Designed for hope.

I wrote this out as an interview for Selah.sg a while back, but one of my recent reflections with God brought this to mind. Posting the interview in its entirety here; may it encourage those of you who read it, bringing a message of hope from the great Author Himself.

  1. When and how did you realise that you were suffering from depression and loneliness? (Perhaps you could elaborate on the root causes and triggers, and if the two (both depression & loneliness) overlapped in your journey.

I was 13 when I was officially diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, but I think it started two years before that.

When I was in Primary 5 and studying in Singapore, I offended one of the most popular girls in my class. Subsequently, she turned the entire class and all of my friends against me, painting a big red target on my back. Since it was an all-girls school, there was never a physical element to the bullying: it’d be more subtle yet still wounding actions like whispering and pointing behind my back, creating an invisible bubble around me in the assembly hall and pretending I had some sort of disease, and using file folders to “barricade” my desk in class to try to quarantine me. I felt terribly alone and ostracized. The bullying continued for quite some time.

Around the same time, the group of neighborhood boys I’d always played with after school also decided they no longer wanted a girl in their group. The ringleader of the gang decided to instigate all the boys against me: they’d come by my house to vandalize it when I wasn’t around, or beat me up when I came home. My younger brother happened to be on MC and resting at home one time when they came; he ended up having to fend them off with a laundry pole. They also went to my next-door neighbor’s house and vandalized his expensive car badly, then pinned the blame on me. Again, this went on for quite some time, so I felt like I was fighting a war on multiple fronts.

I was utterly miserable. When I went to my mother to tell her everything that was going on, she told me, “Get over it. It’s just bullying.” As a young child, I wanted to heed my mother’s advice, but had no clue how. The only way, I thought, was for me to not feel the pain at all.

And so I started building walls around my heart, wrapping it with layers and layers of statements like, “it’s best not to feel any emotions,” or “you have to protect yourself, because no one will protect you.”

But what I didn’t realize was that there was a whole slew of other lies I also began to believe – lies like, “You are a mistake.” “You were never meant to exist in the world.” “You are not important to anyone.” “You will always be alone.”

These lies followed me even when I moved back to the United States when I was 12, poisoning the few friendships I managed to form and forcing me into deeper and deeper isolation.

  1. Personally, I know of friends (also believers) who are struggling with depression and loneliness but due to various reasons and factors; they can’t be open about the matter or bring it to light. Why do you think this is the case and was it tough for you to come to terms with depression and loneliness?

There’s an unfortunate stigma against both of these in many Christian communities, and I think this is in large part because of our own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness whenever we encounter such strong feelings. We genuinely want to help, but have no idea what people with depression are going through or how to respond to them. As the body of Christ, we tend to go to a few extremes:

  1. We tell people that the Bible says to “rejoice always” and “count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds,” (James 1:2)
  2. We tell people that they have so much to be thankful for and therefore they shouldn’t feel that way,
  3. We tell people that they’re depressed because they don’t have enough faith.
  4. We tell people that they’re depressed because they haven’t been listening to God.

There are so many more of these that I’ve heard over the years. Most of these were friends or churchmates, so I know they had good intentions. But these statements generally left me feeling as though it wasn’t safe to express my sadness and anger in a church context. In our zeal to help, we’ve inadvertently created an environment in which only certain kinds of feelings are allowed…and people feel as though they have to hide their pain in order to be accepted.

My case was compounded by the fact that I already believed that it was better for me not to feel any of my pain, and that people would be afraid or burdened if I showed them how I really felt. Hearing all of these statements simply left me feeling even more hopelessness about my situation.

For this reason, I had to choose carefully the people I shared my struggles with…and these individuals were few and far between. I am very blessed, though; those few individuals through whom God showed me how much I was loved and protected remain my closest friends today.

  1. How did you manage to cope on a day-to-day basis, and overcome depression and loneliness? (You could share practical steps.)

By being in relationship with God and learning to love myself the way that He loves me. The root of depression is hopelessness, so if I find myself sinking into that place, I try and get reconnected to what the God of hope is saying to me. I allow Him to love on me even in my darkest times, and when I can’t do that, the friends He’s placed around me help Him to remind me how much I am loved. I choose my closest friends carefully and over a long period of time: for me to consider them a close friend, they have to consistently demonstrate that they value the whole of me (and not just the part of me that lives up to certain expectations) – because God values the whole of me.

Practically speaking, I structure my life so that I filter out distractions, choosing to focus on His heart for me above what all the other voices are telling me. For instance, I regularly journal all the things weighing on my heart and listen for what I hear God saying to me. If I encounter a negative situation, I tune into what God is saying about that circumstance (and He always leads with peace, so if I feel anxiety or dread, it’s a clue that I’ve stepped out of that connection with the good Shepherd).

I also make it a priority to do things and spend time with people who bring me joy. My taste in music has changed drastically: I no longer listen to the same angry, “screamo” punk rock that I used to listen to. I tend not to watch television dramas with the regular heartwrenching themes of betrayal, strife, and so on. I’ve become a lot more selective about the kind of books I read. It’s not about living under a rock and hiding myself away from all the troubles of the world: it’s that I choose to filter what comes in so that I manage my emotions, and my priorities and values are accurately reflected in how I live my life.

And actually, crying helps a lot. It’s interesting the way that God designed our bodies. There have been research studies documenting that crying releases stress hormones and toxins from our bodies, so if we keep all of those feelings bottled up, it actually prevents our bodies from letting go of certain things. So if I feel really down, I’ll listen to worship songs and just cry everything out, throwing everything I have at God.

During one of my worst seasons, I learned that God’s not afraid of our anger. He’s the safest person to be angry with, because He knows our hearts intimately and knows exactly what we feel and need. He never rejects us or gets upset with us when we tell Him about how we’re hurting. He never feels rejected or afraid, and doesn’t feel a need to quash our anger to maintain order in the household. Because I believed that people would abandon me if they saw how I really felt, that revelation brought a lot of restoration to my heart.

  1. Were there moments in your restoration journey when you felt like giving up and how did things turn around for you then?

Sure, plenty. I’ve attempted suicide multiple times during my worst seasons. Each time, God supernaturally protected me (long story I’ll tell another time). But at the time, I was miserable because I thought I couldn’t do anything right – not even kill myself properly.

However, through the journey, God showed me pictures of the hope and future He had for my life (Jeremiah 29:11), and told me that He would restore the years eaten by the locusts (Joel 2:25). Those promises were like the light at the end of the tunnel for me, and they kept me going. He told me, “there’s a path for you to walk, and it will seem terrifying at times. But you are completely safe with Me.” That word brought me a lot of comfort and assurance, because one of the things I’ve never felt is the protection and joy of a father over me.

  1. From a perspective of a believer, what can Christians do OR should refrain from doing in order to support others who are going through depression and/or loneliness?

Jesus is the standard, and He shows us the Father. He perfectly understands what we’re going through, and is present with us in the pain and grief (Hebrews 4:15). He isn’t afraid of our pain and our emotions, and He doesn’t feel discomfort whenever we show these extreme emotions.

In fact, he says to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), and in the Psalms He’s captured the entire range of human emotions possible, articulating every feeling from anguish and dread to elation and joy. In essence, God has given us language to vocalize and understand the deepest parts of our souls – and that’s often what people struggling with depression and loneliness need.

I think that’s where most Christians miss it when trying to support those going through depression and loneliness. In our anxiety and discomfort with these feelings and our desire to try to help our loved ones, we make up answers where God isn’t speaking. We misinterpret what they’re actually thinking and feeling, and we don’t really get to the core of things. That’s when all the trite religious sayings come out, and we inadvertently create an environment that leaves them feeling even more alone and misunderstood.

If your loved one is struggling with depression and loneliness, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t rush to fix them. Don’t tell them to have more faith. And definitely don’t tell them that the solution is to “rejoice always” or “count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.” Validate their feelings, however extreme or drastic they may seem to be.

Be present with them in the moment, staying connected to what the God of hope is saying and feeling about them. Sometimes that means feeling His delight and affection for them whenever they’re around, letting them know how precious they are to you. Sometimes that means simply embracing them and crying with them.

Other times it means listening to them pour out their hearts and being fully present with them as they’re processing those emotions. Seek to understand their hearts, and seek to love them well. (By the way, if you think you’re loving them well but they don’t feel loved by you, it may be an indication to re-evaluate what you’re doing.)

That depression is a mere symptom; the real problem lies deeper within. For me, it was an overwhelming sense of being unloved, unsupported, and alone. There were many lies I believed about myself because of the things I went through, and it took time and a lot of love to unearth those beliefs and replace them with the truth.

For others, it may be that they’ve just lost their jobs, and they’d tied their whole lives to their work and/or their performance. They’ll need time and a lot of support to regain their footing and develop a new, more secure sense of themselves that is not tied to something external.

Be patient with your loved one, and always endeavor to listen and understand what their hearts are actually saying. (The words that are coming out of their mouths are a good indication of what their hearts are feeling, but words can’t tell you the whole story.)

Find out what our loving heavenly Father thinks and feels about them. Catch His heart for them. It will change the way you relate to them. It will change you. And in time, it will change how they see themselves too.

  1. A word of encouragement for those struggling with depression and/or loneliness.

After writing so much about not handing out quick fixes, this is a bit difficult! Every person’s situation is different, because every person has been uniquely created and is uniquely loved by God. But this much I can say: we were designed for hope. If you feel despair or a bout of negativity coming on, seek to get reconnected to what our Father is saying about you. If you seek to hear His voice no matter what you may be facing in life, He will bring you on a journey to discover all of the affections and the plans He has for you.

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On forgiveness.

I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology, I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.” But excusing says “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it, you weren’t really to blame.”. . .

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.

From The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis

The confession of sin is for restoration.

It bothers me when, in pointing out something that is off, people begin to draw lines between themselves and the other party. That act can be just as divisive as the offense that led to the finger-pointing in the first place.

The confession of sin is for restoration. It is possible, even when communicating these character flaws, to do so in a way that displays honor toward the other party.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (‭‭Galatians‬ ‭6:1-2‬ ‭ESV‬)

Thing is, we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation. Yes, we’ve been given a sound mind to be able to spot when things are out of whack, but all discernment must be subject to this overarching goal: to bring all things back into alignment with the Father’s heart. 

Here’s the line: in confrontation, is your heart for the well-being and success of the other?

Grandmother.

My grandma passed away at around 11am this morning.

When I first received the news, I was slightly taken aback. But since I wasn’t that close to her, I thought I’d be largely unaffected; I even felt a bit guilty about not feeling more grieved at her death. I made plans to visit her later in the afternoon, and then continued preparing for the lesson I was to teach at 3pm.

Three hours later and on my way to class, the grief hit me like a ton of bricks. While I was sitting in the train station waiting for the MRT, I felt my eyes involuntarily well up with tears.

I was so confused: “God, why am I crying? I didn’t know [Grandma] that well. I’ve never even had a real conversation with her. Why can’t I stop crying?”

“Of course you’re crying. She was your Grandma, after all, and although you two weren’t close, you did wish you had a better relationship with her.”

I realized something: I do feel grief. But instead of being grieved at her passing, I was grieving over the loss of hope —  the possibility of having a real relationship with her. I didn’t know it at the time, but while she was still alive, I’d still had hope that one day we would be able to understand and connect with each other. 

It never felt easy for me to talk to my grandmother. Even though we both spoke English, she and I always seemed to communicate on different frequencies. Tragically, the only time I ever felt safe enough to open up my heart and have a real conversation with her was after she’d lost the ability to talk. By then, the Parkinson’s disease in her body had progressed to the point where the muscles in her throat were too weak for her to produce words: the only way for her to communicate was by moving letters around on an alphabet board. 

During one of my visits in that season, I started telling her about all the things that were important to me: my hopes and dreams for the future, the fears I was struggling with at the time, and all the unanswered questions on my heart. It was the most real and vulnerable I’ve ever been with her, and yet it was mostly a monologue.

Just prior to my next visit, my grandmother’s secretary messaged me to inform me that my grandmother did not want me to visit her — she found it too difficult to communicate with me. I could visit her only when the secretary was around, she said, so that there would be someone to serve as a buffer. I was crushed, and after that, the frequency of my visits dropped drastically.

I wish I’d been braver.

I remember going to Christmas lunches and Chinese New Year reunion dinners at Grandma’s place. I’d sit at the dining table, where my aunt (who still bears a grudge against me for some long-forgotten reason) would pretend that I didn’t exist. At the time, my grandmother was still well enough to sit up and eat, so she’d join us at the table and sit quietly while the maid fed her spoonfuls of puréed vegetable and fish porridge (the only type of food soft enough for her to swallow). My uncle would try to make polite conversation so the meal wouldn’t be as awkward an experience. Later, he’d always offer to drive me home, and in the car I’d attempt to ask his wife (the aforementioned aunt) how she was doing, only to be met with chilly silence. After a couple years of this, I started finding excuses to avoid attending these family gatherings.

I wish I’d been braver.

At 18 years old, when I first came back to Singapore after 6 years of being away, I stayed at my grandmother’s house for a few weeks. One day, we had a disagreement over something trivial, and she kicked me out of the house. Angry, hurt, and afraid of more rejection, I didn’t talk to her for a while after that.

I wish I’d been braver.

I think I’ve always held onto the idea that if I prayed, someday my Grandma would meet Jesus (independent of my involvement), be healed, and we would miraculously reconcile and begin to build a stronger connection. Until that happened, though, I would limit my contact with her as much as possible, because I was afraid of getting hurt. I wish I’d been braver.

You don’t have to come
But You always do
You show up in splendor
And change the whole room
You walked through all of my walls
And conquered my shame
Stepped into my past
And filled my world with grace
You don’t have to come
But You wanted to
You show up in splendor
And change the whole room – Bethel Music, “Thank You”

Capacity.

I’ve been thinking a fair bit since I decided to forgo the full-time job (along with the financial security and structure that comes with it) and focus on writing and editing. Namely, about the fears that are keeping me from writing, the financial pressures, and what exactly I am to do next.

And I had a thought today: maybe the lingering doubts will never go away entirely. Maybe what will happen is that I grow in my capacity to keep the answer bigger than the problem.

When a problem arises, whether personal or otherwise, I work to remain conscious of the Spirit of God upon me. If the problem gets bigger than my awareness of the Holy Spirit, I will react to the problem. Living in reaction to the devil gives him too much influence over our lives. We must live as Jesus did – doing what the Father is doing. Living in response to God is far superior than living in reaction to the devil. (Bill Johnson)

Because isn’t that the case with every situation we face here on earth?

Take our workplaces, for instance. Although we seek to foster a heavenly culture here on earth, we’re certainly not there yet. There really isn’t an “ideal workplace,” especially considering that people, however well-intentioned they are, still make mistakes and hurt others. But if such a workplace is one defined by love and freedom, it means that we must allow people the choice to choose love — or not. And instead of getting riled up when they don’t, we are presented with the same choice: to keep our love on and give honor away unconditionally (as the Father would), or to make our love and honor conditional on their behavior.

After all, God is not afraid of our mistakes. In fact, He’s the Redeemer, turning all things around for our good!

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)

The same principle works in relationships as well. Sometimes we paint a rosy picture of marriage, thinking that a strong marriage means both love each other dearly, with neither party ever making mistakes nor struggling with any issues. The truth is that with most mature married couples I’ve seen, the issues never entirely go away. Instead, the couple builds a strong relational connection and history based on a shared vision, learning to keep their awareness of the Holy Spirit greater than that of the problem. Once in a while they may still irritate each other, but they quickly remember that these mild annoyances fall away in light of eternity.

When all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictions
Eclipsed by glory and I realize just how beautiful You are
And how great Your affections are for me (David Crowder – How He Loves)

I think that may very well be the case with my current journey as well. The nagging feelings of insignificance, of disconnection, and of financial lack may never disappear entirely. But what will happen is that I grow in my capacity to see the goodness of God in every area of my life.

The Fears.

I read this post by Jeff Goins today on the fears that are keeping me from writing. Inspired, I decided to reflect on the possible fears I have that are hindering the expression of my calling, and hear what Father says about these.

What am I afraid of?

I am afraid that I don’t have anything unique to offer to the world.

I am afraid that my message isn’t anything new, and that other people can say the same thing — and much better, at that!

I am afraid that if I go down this path, I will invest thousands of dollars into a venture that won’t bear much fruit.

I am afraid that I’m not doing enough…and that I’m not good enough.

I am afraid that Father won’t provide for me during this time, because He just doesn’t love me that much.

I am afraid that I am not as special to my Papa as He is to me…that I am not significant in His eyes.

So what do I do now?

See, I don’t believe that defeating these fears is a matter of willpower and perseverance…though of course I do believe those two things have certain merits to them. (Food for thought: what role do perseverance and willpower have to do in our relational journey with God?)

I do believe, however, that there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fearbecause fear has to do with punishment, and the one who fears has not been perfected in love (1 Jn 4:18).

You see, faith isn’t a matter of stirring up; it’s a settling down. Faith comes when I consistently taste the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, and I see the smaller victories God has worked in my life as glimpses into His nature, His goodness, and His love for me.

So if these fears are now arising in me, it simply means this is a journey of discovering His love in these areas of my life. After all, in the process of refining gold, the heat of the furnace brings impurities bubbling to the surface so that they can be removed.

A slice of banana bread.

I found out today that I have a fear of disappointing those I love…and it all started with a slice of banana bread.

I enjoy baking. I find it therapeutic to walk into a house filled with the smell of freshly baked goods: it creates a very homely feel and settles my heart. (Ironically, I don’t enjoy eating my baked creations because I’d usually rather have savory over sweet stuff! I end up giving most of my baked goodies away.)

Anyway, on Friday, I decided to bake some banana bread, following a recipe I’d found on the Internet. The bread turned out well, I thought — it was dense, but not too dense; sweet, but not too sweet; and just the right degree of moistness for my taste.

Then, I told a dear friend of mine (who’s recently become a housewife and started baking a lot) about my newest creation, and she said, “I want one!”

I thought, “hmm, I’ll be going into church today [where her husband works], so maybe I’ll pass him a slice to give to her.”

But I hesitated. “What if she doesn’t like it?” “What if she thinks it’s terrible and doesn’t dare tell me the truth because she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings?”

Another voice in me spoke up. “You’ve been given a spirit of power, love, and sound mind. Why are you now giving into fear?”

And then I realized…I do the same thing with God.

You see, I seem to have a habit of refusing to commit to what I deem “big responsibilities” because I think that I’m going to mess it up and that Father is going to be disappointed with me. I had the same hesitation when it came to the suggestion of mentoring youth, sharing my heart from the pulpit, or drawing out strategies for a new initiative at work. Administrative work? No problem. Mundane day-to-day tasks? Easy. Typing notes at the back of the room for documentation and archiving? Sure. Risking my heart in relationship with an acquaintance I haven’t yet “vetted” and deemed safe? Highly unlikely. Planning and executing an important project that could potentially shift the organizational culture at my workplace? Yikes.

Thing is, that same fear of disappointing God is carrying into my current journey of pursuing my dreams. I told God I wanted to go more into writing and editing this year: these two areas have been on my heart for the longest time, and I feel He’s been speaking to me about being free to pursue greater heights this year. Yet I’ve been dilly-dallying about the whole task of writing, seeking out distractions at every opportunity. Once in a while I might pick up a book about writing and pursuing my calling, and I have occasional spurts during which I write a fair bit. Mostly, however, I re-read bestselling novels, watch the movie renditions of said books, watch episode after episode of my favorite TV shows, and play computer games. Oh, and I worry about how I’m going to support myself each month.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (1 Jn 4:18)

I’m afraid because I think that disappointing my Father means the withdrawal of love. And yet, He says that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from your love, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

Consider this: When a child is learning to walk, his parents don’t stop loving him just because he falls down…and he’ll fall down numerous times in the process! Rather, they celebrate his progress, lift him back up on his feet, and give him all the support he needs for his legs to slowly grow the necessary muscles and carry his weight. They might hold both his hands while he walks, or they might buy him a baby walker. Slowly, the child becomes stronger and more able to walk by himself.

On a random but related note, when the crew of Big Hero 6 was thinking about how to animate Baymax, they did research on the cutest, most lovable ways of walking. What they came up with was the way a toddler would walk — that slightly unsteady, almost “toddling” sort of gait. It’s like God designed our young ones to naturally elicit our affections and attentions so that we would learn to steward that heart towards them even when they get older.

That’s the same way that God looks at us. He never loses his affection for us, whether we’re learning to walk, do mathematics, preach over a pulpit, or take a leap of faith and pursue what we feel called to do.

All that through a slice of banana bread. Hah!