Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Overcoming the Feeling "I Am Not (Doing) Enough"

It is probably safe to say that humans regularly compare themselves with one another. We wonder, for example, if we are as happy, good looking, physically fit, smart, or successful as those around us. We've likely been doing this since the beginning of our existence. Yet, it seems in our time we have endless opportunities to compare ourselves with others.

One obvious place we see this is social media. The early Instagram influencer Tavi Gevinson is a case in point. In a 2019 piece for New York Magazine, she writes, "Who would I be without Instagram? The fact that it's impossible to parse its exact influence on me indicates that it runs deep." While she seems to admit that her identity was wrapped up in her Instagram appearance, she later laments how it began to affect her. Comparing herself to others and competing with fellow influencers started to become all-consuming.

"With Instagram, self-defining and self-worth-measuring spilled over into the rest of the day, eventually becoming my default mode. If I received conflicting views of my worth or, looking at other people's accounts, disparate ideas about how to live, the influx of information could lead to a kind of panic spiral. I would keep scrolling as though the cure for how I felt was at the bottom of my feed."

We might say that Tavi Gevinson struggled with losing sight of a proper "horizon" for evaluating herself.

Horizons sometimes make me think of a kind of artistic work called a "relief." Reliefs are often crafted from sheets of metal or panels of stone, consisting of a flat background against which various other figures, images, and scenes "stand out." In nature, the horizon functions similarly. It is the background against which everything else stands out.

The idea of a horizon provides a great analogy for analyzing and evaluating things, especially in a moral way. Is something good? Is something bad? Well, it depends on the background assumptions you take for granted about what makes a thing good, or an action bad. The answers are not always clear in a black and white sense. Lollipops are good when viewed against the horizon of tastiness. But eating lollipops could be considered bad when viewed against the horizon of dental hygiene and diet. Maintaining a well-manicured lawn -- often a quintessential American value in suburbia -- is good considered against the horizon of contributing to the beauty of one's neighborhood. But obsessing over one's yard by competing for the best-looking lawn with one's neighbors, when considered against the horizon that envy and jealousy breed hostility and overall poor mental health, is bad.

Consider mommy blogs as another example of a space for comparison and competitiveness. This time, the domain is parenting. Mommy blogs (where moms blog about their kids, home-making, family life, and more) are an easy place to see captivatingly curated images of the perfect kitchen, homeschooling space, or living room. There are also stories of moms whose kids are "making memories," so just ignore that the house is a mess.

Parenting has long been one of those places in our lives where comparison and competitiveness are rampant. Of course, we should assume that parents just want to be good parents. But the horizon used to determine what constitutes "good" parenting is the troubling element behind the score-keeping that's silently happening in the parenting world. Many parents feel the threat of judgment so deeply that they, like Tavi Gevinson, easily find themselves feeling lost and without direction (however frantically busy they might be).

Life in a pandemic offers other examples. On top of already feeling stress or grief, there seem to be people who are living their best life now (in quarantine), and their humble-bragging easily makes us feel guilty for being stressed, frustrated, lonely, angry, or filled with grief. They appear to have it all together, making us wonder, "What's wrong with me?"

We can call them the quarantine over-achievers. There are all kinds of stories of people accomplishing seemingly remarkable feats despite lockdowns and dread. Huge projects that have been put off for months are suddenly getting done, all while working-from-home and acting as homeschooling teacher/parent. Others are proudly announcing how many masks they've sewn while simultaneously maintaining a strenuous workout routine (and losing weight) along with cooking three well-balanced meals per day for the whole family.

Over-achievers, even during normal times, appear to live pristine lives. We feel exhausted just reading about all they have done or seeing their perfect pictures, shining like trophies in the modern ecology of virtual showcases where curating our image and controlling perception is the key to a happy life based on the right amount of attention and affirmation.

Over-achievement, or at least the appearance of such, has moral value according to a certain horizon. The imperative of this moral horizon -- the relief against which we evaluate our lives -- is the demand to be interesting, to garner attention and affirmation. Just think of the way that the beer brand Dos Equis creates entertaining advertisements by subtly holding up the exemplar of the "most interesting man in the world." We imbibe the message even if we don't drink the beer. We look to others for approval all the time.

This can be healthy, of course. Children need approval from their parents and caregivers. Students need approval from teachers, mentors, and coaches. Employees need approval from their bosses. All of this leads to resilience and good mental health.

Yet there are ways we can pursue attention and affirmation that are not beneficial. This is true when, for example, we seek approval in an ultimate sense. In these moments, we aren't simply asking if the things we have or do are good. Rather we seek to answer the question, "Am I good?" The signal that we broadcast calling others to "look at all I've accomplished" is meant to generate evaluations of goodness and righteousness concerning our very being.

In the seemingly never-ending dance of comparison and competitiveness, many of us are left feeling like we are not doing enough. Whether we're "broadcasting" ourselves or not, it's difficult to escape what sociologist Donna Freitas calls "the happiness effect." Freitas worries that constantly comparing ourselves with others, wondering whether our lives are as amazing, happy, and successful as theirs doesn't actually breed more happiness, but rather its opposites: depression, anxiety, sadness, and guilt.

Because we are not like the famous Instagrammers, over-achievers, or superhero-parents, it's easy to conclude that our lives are not good enough. And since our sense of self is caught up in these moral horizons of personal evaluation, we end up feeling, at our core, that we are not enough.

It is as if being enough is what we are all really chasing. And we get caught up in the various implicit moral horizons against which we measure ourselves. We cannot really say where these standards come from or if they are even legitimate. Often, they seem arbitrary. But we are nevertheless driven by them because others are also driven by them. If we want to measure up, if we want to be enough, we feel as if we must operate in accord with the cultural imperatives we find around us. Only then, do we think, will others see us as enough, and maybe, just maybe, we will also feel like we are enough.
But how can anybody be enough amid a pandemic?

Consider the circumstances. We're up against an incredibly contagious, invisible disease that is killing at a rate much higher than the modern world has known for at least a century. And even with our technological advancements over the last one hundred years, all we can really do is hope that treatments or vaccines will arrive somewhere in the near (but not near enough) future. So we're left with mitigating practices, most of which are meant to protect us and others as best they can from exposure and to prevent our healthcare system's critical response centers from being overwhelmed.

We hope for a cure. We're anxiously awaiting whatever gets us back to "normal." We long for the comfort of the way that it was.

Yet, all along we still feel as if we're not doing enough, not handling our new reality well enough. And so we don't feel like we are enough. But what if our measure, our horizon for what counts as enough, is off?

What if I told you that you are enough when you merely observe social/physical distancing guidelines because in doing so, you are serving your neighbor and your family by preventing exposure and contributing to reduced taxation of the healthcare system? What if I told you that it is enough when you are staying at home and just keeping up with the things that you can maintain -- getting your work done, keeping your kids fed, maintaining your household?

What if I told you that schemes of comparison and competitiveness function as horizons that use false hierarchies, and that you need not do anything more to be enough? What if I told you that your perception of another person's life won't help you determine an answer to the question, "Am I enough?" To answer that question, we need an evaluative point of view that stands outside the relief of merely human activity, a perspective that sets all that activity against a more significant background.

What if I told you this: You are already enough.

Why?

Because God sees you. You stand out against His evaluative horizon.

He sees that you're trying to faithfully work from home, teach your children, follow the social distancing guidelines, not hoard groceries, get a little exercise, not watch too much of the news, and not worry too much. God sees that you're trying to do what you can. God sees that you're concerned about protecting others. God knows that you want to make a difference, but He wants you to know that simply staying home is actually enough.

Through staying home and everything else you're doing, God is at work in you to serve those around you. It might be so ordinary that it doesn't feel like it, but it's true, nevertheless. This might sound strange, since many of us feel like we're doing little and could/should be doing more. Yet, based on all the best information we have, sitting tight at home and meeting your responsibilities to those with whom you're in relationship -- that's your calling right now. And it is enough.

This is true despite how poorly you might think you're doing in handling the circumstances of this pandemic. If you're more anxious than you feel like you should be; if you've yelled at your kids more than you want to admit; if you're not proud of how much you've been binging on Netflix; if you've found yourself thinking it's wine-o'clock earlier and earlier -- none of this determines how God sees you. In your failings and temptations, missteps and weak moments, God sees you with empathy and love.

Because God sees you, YOU are enough. Not because of the things you're doing (or not doing). Not because of anything about you at all. Rather, YOU are enough because God sees you. And in seeing you, He sees Jesus, who gave His life for you. And that's what makes you enough. Being enough isn't earned. It is given. Not by the attentive masses with whom you compare yourself, but by your Creator. And that's the only opinion that really matters when it comes to the evaluative horizon by which it is determined that we are enough. God says so.

Christians call this grace. Grace is defined most simply as unmerited favor. It's yours for Jesus' sake.

So take a rest in this grace. Breathe. Imagine yourself as God sees you -- He sees you all the time, like a parent full of love but in an unimaginably greater way. This gift of grace can be a gift of rest. You can rest confidently here, aware of your true status -- you are enough.

Written by Chad Lakies

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Hope

"I hope it doesn't rain during the picnic tomorrow." "I hope their marriage works out." "I hope this new year is a good one." "I hope she forgives me." "I hope the last second three-point shot goes in!"

You don't have to go far in life to hear people using the word "hope." In that sense, hope is an everyday human occurrence. But hope is also a central part of the Christian experience -- a virtue that Christians celebrate and pray for and sing about. So what's so different about Christian hope?

Christians have all the same kinds of hope that everybody does -- hope that our children will do well, that our lives will be long and healthy, that we will do meaningful work that makes a difference in the world. Who doesn't hope for those things? But we have another kind of hope, too -- a hope that the rest of the world is likely to consider foolish, like believing in fairytales. And maybe "fairytale" is the best way to approach it, because what Christians hope for is pretty much the granddaddy of all "happily ever after" stories.

Christians look around at the world just as everybody does, and we see that there are a lot of problems. Okay, that's an understatement. Try a lot of evil, and some real horrors, too. We live in a world where babies die, where people we love get cancer, where our relationships break up, where we lose jobs and our homes get foreclosed, and where we become victims of rape and theft and murder. Yes, there's still a lot of good in the world, and we appreciate that. But some days the horrible stuff is just overwhelming. Some days, all you want to do is go back to bed and wait for the day to be over.

But Christians believe that God has promised it's not always going to be this way. Hard as it is to believe (even for us, even for me -- I'm a natural pessimist myself!), the Bible promises us that someday, there will be no more evil. No more crime. No more suffering. No more horrors. No more death.

I'm talking about the end of the world, when we believe that Christ will return and all evil will be finally and totally wiped out. Christians believe this will happen suddenly, at a time people don't expect. God will judge the world and put an end to all terrors, all horrors, and all evil, and the whole creation, including humanity, will be restored to what it was originally meant to be -- good and wonderful. And so we look forward to the time Jesus' follower John described:

"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.' And He (Jesus) who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.' Also He said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true'" (Revelation 21:3-5).

So Christians have an "ultimate" hope, if you will, because of this coming day on the horizon when God will put things to rights. But that doesn't mean we'll end up in a boring cloud-filled place where people sit around and strum harps all day! The comics really do a pretty poor job of describing what Christians hope for. No, in this new reality we're talking about, we believe that the good things will still be here: variety, creativity, interest, happiness, pleasure, joy. We think that there will be interesting things to do and people to love. We think there will be challenges -- chances to stretch ourselves and become ever more what God originally intended for us to be. Basically, we are looking for all of the upside, but none of the downside ... crazy as that may sound. Knowing that this is our future gives us hope.

This can lead to some really bizarre sounding conversations among Christians: "Oh, well, it's only death," said one person. Another, at a funeral for a loved one, said, "At least, she's okay now" (meaning the person who had died). It might sound weird, but they really mean it.

There's also an aspect to Christian hope that has more to do with the present -- today even! Christians believe in a God who actively loves everything He has made, including humanity, and is working to heal and restore it. His work may seem subtle, or be hard to see, or come through ordinary things like the people around us or the words in the Bible. But for all its subtlety, Christians believe God's work in the world through His Spirit is very real and very powerful.

This means we have a different perspective on the challenges we face in this life. Even during rough times we know the character of the God we are trusting with everything that matters most to us. We know that He is trustworthy, and we believe that He is loving. So even in the hardest times, we are confident that He will watch over us and be with us. And that is a kind of "today" hope.

So Christians have both an "ultimate" hope and a "today" hope. And that robust kind of hope gives us the courage and peace to continue on. Hope makes a real difference in giving us the courage to get out of bed and walk through the ups and downs of our days and the ups and downs of our lives.

Written by the THRED team

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Making Decisions in a Time of Panic

The other day my youngest (toddler) daughter hurt herself while playing outside. My wife and I weren't immediately sure how bad she had hurt herself, but certain indications made us wonder if we needed urgent care or possibly a visit to the emergency room. But this decision was suddenly more complex than it was a few weeks ago.

The current pandemic has caused many of us to face the process of making decisions differently. What used to take little thought is now more complicated because our decisions are haunted by different priorities.

As a parent, when your child is hurt, a flood of emotions and reactivity happen almost instantaneously. You're scooping them up and trying to discern what's wrong. If it looks bad, you're trying with all your might not to panic, so as not to exacerbate the experience for your child. And at the same time you're trying to respond with appropriate care. Oftentimes, just a snuggle and some reassurance is all that's required. At other times, the decision about appropriate care is not so clear.

Faced with waiting it out or pursuing immediate care, my wife and I also had to weigh whether or not we should endanger her (and ourselves) by visiting these spaces where others with COVID-19 might also be. Was her injury bad enough for us to consider facing an additional risk? It's hard to keep a cool head when your child is hurt. It seems like it takes nearly as much energy not to panic as it does to respond properly to your child's need.

Thankfully, my daughter's injury didn't require immediate care. But it took my wife and I longer to come to that conclusion than it would have a short time ago. Our decision was more difficult and more deliberate.

Decisions Can Be Complicated

Other decisions are complicated too. We're hearing about possible meat shortages due to temporary closure of meat-processing plants. Does that mean we should run out and (over-) stock up? Perhaps meat seems more important than toilet paper, which was the panic-buy item of choice at the beginning of all this. We might think that we can't store as much meat as toilet paper. Or we might think, "Wow, all that stocking up on toilet paper was pretty silly," so we're cautious about repeating the same pattern with meat. Yet, just the knowledge of a possible meat shortage might motivate us to rush out and buy whatever we can, while we can, just to be sure we have some if there's actually a shortage.

I know a couple in their 60s, one of whom has a father that would be in the very high-risk category if he were to contract COVID-19 due to chronic respiratory issues. His wife who is a capable, yet elderly caregiver faces mounting challenges in helping her husband in daily routines. So this couple was torn about visiting to check in, and if needed, to help out. Two months ago, this decision would revolve around convenience and availability. "Is now a good time to come over? Great. We'll see you soon." Now however, it is a decision made with the knowledge that serious risk might be involved. Furthermore, the engagement had to be limited: they wore masks; they could not share a hug; each couple sat a safe distance from the other.

Making decisions in a time of pandemic, a time where decision making can easily lead to panic, confusion, and possibly grave mistakes (often unintentionally), is exhausting.

Overtaxed by a Pandemic

One of the reasons is because we are used to making decisions based on memory. What did we do last time we were in a situation like this? The answer provides significant guidance for what we will do this time. Yet, because we are in new territory, there is no memory to lean back on. Researchers say that decision making amid the pandemic has increased our cognitive load. That is, thinking about what to do in a lot of situations has become more taxing on our mental capacity.

We are prone, as Daniel Kahneman would say, to think "fast" about most things we have to make decisions about. But in our present moment, we are forced to make more decisions while thinking "slow." Kahneman is one of the most well-known psychologists in the world. A Nobel Prize winner for his research on decision making, Kahneman equates "thinking fast" with something like automaticity.

To help us imagine it, consider your hands typing an email on a keyboard. Thinking fast, or automaticity, is the part of our thinking that silently notices we've mistyped a word and reacted by moving a finger to begin fixing the error before we are consciously aware of the movement itself. We just do it "without thinking" as it were (at least, not in a way we are consciously aware of). Similarly, putting your foot on the brake when you see brake lights in front of you is a "thinking fast" reaction. It just happens.

Thinking fast, if we imagine it as a kind of automaticity, means that there are many things for which we can reserve the deliberate part of our thinking. "Thinking slow" is what we do as we ponder the reflections on that podcast we're listening to while we drive or go for a run. Thinking slow is what we do while our fingers are doing the typing. The automatic movement of our fingers creates a space for our mind to spend more energy on expressing the sentences we are trying to craft.

Thinking slow is what that couple was doing as they carefully decided to proceed with the visit, yet remaining cautious and mitigating risks as much as possible. My wife and I thought slow as we debated the best kind of care for our daughter.

Yet, when our cognitive load is too high, our automatic thinking is stressed and too much of our thinking is pushed into "thinking slow." At the same time, thinking fast starts to become more error prone. Perhaps this is why we've seen panic-buying of meat and toilet paper, hand sanitizer and rubber gloves. Maybe that's why we feel so exhausted making decisions about ordinary parts of our life (e.g., grocery shopping). The dramatic turn of events means we have to approach them in remarkably new ways.

Decision making is also challenged by how we prioritize things, as I noted above concerning our decision about care for our daughter. The philosopher James K. A. Smith has convincingly argued that "You are what you love, but you might not love what you think." Sometimes it's hard to know where our priorities lie and where our commitments rest. Our appetites are a great example. We might say to another person that we're very health-conscious (and we might truly believe that we are), but when no one is looking, we're thoughtlessly munching on potato chips or choosing the leftover piece of cake over eating an apple. (Guilty as charged!)

Smith's point is that our choices -- what we actually decide to do -- have a powerful capacity to reveal our true commitments -- the things that we really love -- and therefore, in a way, to reveal our identity. Nevertheless, since we often make these choices by "thinking fast," grasping what is revealed by our choices requires some slow reflection.

Wisdom to Guide Us

If Smith is right and our priorities affect our choices, and if we all (presumably) want to make good choices, where can we find wisdom to guide us? What might be the best priorities that produce the best choices, the best decision making?

There's some ancient wisdom that suggests we should "not lean on our own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5). Rather, we are to place our trust elsewhere. Such a suggestion, however, is challenging to a central commitment of our time, which recommends the very thing we ought to lean on is our own understanding, and even more, our own convictions and our own feelings. Look inside, we are constantly told. There, you will find truth and wisdom.

While teaching college students for most of the last decade, I noticed two things. First, they wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves and make an impact on the world. Second, by the time they were sitting in my courses, they had yet to receive any real guidance on how to do either of those things. As much as they wanted to believe the dominant exhortation to trust your feelings and treat your own inner voice as sacrosanct, they were starting to question that apparent wisdom. It didn't really help them figure out how to aim their life, to leave a mark, to make an impact on others and the world.

They were beginning to recognize a contradiction. Making a difference might actually require focusing one's attention externally, on the needs of others and the world, rather than trusting in one's own feelings and leaning on one's own understanding. Sitting in a college classroom, they were opening up to the possibility that wisdom, knowledge, truth, and beauty might best be found outside themselves.

So I tried to help. I pointed them to the One who made the world. He is also their Creator. I suggested that perhaps He made them for a purpose. And we discussed what that purpose might be.

They were also interested in exemplars. Since a substantial amount of our learning comes through imitation, searching for exemplars is natural. So I introduced them to a guy whose name they recognized, but about whom they didn't know much. His Name is Jesus. He has famously been called the "man for others."

The stories of Jesus in the Bible reveal Him to be someone who submitted to an agenda other than His own. Instead, Jesus is an exemplar of one who would, as the Proverb cited above continues, "trust in the Lord with all His heart," and who would "in all His ways acknowledge (the Lord)" (Proverbs 3:5-6). He said of Himself that He came to do the will of (God) the Father. (See John 6:38.)

Because He submitted perfectly to the will of God the Father, the Bible attributes the greatest status to Him -- the Son of God. The Father's agenda was to save all humanity through a sacrifice that paid for our sins. Jesus did that for us by giving His life. His death and subsequent resurrection changed history. Talk about leaving a mark on the world!

When my wife and I had to make that decision about our daughter, we were thankful that we didn't have to lean entirely on our own understanding. Of course, we have always trusted in God. But God often provides ordinary ways to help us in life. In this case, we called my brother-in-law, who is a physician. He helped us to patiently consider the situation in order to make the best decision. His understanding, which we leaned on far more than our own, was helpful. Our daughter only had to endure a little soreness for a few days, but was otherwise fine.

There's a promise attached to that ancient Proverb we've been discussing. It describes that anyone who would do what Jesus did -- trusting in the Lord and acknowledging Him -- for that person "(the Lord) will make all your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:7) Of course, the meaning of "straight" here isn't necessarily "easy," "happy," or "successful." It may be none of these. Nevertheless, this should not surprise us, especially if we are not to lean on our own understanding. After all, only our own understanding would likely expect "straight" to mean "easy," "happy," or "successful."

Instead, it means entrusting yourself fully into the agenda of another, your Creator, who created you to be like His Son, the "man for others." Were these to be our priorities, our decision making would more and more conform to the ways of wisdom, as God promises in another place, saying, "the (proper reverence or acknowledgement) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7). This is true in times of pandemic, in times of panic, and in all other times.

Trust in Him. Acknowledge Him. Confess your sins and failures to Him. Commit your decision making to Him.

He will make your paths straight and lead you toward wisdom.

Written by Chad Lakies

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy, right? After all, the right to the "pursuit of happiness" is written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence! Why else do we throw so much money at toys, at amusement, at relationships, at experiences ranging from helicopter skiing to dog sledding? Why spend so much time constructing miniature railroad worlds, building enormous Lego landmarks, or fishing every possible weekend!? Because these things make us happy, of course.

At least for a while.

But happiness doesn't last, does it? It's sort of like the weather. It's one thing today, but it's different tomorrow: "Chili today, hot tamale," as the saying goes. And if you try to hang onto it, it just melts away. Chasing it doesn't work very well either. We think we know what's going to make us happy. And sometimes we even get it, and it does work for a while. But then the magic disappears, and we're searching again.

That's because happiness is often based on circumstances. Since everything in our lives changes, our level of happiness changes, too. Contentment is related to happiness, but it's less flighty. It's based more on our attitude. A person can be content even in circumstances that many other people would find unpleasant.

Contentment is what we call the feeling of having enough: of being peaceful and at rest in our circumstances, even though they may not be as good as we'd like them to be. In the Bible, the apostle Paul wrote that "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11b-13).

Paul had what anybody would call an adventurous and difficult life. He was shipwrecked a number of times, met with fierce opposition to his message, stoned, thrown into prison, but yet he had this contentment. You could say he was happy, even in really bad circumstances. It was enough for him, and his mind was at rest. Now that's contentment.

Our modern world doesn't really promote contentment. In fact, much of our advertising seems to have the goal of stirring up discontentment, making people unhappy with themselves, with their circumstances, and what they have. This can work as a stimulus for us to buy more of whatever the advertiser is selling. And how often we fall for it! This might be why some people tell us to unplug for a while: turn off the TV, ditch the cellphone, step away from the computer and the tablet, and just breathe. Nobody can buy their way to contentment.

And then there's joy. Most of us know joy. It's that flash of delight that goes way deeper than ordinary happiness, that says something truly amazing and awesome has happened, something that changes everything for us. For me that flash of joy came when they told me I was pregnant after years of trying. For other people it might come when they get a new job, when they propose marriage and the other person says "yes," when they finally graduate from years of study, when they make a great discovery. "This changes everything," is what joy says. "Life is wonderful forever."

And joy, like contentment, can be lasting. I remember the joy I had when I went into physical therapy and they discovered one leg was shorter than another. An insert in my shoe, and bam! I was walking without pain for the first time in many years. It's been months now, and every so often I still smile at how things have improved in this regard.

This was a real joy for me. It changed everything. It still does.

In the same way, I look at my baby, now sixteen years old and a cranky teenager, and I smile because he exists! I have a son! He's awesome! (Well, most of the time he is.) His existence gives me joy, and that joy lasts, even when I'm angry with him or unhappy about some other issue in the family. Still, deep down, there is that joy. He exists, and this changes everything.

For Christians, there is another Source of even more reliable joy, and that is Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is God Himself. He chose to become a human being because He saw the mess our world was in, and He knew we needed help. He loved human beings. He couldn't hold back. So He lived among us, served, suffered, and died, because that was the only way He could defeat the power of evil and death in this world.

And then He rose from the dead. This was not some sort of ghost or zombie, but He was really alive again: like everybody's most desperate wish fulfilled. He promises that He will raise us from the dead, too, giving eternal life to all who believe in Him as Lord and Savior. And in the meantime, we have Him with us every day, loving us, guiding us, showing us the way we should go and helping when we get ourselves into a mess.

This is true joy for Christians. It runs deep in our spirits, no matter what sadness or trouble or grief is troubling us at the moment. That current of joy is down deep at the bottom. It's because we have Jesus, and no one can take Him away from us, not even death. This changes everything.

Written by the THRED team

Where are you on the happiness spectrum lately? Do you know a joy that remains with you, even when things could get you down? This world can bring some happiness, but it sure is fleeting. Even the best of times slip through our fingers before we know it.

You can let us know what you think about happiness in this world by clicking here and leaving a comment.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Fear

The horror writer H. P. Lovecraft says that "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." While I'd disagree that fear is the strongest emotion, it's surely one of the strongest. What else can get your heart racing (and your feet pounding!) the way fear does?

This must be why we're all interested in getting rid of our fearful feelings. Anything that promises to make fear less -- fearful? -- is going to get a lot of attention. And there are many ways of coping with fear out there.

Let's start with the easier ones. It's possible to get rid of some fears (or at least to tone them down) through psychotherapy. A good counselor, drugs, or both, can do a lot to take the sting out of certain fears -- especially ones that are irrational or overblown. There are exercises you can do to take down your fear level, step by step.

Other fearful feelings you can deal with by planning ways to avoid the thing feared or else finding ways to minimize their impact. For example, if you have a fear of catching the flu, you can get a flu vaccine, stay out of crowds, and wash your hands a lot. If you are afraid of having a car accident, you can take professional driving lessons to become the best driver you can be. If you fear darkness, you can install nightlights and motion sensors.

So far, so undisputable. You probably knew all this already! The real problem comes when we're dealing with things that really are scary -- rational fears -- and they're the kind of thing you can't avoid, no matter what you do. Examples would be pain, betrayal, loss, serious illness, and the biggie, death. It's totally rational and totally human to be scared of these things -- in fact, we tend to be suspicious of people who claim they are not afraid of them! And these fears eventually become reality for everybody who lives long enough. Nobody gets out of pain or loss. Most often serious illness comes to everybody who doesn't die suddenly first. And no one gets out of this life alive. Well, depending how you look at it ....

Of course, there are always people who think they are exceptions. Some people try to convince themselves that these things are not really scary, but no amount of mental work has managed to erase these fears from humankind. Some try to convince themselves they are going to be the first to avoid them (as in the advertisements which say "if you die" rather than "when you die"), which is ridiculous as it flies in the face of all history and experience. Some people do their darndest not to think about them, either through busy-ness or drinking or drugs or some other distraction. Which only works as long as you keep drinking, stay busy, and so on.

For these real and unavoidable fears, Christians believe that we need God's help. That's because God can do what we can't do -- He can either avert or remodel the experience we're afraid of. For example, the fear of being utterly destroyed -- either of being annihilated or of winding up in hell. That's something God can and does avert. He promises to remove it as a threat altogether -- it's not something those who trust in Him need to worry about anymore. Averted, gone, vanished.

Physical death is a different thing-God normally doesn't avert it altogether, but instead he remodels it. He changes it, so the experience is no longer all about destruction. Instead, it becomes a gateway into His presence -- and He promises to reverse death entirely at the end of the world when He raises people from the dead.

What about experiences like loss and betrayal? Those are also a case of remodeling. As Christians, we're aware that we're still going to suffer them -- belonging to Jesus isn't a "get out of trouble free" card. If anything, it's the reverse; sometimes life gets harder. And yet terrible as such experiences are, they have a different impact on Christians, because God has been at work in us, remodeling the way we think. Losing a loved one is still terribly painful, but it's less fearful when we are sure we're going to see that person again someday. Being betrayed is horrific, but it doesn't have to lead us to doubt our own self-worth the way it once did. This is because our self-worth is now based on our position as God's much-loved people. This makes the fear of betrayal a little bit more manageable.

Basically what God gives us in the face of these scary experiences is a strong rock to stand on -- a safety, a security knowing that He has us in His care. He is still paying attention to us, and no matter what happens, He will stay with us and ultimately bring us out of the experience without us being destroyed. It changes things, knowing you have Someone like that on your side. Have you ever noticed that it is easier to face fear when you have someone with you who cares? God's presence is a major gift He gives to those who trust in Him. We are not alone with our fears, and that makes it easier to bear them.

Written by the THRED Team

What do you think? Has your fear level or the level of fear of those near you been a little on the high side lately. I guess that's what a global pandemic can do.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Self-Control

Self-control is one of those things we all wish we had more of. For a lot of us, it's food; for others, it's video games, or texting, or constantly refreshing Twitter. For some of us, it gets to the point where there's an actual addiction involved, and then our problems get even harder to deal with.

But self-control goes beyond just dealing with temptations to pleasure. Ever try to live with someone who has a hair-trigger temper? Or people who can't seem to control the negative words that come out of their mouths (leading you to look around for the duct tape)? Self-control is what makes living with other people bearable; it's what makes living with ourselves something better than a long string of embarrassments.

So what does Christianity have to say about self-control? Is there anything useful in the Bible for all of us who struggle with this challenge?

Self-control is one of the virtues the Bible says results from God's work in us (see Galatians 5:22-23). In fact, the exact words are "the fruit of the Spirit" (meaning God's Holy Spirit, who lives in everyone who believes in Jesus). Self-control for Christians is both the same and different than how it is for everybody else, because of God's work in our lives.

Let's start with "the same." Like everybody, Christians have desires and needs, impulses and goals, and we need self-control to make all of these things work together in harmony in our lives. Also like everybody else, we all know that we don't have enough self-control. We mess up daily. And so we're all looking for ways to grow in this area.

There are a lot of self-help books and instructions that give good advice on how to develop better self-control, and anybody -- Christian or not -- can benefit from that. But God offers people help that goes beyond "try harder" or "try smarter." Because that advice, however great it is, still leaves us trying to do it on our own. And that's incredibly hard.

But to anybody who is willing, God says, "Let Me help you. Let Me do more than give you advice from the outside. Let Me come and live inside you, within your very being, and remake you into the person you were always meant to be." That's the beginning of an awesome but sometimes painful process that takes the rest of our lives. God's Holy Spirit starts working on different areas of our lives that need help, and they're not always the same areas we want God to focus on right away! And then, sometimes quickly, sometimes with agonizing slowness, He makes changes. And one of these areas is self-control.

"But," you might be asking, "I know plenty of Christians and some of them sure don't look like they have any self-control!" Yes, you're right, and we're sad about that. God offers and creates change, but it's always possible for us to reject what He's doing -- to say "No!" to the change -- to go on in the way we've always done. And some people choose to do that. Others are at the very start of their Christian journey and haven't gotten very far down the road yet. Still others are starting from a point that is so much worse than where you are at the moment, that when you look at their lives, you think they haven't made any progress at all (unless you happen to know the person they used to be).

Or you might wonder, "But isn't it true that my Christian friends just find it easier to control themselves, because they don't have very strong urges? Maybe they're just naturally that way. Maybe X is just a nice person." Um, no (cue laughter here). Christians struggle with exactly the same issues you do, and our urges and temptations are just as strong. It doesn't come naturally to us. But we do have one big thing in our favor; we have God's help. And you can have it, too.

This is why Christians can't really take credit for the times when they do succeed in self-control. It's not really about us. In fact, I stand in awe of some people I know who aren't Christian but who have great self-control. That isn't me, and it never will be me. I need more help. I need God's Holy Spirit. And fortunately, God offers to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks Him (see Luke 11:13).

Written by the THRED Team

Self-control.

During this time of quarantine you may be finding your capacity for self-control stretched to the limits. How are you handling it so far? What do you do to maintain focus and serenity now? What are your problem areas?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Serving

You hear a lot about service these days. Kids have service projects at school, in the Scouts, or through some community youth program. People volunteer for food pantries or soup kitchens over the holidays. Social media has posts about "giving back" or "paying it forward."

But service goes way beyond that. For some people, it becomes a lifestyle. That's what Jesus called us to -- not just to do "projects," but to spend ourselves in caring for others.

It's what He did, after all. It didn't matter to Him what kind of person He was dealing with -- a poor woman, a distraught father, an outcast with a disgusting disease -- He was completely there for them, listening to them, paying attention to what they needed. And then He did what He could to meet those needs, even the ones that never found a voice: the woman's need for a new, better status in the community; the outcast's need not just for healing but for human touch (see John 4; Luke 5:12-15).

We can do that, too -- be in the moment, pay attention to those we're interacting with, meet the needs we can. It's what Jesus calls us to do.

But it's messy. If you open yourself up to human need, you risk getting dragged in to other people's messy lives. And lots of us -- maybe all of us -- don't really want to do that. It's not comfortable. We worry what might be asked of us -- and whether we'll be able to "get out of it" if we want to.

The thing about service is this: people tend to put limits on how far they'll be involved with the people they serve. And that's not bad. We have to have boundaries, or we get worn out and people walk all over us. But most people put those limits up a lot sooner than they need to -- and some amazing things could happen if they'd stretch just a bit further.

Let's take an example. Maybe there's an older man, Ed, who's about to lose his home. Medical bills and late payments have put him on the edge of foreclosure. He's in a panic, because he's never been good at paperwork, and he sure can't afford to hire someone to sort it out.

So you volunteer to look at it. You make a few phone calls, you talk to a social worker friend, you call the bank (with his permission, of course!) You find a solution. Whew! That's good. That's over with. Or is it?

Take a step back and look at your new friend. Actually, he could use a friend -- a real friend -- because he's largely home-bound. Any time the weather gets bad, he's stuck at home. He's got transportation issues. His car is twenty years old and on its last legs. But he hasn't said anything to you about it because he's very proud and independent. He'll take help from a friend -- but not from a mere acquaintance.

Go deeper. Ed is a great guy; he should have loads of friends. But his wife died ten years ago, and his only son is in the military stationed in Germany. Ed's retired, so he doesn't have work friends, and he doesn't go to church. He says hello to his neighbors, but they came here as refugees and don't have much more English than the basics.

Could you spend some time with Ed?

Not as a "service project." Nobody likes to be a project. But as a friend -- as a person you care about and want to spend time with. That's real service -- the kind you do because that's just what you were made to do. It's the kind that, ultimately, you don't even realize you're doing, because it's just who you are. Ed's needs are not the needs of a stranger anymore; they are the needs of your friend. And so naturally you do what you can.

This is the kind of life Jesus lived. This is the kind of life He calls His followers to. And God forgive us, there's plenty of proof that Christians don't always live this way. But we can. We can try. Because meeting human need is what Jesus is all about.

Written by the THRED team

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