Author Archives: lewinkler

About lewinkler

I am a professor of theology and ethics at the East Asia School of Theology in Singapore.

Will there be enough? Trusting in the God Who Provides

SINGAPORE-CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS

With the COVID-19 outbreak, stock values worldwide have plummeted over the past few days.  I have not bothered to find out how much my retirement portfolio has already lost since the days and weeks ahead will likely become worse.

Being significantly closer to retirement age than when I started in ministry, I confess, everything that’s happened recently has me thinking about questions of provision.  Will there be enough to eat and live on in the days ahead?  Over the long-haul, will our financial support significantly shrink in the wake of job and market losses?  Will I be able to leave an inheritance to my children’s children?

When Cru founder Bill Bright and his wife, Vonette, were approaching retirement, they decided to liquidate their retirement account to help advance the fulfillment of the Great Commission around the world.  In so doing, they believed God would provide their needs in old age.

Later, when Bill was 74, he was awarded the one million-dollar Templeton prize for advancing spirituality in the world.  Any normal couple might have concluded that God had honored their faith and provided for their retirement through this rather exceptional means.  Instead, Bill and Vonette once again gave it all away, this time to promote a global movement of fasting and prayer.  Seven years later, Bill died, and Vonette joined him twelve years after that.

When visiting Bill’s grave in 2014, I remember thinking it was nice, but relatively simple and non-ostentatious considering he was the founder of one of the largest and most influential Christian organizations of the 20th century.  One thing was clear, however.  Bill and Vonette truly understood what few of us ever will.  They knew that when they died, they would leave behind all earthly goods and spend eternity enjoying the unending treasures of intimacy with the Lord Jesus Christ.  In that light, no earthly shortages or privations really mattered anymore.  They were convinced that God was fully faithful and would always meet their basic needs in this life—and so He did.

He will do no less for us as well, even if our jobs are lost and our retirement accounts drain away to zero.  We can still praise and hope in God, echoing the faith-filled words of the Prophet Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  God, the Lord, is my strength!

Faith or Fear? Trusting God in the COVID-19 Age

007B1C1B-4070-4954-805E-165E2452AE5D

Since the Covid-19 virus impacted Asia long before the rest of the world, we’ve been living under various restrictions here in Singapore for over a month now.  It’s given me some time to reflect on life, death, and seeking a greater faith in God.

The fact is, apart from the second coming of Jesus Christ, we will all die someday.  The only question is, how and when?  As Christians, we really shouldn’t fear death, although most of do if we’re honest.  And I confess, I am by nature a fearful person.  Although I became a Christian very early in life, some of my earliest childhood memories included the (irrational) fear that I would get sick and die young of some terrible disease.  I suppose it didn’t help watching movies like, “The Andromeda Strain,” and “The Omega Man,” but I always found it difficult to release these fears and trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

I take some comfort in the fact that fear is nothing new, and the Bible talks a lot about it.  The simple but profound phrases, “do not be afraid” and “fear not,” are found 67 times in the ESV translation of the Bible.  In Matthew 6:25-34 alone, Jesus mentions anxiety six times.  Closely related positive variations on this theme (“trust/hope in God”) occur numerous additional times as well.  It would seem that all human beings, Christians included, are incredibly prone to fear and need to learn (and constantly relearn) to trust in God’s wisdom and goodness.

With the recent pandemic, it’s incredibly tempting to let anxiety and fear strangle our faith in God.  Surprisingly, I have been experiencing a profound sense of peace in the midst of all the clamor.  In many ways, I am more concerned about the inconveniences of widespread and long-term lockdowns and shortages than I am about death.  After all, death for those in Christ merely means experiencing true life forever in the presence of God!  Why in the world would I fear that kind of everlasting hope and joy?  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “that is far better” (Philippians 1:23)!  In the meantime, however, all of us must continue to struggle to trust God through the vicissitudes—and viruses—of life.

How do we do that?  The answer is neither hidden nor profound.  We ask Him for His grace to live in faith when it’s much more natural to live in fear.  We let the peace of Christ reign in us when panic tries to take over and push Him from the center of our hearts.  And we offer our lives as living sacrifices for God’s glory so that whether in life or in death, our lives remain safely held within His wise and loving hands.

COVID-19: Some Semi-factual Reflections

 

2 - 1 (3)

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of unanswered questions and incorrect information swirling around on the internet.  I am neither a medical doctor nor a virologist, but I’ve seen so much that is misleading and inaccurate, I couldn’t help adding a few semi-factual reflections to the confusing cacophony.  I do so with the hope that at least for some, it might provide a bit more sanity and clarity.

First of all, as much as no one wants to hear it, the main goal at this point is mitigation, not eradication.  I’ve heard many make the claim that the vast majority of cases (80-85%) are relatively mild and most will readily recover.  So far, so good.  The real problem is the 15% (using the more conservative figure), as well as the wildly disparate death rates from country to country.  It would appear the reasons for the disparity are many, but it’s not my purpose here to get lost in the numbers.  Others have already put out valuable and accurate articles along those lines to help explain the reasons for these disparities.

Because this disease is very contagious—almost twice that of the flu—so-called “social distancing” is the main way to slow the spread.  This ultimately achieves not eradication, but mitigation, and mitigation is necessary to keep those who will get very sick from the virus manageable in terms of numbers.

Italy (as well as China and Iran) is a good test case for this problem.  Italy failed to put serious restrictions in place until many people had already died.  When the numbers of sick shot up exponentially, medical resources were almost immediately stretched to the breaking point.  There were not nearly enough medical personnel, beds, medications, ventilators, etc. to meet the burgeoning demand.  If they had put restrictions in place earlier, they would at least have slowed the exponential spread of the virus and given the medical community a smaller and steadier stream of patients to be treated and released, making room for others to come in on their heels.

As it is now, Italian hospitals are deciding who lives and who dies based on factors like being a parent, being young and healthy, having no pre-existing medical conditions, etc.  This is triage of the most macabre and dreadful kind, but wholly necessary given the situation they are in.  Sad to say, all of that is now water under the bridge.  If, however, the USA can learn anything from all of this, it’s that they need to put widespread draconian restrictions in place sooner and not later.

While no one wants to hear or face it, quarantines, shortages, travel bans, online-only education, and the cancelation of large-scale social events (regular church services included) are likely to be the new normal for quite some time—likely months and not just weeks.  If we have learned anything from the lockdown in China, it’s that this virus is not going to be eliminated on a large scale for a long, long time.  On January 23 in Wuhan, China closed down virtually everything that did not pertain to vital services for a city of 11 million people.  The rest of China soon followed.  While cases of the virus have finally fallen to nearly zero, it has taken almost two full months to get to this point and the Chinese lockdown has been enforced in draconian absolutist communist style, literally locking and sealing people into their respective homes and communities.  Even so, it is still unclear when the restrictions will be lifted and to what extent.  One thing is for sure, China will not be allowing people from other parts of the world back in to re-infect them anytime soon.

I am deeply concerned for the situation in the US for many reasons.  First and foremost, Americans love their freedom way too much.  They also tend to distrust and disrespect their leaders and those in authority over them.  It’s difficult for most Americans to be told what to do.  It’s even harder for them to actually do what they are told.

Most Asians, on the other hand, have a much more communal mindset and clearly understand the value of making hard personal choices for the sake of the overall societal wellbeing.  Their Confucian roots also make them much more trusting of those in authority over them.  This combination makes it more likely that people will do what they are asked (not even required) to do by the authorities for the sake of the greater good of all.  We have seen the happy results of that here in Singapore where the virus spread continues to be kept from blowing out and overwhelming the medical system.

Beyond all of this, it’s still very hard to say what effect warmer and more humid days will have on COVID-19.  We can only hope that similar to other coronaviruses like the flu and the common cold, warmer summer months will help slow the speed of transmission.  We simply do not know yet, but very warm and tropic places in Asia (like Singapore) show that this virus is not easily contained in any climate.  We also hope for a vaccine to be developed sooner and not later.  But in the meantime, people everywhere need to be patient and take the governmental restrictions put in place very seriously so that hospitals and medical workers will not be overwhelmed and forced to make dreadful decisions about who will live and die.

So far, these are relatively factual (although admittedly debatable) reflections.  In the post that follows, I will reflect more on issues of faith and fear as we increasingly come face-to-face with the realities of a post-COVID-19 world.

In whom or what are you hoping?

85

With the recent coronavirus outbreak, people have turned in a myriad of directions to find hope.  Some have turned to the government and medical professionals to protect them, others have turned to miracle cures available for purchase on the internet, still others have turned to superstitions and rituals to provide the defenses that they need to combat this unseen menace.

All of this illustrates that people hope in lots of different things: economic prosperity, global initiatives for solving climate change, better political leaders, educational reform, religion, meaningful friendships and romantic relationships, good food and drink, the newest diet plan, the latest entertainment options and social media platforms, better healthcare—the list is nearly endless.

Not so long ago in America, most people put their hope in a higher power, something or someone beyond themselves.  But as the world became increasingly secular and disenchanted, all people could hope in were material (economic, psychological, scientific, political) solutions for what were ultimately spiritual problems manifesting themselves in material ways.

In fact, the Bible talks a lot about hope.  But the direction of our hope is not especially material in nature—or at least it shouldn’t be.  Our hope for this life is directed to that which—or better, the One who—is beyond it.

The deep irony, of course, is that when you find your hope in something (really, Someone) beyond this world, you are more likely to live your life more fully in this world.  And when you only put your hope in the people and things of this world, you are more likely to find your hopes for this life repeatedly disappointed and unfulfilled.

Many of my non-Christian friends are putting their hope in better medicine, a new election, a new educational initiative, a new car, a new spouse, a new. . . .  And I understand that.  When you have merely material priorities, the only things you can reasonably hope in are material solutions.  What grieves me is when Christians fall into the trap of hoping in and caring more about material solutions than spiritual ones.  Yes, they are interconnected, but the amount of passion we give to our highest hopes and the direction in which they move us matter immensely.

This is especially true when a crisis like the recent virus outbreak occurs.  The world is watching to see if we truly believe, trust, and hope in God above and beyond all other possible hopes.  As Psalm 33:20-22 says, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.  Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”  Indeed, whether we live or die, He is our one and only true hope.

In whom or what are you hoping?

When Death Finally Finds Me

neglected-tombstone-871282318363ZJWj

No one lives forever.  In less than a week I will be closer to 60 than 50 and am astonished at how quickly the moments of my life keep racing by.  Everyone admits we will all die someday, but “someday” always seems to be an ambiguous and nonspecific point in the distant future.  We convince ourselves that “someday” will never be this day.

But soon enough for all of us, “someday” will become “today” and we will cross that great divide and pass on into death.  And some of us, whether or not we admit it, are closer to that day than others.  Contrary to many inspirational speakers of our day, thinking about death is not an exercise in morbidity or negativity.  From a biblical perspective, it is an exercise in circumspection and wisdom.  Moses puts it this way in Psalm 90: “The years of our life are . . . soon gone, and we fly away. . . .  So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Thoughts about death fundamentally change our attitude in life and the manner in which we spend the precious time God so graciously grants each of us.  The only question we must ask ourselves today—and every day God gives us life—is this: Am I letting God use me for His glory?  Am I being truly and fully faithful to Him right now?

Lord God, help me remember the brevity and transience of this life.  Give me the grace to trust in and follow You all the days of my life, starting with today, so that when “someday” finally comes, I can meet You in the glorious life that is to come free of all shame and regret.

Who am I? Integration and Identity in an Age of a Social Media

question-mark1

People have always been good at putting on masks and personas to project a certain image to others. There is nothing new about being “two-faced,” as we called it in my generation.

Nevertheless, one disturbing aspect of social media is its ability to create personas that are inherently removed from both those who create and those who observe them.  We no longer need to be two-faced when we can be multi-faced, presenting a seemingly endless number of facades to the world around us.

If I’m young and don’t want my parents to see the “real” profile I have on Instagram or Facebook, for example, it’s easy to create alternative accounts and post a few wholesome pictures every now and then, giving them the impression that I’m actually living a somewhat normal and ostensibly moral life.

One of the great challenges of committed Christian discipleship is living a consistent, reliable, and integrated life.  We should be the same in private as we are in public, and the “face” we show strangers and neighbors should be the same “face” we show ourselves, our family, and our friends. There should be no “skeletons in the closet,” no secrets to remember not to tell, and no multiple and disingenuous personalities portrayed on various social media platforms either.

I fear that if it goes on too long, some will no longer be able to appreciate or understand the importance of being an integrated and consistent person—someone who is the same in public and in private.  Having a set of personalities to create and maintain will begin to seem somehow normal and healthy rather than socially disingenuous, distracting, and debilitating.

In addition, some could lose a true sense of self.  If we are too apt to present and promote various personas to the world, we may end up becoming increasingly ignorant of who we really are.  Aristotle was clear about the need to “know thyself.”  Failure to do so means a failure to flourish in the world as God intended and made us to be and become.

Because of sin, we are already prone to living dissipated and dis-integrated lives, cut off from the One who makes us unified and whole again.  Social media merely makes the opportunities to create and promote alternative versions of ourselves easier and more ubiquitous.

Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves that we might better know and be ourselves through our ever-increasing knowledge of the One who made and truly loves us.

Did Jesus get it wrong?

38222-cross-sunrise-1200.1200w.tn

In a world that worships power, pleasure, possessions, beauty, intelligence, talent, and fame, I am continually struck by the profoundly counter-cultural nature of the Christian faith. Jesus reverses the field in almost every arena in which human beings naturally hope and long for.

Jesus got it wrong if He was trying to make everyone love and serve Him in an overwhelmingly impressive or subtly coercive sort of way.  Instead, He quietly came to live in the Galilean backwater village of Nazareth and lose His perfect life on a simple wooden cross, so that we could gain his life and be reconciled to God.  That is a love that breaks the mold of all our expectations and confounds the wise, the strong, the powerful, and the rich, so that even the fools, the weak, the insignificant, and the poor could actually inherent the earth and live forever.

In short, Jesus loves the unlovely, the unloving, and the unlovable.  He makes the poor rich and the rich poor.  He exalts the lowly and humbles the exalted.  He makes the simple wise and makes simpletons of the wise.  He makes the strong weak and the weak strong. He makes losers out of winners and winners out of losers.  He asks His followers to lose everything in order to gain everything.

It doesn’t make for much of a marketing campaign to invite all who wish to follow Him to come suffer and die.  That sounds more like a cult for masochists.  But here is where the great irony of God’s economy in Christ comes into play: Those who suffer are blessed and will be comforted; those who die in Him will rise and live forever.

Of course, the opposite is also true: Those who are unrepentant and comfortable in this life will wind up uncomfortable in the next; those who hold tightly onto to things will lose them all; those who try to save their own life now will lose it for all eternity.

No, Jesus did not get it wrong, but we do—constantly.  Instead of loving people and using things, we love things and use people.  Instead of loving righteousness and spurning wickedness, we hate the good and love what is evil.  Instead of giving thanks to God for His goodness and wisdom and patience, we ignore, defy, and spurn Him—and then blame and rage against Him when our lives fall apart.

Despite our magnificent insignificance, overweening pride, and astounding indifference toward the One who created and sustains us, He still loves us with an everlasting love. He patiently and persistently offers forgiveness, grace, and eternal life in Christ for all who will believe and trust in Him.  He, and He alone, can take our every wrong and forever make us whole and right again.

Who am I trying to please?

fullsizeoutput_1fcb

I want to be popular. Most people do.  Only masochists want to be reviled, ridiculed, and rejected.  I put on a good show and try to appear like I don’t care what others think about me, but deep down inside, I desperately want to be liked and respected.

Before my time, people tried to be “hip” and “groovy.”  Growing up, the goal was to be “cool.”  Years later, everyone wanted to be “bad.”  About that time, I lost track of (as well as significant interest in) the ever-evolving latest term for being “relevant,” “popular,” and one of the “in crowd.”

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian did not automatically disqualify you from being acceptable to others.  There were enough people around who thought Christians weren’t so bad, even if they weren’t Christians themselves.  Many of the social norms and expectations revolved around some of the basic moral (but often distorted) teachings of the Bible.  People were not afraid to identify themselves as Christians, even if their understanding of that term was nominal at best.

These days, it’s not so easy to identify as a genuine Christ-follower.  It’s no longer “cool” to defend and promote a traditional view of marriage (for example) or to suggest that sincere faith in Jesus Christ is the exclusive and only means to know and spend eternity with God.

Almost 2,000 years ago, it was not popular to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus either. It was much easier to “go with the flow” and not cause trouble by condemning sexual immorality or refusing to syncretize and compromise one’s religious faith.  In fact, refusing to follow the crowd could even get you imprisoned or killed. It was not an easy time to claim and proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

In this respect, contemporary attitudes toward certain aspects of our faith place us in a long and storied history of being ridiculed and rejected for believing in Jesus.  And this should come as no surprise.  The Bible never said it would be easy or fun to follow hard after Christ.  God never assured us that we would be loved and accepted by others for following Him. Instead, 2 Timothy 3:12 provides us with this precious and magnificent promise: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

And 1 Peter 4:1 reminds us that since Christ suffered, as his followers, we should be ready to suffer as well.  Peter goes on to say we should not be surprised when we suffer for our faith, but rather, we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . .  If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

Jesus makes a similar promise in Luke 6:22-23 when He states, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”

Paul also reminds us in Galatians 1:10 that our goal in life is not to be accepted and well-liked by everyone around us.  Rather, we are to seek to please God by fearlessly and single-mindedly serving Christ.

Of course, we do not intentionally seek to be odd or offensive for Christ.  But the goal of our lives is not to be cool, but to be clear, clear about the sometimes offensive simplicity of the gospel—that Jesus died to save sinners like you and like me, and that apart from Him, there is no hope of salvation in this life or the next.  If we face suffering for saying so and living our lives in light of it, we can rejoice, just as the disciples did in Acts 5:41, and thank God that He counts us worthy to suffer shame for His name.

The Longing to Be Whole

longing

The Best Years of My Life?

I was often told by well-meaning adults that the years of my youth would be the best of my life.  But in many ways, these years were anything but wonderful.  Although things at home were Christ-centered, stable, and supportive, life at school was positively miserable.  I remember vowing to remember what it was really like when I was young.  Life was full of formidable hardships and hurts.

Now that I’m older, it is much clearer that every life-stage is filled with tests, trials, and tribulations. They are inherent to the fabric of life within a fallen world.  For many, however, it is all too easy to see the past through rose-colored glasses, only recalling the joys and few, if any, of the sorrows.  In retrospect, the years of youth particularly seem like a time filled with wonder, strength, and beauty.  We long to be young again.

The Price of Wisdom

Part of this longing, I think, is produced by the physical reality of aging.  Herein lies a study in contrast.  On the one hand, with age comes wisdom.  And for this reason, I would not want to return to the foolish naiveté of youth for anything.  But wisdom comes with an unavoidable price—the price of both physical and emotional injury.  And while the emotional toll is immensely important, it is to the physical my thoughts have turned lately.

With time comes decay. Eventually, our bodies wear out and stop working well.  Ever since the fall, physical pain and death are an inevitable part of life.  In some way, shape, or form, we all experience the debilitating effects of sin and our bodies start “giving up the ghost.”  For some, that relinquishing comes sooner and exacts a greater cost.

Properly understood, this can help us contemplate the fleeting and fragile nature of material existence.  My early-onset deafness and chronic back and neck pain (for example) have forced me to face my mortality.

The Longing to Be Whole

In the midst of it all, we often find ourselves longing for the bodies of our youth when we heard and saw with unaided clarity, when we woke up without a morning backache and aching joints, when we had rock-hard stomachs and baby-soft skin.  In short, we long to be strong and young and whole again.

The world also has this God-given longing, but without any real prospects for a permanent reformation. The best they can hope for are more painkillers, a shot of cortisone, a botox injection, a tummy tuck, and a facelift.

The Source of Real Hope

In blessed contrast, believers are given “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . ., an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, reserved [for us] in heaven” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  There, we will see without glasses, hear without microcircuits and air-zinc batteries, and live without pain.  There will be no more death, agony, or aging.  Thank God, we will finally and unceasingly be whole.

Betting on Jesus

dice-2-300x200

The older I get, the more I see family and friends facing their mortality.  We are not as young and healthy as we once were.  And since I’m unlikely to live beyond 100, well over half my life is already passed.  The many doors of opportunity that stood wide open in my youth are either shut or quickly closing.

And yet, of all possible lives I might have lived, the one I am in is infinitely better and more interesting than I could ever have dreamed of or imagined.  I am also well aware that many people my age cannot say that about their lives.  Instead, they feel regret, disappointment, bitterness, and pain.  Of course, I have done plenty of things to make me feel these ways, but overall, the forgiving and magnificent grace of God, alongside the indescribable life He has given, have been nothing short of fantastic.

Pascal speaks of making a wager.  He notes that in view of the possible eternal benefits, believing in God is wiser than the alternatives.  Many have criticized his wager as being foolish and naïve.  We should, after all, only believe what is true, no matter how bitter or discouraging that reality might prove to be.

However, while marveling at the grand adventure of my life, it strikes me full in the face: even if none of it is true, even if there is no God and at death I simply ceased to exist and fall into “the big sleep,” I would prefer this life to any other I might have lived.  Seeking after and following Jesus has been one incredible and undeserved adventure after another.  It has been so much richer and better than anything I might have conceived of, sought after, or accomplished on my own.  I am overcome by a profound and immense sense of gratitude.

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been many tough times and bitter disappointments along the way.  Life is hard, no matter which path you choose.  But I would not choose a different life, even if promised the world in exchange.  The money, things, fame, pleasure, and comfort that so looked so enticing in my youth now seem increasingly petty, fleeting, and insubstantial.  Life with Jesus really is better than anything or anyone else.

I also want to say that I have thoroughly and repeatedly investigated and examined the overwhelming evidences for the truth of Christianity and am more convinced than ever God is real, and that Jesus really did die for my sins and rise again.  I have experienced rich and undeniable intimacies with Him at numerous times in life, and am utterly confident that because of Christ’s righteousness, I will one day stand in God’s presence holy and blameless, with great joy.  But even if, on some incredible fluke of reality, Christianity turns out to be false, my life lived within it has been indescribably better than any other possible lifestyle or viewpoint.

Pascal was right.  There are eternal benefits for betting on Jesus. But beyond this great hope, living for Him now will produce the grandest and most incredible adventure you could ever imagine.  That’s bet worth making for this life and the next.