The Fighting Never Stops

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Marvin Ng)

Strife and success

“In primary school, I never knew how I fared in class. I just played and did whatever I wanted.”

My mind raced into a fluster.

“What?! You mean there was no such thing as a class ranking in primary school?”

I was astonished, to the extent that all the hairs on my arms stood up in silent agreement. A couple of my European friends were just recounting their carefree lives in primary school, and their experiences felt incredulously foreign to me. It seemed so far-fetched as I could still remember how (already) intensive primary school was. It then struck me how competitive Singaporean society is: we are all born into a factory, ready to be welded into machines, made solely to compete.

From young, we have been programmed to “work hard”, for academic failure will only mean that we get tossed out of the system like malfunctioned pieces, no longer deemed satisfactory. This sense of failure was imprinted early in my life, after performing poorly for my PSLE. I can still recount explaining my poor performance to my parents in between sobs, as a deluge of disappointment had swept me over.

As I grew older, this unflinching need to jostle to the top of the heap got progressively worse — the consequences appeared more and more apparent, looming more and more imperviously with each milestone. I have often felt like a dwarf hamster on its wheel, striving to do better, yet still treading on the exact same spot. Even in university, my attempts at refusing to be a product of this vicious system have been futile attempts at best. Everywhere you turn, everybody is worried about job (in)security and the fear that your best is not good enough is tinged in every conversation; it is like walking in circles, your eye repeatedly catching the same drab poster on that wall.

As much I know in my head that we are “aliens” or fleeting “strangers” (1 Peter 2:11) on this planet, it has been onerous trying to unlearn what I have internalised over and over. I have not only memorised it, but it has bent me to a certain shape and conditioned me to think in a particular fashion. We have been work-obsessed, as our studies or jobs have been the fount of self-fulfilment and self-realisation. Leisure is merely a transient pit-stop for bodily repair. Our studies or work is the main source of our identity and meaning, and we feel that need to keep our spot. Surely having the chance to run on the wheel is better than sitting out? In Singapore, our value is inextricably attached to our success in the system.

I was absorbed in struggling to do better in life until God revealed to me one day that I had been bearing an orphan spirit all this time. This compulsive need to compete and besetting insecurity are signs of an orphaned heart. An orphan is doggedly fighting for man’s approval as he was born with nothing. I had forgotten that I am His precious son (Ephesians 1:5)! I had forgotten that I am His heir!

Have you wondered what constitutes our inheritance as His child? As God’s child, I used to think that I had a good idea of what I possessed — salvation, righteousness, joy, and much more — yet my jaw dropped when I caught a better glimpse of Romans 4:13, “The promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through righteousness of faith.” If we share in the faith of Abraham, then we are a fellow heir with him, and this means that our inheritance entails “the world”. Nothing less.

If you are an heir of God, then you shall inherit everything of God’s. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” If everything is yours, then everything — even the negative situations, even “life” and “death” — shall work out for you in the end.

It took only a couple of weeks before I started to feel that controlling need to compete and strive again, as frenzied living had whittled away the knowledge of my true identity. I realised my disregard for the need to waste time at His feet; I was not cultivating a taste for my Father and His fellowship. I had let the sacredness of the Sabbath slip from the grip of my life.

Even in today’s manic, “modern” culture, “God’s promise of entering his rest still stands” (Hebrews 4:1, NLT). I have come to learn that the practice of the Sabbath is not merely about resting our bodies and minds; it also points to the deeper “Sabbath rest” of the gospel. In this demarcated time, as if life were suspended, we pause and re-align, learning to rest in Christ for our salvation rather than resting in our works. It helps me unplug from the flurry of voices from this world, and hone in on my Father’s reassuring voice. Rest days are significant times where I re-orientate to the truth that He is the only one that does not require my best performance in order to be satisfied with me.

If you find yourself striving and locked in this mode of constant competition, may you find yourself in Him once again. I believe that as you get away with God, you’ll recover your life (Matthew 11:28, MSG). My fellow co-heir with Christ, may you learn the unforced rhythms of grace when you rest in the fullness of His providence. May your worth be severed from your works, once and for all today.

JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.


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