Dealing With Difficult Emotions

Sequoia

A few weeks ago I went on vacation with my family to California and we had the opportunity to visit Sequoia National Park as well as some other sights that were simply breathtaking.  From all the sites we saw, I was most taken back by the Sequoia trees.  The General Grant Sequoia tree (third largest in the world) was so large, it would take 20 adults holding hands to be able to surround it.  Since I grew up as an East Coast boy, these trees simply fascinated me.

We happened to see a cross section of one of the fallen sequoias, which had numerous scars on it that showed it survived 9 fires in the course of its life.  Apparently, fires were good for the sequoia because it cleared the land of the other trees (allowing more sunlight & rain) and the heat allowed the seeds to expand and to be released in the area.  This provided optimal surroundings for the sequoias to flourish in the area.  Without the fires, the trees would not have grown so large.

Life certainly has its own fires, struggles, griefs, pains, conflicts, and traumas.  Some are minor inconveniences while others are real-life nightmares.  All cause enough grief to know that to experience the fires means getting burned, something to avoid at all costs.

Physical pain is something we try to avoid, but if we know it is for the better, we will be willing to endure it.  We’ll endure a dental filling so we can eat without further pain, surgery to repair our bodies so we can live or function better, or even endure strenuous exercise so we can look better.

Emotional pain, however, is a different story.  Emotional pain cuts to the heart of who we are.  To feel the emotional pain of rejection and worthlessness, or grieve losing someone so close…or to feel the emotional pain of guilt, shame, fear or loneliness…these are the parts of ourselves that we either hate to feel or fear to feel.  So we avoid it.  Perhaps we fear being fully exposed to others or fear that we truly are worthless.  If others truly knew what went on inside of us, we believe we would die.  Perhaps we are afraid of being down so low that we will never recover.  Maybe we are fearful that we will lose everything or believe that to feel such feelings make us less manly (for men) or even human.  These feelings are uncomfortable and we hate to feel them.  So what do we do?  How do we deal with them?

Everyone has their own way, but typically, we deal with our feelings by not directly dealing with them.  Rather than acknowledging what we feel and addressing them based on the circumstances, we act on them. Instead of telling someone we are hurt because of what they said or did, perhaps we will take it out on others or ignore them.  Rather than admit we are depressed and work on the why’s, we will eat ice cream or chocolate, drink alcohol, look at pornography, watch TV, play games, sex, listen to music, anger, etc. etc.  Rather than turn to a loving and actively interested God, we turn to other things to deal with our emotional struggles, and often those things become our go-to vices, some of which are addictive.

The Psalms are excellent examples of men who felt the frustrations of this life who struggled with the difficult emotions amidst the trails of their lives.  In dealing with emotions, David (and other Psalmists) wrote their anguish and struggles down and how they were able to get to the other side of the struggle emotionally.  The emotions written in the Psalms were not considered only positive emotions, such as joy and contentment, but also emotions of frustration and anger, of sadness and distress (22, 1-2; 55:4-8), and of sorrow and guilt (51, 38).  He was willing to talk to God about his complaints (64:1-6), to seek God when life seemed unfair (41:1-2), and even let out some anger and some unwholesome desires for God to smite those who have done evil (58:6-8).  He sought the Lord crying out for mercy (51:1) and sought the Lord when crying out for a savior (69, 70).

In the Psalms, all emotions that are present are worked through, but they are dealt with in relation to God.  As Christians (and an encouragement to those seeking), our emotions (positive and negative) are best dealt with in relation to God.  As we read through the Psalms, we see that ultimately it wasn’t simply the expressions of the emotions to God (though that is the first step), but the promise of His character – His strength, justice, love, mercy, and patience – is what brought the Psalmists through the fires.  As a result, they grew stronger in their lives and in relationship with the Lord, thus being able to “deal” with life’s fires emotionally and physically.

Like the sequoia, life’s fires have the opportunity to help us better grow as we learn how to deal with these fires in relation to God.  If we were to deal with the fires without Him at the center, we may miss valuable opportunities to flourish in Him and in life…and the seeds of our life-changing witness may not take root into other’s lives.  How do you deal with all of life’s fires?  How do you deal with your negative emotions (sadness, anger, guilt, frustrations, shame, grief, anxiousness, distress, and sorrows)?  Don’t simply avoid them, drown them, silence them, or ignore them, but process them…and remind yourself who God is…He is love.  He is good.  He is strong.  He is just.  He is faithful.  He is trustworthy.  He is God.

Finding Hope Through Grace Part II: A Relevant Co-Sufferer

hope

Pain and hopelessness are feelings that are common to everyone. It is a good possibility that one of the earliest memories of your childhood includes a “crisis” that brought on significant amount of pain. The fact that we live in a broken world with broken relationships assures us we will not walk very far into life without experience a significant amount of pain. Even in scripture we see pages after pages of lives that are filled with pain. Take Job for instance, or King David. They were true men of God yet their lives were full of intense pain. How did they find hope to carry them through their suffering?

In Part 1 we talked about the importance of perspective and how it can change our outlook on a situation. Balaam was angry at his donkey for not moving forward, until God opened Balaam’s eyes (Numbers 22).  Balaam’s anger quickly turns to remorse and gratitude for God’s grace in sparing his life.  I can frequently respond in anger because of painful situations that occur in my life or I may become anxious and feel hopeless when my life does not seem to be going the way I want it to. However God has to frequently enlarge my perspective to understand what He is doing in my life.

The psalms frequently display this larger perspective that is given by God. In Psalm 142 we see David crying out to God about his troubles in a very personal and direct way (1-4). He asks God to come into the midst of His suffering and acknowledges that only God can truly rescue him (5-6). Another interesting point about this Psalm is that his desire is to praise and worship God and not simply to relieve his symptoms. Even though the Psalm ends in the midst of the suffering experience with no response from God, there is a sense of hope. David is comforted not by God taking away his present suffering, but by reflecting on the person of God, “for you will deal bountifully with me”.

There is no person or thing that can provide more comfort than leaning into the arms of a gracious God. I know I am saved by God’s grace and I am daily reminded that I need God’s grace to continue in life, but the Grace that gives me the most hope is the Grace that I look forward to. As God’s children we have been promised every spiritual blessing in “heavenly places” through the person of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3).

God often has to remind me that here on earth I am to expect suffering because sin has left its thumbprint on the earth I walk on, the body I live in, and the relationships I interact with. God is in the process of restoring me to Himself and at times that means suffering, but I have a confident hope that one day I will see Him face to face and finally experience the full Grace of God. Then I will see clearly as all my suffering is put into perspective by HIS GRACE which He has LAVISHED upon me (Eph. 1:7-8). If you want to know the hope God provides through the riches of His Grace cry out to Him and invite Him into your suffering.

Psalm 142

You Are My Refuge

A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.

 1 With my voice I cry out to the Lord;

with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.

I pour out my complaint before him;

I tell my trouble before him.

When my spirit faints within me,

you know my way!

In the path where I walk

they have hidden a trap for me.

Look to the right and see:

there is none who takes notice of me;

no refuge remains to me;

no one cares for my soul.

I cry to you, O Lord;

I say, “You are my refuge,

my portion in the land of the living.”

Attend to my cry,

for I am brought very low!

Deliver me from my persecutors,

for they are too strong for me!

Bring me out of prison,

that I may give thanks to your name!

The righteous will surround me,

for you will deal bountifully with me.

The Fear Factor: Part 1

I understand that the Fear Factor is trying to make a comeback on national TV.  You know, that reality game show that makes people do crazy things by having them face their fears through  bravery or stupidity (you choose).  Oh what people would do for the chance to win loads of cash.  Facing our fears is nothing new, though.

I had the opportunity to watch Green Lantern the other night and saw one theme that ran throughout the movie.  Facing your fears.  Fear of what?  Of death.  Rejection. Intimacy. Failure.  All of these fears were prevalent throughout the movie, and the main character, Hal Jordan, had to overcome them in order to save the world.  Of course, he did it all rather quickly, too.  Amazing!  For most of us in the real world, overcoming fear takes a bit longer…probably because we  don’t have the fate of the world on our shoulders either.   Whew!  What a relief.

In all seriousness, we know from the wise words of Yoda that fear leads to the dark side, so we want to make sure that we overcome fear in order that we do not turn to the dark side of depression, hopelessness, or anger.  So here are some steps to overcoming fear:

1. Identify the Fruits of Fear: Fear, which is rooted in the heart, produces certain actions and behaviors. What are your patterns of behaviors when you are uncomfortable, anxious, or in a situation with which you are unsure? Do you bite your nails? Sweat? Yell at others (to control others and the situation)? Do you clean and get organized (control your environment)? Do you eat more? Sleep less? Sleep more? Withdraw from others? Put your wall up? Try to please people? Think or obsess on your fear? These are all your fruits or actions that evidence fear and anxiety in your life.

2. Look at your Heart: Your actions are providing a glimpse into your heart, even if you don’t know it. The heart (and mind) is where fears are rooted. When you can identify your fruits of fear (step 1), that is when it is good to stop the actions and ask yourself: “What is it that I am afraid of? What do I fear?” Common fears include fear of rejection, fear of being abandoned by those who love you, fear of being hurt physically or emotionally, fear of losing control, fear of being a failure, fear of the unknown, fear of suffering, fear of death, etc. These fears often play out in the mind and effect sleep patterns, but sometimes they are pushed out of the mind and are demonstrated physically without knowledge of what’s going on in the heart or mind. This happens with panic attacks where the body acts all crazy (heart racing, breathing heavy, sweating, etc.) without any thought or acknowledgment of any fear. Then, often the panic attacks become the fear in and of themselves! Even so, it is important to get to the heart to identify what is at the root of our surface behaviors or physical responses so that we can work on permanent change.

3. Face your Fear through a Relationship with your Savior: I Jn 4:18 says “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Fear does not come from God. But perfect love does. Fear has to do with punishment and suffering. Love has to do with peace and rest. Fear involves enslaving someone to itself. Perfect love has to do with freedom from subjection. When we confront our fears through our relationship with God, fears dissipate and hopes lives on. When we choose to confront our fears, we need to understand that we are unable to adequately do so on our own. We need perfect love. We need a Savior.

My next blog will take a closer look at how a relationship with the Savior will help us see the truth behind John’s statement: “Perfect love casts out fear” and help make fear an uncontrolling factor in our lives.


Gameshows and Faith: Deal or No Deal

A few years back, when Deal or No Deal came out, my wife and I would watch it to see how far the contestants would go in their quest for a million dollars.  While they would choose one case out of 20 (or was it 30) to keep by their side, they would narrow the choices down by picking several cases at a time, all the while hoping that they would not choose cases with higher dollar amounts.  The banker would then try to make them a deal so that they would quit the game and leave with his chosen dollar amount.  Often, the banker’s deal wasn’t very favorable.   As long as there was a chance to get even more money, they often moved forward in their risky guesses. 

I’ve spoken with a lot of people during this economic recession who have lost their jobs and are struggling financially.  They have been feeling like failures, rejected from employers and feeling as if they had even been rejected by God…They do not think that they have been given a good deal from God (i.e. Banker).  Suffering seems like a lousy deal.  I know that there have been times in my life where I have felt the same way.  We can all have a tendency to look at our circumstances that God chose for us (or allowed) and say, “No deal, God.  I want a new deal…so I’m going to keep going in my direction, do what I want to do, make some more guesses, and see what happens…because that Million dollar prize of happiness is not far off.”  In our frustration, we may close the door to His deal, often becoming angry at God for the circumstances He has allowed us to be in.  What are these circumstances?  Chronic sickness.  Financial debt.  Loneliness.  A spouse leaving.  Being overweight.  Saying “No Deal” to God is like saying I will not be happy or content with your choices for my life.   Trust for God is certainly in question.

The banker in the gameshow does what is best for the banker, but he gives the contestant a choice to trust him or “luck.”  God, on the other hand, does what is best for you.  In His love He gives you a choice (you can’t have love without choice) to trust Him or yourself.  Even though the situation or circumstance seems difficult and God does not seem to be coming through, you still have a decision to make.  Will you trust Him?  Will you trust in His character and His promise to make all things good (Rom 8:28)?  If so, take the deal!!  If you will choose not to trust Him (in His character and promises), then you will be saying “no deal” to the One who loves you enough to send His Son to take away your sins on the cross and you will be taking your chances on your own….but “no deal” does not result in reward, but in further worry, restlessness, loneliness, despair, and discontentment (among many other things).  You are taking matters into your own hands…and that itself has many risks.

Paul states in Philipians 4 that he has learned the secret in being content in all circumstances (even the ones that involved suffering!), “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  We may not choose our circumstances, but God allows them to transform us to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-29).  Do you trust him?  Take the deal my friends.  Whatever He offers you…whatever He puts on your plate to go through…He will accomplish His purposes in you, and your life will be more fulfilled.  God is trustworthy.  Deal (peace, contentment, more like Christ “Not as I will, but as you will“) or no deal (anger, fear, worry, etc.)?  Your choice.

Life Lessons From A Seagull: Part 2

When life gives you lemons – make lemonade.   Behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining.  When the going gets tough, the tough gets going……  Well, we can cliche people to death, helping them see that there is the light amidst the darkness, a rose among the thorns, a diamond in the rough, and all that.  Well, here’s one more for you:  When a seagull poops on your head, be glad he didn’t steal your sandwich too (see Life Lessons from a Seagull: Part 1).   No I didn’t get pooped on (this time), but I know someone who did on their trip to the shore.  People say that we must learn from all of our hard times and difficult circumstances…and I agree with that.  But seriously, what is it that we could possibly learn from a bird relieving itself on you?  Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Poop happens?  Well, at least we can learn that when you go to the beach, wear a hat. 

The news that we so painstakingly know is this…sometimes, life is not fair…at least, not in the way we see fairness.  Bad things happen.  We get pooped on by those we don’t know and by those we do.  Sometimes when we’re on the receiving end of the bad it can seem so…well, overwhelming.  Loved ones hurt us (maybe constantly).  Family and friends die.  Unemployment occurs, cars break down, and our bodies deteriorate and we suffer.  When we receive the bad stuff time after time again, especially so close in time to one another, we get overwhelmed and often find it so hard to cope.  Before we know it, we are starting to question God’s love for us and His goodness towards us.  We throw our hands up in the air like Steve Carell in Evan Almighty and yell “Are you kiddin’ me?”

At times I think it would be easier to cope with such events if we knew God’s purposes.  Othertimes, I think if we were to know the reasons behind these events that God allowed, it would turn us away from God because we would not be able to see past our grief and pain.  Although I may go back and forth in my thinking, these things I do know…that despite the circumstances, God is always good.  Despite the trying times and sufferings we go through, God is always Love.  Being anchored in the truth of His goodness and love is essential if we are going to make it amidst the storms of life.  We may get tossed to and fro a bit, but if we remain anchored, our faith and lives will not be shipwrecked.  Okay, enough of that analogy.

So maybe we can learn something from getting pooped on.  Life does not go they way we want it to go.  It just doesn’t.  How we respond to such events will show a lot about your character and relationship with God.  If you yell and curse at someone who “poops” on you and act out in vengeance towards them, what have you learned?  Nothing. You’re trying to do the teaching, not the learning.  If you constantly put yourself out there to get pooped on, then that is exactly what will happen.  But if you’re prepared for such events, being anchored in the truth, knowing that bad things do happen, then such events will not waver your faith.  Why?  Because you have placed your trust in an always good and loving God who makes all things good (Rom 8:28).  How will you react or respond when you get pooped on?

Karen Hoffner, our Board Director and good friend, talked about a wonderful moment in prayer with God. While sitting on her porch quietly taking in the sun, a bird landed on her arm and chirped as if to say “Hello.”   Karen saw this little gift from God, thinking how wonderful that little reminder was to her that God was with her.  As the bird started to take off, it first decided to leave a nice deposit on her arm.  Yes, God’s little reminder to her pooped on her arm.  And what was Karen’s response?  Karen laughed… because sometimes we simply learn that God has a sense of humor, too.