Experiences over Christmas 2003
By Bro.Chin Soon, January, 2004
Faith grows through obedience.
The Secret of Life
This is a diary of some of my experiences over the Christmas period at the end of 2003. It is a follow-up on my testimony at Penang CDC’s November Camp which was held 22-26 Nov 2003 at the Methodist Bungalow on Penang Hill. In that testimony I shared about wanting to learn the “secret of life” which the Lord Jesus had revealed in the Gospels - that it is opposite in every sense to the system of this world.
Each time I have to share something about my personal experience of God, and especially writing it down, I am immediately concerned because my spiritual life has been one of ups and downs, with the downs predominating. But I realise God gives us experiences so that we can encourage others, not to keep for ourselves. I have a track record of inconsistency and straying away, so I write also as a reminder to myself in case I go down that familiar path again.
After the Nov Camp, in one of our Friday prayer meetings, Pastor Steven shared about what he learnt at the co-workers retreat with Pastor Eric in Cebu, Philippines. For two whole weeks, the emphasis was that everyone must be in touch with God. In everything that he did, Pastor Eric was acutely aware of God’s presence and instructions, even in the food he ate, or things he wanted to do. His experience of being in touch with God was like being tuned-in to God’s radio station all day long. His “secret” of being close to God was that each morning when he got up, he would pray that God’s will be done, and not his own. So I tried to do this too for some days leading up to Christmas, because I knew it was also taught in the Bible. I thought that if it could work for Pastor Eric, there must be something in it.
I should tell you first that I had begun to believe in the reality of God’s Word after an experience of its power when applied a few months before. It was to do with my own wrongdoing with regards to certain information I gave to my company, which I finally confessed to after many weeks of personal struggle. I did this out of my own initiative because I wanted to correct the wrong, though I risked losing my job in doing so. Seeing the positive effects of this admission on myself and others around, especially those I had to admit to, showed me that when the words in the Bible are practiced, they become a penetrating light, and seeing this caused my faith to grow.
Also in the period leading up to Christmas, I learnt from Pastor Steven in BT (Basic Training) class that learning to “lose oneself” will impact our prayer life. There was also an assignment which those of us attending BT had to do - write a meditation on Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) to answer the question: What is the one thing which Mary had, which Martha lacked? My answer in my assignment was that the one thing which Martha lacked was Mary’s totality of focus on the Lord Jesus, at the expense of everything else. I tried to apply this. In another BT session, I learnt this wonderful verse which for so many years as a Christian I did not know existed: *1 John 3:20 “...in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” My heart was always condemning myself for all the sin which I could not get myself out of. This verse was a light of hope for me - that God was so great, He could even overcome our self-condemnation. So with this hope and the many teachings from Pastor Steven, I wanted to move on in my spiritual life. My prayer life was virtually non-existent, and I knew that without that I did not have any meaningful relationship with God.
I must also say that this theme of losing oneself is one that all my life I had been pondering, but could not grasp. I used to put on my cupboard verses like the words of Jesus in *Matthew 16:24-25 “...If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” There are far too many words of Jesus on this theme that it cannot be ignored without omitting a large part of the Gospel. Indeed I had always known that within this paradoxical teaching of Jesus, therein lies the truth, the secret to life. In hindsight, I realise why this is hardly preached nowadays - because it is too hard for many to swallow. But I have come to realise that I will not make any headway in my spiritual life without facing this; that God’s demands on us are actually very high indeed; that the cheap grace I had been hearing all my years of being a Christian had not helped me one bit in having a real relationship with God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in the opening line of his book The Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”
So, wanting to learn how to be closer to God, each day when I got up I would pray to God that His will be done, regardless of my mood that day, while my own mood I would set aside. Usually when I get up in the morning on a work day I am rather depressed - a common experience for working people. So throughout the day, I had to keep reminding myself. I was helped by the fact that work was not so hectic at the time.
Workings of the Spirit
I went back to Kuala Lumpur for Christmas to spend the long weekend with my mother. It was on Friday night 26th Dec at home, that I felt the presence of God while praying in my room. I was actually tired and sleepy when I settled down to pray. I felt the Spirit come into me the moment I closed my eyes to pray. It was like the Spirit was changing some things inside me - there was some kind of “activity” going on inside the centre of my head and body - but all the time I was aware of what was going on. It was a very wonderful experience that I wished would go on and on. And I became very aware of the Spirit’s presence within and without, and I didn’t dare move - I was afraid God would go away! After a while this activity stopped and I became very awake and my mind became very clear - as if a muddled-up mind got straightened-out - and aware of the quietness and clarity within and of sounds without, even outside the house. I was acutely aware that His listening ear was very close to me - as if near my mouth - that I did not dare speak out loud but whispered instead at first, like I would whisper into someone’s ear. I realised that I had control of myself, and keeping my eyes closed, I reached out and turned off the table lamp because I did not want any distraction at all. Then I stood up and prayed more boldly, at first asking God to show me great things. After a while I remembered what I learnt in BT about prayer - that even in prayer we should not be seeking our own interests or even spiritual enjoyment, but the interests of God - advancing His kingdom. So the rest of the prayer was to ask God to show me things I could share with the church in Penang, and to ask what was my role in His plans. God did not tell me or show me anything, but I knew His presence was there. Eventually I felt tired again so I dismissed myself and went to bed, still feeling His presence above, as if watching. Two days later I wrote all this down in my journal, for fear of forgetting such an important event. After this incident I have become more sensitive to the Spirit’s workings - the feeling is stronger when I am thinking of the right things, weaker otherwise. I realise we have to co-work with the Spirit.
I am asked: How does one actually “die to self” for the sake of Christ? I think one dies to self by not pandering to it, by not giving in to one’s emotions, and instead focus on the job one is called to do - follow Christ. The problem with too much self-reflection via psychology is that it ends up pandering to the self and increases focus on the self rather than reduces it. One can spend years doing just this and still not solve one’s psychological problems. But setting these aside can be done very quickly, and needs to be done each day because we still wake up with all our problems. So we don’t wait till we sort out every psychological or emotional problem before we follow Christ. The wonder is that the Spirit will enable us once we do this. In fact if we submit our will to God, He will live in us and then things will start to look different. Because we will start to experience His emotions. Following Christ is like entering into a service or employment, except this job starts from the time you wake up till the time you go to sleep, so your time at all waking hours does not belong to yourself. I also experience the daily struggle between the flesh and the spirit. These struggles can be very intense, and sometimes I lose perspective and fail, and get discouraged. But as Pastor Steven said, one should not get bogged down in failure but move on. God is greater than our hearts.
“Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe”
When I came back to Penang after Christmas, I started to read the opening chapters of Bonhoeffer’s book, and it was the theme of obeying and believing in the second chapter that really spoke to me, because it echoed my own experiences. After a few days of pondering over this, I knew I had to share it with the church, and went to the watch night session on New Year’s Eve prepared to share it. There I felt a very strong urging within to share it, as if that was my purpose of being there - that I had to let it out. So I shared about how, as Bonhoeffer says in the second chapter, “Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe.” My experience showed that when I obeyed what the Bible taught about “dying daily,” I could believe.
*Note: All Bible verses quoted are taken from the Updated NASB
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