Richard Chin: No, I grew up in a non-Christian family, although my mother had a belief in God and she was from a Roman-Catholic background—she went to a Roman-Catholic convent school in Malaysia. My father came from a syncretistic Buddhist family, but he would describe his own life or pilgrimage as an agnostic of sorts, or a free thinker.
I still recall my mother talking about ‘penance’ without knowing what the word meant. As a high school student, she would have to kneel on the ground until she was bleeding in order for her to make right the wrongs she had done. And I had one uncle who was especially into animalistic religions. I literally saw him do this: he would supposedly turn into an animal—he would allegedly take on the soul of a tiger and become a tiger. I grew up with all this fairly freaky stuff, so I have no problems believing the New Testament when it speaks about evil spirits and the like, because that’s the world that I grew up in.
How did you then become a Christian?
I always believed in God through all of that, and I believed in the grace of God. I went to a youth group in Singapore—I was born in Malaysia but I grew up in Singapore for the first eight years of my life. One of my best friends had become a Christian, and he took me along to his youth group, and it was there that I discovered something of the friendliness of people and where I saw a life that adorned the gospel.
But I don’t think I really heard the gospel there. That happened during my first year of university. I went to a conference where the speaker was a man named Paul Barnett. I remember he said, “If you want to know whether you are a Christian or not, ask yourself: is Jesus number one in your life?” I realized Jesus wasn’t number one. He was a good number two or number three, but he wasn’t number one. I mean, I was moral, I was a teacher’s pet; I didn’t even have an overdue library book! But I knew Jesus wasn’t number one, and I think that was the real turning point. So I prayed a prayer to become a Christian at that conference, and in God’s kindness I haven’t looked back.
How do you personally stay spiritually refreshed and alive?
I’m just going to steal a line that I think Don Carson stole from someone else: constantly come to the foot of the cross. It sounds so rhetorical, but I think it’s so true. Second, another thing I stole from Don Carson: at least once a month, think that you are wrong. Third—and this is the case for everybody—keep reading the word and praying, doing that with self-discipline, with your spouse and with your family.
Can you talk a little bit more about the second of those ideas you mentioned: once a month, think you are wrong about something. Do you find that hard?
Oh sure. I’m as proud as everybody else. But if you are in a relatively public role and you’re teaching the Bible constantly, you’ll be on the receiving end of critique. It’s always helpful to hear that. I’ve had people disagree with the way I understood things, and whatever the differences were, I needed to keep thinking graciously. Even though I ultimately held to my position, I still had to respond in utmost grace and think, “Could I be wrong in how I’ve understood this?” I had to try to understand their point of view and just sit with it, rather than to seek to respond immediately. I just had to listen. It’s hard, but it’s a good and godly thing to do.
So what would you say to ministers and Christian workers about how to respond to criticism?
Listen. Ask clarifying questions as to what exactly is being said, because sometimes it may not be as bad as it sounds. If it really is as bad as it sounds, think: “Maybe this person is not only right, but maybe they’re having a hard time for some reason.” Try to sympathize with them as best you can. Listen graciously, clarify anything that’s not clear, make sure you’re really on the same page as to what’s being articulated—then think and pray about that. Even if you still end up disagreeing after a period of time, try to find the kernel of truth in what’s being said. Look for something that you can take on board.
Of course, these are simple things to say, but it’s really hard in practice! The cross undergirds how you interact with one another and love one another in the process of conflict. Graciousness is just so important in how you speak to one another.
On staying spiritually refreshed, are there books that you return to often, or that you’d recommend to others to help them stay spiritually refreshed?
Without wanting to be clichéd, the Bible!
I had to prepare to give a series of talks from Colossians at a conference, so I made it my goal to memorize all of Colossians. I’m on a crusade to get people to memorize whole books of the Bible, not just verses.
That’s seems overwhelming. Is there a method you’re using?
I don’t think there’s any secret. You just keep going, one verse at a time. I’m doing this with a couple of students that I meet one-to-one, and they’ve done it. They’re just ordinary students. They’re not the best in the world at memorization, but we’re just hanging in there. It’s like anything: you make it a priority and you make time for it.
There are also great books I keep on coming back to over and over again, like Knowing God by JI Packer, and The Cross of Christ by John Stott.
I’d like to ask you about your first wife, Bronwyn. A lot of people reading this will know that she passed away on Easter Sunday in 2013. What are your overall reflections on that time?
I do want to say up front that death is awful. It’s just really awful. I don’t want to gloss over it in any way, shape or form. It was a horrendous time—to actually see her basically die before our very eyes. We did see her take her last breath. To see this healthy, beautiful woman turn into almost a skeleton by the time she passed away was awful. To see my wife of 23 years go through that suffering and pain was awful.
It certainly made us reflect on sin and its effects. Of course we didn’t believe that it was a specific judgement for any specific sins whatsoever. But in general, times of sickness, no matter how grave they are, are great times to confess sins to God.
Bron was still ministering to people. They would come in to visit her, thinking they were ministering to her, but people always left her feeling like they were ministered to. She would just turn the attention back to how they’re going. She didn’t have a lot of energy to speak, but they just kept speaking about their own situation. She had more ministry in the last three years of life than almost all the other years put together.
She became more and more beautiful, to the point where she wanted to talk about remarriage and I refused. I constantly turned away from the subject, but I have no doubt that she prayed about that, and every now and then she talked openly about it. Well, the answers to her prayers are in my meeting Jeanette, my beautiful wife of today. A couple of years on now, it’s been wonderful.
But going back to that time, it just made us rely more and more on God. In his severe mercy, God used that awful situation to draw us closer to him and not drive us away from him. Even though the meaning of the Bible didn’t change, there was a sense where the feelings did. We experienced things first-hand. Habakkuk and Job became close friends, and so did the Psalmists, who really struggle in pain and torment. Those were the verses that were speaking more strikingly to my heart.
I also recall not long before Bron passed away, I preached on John 11: the raising of Lazarus. I still remember preparing for that—it just became so very real. The response of Jesus, that he was both angry and compassionate in the face of death. I can remember feeling that anger at death, the last enemy. It wasn’t anger at God, but at sin and its effects. That’s why I really want everybody to appreciate that the ultimate offence we cause is a vertical one against God. When we speak about sin, while it’s true that we sin against one another, and that we live in a broken and divided world, the broken and divided world is not the heart of sin. The heart of sin is the vertical rebellion against God that causes his almighty and righteous wrath to be expressed, and ultimately to be poured out on Jesus. The heart of the gospel is in Jesus turning aside God’s wrath and rising again as Lord and Saviour.
During Bron’s illness, the gospel and salvation just became bigger and bigger as sin became bigger and bigger, and God’s glory was far more at stake in how I lived my life. So going through that experience really was the severe mercy of God.
And God has been very kind. He’s held us all close to him. Each of our children continue to love Jesus and follow him, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
Can you talk about how you loved them and shepherded them through that time—what were the things you did to help them?
I don’t know—it just kind of happened! I remember reading a paragraph out of some article that said the best way you can love your children is to walk as closely with Jesus as you can. I continued to pray for them daily, and I sought to share everything quite openly with them. I tried to be lovingly vulnerable with them and pray for them. That’s all I can say I tried to do. I stumbled through all of that, but I just chose to pray with and for them as much as possible, and to be vulnerable with them.
As I look back, what was really helpful was being open about things, rather than secretive. I know of people who’ve gone through suffering and have chosen not to share what they’re going through, and it’s been a very lonely experience for them, to the point where they’ve felt people have not looked after them. It may sound strange, but I think suffering can be a really selfish thing. When you suffer, you want the world to stop and take notice that you’re suffering. That’s not how we’re meant to be, but it’s how I felt at times. You feel like, “How can everyone else keep going on with their lives? Look at the mess here!” So I think it helped me to appreciate what it’s like when someone else is going through suffering. All you can do is help by loving with physical things around the home, and by praying with them and for them.
When you share, people are all too willing to get alongside you. That’s lovely, but that doesn’t necessarily deal with the issues either. I remember that people mowed our grass, they gave us food, they did everything they could. But that’s all they can do. They can’t take the pain away. But it was still so lovely—I was part of a spiritual family. When Jesus said “These are my brothers and my mother”, not his biological ones but his spiritual family—it was so real.
How did you approach the process of becoming a ‘twicer’, as you put it—the process of remarriage?
It’s been absolutely beautiful. For me, I learned one or two things from my marriage to Bron. I certainly made mistakes. But I wanted to start afresh in all sorts of ways with Jeanette. I didn’t take anything for granted. Jeanette’s a different person. So we did a marriage course, and we read all the books on marriage. I didn’t want to assume that I knew stuff. I learned all sorts of terrific things about marriage.
When I was courting Jeanette, [my children] were the first ones to know. I remember walking with each one of them, one by one, and talking that through.
What do you think is the biggest barrier for the average non-Christian student in Australia to considering Jesus?
Issues around gender and sexuality are specific examples of what I would label secularism. The word ‘secular’ just means ‘of this world’, and Christianity is very secular in that God really cares about this world. But secularism is about the worship of this world, or the elemental spirits of this world, as Colossians describes it. The pointy end of the secularism that we’re experiencing today, I think, is the gender issue, which is a sea of confusion.
It’s not just “marriage equality”, but what gender you are. Someone described it this way: who you want to go bed with is your sexual orientation; who you want to go to bed as is your gender identity. The gender issue is increasingly coming to the fore. It comes out of this understanding of the authentic self that must be expressed from within. “I need to express myself, and finding and expressing the authentic inner self is really what life is about. That’s freedom.” But understood through a biblical lens, Jesus says that out of the heart comes sexual immorality, theft, murder, etc. So in the end, to express your inner self, biblically speaking, is actually the heart of sin.
These problems have been there since Adam and Eve, of course, in Genesis 3. But it took a particular expression in the so-called Enlightenment, where humans were seen to be at the centre of things. The individual’s ability to express themselves is seen as liberation and freedom. That’s what secularism teaches us. But that’s the exact opposite of what the Bible says about humanity.
But you are continuing to see that, as you preach the gospel, packaged carefully and thoughtfully, you’re seeing students respond to that…?
Absolutely. We preach the same gospel, but we help people to understand how our sin manifests itself in different ways. If you’re able to help people understand why sin is so offensive to God, then they start to get why they need to be rescued. We need to help them understand sin, and why God would be angry with them. “Why do I need a Saviour if I’m so well off? I’m free, I’m being my authentic self.” But we need to help people understand that they’re just like goldfish jumping out of the water. You might think you’re being free, but you’re just dying. And yet we need to do that out of compassion, love and kindness. But we can’t do that unless we really believe that they’re going to be judged, and they’re going to experience eternal conscious torment in hell. That is the inevitable result, because God is angry. We have to help them understand that, lovingly—not in a way that makes me sound like I’m angry with them, but in a way that helps them to understand: “If I’m going to run my own life my own way without God, then God is going to give me exactly what I want, which is life without him.” That’s why we tell people about Jesus, not just so they can live a good life.
Not everyone will want to hear, because there’s a confronting element to it. But in the end, it’s a loving message. It’s like telling someone standing in the middle of a highway that a truck is coming towards them, “Get out of the way!” Unless we believe that, we’re not going to evangelize.
A longer version of this interview was first published online at Every Thought Captive, and has been condensed and republished by permission.