Praying: For whose ears?

Photo by Terry Bidgood

Palms sweaty, heart racing, mind on overdrive.

No, it’s not nervousness over an impending exam or presentation, but, well . . . praying with others.

Even though I grew up in a “culturally Christian” family, I had never really prayed with others before. The closest I had come to it was muttering a quick prayer before the occasional celebratory family meal to give thanks for the food.

But for the most part, I saw prayer as a one-on-one, personal conversation between me and my Father—my whispered words for His ears alone. So, after I truly accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and joined a small family church where praying with those around us was a common practice, I was both intrigued and terrified.

I had never heard people talking to God out loud before, and doing so felt like I was spying on a secret conversation. While I was comfortable observing them, I would clam up whenever it was my turn.

I remember one occasion in particular: I was painfully stuttering through a prayer with two older people I’d just been acquainted with, my eyes scrunched up in concentration and cheeks warm. I felt stupid for not knowing how to pray, and mortified at how stilted my prayer was compared to theirs; my words sounded thick and clunky coming out of my mouth.

Over time, as I listened to the prayers of others, I couldn’t help but notice how they prayed. Some stammered, generously sprinkling filler words like “um” and “like” throughout their prayers; others were capable of reciting concise summaries of sermons we’d just heard in a perfectly packaged prayer. Some prayed like a bullet train, spurting out clipped words in a single breath, while others meandered wherever their thoughts took them. Some prayed with boredom tinging their voices, others prayed with emotion quivering at the back of their throats.

I marveled at my best friend’s eloquent prayers, richly adorned with descriptive language and generously furnished with Bible verses. I envied her easy confidence and poignant words, which felt like a much more pleasing prayer to the Lord’s ears than my own—or so I imagined.

As I listened to them, I began to pick up expressions and phrases to incorporate in my own articulated prayers, as if collecting shiny baubles to deck my petitions to God with. Without knowing it, I became overly conscious of what I sounded like in the ears of others—and even critical and condescending as I began to judge other people’s prayers against my own.

One Sunday, I had the opportunity to pray with a sister a couple of years younger than me. She was a small, unassuming, and quiet girl whom I hardly knew. Even though she came from a Mandarin-speaking background and wasn’t fluent in English, her prayer was beautiful. She prayed to the Lord earnestly and simply, with short sentences, in a tone of complete reverence and humility. And even though she spoke with few words, I could hear and feel her love for God.

Right then, I felt ashamed of my own prayer, which, though gracefully delivered, didn’t come from an intimate or authentic place. Instead, it was motivated by a subconscious desire to be found praying the “right” way, and to sound and appear holy and perfect, as I assumed Christians ought to be. As I learnt to participate in corporate prayer, I had unknowingly mistaken my primary audience to be my fellow brothers and sisters. I had forgotten that while praying with others can be one way to edify and encourage them, it shouldn’t be the main motivation behind praying with others. This sweet, young sister-in-Christ made me realize that no oratory prowess can compare to a humble prayer uttered from a genuine and contrite spirit.

Jesus made it clear that He isn’t impressed by eloquent prayers that exalt Him on the surface but indirectly exalt the person praying (Matthew 6:5-13; 23:5-12). Rather, He is pleased with and accepts the prayers of those who call upon His name in repentance (Luke 18:10-14).

Today, I have learned to pray slowly and thoughtfully, and to murmur simple, heartfelt words directed solely for the ears of my Father in Heaven while in the presence of others. After all, our prayers are ultimately for God’s ears, who alone hears and answers according to His perfect will and in His perfect time.


My Identity Crisis: All I Wanted Was to Fit In

I spent a large part of my adolescence searching for my identity as if it were a lost item to be found.

I suppose it was because a large part of my childhood and early teenage years was spent moving between various states in Malaysia before settling in Auckland, New Zealand. My dad’s former job required him to move whenever a new position arose, and we would move with him.

By the time I was 15, I had been to three different kindergartens, three primary schools, and two high schools. To be fair, some of my friends zipped through even more schools, so I can’t really complain. But the constant state of motion meant that I was always searching for a new identity just so I could fit into my new environment. I didn’t want to be seen as an outsider, so I found myself always trying to meet the status quo.

For example, when a friend told me that someone had labeled me as an outdated individual due to my taste in music, I made up my mind to learn all there was to each new pop group. I would pester my dad to buy me the latest albums and music magazines, and would collect posters of each band.

Trying to fit in also extended to the extracurricular activities I took part in. When I was in primary school in Malaysia, I signed up for Taekwondo as it was the coolest club, and worked my way to a brown belt. But when I moved to junior high school, Taekwondo lost its appeal and was replaced by Scouts.

The first few months of Scouting went relatively well, despite having to put up with the heat in Malaysia and the relentless mosquitoes that swarmed around us in the humid evenings when we were camping. For me, it was a chance to do something cool, with hopes that I’d be accepted into the “in” crowd. I mean, all the camping, tramping, and hiking would surely result in good camaraderie between teammates right?

But an incident that happened during one camping trip cemented the fact that I was never going to be part of the popular crowd. I was putting away my teammates’ mess tins, which we had all washed and dried, onto a makeshift tripod—which was made out of bamboo sticks and held together by the different knots a Scout is supposed to learn and know—when it tipped over. Immediately, a chorus of groans went up, with voices demanding to know how I could have been so careless. It was all arms and elbows as everyone pitched in to rinse the dishes again and steady the tripod.

As the evening wore on, another girl managed to upend the tripod after supper. She was pretty, older than most of us, and hung out with the right crowd. Instead of angry voices demanding to know why she was so careless, there was only laughter. All she got was a joking remonstration, “Oh, you’re so careless!” I went home sad and miserable, gave up Scouting, and shied away from all outdoor activities thereafter.

My early secondary school life in Malaysia was a drag—my academic results were less than stellar, and at one point, I was failing just about every subject there was under the sun. But society saw Science stream students as the smarter bunch, so I had to continue studying subjects I was weak in because I didn’t want to be seen as anything less.

When my parents announced we were moving to New Zealand, I breathed a sigh of relief. Don’t get me wrong: I was reluctant to leave my friends behind. But I realized starting school in a new country would give me a fresh start—and a level of anonymity.

To the rest of my Kiwi classmates, I was just one of the many Asian students at high school. Granted, there were the usual stereotypes of Asians excelling in math and science, but I was also given the opportunity to study the subjects I was interested in. I also felt that it hardly mattered if my clothes were of the correct label or not, because most international students bought clothes from their home country anyway.

Furthermore, my teachers were far more interested in nurturing my strengths—such as English and writing—so the pressure to excel in certain subjects fell away. As a result, I enjoyed school tremendously, and went on to do the same subjects I loved at university.

But if you think that solved my identity crisis, you’re wrong. I disliked the fact that I was poor in math and that accounting wasn’t really my cup of tea. And I wondered why God would have me excel in English and not biology. On top of that, my parents’ friends would question my decision to pursue an English major in university. “But why?” was the most common question. “You can speak English, can’t you?”

So, by the time I was ready to graduate from university, I was still floating in the big world with no identity to anchor myself on.

It wasn’t until I attended a workshop at my church, that I learned about where my real identity comes from—and it certainly isn’t about being like other people.

At the workshop, we were given a list of affirmations of who we are in Christ, followed with Scriptures to back them up. The list had items such as, “I am a child of God” (John 1:12), “I am a friend of Jesus” (John 15:15)—and one that hit me like a ton of bricks: “I have been accepted by Christ” (Romans 15:7). You see, for years I had tried to gain the acceptance of others, but here was a verse that told me that Jesus accepted me—even when I was the uncool individual who listened to bad music before I joined Taekwondo and Scouts. That verse told me God saw me for who I was (with all my flaws) and yet still said: I accept her for who she is.

I also learned how I’m God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works (Ephesians 2:10), and that I am greatly loved by God (Romans 1:7, Ephesians 2:4, Colossians 3:12, 1 Thessalonians 1:4).

Intrigued, I read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which said: “God never does anything accidentally, and He never makes mistakes. He has a reason for everything He creates. Every plant and every animal was planned by God, and every person was designed with a purpose in mind.”

You see, not only did I have to contend with an identity crisis, but there were also times when I wondered if God had made a mistake when He made me. After all, I was hardly Miss Influential and some of my schoolmates treated me like as if I were an insect. As my insecurities melted away, however, I started to see how silly I had been in looking to my peers for an affirmation of my identity. I realized that God is not bothered with the bands that I follow, the clothes that I wear, or what outdoor interests I pursue. Discovering (and making peace) with my identity also gave me a sense of purpose, which I believe is an important factor when it comes to fighting off insecurities, comparisons, and jealousies.

When I realized that one of my life’s purposes was to write for God, I started to view it as something sacred because it’s a gift from God, instead of a thing to be wished away. Don’t get me wrong, I have always enjoyed writing, but when I was growing up, adults around me made me feel it wasn’t a valuable skill set. What is the use of being able to write if your math and science is falling behind? Have you ever heard of a poor accountant? Those comments certainly had a way of making me feel inferior. However, when I learned to accept who I was, I stopped trying to be someone else, and begin to develop my skills and talents instead.

My newfound identity in Christ has given me the freedom to pursue my hobbies like writing and swimming wholeheartedly. It has also made me braver in pursuing new adventures. For example, never in a million years would I have dreamed of training to be a surf lifeguard, but I’ll be spending a huge amount of time this year training in the pool and open water to qualify as one.

You may be struggling with finding your own identity, and at times, it can seem like you’re drowning in an ocean of voices telling you to be this or that. But let me encourage you: Take the time to read about what God says about you, and you’ll find out that your identity can be found in Him. Because in God, we have an identity so strong and solid that it will never be eroded by popular culture or the latest trend.


Why Am I Taking a Gap Year?

I must admit that when I first decided to take a gap year, I might have started off on the wrong foot.

You see, I was giving different reasons to different people—depending on who asked. To the friendly taxi driver, I was taking a year off school to work. To my parents, I was not ready to enter university since I had no idea what I wanted to study. To Christian friends and mentors, I needed the time to get back on track with God and to serve Him in Christian organizations.

That got me thinking. Why didn’t I have a confident and consistent answer? Was it because I didn’t have a concrete answer? If I were to be honest with myself, what reasons would I have come up with?

I graduated from a local polytechnic with a media-related diploma two months ago. I should have headed for further studies right after that, but months earlier, halfway through my last semester, the thought of taking a gap year had crept into my mind.

In case you didn’t know, a gap year is an intentional choice by a student to take a year off school to work, volunteer, or travel. It is mostly done before or after one enrolls in university. A couple of my friends were taking this long break. One wanted to spend her time backpacking round Europe, and another had planned to go to Thailand with a non-profit organization to help in animal conservation efforts. Others were looking at taking up internships to help them decide on what to study in university.

My friends all seemed to have legitimate—even noble—reasons for wanting to take a gap year. My motivations seemed to pale in comparison; I felt like I was the only confused one.

In the two months that have passed since I started my sabbatical, I have come to realize that my motivations were rather selfish. I had wanted to take a break after three years of studying in the polytechnic. The late nights and tight deadlines had left me with little time to relax and I was utterly exhausted. The idea of having more time to myself for such a long period sounded fantastic. Also, I had finished a six-month internship with a local newspaper and found that I preferred working to studying.

Reasoning with myself and my parents, I argued that I didn’t know what I wanted to study in university—hence I needed the time to “find myself” and figure it out.

However, I was aware that taking a gap year would mean a very long break from school. My sabbatical would in fact last 1½ years, because my academic year ended in February this year and God-willing, my university course would only begin in August next year. To make sure I used my time more wisely, I was determined to learn a new instrument—the ukulele.

All these reasons were not necessarily wrong, but did they truly glorify God? Where was God in my decision-making process? I had prayed to ask God what He thought about my gap year, but I had not actively sought His reply. When I lay on my bed to pray every night, was I asking God to bless my plans or was I asking God for His plan?

Such thoughts lingered in my head when a sister-in-Christ challenged me to rethink my motivations for taking the sabbatical. She suggested that as Christians, our motivations, thoughts and actions should be very different from that of a non-believer.

I reflected on how I spoke with God every night and realized that often, I wanted blessings and not direction from God. It was the wrong way to pray. The deliberate act of choosing to be stuck in limbo was probably due to selfish reasons on my part. They reflected my personal inward desires instead of God Himself. However, I believe God can still use this time to teach me many things—if I am willing to listen.

Reading a recent devotional on Romans, I was very inspired by how Paul allowed the Gospel to shape his whole person. His identity, mission, relationships with others, and convictions were so aligned to the Gospel. It challenged me to think about how I should let God use me, and how much more I need to surrender my life to Him.

So far, in the past two months, I’ve spent my time serving with Singapore Youth for Christ to gear up for an evangelistic event in June. My interest in writing has also led me to join YMI as an editorial intern. However, even though I’m doing “Christian” things, I know it is still important for me to pray constantly for God’s guidance.

I still don’t have the answers to many of the difficult questions I’ve asked. However, I pray that I will continue to seek God first, to ask for His direction instead of His approval. May I learn how to discern what my personal desires are, and what God has called me to do. With 16 more months’ sabbatical to go, I hope to make decisions that will make God happy instead of those that will make me happy.

I can only plan so much for my gap year. But I am convinced that if I let God plan for me, He will give me far more than I can ever ask or imagine.


Why I Stopped Full-Time Work

Two years ago, God called my husband and I to take a year off work to spend time seeking Him.

We had just completed our sixth year of work. So I quit my job while my husband took no pay leave. And from May 2015 to May 2016, we attended a discipleship course in church, volunteered our time at various church ministries, and visited different individuals. It was a full 12 months of doing things for God, which many people would probably consider a “fruitful” and “meaningful” use of time.

Fast forward to 12 months later. My husband went back to secular work as called by the Lord. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel God prompting me to go back to full-time secular work, so I embarked on what many people would call a very “different” journey. I know some would view how I spent my past year as a “waste of time”, but, as I’ve learned over the year, the definition of “fruitfulness” differs for everyone.

You see, over the past 11 months, I have been working part-time in an administrative role. And because I am working part-time, my monthly salary is a fraction of what I used to earn.

On top of that, I no longer qualify for employee benefits like allowances, annual leave, and medical leave. Things that I could once easily afford are now luxury items that I need to carefully consider whether to purchase. So why did I choose this path? you might ask.

I’ve asked myself the same question. Why did I leave a full-time job to take on something part-time which does not pay me enough to feed myself? (Note: my husband has been supporting me by co-paying for my expenses.)

Truth be told, I felt rather aimless the first few weeks. Apart from working three half-days per week, I stayed at home and did some household chores. With so much time on my hands, I started to do what I enjoyed doing: I read the Bible and played worship songs on the guitar and the keyboard.

The thing is, I don’t have much training in music. So, in the beginning, I struggled to figure out the chords, play them according to the timing, and sing at the same time. After some months, however, I realized that my fingers were moving pretty much on their own without me having to try to follow the score or timing. They were moving to random melodies—which, surprisingly, actually made musical sense to my ears. That triggered my interest in writing simple worship songs for the Lord.

It wasn’t always smooth-sailing, of course. But on occasions when the melodies just flowed, I felt as though I was directly downloading the tunes from God. Once, as I played one of the tunes and sang the lyrics that God gave me, I felt myself being ministered to by the Lord himself; tears kept rolling down my cheeks and I just couldn’t stop.

In that song, I was reminded of the truth that no one compares to God, for He is God most high: He is our God, our Lord, our strength, and our King. He is sovereign and is worthy of our worship. And there is nowhere else we would rather be than to be in the presence of His Glory.

At that moment, I realized that perhaps this was exactly what God was calling me to do: to take time to worship Him. And though it may not seem that big of a deal to others, I knew it was a fruitful use of my time.

In all honesty, I wished I had more “song downloads” from God over the past few months. At the same time, I am reminded of the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Both the servant who was given five talents and came back with another five, and the servant who was given two talents and came back with another two, received the same response from their Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23)

Through these 11 months, I’ve come to realize in a very personal way that fruitfulness is not always measured by what we reap materially. It does not mean making the most money. It does not mean gaining the best reputation. It does not mean gaining power in the corporate world or climbing the corporate ladder. It does not mean being fashionable or always having new clothes and accessories to wear and gadgets to hold. It does not mean eating at the best restaurants or knowing when or where the next Michelin Star restaurant is opening at.

Fruitfulness is doing what God wants you to do. And it’s not even about quantity or quality—it’s about our heart. (Matthew 5:8)

It’s hard being the oddball. It’s hard having no full-time job. It’s hard earning so little. It’s hard saying no to friends and sometimes even family. It’s hard not following common paths. It’s hard resisting the world. But it’s even harder to live a life without God. (Matthew 7:13-14)

My dear friends, I may not know you personally or know what you’re going through right now. But I do know that God has a perfect plan for you to be abundantly fruitful, according to His ways and His will.