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Why I Stopped Reaching for Success

In response to an inner conviction I felt from the Lord, I’m currently attending Bible college. I don’t know if I will end up working at a church or missionary organization, but I know that this is something I need to do.

So while many of my peers are starting families and careers, I’m taking New Testament survey and theology classes. If I’m completely honest, there have been times I’ve wondered if it is worth it. I’ve wrestled with the thought that Bible college isn’t practical. Of course, learning the Bible is always a good thing, but shouldn’t I be putting my time and resources toward building a successful career?

It is easy to look at social media, TV, magazines, etc., and without even meaning to, develop a completely wrong idea of what a successful life looks like. We often view success in terms of numbers: bank account balances, number of friends, number of followers, number of homes, number of cars, number of people reached or impacted . . . the list goes on.

But I’m learning that a successful life in God’s eyes looks very different and can’t be quantified in numbers. In order to be successful by God’s standard, I have to surrender worldly standards of success.

This doesn’t mean I just give up my ambition or a desire to succeed. But it does mean that I have to ask God what He wants me to succeed at, and how using the gifts and talents He’s given me to serve Him and the body of Christ will look in my life (1 Corinthians 12:18-20). Since His purpose for our lives is unique and personal, God’s idea of success for my life might not look the same as everyone else’s.

Along the way, I have come to better understand what Jesus meant when He spoke to Peter in John 21:18-23. In this passage, Jesus indicated that Peter would eventually face martyrdom. Peter understandably looks to his fellow disciple next to him, and asks Jesus, “What about him?” In this, we see Peter very naturally comparing his life and success to his peers. If Peter had to face such a fate, then what about the other disciples?

But Jesus’ response is a revelation for us. He answers Peter in John 21:22, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Jesus tells Peter that success is about following Him, wherever that may lead us in life. And it has nothing to do with anyone else—it is between us and Jesus.

I used to worry that if I didn’t accomplish enough in life, then I would be a failure. But the Lord has been showing me my error in using measures like owning a house, achieving some great professional goal, gaining notoriety, acquiring financial security, or other things, as my barometer for success. These things are fine, and if you have them that’s great, but they don’t determine success.

Peter was successful in life solely because He followed Jesus to the very end. It had nothing to do with what his life looked like in comparison to his peers, or what he had accomplished, or how great his following was.

This caused me to rethink what success for my life might look like. For example, we rightly view someone like Billy Graham as having achieved great success—he reached a countless multitude with the gospel over his lifetime. His name is known around the world in Christian and secular circles alike as the most famous evangelist of our time.

But less known is the name Mordecai Ham, the evangelist who led Graham to Christ. Ham never achieved the notoriety that Graham did, but we can see that Ham’s life as an evangelist was just as successful in spreading the gospel as Graham’s was, even though he was never celebrated like Graham.

Viewing success by God’s standard means not everyone will understand the choices we make. As a writer who has chosen to go to Bible college, I’m often asked why I don’t pursue a more traditional, lucrative career path, like medicine, architecture or law.

For as many times as I have had to answer that question, it’s still hard to find the words to adequately explain myself. What it comes down to is this: I want to be successful in life, but I want to be successful by God’s standard. This means obedience to Him no matter the outcome. So until God directs me otherwise, success for my life right now looks like being a struggling writer attending Bible college. No wealth, no prestige, just the pursuit of Jesus and His value system.

Whether I die broke, alone, and in obscurity, or wealthy, famous, and surrounded by loved ones, it should make no difference to me. I’m learning to rest in the knowledge that if I’ve lived my life following Jesus wherever He leads me, then I’ve lived a successful life.

What If I Can’t Find My Passion?

How do I find my passion?

I typed that question into Google my first-year in graduate school. I asked my professors. I asked my peers. They say, it should be what excites you in the morning. They say, you should go to bed thinking about it. They say, it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. They say, they say. But I don’t.

There was one thing that I always thought was my passion. It’s what I told my parents I wanted to do when I was a child. It’s what I Googled about doing as I debated over my life decision my first year in graduate school. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I imagined myself writing fictional sagas or novels, like J. K. Rowling or Jane Austen.

However, with Asian parents, writing wasn’t the most supported career option. Plus, I do like math, problem-solving, and pursuing research projects. But, I don’t think about equations and optimization before I go to bed. I don’t wake up with new ideas on mathematical proofs. In fact, I can’t imagine myself being okay with only working on mathematical models for the rest of my life.

This dilemma tortured me for a good part of my first year. After all, what is life if I don’t get to work on what I love? What if I get a PhD in something that’s not my passion?

The truth is, no matter how much our “passion” excites us, no matter how much we think we love our work, no matter how much we want work to fulfill us . . . we always end up asking ourselves the question like the teacher of Ecclesiastes: what are we toiling for? Is this meaningful (Ecclesiastes 2:20-23)? Even King Solomon, with all his wisdom and success, could not find meaning in the workings of his hands.

Work—or status, relationships, hobbies—is not where we are supposed to find meaning. Meaning only comes through our relationship with God. Our pursuit of passion, or anything else, will never satisfy us. However, we can find enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. Yet, as King Solomon observed, “the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).

 

Finding Joy in Toiling

For me, my passion crisis didn’t go away overnight, but I did continue with my PhD. I took the required classes, completed the requirements, and worked on finding my thesis topic. For the longest time, I worked at it because it was work.

Yet as I shifted my focus from my personal obsessions, my attitude towards my research also started to change. I began to see more potential paths and applications of mathematical models. Instead of algorithm development, I was more interested in their application to solve real-world problems.

The research area I finally chose was healthcare. It was the field my advisor had always wanted me to pursue, but I had been against it. Thinking about the growth of cancer or analyzing the effects of chemotherapy on patient mortality seemed very gruesome to me. Yet as I worked and learned about the area, I realized that my seemingly boring days of running computer simulations can fuel discoveries and implement changes that improve the lives of patients.

My work isn’t about me and my pursuit of passion; the implications of my work can help the decisions people make about their health, and that is where I find my joy. God has always placed me in the right place. Yet before, I did not have the eyes to see. As I shifted my focus outside of myself to God, I realized that He has gifted me with something that I not only enjoy, but also can use to help and benefit others.

The true purpose of work is not to satisfy us, but for us to be stewards of what God has given us in this world. In our obsessive search for our single passion, we are often blinded to what God has prepared for us. As C.S. Lewis said,

Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. [. . .] Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.

To discover our passion, we must let go of our vision of “passion” and open ourselves to what God might have planned for us.

 

Renewing Our Vision of Passion

The act of letting go transforms our heart and mind in a way that enables us to see more than we did before. As I learned to let go of my idols, God showed me that there is more freedom when my focus is on Him. The way I previously envisioned passion was misguided and simplistic. Life and dreams are a lot more complex and filled with many more possibilities than I can imagine. And when God is the author of my life, it liberates me to trust and follow His voice even more than my own heart.

As I learned to trust and follow His guidance, I found that God cares about my childish dreams, too. When I’m ready, He may guide me back to them in the most unexpected ways. For example, God invited me to write for Him through a campus Christian magazine. It’s not the fictional novels I imagined, but reflections on His love and provision. And here I am today, writing to you all. The way life and dreams unfold is usually not how I first imagine, but it always makes more sense than my version.

My first-year self never found the passion, but I learned that there is so much more to the story. Through the process, I’ve found freedom, rest, and the enjoyment of work. Who knows where writing or research projects will lead. The journey is still continuing, but I trust that He will always be there to guide and show me the way. After all, it is God who weaves the little things we do into a saga much greater and more epic than anything we can imagine.

A Letter To All First-Year Students

Written By Natalie Hanna Tan, Singapore


Hey there,

You made it! You’ve survived the plane, bus, or train ride and have arrived at a new season of life. Welcome to university—your home for the next three to four years!

You may be feeling apprehensive and excited at the same time. That’s normal. Take your time to settle in. If you had set some objectives before you came, that’s great. If not, here are five things to mull over as you get into the swing of things.

1. Don’t stay in your comfort zone.

You’ll be tempted to gravitate to what you’re comfortable with. You’ll want to find friends exactly like your close friends back home—those who share your interests, laugh with you, and understand you—before you’re willing to open up. But unless you see new people as individuals God has placed in your path and take the step to open up to them, you’re going to find it difficult to make new friends.

Everyone is new and is meeting each other for the first time. You’ll see new personalities and new habits, and you’ll find yourself growing closer to friends quickly. That’s the beauty of this season—that’s if you’re willing to let them into your life.

Don’t stick with what you’re comfortable with. Even as you maintain old friendships, embrace new friends, and journey this season with them.

 

2. Start your day well.

Whether you’re a “morning person” or a “night person”, starting your morning well is the first step to a productive day.

Cook a nice breakfast for yourself and make it a point to give yourself some time alone before you begin your busy day. I’ve learned that spending unhurried time reading the Bible and talking with God helps set my mind on the right track for the rest of the day. And let’s face it: you’d probably be too tired to do so at the end of the day anyway.

Guard these morning moments with God zealously. You’d find that committing your day and yourself to God is the key to get you through university life (and the rest of life for that matter).

 

3. It’s okay to cry.

You’re going to struggle with homesickness, (for those who are studying overseas or living in hostel), loneliness, and disappointments. And you’re going to feel overwhelmed every once in a while over the next few years. That’s perfectly okay; you don’t need to appear like you’ve got it all together. Don’t be afraid to show you’re vulnerable.

It’s okay to cry and admit that you’re struggling; everyone else is probably feeling the same way too. But learn to find joy in the new things this season will bring. Be assured that God is with you (it’s in moments like these that you’ll realize how much you need God), and find comfort in knowing that your community back home is praying alongside you and your new community is here to support you.

 

4. Learn to say “no”.

It’s easy to get caught up with the hype about being a university “freshie”. Soon, you’d find yourself up to your neck in social activities. These things are great but know that it’s okay to say “no” sometimes too.

On nights that your flat mates are heading out to party, don’t force yourself to say “yes” just because you’re scared to miss out or feel left out. You can always join them on other nights or bond with them over other things, like cooking, for example.

If your close friends are going for a late movie and pizza night—and you still have readings to do—learn to politely decline. You’d regret the next day when you wake up with that horrible cold.

Manage your time well and remember to rest.

 

5. You’re not going to get it all right at first, but you eventually will.

This first week is not going to be easy. You’re going to question if this is where God wants you to be and you’re going to make mistakes. Learning to live independently—and all that it entails—will not come to you all at once. You’ll need to slowly figure your way around and keep picking yourself up when you fall.

Press on and hold on tight to God in the mess and confusion. It might be a steep learning curve, but God is going to grow you this year. It is in your weakness and helplessness that His power is made strong in you.

 

You’ll get there.

 

The Memoirs of a Bullied Kid

By Lau Jue Hua, Singapore

If you’re being bullied, I would like to say that I could understand your pain to some degree. But I would also like to apologize on behalf of those who tormented you. You see, I was both a bully and a victim. An awkward kid while growing up—I was overweight, bespectacled and never really seemed to fit in—that made me a prime target for bullies. Little did I realize, at that time, that being bullied would make me unconsciously pawn off my negative emotions by picking on others.

This article is not about me whining about my experiences, but to share with you that I, who have been through both spectrums, understand what you are going through and to also share with you how I coped with the pain of being bullied. In addition to these coping mechanisms, I have added explanations using my Christian faith and suggested other ways (which I did not know at that time) to deal with this problem.

One of the ways I dealt with being bullied was to physically torment someone else. I am ashamed of my actions, so much so that when I saw my victim eleven years later, I turned tail and ran. The reason why I still recognized him despite not seeing him for a little over a decade was the fact that he had a shriveled hand and walked with a limp. Yes, I beat up someone who was afflicted with cerebral palsy and left him crying in the rain.

If you are a victim of bullying and you are getting angry at my actions—that I am a heartless individual that likes to pick on the weak—I urge you to not close this tab in your web browser and to stay with me for a few more moments. While I’m not defending my actions, I would like to put them into context. I was being bullied too. I was beaten up and ostracized. And the way I coped with it was to redirect “the focus” onto someone else. It is a defense mechanism. One that I still use even today.

By laughing and hurling insults at the negative points of others, I felt that I could fit in and finally be part of a group. By mocking and belittling a crippled kid, I could—for a brief moment—look past my being overweight and other troubles, and that I finally felt powerful over someone else.

I thought I could break free from the bullies by graduating, but little did I know that those same bullies who made fun of me would end up in the same class when I was fifteen and sixteen.

The bullying changed here—less of a physical nature and more of a mental one. It was depressing that they ostracized me and ignored my presence. I tried to fit in by making fun of others. Sure enough, it got me some laughs and pats on the back, but it did not solve any problems.

With almost close to having no friends, I turned to games—to distract myself from the fact that I hated going to school. I made stupid decisions, and if I could turn back time, I would have lived my childhood years a different way.

Well, I hope that put things quite into context. Here are some of the ways to deal with bullying that I promised you.

1) Read and play

Books were a source of light for me. At that time, I had yet to know Christ and would never even come close to opening a Bible because of my Buddhism upbringing. If I were a Christian then, I would probably have read my Bible (oh, those wasted years). However, I cannot explain in words how much the works of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and C. S. Lewis helped carry me through dark days and even darker nights.

Computer games, while a good way to pass time and make online friends, should be used in moderation. I do not recommend overindulging yourself, as the chances of becoming addicted to a computer game is higher than losing yourself in a good book because of its immersive and interactive nature.

2) Stop trying to fit in

This may not apply to some of you who are reading this, but I would like to just say it: Stop trying to fit in. I tried to fit in by bullying others, by joining in the “fun”. We (or at least I am) are so insecure that we would do anything to get that feeling of security from fitting in—that camaraderie, that sense of acceptance by others. It is more fun than being alone. Whether it is herd instinct or a natural desire to feel appreciated, we should not do evil just because we want to be appreciated by others. We should be more concerned with aligning ourselves with God instead of men. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”(Romans 12:2 NIV).

3) Meekness

You’ve probably heard of turning the other cheek when someone slaps you on the right cheek (Luke 6:9; Matthew 5:39). These verses are not about letting someone step all over you; it is more about losing your rights to follow Jesus, as shown in Mark 8:34-35, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the Gospel will save it.”

David Roper, a pastor, once wrote: “Meekness is not weakness, but strength in control. It is a gentle, yielding spirit that meets hard hearts and stubborn wills with quiet forbearance.” Meekness is one of the qualities of Jesus—and it is this quality that sets Him apart from the rest of us. With an army of angels behind Him, He could do anything. However, instead of lashing out at the Pharisees who hounded and ridiculed Him, He chose to be meek, to be gentle, to control His strength. We should not confuse meekness with weakness.

4) Stand up for yourself and for the truth

This point may seem contradictory to the earlier one, but let me explain. Jesus did not turn His other cheek to the officer when He was struck for not answering the high priest in the “proper manner”(John 18:19-23). Instead, He asked the officer, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” We learn from Him that we could firmly, yet meekly, correct those who treat us unjustly.

5) Talk to someone of authority

Standing up for ourselves and for the truth does not mean we should fight back. Remember, Jesus did not come to blows or insult the Pharisees. He kept His strength under control, defending Himself while not hurting the other person. For those being bullied, you should redirect your troubles to someone of authority.

In Romans 13:3-4, Paul tells us that authorities are appointed by God for the “very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong” (v.4 NLT).

6) Love and pray

The reason I left this point to the last is that it is the most commonly given advice from Christian to Christian, so much so that the meaning is lost due to its over usage. There’s also a reason that love and pray are one point and not two.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). It’s hard enough that we have to be meek, control our strength despite being put down, but to love our enemies? That sounds impossible! But I hope that as you read my experiences above, you have come to understand that bullies are not what they seem. They are not as heartless—or even sadistic— as we think they are. But they have adopted the wrong coping mechanism for their hurts. And unlike you or me who has Christ to guide us, they may not know Christ, or if they do, they may not have a deep relationship with Him! Love them, because like you, they are hurt too. Love your enemies by praying for them (Matthew 5:44) and see how God will work!