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Jesus Doesn’t Celebrate the 4th of July

When my plane touched down at my port of entry to the United States after four months of studying abroad, I made my way with the crowds to the customs and immigration line. Right away, my eyes fell on the label for a special, dedicated line that read, “US CITIZENS”.

Anticipation and delight swelled up inside of me. I was home! This was my country! There was familiarity here . . . and predictability! I could speak my own language, use my cultural references, and finally be free from working so hard to communicate every moment of every day. Right then, I embraced my identity as a US citizen with enthusiasm, walking with my head held high through the special line, labeled just for me.

In recounting my travel experience, I’ve often joked that this moment was the time I’ve felt most patriotic in my entire life. While my appreciation for my country that day had more to do with the fact that “America” and “home” were synonymous in my mind than any sort of extreme patriotism, it does still cause me to think about what I value about my citizenship, and more importantly, how much I’m valuing it.

I live in a country where sometimes, Christianity and our national identity are so tightly wound, the two seem to conflate. In church, we celebrate military holidays, and we hang American flags. In school, children recite a pledge that declares the US as a “nation under God.” The declaration—the very document that marks our annual 4th of July celebration of independence—mentions God as man’s Creator.

When the line between faith and nation gets too blurry, it’s easy to (intentionally or not), begin to place faith in institutions, principles, or political parties that are imperfect and can distract us from the ultimate kingdom we owe our allegiance to—God’s!

So, as I consider my country and all that it means to me, I’ve found that it’s helpful to constantly check my loyalty—whether it’s to a country, people group, celebrity, sports team, or the like—against two standards that can help us focus our delight and satisfaction where it belongs.

 

1. Thankfulness that leads to humility, not pride

A big part of the 4th of July celebration for me has always been to think of all that is great about being a citizen of the US. I’m thankful that we have freedom of speech to protect the right to voice unpopular opinions. I never want to take for granted the religious liberties I’m afforded, or the heroic sacrifices that have been made by servicemen, women, and their families that allow me to live and work in peace. I owe a deep sense of respect to those who have fought for the freedoms I enjoy.

But as I revel in the blessings that God has poured out, I remind myself that none of them are mine to claim. When we experience blessings, it’s easy to start convincing ourselves that we actually deserve them, and begin to expect more of them. Expecting blessings can make us feel entitled to them when, in reality, we’re not.

So as I think about my country, I want thankfulness to lead me to humility instead of pride, remembering that I don’t earn or deserve any of these blessings. James 1:17 reminds us where good gifts (including blessings) come from:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

I pray that my thankfulness—not just about my country, but in all things—turns my eyes to the One who gives perfect gifts. I will direct my thanks to God because of the great mercy He has given me. Every single good thing that I experience is from God. He is the only one worthy of my heart’s praise.

 

2. Assurance of where our truest allegiance lies

Even in the midst of decking out in red, white, and blue every year and celebrating how far our nation has come, I can’t help but acknowledge that there remain great injustices. Especially in 2019, marriage, sex, and life—which should be held in a sacred light—have been marred and contorted by society’s modern ideals. Centuries of institutionalized racism means that the impact of discrimination based on race is still active, causing all sorts of injustices and undue burdens.

These sobering realities are a stark reminder that my country, and every single human-built entity, is so broken—plagued by the curse of sin in this world. No country, institution, or political party can address our needs and heal our wounds fully—only God can. And this means that my full allegiance and hope should be in God alone. Paul reminds us in Philippians that our true citizenship—the one we should be most focused on—is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). After all, the gospel story is all about how God saved us so that we could be a part of His heavenly kingdom—the kingdom of light and of His Son (Colossians 1:12-13)!

So this 4th of July, as many of us take time off from work, travel to attend parades and celebrate being an American, let us remember our identity in Christ first and foremost. May it keep our national identity from becoming an idol, and inspire us to adopt God’s global-minded concern for loving and serving others. And every day for everyone, may all of our other loyalties fall into their rightful place, paling in comparison and leading us into thankfulness and assurance of our place in God’s global body.

 

Lord, let Christians’ identity as members of Your eternal kingdom drive them to seek Your will in loving and serving their neighbors both near and across the globe, always holding their heavenly citizenship before any other loyalty.

When I Was Blinded By Success

Written By Agnes Lee, Singapore

There was a period when I had offered to write almost one article a week to help my ministry team meet deadlines.  Even though my command of English is ordinary, I love relating to God’s Word and began writing a lot of my experiences and thoughts.

After working late in the office, I would come home to my laptop and try to craft a new article. My team leader was concerned about whether I could manage, and told me there was no obligation. But so often, I would say “Yes, I can.”

I delighted in the positive feedback from my team leader. But as the months went by, I was not careful with my heart and took pride in the work that I was doing, trying to please the team. As I focused on delivering more and more articles, my heart began to stray. And with the good comments from my team leader, I unknowingly began to feel sufficient in my own strength. Times spent reading God’s Word was tinted with the motive of finding more content to write, not so much finding rest in God.

When I ran out of fresh experiences of my own to write about, I began writing very ordinary stories that were really not worth publishing. Eventually, more and more edits were required for my articles, and some were even rejected.

I began to feel ashamed. I was supposed to help lighten the workload of the ministry with my contributions, but was I causing more work for the team instead? Those days when my articles were so flawed finally broke my pride.

For weeks, my broken heart could not settle down, no matter how hard I tried to forget the edits and rejections of my articles. Eventually, I built up enough courage to speak to a trusted friend. She heard me out patiently and suggested that I should take a break from writing to realign and recharge. Perhaps that was what I really needed.

We did not plan out the specifics of the the break, but deep in my heart, I knew that it meant I had to stop writing for the time being and simply spend more time resting in God’s presence. This also meant surrendering everything in my path to Him.

When I did my morning devotion the next day, it was with a different attitude as I no longer felt the obligation to write. I was able to focus on seeking God with all my heart, and to rest in the presence of God—where I knew there was peace.

It became obvious to me that the times where I had focused on churning out articles, I did my morning devotions with the aim of finding more content to write and better words to use. But God wants His children to seek Him sincerely in spirit and in truth (John 14:2). As I repented before Him for my tinted motive of seeking Him, He began to search my heart.

In my brokenness that morning, God assured me that my strength comes from Him alone, and that He will give me a new song to praise Him (Psalm 28:7). My strength comes from the quiet place of communion with Him before a new day begins. Even if I had failed badly yesterday, He would give me strength to start afresh as His mercies are new morning. The glory of man or any form of self-sufficiency can never lead us to the unshakable strength that can come only from God.

At that moment, I realized that—whether in writing or any form of work—I can’t go far without the strength of God. In the presence of God, I can delight in my weaknesses even when I fail (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). My writing or work in any form does not define me, because I belong to the Father. Whether I succeed or fail in the world, nothing changes the fact that I am His beloved. In this truth, I can stand strong and confident.

Writing for ministry should be done with the true motive of glorifying God—as a reminder to myself of His faithfulness to me—and also with the hope of bringing others to Him. Instead of being His faithful servant and stewarding my gift for others to see His glory, I was writing for myself.

As I repented, I saw how my carelessness in guarding my heart had allowed pride to creep in. Blinded by my own success, I was deceiving myself in supposed self-sufficiency, and this had led me to stray from God’s grace.

The Lord’s delight is in us, and His love for us does not change whether we are successful or not. As I drew near to God, He showed me that He is the one who will continue to strengthen us even when our own strength fails. If I had not been stopped in my tracks of writing, I might have missed out on experiencing God’s goodness once again.

I remember times of anxiously waiting for replies from my team leader on the outcome of my submitted articles. But anxiety would not have crept in to affect me if I had simply trusted God whatever the outcome. Whether or not my articles were published is ultimately not important. What is important is that God’s name is glorified whatever the circumstance.

Even if I fail to write published articles again, I am satisfied. That morning, God brought me to a deep contentment in His presence. His love is unwavering, and our worth in His sight is not determined by our success. He is our maker. He knows how to lift us up when our own strength fails. In Him, I can delight even in my weakness and boast about it without fear (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

With that experience, I have continued taking a slower pace in writing, so as to rest more in God. In Him, I see a greater treasure than any success I might achieve. As He leads me by giving me fresh encounters in my journey, I will open up my laptop again and start typing, but it will no longer be a pressure that I impose on myself. It is simply more important to abide in His presence, where I have experienced the fullness of joy.

Finding Certainty in the Midst of Uncertainties

Written By Audrey Wierenga, USA

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)

Our twenties are full of uncertainty. I never really realized this until I graduated college, and the structure of my life was disrupted. I spent several months through my last semester and beyond job-hunting, manically applying to anything that popped up on employment sites, just to see what would stick. I had no idea where I would be in six months.

On top of that, I began to lose touch with my college friends. It’s easy to see friends in class or in the dorm; but after graduation, when everyone disperses, I had to be more intentional.

I had gone to a Christian college, so I had been in an environment constantly saturated by worship and biblical contemplation. One minute I was being spiritually fed daily, and the next I wasn’t. I transitioned into “adult life,” where I had to intentionally seek God and seek friends. It wasn’t going to just happen on its own.

And in that uncertainty, I had an identity crisis. For almost four years, I had the role of a “college student.” That was my moniker. That was how the world saw me. I flashed my ID card to get discounts at restaurants and movie theaters. I holed up at coffee shops with textbooks strewn around me. I went home on school breaks. My year was punctuated by semesters and summer break. That was who I was.

Then suddenly, I was an adult. I got an office job and an apartment. Now my life is punctuated my weekends, paid time-off, going to work at nine and leaving at five. Paying rent, paying bills, trying to catch up with friends when I could. My identity changed in the drop of a hat. One day I was a student, the next day a young professional.

The year after college was one of the hardest years of my life. After spending almost all my life in Christian education, my faith took a backseat. I would go through seasons when God seemed very near, and those seasons were full of blessing; but more often He seemed very far away. At 22, I had a quarter-life crisis. Who am I? What was I put here for?

 

What’s our identity?

Of course, our world gives us a narrative of our purpose. In fact, it gives us many narratives. For some, our identity is in the title on our business card or the zeroes (or lack thereof) on our paycheck. For others, it’s what we do after hours and how much fun we have on the weekend. It’s how book-smart we are, how busy we are, our relationship status, our social media influence. Look in any direction and we find someone or something telling us what’s important.

Those same voices telling us what’s important also try to tell us what’s not. It’s 2019, and we still believe in some distant God who gave us this dusty old book that sits on our shelf? We still go to church? We still believe that, even when this world is the way it is? These voices may call us naïve, idealistic. They might even insult us for being too out-of-touch or even irrelevant. Why follow all these rules that this guy in the sky gave us thousands of years ago? Why not just be free?

What they don’t understand is, we’re already free.

My faith was weak this last year. In the midst of my identity crisis, I struggled to find my worth at all. I tried to find it in dating relationships, but people are uncertain. I tried to find it in my job, but the economy is uncertain. I even tried to find it inside myself, but not even my life is certain. Identity in the temporal will never be certain. It might feel good or right for a while, but in the end, it’s just a vapor.

I came to a point where I wondered why I was even alive. If I don’t know who I am, what right have I to exist? I would lie in bed, my face bathed in tears, screaming out to God, wondering why the pocket knife sitting on my desk felt closer than He did. The voices telling me what really mattered were too loud, and I almost couldn’t hear Him.

But miraculously, that still, small voice called to me. And it told me I was free.

The bondage of God’s grace is what will set us free. Once we realize that we are chained in love to the blood of Christ, all other chains will fall off. The heavy chains of wealth and status. The vapid chains of reputation. The fluctuating chains of relationships. And most importantly, the chains that bind us to our sin.  When we fall to our knees and cry, “Abba, Father,” we realize where our true certainty lies.

This world is uncertain. This life is uncertain. If we were to root our identity in that uncertainty, we would be like the man who built his house on sand, whose house came crashing down when the wind and rain came (Matthew 7:24-27). But to realize that our full worth is in Christ alone, is to realize that this existence is but a vapor. And the most solid, most true, most certain thing in this life and the next, is that we are only free when we’re bound to Christ.

All of us bear heavy chains. Even the most devout Christian is weighed down by sin and time and life. We’ll never be fully released from our chains until we’re resurrected in glory, but we have a Savior who will make our burden light. Yes, we are chained to human depravity, but that is not our identity. We are set free because His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30).

Let us listen for that still, small voice that tells us who we really are. It’s a daily discipline. When we’re constantly being barraged by fickle voices, let us listen to the One who whispers daily. The One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. People will wonder how we are so certain, in this world, in this economy, in this political climate, in this existence.

And we will tell them, we’ve been set free.

I Didn’t Dare to Let Myself Feel Beautiful

Written By Cassandra Yeo, Singapore

All women desire to feel beautiful. Every day, we see hundreds of advertisements for skincare, make-up, clothes and slimming treatments. Even the Bible seems to celebrate a woman’s beauty in passages such as the ones in Songs of Solomon, or when describing female characters such as Rachel (Genesis 29:17).

However, I have never dared to let myself feel beautiful.

I told myself that I didn’t want to go through the trouble of keeping up appearances. Though I kept myself neat and prim, I wore baggy clothes and dark colors. Similarly, shopping trips were only made to oblige friends, or for specific occasions like Chinese New Year where buying clothes was inevitable. It was only recently that I realized the reasons for my reluctance.

In my early teens, I was taunted and verbally bullied for my appearance by several male classmates. They laughed at my overbite, tousled brown hair, and “oversized” ears. Though they called me many different names, what hurt most was being treated as if I were less than other more attractive girls.

There was one time when my male classmates nominated and voted on the ugliest girls in class. They then took a class photograph and used a coin to scratch off the “ugly” girls’ faces in the photo. It came as no surprise to me that I was one of them. I have never felt less than a human than I did in that moment, as I was judged by nothing but my outward appearance.

Ever since then, my self-esteem has suffered, and this manifested in the way I dressed and carried myself. For many years I wore long sleeves, for fear my arms would be called fat. Likewise, I wore dark colors, so that I would not stand out in the crowd. I found a strange and perverse safety in staying invisible.

However, recently God led me to step into the industry of image consulting. My work involves equipping clients with the relevant tools and skill sets to present a stellar corporate image. At first I thought that the change was merely focused on their outward appearance, but I have since learned that the most successful changes occur when there is an inward shift in the individuals’ perception of themselves. Discovering their worth and potential is ultimately what motivates our clients to change their outward appearance.

During my first few weeks at work, my heart was constantly tugged between my personal beliefs and the appearance I was meant to keep up as a professional in the industry. While the world of image consulting celebrated beautiful patterns, shades and colors, my own wardrobe was a sea of black, grey, and blue. It felt ironic to plan courses and programs for clients when I struggled with the same issues myself.

But as I continued to grapple with these conflicting feelings, I realized being put in this industry at this time was an essential part of God’s plan in my life. He brought me into the field of image consulting, not just to provide me with a job, but rather, to heal a part of me that had been dead all these years. God was working to bless and restore the areas where I have experienced hurt. He was working for my personal growth, and opening my eyes to see beauty in a different light.

My daily work has given me opportunities to speak with industry leaders and experience my very own “image coaching” sessions, where colleagues give tips and one-on-one sessions to advise me on my dressing and posture. These experiences have allowed me to see beauty as a form of care and self-respect. The way I dress and carry myself should not be for the sake of vanity, but should reflect a deeper and more profound understanding that I am fearfully and wonderfully made by God (Psalm 139:14).

Whatever other people may say about me, I have confidence that comes from knowing God Himself made me. The Apostle Paul urges us to do all things for the glory of God, and surely that involves how we dress (1 Corinthians 10:31). In seeking to honor God’s love for me, my wardrobe collection has begun to change.

Greys and blacks are replaced or supplemented with shades of yellow, green, and orange. Sleeveless clothes become more frequent in appearance. Beauty products and accessories are starting to fill the gaps in my bathroom cupboard.

Initially, any time I tried wearing something different, I was afraid to look in the mirror. Yet positive affirmations from family, friends, and colleagues have helped me move from embarrassment to empowerment. This process has served to remind me that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and thus I should honor it, in appreciation of whom God has made me to be.

As I myself change from the inside out, my work has allowed me to help transform others both inwardly and outwardly as well. My hope is that God will continue to use me in this field to focus on identity building, and in so doing, provide emotional healing to others.

This transformation in the way I view myself and my appearance has reminded me that our God is a God of restoration, and He desires to restore and heal the deadened and hurting parts of our lives. If you’ve also experienced hurts from the past like me, will you allow God to work in your life?