I sat on an old bench in an even older bank building as I waited for my turn to talk to my credit officer. I was there to tell him the same embarrassing news: we still didn’t have money to pay our loans. I thought about how I got to this spot, just a year prior I was part of the Real LIFE startup team and had just joined Habitat for Humanity. I was on my way, I thought, to building a fulfilling early career in the nonprofit world before jumping into, I thought again, my “amazing innovative exciting business” business.
I was so wrong.
At least that’s how I felt for the first few years of taking over a distressed company. In a few months, not only was I not achieving my “big dreams”, I was living my nightmare. As a young man, when asked at a talk I gave, what I feared most, I had one answer: failure. And I was a big failure by many objective metrics. Financially I was not just not good. I was in terrible shape. My company was in terrible shape. Physically I was in terrible shape, skipping meals and drinking too much alcohol – and doing a couple of 1 am runs or early morning swims when my anxiousness would keep me awake. I had tax issues, sales issues, investor issues, supplier issues, and staff issues. I stupidly mixed that with girl issues. Spiritually, I was not in good shape as seen in my never-ending feeling of impending doom, that I was one more mistake away from utter failure. Truly spiritual people have a sense of calm, peace, and rest. I felt like I would burst at any time. I’ve written about this period in my life before, but I want to share a thought I had on that bench, a very understandable but evil idea that went:
“Why am I going through this? Why do I have to fix this while my brothers get to move on? Why do I get debt when my classmates got capital? Why do I have to struggle so much when I’m a good guy (so I thought)? Why do so many evil people, truly sick, corrupt, and despicable people, become so prosperous?” All these thoughts led to this one evil idea: “It is unfair.”
I’ve had many versions of this thought in my life.
When I was younger, “Why am I so short? It is unfair”.
“Why do I have bad skin? (I have atopic dermatitis) It is unfair.”
“Why am I so slow to learn? Why do I need to have extra tutoring when others learn so fast? It’s unfair.”
“Why others have so much money and there are so many decent poor people? It is unfair.”
“Why are there incompetent people who earn more than me? It is unfair.”
“Why do people who are close to the leaders, to the pastors, to the officials, get away with so much, have so much influence, even if they are clearly without credit? It’s unfair.”
I can go on forever.
The number of times I have called something unfair is embarrassing. Many of you probably have had similar thoughts as me. I still get those thoughts a lot. But I think I have a better perspective now. Two days ago, I was having lunch with Nels, a very respectable friend who I’ve connected with very quickly, and he was telling me about how his life has a non-financial score despite having had a highly successful banking career. He used the example of when Jesus told Peter he would be crucified, which Peter followed by asking Jesus, “What about John?” Nels said, similar to Peter, he has learned not to compare his life with others but to trust God. After our lunch, I went to a meeting to discuss exciting developments with Bridge, but after work, I kept thinking about the story of Jesus and Peter. Jesus told Peter he was going to die and when asked about John, replied: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” This is an extra stinging response when we remember that Jesus was just reinstating Peter, asking Peter to reaffirm his love and to “feed my sheep”. It kinda goes like this:
Jesus: Do you love me?
Jesus: Then feed my sheep.
Repeat 3x, then:
Jesus: You are also going to suffer and die a gruesome death.
Peter: What about John?
Jesus: None of your business. That’s mine.
Thinking about that, I thought that evil idea I know so well, “That’s really unfair.”
Then I remembered a question my dad had just asked me to think about: “Why did Noah, who walked with God, have to suffer through the ridicule of building the ark, and suffer through an actual cataclysmic flood while Enoch, who also walked with God, skipped death and went straight to heaven?”
Then one by one the different unfair stories of the Bible jumped at me. “Why did God like Abel’s offering and not Cain’s? Why did God favor Jacob over Esau? Why did God rebuke the law-keeping Pharisees and welcome the adulteress Samaritan?” I am sure there is more unfairness in the pages of the Bible.
Until I went back to the story of Peter in the book of John:
(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” John 21:19 ESV http://bible.com/59/jhn.21.19.ESV
The words glorify God stood out, I thought, ”What a selfish God this makes Him when I’m some plaything, whose only worth is to used by God any way He wants.” Which is basically what they teach you in Sunday school. But me being the challenger, I couldn’t settle on that. This idea is so counter to the loving nature of the God of the Bible. The explanation that God will do whatever He wants simply because He is God, even screw with your life because it is His anyway, which I’ve heard so many times from preachers does not reconcile with love. While I believe that is His prerogative (He is God after all), I don’t believe He will contradict His nature. Maybe that’s why much of the world, especially the objective world, does not believe in the Bible. We preach a God of love, then when someone’s life gets screwed we have two default messages: 1. “What sin did you break?” Or 2. “God is sovereign. Who knows His plans?” (which basically means “just take it”). But as I thought about this more, as I studied glory, I remembered a verse in Colossians 1:27:
“God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Christ in you, in me, the hope of glory. Glory comes when Christ is in us. I parked that thought.
Then I remembered another verse in Romans 5:3:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; We glory in our sufferings…
There’s that word again. Glory.
I read up more on glory and came upon this on gotquestions.org:
The hope of glory is the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore us and all creation (see Romans 8:19–21 and 1 Peter 5:10). This hope is not a wishful thought, but the confident, expectant, joyful knowledge that we are being changed by God and will one day see Christ face to face, having been conformed to His image (Romans 8:29; 1 John 3:2).
Then it hit me. It is not about fair or unfair. It is about glory.
It is not about everyone receiving an equal outcome, like everyone being blessed or having a nice car (which is impossible anyway), but everyone has equal opportunity to experience glory.
How do we experience glory? Through Christ in us. –> How do we grow closer to Christ? By becoming more like Him. –> What does it mean to be like someone? It means to share the same values, the same purpose, and the same practices. –> How do learn how to be more like Christ? By allowing all our own diverse life experiences to result in greater virtue.
To be Christlike is to exhibit Christ’s virtues, love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest. Our life experiences good and bad are meant to grow us in virtue. And if the experience, the good and the bad, do not result in greater virtue, then we will miss the glory of God. This is why we can have wealth but not have peace. We have money but not virtue. We can have networks but feel lonely because we have not grown in love. We can have all the different success metrics of the world and not have joy because joy is a virtue. We don’t earn peace. We grow in peace or any other virtue. We grow in virtue the way we grow in muscle. We experience stress, we rest, and we heal, then we do it again.
That’s what I was doing on that bank bench without knowing it. I was growing in virtue. I was being put in a situation where I had to exercise faith, exercise peace, exercise commitment, exercise perseverance, and as I did God’s amazing pattern of growth worked within me. He wasn’t merely punishing me like a vengeful God (how petty is that?) nor was He playing with me because He is sovereign and I’m too dumb to know His intentions (again, how petty is that?). I now know that I do know His intentions, and it was, and is, to use my life’s unique experiences as different opportunities to grow in virtue, to be more like Christ, that I may draw closer to Christ. His intention is a loving relationship.
This is why God kept speaking to Cain despite his bad offering and kept warning Him. He was offering the chance to grow in the virtues of humility and forgiveness. Those were his missing virtues. Sadly, he didn’t see it that way. He was blocked by envy. Envy is the devil’s way of making us focus on someone else’s lack of virtue when we should be focusing on the virtues we should be exercising ourselves. When we make material and earthly things our goal, we will inevitably feel envy. Some people do have more materials than others. But when you realize that the virtue of love can be exercised in any situation by anybody, you realize we all have fair opportunity to grow in virtue. And what enables this opportunity? God’s glorious unfairness to Himself in order that we may have a way to Him, a glorious unfairness exemplified by the death of Christ.
Jesus was not simply telling Peter, “None of your business.” Jesus was telling Peter, “Your lives are incomparable. You and John are different. Now follow me. Don’t follow the lives of others. Follow me. The life I am taking you through is the life that will lead to more of me in you. It is the life that leads to more glory.” I guess the headstrong Peter needed the extreme experiences he had. We know he was headstrong as he was still being rebuked by Paul down the road. Even this rebuke was not meant to prove superiority but an opportunity for Peter to grow in virtue. Just as my own father treated my brothers and I differently depending on what engaged us most effectively, God does not apply one style with all of us because He acknowledges our individuality, in fact, He designed our individuality.
Now, I’m sitting on a couch in Singapore. In my inbox are some very happy investor and some very unhappy ones. There are great challenges waiting for me in Manila and great opportunities as well. I’m exhausted but am pushed by a very real anxiousness to be a good provider, especially now that I have a son. I have a little bit more today than I did back on that bank bench, but the worry, envious thoughts, and accusations are the same. They just have more zeroes now. But God’s plan is also the same, and His process for me stays, “Exercise virtue, David.”
Earlier I thought, “I can’t wait to be done with all of this character building. Where i am so good at handling my challenges with virtue.” Then I realized, in the fitness world, you call that plateauing, when your improvement flattens out and there are no more gains. I guess this is why God always challenges us to step out. But the good news is this challenge comes with instructions, to step out in faith, which is the confidence that He is with us and will never forsake us.
For someone with a dark heart like mine, to be welcomed over and over, and to be given an opportunity to experience Christ more and more is a gift I do not deserve. My stained offerings to Christ is so little compared to His great gifts. What a wonderful thing to be treated with glorious unfairness. #db
A notification went off on my phone telling me I slept only 66% of my sleep goal of 6 hours a day. The same alarm pings my Apple Watch, iPad, and MacBook. (Am I really this dense that I need so many reminders?) None of these notifications are needed to inform me that I am tired. Exhausted is probably a better word. I would like nothing more than to be snoring loudly on this warm Sunday morning.
But I am awake and typing this. Why? Am I really some sort of blogging addict? Nope. It’s because I scheduled to post an article today, meaning, I committed to myself that I would sit down, process my thoughts, and share them with others, hoping that they may encourage and empower others. The ability to do things not because it feels good, or feels right, or is popular, fun, or respectable, and despite being opposite all those things,but following through simply because you made an invisible commitment to yourself, is what is known as self-control. Self-Control, the ability to respond to life, not merely react like little babies do, is a key indicator of maturity. What about ourselves should we control? This often-shared quote encapsulates things nicely:
“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Self-Control means controlling our thoughts, words, actions, habits, character, and ultimately our destiny (our destination, where our lives go).
When we don’t control our thoughts, when we let circumstances, the opinions of others, our worries and fears, our lusts, our anger, our impatience, our unprocessed thoughts, and unrefined ideas dictate what we think, we exhibit a lack of self-control. We are reacting to things outside of us, instead of doing what the Bible says:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things
– Philippians 4:8
This is not so easy during a stressful situation, like trying to make your finances work while calming a wailing baby at 3am. But it is possible and very beneficial. For this specific example, a true example from my own life, I CHOOSE to go beyond the surface suffering and look at the profound privilege of the activity. I am not merely struggling to pay the bills and calm my son. I am participating in the amazing process of raising a godly man. If being up at this time is part of it, it’s worth it. If having to tighten our belts and move funds around is part of it, it’s worth it. If feeling very tired is part of it, it’s worth it. And it’s extra worth it because I know that not only am I part of such a meaningful activity, but that if I set my eyes on Jesus, if I trust Him and obey Him in all circumstances, not only will things work out, but I’ll be transformed to be more like Him. Sometimes, I forget that God’s main goal is not to give me the life I want or a life with no struggles, but to make me more like Christ, which means, that my thoughts words, actions, habits, and character reflect those of Christs because the spiritual virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and, here it comes again, self-control, are so evident in my life. I have born fruit. The pleasure of having a son, and the privilege to be able to become more like my Jesus, makes everything worth it. Of course I find it worth it because I have activated the self-control required to reject society’s values of success and the good life but determined for myself that I want to please God and love my family. My success is based on how well I do the latter two. I think most people simply live by recommendation and convention, not by conviction, so actually live others-controlled and wonder why they don’t feel free. Is it not logical to understand that to be others-controlled means you’re not truly choosing for yourself?
Cultivate self-control. Be free.
Last Friday morning, my son, Elijah, was circumcised. While I won’t go through the reasoning of why we chose to have him circumcised, I want to share a simple story from it. Inside the operating room, after preparing Elijah for the procedure, the doctor warned me that the babies usually cry when they’re injected but that after that they’d be fine. Right before they injected him, the doctor said, “Ok, here we go. 1-2-3…” And proceeded to inject him, only to marvel, “Oh. He didn’t cry.” Elijah had only made a slight grunt and went back to sleep. Throughout the whole procedure, he did not cry at all. He’d whine a bit, but then relax again. The anaesthesia must have taken over at some point. I was so proud to watch how my 3-week old son handled what is a painful situation. He took it, winced, and let it go. “That’s my son.” I thought to myself. The nurses told me that he was very brave. I don’t know how much of that is true or them being nice, but I’ll take it. Haha!
Anyway, the next day, I was still so proud of how tough my son was when I had a thought: Maybe this is how God the Father feels when He sees me win over my anger, surrender my pride, defeat lust, or choose kindness and godliness under pressure. Maybe this is how He felt watching Job take hit after hit yet remain faithful. Maybe this is how He felt when the disciples worshipped until death. Maybe this is how He felt when His Son chose the Father’s will. More than enjoying freedom as we become self-determining when we are self-controlled, the beauty of self-control is that we are able to worship God in our own special way, responding to our own individual circumstances in our own unique acts of worship. For me and Yasmin, one of the songs we sing to God looks more like ass-wiping with a smile at 2am. For me, the melody I send to Heaven, is the sincere gratefulness in my heart at working in Bridge on such an awesome mission, even though I haven’t slept. The chorus I repeat is my recurring repentance of my many sins and constant trusting in His goodness, even as I face consequences.
This, I believe, is true worship as Romans 12:1 explains it:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.“
Just as there is good singing and bad singing, there is beautiful and pointless worship. Pointless worship is lip service. Beautiful worship comes from our self-controlled choosing to please God in all that we do, knowing that He is pleased when we walk in faith, obey His word, and love others as ourselves.
I’ve tried to write this post a few times but it always came out too long. I guess there is much to say on the topics of adversity, courage, and victory. But I want to keep this piece as accessible as possible, as practical as possible, as livable as possible, because no insight left unpracticed and un-lived has ever benefited anyone. In many ways this can fool us into thinking that just because we hold a certain ideal or certain opinion we live according to them.
Many times we don’t.
It’s like asking someone, “Do you believe that God is all powerful?”
“Yes.” He answers
“Do you believe that He loves you and does what is best for you?”
“Yes.” He replies again.
“If He has all the power in the world and does what is best for you, how much time do you spend with Him on a daily basis? Does it not make sense to spend as much time as possible with Him?”
The usual answer that I’ve heard these days is, “Um… I don’t really have a set time, but I pray every now and then throughout the day. I just feel Him throughout the day.”
“And what happens when you don’t feel Him?”
This usually leads to, “You can’t judge me!”
I give this example to point out that we many times hold an idea and think we live it when we really don’t. It is possible that we hold the idea that we are Christian when we really don’t live like Christians. We hold the idea that we love God when we don’t even spend time with Him. He is our random invisible friend, on call when we feel Him. We hold the idea that we are obeying Him when we’re really just doing whatever we feel like doing, and rarely stopping to ask the very simple question of, “What would You have me do?” We hold the idea that we are close to God but are easily discouraged, easily offended, easily insecure, selfish, unkind, and entitled, all descriptions of people who are not close to God.
I am very many times guilty of all of the above. I’m glad I’ve had time on this trip to have slower days to rest and pray, to really go back to the simplicity of “Jesus, You are my Lord. What would You have me do?”
There’s an attack in London, “Jesus, You are my Lord. How would You have me respond? How would You have me feel? My impulse is to fear, give me courage.”
There’s an attack in Manila, “Jesus, You are my Lord. How would You have me respond? Who would You have me comfort? How would You have me pray?”
There’s a work issue, “Jesus, You are my Lord. How would You have me respond? Please give me clarity and a sound mind.”
This posture of, “Jesus, You are my Lord.” simplifies our decision making. What is right isn’t what isn’t convenient but what is God-glorifying, what God-obeying, and what is God and man loving. It helps bring clarity to our thoughts, especially during periods of frustration, of high pressure, high stress, of confusion, of sadness, and of fear. When we put things aside and say, “Jesus, You are my Lord. Speak to me.”
I think about how I’ve practiced this simple prayer. Despite a checkered past of both victory and struggle against sin, I’ve learned that many times the only decision we need to make is the one right in front of us, which is, “Will I make Jesus Lord over this next decision?”
Deep in millions of debt? Or have a big financial goal? Make Jesus Lord over your next expense. Then do that again. Maybe the millions are currently out of reach but the next decision is well within your control.
In the different areas of life, with the next decision, make Jesus Lord.
I was reminded of this while sitting with Yasmin in the emergency room of St. Luke’s Medical Center. We had to rush to the hospital Friday midnight because Yasmin’s left foot was very swollen. We were worried it could be a blood clot, and extra concerned because we were scheduled to fly out to London Saturday. After a couple of hours and some tests, we were advised to get an ultrasound to be sure. This would mean missing our flight, rebooking, more spending of money we don’t have, and missing time with family. My normal impulse feelings started swirling, I could feel the frustration, impatience, and grumbling bubbling up. But somehow I managed to catch myself and ask, “What’s the most important thing right now?” The most important thing was Yasmin’s and my son’s health. Let’s make the decision that protects that. What’s even more important than that? That God is glorified even in our inconvenient and scary moment. Let’s have the attitude that honors that. Then we just faced every other decision the same way, not muddying the choice with how we felt or our fears about the future, but looking at things very matter of factly, but surrendering every immediate choice to the Lordship of God. Somehow we managed to complete all the tests, rebook our flights for the next day with minimal financial damage (though it still hurt). More importantly, Yasmin and the baby were shown to be well. Most importantly, I believe, we glorified God.
Where did we learn to process life this way? Was it through a sermon from a charismatic preacher? Was it through the popular Christian book of the day? Was it through an emotional moment at a Christian concert? When I praying and thinking about the events of that weekend, I remembered a very special verse to me:
And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!” – 1 Samuel 17:33-37
We learn how to trust God for big things by trusting in Him for the smaller things. David, while simply serving his father faithfully, and learning that God’s power was helping him succeed in this task and against the threats he was facing, was being taught how to face something much bigger and with bigger implications.
He didn’t learn how to defeat giants through thinking big or faking it to make it. He learned how to defeat giants by being faithful with something smaller, protecting something smaller.
Too many times we’re waiting for that big break, we’re praying to God for that big dream, that wish, that hope, and we’re missing the preparation of today. Praying for that big business break? How is your workmanship today? Are you excellent today? Or are you already faltering? Are you already tired where you are?
Praying for a spouse? How are your current relationships? Are you good at apologizing? Are you good at forgiving? Are you good at serving? Because if you’re not, you’ll lose your spouse. You can expect that. If you’re not beating the lions and bears of selfishness then you’ll be crushed when it’s the giant.
Praying for a spiritual revelation? How are you with your daily devotions? How are you with obeying your parents or authorities? How are you with obeying your spouse?
We learn how to defeat giants by defeating the lions and the bears, because if we can’t trust in God’s power for smaller things, we won’t trust Him for bigger things. We will have no experience to remember, no answered prayer to hold on to, and no proof of God’s work in our own specific lives.
So let me summarize into one sentence: We need to apply God’s power to defeating the lions and bears of life, that we may learn how to apply His power to life’s giants.
If we really believe what we say we believe, if we have convictions (not just opinions), if Jesus is really Lord, then we must apply His Lordship (His purpose and power) in our decision-making, and if we do, we will succeed, and with each success, we will grow in confidence that we can trust in Him no matter what we face. This is what it means to grow in faith. It’s not some mystical zap that now makes us more believing or more patient or more loving. It is exercising our faith by obeying God’s word with every decision, finding that not only is this the right thing to do but it is also the beneficial thing to do, the pleasing thing to do.
I love this approach. It removes the burden of my many mistakes and focuses me on one thing: glorifying God with my next decision. From my experience, whether it’s a challenge brought about by my own bad decisions or someone else’s, by relying on God’s power for the immediate and succeeding decisions, I find that even the gigantic problems are now beatable, because The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me.