When My Hard Work Amounted to Nothing

Written By Phoebe Cheong, Singapore

I know people who are avid fans of Japanese author Haruki Murakami—his most notable books include Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. But while I don’t understand the extent of their fanaticism, I do see why Murakami’s works are so well-received: he captures the essence of a person’s meaningless drift through life brilliantly.

After all, most of us go through times where we find ourselves thinking of life as a meaningless journey. This could happen when we’re doing or learning something that seems impossible to master, doing work that doesn’t seem to impact anyone, or trying to keep up with difficult friendships and relationships.

If you’ve ever been on an internship, you might identify with the story I’m about to share. Unlike my friends who went through school scouting for internships every summer, I—being the passive person I was—did not. So when a good opportunity in an advertising agency came up when I was in my third year, I decided to take a semester off school and dived into my first working experience.

I remember loving the first month of it. I loved the creative and flexible nature of the work, and the influence, beauty, and wit that a great advertising campaign could have. I loved the fast-paced environment and culture—the fact that people could be themselves unashamedly. I loved my fellow intern, who became a good friend in a matter of days, thanks to hours of talking and working together. I even loved my supervisor, which is probably not a very common thing.

But then there was pitch season, when companies choose the advertising agency they want to work with. It was then that a big part of me died. Advertising pitches in my country work like this: you come up with an entire advertising campaign for a company’s consideration. If they like it, they hire you to do their advertising and give you the money you need to survive another year. If they don’t, you’re forced to ignore the weeks of hard work and sleepless nights you’ve had to endure, and then pretend you’re okay with about 400 hours of good, creative work being dragged into the tiny trash icon on your computer (which most people, obviously, aren’t okay with).

We came into the office daily, only to see our ideas on post-it pads dumped into a bin, our writing deleted, our art trashed, and our hours wasted at the end of each day. I remember a time when my friend and I would come up with (what we thought were) good ideas for the campaign, only to find them all placed on the “unrealistic” and “ineffective” quadrant of an evaluation chart—or in other words, the “bin”.

I felt like a hamster running on an endless wheel (except that hamsters do at least get fit from the workout), and found myself exhausted, disillusioned, and thinking increasingly about the meaning of life. I began to wonder: How many people working in this office and elsewhere found joy, purpose, and satisfaction in whatever it was they were doing? Did they, like me, think that work was futile and everything boiled down to nothing in the end? While I knew that some had found inspiration, happiness, and excitement in this job, my fellow intern and I found happiness only in our hour-long lunch break (and of course, weekends).

While I was thinking about life, God spoke to me through 2 Peter 3:11-12 at a Bible study group that I was attending. The verse said,

 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”

It struck me then that it wasn’t about what I was doing at my job, but about what kind of a life I was living. Was it holy and godly? Was I looking forward to Jesus’ return? Or was I looking for earthly things, such as a fulfilling job to satisfy the craving I had for purpose in life?

Living a holy and godly life while waiting for Jesus’ return doesn’t entail going to church 24/7, or living on a mountaintop in quiet contemplation. It could mean very practical things like pointing a hurting friend to Jesus, refusing to engage in unethical behavior, or being patient with a younger sibling. For me, I’ve been encouraged by this verse to teach children who come from dysfunctional homes and whose parents don’t have enough to give them a good education. This has taught me to wait for my reward in heaven (because there isn’t any tangible reward now), and to seize the opportunity to do God’s work of pointing others to Him while I still can.

Life is not meaningless if it’s lived in the way that our Creator meant for it to be lived. I now keep this verse on a post-it above my desk as a reminder to myself that all these earthly achievements and pursuits will be destroyed, and to live for something that will last—God’s heavenly kingdom.

Whom Will You Go To?

Written By Phoebe Cheong, Singapore

Imagine you’re in deep trouble. Some people are after you and you need somewhere to hide. Home isn’t an option—they know where you live. Whom will you go to? A dependable friend, probably. Someone you can trust, who is reliable, and who is always on your side.

Does it sound familiar? That’s what David was facing when he went to his friend Jonathan for help. That put Jonathan in a tricky situation. His father, King Saul, hated David and wanted to kill him. He had to choose between his own father and his best friend. Jonathan, however, stuck by David, risking his father’s wrath—and quite possibly, his life. His friendship saved David, as it helped David continue serving in Saul’s court despite the threat to his life.

The story of David and Jonathan is often seen as one of the classic examples of friendship. Few of us are likely to go through what they did and have our friendships tested to that extent, but we may have our own experience of the value of friendship. I had mine when I spent the last six months living in another country, where I was overwhelmed by the new environment, new culture, new things to get used to, and different ideas that people had. Thankfully, a friend stuck by me and made effort to keep up with me over Skype, despite the different time zones. Talking to her helped me keep an eternal perspective on all that I was going through, so that I would not get caught up in the busyness of life.

In his book Leap Over A Wall, author Eugene Peterson says friendship is an underestimated aspect of spirituality. Friendship, he says, “takes what’s common in human experience and turns it into something holy”. Peterson cites the example of David and Jonathan as friends whose goodness and loyalty to each other serve to contain Saul’s evil.

There are things we can learn from David’s experience in Saul’s hostile court. Regardless of where we are, we are likely to face difficult people, unfriendly situations, and tough decisions. We also have many adjustments to make and things to look out for, as our environment is constantly changing. Amid all the chaos, we may lose track of what is important, or feel like giving up entirely. But God has given us friends to remind us to anchor ourselves in Him, enabling Him to mould us through our everyday experiences.

In this crazy world, we need good friends who can ground us and direct our thoughts towards eternity. And we need to be good friends to others too. Let’s take time to appreciate the Jonathans in our lives, and learn to direct our friends to God.

Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

Written By Phoebe Cheong, Singapore

To be perfectly honest, I’m scared of the dark. I didn’t realize this until very recently when I found that, after nightfall, I always had the feeling that something (that wasn’t my dog) was going to creep up and pounce on me.

When I finally stopped denying it and tried to deal with it rationally, I discovered that this fear extended to the metaphorical dark patches in my life. I realized that maybe what I was really afraid of was not the dark, but the unknown.

Does this resonate with you? Maybe you wake up at three in the morning worrying about the future. You could be asking questions like: “What am I going to do after I’m done with school?” “What exactly am I supposed to be doing with my life?” “What is my life going to look like in 10 years?”

In Genesis chapters 37 to 45, we see that God was with Joseph through even the most terrible events in his life, turning tragedy into great opportunities. His brothers sell him to Egypt, he gets thrown in prison, but eventually he becomes the prime minister—in the perfect position to help his family through the coming famine.

As a youth, suffering in slavery and captivity, Joseph may have wondered whether God would intervene. It probably was incredibly frightening for him, not knowing what the future might hold. But as an old man, wise and powerful, looking back upon his life and all its difficult, fearful episodes, he must have realized that God had been watching over him all along.

As I read Joseph’s story, I’m comforted and thrilled to know that our God is amazingly invested in the lives of His children. Slowly, I’m learning to see life as something like an off-road, mountain adventure with God, in which He leads me step by step. Sometimes I step on a shaky rock and lose my balance, sometimes the view is simply breathtaking, and at other times the fog obscures my vision and I can’t see the path ahead. But amidst all this, I know that God will always be my guide in this journey. And this makes the uncertainty (strangely) exciting.

If you’re going through something similar, my question to you is: Instead of being afraid, will you let Him take you on an adventure? I assure you, life will never be the same!

3 Things God Taught Me on My Recent Mission Trip

Written By Phoebe Cheong, Singapore

I went, expecting to give to others, but ended up receiving so much more. These are the three things (out of many others) that God taught me through my recent mission trip:

1. Humility.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to speak the language as proficiently as the rest of my teammates but thought to myself, What’s the worst that could happen? As it turned out, I was forced to retract my words when I found myself freaking out on the first day after realizing we were supposed to give a short briefing in the language I hadn’t spoken for about … seven years! As the days went by, I was brought to a fuller realization of how terribly inadequate I was—even engaging in “casual” conversation was almost like asking for my life. As I stood there, all the confidence I had in what I could do melted down into a puddle of nothingness. I came to an appropriate conclusion: I am nothing.

Humility isn’t one of the popular ideas of today. In fact, most people see humility as a sign of weakness. If you’re not confident in yourself, then how is anyone else going to be confident in you? But that isn’t what God’s idea of humility is. James 4:6 reminds us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Coming face to face with my weaknesses would not be one of the experiences I would frame up and write an article about (ironically), but I saw that God was teaching me a difficult lesson and learnt to take it from the hands of my loving Father. God can, if He pleases, choose to use a nobody like me.

2. Appreciate difference.

The realization of my inadequacy was a big factor in helping me notice that, hey, my teammates are really great people! The differences that initially made our working styles and personalities clash were the same differences that filled in the gaps and made up for another’s inadequacies. One friend could speak very eloquently, another could quickly and effectively think on her feet, and another would cover all the minute details that others missed out. While thinking about this, 1 Corinthians 12:4 flashed into my mind: “As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” How true and wonderful it is that God has created us, diverse and different as we may be, to have unity through Him in His body and complementing one another!

3. Stop and look!

As with most mission trips, we slept little and spent most waking hours thinking about or preparing for something that we had to do. But, due to my inability to speak the language, I was forced to watch and observe. What I saw startled me. God’s hand was so clearly visible in the lives of the people around—from a local leader who had a new and growing desire to study the Bible to a second generation Christian girl who was slowly becoming interested in the things of God.

As I watched, I was amazed at God’s deep and immense interest in the lives of every single individual. At this point, I came to realize that, if this God is my Father and this is His heart, then I as His child should be like Him, concerned about others and their relationship with God.

So I asked myself, and now throw the question to you as well: Have you talked to someone about Jesus lately?

Photo credit: chasingtheflow / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA