Obedience

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with my mom about my social anxiety. At that point, my anxiety was at it’s worst and I felt profoundly aware of how much it was limiting my life. As I talked to her, a startling thought came to my mind:

I realized that my world was shrinking.

I was missing out on opportunities because of fear and my world was getting smaller and smaller.

Recently I was thanking the Lord for His healing in my life. Although social anxiety is still a struggle for me, it no longer defines my life. As I was thanking God for this, I realized that my world is no longer shrinking. In fact, it is expanding day by day.

I considered what brought about this change and I realized a key component. God has been teaching me the importance of practical action.

As someone who wrestles with anxiety, it is so easy to get lost in my head analyzing, wondering, and planning. I can have great thoughts and ideas. However, if I never act on them, I get stuck.

The last couple of years, I have been on a journey of learning to simply obey what God asks me to do. And honestly, it hasn’t gone perfectly. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned some things the hard way.

However, I’m realizing that each small step of practical action builds upon itself. Every time I try to do what God says, even if it scares me, I become a bit braver.

And I’m more ready to say yes the next time He asks me to do something.

The Danger of Comparison

“Stay in your own lane.”

A mentor of mine gave me this advice a couple of years ago when I was wrestling with comparison. Her wise words come to mind whenever I’m tempted to compare myself to others. I think that to some extent, everyone struggles with comparison. After all, it’s just a natural part of being human. However, as someone who wrestles with social anxiety, I have to be especially on guard against comparison.

It amazes me how quickly and easily comparison creeps into my heart.  And comparison has the potential to wreak havoc on my relationships. Instead of rejoicing in the strengths of others, I am threatened by their abilities and gifts. Instead of focusing on my unique journey with the Lord, I waste time analyzing how my progress measures up to others.

I am becoming more and more confident that the comparison game is a complete waste of time. And it is a game I will never win. There will always be someone more connected, more adventurous, more attractive, and more successful. It doesn’t matter the marker I use to compare myself. I will always come up short to somebody.

So how do we get out of this deadly trap once and for all? These are some ideas for avoiding comparison that I’ve found to be helpful in my own life:

Staying in my own lane: This is a lot harder than it sounds. For me, staying in my own lane means knowing my comparison triggers and avoiding them. Sometimes this means taking a break from social media and limiting the amount of time I spend online. Other times I need to cut out TV shows or movies that give me a false view of reality and cause me to feel discontent with my own life. At work, I need to focus my attention on my own classroom rather than comparing myself to my fellow teachers. And in my personal life, I need to be careful when conversations with friends or family take a competitive turn.

Practicing gratitude: Gratitude is key. There is so much power in thanking God for all that is good in my life. Gratitude destroys pride because it reminds me that every good thing in my life is a gift from God. Gratitude also opens my eyes to all of the gifts in my life that I take for granted when I compare myself to others.

Lately God has been challenging me to take gratitude a step further. Instead of thanking Him solely for the good in my life, He wants me to also thank Him for the good in other people’s lives. This includes their gifts, strengths, and blessings. It’s hard to be threatened by the good in others when I view those things as an evidence of God’s grace.

Focusing on the heart: I’ve noticed that comparison is usually focused on externals. We compare our outward appearance, relationships, jobs, and other successes. I think that we tend to compare external qualities because they are measurable and observable. However, I know from personal experience that my externals can look polished to others while my interior life is dangerously suffering. In times like this, God graciously reminds me that He cares most about my heart. When I focus on the quality of my inner life, comparison seems to fade away.

Choosing to be inspired: This is a newer perspective for me. Rather than being threatened by success in other people lives, I can allow it to inspire me. For example, rather than being threatened by another teacher’s success, I can be inspired to pursue the same excellence in my own teaching. Rather than envying someone else’s relationship, I can gain a vision of the type of relationship I want to one day have. This simple shift in thinking gives me greater hope for my future and the potential that I have to grow and change.

Asking for God’s perspective:  I think that this is the real game changer. In order to truly let go of comparison, I need to see myself the way God sees me. Recently God challenged me to ask Him what He loves about me. At first I struggled to receive His affirmation of me. However, with time, this exercise has been so powerful in removing insecurity from my life.

God has made each of us so uniquely.

And He doesn’t just love us.

He likes us too.

God wants to reveal to each of us His deep delight in us. And when we are confident that God delights in us, we can be confident that He delights in the people around us.

This puts us all on an even playing field.

And there is no need to compare.

Embracing Reality

“The point of solitude is to be with God with what is true about me right now—whatever it is… We meet God in our present delight or our present sadness… Silence, then allows me to simply give God access to the reality of myself. With the same trust and lack of inhibition that a child demonstrates with her mother, I can rest against God and allow Him to care for my soul as only He can.” 

Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. In Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton writes about the importance of spending time in God’s presence, just being with Him. I love how she encourages embracing the reality of who we actually are and what we’re actually feeling. She suggests that God’s presence is the safest place to do this. However, I know from personal experience, that facing reality is hard.

I’ve recently been struck by how our culture makes it so easy to get lost in fantasy when reality feels too overwhelming. We get lost in TV shows and movies, absorbing ourselves in the problems of fictional characters, while ignoring our own problems. We use social media to curate idealized versions of our own lives in an effort to escape the mundane and ordinary realities of day to day life. We spend time and money improving and changing our appearances rather than accepting ourselves as we actually are. Our desire for fantasy is particularly evident in the explosion of virtual reality games that allow us to completely shut out the real world and play in an idealized fantasy world where anything seems possible.

The truth is that reality can be so hard to face.

But God invites us to embrace the reality of our lives as they actually are. We never need to pretend or conceal who we are before the Lord. After all, He knows everything about us and accepts us unconditionally.

He already knows every sinful thought and impure motive.

He understands the feelings we can’t even begin to articulate.

He isn’t shocked by our anxieties or fears about the future.

He isn’t scared of our questions or doubts.

He is big enough to hold our disappointments and frustrations.

He grieves over our losses with us.

And His unconditional love gives us the courage to embrace life as it actually is, a mixed cup of blessing and sorrow.

Trust

I was trying to choose a word to encapsulate what God has been doing in my life this year. Last year it was freedom.

This year it is very simple: trust.

Whenever I hear the word trust, I think of Proverbs 3:5-6.

“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.”

This verse can become almost a cliche because we’ve heard it so many times. But when you really think about the truth of these words, it is incredibly powerful. Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it means to truly trust in the Lord. I’m learning that there are some key components:

Knowing His character: It is nearly impossible to trust the Lord if I doubt His character. Do I truly believe that He is good and His ways are good? Do I trust that He is using every situation, even the ones the Enemy meant for evil, to draw me closer to His heart and to shape me into the person He wants me to be? Do I believe that He is trustworthy and will actually follow through on His promises? These are questions I’ve had to wrestle with God and continue to wrestle with Him. I must be confident that God will never leave me or forsake me in order to truly trust Him.

Believing He’s there: Someone recently described trust to me as “stepping out on a solid place”. I just love that. Trust isn’t stepping onto shaky or unstable ground. In fact it’s the exact opposite. God is a solid rock that will keep me from stumbling. I just love Psalm 121:3 which says, “He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber.” He is strong enough to bear the weight as I step out in faith. 

Releasing control: This is where I struggle the most in trusting the Lord. At the center of my anxiety is a desire to control my life. However, I’m realizing that although I can try to manipulate and control my circumstances all I want, the truth is that I am very out of control. Control is an illusion that makes me feel safe, but doesn’t actually keep me safe. I’m safest when I release control to the One who is actually in control of the world and my life.

Listening for His voice: Recently someone challenged me that I can’t truly hear God’s voice if I’m not surrendered to His will. I have to truly want His ways above my own in order to hear what He’s saying to me. This is a tough one and I’m definitely not there yet.

Moreover, I need to create space to hear His voice. For me this means taking time each day to just be quiet and listen. God’s voice isn’t forceful or demanding, but rather soft and gentle. I can’t hear God’s voice in the chaotic noise and frantic activity of my life. Instead I hear it most clearly in the quiet place.

Obeying what He says: As someone who struggles with action and practicality, God is really challenging me in this area. It’s one thing to hear what God says, but it’s another to actually do it.

This means that when God opens a door, I step through it.

When God tells me to talk to someone, I talk to them.

When God gives me a word to speak to someone, I say it.

When God tells me to reach out to someone, I contact them.

As someone who wrestles with social anxiety, I can often feel paralyzed to take action. But when I play it safe, I find that my world gets smaller and I miss out on the opportunities God has for me. However, when I say yes to the simple invitations God puts before me and obey Him, my world slowly expands.

I wanted to close with a quote from the book Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. I mentioned in an earlier post that this book has had such a powerful impact on my life lately. In this allegory about the Christian life, a fearful girl named Much Afraid learns to trust her Shepherd’s will for her life and follow Him where He leads her. At one point in the journey, she decides to keep going even though the way ahead is unknown and frightening.  The Shepherd’s response to her is so beautiful:

“You have one real beauty, Much Afraid, you have such trustful eyes. Trust is one of the most beautiful things in the world. When I look at the trust in your eyes I find you more beautiful to look upon than many a lovely queen.”

I think that this is God’s heart to all of us when we choose to trust Him.

Knowing Ourselves

“I truly believe that the greatest gift we can give the world is our true self living in loving union with God. In fact, how can we affirm other people’s unique identities when we don’t affirm our own? Can we really love neighbors well without loving ourselves?” 

-Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. In Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazerro emphasizes the importance of knowing ourselves in order to know God. He suggests that one of the biggest traps we can fall into is living out of a false self, rather than living out of our God-given identities.

For years, social anxiety has been a “false self” that has shaped the way I’ve made decisions and have seen myself. Honestly, I’ve had almost a bit of an identity crisis as I’ve started to experience God’s freedom. It’s almost like I don’t know who I am anymore without the burden of fear and anxiety on my shoulders. While that feeling is a bit disorienting, it is also exciting. I want to discover who God has made to me to be, fully free from social anxiety.

So I’ve started to ask Him to show me what my true self is like. These are some questions that are helpful to me:

What did God design for me to do in the world that only I can do? 

What desires has God placed in my heart that I’ve rejected because of anxiety? 

How does God see me? 

What does He love about me? 

Who am I becoming?

That last question is especially helpful. God’s perspective on each of us is so beautiful. He doesn’t focus on the broken or sinful parts of who we currently are. He doesn’t identify us by our flaws and struggles.

Instead He sees our true selves, free from all of the constraints the Enemy has tried to lay on us.

He sees the whole and complete person that we are becoming.

The Desert

Lately I have been reading the book Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. I have been deeply impacted by this powerful story. It is an allegory about the Christian life in which a fearful girl named Much Afraid journeys with her Shepherd towards the High Places in search of a new identity and a deeper understanding of His love.

Along the way, the Shepherd leads Much Afraid to the desert. He gently explains the importance of this detour saying:

“All of my servants on the way to the High Places have had to make their detour through the desert…Here they have learned many things which otherwise they would have known nothing about.”

Much Afraid is joined by two friends, Sorrow and Suffering, who surprisingly strengthen her by their presence. As she makes her way through the desert, she finds that the desert is actually full of important gifts and lessons.

This insightful book has gotten me thinking about the way I view “deserts” in my life. In the Christian life, deserts are inevitable— be it a disappointment, the loss of a loved one, struggles with mental health, the death of a dream, a season of loneliness, a delayed hope, or even a season of dryness in one’s faith. I think that our human tendency is to pass through the desert as quickly and painlessly as possible. However, as this book suggests, it takes time to fully accept the gifts of the desert.

As I think back on different “desert seasons” in my life, I can see the gifts that come out of dark times.

Gratitude: In my experience, painful seasons give us a renewed appreciation for all that is. We have eyes to see simple gifts in life—the changing seasons, moments of connection with the people we love, and even our capacity to feel sadness or other emotions.

Intimacy with Lord: My closest times with Jesus seem to always be in the desert. When life is easy and simple, I find myself depending on my own strength and finding satisfaction in trivial things. In painful times, I am especially aware of my need for the Lord and His unconditional love. This is such a gift.

Learning to hear God’s Voice: The desert is a quiet place. And it seems to me that the quiet is the best place to hear God’s voice. In the desert, I am stripped of other voices and distractions and can better hear what God is saying.

Empathy and Compassion: I think that the desert has the potential to enlarge our heart if we’ll let it. It always amazes me how God uses our pain to minister to the pain that others experience. However, in order to minister to someone else’s pain, we must be willing to first walk though it our self.

Surrendering Control: This is the hardest one for me. However, I find that in the desert, God consistently invites me to surrender to His will and His ways. In the desert, I recognize the stubbornness of my heart and my insistence on my own plan for my life. However, God graciously invites me into the mystery of not knowing all of the answers and instead trusting Him.

I recognize that 3 days before Christmas might seem like an odd time to write about the desert. However, I am becoming more and more aware that the Christmas season can be such a mixed experience for people. It can be filled with great joy and happiness for many people, but can also be a time of pain and sadness for others. In a season where everyone is rejoicing, the desert can feel even more pronounced.

However, the gift of Christmas is God’s presence.

The God of the universe came to earth and took on human form.

He is Emmanuel, God with us.

This means that we never walk through the desert alone.

I wanted to close by sharing one of my favorite songs by JJ Heller. I can’t seem to get this song out of my head lately. I love how she suggests that the desert isn’t something to be avoided, but rather God’s gift to us. I hope it encourages you!

God is Still Here, by: JJ Heller

Embracing Limits

“To be made in the image of God means that we’re rife with potential. We have the Divine’s capacity in our DNA… But that’s only half of the story. We’re also made from the dirt, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’: we’re the original biodegradable containers. Which means we’re born with limitations. We’re not God. We’re mortal not immortal. Finite, not infinite.”

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer 

I just love this quote and powerful truth that it portrays. In his book, author and pastor John Mark Comer suggests that our success-oriented culture pushes us to reach our potential at whatever cost. While I believe that it is important to recognize our potential and work to improve ourselves, it’s equally important to accept our limitations.

I know from personal experience that ignoring my limits has detrimental consequences. When I transgress my God-given limits, I become burnt out, stressed, and anxious. In fact I’ve noticed that anxiety is actually a helpful sign that I am living outside of the natural boundaries of how I’m wired.

During the last few years, I’ve spent some time considering my limitations and trying to receive them as a gift from God rather than as a problem that I need to overcome. Some of my limitations include the following:

Living in a human body: For years, I transgressed this limitation. In college I tried to survive on 5 hours of sleep a night and I ate very sporadically. However, as a 3rd grade teacher with a very demanding job, I’ve learned that taking care of my body is vital. This means getting 8 hours of sleep at night, eating a good breakfast every morning, drinking lots of water, and prioritizing exercise. I’ve noticed that each of these habits actually decreases my anxiety and helps me foster a positive mindset.

An introverted personality: I have spent much of my life fighting my introversion. Oh how I’ve wished that I had more capacity for people. But the honest truth is that I quickly reach sensory overload when I’m with large groups of people for long stretches of time. Therefore, I try to schedule alone time before and after big social events. I also intentionally schedule plenty of solitude with Jesus into my week, including a Sabbath on Sundays, quiet time with Jesus each morning, and other small moments of quiet throughout the day. I find that I have so much more to offer the people in my life when my relational batteries are fully charged. 

A limited emotional capacity: I love people and find so much purpose investing in the lives of others. However, I also have a limited emotional capacity. I tend to take on the emotions and feeling of the people around me. And I can get very bogged down by negative emotions. As a result, I’ve learned that while it’s important to have ministry relationships where I’m pouring into others, I also desperately need mutual, life-giving friendships. I need safe places to process my feelings and emotions. I also sometimes need to put boundaries around relationships that are toxic or unhealthy.

A tendency towards melancholy and anxiety: Although God is bringing so much freedom to this area of my life, the truth is that I still have and may always have a predisposition towards anxiety and negative thoughts. As a result, I put a lot of effort into guarding my mind. This means spending time with wise older mentors, seeing a counselor, and asking friends to pray for me when my mind feels out of control.

I used to feel a lot of guilt about my limitations and would try to change these things about myself. However, I’m starting to realize that my limitations are actually a gift. They remind me that I need God and I need others. I can’t manage life on my own. My limitations make me dependent on God and that’s one of the best places to be.

I love Psalm 16:6 which says, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”

This is so true. God has made each of us so uniquely with specific limits and boundaries around our lives.

Rather than fighting my limitations, I want to accept them as a gift from God.

I want to live within His boundary lines for my life.