Friday, February 6, 2015

The Counter-Intuitive Nature of Self-Care

You were up early this morning and it looks like you will be up late tonight. Your day has been a near endless stream of tasks—all deemed urgent or at least necessary. You have accomplished much, but it hardly feels like victory because tomorrow will be the same. So too will every other tomorrow in your foreseeable future. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually, you are running on empty. You know you need self-care.

Where do you turn? What do you do to take care of yourself?

A few of you naturally turn to exercise, solitude, and prayer. Good for you. While the rest of wish we were more like you, we tend to turn elsewhere.

Like the fridge or the pantry. Or alcohol. Maybe even drugs. We turn to mind-numbing television or an escapist novel. We call the friends that won’t judge us for the way we choose to unwind. We surrender to pornography. Or we fire up a video game.

Most of us use at least one unhealthy behavior to help us cope with stress. And since the unhealthy behavior reduces stress (at least for the moment), we justify the behavior.

It’s my guilty pleasure. My one vice. No one is perfect. Don’t judge me.

The problem, however, with these forms of self-care is that they do nothing to alleviate our stress. They merely numb us to it for a time. And as good as it feels to numb ourselves to the stress of our lives, numbing is not a long term self-care strategy. Conversely, it can be dangerous.

Consider the last time you paid a visit to a dentist to have a cavity filled. The dentist injected a numbing agent into your mouth so that you would not experience pain during the procedure. That is a good thing. Yet, when the dentist finished filling the cavity, it took an hour or two before your mouth regained feeling. In the meantime, the dentist warned you to be careful not to bite your cheek or your tongue.

Unable to feel pain, people have gnawed holes in their mouth with their teeth while their mouths were numbed. The numbness was a good thing while the dentist operated the drill, but it became a bad thing when you chewed a hole in your cheek unaware of the damage you had been doing.

So if you decide to watch a television show tonight as you relax and try to escape your stress, fine. I probably will too. But what else are you doing to take care of yourself?

The ways we need to answer that question tend to be counter-intuitive. It’s when exercise is the last thing that we want to do that we need it most. It is when silence and solitude are the most frightening that we need them most. It is when prayer seems the most pointless that we need what prayer does inside of us the most.

And it will always be easier and bring more instantaneous gratification to have a beer or a bowl of ice cream instead, but numbness can be dangerous. It can make you forget that your current lifestyle is unsustainable without healthy self-care strategies. It can lead you to believe that numbness is the only way to cope. And once you’ve gotten there, you’re no further than a step or two away from finding yourself under the power of a self-destructive addiction.

How can you take better care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Stop numbing and start tending to what you really need.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"What If" Questions that Motivate

I spend significant portions of my day in an effort to motivate others. I try to motivate my children to do their chores, their school work, and to treat each other with love and respect. Other parts of my day are devoted to writing articles like this one, planning sermons and Bible classes, or meeting with brothers and sisters in Christ who want to make changes in their life. Sometimes I wonder if I am any good at motivating others, but even on my worst days I would have to admit this: it is easier for me to motivate others than it is to motivate myself.

I struggle in all the typical ways: self-discipline in regard to diet and exercise, procrastination when I don’t want to do what I need to do, cleanliness and organization, etc. But I even struggle in areas that I am embarrassed to admit. I often have trouble motivating myself to pray, to genuinely engage another person in meaningful conversation, or to even exert the minimal energy required to extend courtesy to strangers. Why any of these areas cause me trouble is a mystery to me, but, over the years, I have found a few “what if” questions that I ask to motivate myself to follow through on my intentions to become the person Christ calls me to be.

1. What is my duty to this moment?

Every moment is different. During the middle of the night, my duty to the moment is to get a good night’s sleep, but at other times it could be to wash the dishes, plan a sermon, or pay attention to my kids. I need to focus on what my duty to the moment is without being distracted by what I would prefer to be doing or what I need to do next. When I am with another person, I need to put my phone away and be present with that person. Few experience connectedness with someone who is only present in body. Whatever your duty in a moment is, the goal is to be fully present.

2. What if this person was sent to me by God? (Or what if God has brought me to this person?)

A mentor of mine in college said that he tried to treat every interaction with another person as though it were a divine appointment. We bring different expectations of ourselves to encounters when we are fulfilling a duty to our employers, do we not? We are more polite to people when they are rude. We are more conscious of how our verbal and non-verbal communiques affect them. What if we exerted that kind of mindfulness to every encounter, but we did so on behalf of God instead of our employer? I find that I fail at this more often than I succeed, but by merely attempting such an approach in my encounters with others, I have found myself in more conversation that I felt God working in than I ever dreamed possible.

3. What if I actually believed that how I behave forms who I am becoming?

Just like what I eat for lunch today will impact what my body weighs and looks like tomorrow, how I behave will impact the kind of person I am becoming. I can be a force for good when I have the proper mindset. I can be a real jerk when I have the improper mindset. Good behavior begets good behavior. Bad behavior begets bad behavior. Just like a good diet and exercise can make a big difference in your body over time, so too can choosing good behavior (especially when it is hard) over bad.

Can you think of other “what if” questions we can use to motivate ourselves to be the kind of people we want to be?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Our Relationship with the Bible

One of the most common reasons Christians read the Bible is to find encouragement and inspiration. No surprise there. The Bible is often encouraging and filled with potential for inspiration. Yet, your relationship to God’s word can be limited to a superficial nature if you only go to the Bible with these motivations.

Consider your friendships. If you are like me, you have friends with whom you feel the need to keep your conversations pleasant and upbeat. You don’t confide in one another about your struggles. You don’t trust each other to point out each other’s flaws. You are both content to keep your relationship superficial. It can be for any reason. It might be due to a lack of trust. It might be from a fear of losing the friendship if you overshare. But whatever the reason, both parties know the limitations of the friendship.

Other relationships are one-sided. One friend is the helper. The other is the one who needs help. Maybe it is a mentor-disciple relationship. Maybe it is parent-child. These relationships aren’t always bad. They can be good for both parties. (A good rule of thumb, however, is to seek balance in the energy you use as a helper and the energy you derive from those who help you).

Our relationship with the Bible can sustain this dynamic. It is certainly a deeper relationship than the superficial arrangement in which the Bible is limited to encouragement and inspiration alone. If we go to the Bible as a helper, we can go to the text with harder questions like, “What do I not want to hear from this passage?” By asking such a question, we are giving God’s word permission to help us see even that which we would otherwise like to ignore. We may want to avoid feeling challenged in our materialism, our judgmental disposition, our politics, or our other forms of selfishness, but if we allow our relationship with the Bible to grow to this stage, we accept its guidance, repent, and seek God’s help in moving forward.

The best kind of friendship, however, is one that is neither superficial in nature nor dependent upon the top-down dynamic of a mentor/disciple relationship. In these relationships, both parties are vulnerable with each other. Both parties feel permission to speak truth to the other and both are committed to receiving truth (even if it is tough to hear) from the other.

You might think it is impossible to form that kind of dynamic relationship with the Bible. In many ways, you’d be right. The Bible maintains a place of authority that our best friends do not. But the Bible can become a friend of which you can ask the toughest questions. Every person who studies the Bible has at least one thing about the Bible that bugs them (e.g., violence in the Old Testament, an apparent contradiction between one passage and another, etc.). My point is that at the most mature stage of our relationship with the Bible, we feel free to ask those questions while still opening our hearts up to the tough questions it asks us. At times, our questions can be addressed and our minds can be set at ease. At other times, our questions linger.

Is it not the same in our closest friendships? What makes close relationships special is that they are not dependent upon immediate resolution to tensions or tough questions to thrive in the meantime.

At what stage is your relationship with the Bible? What would it take to take that relationship to the next level?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Wisdom Gap

It happened to me twice yesterday. I caught myself giving good advice that I rarely apply myself.

The first instance was a conversation with a friend about marriage. I heard myself say, “Listening is important. To the degree you feel compelled to make yourself heard, that is the degree to which you need to listen.” I was struck instantaneously with two thoughts. 1) That is a good line; I need to remember that one. And 2) is there any evidence from my own life that I know that?

Later that day, I was speaking to my middle child at bedtime. He had been ignoring my repeated demands that he brush his teeth. When it got to the point that I had taken away enough iPad and Wii time to motivate him, he threw down the Legos he had been playing with and yelled, “I don’t even care about my teeth!” I first reminded him (not for the first time) that I did not care about his apathy toward dental hygiene and that it was my job to care for him until he was old enough to pay his own dental bill. I followed him into the bathroom, monitored and timed his brushing, reminded him to floss his teeth (which led to another fit about the taste of the floss; apparently bubble gum flavor is gross), and then insisted that he rinse with fluoride.

I then heard myself say, “Everyone already knows how you feel about the things you don’t want to do. All you are managing to inform us by throwing a fit is that you aren’t mature enough to manage your own feelings.” Immediately, the same two thoughts I had earlier that day popped into my head. 1) That was a good line. 2) Is there any evidence from my own life that I know that?

Do you ever do that? Do you ever recognize that you have more knowledge than you put into practice?

I know how to eat healthy. Do I? I know the benefit of exercise. Do I? I know the value of prayer. Do I? I trust the transformative power of studying the Bible. Do I?

There is a gap between what I know and what I put into practice. Let’s call that gap the wisdom gap.

What good is knowledge we don’t use? Not much. It certainly isn’t a mark of wisdom.

Wisdom is more than knowledge. Wise persons know when to put their knowledge to good use…and they do so.

Now that I know that I know what I did not know that I knew, what will I do with that knowledge? If I am wise, I will start applying the advice I gave to my friend and my son. I will start listening first when my felt need is to be heard. I will manage my emotions better and be less demonstrative about showing my own displeasure (after all, I am communicating more about my maturity than I am about my displeasure).

Apparently, I already know this. Will I be wise enough to apply it?

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Dangers of Freedom

I cherish my freedoms and I would not willingly give up my freedom to make choices pertaining to my life or my family. I strongly prefer living in a country where such freedom is valued and protected for its citizenry. As young people protest totalitarian regimes in Hong Kong, Tehran, Damascus, and elsewhere, I am grateful to have grown up in a place where I could take my freedom to choose my career, spouse, religion, and political beliefs for myself.

That being said, freedom makes for an incoherent cardinal virtue. A cardinal virtue is a virtue that can serve as the foundation for all other virtues. Even in the United States—where we use near-idolatrous language about the importance of freedom—we recognize that my freedoms should not be allowed to encroach upon yours. I am not free to ignore traffic laws while driving, to decline to pay my taxes because I think I can manage my money better, or to leave my house wearing nothing but my birthday suit. Freedom must be checked by other virtues like justice to function properly.
Yet, the dangers of freedom extend beyond the potential threats my freedom poses to yours. My freedom can also threaten me in two key ways.

First, and most obviously, my freedom threatens me because I am prone to make unwise decisions. The freedom to choose does not dictate that I make wise decisions nor does it dictate that I must learn from the unwise decisions I make. It simply allows me to make a choice. When I make unwise choices, I alone am culpable. I cannot blame anyone else unless I come to believe that my freedom was an illusion and that some other force was responsible for my decision. Is it any wonder than in a country that affords so much freedom that we produce so many self-described victims?
Second, and less obviously, my freedom threatens me because it assumes that I must write and star in my own story. As appealing as it may be, it is nevertheless risky. If I succeed in making your life what I wanted it to be, am I not prone to narcissism? If I fail to make it what I want it to be, am I not prone to depression and/or feeling like a failure? It is no coincidence that cultures like our own gave birth to the phenomenon of the mid-life crisis.

One response to the dangers of freedom is to romanticize the simplicity of a bygone era in which children grew up without so many choices. Boys would grow up learning the trade of their fathers. Girls would grow up knowing how to run a household and that their parents would choose their husbands. All children knew that they would likely live out the entirety of their lives within a few miles of the place they were born. They may not have had much freedom of choice in their lives, but at least they didn’t have to feel like a personal failure if they hated their profession or wound up married to the wrong kind of person or, worse yet in their world, unmarried. They did not pretend that they were writing their own stories. They were merely characters in a story that had been written for them. The best they could do was to play their parts.

Simpler though that world may have been, I would not willingly exchange our reality for theirs. Still, it is worth noting that the idea of people writing and starring in their own story is relatively new. For the people of Israel, the Bible served to give a larger story to people who otherwise led small lives. They may have been poor descendants of slaves living in the shadow of imperial superpowers, but they were also the covenant people of the Great Author—not only of their story as a people but the stories of all the kingdoms of the earth both big and small. By seeing themselves as part of that larger story, they could cope with the seeming smallness of their lives.

While we tend to struggle less with smallness than we do with our personal failures to make it big, the Bible can still help us correct the way we interpret the stories we are living. If God is the Great Author, then we—no matter how many real choices we have actually made—are not. As such, our sense of success or failure cannot be rooted in how well we made our lives what we wanted them to be, but rather in how well we used our free choices to connect our own stories with the Great Author’s.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Forensic Epistemology

What you believe matters.

If you believe that we are all sinners in the hand of an angry God, it will impact how you live and how you treat others. You will be generally pessimistic about the potential for all human endeavors and your distrust of others will only grow over time. In short, you will gradually become more like the god in which you believe.

If you believe that God is primarily relational and that all God truly desires is to be worshiped, adored, and kept at the forefront of your mind at all times, then you may indeed derive great comfort and personal fulfillment from your time in prayer and devotion, but you also run the risk of stunting your spiritual growth. We are right to appreciate the sensation of God’s presence, but deep Christian spirituality cannot develop without wrestling with God’s seeming absence. Moreover, if you neglect engagement with the nature of God’s apparent absence in our world, you will become the last person with whom someone who is struggling with God’s absence will ever want to speak. Insisting upon the nearness of God to someone trying to cope with God’s absence is at best insensitive and at worst an insinuation that their struggle is evidence of their spiritual inferiority.

What you believe dictates who you are becoming.

On the surface, such a truth would seem to put us under an unbearable weight to get what we believe right. Yet, living under such weight can have an equally detrimental impact on who you are becoming. If you believe that God is gracious, for instance, but only to people who believe the correct doctrines about him, then you will become someone who spends more time trying to understand God than relating to him. You might come to know your Bible well and be able to teach others about the nature of God, but you might be incapable of distinguishing the stirring of the Holy Spirit in your life from frequent heartburn. Furthermore, those who over-elevate doctrinal purity often find themselves engaged in doctrinal jihad against that which they have judged to be false doctrine. While it is appropriate—even necessary—to address false doctrine when it arises, those who prioritize doctrinal correctness tend to forget that their behavior in addressing the issue is as important—if not more so—than the doctrine in question itself.

Thankfully, God’s grace is sufficient for us all. If God can forgive us the sin we knowingly committed, God can forgive us a misunderstanding of what the bible teaches here and there. Knowing that, some fear that we might all be willing to rest on our laurels and give up trying to understand the truth at all, but if we are truly interested in becoming what we say we want to be, the body of Christ in our world, then we have to maintain the importance of what we believe. While an error in belief might not bar us from our eternal reward, it can stunt us in our quest to become like Jesus.

In that regard, we might on occasion benefit from engaging in what I am calling forensic epistemology. When a crime is committed, investigators piece together evidence from the crime scene. These pieces of evidence become clues that point their investigation to people whom they interview. Together, the interviews and the evidence help the investigators recreate a narrative of the crime that took place. In other words, they work backwards until they can find the culprit.

Whenever I become aware—or am ready to admit—that I have been regularly exhibiting behaviors that are not Christ-like, I approach the problem in a similar way to investigators of a crime. Working backwards, I am often able to find my culprit. If I am battling a sin of pleasure, perhaps my beliefs concerning justification (forgiveness for the sin) and sanctification (the power to live a holy life) are out of alignment. If I am having difficulty forgiving someone, I have likely forgotten how much I have been forgiven. If I am being too selfish, I have forgotten how selfless Jesus was. Working backwards, I can find my way back to the culprit.

Biblical doctrines are not just important because they are true, they are equally important because of how they form us and our grasp of them can be measured in how effective our beliefs are in helping us become like Jesus.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How to Make a Disciple

Evangelism is a dirty word to some. Outsiders to faith view evangelism as the process by which believers attempt to manipulate nonbelievers into believing. They recoil from those that try to evangelize them the same way you might a door knocking Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon.

Surprisingly, nonbelievers are not the only ones who treat evangelism like a dirty word. Whenever I broach the subject of evangelism with Christians, I can see them visibly brace. They associate talk about evangelism with a guilt trip. Previous experiences have conditioned them to expect people like me to use guilt or other manipulative tactics on them in order to motivate them to go out and use guilt or other manipulative tactics on others.

Given the association of evangelism with guilt and manipulation by believers and nonbelievers alike, it is no wonder that evangelism has become to a dirty word to so many. Yet, believers are conflicted as they attempt to believe for themselves while leaving others alone. We recognize that evangelism is a crucial aspect of what it means to be a Christian. After all, Jesus sent us out into all the world to make disciples.

But before we get to the guilt or manipulation that you may be bracing yourself to hear, let’s consider Jesus’ words carefully. Jesus did not send us out to insist to people that God is not dead. He did not send us out to reason with them about the rationality of Scripture. He did not send us out to convince people of their sin. He did not even send us out to teach people god’s plan of salvation. Jesus sent us out to make disciples. All of the other stuff comes after that. The baptizing, the Bible studying, the reasoning, and the doctrines of the faith all come after the business of making a disciple.

That leads me to some good news and at least one piece of tough-to-hear news. Let’s start with the good news. Making disciples isn’t as messy as the dominant methods that believers and nonbelievers alike have come to associate with evangelism. After all, I can’t make you be my disciple. Neither can I effectively manipulate you into being my disciple for long. If I recruit you with guilt or other manipulative tactics, there will come a time when you get wise to me. And you will run. Making disciples isn’t about taking captives and brainwashing them until they think and do what you want. Making disciples demands that the disciple want to be a disciple.

If we wanted merely to make disciples of ourselves, disciple making would be simple enough. We would look only for those people who were attracted to us and who, for whatever reason they might have, wanted to be like us. Yet, if we are thinking about making disciples in a way consistent with Jesus’ intentions, we are not making our own disciples, we are making disciples of Jesus. That leads me to the tough-to-hear news: you can’t make a disciple unless you are a disciple. And the same rules apply for being a disciple as for making one.

You cannot be a disciple of Jesus simply by believing that God exists. You cannot be a disciple just by accepting the validity of Scripture. You cannot be a disciple just because you have become convinced that you are a sinner in need of the grace of God. And you don’t automatically become a disciple of Jesus just by believing, repenting, making the good confession, and being baptized. There is only one way to become a disciple of Jesus. You have to start following him.

To be a disciple of Jesus, we have to be people that put the interests of others above those of our own. We have to be people who are willing to lose the battle so as not to become what we wanted to fight against. We have to people who bless when others curses us, rejoices with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and who do what is right in the eyes of everyone. We cannot be conceited. We must be willing to listen (and actually hear what the other person is saying). We have to show compassion that is rooted in empathy rather than pity. And we have to people who admit our mistakes.

If we are inviting others to follow Jesus (and not ourselves), then we have to admit when we do a lousy job of it. We don’t have to be perfect disciples—we don’t even have to be good at it yet, but we do have to be disciples of Jesus to make disciples.