What to Do When Pain Overwhelms You

I’ve had a heavy heart the past week or so. I’ve been blaming gray winter clouds hiding the sun that I need to light me up and the beige walls of my home closing in as winter weather held our family hostage all last week.

And maybe they have something to do with it.

But the Lord brought it to my attention this morning that those things aren’t the true source of my disquieted spirit.

No, my sullen disposition lately is a product of my internalizing a lot of hard news instead of exporting it to the Lord.

I’ve struggled to get the savage murders of the 21 martyrs off my mind. The images of them in orange jumpsuits with knives to their throats are still all over the internet. And today I woke to news that at least 90 more Christians have been kidnapped. We know in our sickened guts which way that’s going to go…

A couple of high school kids drove a rural road two weeks ago and slammed into a tree. Dead. I drive by the gifts laid at the bottom of the giant oak every day. A headlight still hangs on a branch, and part of the bumper lies unclaimed a few feet away. My heart aches for those boys’ moms. My lungs burn when my imagination jumps to “What if my kids…”

Last night a 16 year old in a nearby community took to a highway I’ve driven many times and threw himself off a bridge into oncoming traffic below. Gone. Every overpass I drive under I hurt for his family… his classmates that had to digest the news this morning… his teachers who had to keep it together enough to guide teenagers through tragedy… and the driver who struck the boy as his body fell in darkness…

All of this news is devastating. Although none of it “personally” involves me, I am a person with a soul and emotions and so it goes that I am personally affected by each horrific story.

I think I may have forgotten this.

I took each piece of news as it came. I heard about it, I read about it, I saw images of it, I have tangible reminders of it. But I never processed it with the Lord because I never considered it mine. Sure, I uttered a plea for mercy, “Oh, God,” each time I learned of an event, but I never said, “Lord, this hurts my heart.” I didn’t sit with God and let Him minister to me.

So these pains piled up in my soul. I drove to a ministry this morning where I knew it was highly likely I would face more deadly news. Driving under overpasses and imagining what that boy who jumped must’ve been feeling before he leapt, God connected some dots for me.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about Him as I drove until my heart got so heavy a sentence fell out of my mouth: “I can’t handle this!” The weight of the emotions inside had become too much. And the Lord responded in turn, “You’re not meant to. I will handle this.”

I marveled. Then I tried to decipher what, exactly, He meant. I had meant that I couldn’t handle the hurt in my heart anymore. And He knew what I had meant. So logic tells me what He meant in His response was I am not meant to handle all these emotions that are too big for me; He is supposed to handle them for me.

After giving me time to come to that conclusion, He continued, “Just bring me your heart.”

Ah. That’s all I’m supposed to do during heavy times. And I’ve known God long enough to know His solution would work. If I brought Him my battered heart, He’d tend to it.

To be honest with you, I didn’t have time to let the Lord stitch up my heart at that moment. I was walking into a war zone where Satan tries to do some of his best work by convincing women who have made mistakes that they are unlovable and that having an abortion will somehow solve their problems.

But I did have time for a quick band aid.

The Lord brought to mind a verse I had discussed with my kids a couple days earlier.

Colossians 3:15, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Paul was instructing the Colossians on how to live holy lives with one another. I told my girls we can learn three things from this verse.

  1. There is peace that comes from Christ, and God wants that peace to control us because
  2. God expects Christians to live at peace with one another.
  3. And when we don’t feel peace in our hearts, we can get some if we start giving thanks for things God has already done.

Although, linguistically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that thankfulness causes peace to rule in our hearts, I am certain these ideas were put next to each other for a reason. The ideas are connected in some way. And experience tells me, whether this verse does or not, that cultivating gratitude does lead to peace in my heart.

This mini lesson resurfaced in my mind this morning, and I asked myself, “Okay, am I going to do this and live this thing out or not? I have a choice right now, what’s it going to be?” Most days my heart rolls its eyes and the heaviness wins. But not today.

I started thanking God for what I knew to be true about all these tragedies. “Thank You, Lord, that You are in control of all these situations. Thank You that You are willing and ready to comfort all the hurting right now. Thank You that You care.”

That was it. That was all I had time for before I walked through the doors of my clinic and had five counseling sessions with women who were hurting in their own right. But my short act of giving thanks had birthed enough peace in my heart that I was able to offer some to them. 

Pain and suffering and grief are hard. They are big, ugly problems we can’t handle. But we’re not meant to. It’s His job to handle our hearts. We just have to let Him. 

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From a Blessing to a Curse

It has happened to all of us.

We’ve taken a gift from the Lord, and the next thing we know, it’s mysteriously transformed from a blessing to a curse. We’re left scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?!”

It happened to the Israelites, too, and we just might figure out how this kind of thing happens to us by examining their story.

It was a month after the Israelites had been set free from Egypt. They were trudging through the desert, unsure of their future. Noticing their supplies dwindling, they began to complain about their food supply, worrying they wouldn’t have enough to get them to the Promised Land… whenever that would be. After a chat with the Almighty, Moses told the Israelites God had heard their complaints and He was going to miraculously provide quail that evening and bread the next morning (Exodus 16).

Of course, both provisions came to pass, just as Moses had told the people they would.

The first day the Israelites gathered their manna, Moses told them they were not to keep any leftover manna until morning. But, understandably, some did. “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them,” (Exodus 16:20).

That bread rotted faster than any bread in the history of the world, and their miraculous gift from the Lord went from a blessing to a curse.

The question for them – and, thus, the question for us – is why did the blessing spoil? 

The Israelites were in the middle of nowhere, worried about where their next meal was coming from. They were insecure and anxious. Then, when the provision came, they stock piled it out of fear and distrust that the Lord would actually provide for them again.

So, to recap, we have worry, insecurity, anxiety, fear, and distrust all in play here. But the glue that held them all together – the true cause of their blessing rotting in their hands – was what they chose to do with those emotions. Because they felt this way, they chose to act disobediently. And, ultimately, it was the disobedience to God’s command not to keep the manna that led to the instant demise of their blessing. 

What would have happened if the Israelites had felt the full weight of their worry, insecurity, anxiety, fear, and distrust but had chosen to trust God anyway and obey Him? Well, they wouldn’t have woken up to rotten bread. If they had chosen to use their emotions as motivation to trust the Lord with their blessing more, to depend on Him to meet their needs more, they would have avoided the curse of a maggot infested kitchen.

There are more analogies in this story we don’t have the space to explore, so let’s just apply this one.

Disobedience transforms our blessings into curses. When we choose to let our fear move us to take matters into our own hands, to move from a place of trusting God with our blessings to distrusting God with them, we’re well on our way to destroying them completely.

Us Versus Them

In any kind of conflict, we humans instinctively feel defensive. Whether it’s a tiff with a spouse, a disagreement with a friend, or an argument with a boss, we immediately adopt an “us versus them” mentality. It’s just how we’re wired.

Which would be fine if that were how God is wired too. But it’s not.

In that passage we all hate, Jesus said we’re to forgive other believers who hurt us 70 times 7 times, by which He was implying as many times as it takes (Matthew 18:21-22). Why? Because Jesus has forgiven us a million times over – there is nothing He hasn’t forgiven us for – and He wants us to offer the same grace to others (Colossians 3:13).

And He doesn’t want us to just forgive them and part ways. He wants us to forgive them and continue in relationship with them (so far as it depends on us – Romans 12:18). (The obvious exception – when abuse is involved.) I know this because that’s what He does with us. And the longer we spend on this earth, the more like Him we should become (Romans 8:29).

He also tells us Christians to love one another as He has loved us… which begs the question – how has He loved us (John 13:34)? Unconditionally. He literally died for us, and He calls us to figuratively give up our lives for one another. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul pens a whopper of a passage. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Completely humble?

Every effort?

But what if I’m tired of trying? What if the other party doesn’t care? Worse, what if the other party continues to hurt me or show no regard for my feelings?

How long do I have to bear with them? Surely there is a statute of limitations… As much as my humanity would love to say there is, I don’t see one in scripture… Jesus’ “bearing with me” and all my crap doesn’t have a time limit. And neither should our bearing with one another.

But wouldn’t it be more “peaceful” for two people in seemingly irresolvable conflict to part ways? Let’s call that what it really is – to divide. Shouldn’t two believers who can’t work things out split up in order to “keep the peace”? After all, “keeping the peace” is biblical… (Romans 12:18)

As much I as I wish it did, that just doesn’t seem congruent with “keeping the unity”… Logically, how can that which is divided also be unified, simultaneously? By definition, it can’t.

Might I propose that between two believers, there ought not be such a thing as “irreconcilable differences”? By the power of the Spirit, at least one of the parties ought to be able to extend grace, humility, love, and mercy… as many times as it takes… and since we can only be responsible for our own actions in any given conflict, our choosing to be the party that makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is all that’s in our control. We can choose to obey scripture, despite our feelings, and despite the other person’s choices.

But if the other person doesn’t seem to care at all about “keeping the unity”, that can make for a pretty crummy situation.

So what then? Are we to just remain in a bunch of miserable relationships – us versus the ridiculous them?

I don’t think so.

After his tall order of how we ought to behave, Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all and through all,” Ephesians 4:4-6.

You see, there is no “us” or “them”. At least there shouldn’t be. Not in the body of believers. We are one.

The people we disagree with – we’re one with them.

The people who hurt our feelings – we’re one with them too.

The believers who outright hurt us time and time again – one.

We must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. The Church depends on it. The Gospel depends on it. We have to forsake the “us versus them” mentality that we reflexively assume when someone crosses us.

We believers are one, whether we feel like it or not. We should be rooting for one another to succeed, spurring each other on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Lord, by Your power, may everything we do and say contribute to the unity of Your Body, the Church. We are one. May we act like it.

 

 

What to Do When You’re Sinking

We all know the story of Jesus and Peter walking on water, but some things about it struck me differently today.

First, Jesus made the disciples get into that boat and sail on ahead of Him INTO A STORM while he wrapped up a long day of teaching with some solitary prayer time (Matthew 14:22-23). In other words, while He was safely on land…

That doesn’t sound like the western Christian life at all… Lovey-dovey Jesus makes us go into uncomfortable, frightening, even dangerous situations?

Then, in the middle of the night, Jesus decides to walk across the lake toward the boat. And do you know how the disciples reacted? The Bible says, “They were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear,” (Matthew 14:26).

So for those keeping score at home, Jesus sent the disciples into a terrifying situation, and then He Himself terrifies them!

“But Jesus immediately said to them, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,'” (Matthew 14:27).

If the disciples were anything like me, Jesus’ words did very little to actually quell the fear inside them.

Peter, evidently, was like me, because he needed more proof that this ghost-like creature really was Jesus.

“‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water,'” (Matthew 14:28).

And that right there is where the similarities between Peter and I end. I would’ve been more prone to say something like, “Lord, if it’s you, come get in the boat with me, and maybe bring some ice cream?”

Jesus’ response to Peter is even more startling than Peter’s offer to get out of the boat. Jesus says, “Come,” (Matthew 14:29).

“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus,” (Matthew 14:29).

Peter RISKED HIS LIFE to COME TOWARD JESUS.

Peter accepted Christ’s invitation to come!

Peter walked in obedience to the Lord in terrifying, dangerous, nonsensical circumstances…

But.

“But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!'” (Matthew 14:30).

The wind didn’t all of a sudden kick up after Peter had gotten out of the boat and was walking in obedience. The wind had been there all along. Peter had been aware that it was gusty before he made the choice to come toward Jesus.

But while he was in the boat, the wind was not nearly as terrifying as it was when he was attempting to walk on water.

The dangers of the wind became more readily apparent without the safety of the boat. So, too, Peter became more afraid of the wind.

Fear paralyzed Peter, and he began to sink

But when he began to sink, Peter did the perfect thing: he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Peter didn’t call to the other disciples to throw him a life preserver, nor did Peter start trying to swim back to the boat.

He knew those things wouldn’t work in the midst of a storm in the middle of a huge lake.

Peter knew the only One who could save him was Jesus. 

And I love – LOVE – what happens next.

“Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him,” (Matthew 14:31).

IMMEDIATELY!

Jesus didn’t let Peter bob below the surface a few times just to teach him a lesson.

Jesus didn’t give Peter a talking to about trust before He offered to help.

Jesus immediately saved Peter.

And how Jesus saved Peter is just as beautiful – with His own hand. By His own touch, with His own strength.

Jesus could’ve told the wind and the waves to stop to save Peter. But He didn’t. Or He could’ve instructed the other disciples to throw Peter a line. But He didn’t. Or He could’ve coached Peter to swim to Him, but He didn’t.

He didn’t do any of those things.

When Peter, gripped with fear and short on faith, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out His hand and saved Peter

What makes us think He won’t do the same for us?!

As we take steps toward Jesus, obeying Him to come, there will be fear and doubt and we will begin to sink. But He is too good and loves us too much to not respond immediately to our plea, “Lord, save us!” 

All we have to do is cry out.

Developing Self-Discipline One Frame at a Time

On the heels of my last post, there are some things I feel like I can’t choose to do. I just can’t seem to will myself, to discipline myself, to do and/or not do various things.

And all you optimists are saying, “Well, that’s obviously a lie. We are in total control of our own choices.”

And you’re mostly right, but we realists don’t feel like you’re right, so it doesn’t matter.

The only time the statement, “I can’t make myself _____,” is true is when the statement is actually, “I can’t make myself feel ______.”

I can’t make myself feel like cooking.

I can’t make myself feel excited about cleaning.

I can’t make myself feel like not sinning in my favorite way.

And you know what I’m learning? That’s okay.

It’s okay to have the feelings we have. It’s okay to feel what we feel, and we can’t change our feelings.

Where the lie creeps in, though, is when we start to believe we must act a certain way in relation to our feelings. If I feel _____, I must do _____. If I don’t feel ____, I can’t do _____. As if we are powerless over our emotions and hopelessly enslaved to them.

Lies.

Lazy lies.

For years my out has been, if I do something I don’t feel like doing, I’ll be a fake. And, honestly, I don’t have the emotional energy to pretend like I enjoy something when I don’t. Nor do I respect people who are phony.

So I took those thoughts and came to two false conclusions: if I can’t get excited about something, I shouldn’t do it, and, if I am excited about something, I have a right to do it. 

Turns out that’s quite a problematic approach to “being an adult”.

But there is a solution for those of us that operate this way. And it’s not what you think.

The answer is not to learn to get more excited about things we dislike. Hell can freeze over, thaw, and refreeze again, and I will never get excited about cleaning my house. Or eating quinoa. Or not eating pizza daily. Or resisting the pull of my favorite sins.

The answer is not to develop an affection for things we just don’t have an affection for or to somehow rid ourselves of the affections we have for things that are bad for us. The answer has nothing to do with how we feel or don’t feel about the areas in which we lack self-discipline.

The answer lies in re-framing our situations.

Developing Self-Discipline One Frame at a Time
image via foto76/freedigitalphotos.net

For example, I can’t wait until I feel like exercising to exercise. That day will never come. But I also can’t force myself to exercise while cursing the whole time and expect myself to develop a lifelong routine of exercising. When I don’t exercise, I hate exercise. When I force myself to exercise, I hate exercise. And thinking about how much I hate exercise all the time isn’t productive.

But you know what I do like? Playing soccer. Well, that’s not true. I like playing soccer when I’m fit. If I’m not fit, I can’t physically do what I know I would be capable of if I were in shape, and then I hate playing soccer.

So I can take this idea that I want to be fit so I can enjoy playing soccer again, and I can attach it to exercise, which I still hate, mind you. And I can tell myself, it’s okay to hate exercise. But I’m going to exercise anyway so I will be in shape (and, therefore, enjoy) playing ball next month.

See what I did there? I re-framed exercise. It’s still an annoying piece of my daily routine I feel negative about, but I choose to do it anyway because it’s a necessary means to an end I do get really excited about. I’m not getting tripped up in my feelings anymore. I’m choosing to act independently of my feelings.

And we can do that – you and I, resident pessimists – we can learn to re-frame any number of situations in order to develop some much needed self-discipline. 

Ann Voskamp says, “You only begin to change your life when you begin to change the way you see,” (The Greatest Gift).

It’s true.

What situation do you need to re-frame today? Ask Him to help you. And shoot me an email if you want to talk about it. Unless it’s about cooking. Then I can’t help you.

“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)

How to Develop Self-Discipline (From the Valedictorian of I Don’t Want To)

Self-discipline has always been my forte.

(They say you should open with a joke.)

Actually, I am as self-disciplined as a newborn. And we all know how ridiculous they are… cute, but entirely self-centered.

How to develop self-discipline (from the valedictorian of I don't want to)
image via David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

I don’t know that you much care why I lack the ability to make myself do things I don’t want to do. So I won’t dwell on that much beyond the following guesses: I am the baby of my family, most things came easily to me as a kid (read: I never had to work hard), and selfishness is my spiritual gift.

(Ok, not really, but if selfishness were a spiritual gift, I’d ace that section on the test.)

Basically, if something doesn’t have an immediate pay off for me, I usually don’t do it. Similarly, if not doing something will have an immediate negative consequence, I can’t do it fast enough.

I’ve never put forth any real effort in training myself to learn how to do things I don’t want to do – i.e. – to develop self-discipline – because I’d have to be self-disciplined in order to discipline myself to become more self-disciplined.

(The words and the logic – I’m good at using them to my advantage, aren’t I?)

It is not lost on me that the words “disciple” and “discipline” seem to share a root. Without getting into a language lesson, I would not be surprised if the two words are related because being a disciple requires discipline.

Ah.

Fantastic.

The other day Oswald Chambers had a devotion on the idea of self-discipline that nailed me to the wall.

(Go read it. I’ll wait.)

The part that resonated most with me is this:

“We go wrong because we stubbornly refuse to discipline ourselves physically, morally, or mentally. We excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, I wasn’t taught to be disciplined when I was a child.” Then discipline yourself now! If you don’t, you will ruin your entire personal life for God.”

I really ought to stop following Oswald on the Twitter.

But I can’t.

Because he says things I need to hear.

Maybe you need to hear them too?

In regards to self-discipline, I think about another guy who will tell you like it is. Dave Ramsey says a budget is telling your money what to do.

I don’t struggle with finances because I am inherently cheap. (Seriously, I think it is a gene I inherited from my grandma on my dad’s side.) I struggle to be disciplined in a lot of other areas in my life, but the one I’d say that takes precedence is my feelings.

(And I have a hunch you can relate to me on this one, so allow me to start talking to us.)

I don’t need to rehash the Bible’s take on feelings, but I’ll summarize it with this: feelings ought not be trusted. 

That is so contrary to what we modern Americans have heard all our lives that it’s hard to swallow. But swallow we must if we’re going to become disciplined disciples.

Oswald basically tells us to grow up, and take responsibility. It doesn’t matter if we have never “learned” to discipline our feelings, we ought to just do it now. Taking a page out of Dave’s book (not literally, because haven’t we learned anything from Mark Driscoll this week?!), we must tell our feelings what to do. 

And when we’re being honest, that doesn’t actually take much learning. If we say we’re going to spend some time learning how to be self-disciplined in an area, we’re really just saying we’re going to see how long God will let us stall.

Yesterday my four year old was in her booster seat in the car. I told her to buckle her seat belt. She half-heartedly pulled it and whined, “It’s too haaaaaaard…” And I don’t even know how she got inside me, but Jillian Michaels came spilling out. As I looked at my child through my rear view mirror, I calmly but firmly said, “I don’t want you to tell me how hard it is; I just want you to do it.”

And right then and there in that parking lot, I felt the conviction. How long have I been telling God (and a whole host of people) how hard it is to discipline my heart? If I put half the energy into just doing it that I put into talking about how hard it is…

“I don’t want you to tell me how hard it is; I just want you to do it,” I imagine God saying, with a touch more compassion than Ms. Michaels and I usually exhibit…

In what area are you struggling most to discipline yourself? Can I gently challenge you to stop talking about it, and just do it? Our feelings need to be told what to do. Or they will be our ruin. 

How Far Will God Go to Get Our Attention?

“Sometimes it feels like I am being swallowed whole. Like this life is too much. Like I am too much.”

I said that to God.

And a truth popped into my head almost instantly: there is someone who knows what that feels like.

Jonah was literally swallowed whole… and why?

Because he wouldn’t do what the Lord told him to do (Jonah 1). 

“‘Go to the great city of Nineveh…'” God had said. “But Jonah ran away from the Lord…”

Yeah, Jonah has always understood me… us…

“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up… they knew [Jonah] was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so… the sea was getting rougher and rougher…”

Yes, things only go from bad to worse when we’re running away from God.

The Lord caused this storm. He will not hesitate to create storms – “bad things” – to get our attention. 

“‘I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you,'” Jonah admitted.

Jonah’s nothing if he isn’t honest.

Am I? Are you?

Are we willing to tell people, “HEY! I AM RUNNING AWAY FROM THE LORD! I KNOW THAT IT IS MY FAULT THAT THIS GREAT STORM HAS COME UPON YOU!”

I don’t read this as Jonah bragging about his disobedience. I don’t think he is wearing it as a badge of honor. I know I’m not. I read Jonah as a guy who is being honest about where his heart is, transparent about his failings. And I hope I’m read the same way…

At his request, the sailors threw Jonah overboard to save themselves from the storm that was threatening their lives – the storm Jonah had caused. The sailors did this reluctantly, fully believing Jonah would die if they put him in that sea. They didn’t do it for Jonah’s good – they did it for themselves – but they were scared to death – scared of death scared of Jonah’s death

Yes, we can – we must – look at those we love who are weathering a storm God caused in an effort to get our attention and say, “THROW ME OVERBOARD! SAVE YOURSELVES, AND TRUST GOD TO SAVE ME!”

And they might believe if they do that we will die. They might be scared to death – scared of death – scared of our deaths…

But they needn’t be. Because we know there is more to Jonah’s story – to our stories – than a cold, frightening swim in a swelling sea.

“They took Jonah and they threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.”

God stopped that storm as quickly as He had started it the second Jonah hit the water. He bobbed like a lure, alone, treading water, but he knew – he knew – God was with him. What other explanation was there for a hurricane giving way to tranquility in the blink of an eye?

Can we believe God can do the same for us?

And for the loved ones we must push over the starboard side of a ship that’s sinking swiftly?

God could have stopped that storm and left it at that. He could have left Jonah in the middle of the calm sea, treading water until his legs cramped and his lungs burned. And then God could have let Jonah silently sink in exhaustion below the surface. He could have let Jonah drown.

But He didn’t.

God caused a life-threatening storm. He allowed Jonah to be thrown overboard. And then, “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah…”

Swallowed whole.

Swallowed alive.

And the swallowing? It saved Jonah’s life. 

“I will let you be swallowed whole,” the Lord tells me, “not because I don’t love you, but because I do. The best thing you can do is what I am telling you to do. And if you have to be swallowed to be saved – swallowed before you’re convinced obeying Me might be a good idea – then that is what I will allow – that is what I will cause.”

It may feel like we are being swallowed alive – and, indeed, we may be – but salvation is in the swallowing.

Lord, help us trust You.