Monday, July 31, 2006

Let's Talk about Discernment

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-21

Discernment is listening with your heart to confirm God’s word to you

Text (1 Samuel 3:1-21 NIV)
1SA 3:1 The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.

1SA 3:2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called Samuel.
Samuel answered, "Here I am." 5 And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down.

1SA 3:6 Again the LORD called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
"My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down."

1SA 3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

1SA 3:8 The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

1SA 3:10 The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!"
Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

1SA 3:11 And the LORD said to Samuel: "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family--from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, `The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.' "

1SA 3:15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the LORD. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, "Samuel, my son."
Samuel answered, "Here I am."

1SA 3:17 "What was it he said to you?" Eli asked. "Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you." 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, "He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes."

1SA 3:19 The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. 21 The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

In May 1212, a 12 years old shepherd boy named Stephen of Cloye turned up at the Palace of King Philip of France with a letter from Jesus Christ. This was the time after the 4th Crusade failed to retake Jerusalem and the Holy land from the Muslims. Stephen said that Jesus Christ has appointed him to lead a new crusade and King Philip is to supply him with an army. King Philip refused to see him. Stephen then went around preaching his message and by June 1212, he has an army of 30,000 consisting mainly of children from 6-15 years old. When questioned about the feasibility about a children’s army, Stephen said God will provide protection. Whey they reach the Mediterranean Sea, God will part the sea and the army will march all the way to Jerusalem. They moved south and many children died on the way either by diseases or starvation. When they reached Marseilles, the Mediterranean Sea did not part. Instead they have to set out to sea in 7 boats. The 7 boats were never heard from again. Legend had it that the children were captured by pirates and sold off into slavery. This became known as the Children’s Crusade. Now looking backing back in history, we wonder how could a 12 year old illiterate shepherd boy claimed to have the word of God. And how could so many people believed him?

The question we need to ask ourselves is how do we know if God is speaking to us? This is known as discernment. Another boy in the Old Testament also faced the problem of discernment. As recorded in the part of 1 Samuel 3:1-21, the boy Samuel also face a problem to discover: “Who is calling him?” We shall learn from Samuel in three aspects:
1. Who is the caller?
2. Who is being called?
3. How do we listen?

1. Who is the Caller?
In the narrative, Samuel heard a voice calling, “Samuel! Samuel!” Initially he thought it was Eli calling him. Eli was the high priest of Shiloh where the Israelites came to worship and offer sacrifice every year. Samuel was given to the tabernacle to minister under Eli. Hannah, Samuel’s mother was barren. She prayed to the Lord so fervently that Eli thought that she was drunk! God answered her prayer and Samuel was her firstborn. In gratitude, Samuel was given by the family to work in the temple. Samuel was not a Levite so he will never be a priest. When Samuel hears a voice calling him, he quickly ran to Eli, thinking that Eli had called him. After the third time, Eli realized that the caller is God. Note his respond, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.' (v.9) Without hearing the voice, Eli assumes that it was God who is calling Samuel. Now please note Samuel’s reply: "Speak, for your servant is listening." (v.10). Even as a young boy, Samuel was cautious. Unlike Eli, he did not assume that the Lord is calling him. Hence he dropped the word “Lord” from his reply. I find this remarkable in one so young. Even though he is in the house of the Lord he was cautious not to take God’s name in vain. There is no greater sin than to call someone else Lord which means God. Unfortunately, many of us are not so cautious. We often assume that the caller is God.

There are three sources of voices that call to us. They are either from God, from our own self or from Satan.

(1) Self
Our self or heart is “deceitful above all” We are all masters in self-justification. We can deceive ourselves from believing that what we want is actually what God wants. Then we go around telling people that God wants this when secretly it is what we want. Many years ago, in my varsity days, a brother in Christ came and shared with me. “The Lord wants me to marry this girl”. I know he like this girl who is also a member of our Christian fellowship very much. In fact everyone knew except him. “How so?” I asked him. “Well, I feel strongly that the Holy Spirit is telling me that she is the one for me. One night, when I was staring at the fridge door, I saw her face! And later that night, while I was reading the Bible about Jacob and Rachel, the Lord confirmed it. The name Rachel jumped up at me (the girl’s name is Rachel).” He was so convinced but I managed to convince him to be patient and give the relationship time. Now he is happily married with three children- to Rachel’s best friend! Looking back, he was so convinced that he was hearing the word of God when he was just hearing his own desire. That’s our deceitful self.

(2) Satan
Satan is the prince of lies. He will lie to convince us that God is speaking to us. And he can be very convincing because his other name is Lucifer which means angel of light. Look at the Children’s Crusade. That aim was good- free the Holy land. I cannot help but wonder where did this 12 years old illiterate shepherd boy got his power from? Raising an army of 30,000 children. Anyone who is in ministry can tell you, getting volunteers is not easy. To get one is tough, but 30,000 in one month! I believe that there are spiritual powers behind all these. We have to remember that there is a spiritual warfare still going on. Often it is easy to forget as we sit so comfortably in our pews.

(3) God
How do we know it is from God? God usually confirms what he says. Look at Samuel’s example. 1 Samuel 3:11-15.
1SA 3:11 And the LORD said to Samuel: "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family--from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, `The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.' "
God is essentially confirming what he said about the condemnation of Eli’s household because of Eli’s two wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 2:12-36). When Samuel heard this, he was satisfied that it was God who is speaking. Samuel must be around when he man of God came to pronounce God’s curse on Eli’s household in 1 Samuel 2:27. That’s why Samuel went back to sleep in v.15. He was convinced that he has heard from God.

2. Who is being Called?

Who did God call to? Samuel and not Hophni and Phinehas. God calls to those who worship him and to those who have a servant heart. Samuel had a servant heart.

(1) He worked hard serving the Lord and his servant.
v.1 Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli
v.15 he open the doors of the house of the Lord in the morning

(2) He has a servant attitude
Whenever Eli called, Samuel was prompt in his response and said, “Here I am”. That reflects a servant heart. This means that whatever God said to Samuel, he will listen and obey.

Sometimes, we must have wondered why God do not speak to us. Could it be we are not serving with a servant heart?

4. How do we listen?
We do not hear God’s voice because we are not listening properly. There are a few ways in which we listen:

(1) listen but do not hear
we are listening but we do not hear. We are not receptive at all.

(2) listen for what we want to hear
we have selective hearing loss. We only hear what we want to hear. Some of us have already made up our mind on what he or she wants to do for the Lord. Then we will search through the Scripture to find verses that support what we want to do. If the whole verse does not fit, we cut off half and use the only one half. When the Lord speaks to us through the Bible we hear only what we want to hear.

One of the most frustrating thing about being a doctor is explaining to parents of a very sick child. I have often experienced spending hours explaining what is wrong with their child and the prognosis. At the end, they will ask, “Is everything okay?” They do not want to hear anything else. They just want to hear me say the word “Okay”.

(3) listen enough to do something
we listen and hear enough so we can do something. “Alex, I want you to build a house…” “Yes, Lord” “Right away, Lord” So I get a contractor straight away to proceed to build a house. After the house I completed, I came back to the Lord. “Here you are, Lord, nice house, all completed.” The Lord said, “ You did not listen to my whole sentence. I was saying, I want you to build a house for your dogs.” How many of us are so eager to do things for the Lord but we do not spend enough time listening to him. That’s why we need to set aside time for prayers and solitude. God speaks in silence.

(4) listen with our hearts
The Lord is more interested in our being rather in our doing. To listen to the Lord, we need to listen not only with our mind but also with our heart. Then only can we hear the voice of God properly.

1SA 3:19 The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. 21 The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

Samuel knew how to listen to the Lord with his heart. That’s why none of God’s words fall to the ground. Everything was taken in an assimilated. People begin to recognise him as a prophet. And because Samuel is a good listener, God continue to reveal himself to Samuel by speaking to him.

Lessons for us: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening
How do we discern that God is speaking to us, not our self or Satan? How do we know who is calling? How do we know who is being called? And how do we listen to the words of God? John Wesley gave some guidelines in discerning God’s voice: Scripture, tradition, reason, experience.
(1) Scripture- God will not contradict himself. Whatever that contradict what is revealed in the Bible is not from God. If someone turns up saying God has revealed to him that Jesus Christ is married to Mary Magdalene and has a daughter named Sarah; that is not from God.
(2) Tradition- whatever contradicts 2,000 years of church experience. Sometimes we forget that the church has been around for 2000 years and does not start with Martin Luther. We can learn much from church history. There have been many mistakes but also great things the church has done. Tradition teaches us how to listen to God’s voice.

Tradition also includes the present church community. The Holy Spirit is common to all of us. If God speaks to one of us, he will also confirm with he says with others in the community. So if you feel God is speaking to you, ask others if they sense the same thing also. Community discernment is a powerful tool in confirming not only whether you are hearing God’s voice but also whether you are hearing him correctly.

(3) Reason- common sense. Often we do not use our common sense when we ask God to speak to us. Often we ask God whether we shall pray, read the Bible, evangelise, do mission or help another person. And then we complain that God does not reply. The reason why God does not reply is that he has already replied in the Bible. At other times, God may want us to think for ourselves.

(4) Experience- like Samuel, the more you listen to God, the more he will speak to you. After a while, you will have enough experience to recognize the Lord’s voice. You will also learn to know what pleases and displeases God.

These 4 aspects became known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in 1920. I would like to add prayer as the matrix that holds it all together.

(5) Prayer-Communion with God.

So in graphic form, we can discern God’s voice by


[tradition] [reason] [experience]

[ prayer-communion with God ]

Our God is a God who wants to reveal himself. He is not playing hide-and-seek with us. If we seek him, he will speak plainly to us. He may speaks to us directly in an audible voice (as in Samuel’s case), through dreams, visions and his people. Unfortunately there are also false voices, voices that will seek to counterfeit God’s voice to mislead us. This is where spiritual discernment comes in. Discernment is listening with your heart to confirm God’s word. The more you listen to God, the more you recognize his voice and the easier it gets to hear him.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, July 10, 2006

Let's Talk about Giving

Text: Mark 12:41–44
       Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

        Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on."


This passage in the gospels commonly known as the “widow’s offering” illustrate the importance of giving. In the gospel of Mark, the account follows the account of Jesus teaching of the Great Commandment: love God and love your neighbours, answering the question about David’s son and the denouncing of the scribes. Jesus was using this incident to teach His disciples about true offering or giving to the Lord.

From the passage (v.41-44) we can derive 6 principles of giving.

1.     Our giving matters to God.

It is interesting to note that Jesus actually sat Himself opposite the treasury so that He can observe what each person is putting into the treasury as offerings to the Lord. This is an unusual place to sit and obviously Jesus wanted to teach His disciples an object lesson about offering.

The act of our giving matters to God. It is not because God needs our giving. Everything in the universe belongs to Him. It is the fact that we make the effort to give pleases Him and gives Him pleasure. The fact that we are obeying Him and giving to Him means that we are not so self centered.

There was a story about Abba Isaac. He was one of the Desert fathers in the desert of Egypt in the 2nd Century. In the desert, the nights are very cold and because of his frail condition, his followers gave him a piece of old blanket. Abba Isaac was pleased but he felt that Abba John needed the blanket more than him. So he gave it to Abba John. Abba John in turn felt that Abba Abraham needed the blanket more than him. So he gave it to Abba Abraham who in turn gave it to someone else. One day, someone presented Abba Isaac with the same blanket! I am sure God is pleased that His people are so concerned about each other and less about themselves. This is the basis of true giving. A love for God and a love for our neighbours.

Our giving does matter to God. God is observing us and watching to see how we are handling all the great blessings he has given us. God has blessed us with financial wealth, talents and gifts, skills and health. He is good to us. And He watches to see how we respond to this. Our giving does matter to God.

  1. The amount of our giving matters to God.

Where Jesus was sitting, He can see exactly what has been placed in the treasury as offerings. He saw the rich who deposited large amount of money but He was not impressed because they gave out of their abundance. God has blessed them but the amount they gave, even though it was much did not affect them at all. There was no prick of uneasiness, no hesitancy or worry about security. They gave out of their abundance. They have much more in reserve. Jesus was not impressed. Then along came a poor widow. She deposited her only two copper coins and Jesus was impressed. The widow did not have much and she gave it all to the Lord. The amount of our giving matters to God.

One of the spiritual lessons we learn as we deepen our spiritual walk with the Lord is that our detachment to worldly things and the need for security lessens. God becomes our all in all. I have a very good friend who is a Christian and a successful businessman. He built a very large furniture business. One day he suffered a heart attack. After he has recovered from his bypass surgery, he changed his lifestyle. He told me that he realized that a lot of things are not essential. He sold off his big bungalow and moved into a smaller house. He sold off his BMW and Mercedes and bought a smaller car. He adopted a simpler lifestyle so that he has more to give away. He found that as he deepens his prayer life and his relationship with God, he found that he needed less and less the false security of things. He became less attached to them. He found it is easier to give things away including large amount of money. The amount of money we can give away is inversely proportional to the depth of our spiritual life.

3.     The love for God makes giving a pleasure rather than a chore.

No one forced this widow to make this offering. It was completely voluntary. She wanted to give her everything. Even though it must have hurt, she must have felt joy. There was no compulsion.

Recently, the father of one of my friends passed away. He ran a mini market. With this business he has sent seven of his children for college education in the United States. They have all graduated and now hold responsible positions. To earn enough money, this man has literally worked himself to death. He refused to close the shop for holidays. His shop is open for business 24/7. When he was dying from cancer, his daughter asked him whether he regretted working hard. No, he said, He loved his children. He felt that his children are a great gift for him. Hence it was a joy to work for their future. What a powerful testimony of a father’s love.

God showed His love for us by giving us His Son. God has given us so much. Hence it should be a joy for us to give something back to Him. Giving should be joyful. Here is an opportunity to give something back to God who has given us so much. It should not be regarded as a duty. We should not be reluctant to give back to God.

If we are reluctant to give, then we should review our spiritual life. There must be some reason why we are unwilling to give.

4.     Anyone can give much.

Jesus teaches that generous giving can be given by anyone. He is not impressed by the amount but by the sacrifice in the giving. In God's sight, the poorest person in the world can be the most generous giver in the world!

There is a story about a village in the mountain in France during the German occupation in the Second World War. A woman from a rich noble family brought a bowl of porridge for a poor family in the village. The poor family received the porridge gratefully. It was a large family and the porridge would not be enough for all. The rich lady noticed that the poor woman was pouring some of the porridge into another small bowl. When asked why she did this, she said it is for her neighbours and their children who are also starving. Even the poorest and starving can give.

I am active in an online discussion group. Someone posted that he is earning $1,300 a month. After debt repayment and money for his parents, he has only $300 to live on for the whole month. “Does God expect him to give 10% or $130?” My response post was that God does not expect him to do that. I reminded him that giving is not only about money. We can give of our time, our skills, our talents and our commitments.

5.      The love for God will increase our desire to give more.

In the same post, I challenged his idea of tithing. Where do we get the idea that tithe is 10% of our earnings?
  • Gen.14:18-20 Abraham gave one tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem. The writer of Hebrews (Hebs.7:4, 9) implied that there is a priesthood greater than that of Aaron.

  • Gen. 28:22 Jacob promised to bring a tenth of his earning to God if he returns safely home.

  • Exodus require giving only first-fruits (23:16)

  • Tithes were given to Levites for their priestly service and they in turn are required to give one-tenth.(Num. 18:19-21,26)

  • If a person does not want to give a tenth of what he produced, he can give 120% of its value.

  • Tithes were required to be brought to the temple. If it is too far, can be sold and money brought to the temple.

  • Every third year, the tithe remains in the hometown and the tithe given to the Levite, widows, poor or aliens.

  • Withholding tithes is likened to robbing God (Mal.3:8-12)

  • How often do they pay their tithes? Once a year.

10% is a requirement under the Law. In fact, some people like the Pharisees do give more. But it does not apply to us because we are under the New Covenant- the Covenant of Grace. There is no requirement that we must give 10% of our income. This idea of 10% is a carry over from the Old Testament. In fact, I think this 10% level is bondage on our thinking. Most of us think that if we give 10%, we have done our duty and God is happy. I am not too sure of that. Instead of religiously checking our annual income and calculate 10%, why not give more? This year you give 10% of your income. Next year, maybe 15%, then 20% or more.

In the United States where 93 million people profess to be Christian, George Barna, A Christian pollster recorded that the average giving of a Christian is 3%! And I feel it is the same here. We are not even reaching the 10% mark.

6.     The Love for God may cause us to occasionally make an offering that is risky or impractical.

This woman gave everything she had to live on. This was not practical. If God did not provide for her in a special way, she would go hungry for a period of time. Yet I think that the widow is not stupid. She knew the risk, but she also knew her God. In all relationships, love and trust are completely intertwined. Love is trust, and trust is love. She loves her God and she trust in her God. God may provide for her needs for the next few days or she may starve. Either way, she love and trusted her God. That is the lesson Jesus would have us learn.

Francis of Assisi comes to mind when we talk of sacrificial giving. Son of a prosperous cloth, he had everything. Yet he gave away everything so that he can be free. He trusted the Lord to take care of him as He has taken care of the birds in the field and lilies in the valley. Anytime, a well wisher gave him something, he would give it away to the next beggar or poor man or woman he met.

Please note that sacrificial giving isn't something you have to do to be a Christian or to prove you love God or to gain God's favor. In fact, you do not have to give at all and God still loves you the same.

Rather, sacrificial giving is something you want to do. You see it as an opportunity to express your feelings for God. The giver trusts God with whatever God allows to happen.


The widow's relationship with God was based on trust and dependence, not her offering.
So it is with any of us. Our relationship with God is based not on what we give to God but on what he gives to us. The 6 principles of giving are:

  1. Our giving matters to God.

  2. The amount of our giving matters to God.

  3. The love for God makes giving a pleasure rather than a chore.

  4. Anyone can give much.

  5. The love for God will increase our desire to give more.

  6. The Love for God may cause us to occasionally will make an offering that is risky or impractical.

Let us rethink our giving to the Lord. It should be done with joy. It should also challenge us. Rethink the figure of 10%. Why not give more? Why not give until it hurts?

                                                                                                                     Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Superman Returns

The big guy in bright blue and red tights has a fascination for me since I discovered him in the comics when I was a wee lad. Currently I am enjoying Superman-the animated series, volume two and three on DVD. Though, I have not been too impressed with the previous four Superman movies, I was looking forward to this movie when Supes returns to the big screen.
(image placeholder)
Peter Singer directed this movie though I have hoped that he would take up the challenge to direct X-Men III before taking on Superman Returns. But that will be crying over spilled milk.

The opening credits were impressive and remind us of the old Superman movies. John Williams’ music did not fail to induce a sense of nostalgia. The crash landing of a spaceship in the Kent’s farm was impressive and it was a pleasant shock to discover that Singer was not rehashing the legend of Superman’s first coming to earth but of a second coming. Interesting overtones of a ‘messiah’ legend.

Some will regard this movie as a love movie- between Superman and Lois Lane.  There were nice moments in the movie which brought us back to the relationship of the two in previous Superman movies. However, one would question a love in which Superman will disappear suddenly without saying goodbye when astronomers discovered the remnants oft the planet Krypton. Flying away suddenly and leaving behind earth which he was entrusted to protect by his father, Jor-El smacks of an adolescent identity crisis.

Lex Luthor, the arch-villain was an interesting contrast of brilliance and stupidity. In his quest for revenge on Superman and real estate, he was willing to doom billions of people and drown the United States. It is interesting that he sees himself as the modern Prometheus. Prometheus was punished by the Greek gods for giving mankind fire (technology). In the movie, Luthor did steal Kryptonian technology for mankind (though for his own gain). Like Prometheus, he was caught and punished.

Central is to the theme of the movie is Lois Lane’s article, “Why the world doesn’t need a Superman”. It was written after Superman left abruptly and had won her the coveted Pulitzer award. Rephrased, the question became, “Does the world need a Saviour?”  There is a scene in the movie where Superman hovers in space, listening and then responding to cries of help. There is another scene when Superman and Lois were floating in space (Lois apparently do not need oxygen or feel cold) when Superman answered the question. “You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour, but everyday I hear people crying out for one." This has much resonance about the question about the world needing a saviour. One can cast Superman as the “Christ” figure. There are enough pointers in the movie; Jor-El sent his “only son” to earth. The talk about the father being the son and the son being the father. There is a scene in which Superman hovers in space in a crucifix position: arms outstretched, legs together. The second coming as in the return. The sacrifice and death of Superman. His apparent resurrection. His felt “responsibility” to be a saviour to the people of earth. It is easy to find Superman as the “Christ” figure in this movie.

However, we need to look deeper into the character of this Superman. Is he saviour material? In Superman II, he took Lois to bed (and fathered a son) while leaving the world unprotected. In this movie, he returns from a 5 years absence again leaving the world unprotected. He expects things to be what it was when he left. He tried to rekindle his relationship with Lois who has a son and a lived-in boyfriend. He stalked her like a love-sick puppy. Lex Luthor got out of jail (a 2 lifetime sentence) because Superman was not around to testify at his trial. He may be Superman but he is not perfect man. Only a perfect man can be the true saviour of mankind.

Brandon Routh was too scrawny to be cast as Superman/Clark Kent though at certain angles he does look like a very young Christopher Reeves. Kevin Spacey had fun as Lex Luthor. Kate Bosworth look totally out of character and looks as a Lois Lane. She lacks the toughness of Margot Kidder. Marlon Brando was well, Marlon Brandon. All in all, it was an interesting 155 minutes of movie making of an imperfect man/alien who wants to be saviour of the world. And I received a free movie poster too.