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What I Wish I Knew When I was 17

Dear 17-year-old me,

How exciting it must be! You have the world at your feet, and you’re about to embark upon what some call “the best years of your life.” Indeed, your 20s are full of opportunity, and you will exercise plenty of responsibility and learn many life lessons. Ten years on, I can confirm that you have so much to look forward to!

But stop stressing over that stereotypical American college experience. Don’t feel like you have to graduate with all the honors imaginable, or that you need to land your dream job straight out of college. In fact, stop putting pressure on yourself altogether. The stress is killing you slowly, and killing every freedom-loving cell inside of you. Having lived through these past 10 years, I have uncovered some truths that would really have helped me when I was where you are at now—paying tuition and taking online career tests.

So here I go. My top five pieces of advice I wish someone had given me when I was 17.

 

1. Let God Write Your Love Story

This will save you a lot of drama, plenty of tears and a heck of a lot of spare time. Perhaps popular fairy tales are to blame, but don’t feel pressured to find “the one” in order to feel complete. I know everyone has a long-term boyfriend in high school, but you don’t have to follow that trend.

Looking back, I had spent a lot of time and energy in relationships that were not God’s best for me. I took matters into my own hands and spent many years in a relationship with a guy who wasn’t right for me. Whether it was for attention, to fill that gaping hole in my heart that only Christ could fill, or to keep the feelings of rejection at bay; the truth is I didn’t trust God with my dating life. It resulted in a lot of heartache and anxiety.

You might be tempted to think that God doesn’t care about who you date, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Trust me on this one—let Him write your love story. Once I surrendered this part of my life to God, I met the most amazing man who is now my husband.

I don’t care if your guy checks all the right boxes except the faith one. I don’t care if he says all the right things out of a Hollywood romance. If he doesn’t love the things of God or isn’t running in the same direction as you are, don’t settle. Don’t settle for a relationship that isn’t God’s best for you or compromise your core values or dreams in fear of singleness. God will bring along the right person at the right time.

 

2. Choose Grace Over Judgment

Every single time. I know you have strong opinions on rights and wrongs, but don’t be too quick to let that alienate those around you. The Church is increasingly known for what it’s against rather than what it’s for, but this will only keep people from meeting Jesus.

Grace is what leads people to Jesus, not judgment. There will be situations in which you find yourself surrounded by people with opposing values and different upbringings, and you will be tempted to prove to them that you are right. But please choose grace. As James 2:13 reminds us, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Now hear me, I am in no way suggesting that you compromise your values; however, you will be a far greater witness of Christ if you clothe yourself in grace. There will be plenty of times where you must take a stand for your faith, but how you take a stand is the key. In its simplest form, grace might look like loving people where they are, even if their lifestyle doesn’t line up with the Gospel. Jesus demonstrated this brilliantly when he chose to eat amongst tax collectors and prostitutes.

 

3. Your Identity is Not What You Do, But Who You are

The world will drill into your head this recipe for success: hard work + skill = success. You will be taught that your value is derived from your worldly achievements. But you need to learn to separate your identity from your function. This means that if one day your dream job doesn’t work out (because believe me, your career won’t go according to plan), you won’t fall victim to an earth-shattering identity crisis.

By all means, work hard and go after your wildest dreams. Get good grades in your classes, apply for that prestigious internship in Washington D.C., and enroll into a master’s program overseas. None of these things are inherently bad for you. Just remember that these things may come from hard work, but they are not your identity.

If there is only one thing you take away from this, please grasp this truth: your identity is rooted in the fact that you are a child of God. A daughter of the King of Kings who loves you. Galatians 4:7 says, “So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” You don’t have to prove yourself to Him, nor do you need to hand over a copy of your updated resume to earn His affections. He simply loves you because you are His.

 

4. Be the Woman God Created You to Be

In the next decade, you will also be confronted with society’s narrative of what it means to be a woman—that you’re only as valuable as your dress size, clothing labels, job title and relationship status. But in our postmodernist age where everything goes, it’s absolutely vital that you take a stand for what you believe in.

You will discover that your values of purity, faithfulness, patience and kindness will be put to the test. The world will try to convince you that materialism, sexual indulgence, personal ambition and individualism are the keys to happiness. But remember, God will equip you for every battle you will fight. Maybe dressing for the wrong kind of attention or smoking is what it takes to fit in with the “in” crowd, but is it really worth losing yourself to become “cool”?

Resist the temptation to settle for less, and instead embrace who God made you to be: a woman of who was created to serve God, love your neighbor, stand up for what’s right, and leave the world a better place.

 

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

I know you are afraid to mess up, for fear of not being the “perfect child.” News flash! You are not, and will never be, perfect. You will make an abundance of mistakes. But if you are wise enough, you will give yourself the grace to make mistakes, and forgive yourself so you can move on from them.

Ultimately, as you discover the freedom that comes with knowing Jesus, you will realize that perfectionism is largely overrated and prevents you from fully relying on God’s faithfulness. God will use your weaknesses to reveal His power, as it says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Not only will your imperfections make you a stronger human being, but your experiences will give you a perspective that you can share with others who are looking for guidance as they navigate their own journeys through life.

 

I know you think you have it all figured out, but trust me. Instead of trying to have all the answers yourself, I’d encourage you to put your full confidence in the One who made you. Your life is a series of small, individual choices; and the choices you make will direct the path you take. Trust your Father with all of your choices—both the giant, life-altering ones and the insignificant ones.

He has already written out the answers to all your questions. He is for you and is going to take you on an incredible adventure through life.

Who Can Tame the Tongue?

Day 17 | Today’s passage: James 3:7-8 | Historical context of James

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

I told myself I wouldn’t speak ill of a colleague when I heard others talking about her. But curiosity got the better of me one day, and I jumped in on the conversation. I told myself I would only listen to what they had to say and wouldn’t add anything to it. Though this colleague was sometimes impossible to work with, I was determined to keep my word. Unfortunately, my resolve faltered, and soon, I was chatting about the said workmate.

Yes, my tongue got the better of me.

I love watching animal performances at zoos or circuses—be it a lion jumping through fiery hoops or sea lions waving on command. These aren’t animals I’d approach out in the wild, yet they have been tamed by humans to obey instructions.

Unlike most wild beasts, however, the human tongue is hard to tame or train. The Bible has called the tongue an untamable animal and a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (vv. 7-8). It’s restless because it is always itching to pass on the latest gossip. It tries to disguise this as an innocent “Did you know. . . ?” or “Have you heard that . . . ?”, but each tale it spins is a deadly poison to someone’s reputation. It turns a little venting into a huge hate spiel, and kills its victims even before they can defend themselves.

But that is not how we are to live. Realizing this hard but sobering truth about the nature of our tongue and its effects should drive us all the more towards the grace of God. When we see the possible damage we can do to another human being through our words, it should lead us to cry out to God and ask Him for the grace and help to control our speech.

It’s never easy to be nice to a person who has wronged you or rubbed you the wrong way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us speak graciously, avoid “unwholesome talk”, and say “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

May we continue to depend on God, for He alone has the power to tame our tongues and guide our every word.

—Michele Ong, New Zealand

Questions for reflection

1. How can you speak positively about someone today?

2. How can you be more mindful of the words you speak?

3. How will you season your words with grace?

Hand-lettering by Rachel Tu


Michele has an accounting degree but believes God has called her to write, and had spent many years persuading her parents to allow her to pursue a career in journalism. Writing is as essential to Michele as breathing, and knows words have the power to transform lives. She spends her free time buying books but ends up not reading them, chilling with her friends, and lazing at the beach in summer. Every now and then she would push herself out of her comfort zone by agreeing to take part in an outdoor activity like hiking but often with disastrous consequences.

Read 30-day James Devotional

Tasting God’s Grace Through Unexpected Challenges

The year 2017 has been a rollercoaster for me. There have been plenty of ups but also plenty of downs and unexpected twists and turns along the way. So when I think back over these last 12 months, I can’t help but smile and also breathe in sweet relief at the same time.

I made it through!

Despite all that life has thrown my way, God has been so good. So kind. So faithful. Most importantly, God saw me through. Here are some key lessons I’ve learned this 2017:

 

1. God Defines My Worth

In this last year, I had to part ways with a company I was working for. It was a painful process and it left me uncertain about my future. It was a wake-up call, and I soon realized how much I had placed my identity, my value, and my self-worth in my job title.

I was functioning like a product of our egotistical, consumerist, and individualistic society. “What do you do?” became the most dreaded question I was asked at flat parties and I found myself taking a big sip of wine before answering with a half-hearted sarcastic remark. Anything to cover up my shame.

However, this eye-opening experience gave me a renewed sense of worth. I realized that my value was not dependent on what I do, but on Whom I belong to. Embracing our identity as children of God is the most freeing “epiphany” we will ever have. To be honest with you, I am still exploring what it means to find my identity in God today, but I am pleased to say that I no longer feel the need to read out my resume to a complete stranger at a dinner party.

 

2. God is in Control Even When I Don’t Feel like it

During the latter half of 2017, my anxiety disorder resurfaced and reared its ugly head. Basic daily tasks like going to the grocery store became increasingly difficult, and panic attacks became a far-too-common occurrence.

As someone who has suffered anxiety throughout her adult years, I have often asked God to remove my overwhelming feelings of worry and panic. But I also know that healing very rarely takes place in an instant, like a thunderbolt zapping you from heaven.

My road to wholeness has been a long, drawn out process, a journey of learning how to relinquish control and trust the One who is bigger than the problems I face. Had God given me a magic bullet to take away my anxiety, I would never have had the opportunity to experience the all-consuming love, grace and kindness of the Father.

To quote a sermon on anxiety by Christian author and speaker Joyce Meyer, “If God doesn’t remove a problem from your life, then He will give you the strength, patience and abilities to get through it. And if He doesn’t deliver you from it, then there must be a lesson that you need to learn through it.”

Living with chronic anxiety is teaching me how to really trust God when things look pear-shaped, and how to give up the need to have all the answers. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that even if I do not “feel” like God is in control, I can rest in knowing this truth—that God is in control of all things, and that this truth is not dependent upon my feelings.

 

How kind is God, that He repeatedly and without hesitation extends His grace to us! He could, in an instant, teach us all there is to know about this journey called life, but instead He is patient with His children and leads us by the hand like a gentle father does with his children.

As we see 2017 coming to a close, I hope your hearts will be filled with peace, but most of all, I hope you will be filled with grace—grace for one another and also for yourself. We can often be our hardest critics. Embrace the love of God and know that no matter where you find yourself along this journey, know that you are wholly and fully loved by a gentle Father.

How to Fall and Fail Better

In my time writing for YMI, I’ve shared my reflections on my struggles with perfectionism, alcohol, and masturbation, among others. As this year comes to an end, I wanted to be able to proclaim that I have found complete victory over these struggles. But I haven’t. There were days when I didn’t do so well and days when I failed miserably.

Perfectionism is still something I’m grappling with. I’ve turned to drinking for self-soothing many times. Alcohol has often been a gateway to pornography for me, so I’ve sinned sexually as well. Neither am I entirely free from masturbation.

I thought for a long time about whether or not I should write this piece. If I share about my failures, would others think lesser of me? Would I let people down when they realize I am not exactly who they think I am? Am I ready to write so openly about the struggles I still feel deeply ashamed and guilty about? In my desire to be honest, am I being unwise in what I intend to share? Would it stumble others? What would be the repercussions of this piece? Is it pride or prudence that’s causing me to think twice?

But finally, I decided to go ahead and write about my recent failures and what I’ve learned through them. I personally don’t believe it’s healthy for Christians to feel like they can only share their stories when it’s a success story. I’m convinced that stories of ongoing growth—which necessarily include failures—deserve to be heard, too. I hope that I can encourage others who, like me, are still journeying through abiding struggles in their lives.

Through my failures, these are some lessons God has been teaching me this year. These are His opportunities of grace in the midst of my sins and missteps.

 

Accept God’s Forgiveness

One of my biggest struggles when I fall into sin in an area I’ve been struggling with for a long time is receiving and believing God’s forgiveness. “I can’t believe I’ve done it again,” I say to myself. “I’ve told God I won’t ever do it again, and yet, here I am again.” I’ve trouble believing how God can keep extending His forgiveness and grace to me when I’ve disappointed Him so many times.

The morning after I’d gotten drunk and turned to pornography and masturbation the night before, I felt really lousy about myself and I didn’t know how to face God after what I’d done. He spoke to me through Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”, and the Lord’s reply, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), which was to say, for as many times as it’s needed.

In the midst of my self-loathing and despair, I felt God say to me that He would not tell Peter to do something He Himself was not willing to do. It was as if He asked me, “Would I not forgive you that many times as well?”

I was very moved by His kindness and His grace toward me. Though I still struggle to always deeply believe and receive His forgiveness, I’m learning to hold fast to His promise of forgiveness and cleansing once I’ve confessed my sins to Him: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).

 

Ask for Accountability

Confessing to God is one thing: despite my insecurities, I know that He will not reject me. Confessing to others is another thing altogether for me.

When I’d sinned, especially sexually, my first instinct was to hide this from people who knew and loved me. I was already overwhelmed with how much I’d let myself down; I couldn’t bear the thought of others also seeing me as a disappointment. These are people who have walked with me, seen me do better for a while now, and yet, I’ve failed in those very areas that they’d journeyed with me.

Still, I’d lived long enough to know that as painful as it was to confess my sins to someone, the pain of not confessing was even greater. I’d hidden my sins from others before—resolving never to repeat them and hoping therefore that I wouldn’t ever need to bring them up to anyone—only for that to backfire on me. What it did was to make it easier for me to create a double life: since no one knew about my sins and I wasn’t accountable to anyone about them, I had lesser reason to think twice the next time I was tempted to sin, since even when I fell, no one would have to know or call me to account for my actions.

So I plucked up my courage and told my mentor what I’d done. He patiently listened to me, lovingly asked questions to find out more about what I was going through, and wisely shared his counsel with me. Instead of rejection and condemnation, I received unconditional love and support. His response helped to dispel my fear that people would only accept me when I did well, and if I messed up, they’d disapprove of me.

 

Admit Failure Humbly

The thought of telling others I’d sinned also felt humiliating. At first, I thought the humiliation had to do with feeling ashamed of myself for my long-standing flaws. While it did indeed involve feelings of shame, I realized that the root of the humiliation actually came from my pride—from my own false sense of superiority. I’d thought I was better than this, that I’d overcome all these weaknesses and I was much stronger. But now that there was evidence to the contrary, my prideful sense of self was utterly wrecked.

God had to humble me to make me aware that apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5) and I have no good thing (Psalm 16:2). And He did this out of His love for me. As long as I held on to any illusion that it was I who achieved my own victories, I was dangerously depending on myself and my strength, rather than on Him and His power, to walk the Christian life. God was protecting me from fostering pride in my heart, which would easily lead to sins of self-reliance and rebelliousness against Him.

 

Acknowledge that Sanctification is a Messy Process

This year, I had to reckon more honestly with what the journey of sanctification looks like. Even though I’d known in my head that I wouldn’t just stop struggling with my sins overnight, I’d secretly hoped that that would somehow still happen for me.

Of course, it didn’t. I had, through repetition over a long period of time, reinforced these habits of sin, so it would also take a period of time for me to unlearn these unhealthy habits and to learn new, healthy habits.

And I’m actually glad that these changes don’t happen instantly, because it is through wrestling with these issues in the trenches that I can cultivate the skill, strength and steadfastness of developing and maintaining godly, healthy patterns in my life.

A few days after I’d shared my struggles with my mentor, he texted me this quote by Gandhi: “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” I understand that sanctification is a messy process which involves making the same mistakes over and over again, and that’s part of the process of developing the strength to walk out the journey better.

In his novella “Worstward Ho,” the Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” What makes the difference is what I do when I fail. Do I mope around in shame, guilt and self-condemnation, hiding and running away from God? Or do I use them as opportunities to learn how to “fail better”—to struggle better and more faithfully before God?

 

Always Fall at the Foot of the Cross

I once read in a devotional this wonderful line: “When you fall, fall at the foot of the Cross.” The author explained that when we sin, we have to make sure that it doesn’t cause us to fall away from God. Rather, when we fall, we are to draw even nearer to God, to seek His forgiveness and restoration because Jesus has made that possible for us at the Cross.

At the foot of the Cross, I’d found God’s unconditional love and acceptance, grace for my mistakes, and the removal of my guilt and shame. The Cross opened the way for me to always be able to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that I may receive mercy and find grace to help me in my time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

And because of the Cross, God accepts me not because of what I’ve done or haven’t done, but because of what Jesus has accomplished on it. One particular evening, when I was wrestling with my fears of being disapproved and disqualified by God, I heard Him say to me, “I don’t only want you when you’re successful.”

He reminded me of something the American pastor Sy Rogers said. Rogers pointed out that God already knew all the mistakes we’d make before He saved us. And yet, He came for us anyway, because God would rather have us messy, than not have us at all.

Isn’t that the Gospel? But how easily I forget this precious truth in my moments of failure. What I’m learning this year is to go back to the basics of the Gospel, to rediscover what it means to receive and rest in God’s love and grace.

So instead of seeing my failures as occasions for self-condemnation, I’ve come to see that I can lean into them as opportunities of grace to cling more closely to God and to depend more desperately on His strength. I’m learning in a deeper way what it means to experience His forgiveness for my failures and the perfection of His power in my weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This is the Father’s prodigal love and perfect grace for a broken but recovering, a messy but growing, child—for me, and for you, too.