Embracing My 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.

The Healing Power of Calm

“Do we want to infect people with more anxiety, or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm?”

-Brene’ Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection 

I just love this quote by Brene’ Brown. Her analogy is so true. Anxiety is like an infectious disease that spreads so easily from person to person.

As a third grade teacher, I witness the power of anxiety in my classroom on a daily basis. It’s amazing to me how the anxiety of just one student can affect the whole classroom dynamic. And I’ve noticed that my own anxiety can also negatively affect my students. As humans, we tend to match the emotions of the people around us. Therefore, when I am stressed out and anxious, my students also feel stressed and on edge.

However, the opposite is also true. Although anxiety is a strong force, calm is equally powerful. As someone who wrestles with anxiety, I know from personal experience the healing power of calm.

I love spending time with calm people. There is something so healing about being around people who are at ease with themselves and others, who aren’t trying to prove anything, and who refuse to hurry and rush. These people seem to lower the heart rate of the room just by entering.

As I’ve observed calm people and tried to learn their secrets, I’ve noticed several strategies that I’m trying to practice.

Calm people breathe. This is a simple, but powerful observation. I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed out, I sometimes forget to breathe! Therefore, taking long, deep breaths is so helpful in the midst of anxiety. I do this a lot in my classroom. If something stressful happens, I’ll stop what we’re doing and lead the class in some deep breathing exercises. I’m always amazed at how much this calms my students (and myself!).

Calm people talk slowly. When I’m stressed out, I’ve noticed that I start talking faster and faster. It’s amazing how just slowing down my pace of speech calms down my body. I even find that my heart rate slows down when I slow down my speech.

Calm people speak quietly. This is a powerful strategy with my students. When a student is loud or upset, I try to match their level of agitation with an equal level of calm. It’s amazing how quieting my own voice helps them to stop yelling or shouting out.

Calm people do one thing at a time. There is so much danger in multi-tasking. I’ve read a lot of research that suggests that multi-tasking actually decreases our productivity. But even more importantly, multi-tasking makes it difficult to be fully present in the moment. Therefore, when I’m stressed out or anxious, I try to discipline myself to focus on one task or activity before completing the next.

Calm people stop. This is probably the most important strategy for embracing calm. In a frenetic culture of constant doing, it’s difficult to stop and just be still. However, moments of stillness are actually the birthplace of calm. This might be in the morning when I first get up, in the car on the way to or from work, or even during a couple of minutes on my lunch break. During these times I stop doing and simply sit with Jesus. I recognize His presence and invite His calm into the anxiety or stress of the day.

Calm people embrace imperfection. As a recovering perfectionist this is a challenging one for me. However, I have noticed that I’m so much calmer when I let go of the pressure to do things perfectly. There’s something freeing about occasionally leaving a basket of laundry unfolded or leaving work before every last email is checked. In these moments I let go of my need to control and prove myself as good enough.

I want to close by sharing this sermon by John Mark Comer of Bridgetown Church:

Jesus on Becoming a Non-Anxious Presence 

I hope this sermon speaks to you and encourages you like it did for me. I was deeply impacted by John Mark’s emphasis on becoming a “non-anxious presence”. I love how he points to Jesus as the ultimate example of what a non-anxious presence looks like. Jesus is our perfect model of a life free from anxiety, filled with calm and peace.

And oh how our world needs this! In our frenetic and chaotic society, our world desperately needs people committed to calm, who are learning to be a non-anxious presence.

The truth is that I’m so far from that.

But I now know who I want to be.

Rather than infecting the people around me with anxiety, I want to learn how to bring the healing power of calm.

Social Anxiety and Community

This is something I’ve wanted to write about since I started this blog. However, I just now feel like I can put my experience into words. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, finding a place in Christian community has always been challenging for me.

A couple of years ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I became sporadic about attending church. I wanted to be at church so badly. In fact, I remember multiple Sundays when I drove myself to church, but just couldn’t get myself to go inside. This was a really dark and isolating season for me. I felt a lot of shame and as a result, I isolated myself even more from people.

God graciously brought me out of that dark place and has freed me from the bondage of social anxiety. I am now a part of a church once again and that has been such a blessing.

However, finding community is something that I still wrestle with. I want to share with you some of the ways that the Lord has helped me in this process. If you struggle with social anxiety, I pray that some of these ideas might encourage you. And even if this is not a struggle for you, I hope that my story might open your eyes to people in your own community that struggle in this area. May you be equipped to see those people and support them.

Asking God for his perspective: This was definitely the most foundational step for me. I think that one of the reasons community has been hard for me is that I’ve had painful experiences of rejection and exclusion by other Christians. As a result, for many years I had a negative association with the word “community”. At one point, God challenged me to ask for His perspective on this.

He reminded me of the beautiful, self-sacrificing love shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are the true model of what perfect community looks like. Since I am made in the image of God, I desperately need community — to know and be known by others. Community is a beautiful gift as God originally created it.

However, God also reminded me that because of the Fall, community is far from what it should be. Since we are fallen human beings, sometimes we hurt one another. Sometimes we fail to see each other’s needs. Sometimes we exclude and leave each other out. I know that I’ve been guilty of each of these sins in my own life. God challenged me that my frustration wasn’t with community, but with the way that we as humans have messed it up.

Now this doesn’t mean that I just reject the whole concept of community and isolate myself. Rather I need to adjust my expectations of what community looks like here on earth. I need to give people grace to be human and mess up.  I also need to give myself grace when I hurt the people around me. Therefore, I’ve consciously decided to not allow my disappointment or disillusionment to get in the way of embracing the beauty to be found in community with others.

Focusing on God’s presence: This idea might sound strange, but when I’m walking into church, I like to visualize God’s presence entering with me. Sometimes I feel lonely attending church as a single person with my family living far away. I think that this is a common experience for many people. This feeling of loneliness is often heightened seeing so many people sitting with their families. Therefore, it’s helpful to remember that I’m not alone. God’s presence is always with me and supporting me.

Getting my eyes off myself: This is huge. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, I can be way too self-focused. When I enter a group of people (especially people I don’t know well), I become very aware of myself. I worry about being awkward or knowing the right things to say.

God has graciously showed me the freedom of getting my eyes off of myself. When I enter a social situation, I’ll ask for God to give me special “appointments” with people. I think God has blessed me with an acute sensitivity to people who feel lonely or are on the fringes. I actively look for those people and see how I can bless them or make them feel welcome.

God also has encouraged me to find ways to serve. About a year ago, I started teaching Sunday School at my church and that has been so life-giving for me. Although I can feel anxious leading adults, I am incredibly comfortable in front of children. This has brought me so much joy. And it’s been great to form relationships with the other adults that I teach with.

Looking for smaller communities: Although I think it’s important to meet with the whole Body of Christ, God has shown me that my deepest sense of community will always be experienced in a subset of the larger community. Therefore as much as possible, I look for small group or one-on-one settings.

I’m a part of a small group at my church and that has been so life-giving to me. Although it’s still stretching for my introverted personality, I’ve learned so much from being a part of that group.  In my experience, community is different from friendship. We choose friends based on shared interests and perspectives. However, I love the way that being a part of community forces me to interact with people very different from myself. I see God’s image reflected in unique and beautiful ways in people I might not normally choose to be friends with on my own.

I also have found so much joy in embracing community with one person at a time. While big groups of people exhaust and overwhelm me, I come alive in one-on-one settings. As an introvert, God has showed me that I’m wired for depth more than breadth of relationship. Therefore I put a lot of time and energy into one-on-one relationships with people.

Embracing the gifts of my personality: I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing that I could be different than I am— that I could be loud and extroverted, that I could command a room of people, or that I could have a charismatic and charming personality. However, the truth is that simply isn’t how God has wired me.

I’ve found so much freedom in embracing my personality and celebrating the gifts I have to offer as a quieter, more introverted person. For example, God has given me such a heart for people who are lonely and anxious. I am a good listener. I am highly empathetic. I reflect deeply on things which gives me wisdom and insight to offer to others.

Rather than trying to be someone I’m not, I’ve found it so freeing to embrace the gifts God has given me and look for ways to offer them to my community.

I’d love to hear from you! What struggles have you faced in community? How has the Lord been at work in this area of your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Silence and Solitude

We come to  a place of freedom. Our failures slowly lose their power over us. As do our successes. We get out from under the tyranny of people’s opinions- their disapproval or approval of us. Free to be us, the mixed bag that we are. Nothing more than children with our Father. Adopted into love… In silence and solitude, our souls finally come home.”

-John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

I just love this quote. In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, (highly recommend!) pastor John Mark Comer writes about the danger of hurry. He shares several spiritual disciplines that are an antidote to our culture’s pervasive disease of hurry. The one that stood out to me the most was that of silence and solitude.

I am becoming convinced that silence and solitude is an essential practice for all believers. However, as someone who struggles with anxiety, silence and solitude is absolutely vital for my emotional and spiritual health.

Now the honest truth is that sometimes silence and solitude is just plain hard. I think that people usually picture silence and solitude as peaceful time with Jesus, resting in His presence. While this sometimes is my experience, at times silence and solitude can be downright painful.

When I engage in silence and solitude, I am forced to face what is truly going on inside of me.

And I don’t always like what I find.

I recognize distorted desires that have taken precedence in my life. I realize how much the fear of man has been ruling my decisions. I am forced to sit with disappointments in my life where my plans haven’t worked out. And I face the reality of life as it actually is, a mixed cup of blessing and sorrow.

However, beautiful things start to happen when I sit with these emotions and realizations before God.

I experience deep forgiveness as my sins and unholy desires are laid bare before Him. I focus my heart on the only One who’s approval actually matters. I let go of the need to manipulate and control my life. And fully secure in the love of my Father, I have courage to embrace the full reality of my life.

I’m learning that anxiety is actually a helpful signal that something is off-kilter in my heart.

It is a simple reminder to return to my true home.

And engage with God in the quiet place.

Thoughts on Judgement

“He (Paul) cares very little if he is judged by the Corinthians or by any human court. And then he goes one step further: He will not even judge himself. It’s as if he says, ‘I don’t care what you think— but but I don’t care what I think. I have a very low opinion of your opinion of me—but I have a very low opinion of my opinion of me.'”

-Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

As someone who wrestles with social anxiety, I have a strong fear of judgement.  As a result, I find myself doing everything I can to avoid the judgement of people. I often adjust myself to meet the expectations of others. I carefully select the parts of myself that I think will be acceptable to them. And in the process I lose sight of simply being the authentic person God has created me to be.

God has also been showing me the danger of judging myself. I can be my own worst critic. It is so natural for me to dwell on the things that I don’t like about myself. My inner critic reminds me of all the places where I fall short. And in the process I lose sight of the person that God is shaping me to be. I focus on the flaws in who I currently am, not on the whole and healed person that I am becoming.

As a result, I loved the above quote by Timothy Keller. What a hopeful thought! God desires for me to be free not only from the opinion of man, but also from my opinion of myself.

People aren’t my judge.

I am not my judge.

God alone is my judge.

And He loves me unconditionally.

Since Jesus received all judgement on the cross, I am free from the judgement of man. And I am free from my own self-judgement.

I wanted to close this post with a song by Andrew Peterson. He is such a kindred spirit and I love his honest and authentic song-writing. This song has ministered to me numerous times when I’ve felt tempted to judge and condemn myself. I hope it speaks to you.

Be Kind To Yourself: Andrew Peterson

My Shepherd

“The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters.”

-Psalm 23: 1 and 2

Recently the Lord asked me to give up my vigilance. I’ve realized that vigilance has been a driving force in my life and a central root of my anxiety.

I am always aware of things that could go wrong. As a result, I tend to operate from a state of constant vigilance, trying to foresee potential problems and then doing whatever I can to avoid them.

I’ve noticed that vigilance affects my relationships. Instead of truly enjoying the moment with people, I often find myself on edge. I over-analyze situations, trying to identify all of the possible outcomes. And I waste so much energy trying to avoid the disapproval of others.

Sadly my vigilance causes me to miss out on joy. When I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, I miss out on the beauty that is happening right now in the present moment.

I’m learning that God doesn’t call me to live a life of vigilance. I’ve always loved Psalm 23 and the simple but powerful picture of God as my Shepherd.

I am not my shepherd. He is.

What a freeing perspective.

It’s the Shepherd’s job be vigilant and watchful on behalf of the sheep.

As the sheep, I am simply called to rest at peace in my Shepherd’s care.

I will still face problems and challenges. However, I don’t need to fear them.

If I truly trust that my Shepherd is guiding my life and has my best interest in mind, I can release control.

I can let go of my hyper-vigilance and trust that God is vigilant on my behalf.

And I can truly rest.

The Power of Remembrance

“I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all of your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” -Psalm 77:11

One of the greatest themes that I’ve noticed in the Bible is the importance of remembrance. All throughout the Scriptures, God calls His people to remember His goodness.

In the book of Leviticus, God appointed weekly and yearly rhythms of remembrance for the people of Israel. For example, the Sabbath was a weekly rhythm to remember how God rested on the seventh day. The Passover was a yearly rhythm to remember how God delivered the Israelites from Egypt.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the Israelites regularly created altars of remembrance to commemorate God’s miraculous works. For example, in Joshua 4, they stacked 12 stones in remembrance of how God miraculously parted the Jordan river and let them cross on dry land.

All throughout the Psalms, David and other writers meditated on the works and wonders of God. They called the reader to remember God’s past faithfulness and dwell on His goodness.

Most poignantly, at the Last Supper, Jesus invited His followers to take the bread and the cup in remembrance of Him.

It’s clear that God calls His followers to be a people marked by remembrance.

There is so much power in remembering God’s goodness.

And there is so much danger in forgetting.

The Israelites repeatedly forgot the Lord and His goodness to them. They cycled through seasons of faithful remembrance and seasons of forgetfulness. When they forgot God, they became captives to idolatry and oppression.

“They did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by His law. They forgot what He had done, and the wonders He had shown them. They did not remember His power— the day He redeemed them from the oppressor.”

-Psalm 78: 10, 11, and 42 

Oh, how I see my own heart reflected in the story of Israel. I am so quick to forget all that God has done for me. And forgetting God’s goodness makes me vulnerable to the schemes of the Enemy.

I’ve noticed that I’m most vulnerable to anxiety when I focus my attention on disappointment and pain. When I dwell on all that seems wrong in my life, the Enemy attacks me with doubt, self-pity, and fear.

However, the opposite happens when I dwell on God’s goodness in my life. I notice the ways that He has been guiding and sustaining my life since the day I was born. I remember the difficult seasons He has carried me through and the growth that He done in my heart. I am struck by the deep and meaningful relationships He has provided in different seasons of my life. And most of all, I remember the way He has unconditionally loved me and forgiven my sins.

Now this doesn’t mean that I ignore the pain and disappointments in my life. However, I don’t dwell in them alone. Instead, I invite God’s interpretation of the painful events I experience. I ask Him to show me the ways that He is acting redemptively in my life, bringing good out of what the Enemy intended for evil.

I want to share several practices that help me to dwell on God’s goodness.

Daily Gratitude: I know I wrote about this in an earlier post, but it’s worth mentioning again. Gratitude is a powerful weapon against anxiety and self pity. At the close of each day,  I like to take inventory of the day and ask God to reveal His goodness and grace to me. This can include very small moments like the grace to handle a difficult conversation, energy when I felt weak, or the beautiful, misty morning as I drove to work. Looking for God’s fingerprints in the small things enables me to see the larger patterns of His goodness in my life.

Reading old journals: Every year or so, I read back through my journals. Each time I am struck by the ways that God has been so faithful in my life. I remember times when I felt lost and afraid, but God was actually at work in ways that I couldn’t see at the time. I am struck by how God repeatedly used painful situations to draw me into deeper intimacy with Him. Reflecting on old journals gives me fresh perspective on current circumstances and renews my hope for the future.

Writing a psalm: A mentor of mine gave me this idea. She encouraged me to take Psalm 136 and re-write it about my own life, following each example of God’s goodness with the phrase “His love endures forever.” My psalm started as follows:

God knit me together in my mother’s womb.

His love endures forever.

God blessed me with dear parents who love and serve Him.

His love endures forever…

I found that writing out chronological acts of God’s goodness helped me to better see His hand in my life.

Creating my own altar of remembrance: This is another idea from the same mentor. She suggested drawing my own altar of remembrance (like the Israelite people did in Joshua 4). In each stone, I wrote a specific way that God has been faithful in my life. I’ve found this visual to be a powerful reminder of the way God’s faithfulness builds upon itself in my life.

Especially in dark seasons, I notice my human tendency to focus on all that seems wrong in my life. However, I know that I don’t need to stay stuck there.

Even in the most challenging times, God invites me to re-frame my perspective.

He invites me to remember who He is and what He has done.

I don’t want to ever forget.