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Spiritual Fitness December 13, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Attitude, Fitness, Grace, Growth, Lessons, Pain, Struggles, Suffering.
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I recently started a new exercise regimen. After several years of trying, and mostly failing, to get fit on my own I finally gave in and bought some exercise DVDs that would tell me what to do. I hate exercise videos, but I have noticed that I tend to lose focus on my own and have trouble figuring out what the best strategy is, and DVDs are significantly less expensive than a personal trainer. Although the individual workouts are short, they are intense and brutal. By day three I could barely get up off the couch because I was (and still am) so sore. My aching muscles have got me thinking about what physical fitness can teach about spiritual fitness.

The Bible is not short on comparisons of spiritual and physical training, and I’m beginning to see why. It’s a powerful metaphor, and frankly if you are not able to be disciplined with your body it is going to be hard to be disciplined in your spiritual life (I have this problem!). Although we would like to think we are above such things, our bodies do have a huge influence on our emotions, actions, and attitudes. Here are the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to physical training and spiritual growth.

1: You can’t be your own trainer.

Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always.
Psalm 105:4

This doesn’t mean that you can’t just go for a run, or pick up the Bible and read on your own and get some positive effects. But in both fitness and spiritual growth you can vastly benefit from the wisdom, guidance, and encouragement of others. I tend to approach Bible study and prayer the same way I approach exercise and many other areas of my life – haphazardly. I try things aimlessly. I page through Psalms. I do some arm exercises. I download a bunch of sermons to listen to and go for a long run one day, and then the next day I’m eating cheetoes and watching TV all evening.

In fitness, having a guide to help you find an effective routine that will get you where you want to go is invaluable – whether it’s a person, a guidebook, or a simple regimen. You can exercise all you want, but if you aren’t doing the right combination of things you may never reach your goal – or you may end up hurting yourself. In my case, having a clearly deranged woman with incredible abs telling me what to do each day and yelling encouragement helps me to stay on track because it removes the feeling of aimlessness that often prevents me from wanting to work out.

In your Christian walk, a mentor can help guide you in a similar way. But even Bible study guides and books can really get you to go deep into the Word and build those spiritual muscles, make you really think about things in a substantive way. That’s something all all the unfocused reading in the world will never achieve. A good preacher or teacher can also bring you God’s word in a way you have never thought about before, and help you to connect the dots on what he is trying to tell you.

However, the ultimate trainer is God himself. He is the one we need to surrender to, and he is the one with the plan for where he wants us to go and how we should be trained to get there. Bible studies and devotional plans are good things. But what will really make our faith muscles grow are the experiences and challenges that God puts us through to make us strong for the work that he has for us. Just like I show up and submit to the trainer on my DVD, doing what she says each day to build my strength and endurance, I need to “show up” with God and submit myself to his training, however difficult and painful it is at the time.

2: You can’t do it alone.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

This should be a no-brainer. Everyone needs partners to help them get in shape, to encourage them and build them up. We all need community on the spiritual journey too. People we can share our struggles with and open to, and who can keep us accountable in our lives. I’ve tried both fitness and the Christian walk without community and it does not work. Satan’s first tactic to prevent us from changing or from reaching our goals is to isolate us. Once that is accomplished it’s all to easy for us to succumb to thoughts like “I’ll do it tomorrow” or “why should I bother, it’s hopeless” and we practically implode in ourselves in very little time. God made us to live in community for a reason – we need each other. Not just in high, spiritual matters but in practical, everyday ways.

3: You have to do it every day.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Corinthians 9:24-27

Consistency. I’ve written any number of times about my struggles with this, and they haven’t gone away. But if you are going to train for a race, you have to do it every day. That doesn’t mean you have to (or even should) do the exact same thing every day. But you have to face each day – even rest days (because rest is a part of training) – as a day that you are preparing for the race, a day that is an important part of you reaching your fitness goal. What you do or don’t do, what you put in your body, the attitude you have – all of those things  are integral to how effectively you are able to train. You need to be thinking everyday “How is what I’m doing preparing me for this race, this goal?”

It’s the same with spiritual training. Not only should we be spending time in prayer, in praise, in the Word every day, but we should be looking at everything in our lives, all our experiences and challenges each day, for what they can teach us about God and how they can make us stronger spiritually and more like him. We should ask ourselves “What is God trying to teach me in this situation?”, “How can this experience grow me spiritually?”. and “What action here will bring me closer to being like Christ?”.

The spiritual walk is no more about church and devotions than fitness is about a 20-minute work out. It’s a constant, consistent, and pervasive practice that is required if you want to get results.

4: It’s going to hurt.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.
Hebrews 12:11-12

To build muscles you have to tear them a little bit, let them heal, and tear them a little bit more so that they grow back bigger and stronger. To build endurance you have to push yourself past the point where you think you can’t go any farther, again and again, until you find you can go farther. It’s going to hurt at the time, and it’s going to hurt even more the next day.

You can’t grow in your faith and trust in God if that faith is never stretched to its very limit and beyond. It has to break a little bit and grow anew if it’s going to be stronger. Every roadblock, frustration, and disappointment, though painful, is a chance for us to put our trust in God again and for him to come through for us in ways we can’t imagine yet.

They will hurt at the time. The hurt may linger. But each time we experience heartbreak or hopelessness and yet still keep clinging to God, the stronger our faith will become and the more able to weather the future storms of life. The more times we see God come through in a seemingly impossible situation, the more we will trust him in the future.

And in the same way that a good trainer will never push you beyond what your body can really bear, to the point of true injury, so our good God will never give us more to handle than he is able to save us from.

5: It’s always going to get harder.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4

It feel like every time I get to the point in my training where I’m starting to feel good about things, feel like I’m able to handle the workouts, they suddenly get harder. So too in my spiritual life. As soon as I feel like I’ve really learned some lessons, things are flying along and I’m just happy and praising God, with everything finally under control – boom, all of a sudden there’s a big hill and I am doing everything I can just to keep it together. A tragedy hits, something stressful comes up in my work or my marriage, there’s a problem with a friend, and all of a sudden my hard-earned smooth sailing has turned into very choppy waters.

The thing about fitness is that if a workout is easy, that means it’s no longer effective. At best you might be maintaining, but you certainly aren’t making gains. If it’s easy for your muscles to handle, then it’s not growing them and not challenging you. A few workouts like that are fine, but if that’s all you do for a long period of time at best you will stagnate. More likely, you will start slipping backwards and losing ground.

If everything is going well in your life, and with your faith, then you aren’t really needing to use those spiritual muscles to stay in touch with God and to handle difficult situations. You pray less, because you don’t need anything. You don’t wrestle with doubt because you have no reason to doubt – everything is fine. You don’t have to work to give grace, because no one is giving you hard a time.

These times are a welcome respite for all of us, but if they continue for too long we lose our spiritual fitness. If a problem comes and we’re spiritually complacent and stagnated, we will have lost the resources to deal with it. Like a sucker punch coming out of nowhere, we will be totally incapacitated.

Just like a trainer keeps upping the difficulty and intensity of the workouts, so God keeps new challenges coming at us just as soon as we feel like we’ve mastered the old ones. He doesn’t want us to be satisfied with an imperfect relationship with him – we can always get better, always get closer to him and trust him more. Unlike physical fitness, to which there is a limit, our God is infinite and limitless. There is always more to learn, more to train for in the process of becoming like Christ.

6: It will change the rest of your life.

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:20-21

I’ve already talked about training not just being about the actual workout time but about a lifestyle of training and preparing and growing. But just as your whole live impacts your training, your training can impact the rest of your life. When I am not fit and not trying to be fit, my baseline health and attitude is not great.

But once I really start to get in shape, if I can get over the initial hump where I’m just tired and sore all of the time, my whole life starts to change. I have more energy, I sleep better, my moods are generally more positive. I start to crave better, healthier food because my body knows it can’t run on junk. I’m more productive at work and more relaxed at home. Thousands of little benefits that reinforce each other.

It’s the same in my spiritual life. When I am consistently spending time with God, turning to him when I am in trouble, being faithful in the areas of my life that I know I have trouble with, and seeking out good fellowship and teaching, my whole life completely changes. I am more loving and forgiving of others. Less judgmental. I work harder, even when I don’t really like what I’m doing. I am more compassionate and less self-centers. My attitude is better. I am grateful and often more cheerful. I am more able to be present to others and more open to what God is trying to teach to me. And all these benefits make me want to spend more time in spiritual training.

Coda

I find more and more as I work to change myself physically that I see spiritual parallels with all of my struggles and successes. And with my weaknesses. My physical  and spiritual failings mirror each other: My lack of consistency, self-control, and endurance are the same in both the physical and spiritual arenas. The main difference is that the consequences of these failings are literally visible in my physical body, while they can sometimes be easier to hide in my spiritual walk – at least to hide from other people.

While I certainly don’t think that someone who is not fit cannot have an awesome relationship with God, or that someone who is in peak physical condition automatically has an olympian’s spiritual walk (exercise, like anything else, can become an idol, obsession, or escape from God), I am definitely starting to believe that physical training can help me spiritually. Both in the ways that it can help me develop attributes for my faith which I am lacking, and how it can keep me in mind of the spiritual lessons God wants me to learn along the way.

But when all is said and done, it is important to keep sight of which kind of training is the more important one. Spiritual and physical training are not mutually exclusive, and are in fact often very complementary. But it’s important not to let my fitness goals overshadow my growth as a Christ-follower, for it is clear which of the two is of greater importance:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.  That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
1 Timothy 4:8-10

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Overcoming evil with good. August 31, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Blessings, Evil, Heart Condition, Personal, Struggles.
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I was reading in Romans last night, a bit aimlessly but trying to get back in the habit of making time in the Word a priority. And I stumbled across this little gem of a verse:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12:21

It struck me, because I feel like I am constantly overcome. Perhaps evil seems like a strong word for my workplace, or for the general distractions of life that get me down, or even for New Jersey. But at work I feel constantly overwhelmed by the negative atmosphere, toxic people, and the overall distastefulness of the job. I feel powerless at home to do the things I want to do – after things like dinner, laundry, errands, and car maintenance are done I don’t have much energy left to pursue what I really care about. Even just driving around this state I get so frustrated with the traffic and the crowds and the new housing developments where productive farms and forests were.

I am letting myself be overcome. The verse spoke to me because that is how I feel daily. I feel overcome in the face of all the negativity and unhappiness around me, in the distance between what I had dreamed of for my life and where I actually am, and in the hundred ways I daily feel thwarted from living a life of passion, joy, and hope.

But Paul is telling us that it is a choice, not an inevitability. We don’t have to be overcome by evil. We can turn it around – Christ has given us that gift. I love the phrase “overcome evil with good”. It’s such a powerful image of evil being overthrown, overturned, and undone in the face of simple goodness. I just imagine being so filled with God’s goodness that none of the bad things around me, the lies of Satan, the actions of others, can assail me.

I am a long way from that. But I’m starting to realize that by letting all the wrong and injustice and pettiness that’s around me make me angry or frustrated or lose hope, I am letting Satan win a battle that has serious negative consequences for my life and for those around me – particularly though who I should be being a light to and instead am functionally just as lost as they are.

And that’s not what I want. I want to be the force for good that the waves of evil break upon and are shattered and dissolve. But I know that’s not something I can just decide to do on my own. While I do have to make choices to do the right thing and to trust God, I also know that the only way to be filled with that kind of goodness so that it reflects on every one of my actions is to steep myself so thoroughly in the goodness of God that it is all that is capable of coming out of me.

My Wilderness August 22, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Faithfulness, Heart Condition, jobs, Personal, Struggles, Suffering, Trust, Wilderness.
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The summer is nearly over. Just a couple more weeks at best to get summer fun in. Even though nothing about my life changes substantially after Labor Day, and the weather generally stays warm through much of September, there’s a qualitative change that occurs over the next weeks and brings an end to the freedom and excitement of summer.

This summer went quickly, as summers tend do more and more often as I get older. Although we did some very fun things, we took no long vacation and had to cancel a lot of planned activities due to weather or finances. In some ways I feel like I didn’t have a summer at all, though my tanned shoulders and blisters on my heels speak otherwise. I just didn’t enjoy it the way I used to. I didn’t feel free.

I looked at my legs today and was still a little shocked to discover they are mostly unblemished at the end of August. Oh there are a few blisters and bruises from hiking and tubing, but in generally they’re in good shape. I should be used to it after three summers in a desk job, but I still expect them to look the way they used to when I had a good honest field job.

I used to come home everyday from work at the farm or in the forest battered, bruised, and filthy. Covered in mud, scratches, bug bites, poison ivy, and, often, blood. My legs (and often arms and face) were a mess but I was exponentially happier and a good deal slimmer – if distinctly poorer and less feminine. I was more spontaneous too, and I remember taking more summer day trips and enjoying life more even when there wasn’t a lot cash to spare.

Currently I have a very dull office job that pays decently, has excellent health insurance, and is nearly impossible to be fired from or laid off of. I live the most suburban of suburban communities, in a spacious two bed-room apartment in a nice complex that is one of hundreds of other nearly identical complexes in the area. Everything I could possibly want is within an hour’s drive, although virtually nothing can be walked to. This is very close to the American dream and I cannot stand it.

I’ve been thinking lately about how God sends us all through a time in the wilderness to come out the other side closer to him. For some people this a time of deep physical or spiritual suffering, for others a literal exile from home, and for still others a crisis of faith or another huge life change. But I think for me, in my cushy job and the place I’ve lived more or less my whole life, that this is my wilderness.

I’ve been trying so hard to get out of this place. To change my life, to get the job that I want in the place that I want. I fantasize about selling all our belongings, quitting our jobs, and moving out west and seeing what happens. And yet every time we make progress it seems like we slide backwards again. School drags on another year. We have to decimate our savings to pay for a car repair.  We get trapped in a lease that make its difficult to save. A freelance job falls through.

I feel in my heart that God has a plan for us that is not here, but it also seems like it’s not time for us to leave just yet. And that is hard to accept. This is my wilderness, and I know he must have us here still for a reason, but it is difficult to know what the reason is, what lesson I am to learn before we can escape. And sometimes it feels hopeless, like we will always be stuck here.

But God has always been faithful to give us what we need, and he will continue to be faithful. However I have to accept what we need and what I want may not be the same thing. And it almost certainly will not be with the timing that I have in mind. I know that if God does provide for us to move out of here in the near future it will be in a way that will leave no doubt in our minds that it is through his provision only and not through our own striving.

My challenge now, instead of resenting the present circumstances that keep me where I do not want to be and despairing of any hope and future for us that looks like what we’ve dreamed of, is to bless God for what we do have and to try to learn what lessons he has for me in this place. Even if it is only the discipline of waiting. I believe it is not wrong to have a goal, to desire something in particular and to pursue it. But it is important to not allow that goal to eclipse the far greater goal of following God.

That means offering up my dreams to him daily and allowing him to change them if that is his will. It means opening my heart to opportunities in places and fields I may not have considered. And it means trusting him to do what is best for me, even when it feels like I am languishing in the place that is the most damaging to my relationship with him. It may be his will that I leave, tomorrow or years from now. But until then I need to ask him to show me what work I have to do while I am here.

God will be faithful whether I am or not. Whether I have good attitude about it or not. Whether I make the most of my time or squander it. But just because that is true it doesn’t absolve me of any obligation to him. In fact, it strengthens my obligation to know that even if I abandon it, he will not abandon me. So I will try, in this wilderness of Norway oaks and super-Walmarts and good dental plans, to listen for his voice until he leads me out of it – or changed my attitude so that I no longer find it a wilderness at all.

Running with Gratitude July 28, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Blessings, Gratitude, Struggles.
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Tonight I went jogging. I only recently started and I have a love-hate relationship with running. I love that I run now, I love how I feel afterwards, I even love the occasions when I find a really good pace and it starts to feel natural. But the actual act of getting out there and getting going – still not a fan. I really didn’t feel like going tonight, but as I just signed up for my first 5k in October, I am trying to get on a schedule of 3x per week in hopes of developing some consistency. And as no one else was home, I had no other commitments, and I hadn’t done any exercise today, I had no excuses not to go.

So I was running, but I was running with bad grace. It was hot. It was late in the day. I had a stitch in my side. I was tired of all my music.

And then as I rounded the latter half of my second lap around our apartment complex, I saw a woman walking ahead of me. Well, limping. She was using a cane, and seemed to be wearing leg braces under her clothes. She was an Indian woman (the majority of our town is Southeast Asian), slim, and fairly young – maybe in her early thirties. Every step was clearly painful for her. She would stop every few meters and wipe the sweat from her brow. But she seemed to determined to keep going.

I jogged easily around her, feeling guilty as I passed. I realized that my attitude needed an adjustment, and that I should be thankful that I even have the ability to run. I am not talking about praying that most odious of prayers, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.” That’s a whole different essay.

I mean taking the time to genuinely praise God for what I have. Two strong legs to run. Time to do so. A safe place to do so. A truly lovely evening, just sinking into smoky twilight, and music that lifts my soul to the Lord when I hear it. Because all of that could change at any moment – that and more could all be taken from me.

If I can’t appreciate it when I have it, and use it to the full extent of my abilities, what would I do if my circumstances changed? Bad grace in plenty doesn’t bode well for a good attitude in times of trial. If I can barely get it together to overcome essentially non-existent obstacles to do something so simple as running when I am perfectly healthy, what would I do when every movement was a battle?

I have so much. I do so little. So many things come easily for me, and yet I make so little effort. While so many others fight, literally, for every step.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him will be asked all the more.”
Luke 12:48

Safety and Wildness July 23, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Peace, Sacrifice, Struggles, Trust.
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I live in what is probably one of the safest places on the planet. For starters, I live in the U.S., which means serious concerns about wars, large scale epidemics, waterborne illnesses, and starvation are (or appear to be) pretty much off the table. I live in a part of the country that almost never experiences hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunami. My state occasionally gets flooding and tornadoes, but almost never my area of it. My town is firmly middle-class, with very little crime,  and I live in a family-oriented development where kids play freely with minimal supervision. My commute to work is short, statistically reducing my chances of being in a car accident. The biggest risk I have to worry about from my job is carpal tunnel. And I have really good health insurance.

A couple nights ago we had a thunderstorm. It wasn’t that bad, a little rain, a little wind. A lot of lightning, and a tantalizing chance of hail. But as I lay in bed watching the light show outside, it occurred to me that all this safety is, of course, imaginary. Sure, statistically, my odds are better than a lot of people’s to live a long and healthy life. But lightning could strike the tree outside my window, which could fall into the house and kill me. I could get hit by a car crossing the street or riding my bike. I could get cancer. I could fall down the stairs and break my neck. There is no safety in the world, only risk management. As God said to Job:

“What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no man lives,
a desert with no one in it,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?
Does the rain have a father?
Who fathers the drops of dew?
From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen?”
Job 38:24-30

Despite all our technology we can’t even predict the weather, much less control it. There are plenty of diseases with no cure. There are terrorists, epidemics, global climate change. And that’s not even counting the more run of the mill dangers of everyday life. But we like our illusion of safety. We’ve worked so hard to cultivate it, especially here in the suburbs where we make sure everything is as pleasant and inoffensive as possible, so we don’t have to think about the dangers of the world.

There’s just a couple of problems with this. The first is, no matter how seemingly risk-free we manage to make our lives, eventually something will happen. We will have that heart attack, that car accident, or choke on that hot dog. Or if we’re really lucky maybe we just won’t wake up one day. No matter what it is, it will happen sooner or later whether we admit it or not.

The second problem is that safety makes us dead to faith. It is so hard be radically reliant on God when we have so many things around us making us feel protected and secure. It’s completely stupefying.  What do we need God for? It is only when something bad happens that we are shaken from our slumber to beg him to take care of us. When we have a house to protect us from the elements and a job to pay the bills and a fridge full of food and relative good health, it’s hard to remember the source of it all is not ourselves – and that it could be gone in an instant.

I always feel closest to God when I’m in nature, and the farther into wilderness the better. Part of it is because I am surrounded by the things he made, rather than things made by man. But I think most of it is that there is nothing between me and the world that I can fool myself into thinking will keep me safe. I am at the mercy of the elements, the wildness of the world. It is my Father’s world and I live or die at his pleasure. Of course that is always the case, whether I am on a mountaintop in a blizzard or in my climate-controlled living room. But when I am in an environment where I cannot even pretend to have the slightest grasp of control, I become starkly aware of it. I am forced to acknowledge his supremacy and my inability to save myself from anything.

But most of us cannot live in the literal wilderness. And when we come back home, or when we get over our scary illness, or recover financial stability it again becomes a struggle to remember that we are just as dependent on God in the fat times as the lean, in the safety as in the insecurity. I admit I am not very good at this. I become smug and complacent like everyone else, until something shakes me up.

Perhaps the key is to not seek out a life of safety. I don’t mean take up extreme sports just to feel closer to God. But to not make security and stability my number one motivation for everything I do. Make reliance on him my motivation and see where it leads me, no matter the apparent danger. Open myself up to emotional risks, financial risks, and yes, even physical risks in pursuit of what he wants for me.

Because our God is many things, but he is not safe. The Lord is a warrior, Exodus tells us. He is wild. He is unpredictable and, on some level, unknowable. He does not think like we do. And he doesn’t promise us safety. In fact he promises us trouble and pain and conflict in pursuit of him, even unto death in some cases. So if we’re focusing on our own safety we are, by default, not focusing on him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9

I am not sure what following God’s thoughts instead of my own looks like in my life yet. Am I supposed to give up my apartment and live barefoot in the street? Sell all my possessions and move to Ethiopia?  Maybe. Or maybe there are other things he wants me to risk for him. There are things that I find more frightening, certainly – for me giving up and running away is much less scary than sticking around learning how to live honestly where I am. But I am only starting on this journey, and what risking things for God means may change many times over the years. And I am not great at giving up control, or taking risks that weren’t my own idea.

But I know I don’t want to let my relative prosperity or imaginary security lull me into insipid lethargy or a false sense of self-reliance. Or to let my attachment to the safety I seem to have now become more important than seeking to know God’s wildness better. And I will try to cherish the thunderstorms and the steep mountains paths and the crises in life, big and small, that remind me of the glorious unpredictability of the world and force me back into spiritual dependence on my heavenly Father just as soon as I start to think I can take care of myself.

The Wounded Christian July 22, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Blessings, Compassion, Death, Pain, Struggles, Suffering, The Bible.
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Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the way that in certain Christian circles admitting sadness, mourning, doubt, or deep emotional pain is almost taboo. Sharing struggles is, of course, encouraged but if you don’t end your story with something on the order of “…but I know God is in control” or “…but  I’m still just really praising God for all He’s done for me” you will get some deeply concerned looks and probably some aggressive encouragement which may or may not be welcome at the moment. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said something, in real life or online that indicated I was going through a bit of a dark patch or having a bad day only to have a well-meaning Christian friend jump in instantly to tell me not to be sad, that God had a plan to work it for good, or that we should just keep thanking God.

And it’s true. God has done so much for us and we should always praise him. He will work it all together for the ultimate good. He is in control. And of course there’s always someone who has it worse than me and I should be thankful for what I have.  The problem is, I may not be there yet. And I don’t think God needs me to be. I’m afraid I am a bit suspicious of relentlessly cheerful Christians – either they really are that unaffected by life’s woes and thus cannot understand what I”m dealing with, or they are in deep denial about their lives. God does not require us to be happy all the time, or instantly be okay when tragedy and pain strikes us. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about sorrow and grief, and almost none of it is that we shouldn’t let ourselves experience it.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Matthew 5:4

This is not Jesus telling us to “get over it”. For we cannot experience God’s comfort unless we have a need of it. Over and over again, the Bible shows us that God honors our grief, our pain, our suffering. He promises to heal us of it, but we have to admit the pain first, before there can be healing. This is not say that we should seek out pain and hurt, or tell other people how awesome it is that they are suffering. There is enough pain in this world already and plenty of things will wound us without us having to go look for them. And we should do our best to be God’s hands and ease the wounds of others. But we can’t do that by pretending they don’t exist and that they don’t need to time to be felt before they can begin to mend. God never tells us is it wrong to feel a certain way. In fact, he has infinite compassion on those who suffer. He never discounts our experience of pain, whether our problems are objectively large or small, or whether it seems like there are others who are suffering more.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Psalm 34:18

There are several books in the Bible that are devoted almost entirely to pain, suffering, loss, and grief and they do not shy away from the raw ugliness of human emotions, nor do they provide total answers to the questions we cry out in our difficult times, other than telling us that God IS. That’s all the answer Job really got, in the end. Yes he got back everything he lost and more but that doesn’t negate what he went through. Lamentations is nothing but grief and sorrow, and the author is just as desolate at the end of the book as at the beginning. Ecclesiastes has an author that is overwhelmed by the wickedness of the world and practically suicidal, and although he realizes we receive many good things from God he is still left with more questions than answers.

None of these books tell us we shouldn’t grieve, we shouldn’t hurt, we shouldn’t question. And yet, even in the darkest times the authors still managed to praise God. And I think today, a lot of people confuse praise with happiness. They think that you cannot praise God if you are sad or hurting or even angry at him. But some of the deepest times of praise spring from our deepest wounds, not just after they are healed but while they are still bleeding.

I can go in my darkest hour to God and say through my tears, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” It doesn’t mean I’m over whatever has happened, or that I’m going to be instantly happy and fine from there on in. It just means I am making a choice to worship him in spite of everything else, in spite of the questions or doubts or fears. It’s the first step toward healing, not the last.

Even Jesus felt emotional pain, and felt it deeply. And he knew for a fact how it would work out in the end. He didn’t have some wavering belief or faint hope – He had certain knowledge. But still, he wept for Lazarus even though he knew he could and would raise him from the dead. He wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, grieving more deeply than probably anyone ever has, even though he knew in three days he would rise again and become the salvation of the whole world.

“Then he said to them,
‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow
to the point of death.’ ”
Matthew 26:38

Just because we know things are ultimately going to be all right, just because we are saved and redeemed and know we have a place in heaven, and that one day the whole earth will be made new, doesn’t mean everything is all right now. It doesn’t mean we have to pretend not to feel the wounds that life brings our way. Julian of Norwich said:

“And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well!”

It is a joyful statement, indeed. And a true one. But she is also implicitly recognizing that even though God shall make all things well, they all not well now. This world is fallen, and full of broken people – ourselves especially included. There is cause for grief. There are situations where someone is going to be hurt no matter what choice is made. There is great evil, atrocities, genocides. And there is no escaping the sin in our own lives and the pain it will cause us and others. If we are to love God and love others as he loves them, then we must be willing to accept this and feel it and be changed and purified by it before we can come out the other side.

“Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.”
James 4:9-10

For it is in our pain and mourning that God brings us comfort, it is how he draws us to him. And it is how he transforms us. Without it there is no need of him, and he can give us joy even in our greatest darkness. Joy is not the opposite of sadness, but something that shines through despite it and can exist simultaneously with it . And it is also in our suffering that we can minister to others. Someone who has never known real pain can not touch someone who is going through real pain. And in fact, it may take someone who has been deeply hurt to even recognize suffering in another. God uses our wounds to heal each other, to draw others to him. Someone who is truly suffering cannot abide to hear “Don’t worry, it will be okay, God loves you!” from someone who has not experienced (or acknowledged) pain in their own lives. They need to hear “It hurts. I hurt with you. And our Father hurts with both of us.”

These are the gifts that God gives us in our pain: The gift of himself, and the gift being able to reach out to others who are in the same place and help draw them to him. There is healing, there is joy, there is restoration. That comes differently to different people and we cannot expect everyone to experience it in the same way at the same time. There are times for rejoicing and times for grieving – one of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to allow others to experience the season of life they are in and not to try tell them they shouldn’t be where they are. Telling people they shouldn’t be sad, shouldn’t be hurting, shouldn’t doubt only isolates them further from the community and from God, adding extra guilt for not believing hard enough to whatever they are already going through.

“For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.”
Psalm 22:24

Until Christ returns, until the world is fully redeemed and fully healed there will always be new pains and fresh griefs. To deny that would be foolish. To accept it allows us to experience healing and to be agents of healing in others.

Ideal or Idol? July 21, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Identity, Lifescripts, Personal, Prayer, Struggles.
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As I’ve mentioned before I have a difficult time being still in my heart and praying honestly to God. One of the few times I am really able to do this well is while swimming (if only because I don’t own one of these and am forced to be alone in my own head for half an hour). The rhythm of the strokes, going under the water and coming back up again and again is like a form of meditation and my mind gets a little cleared of all the clutter that’s in it and I can focus on God.

I was asking him to show me how to be the person he made me to be, and I started mentally listing all the attributes I thought this person had that I currently didn’t have. And then it hit me. Who God wants me to be may not be the same as who I want to be.

Here’s the thing. I have a very clear idea of who I think I should be. This mythical person is organized, efficient, and always has a clean house. She never wastes time or sulks, and never worries about the future because she trusts God completely. She’s in good shape and sticks to a firm schedule of exercise and a tight frugal budget. She doesn’t stress eat or self-medicate through shopping or TV watching. She reads the Bible and prays every morning, and always finishes the projects she starts. She’s outgoing, not afraid of social situations, and a natural leader. She doesn’t talk too much or too loudly and is a great listener. She manages her time well and juggles work, family, home, church, and friends effortlessly. She’s always gracious and diplomatic, and never temperamental or impatient. She also makes all her own cleaning products and cosmetics and never eats anything that isn’t both organic and locally grown. Oh, and she speaks several languages and can play a musical instrument.

I am not that person. Not remotely. And she may not be at all the person God wants me to be. I am beginning to think that by striving so hard to be like that, I might be preventing myself from learning who God wants me to be. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those qualities (although taken as a whole she sounds a little insufferable, actually), or that I shouldn’t want to be more organized or disciplined or to get in shape or to learn French. But when I focus on trying to transform into that person, without consulting God on the matter, I am turning this ideal into an idol. Not to mention that this sort goal-oriented self improvement never works for me.

I have this idea in my head that if I can be all the good qualities in the world at once, I will be happy and perfect and who I’m supposed to be. But other than that being impossible, if that was what God really wanted he would have made us all the same. And he didn’t. Even the heroes of the Bible that are spoken of in the most glowing terms not only had weaknesses, but they also often had wildly different personalities; some bold, some timid, some patient, some impetuous. God made us different ways so he can use us in different ways, both in our unique strengths and our individual weaknesses. God shows himself at least as much, if not more, through our weaknesses.

Of course we should all desire to be more like him, but no one finite person can ever encompass the infinite. And instead of my choosing which qualities I think I should have to best reflect him, perhaps I should let him take care of that. Despite all the things I don’t particularly like about myself or wish were different, he made me like this for a reason. Some of my qualities he may use directly, some he may transform or change so that he can be glorified, and some I may just need to struggle with to learn a greater dependence on him. And I need to remember that he knew who I was supposed before I even existed:

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”

-Psalm 139:13-16

Nothing about me is incidental or accidental. The is a purpose to even my deepest flaw and I have something to learn from everything about myself. Whether it is how to use a gift I have been ignoring or how to overcome an obstacle I have been dealing with my whole life, I am not meant just to toss aside my whole personality and attempt to remake myself in some image that I think is what would please God. That is me trying to control things again. There is nothing I can do to be more pleasing to God; he made me in the way that pleases him the most. Attempting to dictate that is the worst kind of arrogance. It is not for me to decide what God is to make of my life and my faith.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:6


On Consistency and Change July 19, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Faith Journey, Fears, Heart Condition, Lies, Lifescripts, Peace, Struggles.
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Consistency. As evidenced by the fact that this blog has not been updated in more than a month, I am not a terribly consistent person. Oh, I know a lot of people have trouble keeping up blogs. But my inconsistency extends to every area of my life. I seem incapable of being on a regular schedule for more than four days a row of anything. Eating well, exercising, keeping the house clean, going to bed at a certain time, reading the Bible, keeping up with friends, staying on top of work. I can’t even manage to drink my cup of tea every morning.

Trying harder doesn’t work. Resolutions seem to have the opposite effect on me – as soon as I’ve made one my mind instantly starts looking for reasons to break it. I’ve tried schedules, promises, accountability, even just letting go and seeing if things will happen naturally. They don’t, I just waste my time with frivolous things that don’t even entertain much. And on the days when I manage to get it together to actually do things the way I have hoped, something invariably throws a wrench in the process. This morning I managed to haul myself out of bed early, pack a lunch and clothes, put on my workout gear, and hop on the bike to head to work – only to discover a flat front tire. And of course then my mind goes, “Well, I guess I’m not biking this week either.”

I am a self-sabotaging machine. My powers of procrastination and rationalization know no bounds. Not to mention my amazing ability to second-guess myself. Worries about what I should have done in a particular scenario often derail any plans I have to be productive for the rest of the day. My fear of failure often prevents me from trying to do things I want in the first place, and my insecurity takes care of the rest if I do manage to start on something.

I write this not in an attempt to make anyone feel sorry for me, but because I need to be realistic about who I am, and who I have been. I have bought deeply into the lie that if I can just get on a schedule, if I can just complete the to-do list, follow the plan, keep the resolutions, or eat a balanced breakfast then my life will suddenly be okay. If I have the right workout clothes then I will run five miles everyday (never mind that 2 miles is my limit on a good day). If I lose some weight then I will not be depressed and have the energy to look for a better job. If I find a better job I can move away from here and everything will be better and none of my problems will follow me – I’ll be a new person.

And of course these lies are so effective because they are partially true. I will have more energy and feel healthier with exercise, sleep, and a good diet. New Jersey is not a very nice place to live and I probably would feel better elsewhere. Completing the to-do list is pretty satisfying, and losing weight is a total ego boost.

But despite the miraculous power of a good night’s sleep and a balanced breakfast, none of this will truly make me different or better or even fundamentally happier. I will still be the same person with many of the same problems, even if their outward manifestations change or go underground for awhile. And the harder I try to change before my ultimate failure the worse I feel about myself when it inevitably happens. This all combines in a perfect storm to paralyze me in all possible ways. No spiritual growth because I’m too busy striving on my own. None of the personal or household projects I start get completed. I skate by at work due mainly to the facts that there are a lot of people lazier than I am and that I know what my boss likes to to hear. Looking for a new job falls by the wayside. I become ineffective in nearly every way, and even the days where I manage to feel productive, it usually is more of working just to not fall further behind as opposed to any real progress.

Of course I know I cannot change myself. Only God can change me. I would never dare to say that I am in control of my life, that I can save myself from this hole I am in. And yet my actions say differently. My true beliefs are evident in the way I live my life. I strive and plan and hope and try and fail. I give lip-service to God, but I don’t let him into my life in a way that would let him do any actual damage. In fact, outward appearances indicate that I neither trust God with my life nor have any real desire to leave my cozy little rut.

Two things have happened recently that have made me think about this. One is that my growing dissatisfaction with life is reaching a breaking point where I am so desperate for a change that I am willing to try anything, even letting go of my control. And the other is recently witnessing the consequences in a life when too much control is held on to and not enough room is left for God to speak or move. If we don’t give him room to work in our lives, he will make the room himself and that may be much a more difficult way to learn the lesson for all concerned.

So what I can do? I can swear to read 5 chapters of the Bible a day. Buy several Christian books on having a closer relationship with God. Institute a series of rules for myself to keep me from trying to run my life too closely. Set a firm 1 hour quiet time and journal at least 8 pages a night. Of course, that is exactly what I always do. Not only is that counter to what I am trying to accomplish (the idea that I can control my spiritual growth through willpower is laughable), but it won’t work. I’ll do it for a day or two, I’ll have a bad day and decide I don’t feel like it, and then it won’t happen again. And then I’ll feel like a failure again.

I think the real answer has been spoken to me three times this week – once I even said it myself. I have been dealing with some of my issues with being part of the evangelical church and debating whether to get involved in a particular ministry. I told the leader that I need to wait and “be still” for awhile. I said it almost flippantly, as a way to avoid voicing my real concerns. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. A dear friend who knows my struggles asked me if I could put aside all my fears and worries and disagreements with the church and just come and be still in the presence of God. And then the pastor, when addressing the serving teams before the service said, apropos of nothing else in the sermon, that the verse he had for us today was “Be still and know that He is God”. I did an actual double-take when he said that.

I am remarkably bad at being still. Oh, I can laze around with the best of them but I am rarely “still”. Stillness is a frame of mind which I do not possess very often. I read, put on TV or music, talk to a friend online. Anything to distract myself from the thoughts in my own head. If I am praying it is for something specific and I don’t leave any time to listen to the answers or anything else that might be said to me. I am the queen of distraction. Thanks to the internet, my own ADD nature, and a habit of avoidance, I have developed an attention span of approximately 12 seconds at the best of times.

So if there is one thing I need to do, it is that. Just to be still. To be quiet. To pray for the ability to be still and quiet because I cannot even do that on my own. Because I don’t have any more ideas on how to make my life better. I cannot resolve my own questions about the church and my place in it. I cannot figure out on my own what God wants from me. There is not a single thing I can I do to change myself other than to stop all of the trying and be still. And I know I don’t even have the power to do that on my own right now.

Quote of the Day: June 16th June 16, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Peace, Quote of the Day, Struggles.
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Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee. All things pass; God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.

– Teresa of Avila.

On keeping a soft heart June 13, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Fears, Heart Condition, Struggles, Trust.
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Some weeks back at church the speaker talked about not allowing one’s heart to be hardened. Honestly, that is all I remember about the sermon that week because God spoke to me so loudly and forcefully when he said that that I was deafened to anything that came after.

Hardening my heart is something that I struggle with to an incredible degree. Or rather, too often, I don’t struggle with it  – I allow myself to to take the easy way out, to put up the walls, to disengage when things start to get difficult or intense. I often regret this, feeling the wash of emotion and remorse much later when I realize how callous my immediate reaction may have been. Sometimes I am able to remedy this and clarify what I really meant to say or do; often I just feel bad and guilty and this makes me more resistant to allowing myself to be effected in the future.

Not that I am a cold person by nature, or even in most of my daily interactions. I am usually friendly and outgoing. But I grew up with an extremely emotional parent who had a distinct lack of boundaries so I learned to put my own up hard and fast. My sense of humor is sarcastic and teasing. And I’ve felt the injury many times in the past when I put my heart out there for all to see and faced rejection or ridicule.

The Bible mentions various times people’s hearts were hardened and the results are never good. Death, destruction, turning away from God. The author of Hebrews alone begs the readers four times to not harden their hearts to God. When we do this we leave no room for God to work on us, to change us. We have no pity, compassion, or empathy for other people around us. We close ourselves off to grace and to love, which is the currency of God’s relationship with us.

It’s a scary thing if you think about it. God will continue to love us, continue to call us, continue to send us events and people in our lives to soften our hearts and bring us back to Him. But He also gave us free will. He does not force us to love Him. And if we truly, obstinately close ourselves off from Him, He will let us go our own way. Not that He ever abandons us, but we may find that our hearts have becomes so hard that we no longer know how to get back to Him, that we can not even bring ourselves to call out to Him anymore.

That is an extreme case of course, but it helps to remind myself how dangerous it is to just automatically throw up those walls when I am confronted with a painful topic, a negative interaction, or a frightening truth about what God might want from my life. My heart is not dead; I still feel things very deeply. But am an expert at dodging those unpleasant feelings, deflecting them, and skirting subjects I know are likely to make me feel too poignantly. And I’ve noticed over the past few years I do it more and more often. My fear is that one day I will discover that I am incapable of dealing with any of those thoughts and feelings at all anymore.

So what does it mean to keep my heart soft?  I think right now it means heading towards the pain and towards the joy. I am often embarrassed by outward displays of extreme emotion – I don’t like other people to see when I am deeply moved by things. I’m far more comfortable in writing, telling how I feel with words rather than showing it in person. And even then I often underplay the depth of what I am feeling, or, often, trying not too feel too strongly.

When I find myself turning away from something, be it a thought or a feeling or a prayer or an interaction, I need to stop myself and analyze why. Why don’t I want to talk to God about this area in my life that I’m struggling with? Is it because I know I need to change something? Am I avoiding this person because I know we have unresolved issues and I’m afraid we start talking I will find out how much I hurt her? Do I not want to talk about that topic because I know it will force me to think about my faith and my life in a way I’m not comfortable with? Do I not want to listen to that music that I know I love because it fills me with such joy and such longing that I don’t know how to handle or express it, and fear that I will never truly be that happy in this life?

Every time I harden my heart like that, I lose a chance for God to do something in my life. Not that He can’t still ever use me, but when He gives me an open door and I turn and walk the other way something is still lost there. Sometimes I may have another chance, but sometimes that particularly opportunity is lost forever. And each time it gets a little more difficult to keep myself open to the next set of chances. The hardness gets a little more ingrained because, frankly, it’s so much easier than the risk and the pain and the longing.

But the only chance I have is to fight when my heart wants to shut down. To run towards whatever it is that I am avoiding, whatever I think is too difficult or painful or scary and pray for God to help me to keep my heart open even if it is going to be pierced. To feel the empathy with a friend who is going through a hard time so that I can cry with her, to be convicted in my life so I can change the things that are wrong, to feel the joy or the sadness or the longing and let it draw me closer to the heart of Christ, to face the difficult questions even if they move me away from my comfort zone.

It is natural to want to protect ourselves from that which is hurtful. But sometimes the instinct of self-preservation really just prevents us from growing and receiving what is good in the long run. So I will be praying for a soft heart, an open heart. And when the slings and arrows come, as they do, I pray that I will have the courage to trust God to turn them to good, to use them for my betterment and for His glory.