Can A Christian Be Both Loving and Critical?

The songs at church this Sunday were alright. Only one minor theological blunder that I counted. The person on stage who read today’s passage managed to pronounce all the words correctly. . .

From the moment the pastor started preaching, my brain quietly fact-checked everything that came out of his mouth, from the historical background of the passage, to the “original Greek” claims he made, to whether or not I thought his message was gospel-centric enough . . .

Not exactly the posture of a humble worshipper before God, huh?

I grew up in a Bible-believing household, went to Bible college, and now work with a Christian ministry. I love history, culture, and language, so my interests happen to line up nicely with acquiring biblical knowledge. The problem? As Paul said it so simply, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Don’t get me wrong—familiarity with the Bible is a good thing. Analytical thinking is a good thing. It is important to know the difference between a solidly gospel-grounded sermon, and a motivational feel-good speech. Even the most experienced pastors will make mistakes, and it is crucial for us to cross-check anything we hear with the Bible.

After all, even the Bereans checked Paul the Apostle against Scripture (Acts 17:10-11).

But none of that calls for sitting back with arms crossed, silently grading the pastor on the quality of his sermon. Partway through the sermon that Sunday, I realized that I was being critical of the pastor to a point of hostility. I had let myself puff up with pride, and was silently pointing out every minor flaw I noticed as a means of affirming my own inflated sense of intellect, well-read-ness, and general arrogance.

Once I realized my serious attitude problem, I told my brain to shut up and stop being so critical. But that doesn’t exactly solve the problem, does it? For the rest of the day, I wrestled with how to reconcile a critical mind with Christian love. Eventually, I came up with some guidelines to help me think through the issue and hold myself accountable.

 

Does it really matter?

Sometimes I find myself nitpicking at minute details that don’t really matter. If a person mispronounced a word, for example, it probably wouldn’t cause any misunderstanding. Or if the pastor gave an illustration of God’s amazing creation, and mentioned nine planets in the solar system (instead of eight, since Pluto has lost its status)—the main point is still clear and valid. It would be silly for me to worry over such irrelevant mistakes in a worship service.

On the other hand, sometimes there are mistakes with greater consequences. For example, I was recently in a Bible study where a newcomer mishandled biblical passages to argue that the Holy Spirit was not God. This clearly contradicts the Bible’s teachings, and could potentially mislead some of the newer Christians in the group, robbing them of the comfort of God’s continued presence in their lives (John 14:16-17). Unlike mis-numbering the planets, this was a problem that needed to be addressed.

Thankfully in that case, the leaders of the Bible study politely but firmly put a stop to this newcomer’s theories, while offering to discuss it more in a private setting.

While some mistakes are minor and have little consequence to how we live our lives or relate to others, other mistakes might be more foundational and problematic. I need to learn not to dwell on minor mistakes, as well as how to act lovingly in the face of more serious problems.

 

If it matters, how do I respond in love?

When faced with errors in foundational doctrine or mistakes with the potential to damage a young Christian’s relationship with God, sometimes we need to act. But at the same time, I need to take care in how I respond to the issue. Too often I find myself stewing in imagined debates, or pointing out errors to those around me in a gossip-like manner while not actually doing anything constructive to address the problem.

If I decide that a mistake is not trivial but requires action, then I need to ask myself, am I being loving in my approach? I should always start by praying and asking God to purify my motive.

If I counter someone’s point in Bible study, or approach a pastor after the sermon, I need to do it out of a heart of love and service. I’ve found that starting with questions and clarifying the other person’s view first is one way I can do that. After all, perhaps they know something I haven’t thought of yet, or maybe I misunderstood!

If I bring up the issue with friends or family, I should talk about it in a way that seeks further understanding and truth—it should never simply be criticism for the sake of pointing out errors. “What did you think about the speaker’s interpretation of this verse?” would hopefully lead to a constructive discussion that leaves us all with greater understanding and confidence in the truth the Bible offers.

Finally, whatever I do, pride must have no place in it. I am to “do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).

Too often, I am overly confident in my own opinions and understanding. I need to learn to let go when something simply doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I also need to remind myself—and ask God to help me—to be loving in all that I do and think. I pray that He will continue to overcome my sinful pride and reveal my many mistakes and misplaced opinions. And as I continue asking myself these questions throughout the week, I will ask God to enable me to interact lovingly and humbly with people around me.

Does It Matter How I Worship God?

Written By Madeline Twooney, Germany

A couple years ago, a colleague of mine invited my friend and I to visit an African church. l settled in my seat at the beginning of the service, expecting a heartfelt but rather demure time of praise and worship, just like the kind of church services I grew up with in Australia.

Gosh, was l ever wrong! As the worship band dropped its first chords, there was a wave of raised hands and fervent clapping that resonated throughout the church. People stood up and started dancing; some even held tambourines that they jingled animatedly to the rhythm of the music.

It was a wondrous sight, and l marveled at the energy and enthusiasm for God that this church community displayed. However, it was totally out of my comfort zone. Though l didn’t feel pressured to raise my hands, I just couldn’t see myself worshiping God in such a lively manner. It didn’t seem like something a shy, quiet person like me would do, so I did not join in.

However, after moving cities and joining my current church, l found myself raising my hands as l clapped and danced in worship. My actions surprised me. Until then, l had never considered myself a hand-raiser! But I was in a strange, new city, my husband was away on a trip, l was in a new church, and l didn’t know a living soul apart from God. So, l clung to Him and wow, did it feel fantastic to raise my hands and worship Him! I felt a freedom l hadn’t felt before, because l had finally found an avenue to physically express to God how much l love Him.

My journey has prompted me to wonder: Does it matter how we worship God? Are the people next to me insincere in their love for God, just because they aren’t singing or raising their hands? Should people be encouraged to worship in a certain manner if they don’t feel like doing it?

Here are four truths about worship that I’ve arrived at:

 

1. Worship begins in the heart

Though Christians sometimes discuss whether or not to raise hands in worship, it is important to remember that worship is first and foremost a desire to praise and honor God. It is the attitude of our hearts that takes precedence in worship.

What changed my worship experience was that my heart changed. In the past, l had viewed the worship part of a church service as lyrical and enjoyable. But l did not have a heartfelt encounter with God until I experienced burnout and depression last year. Since then, l have started raising my hands and dancing around during worship. When l do so, l feel the depression and anxiety lift, as though through raising my hands, l am handing over my problems to God.

This is how I best express my love for God. We may all praise and love God in different ways, but the most important thing is the attitude of our hearts when we come before God in worship.

 

2. Worship is more than just singing and raising hands

Though singing is a fundamental part of worship, the essence of worship is to ascribe worth to God. King David writes in Psalm 29:1-2, “Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.”

Worship is a gesture of reverence to our God. The Hebrew word for worship in the Old Testament is shachah, which means to “bow down” or “prostrate oneself.” The New Testament uses the Greek word proskuneo, meaning “to do reverence to.”

To me, revering God can be expressed by singing, clapping, or raising our hands, as well as by kneeling, praying softly to ourselves, or even bowing our head in reverence.

Romans 12:1 further calls us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” This verse has encouraged me to view worship as an act that isn’t just expressed by outward actions, but with our entire lives.

 

3. Worship is greater than our feelings

I am a hand-raiser, but that doesn’t mean that l always feel like lifting my hands when l worship. Sometimes l am tired, or l feel weighed down by problems that are affecting me outside of the church’s four walls.

However, though worship can release intense emotions and can be itself an emotional experience, its purpose is to bring us into the presence of God in humility and thankfulness. When we choose to worship even when we don’t feel like it, we honor God and show Him that we trust Him above our emotions.

 

4. Worship should be done in spirit and truth

Jesus said in John 4:24 that God desires worshippers who “will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”

In other words, God wants us to worship Him filled with the Holy Spirit—with love, peace, and joy that come from Him in our hearts—whether by dancing to a contemporary worship song, or by singing a hymn in solemn reverence.

God also wants us to be guided by the truth that Jesus preached on earth—that He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). After all, we are not set free by standing on ceremony in worship, but by this precious truth (John 8:36).

 

I’ve learned that singing, raising hands, and clapping during worship doesn’t make us holier than our brothers and sisters. Nor does standing in reverence and singing hymns. Everybody has their own approach to honoring God, and that in itself is to be honored.

So, next Sunday, if you see your neighbor raising his hands and singing his heart out during worship and you’re not feeling it, know that God sees your heart to worship, and that’s what matters.

3 Ways the Church Can Love the Disabled

Written By Hillary Chua, Singapore

“This might reflect my bias, but why should we care about people with disabilities?”

I was leading a Bible study on disability when someone unexpectedly asked me this. My heart sank. Since my love for God motivates my love for the disability community, I assumed all Christians must feel the same. My assumption was wrong.

As a teenager, I had wondered what life would be like if I were to lose my hearing or sight. This prompted years of consuming stories by people with disabilities—to understand their world—and finally led to service in Deaf ministry as a young adult.[1] God used those formative years to prepare me for friendships within the community that I could not have anticipated. I finally understood what my blind friend meant when she said: “The reality is that most people don’t care. The fact that you want to be a better ally [to our community], even when you don’t know how, says a lot.”

I respect my small-group member’s bravery for asking what was on everyone’s mind. It was a wake-up call for me. As someone who has friends with disabilities, and who studied disability rights law, I had forgotten that not everybody was familiar with, or even cared about disabilities.

“Nothing about us, without us” is a key disability rights principle. It reminds us that people with disabilities have voices that deserve to be heard. As an able-bodied person, I cannot speak on their behalf. These are just my personal reflections on loving people with disabilities, as someone who cares about their inclusion.

 

1. Caring about

One of my earliest lessons, from conversations with friends, was that seemingly minor oversights can have huge impacts on people with disabilities. A wheelchair-user cannot join an outing in a mall without ramps to enter. At Bible study, when people talk over each other instead of speaking slowly and taking turns, deaf newcomers cannot follow along. It hurts to be excluded, whether intentionally or not.

In a world that is overwhelmingly apathetic, we can be beacons of light by listening to the disability community’s concerns and accommodating them gladly. For example, printed hymnals are inaccessible to the blind, so my friend asked our church to send her weekly lyrics in advance (which she can then download to her Braille-reader). The church did this willingly, and now my friend can participate in worship. Imagine if we had been skeptical, or had treated her request like a chore? Disabled people may raise requests for accommodation that we find unfamiliar, and it is up to us to choose whether we respond with humility or resentment.

 

2. Relating to

Jesus prayed for the blind to receive sight, for the paralyzed to walk, and for the deaf to hear. So when Christians see a disabled person, our first impulse may be to do the same. Yet praying for strangers to be healed, without getting to know them personally, can make people feel like projects. No one likes feeling this way.

If we think disability ministry only involves physical healing, we miss out on the opportunity to grasp the Bible’s deeper message about disability. The Bible story has four stages: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. God created us, and whether disabled or able-bodied, we all bear the image of God. We are all alike in God’s eyes.

After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, however, sin corrupted God’s perfect creation. Does this mean that disability is caused by sin? The disciples asked Jesus about a man who was blind from birth, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned . . . but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3).

Jesus then restored the man’s sight. However, I think Jesus meant more than physical healing when He referred to the “works of God.” Jesus performed miracles to confirm His divinity and point people to the coming of God’s kingdom.[2] This heavenly kingdom would restore all creation, starting with reconciling sinful hearts to God. I believe that spiritual separation from God (sin) is what Jesus ultimately sought to cure, through His victory over the cross.

Today, many people with disabilities are never healed in their lifetime. Many make peace with disability, considering it a fact of life, or claiming it as a unique identity. God lovingly formed each of us in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16) and intended for each of us to come into this world. This is a message we all need to hear, able-bodied or disabled. Though we can cherish good health, perhaps it is more important to preach that our very existence matters to the Lord, especially in a world that usually seeks to erase disability (through institutionalization, abortion, etc.).

God wants us to love people with disabilities as He created them, and strive to cure spiritual sickness before physical shortcomings. Let us not dilute the gospel message with a narrow focus on physical healing. Let us relate to people with disabilities by regarding them as equally-loved by Christ, and affirm their place in God’s Kingdom.

 

3. Learning from

I am humbled by people with disabilities, because they know what it is like to be dependent at times and cannot hide from it like many able-bodied people attempt to do. Christianity affirms that “dignity” and “giving/receiving care” are compatible, and the community needs to know this. The blind need sighted guides to navigate unfamiliar places. The paralyzed need help getting dressed. The world champions independence, but the Bible teaches that humans are ultimately dependent. Since we are created in God’s image, we derive meaning from Him alone. Scripture teaches us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

In the Bible, weakness is not a source of shame, but a signpost towards “less of me, more of Christ”. Paul wrote:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

We have much to learn from people with disabilities about glorifying God in our limited bodies. Dr. John Wyatt, physician and author of Matter of Life and Death, notes the significance of God coming to earth as a man upon a cross: “Sometimes we see the image of God most clearly, not in the perfect specimens of humanity, not in the Olympic athlete or the Nobel prizewinner. We see Christ in the broken, the malformed, the imperfect.”[3]

Jesus described the people of His day as “ever hearing but never understanding . . . seeing but never perceiving” (Matthew 13:10-16). The deaf and blind who know Christ can listen and see better than people who are far from the truth. My prayer is that more people with disabilities will be touched by this truth.

Fellow Christian, I exhort you to care about people with disabilities, relate to them as fellow image-bearers of God, and learn biblical truths from their lives.

 

[1] “Deaf” with a capital “D” refers to deafness as a culture which embraces sign language, rather than a medical condition.

[2] Holcomb, Justin. “Why don’t we see miracles like the apostles did?” The Gospel Coalition.

[3] Wyatt, John. Matters of Life and Death (2nd edn, IVP 2009) p.189.

 

A Letter to the Friend Who Feels Like Giving Up on God

Dear friend,

I was devastated when you told me that you’ve decided to “give up” on God.

But in some ways, your decision didn’t come as a complete surprise to me.

For a long time, you’ve been struggling with deep hurts, unresolved conflicts, and emotional baggage. You took your pains to be signs that God had abandoned you and left you alone in the wilderness.

I know it doesn’t feel this way right now, but I want you to know that nothing could be further from the truth.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see past what we’re going through, especially when the end seems to be nowhere in sight. And I know how hard you’ve tried to seek after God through the different trials you’ve faced over the past few years. I know how tightly you held on to Him even when you went through situations that you couldn’t understand. I know how desperately you tried to look for answers.

You sacrificed a huge part of your youth to serve Him. You traded lucrative job offers for the mission field—giving up material comforts, financial security, and even family relationships—to live among the poor and build His kingdom there. You were crushed when things didn’t quite go as you had hoped, and you were asked to leave after many heated disagreements with your co-workers. You came home broken, jaded, and disillusioned.

But still you did not let it deter you from continuing to live your life for Him. You wanted your life to count for Him, so you threw yourself into more ministry opportunities, signed up for theological studies, and spent more time with Him.

I remember the long conversations we had as we tried to process what you had been through—Why did God allow them to happen? Why didn’t He give you a way out? Why doesn’t He make it easier for us to see what He is doing behind the scenes?—and I wish I was able to help you find better answers, greater comfort, and more peace.

I still don’t have answers for you now.

But here’s what I’ve known to be true: Even at the lowest moments of my life, God has never abandoned me.

Do you remember the time when I felt like I was on the top of the world—I was in what I thought was my dream job then—and then everything came crashing down in a single day? That day, I didn’t just lose my job. I also lost my vision and zest for life, and all my well-laid plans crumbled into dust.

It took me a long time to recover from it, and to begin to believe again that God knew what He was doing with my life. But you were there with me when I decided to take a timeout and go into missions in India for six months, hoping that I’d have a clearer vision of what I should do next with my life at the end of it.

Do you remember those nine months I struggled to find a job right after I came back from India? As if it wasn’t exhausting enough to apply for job after job and hear nothing back, I was confronted with so many questions about why I was still unemployed (with the underlying suggestion that I wasn’t trying hard enough). You knew how difficult it was to push myself out of the house to meet more questions I couldn’t answer. And you celebrated with me when an offer finally fell into place.

You were there to listen to me when I was trapped in a toxic and suffocating work environment, questioning whether I had even heard God right in taking on that job. It was a huge struggle to get out of bed each day, and I’d reach home every night drained and depressed, wondering how I’d be able to summon enough energy to get to work the next day.

You saw me grow in despair as I watched the only friends I had at work moving on to other things. I envied how easily God gave them a way out—while I was still stuck there, left to fend for myself. I was bitter and angry with God, I couldn’t understand how it could possibly be good for me to stay in that place.

It would be more than a year before I finally found a way out myself.

Now, the different threads of pain and confusion from those past years are finally coming together. And I’m beginning to see the picture that God intended to weave all this while.

I don’t know if I can ever say that the pain of what I went through was worth it, but I know that it gave me a little taste of what it’s like to share in the fellowship of Jesus’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10)—and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.

I’m sharing my story with you not to belittle or trivialize what you’re going through, or even to add salt to your wounds. I’m writing this simply to remind you of how much I valued those times when you sat with me in silence, mourned with me in my struggles, and rejoiced with me in my breakthroughs. And I want you to know that I’m here to do the same for you.

For many years, I’ve held Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 close to my heart, and I rejoice in the opportunity to walk with you, and comfort you with the comfort that I myself have received from God (v 4).

Today, one of your favorite songs snuck into my Spotify playlist, and it reminded me of the fire that you once had, your determination to see the goodness of God in your life and the lives of those around you (Psalm 27:13). Perhaps these words feel meaningless to you right now.

But just as your friendship and prayers helped me fix my eyes on God when I was tempted to falter, I am determined to keep praying and believing with you that we will see the Lord’s goodness together. That one day, everything will make sense. And none of what you have been through would be wasted.

And the next time you sing the refrain “You are good” again, it will be with a different kind of fire. It will be with the hard-won confidence of the psalmist, who can now say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). It will be with the purity of one who has gone through God’s refining fire, and emerged as pure as gold (Job 23:10). It will be with the tenderness of one who has tasted and seen the goodness of a God who pursues us relentlessly, even when we’ve decided to let go of His hand.

Until then, I will keep praying with you, walking with you, waiting with you.

 

Love,

Your friend