It’s Bad News and Good News: It’s Not All Up to You


Culture breakdown.

There’s a philosophical principle in South Korea called Hongik-Ingan (홍익인간), the devotion to benefit all of humanity. It’s a good thing, but it also has some very dark implications.

Basically, many Koreans are told that if their life doesn’t measure up to a surplus benefit, they might as well take their own lives. In other words, always contribute and never consume—or die.

The upside is that Koreans (and easterners in general) have a remarkable work ethic. We work crazy hard. But the downside is that if any of us encounter failure, disaster, or even imperfection, we immediately fall into an abyss of worthlessness.

I’m convinced this is one of the reasons why South Korea has the tenth highest suicide rate in the world.

The westernized philosophy of American Exceptionalism is not a lot different than 홍익인간. You see it in hustle-porn podcasts and bootstraps literature: “Believe it, dream it, achieve it, ”—but with the hidden clause, “And if you can’t, it’s all your fault. Why can’t you just …?” The eastern judgment is based on how others see you, but the western judgment is based on how you see you. It’s the same problem wrapped in different coats.


The overarching message: If you fail, you’re somehow no good. If you can’t beat this, it’s your problem. If you haven’t succeeded, it’s on you. Bigger, faster, more, or you are literally smaller, slower, less.

So when it comes to mental health, racial trauma, chronic illness, problems in the larger system—all of these are considered “excuses.”

Both the east and west are brutally unforgiving to those in uncontrollable circumstances. “Maybe you’re depressed because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re homeless because you didn’t do your homework in high school. You got abused because you were asking for it. You’re always sick because you don’t have faith. That wasn’t racism, you just weren’t acting right.”

These shaming statements revolve on the same terrible axis: that when life is bad, you are bad, and that you attracted the terror to yourself. We believe this because it fits a logical worldview. But it is not a rational one.


Here’s what I know. Your goodness absolutely does not hinge on what happens to you. There is no 1:1 ratio of your value and your life, of your effort versus outcome, no matter how someone got here. And no one ever became successful by themselves; no one is a self-made person. So it is also true that no one has ever totally failed themselves.

If it were all on you: every rainstorm would be your fault, every disaster would be your doing, winning the lottery makes you a saint, and being Jeff Bezos makes you god. Which, of course, is straight up lunacy.

Sometimes the environment or system or leaders or our own bodies were hostile, and so we never stood a chance. Unfortunately our world is not always kind to those “lesser” because we see it as their fault, therefore they’re not given an opportunity, which only reinforces a vicious cycle. You and I simply do not get better by being told, “Hey it’s entirely your fault, so good luck.”

Yes, I believe in both personal responsibility and interdependent community. We must make wise choices. I’m proud of much of my culture and how strong we are. But our choices can be limited by the mechanisms that surround us. We can always choose, but the world often determines how far we move.


All our philosophies may have many strengths, but they are built on a lie: that somehow it’s all up to you. The truth? It never was. At times the world around you has failed you. And sometimes you need help, and you won’t be able to contribute for a time because you need others to support you. And it’s okay to ask for that.

It must not be shameful to ask for charity. Any culture that makes this shameful is in itself a shameful culture that must be dismantled. You and I need help. We need each other. We need the gift of grace, a God-given help outside ourselves. We need to be okay to fail. And that does not make you less. The best of us emerges when we find where we need help.

My hope is that my daughter knows: your worth never hinges on your work. Sometimes life is just hard. It is unfair. It is ruthless. You will need help. That does not make you less. In fact, to ask for help makes you more. It makes you yourself.

Or as esteemed theologian Captain Jean Luc Picard says, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

— J.S.

Knowing Ourselves Requires Knowing One Another


Last summer I wrote a piece on my own experience with race and racism. A blogger then publicly blasted some harmful views I was expressing.

As I read her words, I felt she was right—but I had a hard time seeing where I fell short. So I asked my friend, with her permission, to help me. How did I get this wrong? She first pointed out what was good. Then she kindly and firmly pointed out the various ways I missed the mark. Slowly and painfully, I saw how much I had messed up.

In particular: I was invalidating others’ experiences to boost my own; I was subtly drawing disproportionate comparisons, hijacking language and images that did not belong to me; I was mostly absorbed in self-pity and blame instead of sharing a vulnerable experience. When I saw it, it clicked: I was way, way, way off.

The easy thing to say here could be, “I’m still learning, I had no idea, show me grace, I’m sorry.” And that’s true. But my words were harmful. There’s no way out of that. I have to sit down, take the L, and simply be wrong. There’s no defense, excuse, rationalization, “but”—I was wrong, plain and simple.

This can’t be about my realization or epiphany, but about tending to the injury I caused.

Even though I’m a POC, that doesn’t make me free of criticism in matters of race and racism. Even though I wrestle with depression and anxiety, I still get it wrong about mental health. And as a chaplain dealing with grief: I’ve gotten that wrong too.

We can only become self-aware through the awareness of others. Or like C.S. Lewis says, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others.” To see is painful but necessary. We need others to see where we have fallen for deception, conspiracies, biases, agendas. It can truly happen to any of us. And even though I’d like to think I’m a friend to the wounded and weary, I still miss the mark. A lot. What I can do is not only examine how I went wrong, but act based on those new convictions. To rethink how I enter for the wounded, not just for my own catharsis. It shouldn’t be anyone’s burden to educate someone on the basics of humanity, but thank God for sending friends who took time to school me.

J.S.

A Response to “Stop Looking at People, Look to God”

Anonymous said:

i just want to say i think it’s ok to be skeptical and have questions and doubts but it’s bad when you start making the christian faith about people rather than Jesus. stop looking toward to people for faith and focus on Jesus and encourage that more as well

 

Hey there, thank you for your concern and for bringing this up. I hear what you are saying and I can agree, and I’m also not sure it’s the whole picture.

I heard those types of statements last year dozens of times: “Stop looking at people, look at God. Stop focusing on the church, focus on Jesus. Stop putting your hope in people” etc.

I understand this to be a meaningful truth. In fact, I can say this: People let me down so much last year that the only one I could really trust was God. It was only my tiny bit of faith that kept me alive, kept me from completely unraveling in my depression and anxiety. I doubted and questioned people. Did I doubt God? Sometimes. But absolutely not as much as I did the church. When nothing else was good, I trusted that God was the only one who is.

Most people of faith know that they ought to focus on the center of their faith rather than what people are doing. It is such a basic and obvious truth, that again, it was basically my only option.

Back to your statement. I want us to consider a few things.

Continue reading “A Response to “Stop Looking at People, Look to God””

I Nearly Lost My Faith Again


I have to be honest. Last year, I nearly lost my faith again.

Like many of us, I was in a bad place. I kept turning to the church for hope.

Online and off, I asked how to deal with the isolation, the loss of George Floyd, and hate crimes against Asian-Americans because of “China virus.” I was angry and afraid. I needed something, anything, to speak to my anxiety.

But the church did not hear my worries. It turned these events into a culture war that I barely understood. The answer for our suffering was apparently self-righteous politics and posture.

I know many churches, including mine, have done good things in this time. Yes, I still love the church, always. But my inbox, comments, and interactions told one story: too many Christians were more offended by my grief rather than listening to it. They couldn’t wait to argue.

I kept hearing, “If you don’t believe ___, you’re not a Christian. You’re deceived by worldly distractions. Quit looking at church, look to God.” When I protested or wore a mask, I only heard, “You’re a liberal leftist Marxist.” I didn’t understand many of these replies. They seemed cold and irrelevant to our hurt.

I waited for reassurance, lament, repentance. But the church fortified its doors and armed itself with conspiracy theories instead. It made persuasive transmission of information as the primary goal. So I prayed and wept alone.

Was I alone? To grieve the evangelical church’s fear of man to call out prejudice, injustice, and misinformation? Or the “both sides have a point” neutrality? Or that King David’s redemption story is extended to perpetually abusive politicians but never to those like George Floyd?

No, my faith can’t rest on people. But that doesn’t relieve my sense of abandonment. Trying to seek God in a church last year was like needing water in a desert but told “those secular people” were withholding it. Where is the water? How long, O Lord?

I hold onto one thing. I keep picturing Jesus’ hands stretched to both criminals on his left and right. It is my one hopeful vision in the desert. A gracious vision for this nation. Jesus reaching for someone like you and me is almost enough for the next moment. Almost.

— J.S.

Successfully Vaccinated: Covid Vaccine Journey, Dose 1 and 2

I was incredibly lucky and privileged to receive the covid vaccine from the hospital where I work. I’ve posted my journey through the vaccines, including the side effects and how it went.

The first dose had one sudden side effect which passed quickly.
The second dose had an unexpected side effect which also passed quickly.
It has now been nearly two weeks since my second dose, and there are no side effects at all.
Please feel free to ask me anything.



Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Five Months

Hey friends! It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted on my main blog.

Hope that your 2021 is off to a wonderful start.

Here are some photos from the holiday season and of Alayna who is now five months old.

God bless and much love, friends!