life-transforming power of another fear – the fear of the Lord. 

A Life in the Fear of the Lord  

It’s likely that you’ve run into this term before in a sermon or devotion, but what exactly does it mean? 

It’s important to clarify that the fear of the Lord isn’t terror of what destruction God can do to you if you displease Him. If we were to cultivate this attitude towards God, we’d be stuck in a strictly legalistic mindset for all that we do. Whatever kind act, hard task, or heavy sacrifice we make would be done in fear of what would happen to us if we didn’t. What a draining way to live!

When we look in the Bible, however, that’s not what God wants. Time and time again, we can read how He loves His people in His “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). When the angels, appearing before the shepherds to announce the great news of God incarnate, the first thing they announced was, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 2:10). It’s clear that God’s not some tyrant who delights in the terror of His own people, but rather, a loving Father who cares for His children.

Now we have clarified what ‘fear of God’ is not, it’s time to define the term. 

Once again, let’s look at God’s own Word to find our answer. 

  • “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear…” (Isaiah 8:13)

To fear God is to experience the inconceivable splendour of God’s character and tremble. He reigns as King of all Kings and almighty Creator – we cannot even begin to fathom such colossal power. 

  • “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death.” (Proverbs 14:27) 

To fear God is to look to God in respectful admiration and thankful wonder; to be immersed in the terrifying might of His power, yet stand grateful and assured knowing that “God is for us.” (Romans 8:31). For the same waters of the roaring tsunami that swallows cities whole flows as a river of life to quench our thirst and bring us joy.

  • You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” (Romans 11:19-21) 

To fear God is to realize our utter depravity against this mighty and holy Lord. It is to understand just how unworthy in our sin we are and in this understanding, wonder at the graciousness of God’s mercy to us – something we cannot even begin to understand.

Thus, the fear of the Lord can only thrive in a humble attitude of heart that does not take our blood-bought salvation for granted.

What, then, is the fear of the Lord?

To fear God is to look to Him in all His world-shaking power in trembling reverence and realize just truly our worthlessness and depravity in the face of such majesty. 

When such a fear is embedded into our hearts, it becomes the drive for our life. Our fears in this world become non-existent in comparison, for what power in this world can compare to that of its Creator? 

Rather, we’re motivated to obey God, and all other fears that may hinder this become inconsequential. We don’t fear in the way that if we do not obey, we will be punished, but we fear that our disobedience may grieve the Lord’s heart. Just like how we hate doing what would hurt our parents, siblings, or friends, the fear of the Lord drives us to hate what is contrary to God’s holiness – sin. And it’s in this ‘fear’ that our scared lives are transformed.

A Life Without Fear 

Abraham, despite all his fears and mistakes, grew in trusting God to keep His promises, so much so he was willing to even sacrifice his only beloved son to obey Him. 

Moses found courage and comfort in God’s glorious power, that even as he faced Pharoah’s might and battled uncertainties for the nation’s daily needs, he pressed onwards to the Promised Land. 

Peter continued to struggle with fear, but God continued to work in his heart his whole life, forgiving, rebuking, and strengthening until he died courageously firm in his faith.  

God, in his awe-inspiring mercy, doesn’t leave us to fight our fears in our own strength either. He works in our fearful hearts today in the same way He transformed the hearts of Peter, Moses, and Abraham – through His promises. In the words of a very familiar Sunday School song: “God will always keep His promises.” And the assurance that He is, in fact, faithful and capable of keeping His promise is powerful enough to shake anything that may scare us on this earth. 

“Lord, I’m scared that everyone will leave me.”

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

“Lord, I’m scared to stand alone.”

“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

“Lord, I’m scared I’m not strong enough to obey you.”

“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)

“Lord, I’m scared that I’ve messed things up beyond fixing.”

“All things work together for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28)

“Lord, I’m scared that the ministry I’ve invested my whole life in will never bring someone to Christ.”

“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” (John 15:4-5)

“Lord, I’m scared of not knowing what lies ahead.”

“I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” (Isaiah 46:8-11)

“Lord, I’m still scared. But it is in my fear of You, in all your power and sovereignty and kindness, that I have courage to fight on.”

I hope that you may embrace the courage in a fearful life for yourself.

Reminders for the Overwhelmed Christian

It all started with the English exam. 

I first knew of it when I received yet another text-filled email from Google Classroom. After a moment of panic, I reasoned to myself, “It’s only one exam. I have plenty of time to study.” and went on merrily. 

But then the math test rolled in. This was quickly followed by a history assessment and a science exam; before I knew it, my schedule was stuffed with exams.

It was only then I realised I was in for a rough ride. 

Exams, Assessments and Homework: A Recipe for Stress 

Perhaps my current predicament may be something that you are familiar with. Being realistic, I know that compared to others’ struggles (such as the nightmare of studying that I’m sure the Year 12s are facing now), my own worries pale in perspective. 

But it doesn’t feel that way when I’m actually at my desk, typing away notes. At the moment itself, it feels crazily overwhelming. I’m at my wits end trying to gain control of it all amidst worries and regrets. 

Whether or not exam season is approaching for you, I hope that after reading this article, you and I can keep these God-centred reminders in our hearts. 

1. Thank Him

Seems a bit funny, right? When nothing seems to be going how we want it to, giving thanks seems less of a priority. 

But that’s precisely what we should be careful of. 

1 Thessalonians 5:16 states, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” The key word here is ‘all’ circumstances. 

Our happiness and gratefulness in God aren’t dependent on the sunshine-filled days only. As long as we’re given the gift of breath, 

In ‘giving thanks in all circumstances’, we are continually reminded of God’s past and present grace, which, in turn, encourages us to trust in this same God for future grace. 

2. Know Him (and His promises)

The God we believe in isn’t some far-off godfather who grants us gifts before leaving us to deal with our struggles alone. 

The God we know is a God that can be known – not from a biography or some third party, but through His own Word. Of course, God’s Word is the Bible. 

And it is in this Word that we can find His promises for us. After all, the God we know is the Lord of His covenant, and unlike us, His promises will never fail. 

So what exactly are His promises?

Here a few that always come to mind whenever I’m bogged down by the shenanigans of life. 

  • “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26)

If we look at the context of this promise, it’s part of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In the sermon, Jesus addresses those who “worry about life”. Basically – all of us.  

Jesus asks, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” 

The answer’s pretty obvious. 

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

But it’s more than that. Each day will come with enough trouble, but Jesus promises that it will also come with enough strength to face it. Today’s strength is enough for today’s troubles – not needing to be saved up for tomorrow. Every day, God renews His grace for us – so why would we need to worry?

  • “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The beauty of this promise becomes clearer when we consider what a yoke is. 

It’s less commonly used now, but a yoke refers to a wooden frame, that would be fitted over the necks of ox to enable them to pull a load more easily. 

The key thing here is that yokes weren’t built for only one ox – instead, two oxen would pull a load together. When Jesus promises that the yoke will be light, He promises that we won’t have to be alone in facing the burden or mission that He entrusts us. Rather, He will pull it with us. 

The task He gives is given with strength – He will never give us a load too heavy for us to pull. 

  • “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

What brings me the most comfort in this verse is that for all trials that God will give us, He gives us enough grace to face it. 

For Paul, this trial was the “thorn in his flesh.” God didn’t take the thorn out, but He used it to strengthen and shape Paul to be used even more for God’s mission. 

3. Look at Him

If you ever get the chance to watch one of my favourite films, “Prince of Egypt,” there’s one song in particular that always brings a smile to my face;”Heaven’s Eyes”.

The chorus goes like this. “The answer will come to him who tries/ To look at his life through heaven’s eyes.”

Heaven’s eyes. 

This point is handy when I’m starting to lose sight of my goal in ministry among all the stress-filled details that are involved. If we try to look at all our efforts through our own eyes, all we’ll see is the mistakes and the pain we’ll have to go through. 

But in God’s eyes, all the struggles we battle through are part of His perfect plan for us – that we may be shaped and built to become more like Him. 

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

There’s a God-given purpose for everything we do and go through – whether that’s last minute typing out this article or studying for an exam. To know that nothing we do or suffer through for Christ will be in vain is something to hope for. 

In the words of 2 Corinthians 4:18, 

“So we fix our eyes … on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

3. Talk to Him 

 This reminder seems a bit overused. Even so, it’s likely not our first inclination. I know personally that my tendency is often to rant and complain to my friends. 

I’m not saying that talking to your friends or family should be avoided – it’s essential that you don’t just bottle up worries or struggles, leaving them to fester into anxiety or grudges. 

What I’m trying to point out is that in our times of need, we shouldn’t forget our Creator – the one who understands us the most. Instead, we should run to Him.

He’s been through the same struggles, pain, and emotions that we go through – after all, He was human, just like us. As our Creator, He’s the one who knows us the best. And as our Father, He doesn’t just comfort us – He shares in our pain with us. When we cry, He grieves with us, and when happiness comes again, He will smile with us.

Remembering and repeating these four points as a success mantra won’t cure all anxiety and stress miraculously. I’m still stressed about my exams, and after writing this article, I know a whole pile of assessments is still waiting for me. 

But I also know I won’t have to go through all this alone.

I only pray that you may come to know this for yourself. 

Elaine (Anggi) Tambunan (14) is the editor and one of the many teens that write in RE Generation-Z. Through her articles, she aspires to remind more teens to live lives as lights in the world. She can be easily identified with a spectacled face buried in a thick novel or doodling.

The Question of Loneliness

I’ve always found that there’s nothing quite like riddles to get the gears in your mind grinding.

Here’s an easy one to start us off.

Others can have me, but I cannot be shared.

What am I?

If you haven’t quite worked it out, the answer’s in the title. That’s right. It’s loneliness. 

And, for many of us, loneliness is much less a riddle in life than something unfortunately familiar.

Loneliness: A Reality 

The term ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out) is one that I’ve only learnt quite recently, but I have to admit that I’m pretty familiar with the feeling itself. The fear of being left out or excluded ties in closely with the fear of loneliness. After all, loneliness is quite literally the opposite of what we hold dear: family, friends and community. 

This problem of loneliness has only increased with the recent COVID crisis keeping us all stranded at home, and even with the development of social media and other messaging services, loneliness still lurks in our lives. 

You don’t even have to be alone to feel lonely – in fact, the greatest loneliness can be felt even when you are in the midst of a thousand others. 

After all, loneliness is more than just a feeling. We’ve all experienced firsthand its crippling effect, trapping us in a cage accompanied only by fear, helplessness, meaninglessness, and sadness.

Loneliness: An Explanation 

Here’s another riddle. Why do we feel lonely?

If we want to find the answer, we’ll have to flip our Bibles all the way to the very first book. 

When we read Genesis, it’s clear from the start that humans were never created to be solitary beings. We read that Adam was the first man to be created, but then God stated, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). This led to the subsequent creation of Eve, the first woman. From the moment God breathed life into Adam, Adam had never been lonely – even before Eve’s creation, Adam was with God. Humans enjoyed God’s fulfilling presence, as both Creator and friend and in this fulfilment, enjoyed each other’s presence in perfect love. 

To be lonely is an unwelcome experience, and it never was meant not to be. 

If we weren’t created to be lonely, how should we answer the original question?

I’ll give you a clue. Three letters, starting with s and ending with n. 

Got the answer yet? It’s sin. 

Only a few pages after we read of this perfect world untouched by loneliness, it’s been broken. 

From the moment that humans chose to turn their back on God, thinking they knew better than their own Creator, something changed in each of their relationships. Something broke.

Sin had destroyed two things. The first is the relationship between us and other humans, whether that be friends, family or even spouses. Though we may love one another, we still hurt each other; we cannot fully fill each other’s needs, we lash out at each other, and we ultimately leave each other. 

However, the second consequence is far more dire. Our friendship with God has been broken. Without God, we cannot help but feel hopeless because a life without God is a life without our Creator. It’s a life without purpose. It’s a life of loneliness. 

Loneliness: A Question 

But what if I were to tell you a story that’s quite similar, yet startingly different? 

What if I were to tell you about someone who enjoyed a state of perfect happiness yet decided to leave all of it behind? 

From the loving embrace of His Father to a life amidst the grime and muck of a hostile sin-stained world? From blissful satisfaction to being  “despised and rejected by mankind”? 

To be left by your closest friends as the world turns against you – friends who had so passionately promised only hours ago, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”

Dying humiliated and scorned, punished for crimes you never committed. And, in the moment that you needed Him most, your own Father turns away from you. 

All for people who had ruined their own lives by rebelling, and turning away from all the good you had given – just for their illusions of happiness.

Now, let me ask you my hardest riddle yet. 

What could ever compel someone to go through all this?

The answer’s even more baffling than the question itself.

Love. 

Love for His Father, and love for us. 

Loneliness: Defeated 

As Christians, we’re invited to enjoy and grow a relationship with God for ourselves.

Unlike in the Old Testament, where, due to our sin, a priest had to intercede on our behalf to talk to God, the sacrifice of Christ has completely bulldozed this barrier down. 

I can’t even start to wrap my head around this concept, but it’s a wonderful truth we’re given. To be able to talk to God one on one and to be able to trust in His unconditional love and friendship completely. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean the end of ever feeling lonely again. We’ll still be hurt by the sin-stained world around us, even by those who care and love us. What it does mean, however, is the assurance of a Father and Friend, Creator and Carer, who promises: 

  • “He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
  • “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
  • “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12)

There’s so much more to discover and experience for yourself – all in His very Word. 

Before I finish, let me ask you one final riddle. 

What’s a life without loneliness like? 

I pray that you may discover the answer for yourself in your own budding relationship with God.

Elaine (Anggi) Tambunan (14) is the editor and one of the many teens that write in RE Generation-Z. Through her articles, she aspires to remind more teens to live lives as lights in the world. She can be easily identified with a spectacled face buried in a thick novel or doodling.

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