On Valleys and Avoiding The Pit . . . .

“How was your week?”  It’s a question I often ask a Client as we begin a Session.  Responses vary of course, but one Client recently got me thinking when she said: “It’s been ups and downs, peaks and valleys . . . today I’m in a valley.”

Wanting to clarify what she was struggling with I asked, “What’s happening in your valley?”

She looked at me with pain-filled eyes as she talked about her husband’s deteriorating health and other changes that have taken place the past year and a half.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me;"
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me . . . .”

My response surprised even me as I said softly:  “Valleys aren’t all bad.  In fact, there are good things to be found in valleys: meadows . . . wildflowers . . . and God.  Valleys provide a quiet place to reflect on the challenges we face as well as on God’s Goodness.”  

I waited a moment before adding, “Valleys provide opportunities for spiritual and emotional growth when God is part of the conversation.  We get into trouble though, when we talk only to ourselves rather than God.”

She looked at me quizzically before I added, “You know, those self-absorbed conversations we have within ourselves–‘I should have said this’, or ‘I wish I’d done that.’  When we are angry with someone else or beat ourselves up because of our failures: light and hope are overshadowed by bitterness, anger and regret.  It is then, when we begin to doubt God’s Goodness, that the pit of depression can seem to swallow us up.”

We opened to the first four verses of Psalm 23 to gain a biblical perspective on valleys:

The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,
for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me.”

Green pastures . . . still waters . . . soul restoration . . . clarity of mind and heart: ALL are ours when we stay close to the Shepherd of our hearts.  When shadows darken the terrain of our lives, He leads and enables us to walk (not run) through the scariest places as our Shield and Protector.

Isaiah says our problems multiply when we give way to fear.  It is then that we find ourselves in a pit of our own making:

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength.”
And you said, “No, we will flee on horses,”
Therefore you shall flee!
“And we will ride on swift horses,”
Therefore those who pursue you shall be swift.
One thousand will flee at the threat of one man;
You will flee at the threat of five,
Until you are left as a flag on a mountain top
And as a banner on a hill. 
(Verses 15-17)

Have you experienced that feeling of abandonment, when you look around and all you perceive is an impenetrable darkness?  Me too.  But don’t be fooled by your feelings; guard your heart against believing the worst of God.  Instead, consider the assuring words that follow the warning against being run by fear:

“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore He will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for Him!” 
(Verse 18)

“BLESSED . . . ALL who wait for Him,” in the valleys of our lives as well as on the highest peak.

But what about those pit times, when depression and anxiety darken your door and faith is all but forgotten?  I appreciate the grittiness at the end of the Isaiah passage that speaks truth and assurance:

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a Voice behind you, saying,
“This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”  
(Verses 21-22)

Jesus identified Himself as the Good Shepherd and gave further food for thought in John 10:14-16,

“I am the Good Shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me–
just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father–
and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen . . . .
They too will listen to my voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

As we determine to stay close to the Good Shepherd in thanksgiving and in faith–
refusing to give way to the destructive self-talk that spirals into a self-made pit–
He will provide the shelter needed to withstand any storm.

PRAISE HIM!

All to His Glory!

Faith Breathes . . . .

 

This morning I woke up in a panic . . .

my chest pounding hard within . . .

that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach . . .  

fear gripping my heart as I struggled to take a breath . . . .

Does that ever happen to you?  Sometimes the source of what causes such a panicky state is identifiable–in my case, it was “seeing” hundreds of golden spiders lowering themselves toward me in a dream.  But such panic can hit without warning and without a cause that is readily apparent . . . what then?  Having had to confront my own personal issues with fear and anger–yes, the two are often related–and having worked with countless others in the Counseling Room, I have learned:

WHEN FEAR (OR ANGER) GRIP THE HEART, FAITH MUST BREATHE DEEPER STILL.

Faith breathes?  It may sound a little crazy, but hear me out.   In the Counseling Room, when talking about dealing with fear or anger as Christians, we look to the Scriptures for guidance.  Many times we talk about how to walk by faith (not just by sight like the rest of the world does) and learn to view tough times as opportunities trust God more.   In Chapter Two of his letter, James concluded,

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”* 

Thus, according to James, it is as faith is worked out in our lives that the evidence of genuine faith is revealed.

The Bible also commands that we be a thankful people before our God and King . . . thankful no matter what our circumstance.  I Thessalonians 5:16-18 encourages,

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Now, here is where breathing ties in with faith:

One of the best ways of energizing faith, when overwhelmed by on-going problems or facing the unexpected, is to take a deep breath as you mentally stop whatever you are doing.   As you take in that first breath (making it as deep and long as you can), mentally turn to God and give thanks to Him for His love.  Continue on that vein (recalling every wonderful thing you know about God from the Scriptures) with every breath:

Thank You God that you love me–even when I do not feel or deserve it.

Thank You that You are with me–even though I feel totally alone.

Thank You that You have a plan and a purpose for my life–even though I cannot fathom how this fits into what that might be.

Thank You God for being faithful, even when I fail You . . .

Thank You, thank You, thank You–that You are my God of HOPE!

After reading an article on How to Breathe Properly, written by Karen Lee Richards–patient advocate and co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association– I was struck by how our physical breathing and learning to breathe spiritually are similar.  Richards wrote.

“Breathing affects virtually every part of the body.  It oxygenates the body, revitalizing organs, cells and tissues.  Breathing properly:

  • Fuels energy production
  • Improves focus and concentration
  • Eliminates toxins
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Improves bowel function
  • Reduces stress, tension and anxiety
  • Increases feelings of calmness and relaxation

As important as breathing is to our bodies faith, as it is applied with every spiritual breath we take, is every bit as beneficial.  With every spiritual breath we take, faith fuels our spiritual energy.  Faith improves and narrows our spiritual focus as the toxicity of sin is eliminated through repentance.  Also, as faith is lived out, our spiritual immunity is strengthened as we honor Christ in our lives.  Every spiritual breath we take improves . . . yes, even our bowels(!) as it reduces stress, tension and anxiety.

In the article, Richards differentiates between shallow chest breathing (what sufferers of chronic pain do to minimize pain) and slow, deep abdominal breathing. Richards says, “Shallow chest breathing makes people feel tense” and can induce symptoms that include “mental fog, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, feeling numb and more.”  Yet with slow, deep abdominal breathing, ‘feelings of calmness” are the resulting benefit.

Just as how we breathe impacts our bodies and perceptions, faith as it is applied (or not) also affects our bodily functions as well as our minds and hearts. 

In the final chapter of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote to encourage believers living in perilous times to run not from difficulty, but to instead run to the One they loved and served.  Paul wrote to remind his fellow believers that our strength is not in ourselves; that our battle strategy is to stand by faith against evil as God works out His perfect plan through us:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devils schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

No matter what your circumstance, you can know and trust that our Sovereign and Good God will provide the strength and wisdom you need to honor Him with your life.  NOW . . . READY . . . SET . . . BREATHE!DSC01298

All to His Glory!

 

*James 2:26

The Beauty and Blessing of Christian Discipline

 
“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” 
Hebrews 12:1b-3

It was such a small thing . . . I am not even sure why it so strongly got my attention . . . it just DID.  I was watching the television “reality” program, Nineteen Kids and Counting– documenting the daily activities of a Christian family of nineteen children.  In the clip the youngest Duggar, four-year-old Josie, had refused to share a ball with her siblings.  When her mother (Michelle Duggar) realized what was happening, she stooped down to look Josie in the eye as she gently but firmly said, “Josie . . .the world does not revolve around Josie!”  Appearing slightly embarrassed, little Josie handed the ball over to her mother as the timer was set to mark when it would be her turn to play with the ball again.  I was awestruck by the beauty and blessing of Christian discipline played out so sweetly!

I wonder if that little exchange between parent and child has stayed with me because it was such a sharp contrast to what I see around me–children who are out-of-control, who disrespect their parents and all other authority.  Sadly, we live in an increasingly godless culture where children are taught that the world DOES revolve around them.  Many parents, having abdicated their responsibility of teaching “right from wrong,” prefer instead to be “friends” with their kids.  The outcome?  With Christ out of the picture and no responsible adult in charge: such things as discipline, respect for authority, love for God and love for neighbor have become foreign concepts.  The fruit of raising such overindulged, undisciplined children?  All too often they become joyless, angry and unproductive adults.

I thought about this two days ago when the latest school shooting was being reported on the news.  We continue to be stunned by such events as they take place in just about any setting across the US.  Looking for reasons as to why they happen “experts” point to such things as abuse in childhood, parental divorce, mental illnessthe influence of violent movies and video gamesease of access to guns as reasons for our cultural toxicity.  Although such factors may indeed have some merit, I wonder if the problem goes far deeper . . . if perhaps it is a reflection of the spiritual darkness that has become so pervasive in the minds and hearts of people?  Thinking back to little Josie and her mom, it would seem that in separating ourselves from God and rejecting Christ, the wisdom needed to raise secure, healthy children through loving discipline has been lost.

After much training, ready to run the race!
After much training, ready to run the race!

The Bible likens discipline to preparing to run a race.  Several months ago our grandson Jack agreed to start running with his mom–our oldest daughter Kara.  For months they trained. Knowing not to push too hard, Kara sought to help Jack build his endurance.  There were discouraging times, but they kept to a disciplined plan and finally were ready to enter Jack’s first 5-K run.  The morning of the run, a large crowd showed up to compete.  Kara and Jack ran the course and it ended up with Jack taking second place in his category of runners.  He was one proud, happy guy and his mama was quite pleased also!

As I think about the blessing of loving discipline being worked out in Josie’s and Jack’s lives–two very different examples–I have come to value Christian discipline as truly unique.  Remembering that the root word in discipline is disciple,  we can learn much about meaningful discipline by studying Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith as He disciplined His disciples–preparing them for what was ahead.

  1. Although Jesus got frustrated with His disciples spiritual denseness, it was love that motivated how He taught and challenged their minds and hearts.
  2. Jesus knew His time to prepare them for what was coming was limited–there was no time to waste.  
  3. Jesus’ focus was never solely on changing the outward behavior of His disciples; His words penetrated their minds and hearts to bless them with an eternal perspective.
The reward for finishing well . . . confidence to face the next challenge!
The reward for staying the course? Confidence to face the next challenge!

Having walked with Christ for over half of my life, I have come to appreciate the connection between love and discipline as the two essential parts of Christian discipline.  When we talk about this in the Counseling Room I demonstrate the unique strength of Christian discipline by bringing my fingers together (representing love on one hand and discipline on the other) to form a uniform mesh of strength.  It is the resulting strength of combining love with discipline that builds solid character in the heart of the receiver. 

No matter where you are in life–young or old, married or single, rich or struggling financially–if you are a Christian then it is important to appreciate and apply the beauty and blessings of Christian discipline in your relationships.  True Christian discipline seeks to honor Christ as it is:

  1. Motivated by love, Christian discipline seeks to challenge (and in the long-run strengthen) the mind and heart of the receiver.
  2. It does not waste time but uses it wisely and prayerfully because it is precious.
  3. Its focus is never just about changing behavior, true Christian discipline seeks to penetrate the mind and heart of the receiver for eternity with the love of Jesus.
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by Him.
 For the Lord disciplines the one He loves,
    and chastises every son whom He receives . . .
He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.”
Hebrews 12:5, 6 & 10 

All to His Glory!

 

 

To “Shine Like Stars in the Universe . . . .”

  
How do you want to be remembered?
What do you want your life to add up to?
Where is Christ in your priorities?

When faced with our mortality the cry of the human heart says: “Remember me!”  Our fear of being forgotten runs deep and often inspires the choices we make–good and bad.  The Apostle Paul wrote to encourage his friends in Philippi, challenging them to raise their sights higher as they rejected the worldly influences that surrounded them:

“Do everything without complaining or arguing,
so that you may become blameless and pure,
children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation,
in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the Word of Life . . . .”
Philippians 2:14-16

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be remembered, but rather than allowing fear to motivate us, Christ would have us live out the entirety of our lives in the creative freedom of our faith. That, dear friend, is our means of shining “like stars in the universe . . . .”

In my last post I recommended a booklet written by Dr. Timothy Keller titled, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: THE PATH TO TRUE CHRISTIAN JOY*.  As Dr. Keller challenges our acceptance of the self-esteem philosophy and its influences, he writes about the concept of self-forgetfulness being lived out as gospel-humility:

“Not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself,
it is thinking of myself less.”  

Dr. Keller gives several examples of how gospel-humility can be lived out and then provides a little test as he observes,

The self-forgetful person would never be hurt particularly badly by criticism.  It would not devastate them, it would not keep them up late, it would not bother them.  Why?  Because a person who is devastated by criticism is putting too much value on what other people think, on other people’s opinions.

I have to admit that I often do not receive criticism well–how about you?  Do you become defensive, fall apart or beat yourself up, perhaps because you so desire to please others?  Or . . . do you respond to criticism by hardening your heart saying (or thinking), “Who cares what so-and-so thinks?!!”  Keller says neither the low self-esteem response nor the prideful response are appropriate for Christians.

So how might we respond?  Dr. Keller points to a third option for self-forgetful/gospel-humble servants of Christ:

When someone whose ego is not puffed up but filled up gets criticism, it does not devastate them.  They listen to it and see it as an opportunity to change. (pg.34)

As I thought about gospel-humility working out changes in my heart, I remembered an incident I witnessed a long time ago.  I was a senior in college, sitting in a full classroom with about sixty students.  It was the early seventies, so there was tension on many college campuses between students and faculty–this would be my first taste of it.  The professor was a man I deeply respected, Dr. John Veig.  He was a tall, almost elderly man, who was also my Senior Project Advisor.  As he was speaking to the class, a long-haired hippie-type guy stood up in the middle of the classroom and made a rude remark aimed at Dr. Vieg.  A momentary hush enveloped the classroom as everyone watched to see what was going to happen next.  Dr. Vieg, looking fully into the young man’s eyes, started to smile as he slapped his knee hard and gave out a huge belly laugh!  Amazed by the scene, the tension in the room was completely dissipated as the entire class joined in the laughter and the young man quietly sat down looking a little sheepish.

I did not know it then, but what I witnessed so long ago was a picture of gospel-humility.  Dr. Veig did not become defensive.  Instead, he momentarily reflected on what was said and then chose to reach out to the young man with the love of Jesus and a smile.  Dr. Vieg did the exact opposite of what any of us expected.  (To be honest, I wanted to punch the guy!)

So how might gospel-humility–couched in the love of Jesus–shine through us to reach an ever-darkening world?  Just as importantly, how would Christ have us live out our lives in the creative freedom of our faith?

  1. Prayer will obviously be key as we ask God’s Spirit to help us view the person or situation with His eyes rather than our own.
  2. A growing familiarity with the Scriptures will help you become a biblical thinker (no longer swayed by the philosophies of the world.)
  3. Refuse to become defensive: Instead prayerfully give thanks to God for the offender (that He is not finished with them any more than He is done with you.)
  4. Consider what was said and then respond as the Lord would have you do in wisdom and in faith–I have found that following Dr. Vieg’s example of doing the opposite of what is expected (or what I am tempted to do) can really be effective.

To be remembered as one who shone like a star in the universe” is not such a lofty goal for those who live and love in gospel-humility.  No matter what you may be facing, refuse to be discouraged as you trust in Him each gift-of-a-day.

 All to His Glory!

*Timothy Keller, The Freedom Of Self-Forgetfulness–The Path to Christian Joy, printed in the UK by a division of 10ofthose.com, 2013.

What Not To Say To Kids . . . .

I never cease to be amazed at the way God can use just about anything to get my attention.  It happened again this week while watching an excellent DVD series, The Reason for God with Tim Keller.  In the six session series, Keller (senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City) meets with a group of people to address their doubts and objections to Christianity.  The conversations are interesting, thought-provoking and instructive as Keller and the group talk about the Bible, the exclusive claims of Christianity and about God in relation to rules, homosexuality, suffering, the church and the world at large.   Especially impressive is the way each participant is afforded the opportunity to express their views, ask pointed questions and are treated with respect as Keller moderates the discussion. It was actually one of the discussion participants God used to get my attention–a young man of about 25.   The discussion question was, “What gives you the right to tell me how to live my life?”  The young man talked about his rebellion growing up and how irked he became when he asked “Why?” he had to clean his room, and his parents responded with, “Because I said so.”

 I  later thought about the young man’s struggle, wondering how many times I may have said “Because I said so” to my kids when they were still at home?  Even though it was not a major part of my “parenting arsenal”, I felt convicted at the thought of having said it at all.   I realized how self-centered such a response is!   It occurred me that a much better response to “Why?” might be something like:

“Because God loves you and has a plan for your life . . .
because you need to be able to take care of yourself when you leave home . . .
because I love you and want you to succeed at whatever God has for you!”
I began to wonder:
Be we parent, grandparent, teacher, friend, neighbor or stranger . . .
if the love of God is our motivation in how we respond to kids,
would the world be any different?

I think it would.  Rather than responding in frustration, anger or with the knee-jerk response of protecting our “turf” (isn’t “Because I said so” truly a reflection of our own selfishness?) what a difference is made in any relationship when God’s love is our motivation!

Consider the example given us by God in how He dealt with rebellious Israel after they were taken into captivity in Babylon.  Their rebellion resulted in their loss of every provision God had given them except for one . . . God Himself.  I invite you to consider and learn from God’s loving assurance to Israel in their brokenness:

“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My good promise to bring you back to this place.   For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.   Then you will call on Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.   You will seek Me and find me when you seek Me with all your heart.   I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.” ( Jeremiah 29:10b-14)

Although our “nest” has been empty for over a decade, I still remember the tension of trying to get it right as a parent and feeling like a failure much of the time.  (In fact, I still feel that tension as a parent, grandparent, neighbor and counselor at times.)  As I reflected on this fresh approach of saying, “Because I love you and God does too” to the age-old question of “Why?” I was struck by how taking the focus off of “I” and interjecting the love of God softens the whole picture.

Sometimes there are unavoidable consequences that must come into play when rebellion is at the heart of the matter, but even so . . . responding with “Because I said so” is never going to accomplish anything good in the angry heart.   Having the courage to respond wisely with the love of Christ however has all sorts of possibilities!

All to His Glory! 

Thanksgiving: Our Goal for a Lifetime ~

“You must have long-term goals to keep you from being frustrated by short-term failures.”   Charles C. Noble

Like it or not, there are times when failure and frustration are part of life. We get angry, hurt and sometimes we even want to throw things.   The problem with becoming self-absorbed at those times is, that we forget the goodness of God and think, “I don’t deserve this; somebody’s got to pay!” Consider the insight of James:

“What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You desire but do not have, so you kill.  You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.  You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  (James 4:1-3)

Call it what you will (spiritual amnesia?)  God calls it sin.  Thankfully,  the painful consequences have been paid for those who trust in the blood payment of His Son.  That is why Charles Noble’s assertion that we should have “long-term” (what I call lifetime goals) as well as goals for the short-term is wise.  As we make our lifetime goal to remember and honor Jesus’ gift exchange of His life for our own, our other goals (be they failures or successes) will align with our primary goal of living life in faith.  

The key to living life well before God depends not on our circumstances, but on making choices that reflect our commitment to honor Him.  It was Jesus who clearly set the practical mandate for the lifetime goals of His followers in Matthew 6:33,

  “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”

The means of achieving our goals despite trouble, hardship and loss is rooted in giving thanks to Him for each and every day.  It is as we prioritize His kingdom and His righteousness that His peace and mercy are worked out in our daily lives.  Paul wrote a note to encourage his friends at Thessalonica with these words:

“Be joyful always; 

pray continually; 

give thanks in all circumstances,

for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Do you know what you want out of life?  Are you frustrated and discouraged because you cannot get what you want, no matter how hard you try?  Life can be a battle and sometimes it doesn’t make lot of sense.  Goals can help us focus and give us direction.  Just remember: The key to success in God’s eyes is in our offering of humility and thanksgiving to Him.  

All to His Glory!