Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why On Earth Are We Here For?

Presented a talk on "Faith And Love" at Uniten Christian Fellowship or TECHFLOW on Wednesday with the transcript here.

Below is my assignment on "The Search For Meaning in Life", teasing out the relevance of Ecclesiastes in Malaysian society

“What is the point of living if everything ends in death? Why on earth we are here for?” These perennial questions about the purpose of life are often raised by most sensitive and reflective people around the world. But our socio-cultural context, in different degrees, influences how we answer that question. Many Malaysians of Chinese origin like my friend (let’s call him “Meng”) are descendants of immigrants who had risked the sea, worked hard and lived frugally to strive for a better future. Like many Malaysian Chinese who live in urban centers, Meng inherited his ancestors’ spirit of diligence and resilience. Wealth accumulation and education for his children (so that they in turn could have better opportunities to make a living) become top priorities since these factors provide a measure of security when he can hardly depend on anyone else for support.

If religion is often a projection of human needs/fears as Freud suggested, then perhaps we can interpret the motivation behind his cultural beliefs like consulting feng shui consultants before setting up a business, the Ching Ming practice of burning paper money for the deceased or the Chinese New Year tradition of welcoming the god of prosperity. It may be observed that the functional god in his life is Money. The pursuit of wealth and the dream of striking a lottery jackpot provide his meaning for existing, sense of security and significance. “Seize the day (Carpe Diem)!” is his life slogan. He would say, “Since we will all ultimately end up in the grave, let’s live with gusto, work hard and play hard and squeeze all the fun and excitement out of the ride”.

The psychologist Viktor Frankl suggested that the will to fulfill a meaning in life is the primary motivational force in humanity. Those who lack a meaning worth living for and find an inner void within their hearts experience ‘existential vacuum’. This is a widespread phenomenon in a rampantly industrializing economy where traditional values are lost. Existential vacuum manifests itself in boredom, addiction (i.e. workaholic, alcoholic or substance abuse), despair, the will to money, apathy or unbridled sexual libido. That could be an apt description of many city dwellers like Meng. What relevance would Qoheleth, the writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, have for people like him?

I think Qoheleth would present an unpleasant challenge to those whose pursuits focus on earthly goals that we find ‘under the sun’. All these toils, projects and pleasure are ultimately transient, impermanent and ultimately profitless. Although wisdom, wealth and backpacking in exotic places have temporal benefits, we do not take any gain in life with us when we die. We come into this world alone and empty-handed, so shall we leave it. In the long run, there is no net gain. There is “a time to be born and a time to die” (3:2). “We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us” (5:15). It is like chasing after the wind. Vanity of vanities! Not only do we face the certainty of death, we also face the uncertainties of life. No one knows what would happen to his hard-earned wealth even in this lifetime since injustice (3:16) or bad investment (5:14) could overtake us anytime. The Chinese proverb “Wealth does not pass three generations” has often been proven correct with nepotism, poor management and power struggles occurring in Chinese family enterprises. Who can tell if his successor will not squander his wealth (2:18-23)? While all human needs (i.e. food, shelter, clothes) can be satisfied, human greed for money is inherently insatiable. When we try to fill up the vacuum in our hearts with material things, we end up consuming more with ever-decreasing joy with each additional purchase (5:10-11).

But Meng may wonder, “Why should my worldly ambitions be profitless if it gives me a sense of worth and security? And why must life be eternal in order for it to be meaningful?” Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel would probably agree that human life viewed as a whole is absurd apart from God but insist that we could still find life subjectively meaningful as long as we don’t wonder if it fits into some larger purpose. Entertaining such thoughts is a sign of taking ourselves too seriously. Existentialists like Sartre would probably urge us to create a self-customized meaning and define our own essence from our bare existence. Without God, there is no objective, cosmic meaning in life. But it also makes all sorts of subjective meanings possible.

Some may even argue that an infinite life would be meaningless because we will get tired of it eventually. Consider Karl Popper who said, “There are those who think that life is valueless because it comes to an end. They fail to see that the opposite argument might also be proposed: that if there were no end to life, life would have no value; that it is, in part, the ever-present danger of losing it which helps bring home to us the value of life.” Life is perceived to be worthwhile and significant only because mortality awaits us, bringing a sense of poignant urgency to our transitory lives. Albert Camus’ solution to the urgent question of “Why live and not commit suicide?” is basically a call to stoically face the tension of absurdity.

However, there remains a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction for most people in conceding that our lives are not connected to something bigger than ourselves. The significance of a movie snapshot depends on how it contributed to the conclusion of the whole story (of which the captured moment is a part). Only when we see that connection would we conclude the meaning of that picture as part of a comedy or a tragedy. Unless we know how the story ends, we do not know its significance or meaning. This existential vacuum becomes more acute when we consider the gross injustices that were committed and appeared unpunished in the lifetime of their perpetrators. Qoheleth rightly observed that “even in the courts of law, the very place where righteousness and justice are supposed to be guaranteed, wickedness may be present” (3:16). In this moral context, the demand for a cosmic meaning in life is not motivated not so much by hubris but by justice. The philosopher Immanuel Kant saw that ethics are practically meaningless without God and the afterlife. If death is an abyss of nothingness, then the victims who suffered for a righteous cause under oppressive regimes have ultimately faced a meaningless death. In contrast, Qoheleth offers the alternative of a solid confidence that God will “judge every deed under the sun, whether good or bad, hidden or not” (12:14).

Ethics and significance in life make sense only when we presuppose God.

For most people, there is an existential dissatisfaction with accepting that at the bottom of our lives, there is no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. But the moment we look up and see if life as a whole makes sense, the question of ultimate meaning comes back to haunt us. No wonder we desperately seek escapism from confronting this horrible abyss of nothingness by drowning ourselves with subjective meanings like work, relationships, leisure and power. This ‘coping mechanism’ needs to be maintained diligently because God had “put eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out what God does from beginning to the end” (3:12). There is an internal God-given preoccupation (3:10) whereby human beings are able to transcend the present moment and survey the past and think of the future. Yet they were not able to find out or change what God had determined, and so, their sense of vanity is aggravated. For God so works that men should fear Him (3:14).

William Lane Craig put it like this: “If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately, it makes no difference”. For Qoheleth, a transitory life is meaningful as we choose responsibly to live in the fear of God and to keep his commandments (12:13). This is a perspective on death that is not mere passive acceptance, but one which urges us to enjoy life each day that God has given as a gift (3:12-13, 22).

In 2:24-26 Qoheleth affirmed that the ability to have carefree enjoyment is “from the hand of God.” Only when we embrace the reality that life is transient would we be liberated from greed, lust and despair and turn to God as the source of our significance. Ironically, by fearing God and keeping His commandments on marital faithfulness, honest labor and wise living, we are empowered to enjoy these temporal blessings to the full while we live. Leong Tien Fock wrote, “Since we have no say over whether we could take with us what we have when we die, which can happen at any time and without prior notice, how can we say that we own the things we work for? We do not even own our very life! They are not allotted to us as such. What is allotted is only the enjoyment these things can give us while we still “own” them. To appreciate this reality we need to view this world the way a child views a child-care center full of toys. What is “allotted” to him is the enjoyment of whatever toys he gets to “own” while he is there, but he cannot take any of them with him when he leaves. It would be foolish of the child to spend the few hours he has at the center busy looking out for and gathering his favorite toys, and then guarding them, as if he could bring them home, and in the process miss the opportunity to enjoy any of them.” Instead of making temporal wealth, pleasure and wisdom our idols, we can worship the Giver and thereby, enjoy these gifts truly as we put them in the proper perspective.

Last but not least, it is true that a transient life evokes a certain poignant urgency as Popper says. For example, we appreciate our loved ones more if we know we will lose them for good one day. However, Christian theism goes beyond that to claim that such relationships and significant endeavors may not terminate in death. Would that really diminish the meaning of life? The notion that eternal life would be boring and meaningless is based on the unproven assumption that the joys of heaven would be exhaustible. But why should we assume that in order to advance a strawman argument? Christian theism actually affirms that apart from the joys of reunion with loved ones and fulfilling work that awaits us in the renewed creation, we will spend eternity in relationship with the inexhaustible God Himself.

Theologian John Piper put it this way: “God is infinite and wills to reveal himself to us for our enjoyment of his fullness forever. Yet we are finite and cannot at any time, or in any finite duration of time, comprehend the limitless, infinite fullness of God’s glory… Therefore the implication is that our union with God, in the all-satisfying experience of his glory, can never be complete, but must be increasing with intimacy and intensity forever and ever.” There will always be more of God to discover, learn and savor since finite creatures will never exhaustively know Him. Therefore, glorifying and enjoying God forever remains the meaningful purpose for humanity. From his grace, we can accept and enjoy the good gifts of His creation – be it challenging achievements, authentic relationships and beauty.

Pictures courtesy of Animal World and Stu's View and Philosophy @ Fort Hare and Ginside

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review: Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Questions about life’s meaning and suffering which were formerly handled by priests or rabbis are now increasingly confronted by psychiatrists and doctors. In his bestseller Man's Search for Meaning, Dr Victor Frankl highlighted the distinctive of logotherapy, also known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”, as the idea that “the striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man”. Therefore, for logotheraphy, the focus is on the will to meaning in contrast to the will to pleasure of Freudian psychoanalysis and the will to power stressed by Adlerian psychology. While Freud and Adler tried to discover primal drives latent in the past, Frankl focuses rather on the meanings one is called to fulfill in the future. In his moving autobiographical account of experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, he observed how prisoners who lost hope in the future would be subject to mental and physical decay.

According to Frankl, man’s search for meaning is not a derived projection from more basic instinctual drives or sublimations. Otherwise it would lose its ability to challenge or summon him to live or even die for these values. Unlike Sartre’s axiom that existence precedes essence, Frankl’s existentialism asserts that the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves but rather we discover it as ‘something confronting existence’. Those who lack a meaning worth living for and find an inner void within their hearts experience ‘existential vacuum’. This is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century due to the loss of traditional values and rampant industrialization, manifesting itself in boredom, addiction, the will to money, apathy or unbridled sexual libido.

As a Christian, I applaud Frankl’s critique of the determinism prevailing in much of psychoanalysis that reduced man to nothing but a victim of hereditary or environmental conditions. We share the hope that a ‘rehumanized psychiatry’ would replace the tendency to treat human minds as machines and focus on mere techniques. Indeed, Frankl’s view of man is biblical in the sense that man has both the potentials of behaving like a swine or a saint. Man’s dignity lies in him being created in the image of God and yet marred by the depravity of sin. However, Frankl has an overly optimistic view of human freedom in which even the most evil persons are ultimately self-determining. Through restricted by conditions, they are free to change their own destiny. In the Christian perspective, fallen man is in need of divine rescue and inner liberation before such a change is possible. As long as his basic orientation is self-centered, the outward change merely vacillates between hedonism and legalism. ‘Existential vacuum’ (and its symptoms) express in modern terms Augustine’s ancient prayer that our hearts are restless until they find fulfillment or satisfaction in God.

Read on for the rest of the article

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Reason For Our Hope

Audio Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-16 Giving The Reason For Our Hope can be downloaded here. We need to communicate the gospel clearly, lovingly and compellingly by being thoughtful, informed, honest and humble ambassadors for Christ. We embody the gospel with our lives and declare the gospel with our words. We need to show the world a community worth seeing and a faith worth thinking about.

Giving a Reason for Our Faith

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Monkeying With The Selfish Gene

Listen carefully the next time you overheard an argument in office or at home. For you may just stumble upon a powerful clue for God’s existence!

In his bestseller Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observed that when we quarrel, we would often appeal to some higher Moral Law to which the other party is accountable. For example, it is common to hear people argue like this: “That’s my seat, I was here first”, “Give me a piece of your orange, I gave you some of mine” or “How do you like it if someone did the same to you?” Such arguments do not merely express our displeasure at someone’s behavior. They are actually appealing to a standard of right and wrong which we expect others to know about and ought to follow. Otherwise it would be as futile as claiming that a footballer had committed a foul without some agreement about the rules. This transcendent and universal Moral Law is a signpost pointing to God who is the Lawgiver.

But not everyone would agree. Popular writers such as Richard Dawkins and Robert Wright have tried to show that rudimentary forms of moral cognition can be found in animals as well. Here is a discussion on whether natural selection can account for morality as we know it available in the latest edition of Kairos Magazine.

The Selfish Gene: Monkeying With Morality

Monday, October 19, 2009

Loving The Enemy

(Matthew 5:43-48) 43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Sermon Audio on "Loving The Enemy" can be downloaded here with group discussion questions.

Salam 1Malaysia! We are continuing a series of sermons based on the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus spells out what it is like living as the people of God’s Kingdom, what it means to be a community that follows after Jesus as their King. He is challenging the kind of empty religion that looks good on the outside but is corrupted on the inside. Many people think, “I’m morally okay since I’m not a serial killer or I don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. When I swear in God’s name, I don’t break my oath. I’m basically quite a good person lah.” But Jesus goes deeper than the outward, external action. He zooms in to our inner hearts, our hidden motives and secret intentions. “No, that’s not good enough. You have heard that it was said that… But I tell you this…”

You should not commit murder in your heart with hatred. It is a sin to commit adultery in your heart with lust. Your word is your bond. Tell the truth in what you say. Don’t need to swear at all.

Again we see how radical Jesus’ message was to his original audience and to us today. He is not abolishing the Old Testament Law by lowering the standard. Instead He is fulfilling the purpose of the Law by going to the root of the problem. Sin must be dealt with radically in our heart. And this is the “righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law”. It’s not just following the letter of the law, but also keeping the spirit of the law. It is obedience that comes from the inside out.

In the passage we read just now, Jesus does the same thing again. You see, the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is not something new. It’s also found in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19:18, it says, “'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” But as time went by, the people in Israel began to limit love only to their fellow Israelites. Who is my neighbor? Only my own people. My relatives. Those who share my race and religion. So I’d love them exclusively. The rest are not my neighbors so I can hate them. Some folks (like the Qumran community famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls) would go around saying, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'. But they heard it wrong. The part on ‘hating your enemy’ was not there in the biblical text.

So Jesus sets the record straight: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” In that famous parable we call “The Good Samaritan,” an expert of the Law asked Jesus this very question: “Who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus told him this parable which most of us know by heart: “A man was robbed, stripped, beaten and left half dead. A priest happened to walk past, and when he saw the man, he quickly moved on. Then a Levite who works for the temple saw him but ignored his needs as well. Lastly, a Samaritan stopped and took pity on him. He took care of him and paid for his medical fees. Now who is a neighbor to that victim?”

In those days, the Jews did not associate with the Samaritans due to many racial, religious and political reasons. Hmm… If that sounds strangely familiar to us in Malaysia, it’s because we too have different ethnic and religious groups living side by side with each other but with precious little contact and understanding in between. By telling the parable, Jesus subversively expanded the definition of a ‘neighbor’ to go beyond friends and families and include even the Samaritans. A neighbor is anyone in need whom you can help.

So He broke down the walls of hate by including even outsiders as a neighbor to be loved as well. Instead of rejecting sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors, He ate with them in fellowship meals. This is how the Kingdom of God looks like. To those who think “I’m a loving person. I love my own people”, Jesus says “Your love is too narrow. It’s selective on who you want to love. Don’t pick and choose. Love your enemies also.”

But it’s so hard, almost impossible to love our enemies, right? Pray for those who persecute me? Are you serious? This is something that I struggle to learn as well.

On a personal level, there are people who purposely hurt us or anger us for no good reason. Some play office politics and give us an unfair deal. How can I love someone who offended me, betrayed me, insulted me and broke relationship with me? Do you know someone like that?

In certain societies, the decision to follow Jesus may mean losing your job, your loved ones and even your life. Persecution is the cost of discipleship. Although in Malaysia, it has not come to the point of martyrdom, we still experience milder forms of persecution like the destruction of church buildings, the ban on the word ‘Allah’ in our Bahasa literature, restrictions on the liberty of conscience for some Malaysians and so on. Sometimes persecution can come in the form of the insults, ridicule, false accusations and gossips.

So how should we respond when we experience things like that?

Do you remember that Star Wars movie called “Return of the Jedi”? I watched it as a kid and one of Soo Inn’s ecommentary uses it as a helpful analogy. In the movie, the hero Luke Skywalker tried to avoid fighting the bad guy Darth Vader, who was also his own father. But when Darth Vader threatened to turn Luke's sister to the Dark Side, Luke went crazy and chopped off Vader's mechanical right hand. Then the evil emperor, who was observing this duel, made a tempting offer: "Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!" (Finish him off!)

And the evil emperor is right – there is a kind of power that comes with fear, anger and hate. To those who have a tidak-apa attitude when it comes to suffering or injustice in the world, they may never get angry at anything. And if we are too engrossed with the comforts of life to care much for the suffering around us, then probably we need to be more concerned about what God cares about and be more aware of what’s happening out there.

But for some of us who care deeply about social justice, poverty, human rights… it is often easy to get angry, depressed and furious at unjust things happening in our country especially when those responsible often don’t pay for what they have done. And it’s tempting to surrender ourselves to rage and hatred. At first, our righteous anger is directed against real injustice… That righteous anger gives us motivation and power to fight evil. But when we are angry, it can also quickly lead to unrighteous anger and careless decisions… Soon we draw the line between good and evil along the lines of us against them… of one race against another (we are the good guys, they are the bad guys) when in reality, the line of good and evil cuts across every human heart. When hatred and anger consumes us, we are drawn towards the Dark side.

At the climax of that Star Wars movie, young Luke Skywalker refuses to choose the dark side. He refused to deliver the final blow. Instead, he threw away his light saber and chose to suffer and die for being true to the Light. Yet it is his very "weakness" that inspires his father Darth Vader himself to love once again and to reject the dark side in his final moments. The Jedi knight saved the galaxy through his weakness.

When Jesus says: Love your enemies, He didn’t ask us to do anything that He himself is not prepared to do first. And He already did it on the cross when He forgave and prayed for those who crucified him saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Come to think of it, aren’t we all in fact sinners who have rebelled against God and we were once His enemies? Yet Christ died for us that we may be reconciled.

This does not mean that our Christian response to evil must be passive. In Romans 13, we know that the state is granted authority by God to bear the sword and punish the wicked. So Christians can and should use all legal means at our disposal to fight evil and corruption.

But we are not to repay evil with evil, but with good. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Jesus is calling us to let go of our bitterness, vengefulness and personal vendetta. The path of the kingdom is love (even to our enemies), prayer for those who persecute us and the willingness to suffer for Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered so much in Nazi Germany during World War 2, said "This is the supreme command. Through the medium of prayer, we go to our enemy, we stand by his side, and we plead to God for him."

Still, this is not something easy to do. Where do we get the power to do the impossible? We cannot do it unless by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit.
In the Bible passage today, I think we can find some powerful reasons or motivations for us to love our enemies. The first motivation is found in verse 45: “So that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

What does that mean? John Piper explains it this way (and I quote) “This does not mean we can earn our way into God's family by loving our enemies. Rather it means that when we love our enemies, we prove ourselves to be in God's family. If you love your enemies the way God loves his enemies, then you show that you ARE a child of God. You are seen to be a child of God… You can't earn the status of a child. You can be born into the family or you can be adopted into the family. You can't work your way into it. Jesus means that loving our enemies shows that God has already become our Father, and that the only reason we are able to love our enemies is because he loves us first...” End quote.

And how did we become part of God’s family in the first place? How did we get adopted as a child of the Father? It’s through forgiveness… By grace, God in Christ has forgiven us (His enemies) even though we don’t deserve it… When we look at the horror of our own sin and then look at the holiness of God, we see our utter hopelessness. But the good news is Christ has taken our punishment on the cross so that we can be reconciled with our Father and be adopted into His family. Our wrongs have been freely forgiven through faith in Christ.

Have we not experienced God’s forgiveness and grace? If we have been forgiven so abundantly by God, how can we not forgive others? If we have truly known God as our Father, surely this relationship ought to overflow in love for our enemies as well. How can we not forgive after having been forgiven so much?

The second reason or motivation to love our enemies is this: It’s because God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

In other words, we are called to imitate our Father in Heaven who makes no distinction between the just and the unjust when sending good gifts of His creation. His kindness is lavished on both moral and immoral people. He sends rain and harvest to the padi farmers in Kedah, the farmers in Kelantan, the pineapple farmers in Sarawak – it doesn’t matter if they voted for Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat, it doesn’t matter what they believe or don’t believe.

So we love our enemies because that is how God treats His enemies. He causes his planet to rotate for the evil and the good, and produces oxygen for the righteous and the unrighteous. John Calvin describes it as a divine kindness that is common to all. Some people call it ‘common grace’. But this grace is not saving grace. It does not mean that God will not punish the wicked and reward the righteous one day. Of course, He will ultimately do that.

And it’s important to keep this in mind. Because what makes it so hard to let go of our anger is the overwhelming sense that the person who offended us does not deserve to be forgiven. If the hurt is deep and great injustice was committed against us, there is a valid sense of moral outrage. We feel that if we forgive this person, we trivialize the seriousness of that wrong he has committed. This evil must not be forgotten or ignored. So how do we resolve this tension of unconditional love on one hand and the cry for justice on the other?

Part of the answer is found in God’s promise of final judgment. Because God alone is the perfect Judge, we are freed from the personal craving for revenge. The question is: “Do you trust God to set things right? Do you believe He sees the issues and the offender’s motives far better than what we can see? His justice is purer and wiser than ours. We can’t improve on His judgment. And He has promised there will be a day of reckoning… Will you trust Him as the perfect Judge?”

Consider Romans 12:17-21 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

We don’t take justice into our own hands because the ultimate Punisher is God. Our motives are mixed at best. Our judgments are limited in perspective. But He sees all and His eyes are pure. So don’t take revenge, leave room for God to repay.

In fact, this is also the example of Christ Himself. 1 Peter 2:21-23 “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

So leave room for God’s wrath. Entrust yourself to God who judges fairly. Justice shall be served but in the meantime, we need to be set free from the craving for revenge. We do so by imitating God who shows His kindness to both the wicked and the righteous. We do so by trusting in God’s promise to deliver justice. Be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect. The word ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean we can be 100% without sin in this life. It actually means: Be “complete”, be “all embracing” in your love just as God is merciful and all-inclusive in His love.

The third motivation to love our enemies is this: If we love those who love us, how are we different from the tax collectors? And if we greet only our own brothers, do not even pagans do that?

Don Carson gives us some background on tax collectors: In those days, a Roman citizen can literally buy a territory in the Roman empire and he would have rights to collect taxes from that place. Then he can outsource the collection to the local “Ah Long” or ‘Mafia’ type of people. They in turn outsource to others to collect taxes from the rakyat. These tax collectors would have a quota to hit, and they can keep skim off the rest of the money for themselves. Corruption goes all the way up this multi-level tax ladder. As a result, tax collectors were despised as traitors of their own people.

But even tax collectors have friends. At least they can have lunch with other tax collectors. Despicable though they may be, they have their own ‘in’ group. Even the pagans (those who do not worship Yahweh) greet their own brothers, so how is the church any different if we only love and greet those who love us in return? It is when we love our enemies that people will see something peculiar in the church.

To be salt and light in the world, we must live as a radically different kind of people. If we only love people who are lovable and beautiful, how are we any different from everyone else?

Loving our enemies displays the distinctiveness of the Kingdom in a fallen world that has seen too much of violence, hatred and bloodshed. It’s a radical counter culture.

OK fine – But is this Christian ideal of loving your enemy practical or not? Does it really work in a fallen world like ours? Chairman Mao Zedong once said (The Little Red Book, 1964): “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” You want social change? Use force, violence and the will-to-power. So can this message of Jesus about loving our enemy really change the world?

I think it can. Let me encourage you with the real life story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. He was a pastor and civil rights activist who struggled against racial segregation and discrimination. Do you know that in the 1950s there was a custom in the southern parts of America that African-Americans had to sit at the back of a bus? On the 1st of December 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, an African-American woman was arrested by the police for refusing to stand and let a white bus rider take her seat. It would be the spark that lights up a revolution. Martin Luther King, a pastor in the city and other community leaders called a meeting and a big crowd came to the church. The decision was made to boycott the bus company in protest. For 381 days, they would walk or carpool to work instead of taking the bus. This is an example of civil disobedience.

In retaliation, his home was bombed by terrorists. His wife and their baby daughter escaped without injury. When he arrived home he found an angry crowd waiting to take revenge. But Dr. King told them to go home: "We must learn to meet hate with love".
Eventually in 1956 the Supreme Court declared that local laws for racial segregation on buses were illegal. The boycott was a success. As a symbol of reconciliation and victory, Dr. King and a white minister, Rev. Smiley, shared the front seat of a public bus together.

Throughout his career, he was jailed and beaten many times. In the end he was assasinated at the age of 39. Through it all, he did not retaliate with violence but with forgiveness. The legacy of his life transformed a whole nation without causing bloodshed and continued to inspire civil rights movements all over the world. This is not an idealistic pie in the sky … It can be done. It has been done.

Of course, his example is not perfect but I think we Malaysian Christians can learn a lot from his model of balancing the New Testament ideal of unconditional love with the prophetic justice of the Old Testament. It is not enough to just talk about love we need to also care deeply for justice. It is not enough to get angry over injustice we need to promote righteousness in a way that loves our enemies.

With this story in mind, listen to these famous words by Martin Luther King when he preached on the same Bible passage on loving our enemies. Listen for its prophetic relevance to how the church should live in Malaysia today.

He said: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

The relevance of what I have said to the crisis in race relations should be readily apparent. There will be no permanent solution to the race problem until oppressed men develop the capacity to love their enemies. The darkness of racial injustice will be dispelled only by the light of forgiving love. For more than three centuries American Negroes have been battered by the iron rod of oppression, frustrated by day and bewildered by night by unbearable injustice and burdened with the ugly weight of discrimination. Forced to live with these shameful conditions, we are tempted to become bitter and to retaliate with a corresponding hate. But if this happens, the new order we seek will be little more than a duplicate of the old order. We must in strength and humility meet hate with love… Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. (What is this other way?)

He goes on: While hating segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with spiritual force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory." End of Quote

This is the way of the cross. This is how we setup signposts of the Kingdom that points to a different way of being human. Not through hatred but through love for our enemies.

Bringing this closer to home, I wonder how can we apply this in our Malaysian context? Recently we hear of disturbing news of intolerance in our country like the famous cow-head incident. There was a protest against the proposed construction of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam where some irresponsible people stomped and spat at the head of a cow, a sacred animal for Hindus. It was a clearly provocative act, with threats of violence.

Or the recent case of two Muslim journalists who sneaked into a Catholic church as spies to take Holy Communion, then spit out the host (bread) and took photographs of it to be published some more. This is a sacrilegious act to Catholics who believe the host to be the real body of Christ. And the internet went on overdrive with angry condemnations.

For such a time as this, how should we as Christians respond?

I don’t have any easy answers and this may sound naive but just wondering (and I invite you to imagine with me. Maybe you can come up with more creative and better ways of doing it). I wonder: What happens if the Church or individual Christians issue a calm statement that what these people have done is wrong, and relevant authorities should investigate and charge if any law is broken. But at the same time, we also say, “We forgive you for what you have done. You may have been manipulated by people with vested interests. We would like to meet you personally, sit down over coffee and listen to what you have to say and why you behave like that. Maybe we can find a win-win solution”. I wonder how the society would react when we respond in love and respect when insulted and provoked like that? Would it make Malaysians sit up and take notice: “These Christians are really out of this world lah”?

For such a time as this, the world is watching. They are asking: “Which community has beliefs that make its members treat people in other communities with love and respect- to serve them and meet their needs? Which community's beliefs lead people to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries?" (Keller) For such a time as this, the world is looking for answers.

When we encounter intolerance, fear and racial tension in our beloved country, may we also receive wisdom and courage from the Holy Spirit to find creative ways to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us… This is the way of the cross.

Will you be part of this culture of peace in a time of racial polarization? Will you follow Him even if it costs a great deal?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Christian Perspective On The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

The global community was rudely shocked by the stark reality of jihad on 11th September 2001 when hijacked planes crashed into iconic buildings that symbolize American economic and military power. In response to the specter of religiously-inspired violence, the subsequent ‘war on terror’ would loom large over the early years of the 21st century.

At the center of this worldwide unrest is the long-standing Palestine-Israeli conflict that continues to be a source of its political and religious impetus. Orthodox Jews honor Jerusalem as the city of peace that once housed the temple of Yahweh. Christians make pilgrimage to the Promised Land where Jesus Christ once lived, was crucified and resurrected. Muslims treasure the city as the third holiest site in Islamic history. With the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1949, many adherents from these three major faiths have staked a claim in supporting or opposing it in the name of God or Allah.

However, the idea of ‘holy war’ is not unique to Islam. In the book of Joshua, a scriptural text embraced by both Jews and Christians, we would find the concept of Yahweh as a warrior waging battle against Canaanite deities and nations through His covenant people Israel in the conquest of the Promised Land. In some military campaigns, the Israelites were divinely decreed to utterly destroy an entire population of men, women and children (Joshua 6:18-19).

This raises difficult moral dilemma for sensitive believers as well as concerns that such warfare narratives may be used to justify violence and genocide today.

In this paper I would attempt to answer three questions: “What is Old Testament teaching and justification for ‘Yahweh war’ in the conquest of Canaan? How should Christians perceive the continuity and discontinuity of these Old Testament concepts in light of New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ? Finally, what are the resulting theological implications for how we understand the establishment of the modern state of Israel?”

Yahweh War and Modern Israel

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Day God Showed Up On Earth

Preached a pre-Christmas evangelistic sermon today based on the themes from Tim Keller's sermon The Purpose of Christmas. Audio sermon can be downloaded here

Text: 1 John 1:1–4
Topic: Incarnation
Big Idea: Because the Word became flesh, we have a joy that transforms our lives.

This is what Scripture says: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”

Introduction: Good morning, church and friends! Christmas is just 4 days away. Are you feeling the holiday mood yet?

I know for many people, this is the season to be jolly. It's a time to celebrate, sing carols, throw parties, receive presents and lots of merry making. As we wrap up the year 2008, it’s also a time to relax, go on a holiday with family and have some well-deserved fun. And yes, sales promotions are everywhere. It’s a mad rush to shop till we drop.

Or if you are in the retail business or have sales target to achieve, Christmas is the season to be busy. It’s a crazy time to close deals, meet datelines and lots of profit making. For Christians, we may be just so stressed up with many church programs and activities, endless rehearsals and singing practices.

But for others, Christmas is the season to be depressed. Psychologists have found that many people experience a sad and anxious mood during and after Christmas. Statistics for suicide also increase. The reason goes something like this: “Everyone is supposed to be happy and be with their family during the holidays - since I am not, there must be something wrong with me”. This ‘holiday blues’ is most keenly felt if we are separated from loved ones. The loneliness, tiredness and isolation become more intense when there is pressure to look happy at parties or gatherings. The contrast can be very depressing.

But if we are not feeling Christmassy yet, that's ok. Because Christmas is not about Christmas. It’s not about sales promotion, Santa Claus or all that jazz. Christmas is all about Christ. That God has not left us alone. He showed up on planet earth to rescue us. The baby born on that first Christmas night two thousand years ago was called Immanuel, God with us. His presence is with us even now whether we feel Him or not.

And the scripture passage today taken from 1st Letter of John tells us what Christmas is all about. It says something radical about God and how Christmas can transform our lives whether we feel happy, busy or sad today.

Firstly, Christmas tells us something radical about God.

If you understand the word incarnation, you'll understand what Christmas is about. And the meaning of incarnation is nicely captured in the song we sang just now “Hark the Herald angels sing!” The second stanza goes like this:

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel (meaning, God with us)
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Incarnation simply means that God took on flesh and blood and showed up on planet earth as a human being. Amazingly, He decided to come as a helpless baby born of a virgin girl. He did not come as some sort of violent, conquering warrior.

In the Bible passage we read just now, the apostle John tells us that Jesus the Son of God has appeared to us. He is the Word of life who was “from the beginning”. That means: He existed long before the heavens and the earth were even created.
People have always wondered about the universe that we live in. Sue May told me a story about her friend who never had much interest in God and one day she went scuba diving and so amazed to see a whole new world underwater so beautiful that by the time, she came up from the water, she believed in God.

I wonder if you too have ever looked up to a starry sky and feel a sense of cosmic wonder: “How come we exist in this universe? Why is there something rather than nothing? Where do we come from?” Suppose that in the beginning there was nothing. If there was absolutely nothing at the start, there won’t be anything now. Because out of nothing, nothing comes. No cause, no effect.

But something does exist today and not only that, if we look around us, everything that we observe has a beginning and was caused to exist by something else. For example, I have a beginning and my existence was caused by my parents, and my parents came to exist because of my grandparents, and if you rewind all the way back, even the universe has a beginning. Scientists called it the big bang. But what caused the big bang? Who is the big banger?

There must be something or someone that has always existed from the very beginning. In ancient times, the Greeks called that eternal force that holds the universe together Logos. The Logos (translated as the word) gives life to human beings. The Chinese also have a similar idea in the Tao that brings harmony to opposite forces of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’.

So when the apostle John spoke of the “Word of life”, the people understood what he was talking about. He’s talking about the Logos that made all things to exist, brings order to chaos. The Logos has always existed, it is eternal, uncreated since the very beginning of time…

But then John went on to say something radical that they never thought of: “Guess what? This Logos is not something abstract or a philosophical system. It’s not even an impersonal force that you can manipulate by hiring a fengshui master.”
The Logos is a person. He is someone who knows, makes choices and can communicate with us. He is relational. From the Gospel of John, we read: “In the beginning was the Logos, the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.… The Logos became flesh and dwell among us.”

That’s what Christmas is about. The God who is from eternity stepped into time. He took on flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood. The invisible has become visible, the spiritual has become physical. The ideal has become reality. In other words, God has become human without losing His divine nature. It’s a profound mystery -Jesus is not just fully man, He is fully God.

To appreciate just how radical this is, we can compare it with what other religions tell us about God. On one hand, in Islam/Judaism, God is so high above the creation, so transcendent that incarnation is impossible. It’s scandalous to think that God could take on human nature. On the other hand, in some Eastern religions like Hinduism/Buddhism, God is so close to the world, so immanent that reincarnation is normal. It happens to everyone. Everybody has a divine spark in us. So not all religions are the same…

Listen to these words from Tim Keller: But Christianity is unique. It doesn't say incarnation is normal, but it doesn't say it's impossible. It says God is so immanent (near us) that it is possible, but he is so transcendent (high above us) that the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is an earth-shaking, history-changing, life-transforming, paradigm-shattering event. Christianity has a unique view on this that sets it apart from everything else.

So who is Jesus? He’s a teacher but not just a good teacher. He’s a prophet but not just a human prophet. He’s so much more. He is the transcendent God who became incarnate. He’s not a far away God. He is God with us.

Secondly, not only does Christmas tell us something radical about God, it also tells us something historical about Him. The story of Jesus actually happened in space and time. On earth. In Israel. Two thousand years ago.

Unlike the wonderful stories we find in the Hikayat Ramayana, for example, it is not meant to be read as a myth. They cannot be just wonderful fairy tales that teach us moral lessons.

Imagine if I were to say to you that my late Grandmother appeared to me in a dream last night and gave me the recipe for a magic soup that gives eternal youth. And I can sell it to you for a thousand ringgit each. Could you examine this dream to see it’s true or false? You can’t because you have no access to my dream.

But imagine again if I were to say to you that she appeared to me at the Sunway Pyramid skating rink at 12 p.m. yesterday in front of more than one hundred shoppers and ice-skaters who can confirm this event… ah ha… now that’s different… that is an open public event … it’s something you can investigate, you can check out the facts, interview the witnesses and so on… it’s something historical you can verify…

The apostle John says: We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard. We saw His miracles. We heard His teachings. With our very own eyes. With our own ears. Our hands have touched Him, this person who is Eternal Life. This Jesus of Nazareth.

So these records of Jesus were written based on eyewitness accounts, people who have seen and heard Jesus while He was still on earth.

If the resurrection of Jesus was made up, it would be easily shot down by hundreds of eyewitnesses in Jerusalem who saw him crucified and buried. His enemies would be just too happy to show off his tomb and the story will die off very quickly. But the eyewitnesses did not contradict the empty tomb. Instead, people were invited to check out the facts with about five hundred witnesses who saw Jesus appeared after His resurrection from the grave.

The point of Christmas is that Jesus really lived, and he really died. It happened in space and time. He did these things in public. It is open to public examination and invites us to investigate its claims.

But you may wonder: What’s the big deal about something that happened so long ago? I live a good and moral life. That’s most important anyway, right? It doesn’t matter what happened in history. I don’t steal or murder, God will surely accept me.

But that’s salvation by good works. Trying to impress God by how good we are and then God owes us a ticket to heaven.

The bad news is you and I are both separated from God and God is so holy that there has to be punishment for our sins. In our deepest heart, if we look at ourselves in the mirror honestly, we know that we are simply not good enough judging by our own standard, not to mention God’s holy standards.

Suppose you are driving your car to work or school one day and you ran the traffic lights and got caught by the police. You cannot say: “Tolong-lah Encik, don’t give me the saman. Just now, got nine traffic lights, I also follow the rules. I only ran one out of ten traffic lights lah...”

If this excuse can’t help us with the local police, it cannot help us on Judgment Day to say “God, I know I have committed many sins but look at so many good things I have done also.”

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1 John1:8)

Why did Jesus the son of God come to earth? The good news is not that He came to tell us: “Try harder, live a good life and then earn a ticket to heaven.”

The good news of Christmas is that Jesus Christ came to earth, lived the perfect life we should have lived, and died on the cross to pay for our sins (He took the death that we deserved). So when we turn away from our sin and trust in him and what he has done for us, we are accepted freely by God. We are rescued by grace alone. That’s why He came: To save us from our sins.

If these things didn't really happen in history 2000 years ago, then we can't be forgiven by grace. And we are still carrying the crushing burden of condemnation and sin on our shoulders.

But the good news is God incarnate did come and lived and died for us. The witnesses heard him, saw him, touched him and proclaimed him. Because it happened in history, we have hope, forgiveness and acceptance from God.

Do you know Jesus as your Lord and as your Savior? Would you trust in what He has done for you today?

Full audio sermon can be downloaded here.

Thirdly, because Christmas is radical and historical, it invites us to a personal relationship with God.

If you see who Jesus is and why He came to earth, God became flesh and lived the life you should have lived, died the death you should have died — then Christmas invites you to know God personally. That means we can have a friendship, fellowship, an intimate communion with God himself. We become truly free and truly ourselves in the context of a love relationship.

The apostle John says, "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son." This word fellowship, which is koinonia, means that we now have a basis to be reconciled with God.

He is no longer vague or far away in heaven. He has shown Himself to us. So we don’t need to guess what God is like and what He wants from us, He has come personally to tell us. Now He has a human face.

And if some of us here are spiritually seeking and you want to know what it means to be a Christian: Well, it means you come into a relationship where you acknowledge God as the Father, who loves and cares for you as a father cares for a child. You call God “Father”. And you receive Jesus the ultimate expression of God’s saving love, as your Lord and Savior. And the Holy Spirit lives in you and gives you the power to know and follow Him. Then through baptism you express this immersion into a love relationship with God.

So Christmas is an invitation by God to say: “Look how far I've come to be near you. Now draw near to me. I don't want to be a concept; I want to be a friend.”

Lastly, Christmas invites you to be passionately incarnational.

If we know Jesus personally as our Lord and Savior, we have the hope of eternal life beyond the grave. God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

But when many people think of eternal life, they think of cartoons of people floating around in fluffy clouds, wearing white gowns with a harp in their hand and a halo on their head. So the idea is to escape from this physical world, and treat life on earth here and now as a temporary transit point to heaven. But the danger of that is we can be so heavenly that we are of no earthly good. It creates a mentality where we withdraw from life and focus only on the afterlife.

We see the poor oppressed and the environment destroyed and we shrug, “Oh well, this world’s gonna burn anyway so I just wait for my time to go to heaven.” No wonder many people see religion as a drug that makes us insensitive to pain and oppression happening around the world.

But the Christian hope of eternal life is not like that. It is not about running away from reality. The future of the gospel is a new heaven and a new earth. This world will be renewed, not abandoned. The hope of Christians is the resurrection, where we will be raised to eternal life in an incorruptible glorified physical body. Because God himself took on physical flesh and blood and invaded this planet, we long to see the presence of God's kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Because the rightful king of the world had entered human history. All unjust rulers are at risk. Dictators like king Herod, Roman Caesar, Satan, Sin, Death, Injustice, Pain, Disease, Hatred - their days are numbered. The worst they can do is give death but even death is conquered by the resurrection.

The King had come. The kingdom of God had broken into history, bringing healing and hope, peace and life. Christmas marks the beginning of God's mission to recapture the world for Himself.

So as His followers, we are also invited to imitate Christ be living incarnational lives. We also enter into other people’s worlds, as he entered ours. We seek first to understand then be understood. We enter into the world of their thinking as we try to understand how others look at life and how they see the gospel. We come into the world of their feeling as we try to empathise with their pain. And we come into the world of their living as we live, embody and demonstrate the gospel in the orang asli village, at the low cost apartments at Angsana and Mentari.

In conclusion, Christmas tells us something radical and historical about God – he has come to earth and revealed himself supremely in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Because of who Jesus is and what He has done for us, Christmas invites us to love God personally with all our heart, mind and strength. It also frees us to get involved in the lives of other people by embodying God’s kingdom on earth.

If the present creation will not be abandoned but transformed, then in the meantime, we are to work here-and-now looking forward to that final vision. So that our community and church could be a foretaste, a glimpse or movie preview of its future glory. Incarnational spirituality is lived out in down to earth realities, where we do business, how we cook in the kitchen, when we play with our children, study, love and do exercise, infusing everyday life with fresh authentic meaning. The gospel must be embodied with our lives and proclaimed with our words.

Think about that the next time someone wished you "merry Christmas" this year!

Loving God With All Our Mind

Mark 12:28-34 (sermon audio download available here)

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the dinosaurs? How did those giant lizards become extinct? And did the Bible ever mention anything about them? Have you ever asked these questions before? I suspect quite a number of you have.

I came to know Christ as a 15 year old student in secondary school. That’s not too long ago. As a curious new believer, I began asking how the Genesis account of creation in seven days explains those interesting dinosaurs you’d find watching Jurassic Park or National Geographic. So hoping to get some answers, one fine day I picked up the courage to ask my science teacher who is also a Christian. I asked him: “Why did God create dinosaurs and let all of them die, ah? Were the dinosaurs safe inside Noah’s ark? Did the flood drown all of them?” He gave me “one kind” of look and then asked me another question in return. He said: “Tell me. Does God answer your prayers?”

I was a bit shocked at first. “Er… Don’t blame me la… I didn’t pray for the dinosaur’s extinction ok!” Maybe he sensed that I was confused, so he went on, “Aiya… If God has answered your prayers, why do you need to ask so many things?” So if you have an experience that God is real in your heart, why bother thinking so much?

From that day on, I found out that for many Christians an intellectual understanding of what we believe and why you believe is not important as long as you have an experiential feeling in your heart! The heart is what you used in a relationship with God but the brain is what you used while studying science, computers, economics and history in school. There is a separation of the heart for spiritual stuffs and the mind for secular stuffs like dinosaurs. When that happens, no wonder our faith has so little impact on how we do our work or studies in the world. And no wonder our ‘daily activities’ outside the church has very little to do with God or the gospel.

But the Bible seems to say: “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds”. It doesn’t say “Be transformed by the removal of your minds”! So we don’t need to remove our brains in order to be a Christian. In fact, renewing our mind with God’s truth and kingdom values is crucial to our spiritual growth. Last month, I was working in Vietnam and met an American lady on a tour bus who works for a research program, trying to find a cure for cancer. As we talked, she told me that she envies her Christian friends for their faith. She says “It’s so easy for them but it’s hard for me to believe because as a scientist, I’ve been trained to think critically and ask questions first”. So I encouraged her, “Sometimes people ask questions not because of unbelief, but because they are serious about the truth”. Then I recommended her a book by a famous Christian scientist and hope it’s helpful to her.

To a lot of people, when you wish something is true but suspect that it actually doesn’t exist you need faith. And when you know for sure that something isn’t true and you still believe in it, then you must have very great faith indeed. But biblical faith is not like that. True faith involves knowledge, agreement and trust. For example, I can examine that this is a chair, it has four legs. That’s knowledge of the facts. But knowing alone is not enough, I must agree that yes, this chair is strong enough to support my weight. But knowing and agreeing alone won’t do me any good unless I put a personal commitment to rest my weight on that chair. So faith has both objective facts as well as personal trust.

In the passage we read just now, Jesus calls us (his disciples) to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our strength, with all our soul and with all our mind. This is the great and first commandment that sums up the entire law. True Christian spirituality involves our whole being - heart, head and hand. Our feeling, thinking and doing are all involved.

If we do not love God with all our heart, what happens? Our spiritual life will be all head knowledge but there is no real passion, desire or joy in it. We merely analyze God but we don’t worship Him. And if we do not love God with all our strength, then no practical fruit comes out of our beliefs. It’s NATO “No Action Talk Only”. Next Sunday Pastor Aik Khiam will preach on the Great Commandment of Jesus in more detail so…

Today I just want to zoom in on loving God with all our mind and ask 3 questions:
- Now, what happens if we do not love the Lord our God with “all our mind”?
- What are some practical benefits of developing a Christian mind?
- If this is important and practical, what can we do as disciples of Jesus to follow after God’s thoughts? To disciple our minds to love God…

So I hope to suggest why the role of the mind is so crucial to our discipleship, how a renewed Christian mind can be intensely practical (not just theoretical) and how we can go about loving God with “all our mind” as a church.

Many of us know about Billy Graham… he’s a great evangelist who has probably preached the gospel to more people than anyone else through radio and TV broadcasts and mass evangelistic rallies. Almost 30 years ago, the Billy Graham Centre was launched with a mission to help churches to evangelize. At the dedication service, they invited a Lebanese Christian named Charles Malik to deliver a very challenging message. He said: “I must be frank with you: the greatest danger facing American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough… The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out you have actually lost the world.” In other words, he’s saying, even if the whole world become Christian in name but their thinking is still captured by worldly patterns, then it may turn out that we have actually lost the world. If he is right and I think he is about a very common neglect to care for the life of the mind not only in America but also in Malaysia, then perhaps it is appropriate for us as a church to spend a bit more time exploring how we may love God with ‘all our mind’. So that’s one reason to devote a whole sermon on this aspect of obeying the Great Commandment. Not because the other areas are not important, but because there is such widespread neglect for such a crucial need today.

So what happens if we do not love the Lord our God with “all our mind”?

Nowadays, information about anything under the sun is just a Google search away. We cannot totally isolate ourselves or our loved ones from ideas… even dangerous ideas or deceptive philosophies out there in the market.

And if we do not submit our thinking to God’s truth, then obviously our minds will be easily influenced by worldly ways of life. We may still call ourselves Christians but we absorb notions about wealth, about sex and about success from MTV, popular movies or Youtube without even knowing it. Our thinking will be shaped by the patterns of the world, all those big words like hedonism that says (Life is short. Grab all the fun you can get), or consumerism (I shop till I drop because my social status depends on what I buy) or pragmatism (Whatever. As long as it works, I don’t care how you do it), and all sorts of other ‘ism or philosophies about life.

If we do not care for our mind, we may also run around with lots of programs and activities (giving an appearance of vibrant spiritual life) but we don’t stop and reflect “Why are we doing this? Is this biblical? We may do things right but are we doing the right things?” Or we may also run the danger of emotionalism – that means, having lots of misguided passion, having lots of zeal but without wisdom. Sad but true, I’ve come across some sincere but seriously misguided people who slither on the floor like snakes, roar like lions, bark like dogs because they mistakenly believed that is what God wanted them to do. Truth without emotion produce dead orthodoxy but emotion without a true vision of the greatness of God produces a shallow frenzy. The Father in heaven looks for worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth. Passionate feelings for God rooted in sound doctrine about God will express itself in songs, shouts, tears, silent awe, confessions and obedient lives. Head and heart and hands…

Last but not least, if we do not know what we believe and why we believe, then our evangelism or our witness of the gospel will suffer. We will lack boldness because we are afraid of the questions people may ask. When I have lunch with some colleagues, we usually talk about work, the economy, Malaysian politics or family stuffs. And there’s a guy who is very shy and has no opinion when it comes to topics like these. But if the conversation suddenly turns to football, then his eyes will light up and he cannot stop talking. Why? Because he knows a lot about football and he can offer expert opinions on anything relating to football like Shebby Singh. So he’s not shy or quiet anymore. It’s the same when it comes to sharing the gospel. That’s why 1 Peter 3:15 says: “Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope you have in Christ.” This command to be ready with a reason or defence for frequently-asked questions from sceptics and seekers is not given to an elite group of scholars or intellectuals. No, it’s for the whole church. Be prepared. Be equipped with answers. Then boldness kicks in.

But if it is so important to love God with our mind, why do many Christians often downplay the role of the mind when it comes to spiritual things? When it comes to secular knowledge, we say “Ah Chai: Stop your computer games, study harder, memorize these facts and pass all your exams”. We encourage them to devote much time to read books and use their minds. But when it comes to theological knowledge, we say “Who needs theology? Aiya, don’t think so much la... Just have more faith. Read books ah? Where got time? Busy la…” This common suspicion towards the role of the mind in our spiritual life may sometimes be caused by misunderstanding certain Bible passages. For example: “What’s the use of reason since Jesus says we should have faith like a child? (Matthew 8:13) Didn’t the apostle Paul say Knowledge puffs up our pride (1 Corinthians 8:1) so we should stop pursuing knowledge?”

But actually, a childlike faith refers to a humble, dependent trust in God. It is the humility and dependent trust of a helpless child that Jesus praises. He is not encouraging childish thinking. The apostle Paul wrote, “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (1 Corinthians 14:20) When he wrote that knowledge puffs up, he is warning us against a proud attitude that show off one’s spiritual knowledge for self-promotion instead of using it to build up each another. The real problem he’s getting at is arrogance, not knowledge in itself. So our proper response is humility and love, not ignorance. There are people who are knowledgeable and yet humble just as there are people who are proud and know a lot. But it is also possible to be arrogant and ignorant at the same time. I’m in the consulting line and sometimes people say of consultants: “Know a bit but pretend to know it all”. Gordon Fee: why must we choose between ‘fool on fire’ or a ‘scholar on ice’? Lord, help me to be a “scholar on fire”. Not everyone is called to be a scholar, but we should all be disciples of Jesus whose minds continually grow in knowledge and hearts continually burn with passion.

Q2: OK, fine but is it practical or not? This business about developing a ‘Christian mind’ - Isn’t it just theoretical, head knowledge that does not help us live properly?

When Doctor Wendy and I look at the same skin problem, we “see” radically different things. She can observe more because with years of study, her mind is filled with relevant medical concepts that enable her to look for the right things and tell me whether it’s a basal cell carcinoma or not. Whereas I can stare at the sore all day and not see what she saw. Believe me, this ability to see is something very practical. It can make a difference between life and death. Similarly, if your mind is equipped with biblical concepts like creation, sin and redemption, you are able to look at life and the world and see things that others don’t even notice. You can see beyond surface appearance in world events, culture or people and discern truth from error, right from wrong, beauty from ugliness.

Although there is some truth to the perception that scholars always argue over irrelevant issues, the best theologians actually help us to gain wisdom for life. After all, a good theory is a very practical thing. When I don’t know the way to KLCC, having a good map helps me decide whether to turn left at this junction or right at that traffic light. The map itself is not KLCC but just a theoretical model of the real thing. But if the map is accurate, it can be very useful. In the same way, an accurate mental map of reality guides our navigation through difficult decisions in the world.

Because what we believe to be true has a powerful influence over how we should live. For example, if we view human life as just a biological machine, we won’t be terribly inclined to treat it with much dignity or respect. But if we see human beings as more than biology but also a person made in the image of God with infinite worth, it compels us to treat life as sacred and other people with dignity and respect. Sound theology is practical when it connects to life and flow from the head to the heart and to the hands. True knowledge and living experience should enrich each other.

And if we are serious about our witness for the gospel in a multi religious society like Malaysia, we need to intentionally raise up a generation of confident, informed and winsome ambassadors for Christ. We can preach with all the fervor of a Billy Graham but win only a beggar here and there if we allow the intellectual atmosphere of our society to oppose the gospel by sheer logic. The strategy is not retreat and isolate ourselves in a safe little corner. But to cultivate a robust Christian worldview that understands and engages culture. To do that, we need to provide thinking tools that empower our youths and children, so they will learn how to evaluate what’s true and good on their own. My wife Grace is scheduled to deliver tomorrow. Newborn babies get a vaccination jab which contain some virus or bacteria so that their immune system can be developed. Similarly, we can boost up our spiritual immune system by being informed of what other religious beliefs are first and be equipped to evaluate them from a biblical perspective.

Today, there is an urgent and serious need for us to explore how the church as a redeemed community in the world responds to issues like racism, inter-religious harmony, economic inequality, caring for creation, the spread of infectious diseases, and ethics in medical technology. Since the gospel is public truth (not just private experiences), we have a responsibility to speak sensibly in the public square, through the media, in places where these crucial and practical issues of life are discussed and decided. We cannot address these burning issues in our Malaysian society without faithfully and diligently applying our minds to connect God’s word with God’s world.

Lastly, if the mind is crucial and practical to our spiritual life and witness, how then shall we recover and develop a Christian mind in ourselves and in others? (Q3)

Here are four simple suggestions which are by no means exhaustive:

a) Our mind needs to be fed. You are what you eat. If you eat junk food, your body will be weak or sick. You are what you read also. If you read healthy, solid books, your mind will also develop strong mental muscles or habits. There is no short cut. Let’s start small: Have we read the whole Bible at least once? LT Jeyachandran: If we don’t even know what’s inside this book, why do we believe it is God’s word?

b) Memorizing bible verses and facts alone doesn’t mean that we have developed a Christian mindset. Our minds need exercise. We need to re-imagine creatively and critically how to apply the biblical teachings of creation, sin, and redemption to life issues we face daily in the marketplace as a lawyer, artist, businessperson, teacher, healthcare workers etc. Advertisement: The church library has invested in many interesting helpful resources to equip us to do just that. Start with your own interests and passions.

c) If you are a student, do you think Christianly about the subjects you learn in school or college? I once met a student in church who was studying psychology at HELP Institute. So I encouraged her: “Wow, that’s an interesting field. There are many areas in which psychology overlap to what the Bible teaches about the soul. Some faculty members like Dr Goh Chee Leong are committed Christians”. What she told me next broke my heart: “You know what, most Christians would frown when they hear that I’m doing psychology and you are one of few people who actually encouraged to pursue it”. I know there are some theories in psychology that may be incompatible with the Christian faith. But in every discipline, including law, economics, arts and science, you’d find some theories which do not fit well with our beliefs. If we discourage people from studying and run away then who’s going to get in there and do better psychology, better economics and better science from a biblical outlook? Speak to the pastors and see how you may discern what is true, beautiful and right expressed in these disciplines of your research. They could well be your “fulltime ministry” in future.

d) Volunteer to join or lead evangelism groups like Alpha or Christianity Explored where small groups are trained in the art of giving a reason for our faith in Christ. So you learn to handle frequently asked questions from seekers with humility, confidence and knowledge. When you are stumped once, just say “I don’t know but I’d find out for you” – then go home and do your homework, ask around and get back to them. That way, all of us learn to grow in our journey of faith.

Can you imagine what the transformation of our spirituality and witness in society looks like when our minds are regularly renewed with such practices? It is a lifelong project that requires lots of energy and time, but the effort will be worth your while. And you’ll never know just when a curious young believer may approach you with questions like “Why did God create the dinosaurs?”

You know what, recently, a student in MMU asked me about the dinosaurs and how they fit in Genesis. Ask and you shall be asked in return.

Do you know how I answered him? Basically I gave him a few possible Christian answers to that question, some pros and cons in each theory depending on how you look at the fossils and how you understand the book of Genesis. But in the end, the Bible is not meant to be a biological textbook to tell us everything about dinosaurs. Genesis tells us who created the universe and why everything is created, but its main purpose is not to tell us specifically how it all came about. Then one female student chipped in: “If God didn’t create dinosaurs, we won’t have any petroleum today! Our cars depend on fossil fuel ma...” And I thought “Ya hor… Have you ever thought of becoming a theologian?”

The point is this: Loving God with “all our mind” does not mean that we can understand absolutely everything about God and His ways. Because God is God, and we are finite creatures, there will always be mystery. And some of our questions will only be answered when we meet God one day. That should not be an excuse for us to be lazy in our thinking, but it is a needed reminder that there is a limit to our ability to reason and sometimes, all we can do is save up our questions for heaven… To ask God when we finally meet Him face to face…

Let us pray.