This is a twice-edited version of the letter which chronicled my sudden crisis of faith in early Dec 1998. The “earlier letter” has been omitted, but it was, in a nutshell, ravings of frustration. This letter chronicles my struggles with faith over the past year of 1998, which I mostly hid from my school friends but revealed to my church mates. If nothing else, I hope it helps Christians who are struggling with being not of this world yet being in it at the same time. The struggle to be “perfect”, like Christ tells us to, often makes us give up hope on ourselves, then Christ (or vice versa)
First of all, I would like to thank Pok, for which all that has happened within this two days will not be possible.
Second, reading the letter which I wrote earlier, it seems now like the writing of a madman, or at least the stark ravings of a man frustrated by his inability to change circumstances. I woke up the next day and wondered what was it that I had written. I pondered over it and talked to some Christian friends, trying to figure out if the Offensive Strategy I had put forward would actually work.
Of course it doesn’t! For it would only lead to argument and do not arguments lead to quarrels? The last thing I want to do is to lose some good friends.
Next, this letter will be very very long, and though I need to go and memorize my play, God is telling me to quickly write this down lest I fall once again. And I need to tell u guys, esp the cell group, because we are part of the same family and do we not share good news and bad news. Don’t worry, it’s all good news. Some new news, some shocking news, but the end product is good, I assure you.
The past two days, I’ve been doing exam invigilation, which leaves me alot of time alone, in quiet to think and read while poor souls wreck their brains over the papers in front of them. I brought along a Bible, my CS Lewis book, Mere Christianity, and another book: God and the Philosophers. I also brought along my Sonlife Ministry book, which started the whole ball rolling.
The main issues that I wanted to examine was : Why such a frustrated letter below? What is wrong with our church youth, and gasp, the church in general? What is wrong with the Christians in my faculty? What’s wrong with the way I’m spreading the Word such that I’ve been so spectaculary unsuccessful? What’s wrong with me?
C S Lewis.
I tell you, if you don’t read this man, you will be missing out on alot! His book struck me like a thunderbolt, in its reasoning powers and simple language. He made it easy for the layman to understand, yet for the intellectual skeptic to shut up. And he allowed me to undergo a spiritual rebirth.
When I wrote the earlier letter, I had only read half of Mere Christianity. It talks about all the basic premises of why we should believe in God in the first place, and discusses the various aspects of becoming a Christian. When I finally got to the last chapter, I had to admit this guy was one of of God’s gifts to mankind.
You see, the whole time since my baptism has been a terrible struggle for me. I’ve tried over and over again to change for the better and have failed miserably. I thought I had improved for the better but suddenly something happens again and down the slide I go again. Everytime I lament about my pride, my ego, my godless thoughts and chatter, and demand change in myself, i would fail again and just get worse and worse.
I wondered:”What the hell was wrong here? Am I not reborn in Christ? Have I not changed inside in some way? Have I not made my public confession of good faith?”
I started to wonder if I was truly a Christian as well. This is a thought that I have dared not entertain but have played around for the past few months. Was I the sort of Christian that the apostles condemned for having a form of godliness but denying its power? Or worse, the Christian who was not really one at all, continuing in a life of sin and pretending to be good. Then my baptism must have been a big scam then, and this was a frightening thought. Very very frightening, for it meant that I had gone out of the way to deceive the entire world but some have managed to see through it. And this is a most terrible secret for anyone to admit.
And after doing a character assasination of Fi’s BF(started out as fun you know) on sunday, she said, “You have not changed for the better, only worse!” This statement struck me again, confirming my worst fears.
Then Pok says, “Oi, it seems that only God can change you.”
I went home troubled, and the internal struggles grew and grew.
I reasoned, “Look, how can I not be a Christian if I have been trying so hard to change? With the help of prayer and God some more.”
But the other argument ran: “But look at what’s been happening to you. You’ve only gotten worse as the months go by. How can you have any Holy Spirit in you?”
“But the things I’ve prayed for in earnest and selflessly have been granted by God! Have I not tried to do my Quiet Time? Have I not filled my head with knowledge? Don’t I know more about the Bible than I ever thought I would?”
“What’s the point you are trying to make here? The Bible says – look at the fruits. Are you bearing any fruit? Have you brought anyone into Christ lately? Have you even tried?”
“Yes I have, but these people are all skeptics and they are making me want to give up!”
“Or is it because you have been a lousy Christian or even not one? So many people in school don’t even believe when they are told that Ian is a Christian!”
“Maybe because I don’t look it. People have an impression of what good Christians should look like. Meek, loving, quiet, slightly fanatical with preaching the Word to disinterested and self enlightened students.”
“That’s what you think Christians should look like. Examine your own actions and see what’s ungodly in it. That’ll make you see things clearer.”
I did, and I’m ashamed to admit it was of a most ungodly person that I saw myself. I did more self-reflection in the past 48 hours than I did for 10 days in Nepal. I spout doctrine like anti-homosexuality but I cannot tame my tongue and engage in harmful gossip. I tell people of my belief in Christ but I do not love the unlovely. I preach forgiveness and fail to forgive those who I am out of favour with, I only curse them silently. I tell people of the need to believe in God but I cannot show them what a man of God is like.
If all Christians were like me, I thought, we’d all go to hell straightaway, no salvation needed. Why bother?
With much anguish, I admitted to myself, perhaps I’m not a Christian after all. I’ll be judged heavily on this, I figured. I’ll be going for church camp like a zombie, outside talk Bible, inside not really meaning anything at all.
Then my reason comes in again.
“That line of logic is not totally correct. How can you not be a Christian when you can tell God all these things? How is it possible that you can evaluate anything at all on a spiritual level when you think that you are reasoning without the help of God to see through this “scam baptized conman?”
So how does Lewis come into this?
He explains that there are bound to be good and bad Christians. Aren’t Christians supposed to be all nice? So why are there some really nasty ones, like me here?
“If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions – if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before – then I think we must suspect his “conversion” was largely imaginary; and after one’s original conversion, everytime one thinks one has made an advance, that is the test to apply. Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in “religion” mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better; just as in an illness “feeling better” is not much good if the thermometer shows that your temperature is still going out. In that sense, the outer world is quite right to judge Christianity by its results. Christ told us to judge by results…Our careless lives set the outer world talking and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on the truth of Christianity itself.”
Just like what the apostles said of poor Christians. My careless behavior had cost me plenty.
Then I argued : “Wait wait wait. God made me like that, I’m naturally noisy and overly frank plus a host of other bad elements. I’m trying to change but God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. I’ve been praying till I have a headache you know.”
Then Lewis says in his last chapter:“As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about, you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him.”
Brillant! In a few paragraphs he had summed up my entire problem the whole year and given me the proper path to walk on! I have always talked about being more Christlike but I see now the big obstacle I had placed before me was my Self! I had taken his words of “seek Me” and turned it into “seek Myself” That’s why I had originally reasoned out that I could retain certain characteristics of my old character while at the same time trying to be like Christ. It’s impossible to do both. You can only become one or the other. In seeking His face, I’ll change without knowing it. I cannot seek to change certain characteristics unless I have gained new ones to replace them with. And how to replace them when I’m so concerned about getting rid of them and not finding replacements?
It all sounds very simple to read now, but I tell you, it was severe mental gymnastics in my head and I fell asleep at one point while invigilating the exam. My brain was fried out.
I thanked God for CS Lewis, prayed for a long time (in the hall) and went on to the next topic
Next:Failure to evangelize properly.
I asked God now that I had sorted myself out for the time being: OK, why are my efforts so ineffective? Sonlife has reminded me once again of the urgency of the Great Commission, but why are my efforts in outreach impotent so far? Have I not received proper instruction in the Word?
I talked to some CommStudies people over lunch, two Christian friends. I explained my Offensive Strategy to them and obviously it did not work when we put some practice into it. It turned out to be offensive (what else?) and I pondered again. My biggest problems are skeptics in my school, and it’s getting harder to convince them.
I went back to the Hall and read the 4 Spiritual Laws again and disagreed with my earlier notion that it was difficult to remember. If you work by the basics, you don’t even have to mention “4 SLs”, which I feel now sounds like some Buddhist doctrine by the name itself. The whole problem I have with my skeptical friends is that they know the basics of Christianity, but they just don’t understand the impact of sinfulness. The 4 SLs booklet then reminded me to go and read the Gospel of John as a new believer. Having been reborn a second time, I decided to take its advice and was shocked by what Jesus said in John.
Jesus carefully lays out to me exactly all the issues that I’m facing. He faced it in His time, we face it now, only in different degrees. Jesus had to keep insisting that He was the Son of God over and over again, only to fail with so many. At one point, many of his disciples deserted Him because they didn’t understand fully what He was trying to tell them and was demanding of them. It reminded me of the backslided Christians that I was worried about. Boon Nam for example, whom I haven’t thought about in a Loong time. Those that stuck by Him suffered for their salvation in various ways.
I realized I was like the deserters. I didn’t understand what He was demanding of me fully. “Take up His cross I say!” but it looks like I was just dragging it along the ground. i knew of the burden but refused to take it up, hoisting it for all the world to see. I’m sorry Grace Lim, it seems like I didn’t fully understand the full COMMITMENT you were talking about. It means sacrifice, people. Not just with the things you desire, but the entire perspective of life that one has. It means even parting with some conceptions of what Christians think they should even do, or at least to reconsider them in the light of new insights.
I talked to them about the issue of saying grace before meals. I said, “look, how come i only remember to do it in public? is it some sort of show off thing that i’m a Christian? why am i only giving thanks for food and drink? Are we not to give thanks for everything, good or bad? what does it mean to say grace? Is it a ritual to you, something borne out of habit, something to let others recognize Christians by, or something out of pure thankfulness? Or is it just a discipline of religious life, something like the Muslims’ 5 prayer a day affair? Do you mean what you pray? What should you even pray for?”
We continued to wonder after lunch.
It’s a trip home with a Catholic friend today on the MRT. I put aside our doctrinal differences and we talk basic premises of Christianity. I do hope you guys don’t treat Catholics like heretics, because my friend XXX here is highly intelligent and reads the Bible for himself, but simply holds the catholic viewpoint. Otherwise, I believe that we agree on the basic foundation of salvation through acceptance of Christ’s death. Sometimes I feel like we make the Catholics sound like a bunch of Pharisees. Who’s the Pharisee here? Who are we to even suggest Catholics might not make it to heaven( I heard that before somewhere)?
Well, the problem is although XXX is good at reasoning and wants to save the world as well, he smokes heavily at times, and espouses liberal viewpoints like legalizing drugs.
“Look, XXX, I figure that there are a few problems i think we have to tackle before we can save the skeptics that we know.”
“Firstly, with some sober judgment that we have been blessed with, I’d like to point out that there are a few Christian cranks in our midst who actively turn off non-Christians all the time. With their overbearing manner, or just simple-mindedness, they preach till people get really irritated. Some, like ZZZ, are just plain weird and cannot relate to anyone in a normal social manner. Some, like YYY, are so easily fooled by people that people think he’s just a fool to begin with. I wish I didn’t have to judge but we have to consider the situation in order to salvage it.”
I continued:”The other problem is many of the skeptics are highly intelligent people who throw arguments at us many Christians cannot answer. But you and me both know it’s a step of faith, of the heart and not of the mind that we accept the whole illogicity of religion. To them however, faith must be reasoned out and rationalized.”
“So,” I added. “The problem is two fold. Poor Christian models, including you and me. Don’t need to argue about that. Next fold is the problem of rationality.”
I went on to say that we are all like passengers on a crashing plane, with Satan as the crazed pilot, determined to drag us all down and Jesus being the parachute, the only way to safety. The safety belts are like the worldly desires holding us back.
“Yah, and there are stewardesses whom some want to have sex with!” XXX laughed.
“Look, you are making things worse if you say that to them. They’ll point out that you are not a good Christian at all if you say that. They want to attack you on every point and claim their own self-righteousness.”
“I try to put in my viewpoint of catholicism whenever we discuss religion. Doesn’t that help?”
“Not with examples like the one above negating it. How can you look like you are saved if you persist in such ungodly talk? No wonder people don’t think that I look like a Christian,” I said.
XXX said,”Let me tell you of the problems you have ahead of you if you are going to turn into Holy Man. You know, during the trip we went to, the others asked me which guy in the school I would like to screw. I told them that I haven’t given any thought to that because it’s against my religion. They said, ‘aw XXX, don’t be anal’.”
“So the paradox we face is that we need to be out of this world yet friends with such people. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t”
After some more discussion, I concluded the only way we were going to bring any change in the life of people around me is to do a total “character assassination” We have to convince them of the presence of the existence of godly people who bother to hang around the unsaved ones. We cannot afford to wait for opportunities to preach, yes, though preach is an ugly word in our modern context, it is the only word to use. I will preach when i have to. I don’t seek to just share, I seek to preach.
We say, “Oh, I pray for God to give me a chance to witness.” But since when have the two of us actually bothered to make it an actual happening? The fact that we are ungodly in behavior just worsens matters. Instead of saving lives, we are sending more people to hell. The issue lies in the fact we expect God to straighten things out. “Oh, it’s God’s will!” Now my attitude towards evangelism has shifted into another dimension. I recognized my fear of losing friends by antagonizing them. No longer man! I cannot put it into words, but trust me, something has been revealed to me that I never thought was possible but I know suddenly I can, CAN make an enormous difference in this world. It’s a calling, and it’s so loud now, I can’t think of anything else except the roles of the Holy Trinity all day long.
What joy I feel! From one who was dead in Christ and deceiving himself, to one who suddenly sees a glimpse of God’s blueprint. It was staggering and I refrained from listening to the walkman to listen to more of God. It helps immensely that I’m reading Christian philosophy to help me get over some rationality problems, but nothing helps better than God’s Word. I had been, like Lewis says, talking about the Word, but not talking from the Word. I had sought to save my soul but had tainted it instead. Now I know it was saved in the first place, that I should not bother about silly things like getting married or dropping hair, but regained the urgency of the Great Commission. I have so many people to put on the track of salvation but have put it off.
Then I reason with myself once more :”Is this because of Christmas and the coming youth camp? Is it just a momentary spiritual high?”
“No, I fell from grace that’s all. Thank God He decided to pick me up early and set my paths straight once more.” Then I remind myself that God often drops us when we are at our highest. He never lets us enjoy this kind of period for too long. But I’m prepared this time to suffer for Christ.
All I ask of you, my dearest brothers and sisters, is to pray for me. Who wants to suffer? But I must if I am to grow further in Christ. I remember I said one year ago to one of you, “Give me a year to grow and to learn. Then I’ll be ready to lead the youth in activities.” What a year! Now I say, give me a lifetime to learn, and keep reminding me of my sliding back, but never of my progress, for I do pray that it is for the good of others that I really improve, to demonstrate Jesus’ power, and not for my selfish desires that I hope for progress!
Pray that I can keep to “pretending to be like Christ”, for the more I pretend, even when I am not, I become more that I pretend to be (More Lewis). I also understand and see some weaknesses in Lewis’ arguments, and cannot afford to make Lewis my new God, but sound advice I will take, for he is only a man, and he will make mistakes. Only God can be perfect yah?
God is great!