Making Sense of Jesus’ Countercultural Teachings

Written By Lim Chien Chong

Chien Chong joined Singapore Youth For Christ (SYFC) full-time in 1998 after a six year teaching career in a local junior college. In 2005, he became SYFC’s National Director. He currently serves in the pulpit and bible class ministry in church as well as preaches, trains and teaches in different churches and youth groups locally. He has been married for 13 years and has two young lovely boys, Joshua (nine years old) and Elijah (six years old).

We all know people who make striking comments just for the attention they get. They often appear countercultural, but rarely live out what they preach. It’s almost like they just want to be different.

“The problem with our society is we prize knowledge more than compassion,” said one of my friends.

Another claimed that “we are losing a generation of young people because we give them too many options too early in their lives.”

What do these statements even mean? And how do we respond to them?

When Jesus’ teachings went against the culture of His time, was He trying to be different just to gain an audience?

When we read the Gospels carefully, we know that this was definitely not the case. Jesus knew who was going to follow Him, and who was not. When people flocked to Jesus (especially for the wrong reasons), Jesus would often turn them away or teach truth which He knew they could not swallow (John 6:60-66). Jesus did not come to the world just to gain a following.

How then do we make sense of His countercultural teachings?

In my opinion, a short and quick answer is: Jesus is essentially teaching us—who generally have a “Me-first” mentality—that we need to have a “God-first” perspective and value system.

Let’s take a brief look at a couple of things Jesus taught.

One of the first statements Jesus made was in His sermon, also commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

When Jesus first made this statement, it must have raised some eyebrows and puzzled many people. Jesus was saying, “You need to be poor to have all the riches of God’s kingdom.” This statement challenges the normal way we look at life. In our culture, we expect the rich to inherit everything, and the hardworking to gain all the wealth they can get.

How do you become rich by being poor?

Undoubtedly, if we were to consider both riches and poverty in merely material terms, then what Jesus says certainly sounds self-contradictory. However, if we were to understand it from God’s perspective, and see riches and poverty as descriptions of our spiritual conditions, then the meaning is easier to grasp.

I think this is what Jesus was trying to say: If someone sees himself lacking in terms of his ability to do what is right and pleasing to God, and recognizes how desperately he needs God, then this person would surely embrace Jesus’s rule in his life when he is introduced to the good and powerful Savior and King. When that happens, this person enjoys all the rich blessings of God that come with being a child in His kingdom.

Conversely, when a person is self-sufficient and thinks that he has no need for God, he will not see the value of being in God’s kingdom. As a result, he will also not have access to all that a child of God has.

This teaching of Jesus’ has proven so true in the lives of people I have met. I have come across many youth who think that they have everything in life, and that all is “going well” for them. They do not think that they need God. In fact, some of them are so confident in themselves that they think of God only as a crutch for people who are psychologically and emotionally weak. But in reality, these young people are depriving themselves of the opportunity to see the full reality and richness of the abundant life—the life that Jesus promises to all who come to Him.

We read stories of celebrities and famous people who talk openly about the struggles they face in their lives and their relationships. Some are given to drugs while others have even taken their own lives. But on the other end of the spectrum, we read the testimonies of many ordinary and not-so-rich people who became followers of Jesus. Some of them were ex-offenders, others stricken with terminal illnesses. Although they are not rich materially, their lives are marked with richness, hope, and joy. These different responses have left many wondering why the rich are so “poor” and the poor are so “rich”. As Christians, we know that it is consistent with what Jesus taught.

Let’s see if we can use this “God-first” instead of “Me-first” idea to understand another of Jesus’ countercultural teachings.

In Matthew 20:25-26, Jesus tells His disciples that, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (emphasis added)

Generally, we do not associate greatness with servanthood. Society measures a person’s greatness by how much he is worth, how much he earns every hour, how high he stands on the social ladder. In fact, great people by society’s standards are served and waited on by others.

Servants are the opposite. They are the ones assigned to do the menial and lowly tasks that people, in general, would rather not do themselves. Must a person really be a servant if he wants to be great? And do we know any great men who are servants by vocation?

Again at first glance, the statement sounds rather illogical. But we are to understand “greatness” in the context of the kingdom of God, not by society’s standards.

If someone is prepared to put God first in everything, he will be willing to soil his hands, move out of his comfort zone, and do anything to serve God’s purpose. When that happens, this person will learn to do different things well and try to be as useful as possible in different situations. Through time, more people will come to him because his help would have been known to be constructive and timely. It is not difficult to see then how the Lord greatly uses that person to bless the lives of many.

On the other hand, I have also met people who lament that they are not being used by God. Interestingly, these individuals can be quite selective in what areas they want to serve God in, because they may not want to do things that are inconvenient, “demeaning”, or uncomfortable.

On 21 February this year, we learned about Billy Graham’s “homegoing”. He had brought the Word of God to more than 180 countries, preaching the gospel to as many as 200 million people. My father became a Christian in one of his nightly crusades in 1978. In addition, he has spoken to kings, princes, and heads of state. He has been described by many as “the great evangelist.”

But Billy Graham started out as a farm boy. Even when he was an itinerant evangelist, he was only drawing a modest salary and staying in a humble home. Yet, there have been few people whom God has used to the same extent as He did Mr. Graham. In him, we find a true servant of God—one who was willing to serve others and do whatever his Master gave him to do. Billy Graham’s life demonstrates the teaching “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”

I am certain that in availing himself to serve God by meeting the needs of so many different people in so many different settings, there had been times where Billy Graham might have felt that he was taken for granted. In fact, he might even have felt that he had been “used” by others or treated like a lowly servant (which is a lousy feeling). But on deeper thought, people approached and “used” him because he had been useful. If not, they would not have thought of engaging him in the first place.

So you see, Jesus’s teachings are indeed countercultural, but true and real to life!

Although Jesus’ teachings went against the societal norms, it is evident that He wasn’t just different for the sake of being different. Jesus challenges us not to have a “Me-first” mentality. A “Me-first” mentality undermines Christ’s rule in our lives, and this is (what is commonly known as) “sin”. But Jesus came to die for our sins and reverse our lives which were torn apart by sin. Being raised to life, He gives us a new life. With a “God-first” perspective and value system, we can truly live the life that He has intended for us right from the start, which is very different from the life as we know it. And this is the heart of Jesus’ teaching!

Why Should Christians Care About Social Justice?

Written By Hannah Spaulding, USA

Every fall, my college holds an event called “Un-Learn Week”. Un-Learn Week is a week full of different events focused on “un-learning” racial bias. This was the first time that I started really learning about social justice and what it means—especially in a Christian context.

Social justice is pretty easy to define, but harder to illustrate. One definition might be “social justice is the pursuit of justice to correct systemic problems within a social context.” But what does that really mean? For some, the words “social justice” might conjure up pictures of angry protesters marching in defense of their beliefs. Or maybe social justice seems more like a hazy umbrella term for various “-isms,” such as racism, sexism, ageism.

The Bible never uses the term “social justice”. But in ancient Israel, God gives detailed commandments for setting up a social welfare system, instructing the covenant community how to treat the poor, widows, and foreigners. When the people failed to follow through with these commands, God says through the prophet Amos, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).

One of the speakers at Un-Learn Week explained why as students, and Christians, we should spend time doing something that sounds as contradictory as “un-learning.” The speaker explained that, regardless of our personal opinions, if one of our brothers or sisters in Christ comes to us and starts to tell us about a time they experienced racial bias, we have an obligation to listen to them as a sibling in Christ.

This idea really impacted my understanding of social justice. God wants us to listen when there are people around us crying out, whether they are speaking out about racial bias, poverty, sexism, abuse, discrimination, or any other issue. Even if they are not a fellow believer. Even if we end up disagreeing with the person we are listening to, when we listen first, that disagreement can come from a place of mutual understanding instead of bias. Listening is the first step of loving.

I got the chance to do some listening when I participated in Un-Learn Week this past fall. I attended a presentation by two female black students about the history of American media portrayal of black women, and the issues black women in America still face today. Merely attending a presentation might not seem like a work of social justice, but a big part of social justice is educating oneself about issues others are facing. That presentation gave me the opportunity to learn about someone else’s experience that I didn’t previously know.

When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment is, He replied that loving God was the first commandment, and the second was “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). A few chapters later, Jesus gives an example of this great commandment put into action. Jesus says that at His return He will say to the faithful:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 22:39)

These verses are a prime example of social justice—caring for the marginalized. The early disciples understood this, and in fact, social justice started largely with the early Christian community. If you were to flip back through the pages of history, you would find that many of the first institutional systems that cared for the poor or marginalized were set up by Christians. Many of the first hospitals, schools, orphanages, refuges for the homeless, etc., were often funded and run by monks, nuns, and other early Christians.

As Christians were then, I believe Christians are now still called to participate in bringing justice where injustice has penetrated in a systemic way. This begins with education and awareness, but goes beyond that. It is a willingness to stand in the gap with our brothers and sisters—and even those who aren’t yet our brothers and sisters in Christ—and love them by listening and doing. As 1 Corinthians 13:6-7 says, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This past school year, I participated in the work of social justice through being involved with the Sexual Assault Prevention Team (SAPT) on my campus. My involvement in SAPT modeled to me the way social justice works: First, you learn. Then, you act.

In SAPT, we did the work of learning, and sometimes “un-learning,” at our weekly meetings. Each week the director of SAPT would bring an article, video, or presentation for us to learn about and discuss. As a group we expanded our awareness about different issues pertaining to sexual assault, such as the way toxic versions of masculinity contribute to a culture of assault, or how people that are differently abled are often more vulnerable to sexual assault.

Educating ourselves was only half the work, however. The rest of the work of SAPT involved taking action around campus. Some of the efforts of our team included taking a survey of the student body to see how many students on campus are being affected by sexual assault, creating resource flyers to be posted in select bathrooms around campus, and providing sexual assault prevention training programs for members of the student body to attend.

Sometimes social justice is hard to understand. Sometimes it’s inconvenient. But the truth is that love is an action, and participating in social justice is one way we can show God’s love for us to others.

Simply put, social justice is love in action. Will you choose to take the first step today?

Has Community Become Our New Idol?

Written By Jiaming Zeng, USA

“Thirst was made for water. Inquiry for truth.” – C.S. Lewis

I’ve never been good at socializing, especially at large events such as parties, networking, and happy hours. I talk to many people, yet still walk out of events feeling like I know no one. Friends tell me that they often feel the same way.

Often it seems like over half the conversation is spent on TV shows, stories about other parties we’ve been to, or random stories about a friend’s wild adventures. Occasionally, topics as simple as “how a bike lock works” or “how to make a peanut butter sandwich” can be discussed for over 10 minutes. Is this really what we gathered to talk about? We try so hard to keep the conversation going. Yet in the end, we say so much, but communicate so little.

One of the most popular TV shows of our generation is Friends. Deep down, we all hope to find a group of friends like the original Friends—a community where we laugh at each other’s bad jokes, tolerate each other’s annoying habits, and truly believe that “I’ll be there for you, ‘cause you’re there for me too.” In a way, community has become society’s new idol, sharing the stage with fame and success. In today’s world, a fulfilling life involves more than a successful career. We want to go on unforgettable adventures, engage in meaningful experiences, and build lasting friendships.

Yet why is it that, even though we are all searching for community, and we all know we are searching for community, we still can’t seem to find the community. What is amiss in our current approach to community?

Everything we long for has a natural remedy—for thirst there is water, for hunger there is food. Does our longing for genuine connection and belonging point to a deeper need in our hearts?

Our dissatisfaction with the present state of community is a reflection of our longing for God. From the beginning, God designed us to “not be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We find fulfillment not merely in community with other people, but ultimately in community with God. His great desire for a relationship with us is why Christ gave His life on the cross.

Community isn’t just about me or what I feel. For Christians, community is important because this is where we reconnect with God and each other amidst our disjointed world. When we are a community filled with God’s love, we are able to be a witness to the world. Our redeemed relationships show the world who Christ is and what He did.

But how can we build such a community?

 

Building A Real Community

The Bible has many things to say about community, but I want to focus on one particular concept: Grace.

Grace is the idea of loving someone and accepting them unconditionally. For me, Jesus is the perfect source of grace and exemplifies the ideal community we are all searching for. As the Son of God, Jesus showed us perfect grace when He came to live, drink, laugh, forgive, and even sacrifice Himself for, us even though we did not earn it. In His last command, He outlined the key to ideal community for Christians: “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Grace is what makes hard conversations possible; it’s what allows us to be comfortable and genuine in our communities. In her famous TED Talk presentation, “The Power of Vulnerability”, Brené Brown points out that the fear of not being worthy of love or belonging is what keeps us from forming meaningful connections. Therefore, she calls for us to be vulnerable, to be authentic, and to not be afraid of who we are.

However, the fundamental reason we are afraid to be authentic and vulnerable is precisely because we don’t expect to receive grace from our communities. We’re afraid that if we do something outside the “ordinary” or accepted standard, other people in the room will judge us. We are afraid that we won’t be shown grace.

As a private and reticent person, I constantly struggle with vulnerability. Questions of doubt and fear often run through my head when I attempt to be authentic and share my life with others. What if I share too much? What if I open up and the other people don’t? What if I come across as weak and needy? I didn’t realize how much I was not sharing until a friend pointed out to me, “You know, you would talk a lot, but you really don’t say much.” By failing to be authentic, by giving in to my fear of vulnerability, I’ve distanced myself from my friends and community.

Brené’s talk is among the five most-viewed TED Talks of all time. Many of us realize the importance of vulnerability and its connection to community. Yet, we are still afraid. Brené calls for courage. While courage is admirable, not all of us, including myself, have the courage to be vulnerable. However, we do have the power to share grace. Only by showing grace to others will we find the power to be vulnerable. For “give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). Before we can receive, we must learn to give.

Sharing grace doesn’t have to be inspirational or dramatic. It can be as simple as initiating conversation with the quiet person in the room or helping your roommate with her dishes because she has a mid-term tomorrow. It can be baking cookies for your office or inviting your friends over for a home-cooked dinner. Many times, it’s the small things that matter.

Furthermore, even if you feel that your grace isn’t reciprocated with grace, show people the grace of understanding and forgiveness. Of course, don’t forget to show yourself grace. Forgive yourself for missing that paper deadline and, sometimes, it’s okay to go to that movie even if your research isn’t working. Because remember, Christ has already shown us the perfect grace. I can always find comfort in the fact that I’m loved and upheld by Him despite my mistakes. The actions of grace can be simple, yet their implications profound.

Sharing grace is what empowers us and the people around us to be vulnerable. Personally, the practice of showing grace has helped me grow closer to my friends. By inviting friends over for dinner and helping others, I’ve slowly gained the courage to trust, to open up, and to engage in deeper conversations. When we trust others in the room to show us grace, we will have the courage to be ourselves, be authentic, and be vulnerable. Grace is how we experience love in our communities. For Christian communities, grace is how we mirror God’s love to the world.

Francis Su, former president of the Mathematical Association of America, once said that you do not need accomplishments to be a worthy human being, and whatever your level of academic success, you are always worth having coffee with. That’s what grace looks like.

So that’s my call to you. Go search for a community with grace and foster grace in your existing communities. Grace is what Christian community should embody. By fostering a community built on grace, we are not only creating meaningful connections among ourselves, but also bearing witness for the cross and embodying the love of God in our broken world. For “no one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).

Finally, as the Apostle Peter said, “Above all, love each other deeply. . . . Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4: 8-10)

P.S. I highly recommend listening to Brené Brown and Francis Su’s talks, which heavily inspired this article.

 

This article was originally published on Vox Clara, Vol 7 Issue 1 (Winter 2018) as “Community As the New Idol, And the Sharing of Grace”. This version has been edited by YMI.

How to Make the Most of Your Time in University

It was four years ago now, but I still remember vividly my excitement and anticipation in the weeks leading up to the start of university. Many of my friends and family always looked back on their time there fondly­—some even longed to relive their university days. And it wasn’t hard to imagine why.

University would be full of chances to explore new passions and meet new people. The pantheon of clubs and special interest groups offered the prospect of exploration and discovery. What lay in front of me was opportunity as I’d never experienced before, and I was eager to grasp it with both hands.

However, my excitement was also tempered by a tinge of anxiety—amidst the plethora of interesting opportunities, it was easy to forget that university, after all, was about higher education. There were important academic deadlines to meet and exams to be had, and I suspected that there would be many long nights slogging it out, trying my best to conjure up an essay that met the word count set by my professors.

Once school started, I realized that it could get competitive too. When everyone and everything around you seems to revolve around getting a good grade point average and building a great resume, it’s hard not to get sucked in.

All this made for a little bit of a headache. On the one hand, there was so much opportunity to explore and learn; on the other hand, I definitely felt the pressure to do well academically. And how about balancing this with “Christian stuff”—like going to church and growing in my faith?

As a Christian, I wanted to mature in my relationship with God, as well as continue to serve in ministry. But I quickly realized, as I began this exciting new phase of my life, the tendency for my heart to wander from the Gospel. I was easily sucked in by the lifestyle and mindset of my non-Christian peers at school. Like them, I spent all my time attending different club activities and studying for my classes, and I found myself going days without praying or reading the Bible. I also became practiced at hiding my spiritual malpractice from my friends at church, but I knew that I wasn’t fooling God.

When it came down to it, the opportunities to try new and exciting things just felt too good to pass up. On top of that, I wanted to achieve academic success, lest I lose out to my peers who seemed driven to invest their time and energy in university building a prosperous future career. It seemed that devoting time to Christian stuff would cause me to miss out on the university life that all my friends were living.

Juggling these three things—the opportunities, academics, and my walk with Christ—was something that I struggled with as university kicked into gear.

But things started to change after I heard a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15, where the Apostle Paul worked to convince his readers about the resurrection of the dead. For Paul, the resurrection wasn’t an abstract immaterial process. Rather, it was a certain event with real and physical results. As Christians, according to Paul, we will have a physical resurrected body as well as a physical new creation to live in.

In the sermon, the pastor challenged us to live in light of this physical resurrection and new creation; being convinced of what awaits us should transform the way we live today. For me, this meant that I didn’t need to capitalize on every opportunity presented to me in university, because I would have a chance to live my best life in the new and perfected world that God was creating for us.

It also meant that while investing in my future career was important, its significance waned when I considered what would have true eternal value. The truth was that the many of the things that I desired—career success, a nice house, and a flashy car—wouldn’t last to eternity. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-20 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

As my convictions on the resurrection and the new creation deepened, I found myself spending more and more time on things that carried eternal value—things that would last me into the new creation. I became more engaged in my university campus ministry, where I attended Bible studies and learned how to hear God speak through His Word. This helped me to become more certain about God’s will for my life as a Christian in university—that I should be living for the Gospel instead of for my selfish desires. As such I devoted more time to reading the Bible, praying, and serving in my campus ministry.

It was here that I made like-minded friends, who became a great source of encouragement to me through the four years that I spent in university. Whenever I was tempted to become consumed by things that were insignificant in light of eternity, these friends reminded me of what we’d been reading in God’s Word. They also prayed with me and for me, whenever the struggle against my flesh seemed too hard to bear.

Furthermore, I began to take evangelism on campus more seriously. After all, I was meeting new people all the time, people who needed to hear the Gospel. While it was fine to just have fun and pursue friendships, the truly loving thing to do for my new friends would be to tell them about Jesus Christ, so that they too would be able to enjoy a relationship with Him and be a part of the new creation.

Four years on, I’ve now graduated from university with my bachelor’s degree. Looking back, there were definitely opportunities that I failed to take advantage of. There were a handful of clubs that I would’ve liked to have participated in; I could’ve grown my interest in the areas of film, music, and photography. Perhaps, I also could have achieved more academically. My grades were alright, but I know that had I put in more hours hitting the books, I definitely would have graduated with the distinction that some of my close friends did.

But today I also look forward to the new creation, and the hope of eternal life that Jesus has accomplished for us. In light of what awaits us, I don’t have to feel like I’m losing out or that I wasted my time in university.

If you’re starting university and you’re fighting the temptation to get sucked into the lifestyle of your non-Christian friends, be assured that your struggle is not in vain. In fact, I’m convinced that on that glorious day, standing on the cusp of the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4), we will have no doubt that the choices we made in university were worth it.