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God is my space.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you will be boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil.

James 4:15-16 (New Living Translation)

If life is uncertain and death is certain then how in the world are we supposed to negotiate our journey in this lifetime? What on earth are we doing for heaven’s sake? James proposed his resolution in verse 15, which calls for us to tweak our alignment.

It’s not about the planning but about the perspective, not the pursuit but the priority. If life is truly punctuated by question-marks and death completed by full-stops, then I’m grateful that God is my space – the punctuation most-often used in every sentence; every word is preceded and followed by a space. I thank God that His grace is laced in space!

James instructed us to renew our mind. We naturally speak with presumptuousness so he wants us to think differently and speak with renewed positioning. He’s blatant enough to say, “What you ought to say is”, which signifies a deliberate change in speech; speaking like that won’t come naturally, that is precisely why we have to intentionally train ourselves.

So how exactly does James want us to change in our speech? First and foremost, we must acknowledge God’s will in our lives. Everything counts for nothing if God is not in it. That explains why he began his sentence with, “If the Lord wills”. Then he says, “We will live”, meaning that we should check if we are even alive, for it is pointless talking about plans if we are not alive to carry it out. Finally, James says this last, “And do this or that”. Once we have committed our plans to God (and asked Him for His purposes in our lives), and ascertained that we are alive to carry it out, we can consider implementing our plans.

Of course, James knows we’re hardly so obedient; he correctly diagnosed the problem by identifying the opposite of seeking God’s will, that is, to boast about our own plans. This evil boasting is rooted in human pride, where we think we are in control. In Greek, “evil” is an active verb, which means that if we boast of our own plans, we are continuously doing evil.

I didn’t plan to return to Singapore last July. I thought I’d be in Shanghai for a few more years. But everything changed within a week. In a nutshell, I was caught in the middle of a senior management dispute and had to make a decision. I sought the Lord and I made the decision to return home. I had His peace reigning in my heart. Everyone around me was shocked – my mother, sister, colleagues, business associates and even Huiyi’s family – because I was doing well in Shanghai. In fact, I left in the same month of a promotion and significant pay increment.

But a still small voice in my heart assured me that it was all right to come home. I knew that the Lord was going to take care of me, so I obeyed. That was simply it. I had no idea that it would lead to what I am doing now with R-AGE; I didn’t expect myself to be a full-time youth minister so quickly but God knows His timing and I trust Him for it – that’s the beauty of life.

When we understand that this life doesn’t belong to us but to God, we will realise that all we need to do is to obey. Obedience is the highest expression of stewardship; the best way to see the mark of obedience to God in your life is to observe how you have stewarded your life according to what God has revealed in your heart. I do not look forward to the day when God puts His arm around my shoulders to commend me on all the good things I have done for Him only to sound a tad bit disappointed because I missed out on the only thing He wanted me to do; it is important for us to be faithful to our calling.

People say that change is the only constant but I beg to differ for God is the only constant. And if God is the only constant, then wouldn’t it be wise for us to bank on Him to see us through this uncertain life leading up to a certain death? We must remember that life does not revolve around what we want but what God wills. Our lives ought to be a declaration of the true sovereignty of God and never about the imagined control of Man.

If I am an investor and someone told me about a stock that would eventually be good for me, I would buy it in a heartbeat. The stock will fluctuate, but because I know that it will eventually be good for me, I will hang on to it no matter what. The Bible tells us in Romans 8:28 that we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them. Our job becomes really simple then; all we need to do is to love God and live out His purposes in our lives.

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death is a full-stop.

How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.

James 4:14 (New Living Translation)

All of us share one thing in common – we are going to die one day. Love it or hate it, it will come true. Every complete sentence contains a full-stop. Death truly is the ultimate statistic for one out of one dies. Incidentally, just over these couple of days, Singapore witnessed the sudden and completely unexpected passing of a 19-year-old Darren Ng at Downtown East. It saddens me greatly that such a tragedy has taken place and more so because the boy is so young and it was over such a trivial matter! Sigh… But it also reminds us all that the only sure thing about life is death.

James addressed these businessmen because they spoke with such certainty and presumptuousness. His reply in verse 14 is straightforward, honest and in-your-face – “You don’t even know what will happen tomorrow”. We have a tendency to believe that we are in control of our lives, but to that, James retorted, “Your life is almost like smoke – now you see it, now you don’t!”

Morning mist is never seen in the afternoon; we’re here now but we can be gone tomorrow. However, sometimes we live like we’re going to be here forever but the fact remains – we’re not. Are you living to die or dying to live? I believe that once you learn how to die, you learn how to live. Let’s live our lives knowing that death is sure to come but that we have no idea when it’s going to arrive.

It’s common to hear (young) people saying that they will serve God when they enter a freer period of their lives. Let’s face it – there will never be a season of life where you will be less busy than you are now. (Besides, you can’t even guarantee that you’ll enter that period.) After secondary school, you have tertiary education; and after that, you’ve got to build your career; then you have a family to start and raise… There’s no end to it. Are you going to wait until you’re dead before you serve God? If you want to do something for Jesus, whether it is in church or not, do it now. Don’t be presumptuous and think that you have tomorrow to serve God because tomorrow may never come!

I was only afraid of death once in my entire life. And that was when I learnt about the hell that was presented in Haw Par Villa; it was actually the catalyst for my conversion to Christianity from Taoism. However, I don’t think the biblical hell is actually like that – I think it’s worse. That excursion made me ponder about death and honestly, my initial motivation to be a Christian was simply to escape this place called hell. I heard John 3:16 and I wanted eternal life because I wanted a ticket out of hell. Nothing else mattered. It was only two years later that I started to be serious about my faith.

Whether you admit it or not, deep down inside you, you fear the idea of death. But I believer that it’s not death that we fear, but the judgment after death that we fear even more. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you instinctively know that you have to stand before a higher being (God) to account for your life.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of judgment.

First, those who don’t know Jesus Christ will be cast out of the presence of God forever. They will go to a place devoid of God’s presence. And I think to be separated from God’s presence forever is a terrible, horrible and miserable thing. Every time I sin, I feel a temporal emptiness and I absolutely abhor it; I cannot imagine what life would be like if I didn’t have God’s presence. To me, an eternity like that is unimaginably painful.

But when you are faced with the fear of death, you must remember that Jesus Christ has won over death and through Him there is eternal life. Our Saviour has saved us from eternal death! It is my prayer that regardless of how far you have drifted away, you return to Jesus and fall in love with Him all over again.

The second judgment is for those who know Jesus; this is when you will meet God face to face and He will determine your heavenly reward based on what you have done for Christ. What would God say to you? Would He say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” or would He say something else?

You must remember that life is a question-mark and death is a full-stop. But I thank God that that’s not the end of it; this is where God’s grace enters the picture. He calls for us to constantly align ourselves to Him. In fact, that’s what James has resolved to tell us in the next three verses.

sermon recap: attack and counterattack!

I’m back from a four-day planning getaway and for me, there’s nothing better than vision-casting and planning for the future. R-AGE @ GII, if you’re reading this, you ought to thank God for a team of dedicated shepherds who stayed up til 3am and spilled their dreams on an 18-month calendar. It’s gonna be a mind-blowing 2011 and we must certainly rise up to the challenge, to move from involvement to commitment. We’ve been working hard for you; we don’t ask for a lot, only that you can return the favour and pray hard along with us. Remember, revival will come not when we pursue programmes, but when our people pray.

I shall resume my writing by posting the key points of the sermon I preached last Sunday. (Do note that I omit illustrations and analogies in my sermon recaps.) A guest speaker will be speaking this weekend and I will return to the pulpit next weekend to tackle the next portion of James. Let’s continue to be conscientious in our own reading of the Word. (Anyway, I think my sermon recaps are getting longer and longer!)

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Don’t push the blame but take responsibility instead

  • You naturally know how to push the blame without actually being taught how to do it.
  • Trials are usually external situations that strengthen you while temptations are internal struggles that shatter you.
  • God tests you to bring out the best in you – He desires for you to grow spiritually; Satan tempts you to bring out the worst in you – to cause you to sin.
  • God wants you to grow up but Satan wants you to go down.
  • Temptation springs out of your own evil desires (v14). Hence, do not blame God (or Satan or Man) when you are tempted and when you sin; no one made you do it – you made you do it. Take responsibility for your own sin.
  • God doesn’t contradict His own character; if He is holy and hates sin, why would He tempt you?

The ATTACK – how temptations work

  • To deal with sin, understand how temptations work. Adam and Eve demonstrates this perfectly for they were, after all, the first perpetrators.
  • James 1:14a – It begins with a DESIRE. Satan knows your desire and what you are tempted by so he plants exactly that in your heart to entice you; temptations always begins on a small scale that is almost unnoticeable – that’s why it’s dangerous. Sin always begins with something as small and harmless as stealing $1.
  • Satan tempted Eve in Genesis 3:4-5 with, 1) “You will surely not die”, 2) “You will be like God” and 3) “You will know good and evil”.
  • James 1:14b – Desire spirals into DECEPTION. You probably have a tendency to convince yourself, rationalise your thoughts and justify your actions until it feels like whatever that you had intended to do is right. To be deceived, in Greek, literally means, “to be led down a wrong path”.
  • Eve convinced herself in Genesis 4:6a, that the tree was “good for food”, “a delight to the eyes” and could “make one wise”. God certainly didn’t describe the tree that way.
  • James 1:15a – Deception transits into a DECISION. This marks the beginning of sin; Eve lost the battle here as she decided to succumb to her desires.
  • In Genesis 3:6b, Eve saw the wrong thing, entertained the wrong thoughts and experienced the wrong desires. She went ahead to eat the fruit (and even gave it to Adam!).
  • James 1:15b – Decision leads to DEATH. The result of sin meant that Adam and Eve, as well as the rest of us before we knew Jesus, were eternally separated from God. That explains why the world is a messed-up place and needs a Saviour to redeem it from eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23).
  • Know how sin and temptation works if you want to overcome it – and the only way to overcome it is to depend on God to help you.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:13 – God’s real role in temptation is to help you get out of it. Temptation is a way you trap ourselves, but God provides us with a way out. Each time you are tempted, you are tempted within your ability. It is your job to find that way out of the temptation.

The COUNTERATTACK – how to overcome temptations

  • The problem isn’t in the temptation but in the desire that is within your heart; sin will always look good at the start for it appeals to pleasures but it always ends up as a disaster. Before yielding to temptation, count the cost of its destruction. Would you rather the blessings that God gives or the lies and hurt that Satan brings?
  • James 1:17a – TRUST GOD’S CHARACTER. When you trust the goodness of the Father, it will help you to remain unmoved by Satan’s temptations. You yield to Satan’s temptations because you cannot wait for God’s blessings; remember that it is God who blesses you with good things, not Satan.
  • Be wary of the microwave generation that demands immediacy and instant gratification. Sometimes, your impatience causes you to make your own miracles instead of waiting for the only Miracle Maker.
  • The battle with temptation boils down to a battle of faith. Who do you trust? God, Satan or ourselves? If you really submit to the Lord in all aspects of your life, then you will receive the ultimate protection against temptation; you can trust God because He is constant and never changes.
  • James describes God as one who doesn’t change like shifting shadows. God is like the sun – it doesn’t change, it doesn’t move. The “shifting shadows” don’t come from God but from you; you shift, but God doesn’t. This makes Him a trustworthy God and someone you can trust wholeheartedly.
  • James 1:18 – TAKE IN GOD’S WORD. Truth will set you free. Read the Word of God – understand, internalise and memorise it. Make it a part of you for you cannot be apart from it. Don’t just depend on pastors and leaders to teach you the Word – know the Word for yourself. To break out of the cycle of temptation, you need the truth to be recycled in you.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:18, 1 Corinthians 10:14 & 2 Timothy 2:22 – TAKE OFF AND FLEE. When you are tempted, don’t even try to deal with it – just run.
  • James 4:7b – TACKLE THE DEVIL. Don’t fight temptation and flee the devil, but flee temptation and fight the devil.
  • Remember biblical truths when you fight the devil. Do not be afraid of the devil for you are God’s dear child and that Christ, who is in you, is greater than the devil who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
  • The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war. Temptation is a battlefield and a war-zone in your head. During peace time, when you are not tempted, fill your head with truth, so that when the battle begins, you will emerge victorious and overcome the devil not by might or by power but by the spirit of God.
  • James 4:7a – TURN BACK TO GOD. Balance the pressure inside you and ensuring that it is equal and opposite to the pressure outside. Instead of just combating external pressure – which is to flee from temptation and fight the devil – you must also build internal pressure, which is to focus on God. Submit yourself to God first before you resist the devil – make that your goal.
  • Memorising the Word is biblical. Psalm 119:9-11 instructs young men to store God’s word and hide it in their hearts. The blood of Jesus cleans you from committed sin but the word of God keeps you from uncommitted sin. Hence, focus on God on the inside and fight the devil on the outside, while at the same time flee from temptations! So that when temptation comes, the Word of God will come. In order to overcome lies and deceit, be filled with truth. Scripture memory is not for impressing others but for insulating yourself.

Boast of your weakness and receive the power of Christ

  • While God is a holy God who doesn’t tolerate sin, He is also a loving God who wants to help you overcome sin. Only the grace of God can prevent the sin in your life from being “full-grown and gives birth to death”.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:9 – God gives you His grace, which is sufficient for you and through that, His power is made perfect by your weaknesses. Your response then, is to boast all the more gladly about your weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on you.
  • Hebrews 4:15-16 – Jesus understands what you go through because He has gone through it Himself; He sits on the throne of grace and He is able to give you undeserved favour; you know that you will fall and keep falling, week after week, so that’s why you need His grace again and again. You know that you will be unable to withstand the pressure of sin and temptation. You know that you cannot do this on your own.
  • Ask God for His strength to help you overcome temptations. Come before God and to confess your sins to Him. Confess it to a brother or sister whom you trust for James 5:6 encourages us to confess your sins to one another and to pray for each other.
  • Ask God for His grace to help you to trust His promises, memorise His word, run away from temptations, fight the devil and to fix your eyes on Him. Come to the point where you know that you can’t do it on your own and that you are sick of depending on yourself.

my journey to Jesus Christ – a personal testimony.

I’ve always been grateful to God for His grace that has seen me through my growing-up years. For me to be serving Him full-time as a youth minister is a long shot from what was actually intended for me by default of my family’s heritage. Many of you would have heard this before so please bear with me as I share my conversion story again. After all, telling of God’s redemptive plan never gets old.

Caution: this is a long read – prepare the tidbits. (P/S: I’ve already kept it brief!)

I am the firstborn of my generation in a traditional Taoist family. When my parents divorced in 1991, I stayed with my grandmother and my father (for he had the legals rights to my custody). Our flat was a make-shift temple (but some of the devotees probably saw a temple in a make-shift flat, if you know what I mean). I vividly remember the day I counted with my index finger, statue by statue, the number of idols we worshipped – over 130. Yes, it’s a staggeringly scary number. Every August, my family would organise a festival to the celebrate the birthday of the main deity of our temple. Throngs of people would be in attendance and I was always actively involved. There were more people who came to my house to offer incense, ask for protection, consult mediums (yes, possessions took place at my home regularly) than to visit my grandmother, who is the custodian of the temple. Being the eldest grandchild, I was supposed to take over the temple from my uncle, who played the role of a general manager, of sorts. I was exposed to a lot of the operations; I knew and could recognise all the deities by their dialect salutations, chanted during rituals, played the “worship” music (of drums and cymbals) and of course, mixed with tattoo-clad gangster three times my age. They said I had so much “spiritual potential” that I was made the godson of two prominent deities and I was the youngest “layman” to be involved in all the activities. I certainly enjoyed the attention and favour everyone bestowed to me and I reveled in it.

Despite being in a missionary institution (Anglo-Chinese School), I only heard about Jesus Christ when I was in Primary Four, at an external Scripture Union Primary Age camp that my science teacher invited me to go along with her. It was then that my discovery of Christianity begun. I remember talking to my grandmother about the camp and how I may want to follow this “Jesus”. Needless to say, I received a huge dressing-down. A year later, after a school excursion to Haw Par Villa, where we took a boat into the “18 Levels of Hell”, I became tremendously afraid of dying – more specially of ending up in hell. I remember the night that I couldn’t sleep because I was mentally disturbed by all the different punishments I saw in “Hell”; liars had their tongues cut off, murderers were cruelly decapitated and thieves were violently amputated – I was guilty of all these sins and I didn’t want to end up as a mere lump of flesh forever. In tears, I walked out to the living room and had a Papa-I-don’t-want-to-die-and-go-to-hell conversation with my father. Two years later, after the Primary Six Leaving Examination (PSLE), I attended a Christian Fellowship camp organised by my school. I have no recollection how I even signed up for it. Nonetheless, it was at that camp that I gave my life to Jesus. My motivation was simple – I didn’t want to go to hell and John 3:16 was the deciding factor for my conversion. I’m being honest here; I didn’t really embrace the idea of suffering something worse than death itself for all of eternity. The person who led me in the sinner’s prayer was Brother Alan Lim. Here’s the excerpt of what I remember about my conversion conversation:

Alan Lim“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Me: You mean, I just need to believe?

AL: Yes, it’s as simple as that.

Me: You mean, I won’t go to hell and be tortured after I die?

AL: You will have eternal life with Jesus.

Me: You mean, it’s free?

AL: Yes, it is free.

Me: Okay then, I want to be a Christian.

AL: All right, I will lead you in a “sinner’s prayer” but do you know that once you say this, there’s no turning back?

Me: Yes, I know.

AL: Good, let’s pray then. Repeat after me, “Dear Jesus…”

That was it – I didn’t want to go to hell and this “Jesus” person offered me a way out of it. It was free and I didn’t need to do anything except to confess with my mouth and believe in my heart. I mean, it’s a no-brainer deal! Who wouldn’t accept this offer? I certainly wanted this “eternal life” and as a simple-minded Primary Six boy, I was completely sold by this salvation idea. I had to keep this conversion a secret for a good four years before I finally decided to declare it to my grandmother. It was a Sunday and I remember telling it to her while we were together in a taxi (and I still remember that conversation taking place when the cab was travelling along Lower Delta Road, turning left into the slip road that connected to Tiong Bahru Road, towards Redhill MRT station). Strangely enough, I can’t remember how I started the conversation. But she was aware that I have missed the August festival for four years running now.

Me: Ah Ma,你知道我现在是信耶稣了,每个星期天都会去教堂的。(Grandma, do you know that I believe in Jesus now and attend church every Sunday?)

Grandma: 我当然知道啦,我不管你要信什么,你变乖就好。(Of course I know. But I don’t care what you believe in, so long as you become obedient.)

You see, when I stayed with Ah Ma for those four years in that four-room Jalan Besar flat, I was a terrible and horrible kid to look after. I have stolen from my own grandmother, the neighbourhood convenience store and even the departmental store in a shopping centre. Everyday, I hung out with hooligans until midnight, gambled, accompanied them to extort money, threatened people and participated in activities that terrorised the neighbourhood; many times my grandmother had to personally search for me at 11pm. I spewed vulgarities (in dialect) like it was second-nature to me. I’ve changed tutors 11 times in three years and I constantly escaped from tuition and even made a couple of (lady) tutors cry. I basically had no regard for authority. Mind you, I had “achieved” all these as a primary school kid; that’s right – I was on my way to becoming “yellow chinese trash”, as I would affectionately call myself. I had “boys’ home”, “juvenile delinquent” and “no future” written on my forehead. I wasn’t an unintelligent boy, but my ill-discipline nearly caused me to be thrown to EM3 (the weakest academic band) during the Primary Four Streaming Examinations.

My close shave with EM3 was the last straw for my mother. She acted quickly, just like how she “saved” my sister from this destructive environment a couple of years ago. She took this opportunity to gain complete custody of me, and my sister and I were reunited after being separated from one another for a few years. I moved to peaceful Ghim Moh from turbulent Jalan Besar; it has been the three of us ever since 1995. By God’s grace(!), I made it through the PSLE with 4 A’s and I remember doing it without any additional tuition (as my mother could not afford it). It was a miracle now that I think about it, no matter how I look at it. I am certain that God was massively involved in redeeming me and I am certain that there must have been people who were interceding for me. I was the first amongst my immediate family to be saved, then my sister (although she attended church before me), then my mother. Again, by God’s grace, the five eldest grandchildren of my paternal family are all Christians now and they serve God actively in their respective churches. I was no longer that repulsive primary school boy that my grandmother used to look after and my significant turnaround was certainly obvious to her. No wonder she said it doesn’t matter what or who I believed in, so long as I became obedient.

(Okay, that sharing was a little longer than I had imagined… And I’ve really enjoyed writing all that… But) I shall come to my main point now.

A lot of people have told me, “Wow, Joey, you have such a good testimony! My testimony is so boring…”

But I beg to differ, for I merely have a dramatic testimony.

To me, a good testimony is this:

“I am obedient to my parents; I study hard in school; I attend church with my family every Sunday; I go for cell group every week; I am well-behaved and even-tempered; I read the Bible and memorise the Word of God; I spend time with God daily; I treat everyone with respect; I love my brothers and sisters-in-Christ; I pray for my friends and constantly encourage them; I serve God actively in church; I take care of those who are in need; I heed the advice of my pastors, mentors and leaders; I am faithful, available and teachable; I love God, love His Word and His people.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that a person who has that kind of story to tell is a remarkable individual for that life demonstrates years of obedience and courage to be different from everyone else; I opine that you don’t need to fall away from grace to experience God’s grace. Everyone has a story to tell and it is the element of a changed life by a great God that makes the testimony powerful and effective.

I may have a captivating story to tell of God’s grace, redemption and goodness in my life, and God has certainly used it to glorify Himself in the last 15 years. But that’s just me! For every one drug addict or ex-convict who turns his life to Jesus, there will be nine others who fall to the wayside. In Revelation 12:11, we know that we will overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony; the Word of God doesn’t indicate that this testimony needs to be dramatic or good – but that we simply do our part to testify, which means that we ought to tell others about what God has done in our lives. Never, ever, underestimate your testimony simply because it’s a simple one.

The key here isn’t to compare your story with mine but to tell you my story, and for you to tell me yours, so that at the end of the day, God gets all the glory. May I urge you to always testify no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you do, for you never know how God will use your testimony to display His awesome glory and amazing redemption. Let’s save some, by all means possible!

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