Cultural Lies

indexLies have many characteristics. They can be attractive. Threatening. Tempting. Subtle. Alluring. Almost true. Specious. I compiled a short list of common lies I have heard growing up in the United States. This list is by no means comprehensive. I am interested in what those from other countries would say their cultural lies are. What lies have you believed? What lies are you believing? Why?

Lie: You can have everything. Truth: Just like the song says, “You can’t always get what you want” in life. Sometimes you’ll get things that you definitely do not want.

Lie: You are worthless. Truth: Rubbish! You are priceless.

Lie: You are perfect just the way you are. Truth: Almost. You are beautiful and broken and need to be made new.

Lie: Love must be earned. Truth: God loves you so much that he did everything to save you.

Lie: You can be anything you want to be. Truth: You can be some things you want to be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Lie: Forgiving means forgetting. Truth: Forgiving is not enabling.

Lie: You are weak if you cry. Truth: God wept (John 11:35). So there must be more to it; something about crying is good.

Lie: No one will find out. Truth: Uhmmm. One of the starkest verses in the Bible to me is: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). See also Matthew 12:36 and 1 Corinthians 3:13.

Lie: God won’t give you more than you can handle. Truth: False. God wants you to recognize that you can’t handle it. God won’t give you more than God can handle.

Lie: I will be happy once I am married. Truth: Being single or married does not make you more or less of a valuable person. Even if you desire something else, enjoy what you have now.

Lie: Hide your shame and guilt. Truth: Nope, wrong again. Bring your dark secrets into the Light to be pierced and healed by Love. You can be forgiven (1 John 1:9).

Lie: God wants me to be happy. Truth: Ultimately, I guess, but not by what that word means when most people use it nowadays. God wants us to be good.

Lie: I am alone. Truth: You are never, not once, alone on this earth (Psalm 139:8; Proverbs 18:24).

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Regional History and Individual Psyche

The term regional history is used instead of national because nation-states as such are relatively new phenomena and represent too large a territory to categorize per se. One’s sense of national identity can vary substantially within its regional borders, such as in India or the United States, and current borders do not designate previous combined regions, such as Korea, or vice versa, the previous Germanys.

Following Dr. Dan McAdams, I argue for understanding personal identity through its narrative format: a life story.[1] A key component of one’s narrative identity formation is its historical setting. Jenny Hyun Chung Pak elaborates upon McAdams’ work relating it to her study of South Korean migrants, particularly fathers, who immigrated to the United States in the twentieth century.[2] A brief history of Korea will end in the particular pattern of han (unrealized hopes and thwarted dreams) expressed among some Koreans. Understanding ourselves in part depends on understanding what histories we have lived.

Historical Background of Korea

The history of Korea can be categorized into three periods: its prehistory until the Confucian state was established in 1392, its five hundred years under China’s influence, and its twentieth-century history.[3] In the land now formally known as Korea, Tan’gun, according to myth, founded the Choson Dynasty circa 2333 BCE. Centuries later, Emperor Wu of China (Han Dynasty) defeated the Choson Dynasty in 108 or 109 BCE. This event commenced a long history of occupation by its surrounding neighbors. The three kingdoms of Shilla (originally Saro) in the south, Paekche, and Koguryo in the north remained from 57 BCE to 668 CE. Each of the kingdoms officially adopted Buddhism, beginning with Koguryo in 372 CE and ending with Shilla in 528. In the seventh century, Chinese tribes (e.g. Sui, Tang) invaded Korea until the three kingdoms were bloodily unified into the Korea of Shilla in 668. The first Confucian school was established in Korea in 682. [4] Features of the Shilla kingdom included the “bone-rank” system (a class system based on blood lineage), an educational system that was limited to nobility, the introduction of Confucian bureaucracy, and the widespread practice of slavery. During this time, growing dissension allowed a rebel leader, Wang Kon, to overthrow Shilla and establish Koryo, a kingdom characterized by Wang Kon’s diplomatic reign and slavery reform. The Koryo Period (918–1392) saw multiple invasions by the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols and ultimate Mongol domination until King Kongmin assumed the throne in 1365 as a result of General Song-gye Yi’s successful military tactics.[5]

General Yi succeeded the throne as King Taejo and established Hanyang (Seoul) as the new capital, commencing the Yi (Choson) Dynasty (1392–1910). His government adopted Confucianism as its official religion in 1394 (demoting Buddhism) and introduced the elaborate Chinese bureaucratic and civil service examination system.[6] This development gave rise to a rigid five-class system with slaves (nobi) accounting for one-third of the population.[7] Korea suffered still more invasions by the Japanese and the Manchu in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries followed by two hundred years of relative peace.[8] By 1871 Korea had developed an isolationist policy to avoid domination by imperialistic powers (such as Russia, France, and the United States), a stance that earned it the name “The Hermit Kingdom.” Korea, however, was eventually forced to open trade with Japan and fell prey to its occupation (1910–1945). Notably for this study, during this time of annexation Japan attempted to erase the national identity of the Korean people by requiring subjects to take Japanese surnames, suppressing nationalistic movements for Korean independence, and conscripting Korean males to fight in World War II.[9] The well-documented injustices Korean people suffered in the Japanese colonization include the March 1st movement (1919), trade inequalities between the nations, conscripted slavery of males for labor and the military, and sexual slavery of females for the Japanese military.

While Korea was liberated after Japan’s defeat in WWII, it then fell under a new kind of domination. Korea was subjected to a three-year occupation by the Allied Powers and a division of its country into north and south, with the Soviet Union and the United States presiding over the two regions. Although the Allied Powers (which also included China and Britain) originally agreed that Korea would become “free and independent” (and at several points the occasion could have materialized), the plan for an independent Korea was ultimately stymied, lastly when the Soviet Union rejected the U.N.’s call to elect a new Korean government.[10] North Korea’s political ideology became communist, and South Korea’s became free-market democratic. Just five years later in 1950, North Korea, using Soviet artillery, invaded South Korea and began the Korean Conflict.

After the two sides signed an armistice in 1953, South Korea (the Republic of Korea) has flourished economically while North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has suffered political repression and economic hardship due in part to its dictatorial government, the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, and the floods and famine of 1995.[11] While North Korea’s dictators have been Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il, South Korea has had its run of authoritarian presidents, namely Rhee Syngman (1948–1960), Park Chung-Hee (1961–79), and Chun Doo-Hwan (1981–88), with the latter two achieving power via military coup.

Paternal Han

Jenny Pak’s narrative analysis of Korean-American women shows the effects of paternal ambition on her participants. Each of their fathers had lived in Korea during Japan’s occupation, World War II, and the Korean Conflict. These men faced the meager economic prospects of the Korean Reconstruction (1946–1960) as well as the han that arose from this social climate; each left their homeland for opportunities abroad. Pak summarizes han as “a complicated concept born out of a long history of collective experiences of oppression.”[12] These Korean males met resistance as first-generation immigrants to the U.S., struggled with a new language and culture, and experienced marginalization in their occupations. Their frustrations influenced their daughters, and in response, their daughters dutifully pursued similar aims for professional success.[13]

Others, however, differ in the emphasized referent of han. Han connotes a deep angst, even depression, among primarily women over male oppression in a patriarchal society. Women in Confucian Korea were given very few rights and little access to education or literacy. In short, females had no voice in society but were meant to endure sacrificially. Kang argues that if han is only understood as minjung (social and economic deprivation), it neglects the han of women enduring sexual discrimination.[14]

The United States

This leads me to consider the national history of the United States and individuals’ psyches. Surely, this differs by participant and group. The history experienced by the white majority in the U.S. over our three centuries has formed a substantially different psyche from those ethnic minorities who experienced quite dissimilar histories within the U.S. I think of the indigenous native Americans, the Chinese immigrants during the 1860s building of the transcontinental railroad, the Japanese internment in the 1940s, or the longest lasting (and on that basis perhaps the most heinous)—the enslavement and segregation of African-Americans for two hundred years plus.

How do Americans characterize their psyches? Confident? Religious? Independent? Civil? Faithful? Arrogant? On what bases?

***This is an adapted excerpt from Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation. More about narrative identity, migration, and self-understanding are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 .

[1] Dan McAdams, The Person, 409–13, 424–25.

[2] Jenny Pak, Korean American Women: Stories of Acculturation and Changing Selves. New York: Routledge, 2006.

[3] Breen, Koreans, 75.

[4] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxi–xxvi.

[5] Breen, Koreans, 79–85; Walker, East Asia, 263.

[6] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, 9–10.

[7] Breen, Koreans, 86–87.

[8] During the early 1600s, Catholicism was introduced in Korea.

[9] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxxxiii, 48–49.

[10] The Soviet Union was not the only nation culpable as Nahm dutifully records. Ibid., 15–21.

[11] Buzo, Making of Modern Korea, 175–76.

[12] Ibid., 212.

[13] Pak, Korean American Women, 210–13.

[14] Namsoon Kang, “Han.”


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Slave Country

Wallace Turnage (1846-1916) Courtesy of the William E. Finch, Jr., Archives, Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, CT
John Washington (1838-1918) Courtesy of the Alice Jackson Stuart Family Trust


Once I became so impatient seeing the free country in view and I still in the slave country . . .”       – Wallace Turnage (p.253)

Wallace Turnage may not be a household name in the history books, but he has schooled me. David Blight, a historian who verified two slave narratives in his book, A Slave No More, describes Wallace Turnage’s and John Washington’s individual journeys from slavery to freedom. Despite the brief length of each report, Blight weaves what is known of their story with the surrounding history of the time.

“Once I became so impatient seeing the free country in view and I still in the slave country.” Turnage’s words struck me. Having traveled to almost all of the states as a white woman in the 21st century, the thought of seeing certain land as prohibited had never occurred to me. I have never looked out across a field and known it as forbidden.

Despite their slave-defined boundaries of that day, these men describe their tenuous and tenacious escapes. Strikingly, both Mr. Turnage and Mr. Washington recall a personal faith experience in their journals. Washington writes of his conversion to Christianity:

“It was during this revival that I was Sincerely trubbled about the Salvation of my Soul. and about the 25th of May I was converted and found the Saviour precious to my soul, and heavenly joyes manefested, and began to be felt at the time, are still like burning coals; fanned by the breeze, (after a lapse of nearly 17 years) and Is to this day the most precicous assurance of my life, God grant the more faith and a better understanding, for these things let rocks and hills their lasting silance breake; And all harmonous human Tongues their Saviours praises Speak. I was Baptized in the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va. by Rev. Wm F. Broaddus June 13th 1856. And many happy moments have I spent with the Church in its joys and sorrows. at that place. I was permitted to attend divine service on Sundays but at nights I was not allowed to go out but little—During my close imprisonment (I do not know what else to call it) The “Word of God,” was to me a source of unfailing pleasure. I became a close reader of the Bibl And Wrote many comments on different chapters which has since been lost.” (p. 183, presented as originally written)

William Turnage shares:

“My Dear reader, I have finished my book of adventures and struggles for freedom hoping you have approved of it. Don’t take it for a novel, nor a fable, but a reality of facts. Oh that I may when done with this toilsome world, Even with three times the difficulties and persecutions that I met with in obtaining my temporal freedom, by God’s assistance reach that Blistful abode, and triumph over the enemies of my soul at last. That will be a day of joy to me, which no tongue can express, for I will then be free indeed. Moreover my book is to show the goodness of God to me for his son’s sake. when I prayed to him for my soul’s freedom, he for Christ’s sake freed my soul from the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity and he will not deliver me only but every one that believeth on him, and every one that trusteth in him.” (p. 258, presented as originally written, emphases added)

Before they were set free, they were set free.

I was stunned in particular by the phrase “slave country” as I mentioned. Some of us in the U.S. have not fathomed the experience of being bounded by race or class. All of us encounter social boundaries (think mean girls in the junior high cafeteria or being unable to walk into the president’s office at will), yet our bodies and psyches have never suffered what slaves have endured. A danger persists, however, in then assuming that we are free. Life—for those in positions of power or members of a majority group—lulls us into believing we are not constrained. Without minimizing the excruciating and indescribable nightmares of physical slavery ever, these men’s stories of slavery and spiritual discovery echo this truth: most of us are also enslaved. By what? I look out across this precious land, and I see enslavement by fear, addiction, bitterness, money, poverty, power. In a metaphysical sense, are some of us still in slave country?

William Turnage and John M. Washington, seemingly obscure slaves from the antebellum South, have much to teach us.

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Complicity: The Dark Side of Christian Mission

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Christopher Sneller, a fellow PhD student during my time at King’s College London, has written a piece I wish to highlight. He summarizes how the tea and opium trade between China and Great Britain and the resulting humiliating Opium Wars (1839-60) damaged the “national Chinese psyche” and Western relations, including missionaries. A few missionaries even served as translators on the opium clippers and for the very government treaties that crippled China but opened wide the access into the country for their simultaneous pursuit of sharing the Christian gospel. Other missionaries, however, exposed and condemned opium trafficking and Britain’s involvement.

History provides us myriad examples of those laboring in the name of Christ doing much good while overlooking other wrongs. I think of the Puritans whom Kevin Olusola (K.O.) of Propaganda among others have called out. I think of A.W. Tozer who penned several Christian classics as his family suffered; Trevin Wax recaps such duplicity here. I think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s amazing leadership and yet presumably his failed leadership in his own marriage. Before we are tempted to lose hope, I can also recount countless others who, while human, have shone brightly. I think of Sir Thomas More. I think of Sojourner Truth, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Elliot, and the scores of those poor or mistreated who, despite injury and squalor, were faithful to God profoundly. I suggest that the collusion of missionaries, church leaders, or whomever else should not drive us to despair or apathy; rather, we should be driven to sobriety. Should we not take careful inventory of our own lives? Secondly, they provide us an opportunity to honestly recount history—the dynamic, complicated, mired, offensive, hopeful picture that it is. We need to own our history, the parts played, and the consequent promotion or disadvantage granted to certain groups because of it.

A student asked me over lunch one day, “How did the missionaries get it so wrong?” She pointed to slavery, the commodification of evangelism with imperialism, etc. I responded, “No one gets history right all or even most of the time. Each of us is born with cultural constraints, some of which we don’t recognize, much less question. In one sense, they did the best they could with what they had. We may trust that their hearts desired to honor God, but they were still constrained in doing that well. This is not to excuse their behavior by any means, but can we judge them based on our hindsight? The percolation of cultural change is slow. Even as blind spots blotted the missionaries’ methods and attitudes, they in their brokenness were still used to forge great change. I think of William Carey, Amy Carmichael, Francis Xavier, and Alexander Duff, all of whom brought sweeping change to the marginalized in India, for example, through linguistics, literacy, health care, and education. Missionary failures do us a sad service in this: they remind us how easy it is to get it wrong and call us to be extremely critical in evaluating ourselves.”

Unfortunately, hindsight does not ensure foresight, which leads me to ask myself:

In what have I been complicit?

“A particular evil not only inhabits us so that we do what we hate (Romans 7:15), it has colonized us to such a thoroughgoing extent that there seems to be no moral space left within the self in which it could occur to us to hate what we want because it is evil.” – Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 89-90.

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The Space Between and the Migration of Identity

Photo Credit:

Yes, the title is my nod to the Dave Matthews band. In a recent article for the Anxious Bench, I discuss international migration and identity formation.

“If history has taught us anything, should it have taught us humility, to hesitate before being so sure of ourselves? Broadly speaking, this book heralds that message. I discuss the concept of identity, that self-understanding of who we think we are. How do we form who we are? Why? How does that make us treat those around us?” Read the rest.



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Who’s #1? – Reconsidering the Olympic Medal Count

indexThe 2016 Summer Olympics games have ended. By flat gold medal count, the United States dominated. But does a straight gold medal tally make for the best measure of true Olympic success? What if we considered other broader and structural criteria?

See the rest of my article for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. here.

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The Laborer

What do you see in this picture?

IMG_5109 e

A poor man? A day trader? What status did you assign him? Is he alienated? Is he a pawn of capitalism?  I occasionally use this photograph in class to illustrate how easily opinions can be formed based on appearance rather than true information gathering.

This man rolls in his goods to sell to tourists every day, each for one dollar. I was caught by the glimpse of this burden. Unlike many of us, encased and seated in air-conditioned offices, what is daily life for him? He toils under heat and rain, with worn shoes and callous feet—no Nikes here. He displays an industrious profession, a vendor selling artwork, tapestries, and carvings.

I had joined a group excursion during an international conference to visit a major archaeological site on the Yucatán peninsula of México. Apart from the pre-Colombian Maya temple ruins, I was struck by the residents running the sales and noticed this man in particular. Did he enjoy his labor? Was he struggling to survive? Was he caught in a scheme where the yield of his labor was withheld and placed in the hands of another? I remembered how stratified the world’s wealth is. My own presumptions based on cultural mores, however, were called out. I had unwittingly superimposed on another the status of  “less fortunate.” This man could well be satisfied with his life.

My lessons in that moment were: Be slow to judge. Work hard. Be grateful. Share what you have. And the next time we travel and see something to buy that costs less than it’s worth, consider paying the artisan what it is worth, in a small personal redistribution of wealth.

“Well, I’m weary of the spoils of my ambition, and I’m shackled by the comfort of my couch. I’m just a little jealous of the freedom that you have, unfettered by the wealth of a world that we pretend is gonna last.” – Andrew Peterson, “Land of the Free” on the album, Clear to Venus

Adapted from original publication in the International Educator.

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Black and White

hands-769649_960_720            I have noted, from all sides in the barrage of social media regarding the recent shootings of civilians and officers, these tendencies:

us-them talk

herd thinking

confirmation bias

These further no one’s cause and foster the opposite, as any social scientist will tell you. Talking in terms of “us versus them” alienates. It objectifies and dehumanizes. It distances people from seeing or seeking commonality. Herd thinking, or mob mentality, is the human tendency to copycat, and research shows we lapse into it by default. Confirmation bias is the “seeking and interpreting evidence in ways that confirm what you already think,” according to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, p. 80.

I was born into white privilege (and by that I mean, a Caucasian, middle-class, educated home), and society has treated me well because of it. Thirteen years ago, I married into the African-American community, and without sharing his story here, my husband had a disparate experience growing up in America. With a foot in both worlds, I have experienced life differently. I have personally encountered the effects of structural oppression. We have experienced times and locations where we stood out and have seen threat. The Saturday after the police were killed in Dallas we were to spend the day in a metropolitan city. My husband said, “Let’s not go.” I asked, “Why?” He replied, “Because [this city] already has enough racial tension, and I don’t want to be there if a riot or shooting breaks out.” I protested, “Well, isn’t that cratering to fear? I say we should live our lives freely.” Kevin slowly replied, “Things are too hot right now. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want someone getting upset over us or me. I have to think about you. I have to protect my family.” Being white, I have rarely considered such a thing. I thought, Wait a minute. This is the United States of America. This is a free country. Or is it? Is it equally free for everyone?

The things I hear. The things I have said.

My observations did not start with marriage. Once at a public speaking conference, my roommate was an African-American college student who later shared her experience with me. She was part of the team who led the evening sessions, and the main speaker, educated and well-meaning, turned to my roommate and said, “Why don’t you lead tonight’s music? Surely you sing given your background.” What background? Because she was black and somehow this ushered her into the talent of her African ancestors’ rhythm? My friend, in fact, had admitted no musical talent, so not only was she placed in a very awkward position, she was tempted to feel shame for not somehow representing “her people” well. I was stunned.

Recently, my friend, at a university association, expressed his difficulty during a session in being a person of color at a principally white institution (PWI). A colleague, again presumably well-meaning and trying to be helpful, said to him on a break, “Why don’t you leave this PWI then and go to an all-black institution (e.g. HBCU) where you might be more comfortable?” Really? My friend was not looking to leave; he was seeking encouragement. How about offering support in some tangible way?

These are not isolated incidents. These may seem minuscule, even innocuous, by comparison to the altercations that have led to so many deaths. These absent-minded comments, however, represent the mere surface of the micro-aggressions that persons of color can face every single day. Ezekiel Kweku describes his “ambient fear” poignantly.

I can personally testify for all to heed:

They’re not making this stuff up.

Or rather, we’re not making this stuff up. It is real. It is tragic. Here are two other personal narratives. Tim Scott, a black Republican U.S. senator (and only), shares the first; Brian Crooks offers the second.

I am, of course, not at all condoning the related loss of life of policeman as justified, any more than I would say that police deaths should justify officers being more brutal with persons of color. Do not let the realities of “black on black violence” or those who claim victimization illegitimately detract us from the reality that people are treated differently in this country because of the color of their skin. See more about that here. Of the many articles and opinions posted, here is a highlight that I found most life-giving, one that points a way forward. Writing as a sociologist and as an African American, Dr. George Yancey shares his thoughts.

I share, lastly, a stunning moment of balance and truth and wisdom. After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my friend, who is an African American living in Dallas, struggled in light of tragedy and confusion and outrage. She posted a photo on Facebook and wrote, “With a heavy heart and forced smile, I debated what to wear today. I chose this.” Her selfie showed her wearing a deep purple shirt with this etched on it, #Love. I felt sadness that she would have the burden of enduring and yet set her heart to love. Her response was a seasoned, mature, and weary one: always love. Forgiveness disarms evil. She is my example.

Actions seed from the human heart that spawns our thoughts and motivations. What are ours? Change happens first personally and daily. My friend chose well. As Bryan Loritts has said, “Patience is not passive indifference.” We must seek each other. All must seek due process in every case. All must be humbly self-critical. We must speak truth without bitterness. We have a ways to go yet.

Learn More:  Bryan Loritts recommends his top five books for understanding black America. On my list to read are Beyond Racial Gridlock,  Divided by Faith, Notes from a Native Son, and The Souls of Black Folk (free at the moment on Amazon). 

“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (1956).

“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

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An Interview with the Author of Life


Something dark happened. Evil lurked among the shadows until it marred God’s good creation. We as Christians believe this. That’s why God made it right through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. We believe Jesus as God allowed himself to be killed and raised again to conquer evil and death for us, in us. So . . . now what?

My husband recently described three kinds of life that Christians seem to choose after being “saved”: a non-life, ghost-life, or a full life. The non-life is not really living, more like gripping onto the counter-top waiting for Jesus “just to come back already.” The ghost-life is focusing mostly on our spiritual lives as if all that is physical is bad, or at best, unnecessary. Body and spirit, however, were both created by God and are good. Jesus clearly makes the case in John that he came to bring us life—full and fresh, invigorating and overflowing (John 10:10). Christians, of all people, should be bursting with a full life! Watch this inspiring 3 min clip.

Enjoy life. Solomon wisely instructed God’s people in Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 and 9:7.

3:12“I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.”
9:7 “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.”

Consider what Bear Grylls shares, “Sometimes it’s hard for us to believe, really believe, that God cares and wants good things for us and doesn’t just want us to go off and give everything up and become missionaries in Burundi,” Grylls says. “And some people are just scared, and they go, ‘Oh, God just wants me to be religious,’ but actually He just loves us. He just wants us to be with Him.”

After all, “God loves a good time” as N.D. Wilson reminds us. See more on that here. The Author of Life wants you to enjoy the world he has made. Live well! Enjoy the life God has given you now.

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