I’ve sat through too many funerals this year. I remember the white sheets, the flowers, the smell of groundnuts. Some of the deceased lived full lives. More than half were young. Invariably, a profound sense of grief saturates the wake.
Smiles and warm condolences interrupted by heart-wrenching wails – the roar of the geyser that is the bitter truth. The will can only repress so much agony. Then the mood settles. Laughs. Groundnuts. Life goes on.
It’ll be my turn one day.
It reminds me of a strange phenomenon that takes place on the hills of Central and South America. Once a year, as the sun sets, the limp, weedy bodies of the night-blooming cereus sprout beautiful white flowers, each one perfectly symmetrical in their fractal artistry. The hills come to life – splashed with colour, infused with aroma. Magic.
By dawn, the flowers wilt into hanging strands. Mere shadows of their former glory.
Our lives are no different – little blips on the flatline of a cosmic heart monitor. Shooting stars in a boundless night sky. A gentle wind on wispy grass. Does it really matter if my life ends now?
And yet we must always do so much. Run, strive, prepare, milk, burn, plan, meet, organise. Kinetic energy fuelling an endless rat race where there are winners and losers. A voice whispers in our ears: If you don’t work hard, you’ll end up like that uncle who sells tissue at the hawker centre.
Shoot, you think. I’d better not be one of those losers. I need to work hard to get ahead.
PUTTING AN END TO MY MISERABLE EXISTENCE
What do you live for?
We spend our childhood dreaming big dreams, our adolescence killing them, and the rest of our lives burying them over and over again. For years we climb corporate ladders, working for things we don’t care about; those childhood dreams can wait. One day, when I have enough money and a stable career, I can finally (insert dream here). It is so easy to place work on a pedestal, and before we realise it, work becomes our idol.
You’re trying to make a living, but forget to make a life worth living. The stomach may be full, but the soul is left hungry.
The worse part is we think this is the life. We succumb. We settle. The great big machine of capitalism sucks you up, and enslaves you to a system of consumerism and greed. It’s ugly, but that’s life. I need this. The money. To move out. Children.
No you don’t. You need a life. You’re trying to make a living, but forget to make a life worth living. The stomach may be full, but the soul is left hungry.
Perhaps by now you’ve figured that something’s wrong.
Cutting-edge developments in healthcare have dramatically improved our life expectancy and reduced infant mortality over the last century, but depression and anxiety are at unprecedented levels.
In our hands lies the power of genetics, the atom and renewable energy, but while we celebrate groundbreaking science in posh ceremonies, global warming, deforestation and mass extinctions speed up. Hate runs wild on our streets. We’re further from sustainability and closer to war than ever before. The age of social media has connected us extensively, but we’re so lonely.
What do you live for? How are you spending the finite hours of your precious consciousness as a living, breathing, flowering creature?
THE SEARCH FOR TRUE LIFE
Ironic as it may be, true life – not the veneer that promises but never delivers – is found in death. Hear me out before you write me off: I am not glorifying suicide, or promoting Dignitas, popularised by Me Before You.
Neither am I suggesting that you quit your day job, and hop on the next flight to Iceland and begin a nomadic life in feral freedom. I am talking about the Call of Jesus Christ – to know God, understand Him, and live for Him.
The apostle Peter was quite a character. He was outspoken and audacious. After witnessing firsthand a series of miracles performed by Jesus, He left behind his fishing nets and became a disciple of Jesus.
The things of man are a hindrance to God. These include our plans for a better tomorrow.
In the story of Matthew 16, he confesses Jesus to be the Christ, Son of the living God, before hearing of Jesus’ impending suffering, death, and resurrection. He instinctively rejects this narrative, rebuking Jesus. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22)
Jesus’ reply is startling. Peter, who sounds like he’s just trying to protect his beloved Lord, hears this: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)
Satan? Huh? I’m just trying to protect you! But Jesus has none of it. The things of man are a hindrance to God. These include our plans for a better tomorrow, if made in the wrong spirit.
THE CALL TO COME AND DIE
Then Jesus puts a spotlight on the deeper issue in Peter’s life.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
Peter believed in a God that would preserve his life on earth, his riches, his inheritance. This is akin to our status, comfort and legacy – things we fight so hard to preserve. Sometimes we follow Jesus because we think He’ll help us hold on to these things.
Dying to self is a scary thing. Those dreams and ambitions in you, they’ve got to go. Nail them to the cross. Carnal desires of the flesh? Put on them a crown of thorns. Your identity – Singaporean, student, policeman, teacher, Olympian, movie star, social media influencer, Pokemon Go master, tissue paper seller – nail it to the cross of Jesus.
Wait, you’re crazy! Aren’t some of these things good things?
Perhaps. But Jesus calls you to be prepared to lay them down for Him. Relationships too – friends, popularity, romance. Even mother and father (Mark 10:29).
Dying to self is a scary thing. Those dreams and ambitions in you, they’ve got to go. Nail them to the cross. Carnal desires of the flesh? Put on them a crown of thorns.
Jesus’ quest is for our souls. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
And every now and then the man we used to be sticks his head from the grave and coaxes you to go back to your old life. Just give up. Take it easy. We need the courage and resolve to crucify that old creation again, till we no longer hear him, and all we hear is God’s still small voice in our spirit.
Unbound from worldly concerns, we live free.
CARRYING THE CROSS
We often identify any of life’s burdens and anxieties as the cross we carry. Perhaps we want to make our first million by 30, and the road seems paved with suffering. God, I only sleep four hours a night. I don’t have any friends. I feel so stressed. But God, please help me carry this cross well.
And when God doesn’t respond, we cry out with clenched fist. Father, why hast thou forsaken me? Where were you when I needed you, God? Do you even care? Oh, fine, I’ve had enough of the whole church thing.
Then we hear: My child, that’s not the cross I want.
Our true cross is where we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Our cross is not about you, but His Kingdom, and Righteousness – where He meets us in our mess saying, my child, I have so much more for you. It’s okay if you fail. Try again. Look to me. My grace is sufficient.
Our cross is simply our response to His love. To accept with arms wide open, and to move forward.
In our struggle to live the better way, He shifts our eyes to see the heaviest cross of all – that which Jesus bore. In a remarkable expression of divine utilitarianism, Jesus paid for the dues for mankind’s sin with His life, so we don’t have to experience a different, more terrible form of death.
Keep your eyes on me. Pick up that cross and take another step. You’ll get there. I’m right here.
FOLLOW ME AND FIND LIFE
When Peter acknowledged Jesus as Christ, Jesus replied:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
God’s will for us goes beyond Golgotha – it is more than just salvation. We do not taste amazing grace only to trudge through bleakness again. Our struggle is only part of the full gospel. From the grave, He raises in us the pure, holy and good. A new beginning awaits.
He calls us on a journey towards His likeness – new character rising in the aftermath of great struggle. No longer slaves to sin, but children of the Most High – a new identity. Welcome to the narrow road. It’s hard, but worth it. It is the Way to life.
We do not taste amazing grace only to trudge through bleakness again. Our struggle is only part of the full gospel. From the grave, He raises in us the pure, holy and good.
“The challenge about Christlike character formation is that it’s time-consuming, it’s not very glamorous, and it won’t get you very much at all… except life with God… except the healing of your broken, hungry, wounded, hurting, tired heart… except the satisfaction of your soul… Things that giftedness can never achieve,” said John Ortberg in Overcoming Your Shadow Mission.
That sounds a lot like life to me. Hang in there. It gets better.
IN US, THROUGH US
Beyond learning about the Gospel, we live it. Led and empowered by God, new lives bring forth profound global restoration. We become vessels of His glory and grace to a world of dry bones. Our talents and giftings find relevance in His purposes as He calls us to pure religion: To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
This means real world change, from social justice to sustainable living, flowing from a renewed spirit.
God must no longer be boxed up. The stones must cry out. For from him and through him and for him are all things (Romans 11:36), and all things find their purpose in Him (Colossians 1:16).
Regardless of past, place or profession, we become full-time ministers of His grace and redemption, bringing Him to the nations as we being the nations to Him.
God must no longer be boxed up. The stones must cry out.
He becomes our reality and we flow with Him. No matter your struggle or your cross, know that in Him, you can have life, and life to the full. It’s just a matter of dying first.