Friday, June 12, 2015

When Work or a Relationship is More Struggle Than Joy

Life becomes difficult when we haven’t been, or are not currently, being honest—either with our self or someone around us.

Here are some reasons why we avoid being honest:

1). We are in denial.

2). We live in a state of wishful thinking that things and people will simply change over time and on their own.

3). Fear that being honest will upset the apple cart even more.

4.) Feeling trapped: convincing our self that there is no “out” so this is the way it’s going to be and we best get used to it.

Facing into life may not immediately eliminate a feeling of struggle, and in fact may initially exasperate it as we make tough decisions. But a new sense of freedom and direction (dare I say real hope?) will dawn.

Facing into truth and reality means we clear our heads of everything so we can finally listen to that still small voice that has been trying to guide us but we’ve instead brushed it off as nagging (meaning something we know to be true but wish weren’t). We give that voice priority and sober judgment as to what it has to say.

So, for example, if our job hasn’t gotten any better in a year, and we’ve duked it out to the point of exhaustion, perhaps it’s time to focus on getting an answer to whether it’s us, or the job?

For Christians, the Holy Spirit’s still small voice will give us the answer in the form of a sense of peace and rightness.

Being honest won’t necessarily be easy, and someone’s feelings might get hurt (including ours when we see the reality of our sin that may have contributed to our situation).

So if we come to see how we are the reason our job is so unpleasant, what do we need to do about it? Is our pride to blame? Selfishness? Insecurity? Unrealistic expectations of the position or other people? Too high a regard for oneself?

Or is the job a poor fit? Are we kicking against the goad instead of seeking a job that fits our skills, temperament and expectations? Is the company or our boss dysfunctional?

The other area of life where we can fail to be honest with our self or another is in a dating relationship. 

If we are in a relationship that is more work than joy, more butting heads than cooperation, and that feels like we’re digging a tunnel to get to a break-through that never comes, then we need to get out of denial that “things will eventually get better.”

People will bend over backward in an effort to please another person, and when that leads only to a dead end with no change, or a worsening in the other’s response to our efforts, we need to take stock—and the best time to do this is when the relationship is still in dating mode. Many folks mistakenly and hopefully think things will miraculously change after marriage.

A better way is to start to understand, take seriously and apply the Biblical principles of life-long matrimony to the dating relationship and measure those against one’s spiritual maturity (all within sexual purity of course).

Marriage will spiritually mature us, definitely. But there must be an element of desire for and intentional dedication to spiritual growth already taking place in each individual, before marriage.

Marriage is a life long commitment to other-centeredness, honesty, communication, emotional and physical support, mutual understanding, talking out difficulties, praying together, praying individually, being in the Word and a daily decision to love each other—even when we don’t feel like it.

If two people are not on the same page while dating, it will grow less and less fun over time and within a marriage. 

A relationship or job won’t ever be completely trial-free, struggle-free or even boredom-free. We all know that life is not void of stress, failure or disappointment.

And while it is true that only God can absolutely and 100% love, affirm and bring ultimate comfort and joy, we can, by putting our lives under His guidance and authority, find a measure of His love, affirmation, fulfillment and joy from our vocation, marriage and the building of our families.

If this sense of enduring and fulfilling balance, love, affirmation and joy of cooperation in building a life together, coming from both parties (whether in work or in marriage), isn’t happening, it’s time to get our head out of the sand and ask why.

We may learn some pretty shocking things about our selves that we do not like, but it means we will finally, once and for all, deal with it.

And only then will anything, or anyone, actually change for the better.

copyright Barb Harwood

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” John 14:16

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” John 16:13

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5

Saturday, June 6, 2015

What Are We Striving For?

From optimal health, to financial wealth, to start-up acumen, to stellar talent, to physical prowess, to our “best life now ” to “balancing life, family and work,” to impressing the neighbors, to showing off and to “sticking it to the world,” humans strive

As I’ve grown into a person in my 50’s, and a Christian worldview has beneficially informed me, I’ve become more and more dispassionate. Things I used to get riled up about seem foolish to me now; what I understood to be life-defining decisions are embarrassing to think about from today’s perspective. So much of it was about me, my identity in the eyes of others, the attempt to measure up to a societal barometer of ambition and “having arrived.”

Materialism coated my exterior striving and reflected positively, I imagined, on my interior. It made me (so I hoped) cool, cutting edge, willing to defy norms, determined and adventurous.

But we can choose any persona we wish in which to strive, and window-dress it to our specifications, especially with Facebook. Oh I do thank God there was no Facebook when I was in the thick of myself.

I suppose this all adds up to narcissism, the definition of which I think best applies here being “self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects” and “a grandiose view of one’s talents and a craving for admiration.”

Now there are degrees of this, and narcissism may be too strong a word. But nonetheless, it gets to the root, I believe, of the cause of much striving: self-centered desire to not only look good to one’s self and others, but to look better than most.

So where does God fit into all of this?

For me, God began to chip away at my striving via a newspaper gig I got right around the time I became a Christian. He quickly downgraded my “star journalist” delusion by assigning me to a newspaper that garnered no respect in the public eye. People did not rush to return my phone requests for interviews, and their response to my proud announcement that I wrote for the local paper came with a scowl and malcontent mumblings.

God used my first official stint as the next potential Pulitzer Prize winner to put me in my place. I earned barely $75 a pop for stories about Pinewood Derbies, the man who plays Santa Claus every year at the mall, and a guy on a summer-long kayak adventure. I received no added respect because of my byline. In fact, most stories, because they didn’t involve a celebrity, a murder or a local politician caught in some untoward act, were probably only read by the subject themselves and their families.

That was the first in a long line of humilities, or what I like to call replacing my worldview with God’s.

By the end of my stint at the newspaper, and having my ego utterly pulverized, I was finally no longer writing for my own pride and accolades (how could I, when everyone loathed me and the paper).

It was then that I began writing about WWII and Korean War vets, a Holocaust survivor and missionaries in Africa. Greatly humbled in their presence, I was finally telling their story for them.

I believe I ended well at the newspaper because in the end, it wasn’t about me. And that is when I could walk away from the job, knowing full well that I wanted to write, but didn’t care if I or my writing ever earned a prize or respect from anyone. I was on my way to understanding the act of living under the authority, accountability and affirmation of God alone, within His parameters.

I believe some of the greatest artistic, medical and scientific discoveries and creations have come from dysfunctional and even narcissistic or self-centered individuals. But it is often believed that their craft is what drove them to distraction, depression or drink. 

I ponder whether striving within their own attempt to control and direct that ability didn’t have even more to do with it? 

Webster’s defines striving as “to devote serious effort or energy” and “to struggle in opposition: contend.”  I believe that under God we do the former, and under our own power we do the latter.

And while God does want us to “devote serious effort or energy” to the abilities He gave us, He doesn’t want us to go it alone, without Him. Since He is the creator of our gifts, He will align us as to how, when and where to use them, along with how much to use them. God will not give us abilities and then leaves us to ourselves to scratch out a living or to “contend” with our gifts as some kind of nemesis.

He will also put any capabilities in proper perspective, with our first priority being serving our children and spouse. Striving often eclipses this first God-ordained responsibility.

The point of it all, the point often mentally noted but not at all adopted, is that all that we do that is difficult, or that we are good at doing, and that we have been equipped to do is not for our glory. It is for God’s. And while that might seem narcissistic on God’s part, if you know God you know that it is everything but. Living to God’s glory is God’s wonderful mercy to free us from ourselves and the demons that are often incurred by incessant striving.

God’s glory is for our benefit, not His.

Striving, i.e. living within our own efforts, ideals, “should’s” and worldly expectations, is a dead end; the road, as Talking Heads sings, “to nowhere.”

Persevering in God, however, and living according to His Kingdom economy, wisdom and joy, and doing all things in obedience to Him for His glory, will cease the striving and all the baggage that goes with it.

Copyright, Barb Harwood

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Philippians 2:3

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Col 3:17

“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” James 3:14

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” James 3:16

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What Does Answered Prayer Look Like?

One of the ways we remain patient in affliction is by trusting that God’s got this, whatever “this” is. We trust that God is doing what He needs to do, and that it may take a while. So we pray, we wait and we trust.

We become discouraged when we look for, and don’t see, signs that God is working in ways that meet our expectations. However, by coming at prayer or answer to prayer from our own perspective, we often miss the very work God is doing in our, and other’s lives simply because it doesn’t look like what we were hoping for.

When we are totally on board with God and have truly given people and situations over to Him, we can sit back and watch what He will do, and actually see it when it happens.

If, on the other hand, we have a one-dimensional experience of prayer, i.e. “God never answers my prayer,” perhaps we have missed His answer altogether simply because it didn’t come in the way or timing we pre-supposed.

Perhaps our prayer is in process of being answered, even as we speak. I believe we can see increments in answers to prayer. Not always, but often. Again, we have this idea of full, complete and fast answers to prayer. We believe in the act of praying to automatically bring results. What we forget is that the act of our praying isn’t what brings results, God does.

God commands us to pray. His response could be a “no,” a “not yet,” or a “yes.” And his “yes” may in fact look like a “no” because it doesn’t meet our criteria. That’s when I’ve most often missed His answer: when it came but I just didn’t see it because I was anticipating something else.

Zillions of books have been written on prayer: our motivations and spiritual condition in, our not wavering, our believing that we have already received what we’ve asked, etc. And these are all interesting areas to explore in greater depth.

But too many folks get hung up on how to pray, or which prayer to pray when, and it gets complicated. It shouldn’t. Prayer is simply talking to our Father in heaven. Jesus models this in Scripture, peppering many of his dialogues with prayer as well as prioritizing time to go away alone to pray. In Matthew 27:46 He cries out to God in prayerful reliance and dire need in His affliction.

Asking God for His wisdom and discernment to enlighten and perhaps change or refute our own pre-conceived notions helps us to gain perspective on ourselves, others and situations. We can pray in the full belief that God truly knows best and we will accept His way.

And then we wait, trusting that God’s got our prayer and is working on it (and also on us), for however long it takes. In the end, I may not see any answer in my lifetime. But then again, I may, if I’m looking from God’s perspective and not my own

Ironically, the biggest result of commitment to prayer just might be its gracious molding of us in relationship to our Triune God.

copyright Barb Harwood

“But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” Psalm 88:13

“‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’” Jeremiah 33:3

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Luke 18:1

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

Monday, June 1, 2015

Satan? Or Me?

A common refrain when a ministry, saint or church falls on difficult times is that “Satan is attacking.”

Satan attacking has become evangelicalism’s equivalent of secular victimhood.

And while Satan is, indeed, real, he is not in control of God’s Kingdom inhabitants.

First Peter 5:8 says
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

This is true.

But there are also many verses in Scripture that attest to our turning our backs on God through our own ideas, philosophies and pride.

So while Satan can tempt us, just as he did Eve, God, just like He gave Eve, gives us a way to refuse temptation.

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13

That takes discipline and the constant reading and internalizing of Scripture, which is how Jesus Himself defeated temptation in the wilderness. Satan does prowl. He does tempt. But he is not in control of Christians. God is.

First John 4:4 reminds us that,
“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

We often let ourselves off the hook for our lack of diligence, self-control and not putting others and the Bible first by a belief that we can be over-powered by Satan.

So when we are overworked (especially in ministry), and not getting the results or support or even joy from the work that we expected, “Satan is attacking.”

When our marriage is cold we blame Satan.

When our finances are in disarray we blame Satan.

When our addiction takes precedence over the power of the Holy Spirit, Satan is attacking.

When we click on the illicit image or the department store sale advertisement that pops up unbidden on our laptop, alas, Satan strikes again!

But has he? Have we succumbed to Satan being in control of God’s people and not God? Have we ourselves forgotten the biblical call for self-control? Have we handed off the sins of our pride, poor judgment and not seeking wise counsel to Satan?

If we are overworked, is it because, against the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, we proudly answered “Yes” to serving more, doing more and traveling more? Have we lost the ability to obey the Holy Spirit when He is telling us to say “No?”

We have no one to blame but ourselves if we take on too much, be it family, work, service or sports, against what Scripture warns about self-ambition.

And what if we do seek God, only to have our decision blow up in our face? Again, I think we too often give credence to the power of Satan, never reviewing whether or not we were willing to hear the Holy Spirit correctly. In other words, the Spirit may have been guiding us through the Godly counsel of others and our own “red flags,” but the “voice” we chose to listen to was simply our own. So we are to blame, not Satan. The flesh is yet another aspect, and while Satan can tempt, again, we are the final arbiters of who we listen to: God, Satan or our own intrinsic pride.

Many books have been written about listening to the Holy Spirit and discerning the will of God. But not many espouse the act of personally retracing our very own steps that got us into trouble.

Can we really blame Satan for our car breakdown when we haven’t changed the oil in two years, or for a low credit rating when we haven’t managed our monthly payments well? Clearly we have some accountability to our current state of affairs and cannot attribute every hiccup to Satan.

Did we marry without a firm financial foundation from which to begin to support a family? Did we bite off too much in attempting to work full time, raise children and attend night school? Did we take that bite willingly and in full knowledge? Or were we simply duped by Satan? I think we know the answer.

One of the problems with making decisions, especially when we are young, is that we have no point of reference. We’ve never taken a full time job before, or married before, or lived on our own. So we have to start somewhere. And sometimes, we decide wrong. Sometimes, we make mistakes. That’s okay. 

But I think we need to be cautious about blaming every struggle on Satan because doing that prevents us from looking at our own part in our downfall: our motivations, our pride to plow ahead in spite of misgivings, our insisting on our own way, acquiescing to please other Christians instead of God, etc.

Blaming Satan also promotes the misguided notion that everything we do, since we are saved Christians, must come without pain. Yet no matter what we do, in God’s will or outside of it, there will be suffering, roadblocks, bad weather, crime, failure, defeat, fatigue, loss and disillusionment. And, as many of us already know, many of these “setbacks” are what ended up making us humble, contrite, closer to God and able to experience true joy. 

Satan, while attempting to lull us into his lair in various ways, is real and we are to be on guard. But a shoot-from-the-hip “Satan is attacking” gives him way too much credit—credit, by the way, which I think he loves and therefore will be happy to accept because it empowers him and not God.

I believe that blaming Satan distracts us from coming to know how we are culpable for our own mistakes. It keeps us from true Christian maturity and Christ-likeness. I believe we do better to search ourselves and confess and repent if need be, and then do what we can, Biblically, to fix the situation or to be patient in affliction. 

Our attention needs to turn to God and His ability to grant us wisdom from our experience so as not to repeat the mistake and so as not to be discouraged. And as we go forward, we put our trust in Jesus Christ to lead us, not in Satan to trip us up.

copyright Barb Harwood

...“but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” James 1:14-15

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” James 4:7-8

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” James 4:10

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” Ephesians 6:10