Features, Highlights

Strengthening our inner environment

Some thoughts concerning the casinos

THE Government recently announced that Singapore will have two casinos.

This decision, after much private and public debate, came as a great disappointment to many, including churches and Christians, who were opposed to the setting up of a casino in Singapore. The fear remains that this would have harmful effects on our society both in the immediate as well as the long-term future.

There is enough evidence in research papers and real life that the social ill effects of casino gambling are serious threats to personal, family and social well-being. There are certain groups in society, such as the young and the retired, who would be particularly vulnerable to the lure of casino gambling, and face the danger of falling into gambling addiction and personal ruin. There would be an increase in failed lives, broken families, and social pathology.

Much has been said about these dangers. The Government has responded by announcing various measures to reduce the social fallout of having two casinos in our small and crowded island. That would be helpful up to a point. But whether the equations will all work out as planned and the measures will live up to the expectations have yet to be proven. In life, we are not in full control of social behaviour and outcomes – and often unexpected and unintended results are seen. More work certainly needs to be put in to reduce the social damage. Prevention is certainly still better than cure.

But our concerns are not just about the casinos. For Christians, the casino represents more than itself. It points to larger issues that concern us – what sort of society are we becoming?

It is obvious that the world is rapidly changing, and living in a globalised environment, we are deeply affected by the changes all around us. However one looks at it, there are many changes that are not good for our souls and society. Our first challenge is to discern what is not good. Our second challenge is to resist temptations to adopt them, for whatever reason.

For 40 years now as a nation, we have had a relatively safe and value-rich environment that was generally conducive to our Christian pursuit of biblical holiness. The lesson from the casino issue (and recent social trends) is that this is increasingly not going to be the case. The time has come for us to make some basic changes in our assumptions, attitudes and habits so that our lives as followers of Christ are not adversely affected.

In the first place, we must not expect the state and society to do our work for us — as it used to be. We have expected the secular state to discern evil and resist temptations for us and thereby maintain a good and stable social environment. But the state is secular and pragmatic (its concern being the security and prosperity of the nation), and against the onslaught of globalised structures of sin, we must realise that the spiritual struggle is now not so much between the world and the nation, but between the world and our souls. In other words, the battle has now come to the doorsteps of our hearts.

If present trends are anything to go by, our social environment will become more ambiguous in terms of values and virtues. While it still has many good and excellent elements, it will also become increasingly poisoned by the sinful and godless ways of the world. It is therefore of utmost importance that we strengthen our inner environment – the spiritual environment of our souls. We used to go out into a consistently sunny environment without thinking too much of bringing an umbrella along. But the weather is changing and we had better think about bringing our spiritual umbrellas along, and make sure that they are in good working order.

Maintaining our inner lives and spiritual environment has become a top priority for us as Christians. We must dig deep into Scripture and develop a biblical mindset. We must follow Christ faithfully, obeying Him to the fullest. We must let the Spirit shape us into the image of Christ. These holy habits will help us to discern what is not good, what is evil, and give us wisdom and strength to withstand the temptations that, more boldly and loudly, knock at our own doors.

We must live like Daniel and his friends in a worldly environment that is increasingly non-conducive to our practice of godliness. Under great pressure, they refused to give in to eating food forbidden by their religion, bow down to man-made idols, or change their spiritual habits (Dan. 1:11-16; 3:1-18; 6:6-13). Our Lord Jesus exhibited that same resolve when He was tempted in the wilderness. He refused to give up His principles when tempted with bread for His hunger, and worldly fame, fortune and power (Lk. 4:1-12). He demonstrated that for Him His faithful and loving relationship with His Father was more important than anything else in this world. There are some things we should not give up at any price.

Besides strengthening our inner spiritual environments, we must also think about certain assumptions we have had in the spiritual formation that goes on in our churches. David Augsburger has said in his book, Pastoral Counselling Across Cultures, that Asian cultures function more on the basis of shame while Western cultures operate on the basis of guilt. If that is true, it may also be true that in Asian churches, spiritual formation has been taking place more on the basis of social shame – where we avoid doing wrong more because we will be embarrassed if caught or because society disapproves of it.

However, with the social environment becoming more ambiguous and contrary to our Christian faith (where things that were once socially disapproved are now becoming socially accepted or promoted), we would have to seriously reconsider how spiritual formation processes occur in our midst and be more intentional in our practice. We would have to find ways to strengthen the internalisation of Christian beliefs and values in individual Christians, so that no matter what kind of social environment we are in, we will remain faithful to our calling as followers of Christ and remain true to our Lord.

For this process to effectively work, God must be “internalised”. That is to say, the God who is above us must also become the God who reigns within us. Jesus must daily be our Lord as we go out to live our lives in the increasingly poisoned environment of our world. We cannot escape not living in this world. But as the Lord has reminded us, though we are “in the world”, we are not “of the world” (Jn. 17:15-16). Our identity in Christ, and our loyalty to our Triune God must be strong.

Coming back to the casino, what should we do? We must continue to be a prophetic voice, warning people of the sin of gambling and the ruinous dangers of gambling addiction. We must educate our Christian community on the dangers of casino gambling and take measures to strengthen our inner spiritual environment as discussed above.

We must also reconsider our spiritual formation processes in church and seek to strengthen family life and values.

At the same time we must reach out with pastoral compassion to those who will certainly be adversely affected by falling into the temptation that gambling brings. As churches we must find new ways of helping and caring for such unfortunate people. We must not shut ourselves in and huddle together with anxiety, but reach out to the world and live responsible and responsive lives, as the disciples and servants of Christ, and as citizens of our nation and, as loving neighbours to those around us. We must follow the footsteps of the prophet Daniel, who despite the difficulties he faced, still served the nation with distinction and dedication.

We must also live as an eschatological people – knowing that the best is always yet to be, that this world is not heaven, and that the Kingdom, which is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), is coming, when Christ comes in glory to establish His perfect society. And we must also know that that Kingdom has already begun in our hearts (Lk. 17:21). We have begun to breathe its pure and invigorating air though we live in social environments that may become more murky and hazy.