Living in Uncertain Times
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the new US President were the watershed events in the middle and end of 2016, Coupled with the phenomenon of disruption in public affairs, business and personal life, it is no wonder that many, including Christians, are caught up in the dizzy swirl of events and suffer a terrible sense of disorientation and loss of bearings. Jobs have been lost and the future looks dim and insecure for many.
One cannot help but recall the lines of W B Yeat’s poem:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Over a hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau observed, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This is true of many workers who fear, or have been already. displaced or retrenched. The new phenomenon of disruption in the economy and personal life has affected the sense of employment security and personal identity and significance. What is less noticed is also the accelerated pace of change everywhere.
How should Christians think and respond to such unprecedented changes? To start with, we need to trust in our soverign and eternal God.
There is space here to look at only two statements from the Old Testament. The first one is this. In response to the international politics of the time, Daniel said:
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
22 he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him. (Daniel 2:20-22 ESV)
God is the sovereign One over the political nations of this earth and he watches over the political developments and upheavals to fulfil his purposes and plans. Verse 21 is emphatic in declaring he is in charge of all the changes taking place.
In the last few years we have witnessed the rise of new political leaders in the ASEAN region and the passing of old leaders as well. The three notable ones recently were the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej, the late president S R Nathan and our founding father Lee Kuan Yew. With the Trump presidency, there is a fear of the unravelling of the old established international order as well. We live in uncertain but interesting times. Unless we see our God as soveriegn even over the discordant notes of the world, and eternal over the temporal, we can live in fear and uncertainty. To think only of our security and personal lives is a myopic view. We need to rest in the eternal purposes and plans of God and watch what is being unveiled. In the meantime we fill our hearts with Scripture that anchor our faith and rest in God Almighty.
The second one is this one in Psalm 33:10-11(ESV):
The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of his heart to all generations.
As the Sovereign Lord, he works out his purposes in each decade, each century and each generation of peoples. No living political leader can outwit him and outplay him. He also declares the masses and their plans will be frustrated. What more needs be said? God the Almighty can never be surprised. He knows the end from the beginning.
Our task is to pray for his will to be done as commanded in the Lord’s Prayer. Psalm 33 ends with this exhortation:
20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.
Whatever happens, “our heart is glad in him”. That should be the posture of our hearts. The end result: a deep trust in God’s providence is nurtured. This must undergird all our thinking and actions.
For Christians who have been retrenched or cannot find employment, this waiting season may flow into a number of months, even years. The waiting can be excruciating, especially when there are mouths to feed and savings dwindle by the day. Yet one has to learn to wait upon Him.
Some may find it helpful to seek spiritual direction. This is different from the context of counselling. In counselling, the focus may be more on solving a particular problem or issue. In spiritual direction, the focus is on understanding the season of the soul and seeking discernment on what God is saying at this time of life for the seeker. A spiritual director serves as a sounding board to help the seeker discern the promptings of God. He does not provide readymade answers but helps the seeker to clarify and identify what God may be saying at this stage of life. Such seekers can approach the clergy and other pastoral leaders for this kind of spiritual direction.
As we wait, we can adjust and adapt by learning new skills and exploring new directions. You do nto need to be passive during the waiting season. One can scan the horizon to understand the changing nature of the economy and where the new jobs lie. Awared of this need, our government has formed the Committee on the Future Economy. Very often professional conversion courses may be necessary in order to learn new skill sets. It takes humility to admit the need to change, adjust, retool and reinvent oneself oneself to take on portfolio or contract work. Philosopher Alan Watts said,” The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” The American poet Robert Frost said something similar: “The best way out is always through.”
The waiting season is also a time to learn earnest and heartfelt prayer. It is very common for Christians to experience the schism between the head and the heart. This is especially so for Christians who are clouded by confusion and uncertainties about future prospects. In such a condition the soul cannot hear God clearly. The head knows but the heart may not believe. The heart (kardia in Greek) is where the real centre lies, where the real change takes place. The soul or heart needs to be told many times in prayer and meditation on these Scriptures in Isa 30:21; Matthew 10:29-31; Prov 3:5-6. Then it will be easier to trust in the guiding hand of God for all circumstances.
The waiting season offers the opportunity and time for developing a regular, spiritual practice of stillness before God. Cultivating a real, personal relationship with God is not an option at this time of life. It becomes a desperate necessity. For too long we have been in charge of our lives. This time of dislocation and need can be a reorientation to learn and trust in God’s inscrutable ways. The practice of silence and stillness allows the soul to be addressed by God. That is something many Christians try to escape from.
The Cathedral now offers a monthly silent retreat on a Saturday morning. That is one place to start the practice and seek guidance from pastors where necessary. In the space of silence and stillness one can begin to learn the art of listening prayer. God speaks when the soul is willing to listen. Speaking from experience, Picasso wrote “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” In stillness and solitude, the soul’s transformation under God is a greater work and of infinite value.
We have been schooled by the education system and the surrounding culture to be achievement oriented. As a result, we develop professional careers and seek titles and prestige for personal validation. Even as Christians, our actual sense of identity is very often derived from our professional or social standing in society.
But in actual practice, Sunday by Sunday, as we go through the liturgy, we confess we are unworthy sinners in need of the forgiving grace of God and humble ourselves before him. One day too we will have to be shorn of our professional or work identities when we retire and be our naked selves and find our essential or core identity as true sons and daughters of Christ the King. For some this may mean another long conversion process. We need to rediscover and rebuild a core identity in Christ.
The time of job loss and lack of employment can be a time of awakening. Who really am I? What is my real identity? Slowly, we learn to shed our old self with its practices and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:9-10 ESV) Then we are on the way to become the true image bearers of God as he intended us to be. Then we perceive our final identity as the glorious and glorified sons and daughters of the triune God. This is the telos (end or goal) of the Christian life. Ultimately our Christian identity must be rooted in the Scriptures and not in the workplace or the social order. Dallas Willard said something worth pondering: “The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity. You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”
When unsettled by unnumbered uncertainties, a healthy dose of realism is necessary. It is alright for Christians to declare “I hated life.” It is there in the book of Ecclesiastes. The point is not to remain stuck there. But after that we learn to gather the broken pieces of our lives and offer them back to God. Then redemption begins. Grace works all over again. Finally we begin to acknowledge that a yielded or surrendered life is the true life of discipleship. The Christian life is quintessentially a guided life. As we look back at the major milestones of our lives, we should be able to affirm with Paul in Romans 8:14 “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (NRSV). Shakespeare had a glimpse of the truth when he wrote in Hamlet:
"There's a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
Whatever happens, we can know we are embraced by the secure hands of divine providence. “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut 33:27 NIV). This is where we come back to our deep understanding of the doctrine of God’s providence. Doctrine is strong meat for the soul. We ignore it to the loss of our own peace and rest in God.
Kwan Fook Seng, a retiree, worships and serves in St Andrew’s Cathedral and Church of our Saviour.
 For those interested in pursuing the theme of God’s providence, a good study is done by Melvin Tinker in his book Intended For Good: The Providence of God (IVP 2012).