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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!

Turning a Blind Eye to an Inconsiderate Person

Though we were standing right in front of him, the man remained seated and did not budge.

I cast a glance in my friend’s direction. “Excuse me, we’re sitting inside,” my friend said to him politely, pointing to the two seats next to his by the window of the airplane.

Still not making any eye contact, the man merely straightened his back and pushed back against his seat.

I felt a flash of annoyance.  “Are you kidding me? How inconsiderate and lazy can a person get?” I thought, but was too cowardly to voice my views.

My friend shrugged helplessly. Reluctantly, I tried my best to squeeze through the tiny space between the back of the seat in front of the man and his legs. My friend followed suit.

As we took our seats, my friend whispered to me, “If you can hold your bladder for the rest of the flight, that’ll save us the trouble.” I nodded grimly, as I thought about the seven hour-long journey ahead of us.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the man fidgeting in his seat, shaking his left hand every so often, and lifting his watch to his left ear. A flight attendant walked over and kneeled next to his seat, asking if everything was okay. Perhaps he was hard of hearing, I thought.

A couple of hours into the flight, I knew I had no choice but to visit the lavatory. I nudged my friend, who turned to the man to tell him that I needed to get out. Once again, the man straightened his back and remained seated.

Sighing silently, I lifted my left leg and tried to squeeze through the small space between the man’s legs and the front of his seat. I repeated the same when I returned to my seat, my frustration rising.

Mealtime was next. Another flight attendant walked over and kneeled by the man’s aisle seat to ask him what he wanted to eat. After helping him to open up his tray table, she placed a tray of food on it. Still kneeling, the flight attendant then gently placed her hand over his right wrist and lifted his hand. “This is hot, this is cold, this is where your drink is. . .” she said kindly, as she guided it over the different covered food items on his tray.

That’s when realization hit me: The man was visually impaired. Everything that happened earlier started to make sense and a wave of shame came over me. Self-reprimanding thoughts filled my mind: “I should have known better”, “Why didn’t I give him the benefit of doubt?”, “Why am I always so quick to jump to conclusions about others?”

As I watched my friend offer to help the man with anything he needed, I saw a smile emerge on his face. He looked relieved and thanked my friend. Shortly after that, he asked if my friend could help him open the lid of a disposable water cup, which my friend did willingly.

Clearly, I was the inconsiderate person that day, not the man.

But that was not all that God wanted to teach me. As I went about sharing this encounter with others, God laid it on my heart that “feeling bad” about my response that day wasn’t anything to shout about—anyone in my shoes would have felt bad. I felt bad because I had misjudged the man and the situation at hand. I felt bad because my “little inconvenience” paled in comparison to what the man had to go through; he was clearly in a position of need and deserved help. I felt bad because my response made me look bad.

The truth was, had the man been an able-bodied person, I would have found all kinds of reasons to justify my anger and response. If the man didn’t deserve my help, I would have railed against his behavior and made him out to be a lazy and inconsiderate person whenever I had the opportunity to retell the incident.

My response was contingent on who the other party was and my assessment of his “need”. Underneath it all, I was still selfish and proud.

But the Bible never places conditions on how we should go about treating one another. In fact, we are called to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). In all that we do, we should consider others first.

And we do so because we are called to imitate Jesus—our ultimate role model. In perfect humility, Jesus put aside his rights and status as God, and made himself nothing by coming to earth in the form of a human to serve us and ultimately die for us on the cross. (Philippians 2:5.8).

Jesus exemplified perfectly what it means to put the needs of others above our own. It was never about whether we “deserved” help. Had that been the case, none of us would have been saved. Jesus did not simply die for the “righteous” or “good”. It was while we were still sinners—unworthy of love and sympathy—that Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

So regardless of who the other party is, we ought to view them as more important and put his or her needs first—whether it’s that friend who always has something snarky or sarcastic to say, or that nosy aunty who can’t seem to stop giving you advice, or that inconsiderate stranger who shoves you aside so that he can get up the bus first. Showing love and helping another is independent of who the other party is.

By doing so, we give the people around us—both inside and outside of the church—a glimpse of the unconditional and sacrificial love of Christ, which will hopefully draw them a step closer to finding out who Jesus is and coming to believe in Him as their personal Lord and Savior.

Above and beyond my encounter with the man on the plane, I had to change the way I viewed and treated everyone around me. God certainly made it clear to me that it had to start at home in the most practical way—helping out in the household chores. And this means to take the initiative to help wash the dishes, hang the clothes, or fold the clothes without being told to, and without expecting a pat on the back.

And to be sure, it doesn’t stop there and it wouldn’t always be easy. But remembering Jesus, the ultimate example of selflessness, leaves me no room to find any excuses.

Who is Truly Wise?

Day 19 | Today’s passage: James 3:13-16 | Historical context of James

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

At school, children are often encouraged to participate in class by answering a myriad of questions posed by their teachers. It is a common sight to witness a few hands shoot up in the air (with some attempting to raise their hands even higher to catch the teacher’s attention).

But how exactly do you identify who is smart? Is it necessarily the one who answers the most questions in class? Or is it the one who scores the highest grades? Well, this might be the world’s way of assessing one’s intellect. But when it comes to true wisdom, God has a different assessment criteria altogether.

Who is truly wise?
James says: “Let them [who are wise and understanding] show it by their good life, by deeds done” (v. 13). According to James, wisdom is shown through how a person applies the knowledge he has gained about God in life’s situations, and who does so in a right and loving way. It is evidently displayed through the decisions made, actions undertaken, and words spoken. As Ronald Blue (a Christian financier) states: “Wisdom is not measured by degrees but by deeds. It is not a matter of acquiring truth in lectures but of applying truth to life.”

It is interesting to note that there is a close relationship between wisdom and humility (v. 13). The wise person is a humble person. Humility has the attributes of gentleness and submissiveness; it does not imply weakness in any sense. A familiar Bible character who’s described as such is Moses (Numbers 12:3)—and Moses was certainly not weak! Throughout his life, there was a constant submission to God and His word—which truly marked him as a man of God.

James also goes on to distinguish between false wisdom and true wisdom. The source and outcome for both are completely different. False wisdom is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil” and results in “disorder and evil practice” (vv. 15-16). It is marked by “bitter envy and selfish ambition” (v. 13). Have we ever been guilty of taking on a difficult role in church on the pretext of serving God sacrificially but really because we wanted to prove that we could do a better job than our predecessor?

True wisdom, on the other hand, comes from having a holy, reverent fear of the Lord, and humbly acknowledging that God is the Lord of our lives (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10). True wisdom results in peace instead of disorder, and in righteousness instead of evil practices (v. 18).

That’s a sobering thought! If our effect on any committee or group is to drive people apart, stir up trouble, or create discord, then perhaps, the source of our wisdom is from the devil—not God.

Let us then pursue true, godly wisdom. James encourages us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (1:5). Are you willing to humbly admit your lack of true wisdom and ask God for it? What a privilege it is for us to have a loving God that generously gives wisdom to all who ask!

—Priscilla Goy, Singapore

Questions for reflection

1. Do you know someone who is wise? How can you tell?

2. What are some ways to cultivate godly wisdom? (See Proverbs 2,9)

Hand-lettering by Rachel Tu


Priscilla has an economics degree but decided she prefers reading stories to reading numbers. She loves true stories – especially stories of God’s love for people, people’s love for God, and people’s passion for social causes. She told such stories as a former journalist for five years, and hopes to still do so after joining the non-profit sector.
She loves Christian music, especially those with well-written lyrics. She writes poetry a few times, watches movies sometimes and drinks tea too many times. She’s a bit of a grammar Nazi, but is thankful for God and people who love her unconditionally.

Read 30-day James Devotional

6 Ways to Take Your Relationship Deeper

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA

When my family and I moved across continents, our lives were stripped down, and being in a new place made everything about three steps harder. I realized in those situations how desperately I needed friends. Real friends, who would plop down on my back porch while our kids got muddy, and who would swap their hearts’ stories with me. I needed friends who would show up when my husband had malaria or put an arm around my shoulder when I wasn’t there for my grandpa’s funeral.

God knew that we needed friendships that loved intrusively. It’s how Jesus loved us—setting aside His status (as God!) to get dirty in our mess. He swapped a throne for a reeking stable, put on diapers, went through puberty and single adulthood. Then, He took what I was carrying, and made it His own (Philippians 2:5-8). After all, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Is that what should characterize our friendships? As laying down our own lives?

This is vital. Wherever you are.

But to reach that stage, I needed to build my friendships from scratch. And here are a few things I found useful to deepen my friendships:

1. Ask good questions and be willing to share

One of my favorite questions—though admittedly it can occasionally sound cheesy—is, “How’s your heart?” It’s my way of saying, How are you, really—on the inside? What are you wrestling with in there?

Of course, sometimes we simply want to be the one to whom people tell stuff; to be the confidante, the counselor. But love doesn’t let us get away with always being the giver in relationships. In the Bible, Peter had to allow Jesus to wash his feet (John 13:8-10) and Jesus allowed a woman to bathe his own feet in expensive perfume, and wipe them with her own hair (Matthew 26:7-11).

When I find myself slipping into that role of “always the giver”, it can help to be straightforward with friends: Hey, I tend to let my friendships be a little one-sided, because I get uncomfortable when people ask me questions. So I’m telling you this so you can call me out on it, and keep pursuing me.

 

2. Ask how you can pray for them

Praying is one of the most intimate forms of love. We’re fighting for someone, about their most intimate desires, fears, and concerns. I want to get into the spiritual boxing ring of prayer (like Jacob, who wrestled with God) alongside my friends, for them and the ones they love. I want us to at least get to the level of, “What would you ask God for right now? What matters the most to you that you’re wrestling with? What’s sitting on your heart like a big elephant?”

Sometimes, friends are too weary to pray for themselves. They might feel too afraid or alienated from God. They might feel grief or concern that overwhelms any words. They might not know what to say. It is such a privilege that I can pray for them.

Who do you know who might not have a lot of people praying on their behalf? Practically speaking, consider calling to check up on how they’re doing, or sending a text message or note in the mail to let them know some of the verses and thoughts you’re praying for them.

3. Tell the truth

I’m challenged by the simple words of Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Reality is, I have not always treated my friends as if they are members of my own body, communicating like my own body does with itself.

I am not false—not in the intentionally lying sense—but I am not always intentionally truthful, for the sake of “kindness” or my own security. I am not always faithful to speak the truth or say what someone might not want to hear. I may not love enough to be courageous.

If a friend is, say, caught in sexual sin—then I should care enough to quietly say, “I think I need to tell you what you probably already know. This is destroying you. I think you could dream a lot bigger—for a faithful, forever relationship that really valued you, and where you value them back.”

Honestly, when I’m not truthful with a friend, when I’m holding back, I can feel that between us. My friendships will only grow as deep as we both allow them to go.

 

4. Be vulnerable

Vulnerability takes so much security—first, in our vertical relationship with God. I find a direct correlation between my own humility and my ability to be transparent with other people. Humility says, I’m weak, a flawed sinner. That’s who I am. But God loves me. And that’s who I am. God’s love gives me the courage to be vulnerable and risk rejection.

Sometimes a lack of vulnerability may be because someone isn’t trustworthy. But more often it’s from self-protection; from a fear that if people know who I am, I’ll be rejected. Honestly, I used to wait for others to pursue me as a display of their concern for me—and sometimes still do. But knowing I always have God’s love gives me the courage to be vulnerable with others. And recognizing my own weakness before Him helps me acknowledge my own need for others to shoulder what I’m carrying (Galatians 6:2); that it’s not good for me to be alone (Genesis 2:18); that I can’t say, “I don’t need you!” to those God has given me in community (1 Corinthians 12:21).

Jesus is our ultimate example of vulnerability. He put Himself in a killable, dirty-able human body; He died naked, shamed and broken. Talk about vulnerability! I’m not saying we trust anyone with our most intimate, painful areas. After all, Jesus had his own concentric circles of friendship—His intimate three, then 12 disciples, then 72, then the crowds. But friendship is rewarding proportional to the courage and intimacy we’re willing to extend; and the bar that Jesus set—love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)—is one that will take the rest of my life to pursue.

5. Be relentless

Not in a “I’m your friendly neighborhood stalker” sort of way, but in a kind of way that doesn’t look to our own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).

Our current society does not seem to encourage true community well—for relationships that go the distance when it’s inconvenient, unhappy, sweaty, and generally uncomfortable. Thanks to social media we may still be in touch with people from high school—but we may also have 580 “friends” who assume they know us because of our status updates.

For relationships to go deeper, we need to be willing to tirelessly pursue them. Social media, of course, can also be a way to simply care for others more than ourselves; to love well, now that we know what’s going on. I’ve got to be willing to initiate, to crowd my calendar with people rather than just events. . . to be secure enough that friendships aren’t all about me.

6. Be aggressive about forgiveness

Forgiveness is easy to elude, right? It’s easy to choose blame, a hard heart, an alienated relationship. Forgiveness goes against all that’s natural in us. I’m amazed at how petty I can get about small “insults” from a friend—ways he or she seemed thoughtless and didn’t read my mind, things that seemed “obvious” because of my unique composition (which is why I need a friend in the first place), ways that someone didn’t return a kindness.

Friendships squeeze me into the discipline of returning a blessing for a perceived insult; of loving extravagantly. I’ve had to return in my own friendships with “I’m sorry”—with my own need for their mercy and graciousness. I am fascinated by this thought from American pastor and scholar Ligon Duncan that tells me a lot about relationships in general: “People don’t fall out of love. They fall out of repentance and forgiveness.”

After all, our affections follow our ability to extend and receive grace in imperfect relationships.

 

You can see that a lot of these ideas begin with a common, perhaps unexpected trait: humility, fastened tightly to love as the motivator in our relationships.

This year, may your relationships press into the next level of loving as Jesus loves us.