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the four principles of contentment.

There are many times I wished I had bigger eyes or double eyelids, or that I was slightly taller, or that I was born with a silver (actually, I’d settle for a bronze) spoon in my mouth. I don’t know about you but sometimes I wished I had it a little better or had just a little more. In that respect, I reckon that “more” and “better” are detrimental words if you desire contentment.

In the last few months, I’ve dealt with youths who thought they weren’t good-looking, smart or capable enough; basically they felt inadequate about who they were, what God has given to them, and the roles they were to play in life – I don’t blame them, in fact, I do empathise with them.

From experience, I know that how they felt about themselves may just be a passing phase of their turbulent teenage-hood, but I also know from experience that some youths will really get caught in this vicious cycle of self-condemnation and an endless mire of comparison with the people around them. What a subtle trap this is!

I believe that, in order for you to avoid and escape this poisonous trap, you need to straighten the way you think. The following advice is what I’ve always offered to those whom I’ve had the privilege of counselling; may I offer you the four stop-starts of contentment:

  1. First and foremost, stop comparing yourself with others.
  2. Then, stop complaining about your situation.
  3. (Once you can change the way you think about your surroundings and circumstances,) start counting your blessings.
  4. Finally, start celebrating the successes of other people.

I won’t elaborate on the above because I want to keep it brief tonight. Perhaps another day I will expand on these four points. Incidentally, as I searched for scripture to support the above-mentioned points, I chanced upon something by CS that reverberated with what I’ve just written:

  1. Don’t focus on the situation, or you’ll become angry.
  2. Don’t focus on yourself, or you’ll become filled with self-pity.
  3. Don’t focus on someone to blame, or you’ll begin complaining.
  4. Don’t focus on the present, or you’ll miss the point of what God wishes to achieve in your life.

You know, each time I lament to God about my small, single-eyelid eyes, I could almost feel the Holy Smack on the back of my head and hear a deep, bellowing voice that says, “Be quiet, I gave you perfect eyesight”. The most appropriate reaction to that? -.-

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financial advice: how to invest your money.

I’m three months shy of turning 21 years old for the seventh time and I’d like to think that I’ve had a blessed life. Of course, I could always be happier but I’ve arrived at a stage of my life where I’ve never been so contented with my current material well-being.

I have a healthy variety of shirts, pants and shoes to choose from, a good collection of watches, a decent guitar, camera and laptop, a branded wallet and a smartphone. Two years ago, I remember counting my collection of 20+ Threadless t-shirts and 10+ Crumpler products. My room is hooked up with a 27″ LCD TV and a 5.1 surround-sound system. Bottom line is, there’s nothing I need, really, and I’m thankful to have (almost) everything that I’ve always wanted to purchase. I’ve done my fair share of possessions-accumulation during my days of earning a higher income.

But, so what? All these thing amounts to nothing at the end of the day for I will take none of these with me when I exit this earth; they will be useless and worthless eventually.

Of course I still have material desires – I’ve been eyeing this and this for some time now and each time I walk past an optical shop, I’d always check if that pair of sunnies is in stock and if there’s a promotion, and without fail, I’d politely say to the disappointed sales representative, “Okay thanks, maybe I’ll get it next time”, and walk away. Would I ever buy it? I think the question I ask myself these days is, “Is that good stewardship of money?” I’d be honest to admit that I’m still tempted by some items but I also deliberately desensitise myself from accumulating things.

I like what RS, the founder of this website, stated about conscious spending, for there’s truth and logic in his philosophy, even if it’s of a secular mentality:

“Spend extravagantly on what you love and cut costs mercilessly on what you don’t.”

Having a reduced income over the last nine months have certainly helped me to be more decisive and cruel in differentiating my needs and wants. At the same time, it has also helped to shape my “investment portfolio”. While I’m a prudent spender and a happy saver, I don’t think I’m qualified to give real financial advice – I mean, did you really think I was going to teach you how to invest your money on my blog? Come on! (:

But I’d like to share with you how I have been investing my money and why I’ve chosen to do it this way. Perhaps this could encourage or challenge you to revisit your spending habits and investment inclinations. I’m not sure if these items have eternal worth, but I’m confident that they have a life-long value. So, please allow me to share the three things I delightfully invest money in:

  1. People. I used to be stingy in treating people to meals. But over the years, I’ve learnt to be progressively generous, simply because people have been exceedingly generous with me. Nowadays, I’m always quite happy to foot the bill, especially if I am fellowshipping with a young person who has lesser resources. When people buy me meals, they indirectly tell me that I’m worth their time and money. And so, I pay (pun!) it forward – I hope my young people will feel the same way too – that they are worth my time and money. (Pun!) I’m putting my money where my mouth is. (I can also instantly detect those who are out to exploit this…)
  2. Knowledge. The older I get, the more I spend on books, seminars, conferences and audio CDs and DVDs. In fact, I just took advantage of the Desiring God July DVD sale and invested good money in some DVDs which I will be sharing with my cell. As for gifts, I also find myself buying books because I think that there’s nothing better than to give my friends the gift of knowledge. Besides, this is one investment that can be passed around, shared and revisited.
  3. Perspective. Lastly, I always enjoy expanding my horizon of perspectives and there’s no better way to do that than to visit new places and to do new things. I try to go on a couple of vacations every year and I always try to visit new destinations. I enjoy investing into my worldview (and sabbath too!). I get a kick from meeting new people, learning new languages, visiting new places, immersing in new cultures, tasting new cuisines and enjoying new experiences. And as a budding preacher, I believe that all these new perspectives will empower and enhance my ambitions to be a more dynamic and balanced communicator.

People, knowledge and perspectives are indefinitely more valuable than material possessions and I’d gladly invest extravagantly on them. Apart from these three items (at this point in my life), the rest of my money is really spent for function’s sake, like functional eating and functional travelling. My question then, to you, is:

What do you invest your money in?

all of us are gifted.

Recently I had an opportunity to catch up with an old friend and he shared with me how he rejoiced with his wife when his son finally uttered, “Mama”. I rejoiced with him for it was a breakthrough for their family and when he shared it with me, he communicated a gratitude to God that nothing in the world could manufacture.

I juxtaposed it with parents who constantly berate their child for not doing better than their cousins, classmates, neighbours and whoever they could conveniently use to destroy their kid’s self-confidence and beliefs system. I remember telling HY that we’ve gotten it all wrong and have become complacent for the things that we ought to be thankful for. The more I hear it, the more I find “better than” a repulsive phrase.

That one-worded “Mama” was a gift from God to his child; as he shared his delight with me, I couldn’t help but to thank God for giving us speech – and I told HY that all these seemingly basic functions are truly gifts from God. I told her that in the future when we do have children of our own, we should be thankful for everything that the child has – speech, sight, hearing, limb movement, cognition, health and even something as taken-for-granted as daily breath! And not wish that our child is a pianist prodigy, artistic phenom, mathematics maestro or a kid with elephant memory (or not). Unfortunately, we have been conditioned to think that that’s being gifted, but we have forgotten that everyone is gifted – your ability to inhale and exhale is the gift of life from the Giver of life. Let’s not fight the wrong battles.

It wrenches my heart when I find out how my youths struggle with their (“inadequate”) academic achievements, because most times they’ve gotten it all wrong – they seek the result instead of the process; they seek a resume instead of academic returns; they seek worldly covetousness (wanting to be better than someone else) instead of godly contentment (wanting to be the best that God has designed them to be). I believe that our mentality is messed up because of the way we have been brought up (and this is no fault of ours). However, we should be careful not to pay it forward to the next generation.

At the end of the day, these pursuits amount to nothing all that significant. I so wished that I could hold their faces in my hands, look at them in the eye and tell them, “Come on, do you REALLY think that a C grade or a ‘regular’ CV could stop God from fulfilling His purpose in your life?” Oh, we of little faith; we ought to be dismissed for thinking that our destiny is determined by our downfalls. When will we finally learn that the sovereignty of God far exceeds earthly meritocracy?

Let us all take a step back to recalibrate our compasses, unless of course you have already decided to raise your child in the exact same manner that you have been raised. Let us remember that life in itself is the greatest gift and that we ought to be thankful for it. Let us not go overboard in seeking additional gifts instead of the Giver Himself. Don’t get caught in the world’s definition of “gifted”!

are you competitive or comparitive?

Singapore has world-class education system – that I do not deny. My scholastic abilities have been tuned by my learning environment (observe the careful choice of words) and I’d like to think a big part of my confidence and street-smartness (or some would say arrogance) comes from a decade spent in ACS. However, if I had a choice, I’d rather not raise my children in a local school and if I had the resources, I’d rather home-school my kids; I do not want to subject them to the unnecessary and poisonous culture of the education system here – where students somehow feel that they are never quite good enough.

Our academia has changed considerably – some would consider it progress, some see it as regress and for a few others, digress; I belong to the third group. I think that we’re missing the point of education, really. We should teach people how to think not what to think. Today’s students are subjected to a lot more pressure and stress – that doesn’t come from themselves but primarily from their parents and secondarily from their peers. The desire to improve themselves is shrouded by external motivations instead being influenced by internal drives.

I’ve always opined that pride is not about wanting to be the best – there’s nothing wrong with that – but pride is about wanting to be better than someone else. There’s an element of covetousness in pride, where the desire to better oneself sprouts from the obsession to outdo others. We’ve heard it time and again – a student could far outperform himself and score a 60% in a test (and achieve his all-time highest score) but this joy is somewhat short-lived; his initial delight soon plummets into despair when he begins to compare his results with a classmate that scored 70%. The process is transferred to the next dimension and (if you pardon the direct translation of the old Chinese adage) there always seems to be a higher mountain that is insurmountable. Where does it stop? Before you know it, these students return home to mourn about their oh-so-terrible score when they should instead rejoice over their progress made. There’s no end to this vicious cycle of self and societal inflicted torment. No wonder suicide cases related to academic pressures have risen sharply over the years.

Achievements and successes are all relative – hence it is imperative that we manage our expectations and chart our progress on a realistic rate. Today, you should ask yourself if you are competitive or comparitive. There’s nothing wrong with benchmarking yourself against the best to gauge and improve your own abilities and thresholds. But once you begin to compare and slide into the venomous glance-over-your-shoulder behaviour, you inevitably welcome self-destruction and a never-ending pursuit of nothingness. We are all different – get used to the idea. To those who have more, more is expected of them. Learn to be comfortable with yourself and realise that if you want to be someone else, who’s going to be you?

When I stroll down memory lane, I don’t seem to ever recall a time that I wanted to be better than someone else because I realised that I’m constantly waging war with my own insanely high standards (again, this is a relative statement). To an extent, I seem to allow no one to determine how good or how bad I can and will be. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m an ambitious person and I effort to bring out the best of my gifts and talents by being excellent in all that I undertake, but in the event that my desired outcomes do not materialise, I have learnt to trust God for the lessons learnt in temporal failure and postponed success. I realised that I’ve always secretly (but confidently) trusted God for the results, for God was the origin of my desires and ambitions. Either way it turns out, I already know that God, being efficacious, has a lesson in store for me to learn; I believe that He has pre-prepared different packages of lessons for every single different outcome.

I urge you to be wary of the poisonous standards of this world, where it tells you that being contented with your lot is apparently mediocrity. A subscription to these worldly values often results in worldly remorse and regret – that’s not biblical or victorious living at all! Know that with Jesus, we fight from victory and not for victory. Be comfortable with who God has created you to be for your strengths complements someone else’s weaknesses and vice-versa – that’s how the body of Christ works. Everyone plays a different role and is a different jigsaw in the puzzle of life – never let this world determine how you should live and what should make you happy. May your spirit be acutely tuned to the dangers that inescapable and obligatory academic excellence brings.

So what if you finally become the best and better than everyone else? What’s next? At the end of the day, it’s all meaningless. It doesn’t make you better than anyone else, really. The antidote then, to competition and comparison, is contentment.

enough is really enough.

Tonight, I’ll keep it short and sweet.

After our maiden session of tennis, HY and I sat down, mildly exhausted, and spoke briefly about how I played like Roger Federer contentment. I remember telling her that I’ve never experienced contentment as much as I have experienced it now. I no longer feel the need to want more things, or the urge to buy the latest things. And I thank God for that, because it goes against my carnal being.

It’s like, the less I have, the more I have to make do with what I have, hence I find myself efforting to be contented with whatever that I possess. On the contrary, I’d like to think that the more I have, the more I want – it’s ironic, because in the journey of life, we’ll never have enough. So if you want to learn about contentment, my first, only and practical advice, is to de-accumulate.

HY then summed up my sentiments with one phrase, typical of her being a lady of few words, “That’s because you do not covet”. And you know what? This absence of material desires is actually good for me. I looked at her and smiled.

I’ve said it before and so I’ll say it again – I could always be happier, but I am situationally contented.

what’s your itch?

The itch of a healing wound is caused by the growth of new cells underneath the old scab. New skin cells would be growing underneath there, and as they form a new layer of skin, then the scab becomes more tightly stretched over this zone of activity. This can make it feel itchy. The itch sensation for burn survivors may be a tingling feeling caused by nerves re-growing, or from dry skin caused by the lack of natural oil production since oil glands may have been damaged or destroyed by the burn. As the nerves grow and start to receive and send messages, they may create that itchy feeling. The skin in this area will be a lot less thick than everywhere else, so these new nerve cells will be under a lot more pressure. Most people say that itching is a sign of healing. It is best to avoid itching of the wound. If it becomes too much of a problem, speak with the doctor or nurse. They may order medications by mouth or some topical cream to help make this more tolerable. (Source: WikiAnswers)

Although WikiAnswers tell me what I already know, albeit in a more scientific explanation, reading it does make me feel a little more reassured about this unbearable itch that I am experiencing as my wounds heal.

This gets me thinking about itches. The natural consequence of itching is scratching. We all know that scratching at a healing wound only serves to provide temporal relief but actually causes longer term damage and prevents the injury from healing even faster. But all that head knowledge still doesn’t stop an itching person from scratching, does it? It’s a natural reflex action; I itch, I scratch – I’m satisfied.

It’s like that with life; we see a new gadget in the market, the itch comes, and we scratch. We don’t realise that we are actually just enjoying momentary pleasure. We forget that perhaps, there’s a house, car or marriage to save for. Still, we go all out to satisfy that itch, forsaking the longer term goals. Same goes for cars, promotions, positions, holidays etc etc etc.

Recently, I received an SMS from a friend who had an opening for a Regional Marketing Manager job. I think he sent it to me because he probably thought I had a chance of getting it. Was I tempted? Well, maybe. Did a bigger paycheck entice me? Well, perhaps. Did this make me itch? Yes. But I am glad I did not scratch. I knew full well that whatever I was doing with my life at this point in time was in line with the will of God. And that satisfies the itch of all itches (if you know what I mean).

Hence, it reinforces the opinion that I could always be happier, but I am situationally contented. That’s something I’ve lived by for the last half a decade and it’s something that I would continue to live by, by His grace alone.

Refer to the quoted text above. Interestingly enough, “If [the itch] becomes too much of a problem, speak with the [D]octor”. Well, I’d like to think that there is tremendous wisdom in that! If in our spirits we start to feel itches that aren’t meant to be there, or are there to distract us, then let’s consult the Doctor Himself for the remedy! Let us learn to realise since it’s hard to fight the lures of this world, let’s look to God and rely on His grace to see us through every itch of life.

Think twice about scratching. It leads to bleeding.

the value of money.

One dollar to a poor man is as valuable as one dollar to a rich man. Having lots of one dollars does not change the value of one dollar. Both men are limited to the same available activities and purchasing power that one dollar innately offers. However a dollar spent in Shanghai will yield different things as opposed to a dollar spent in Seoul or Singapore. There are a lot of thoughts on this that I could elucidate, but I will not.

It gets me thinking about the way we ought to spend our money. In recent years I’ve progressed from being a frivolous spender to a prudent one. (And how I thank God for that!) I’ve always remembered the wise words of CS that, “It’s not how much you earn, but how much you save”, that really matters.

HY and I are obviously presented with a more challenging financial situation now. However, what I am spending now is not far from what I was spending when I received a lot more. Simply put, our quality of life has not worsened. The only difference is a reduction in how much I get to save and invest. I also genuinely believe that I’d have lived the same quality of life with the same spending philosophies (being frugal) even if I wasn’t working in church. In a nutshell, it doesn’t mean that just because I have more, means I have to spend more.

I do not think that anyone around us can honestly say that his or her needs are not met. It’s always about the wants that we struggle with. Hence, I concur that expenses should be borne out of necessity and perhaps, very occasionally, some frivolity (just to pamper ourselves). But should we get that order confused and start living in indulgence, we will never be satisfied because we will always want something more.

One key then, is contentment. All I know is that naked I came and naked I will go. The last thing I’d want is to live a life that cannot let go of itself. Let’s not get carelessly caught up in meaningless pursuits – we can’t keep anything we own anyway.

Another key, which tends to be overlooked in the light of contentment, is stewardship. We must be careful in being good stewards of our resources (of time, energy and money) because at the end of the day our stewardship will be audited by God. We must understand that nothing we own belongs to us in the first place; we’re just being put in charge of it for the appointed time. We must effort to hold fast to what we believe in and not compare it with how others are spending their resources – they will be held accountable for their decisions.

The last and most important key, is trusting in God. It is this key that allows me to look forward in hope, knowing that God will go before me and will equip, empower, enrich and enable me to do His purpose, for His glory.

I know I have veered off a little from the intended subject of this post, but I hope that all of us will examine the way we approach the value of money and to spend it wisely, appropriately and with purpose, and not for the sake of spending it.

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