The greatest love

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Nice and fuzzy...but not the greatest love

What Valentine’s Day means for a young, single and Christian man.

Today is Valentine’s Day, when traditionally romantic love is celebrated. And how beautiful that love! It draws two lonely hearts together and is the foundation of familial love, the subject of many lives made or broken, many poems and letters, much laughter and many tears. But the Bible passage (John 15:9-17) in today’s Our Daily Bread, a popular daily devotional website for Christians, has Christ focusing on a different type of love—the love between friends.

Contemporary celebration of Valentine’s Day has come under some criticism: that it is too commercialised and marginalises single people. Secular expressions of romantic love now dominate the western popular discourse on relationships, evident in pop songs, pulp fiction, films and TV dramas. Occasionally other kinds of relationships may emerge into our consciousness, such as friendship in the highly-acclaimed film “The King’s Speech” or different expressions of parental love in the controversial book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” But the dominance of romantic relationships in our social consciousness is so tyrannical that some single people have declared war against it—in some cases rising in arms*, with ire focused on this single day. Other singletons barricade themselves against the onslaught, perhaps using tactics suggested by my friend’s up-and-coming blog on relationships**.

Now, as Christians we are supposed to live a life of rebellion against worldliness, but not quite in the ways suggested above. In the passage Jesus defines the one type of love on Earth that has no parallel: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (v. 13). What a wake-up call! In a world that determines social success with how attractive one is to the opposite (or same) sex, or how much of a conqueror one is sexually, Jesus reminds us that the greatest love is love among friends, so deep that they are willing to lay their lives down for each other. The worldly world refuses to believe that there is a love greater than that, leading to quite interesting theories, even among Christians, that such love must be romantic love. An oft-debated example is the friendship between David and Jonathan in the books of Kings.

But Jesus says that love between friends is the greatest love because that is the love he loved us with when he went to the cross. Yes, the collective Church is the bride of Christ, but he lay down his own life for each and every one of us not as a husband, but as a friend. And his final command to us is: “Love each other as I have loved you.” (v. 12).

I am certainly not downplaying the role of romantic love; after all, the family is a beautiful expression of God’s love too. But for those of us who are single, let’s not be bitter against those who have partners, or seek to isolate ourselves from the world as if this day was made against us. Let Valentine’s Day be a day when we express our deep love for our friends, and above all, our Friend who loved us so much that he lay his life down for us.


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* The headline reads: “Single netizens up in arms against Valentine’s Day with five tactics, such as buying up every other seat in a cinema, or slapping the faces of men with partners on the street.”

** The title of the blog is: “A list of what to do on Valentine’s Day if you’re single.”



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Greater than life: a reflection on Remembrance

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"We will remember."

At 11 am yesterday, Britain stood still for two minutes to commemorate the lives lost during the First World War and subsequent conflicts. The annual ceremony demonstrates the respect that the nation still has for the members of the armed forces, despite their now decade-long engagement in an increasingly unpopular war.

It is perhaps easy to account for the reasons why people join the military—the chance of adventure, the provision of a structured lifestyle, or simply the prospect of a stable job. But that does not explain why someone who has joined may later, under enemy fire, run into the open to drag a wounded civilian to safety, or jump on to a nearby live grenade to shield his comrades from the blast.

This type of selfless commitment helps explain why there is still so much respect for our armed forces, even though many of us have moral qualms about what they are trained to do. Some may say that that those selfless acts are brave; others may say that they are foolish. Yet I believe that it is neither bravery nor foolishness that drives people to commit these selfless acts, but passion—specifically, passion for something that is greater than one’s own life. Whether that passion is for God, country, duty, a mate, or even a random stranger, soldiers have often done things on the battlefield that contradict the natural instinct of self-preservation. In the heat of battle, the soldier displaying selflessness often put their own lives under great risk.

The ideal of living—and dying—for passion in something greater than oneself is cherished in the Bible. David claims in Psalm 63:3 that God’s love is greater than life. Jesus says in John 15:13 that greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jesus’ own life was about denying the self in the service of others). Other religions, in their own ways, also preach the virtues of self-denial. There are, of course, limits to the benefits of a self-denying act, especially if the same act denies others of certain rights, as a suicide bomber would be doing. But the mentality of self-denial is still a laudable and attractive one. This simultaneously explains why the nation is happy to take two minutes out of its busy life each year to commemorate its fallen, and why there seems to be a limitless supply of suicide bombers to create more fallen for the nation to commemorate.

Talking about dying for others may be a bit morbid, but the other side of the same coin is talking about the living for others. While we are alive, are we passionate in living for something greater than ourselves? It doesn’t have to be grand; it just means that whatever we are doing, we are doing it for more than just ourselves—for our partners, friends, family, employers, employees… Selfless commitment has always been a difficult lesson for humans, a self-preserving race, to learn. But on the occasion of Remembrance week, let us not only remember those who have paid the ultimate price for us, but reflect upon what we can do for something that is greater than ourselves, even our lives.

Oh my God! Was that blasphemy?


The Bible says: “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain”. Indeed. To do so would be offensive to God, and who wants to offend God? Some people take the commandment to mean that the phrase used in the title should not be used as an exclamation – and these are the moderate people. The “extreme” people include orthodox Jews, who think God’s name is so holy they omit the vowels from his name so it can’t be pronounced: “YHWH” is all we get. Some Protestant Christians (mostly American, as I have seen) are at it too, replacing the “o” in “God” by “-“, making “G-d” also unpronounceable*.

While I understand and fully endorse the reasons behind the “extreme” view (i.e. people believe in keeping God’s name holy, as it is holy), I have a rather different take on the commandment, and I’ll use “Oh my God” as an example.

“Oh” is the exclamation, an almost instinctive verbal reaction to surprise, shock, horror and other suddenly triggered emotions. There’s nothing really wrong about this word.

“my” is an adjective that expresses a relationship between myself and the subject of the sentence.

The most important part of the phrase is: who’s the subject? Well, “God” is. In fact, “God” is most significant word in the phrase. Who’s God? Well, he’s the creator of heaven and earth, dispenser of justice and compassion, and ultimately source of salvation and life. And he ismy God, so why should I not be allowed to call him that? Isn’t it abnormal for one to avoid calling one’s best friend by name?

So what’s wrong with using the phrase in times of surprise? In such times, isn’t it infinitely better to refer to God, and remind myself of my relationship with him, than to spit out some rude word or an “innocuous sounding word” such as “gosh” or “days”? Is God not allowed to share in my emotions? Does he not have a stake in how I feel? Should he not be the Person I turn to first in times of surprise, as opposed to excrement, sexual activity or simply sounds that don’t have any meaning?

I don’t doubt that some uses of the phrase does blaspheme the Lord, especially if they are used by non-believers (simply because they don’t have God). But I shall use “Oh my God” with gladness and pride. It is an invitation to my Friend to share in my emotions.

* Although, strictly speaking, God’s name is not “God”. “God” describes who God is, rather like “human” describing “Tim”. God’s name is “YHWH”, or, as he calls himself: I AM WHO I AM. So it seems that replacing “o” with “-” is a bit over the top…

Christianity: it doesn’t get simpler than this

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Jesus calls Zacchaeus

"I've come, I've sought, and now I shall save."

Different people have different ideas of what being a Christian entails: going to church every Sunday; getting baptised; following the ten commandments; subscribing to creationism; being pro-life; listening to the Pope…Hm. It seems to go on.

For me, Christianity is a very, very simple idea. In fact, it is so simple that it slips out of my mind far too often. Yet whenever I am reminded of it, its power is still so raw and so awesome that I feel like I’ve been hit with a tonne of bricks – again.

Today’s sermon served me such a reminder. The passage is from Luke, easily my favourite Gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ “

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)

And here we have it – the single, most powerful idea of Christianity: the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. It wasn’t by accident that Jesus went into Jericho. It wasn’t by accident that he stopped by the fig tree that Zacchaeus was on. Jesus looked up, called out to Zacchaeus, and demanded to enter his life – on purpose.

And the response of Zacchaeus was to conduct an about-turn from what he had been before. The moment Jesus accepted him, he turned from corrupt swindler to humble philanthropist.

The idea of Christianity is so simple, yet it is so much more – it is a truly amazing, life-changing idea. A person who has been touched by Jesus should have executed a 180-degree turn in the direction of their life. Have our lives been touched by Jesus? Have we made a U-turn and turned to face God?

The Living Water of life (2)

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"Switch and be saved!"

Yesterday we looked at how Jesus declared himself to be the source of Living Water, and at how we have been drinking endlessly from wells that do not satisfy. This idea is actually not a new one; God has already used this metaphor in the Old Testament. In addition, he condemns well-digging behaviour: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13).

Yet God extends an invitation for us to “ditch and switch”, much as we change our gas suppliers to take advantage of the best deal. And God’s deal is fantastic, as this passage, essentially a marketing spiel, demonstrates:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.” (Isaiah 55: 1-3).

Sin and bad habits may provide us with immediate enjoyment, but they will undoubtedly disappoint us later, leaving us thirsting for more, working harder to find the same level of pleasure. That is like continually digging in a cistern that doesn’t hold water.

So why labour ourselves? The food and drink provided by God – his Word – is not only free, but satisfying, with eternal life as its fruit. What is holding us back from ditching and switching?

The Living Water of life

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Is there anything in our lives that we know are wrong, but seem impossible to get rid of because they provide instant satisfaction? Perhaps you’ve tried to kick a bad habit, only to fall helplessly back into its grip after a while? You are exasperated. You begin to look for someone/thing to blame: God, your parents, genes, society… “At least I tried,” you say. “What else can I do?”

Jesus teaches us how we can kick a stubborn bad habit. Outside Sychar, he meets a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water from a well. He compares the well water to the relationships in the woman’s love life: she would thirst again no matter how many times she drank the water, just as she has never found fulfilment despite constantly changing partners.

But Jesus offers her himself as the living water of life. He says: “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14). The woman realises that she had just met the Lord of her life, so she leaves her jar by the well and goes into town to tell the others whom she has met, bringing them back to meet him.

Solomon said: “Death and destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.” (Proverbs 27:20). No matter how many times we drink from the well, our desires will never be satisfied, drawing us back to the same well. On the other hand, the living water of Christ will not only sustain all our needs in this life, but allow us to drink into eternity. When we encounter Christ, we can give up whatever well we have been drinking from – all those stubborn bad habits – and enjoy his never-ending spring of living water.

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