Fixation

“What you give your attention to is the person you become. Put another way: the mind is the portal to the soul, and what you fill your mind with will shape the trajectory of your character. In the end, your life is no more than the sum of what you gave your attention to.”

-John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

I tend to fixate on things.

This can show up in positive ways  for me. For example, I love to nerd out about topics of interest and can spend hours researching about anything and everything. I am a learner who loves to understand every facet of a topic.

However, this also can be a challenging part of my personality. When I’m wrestling with anxiety, I tend to fixate on my fears about the future. I analyze everything that could possibly go wrong. I obsess about the problems in my life, including difficult relationships or challenging work situations. When I become absorbed in problems and anxieties, I miss all of the beautiful gifts that are right around me. And the Enemy steals my joy.

At the same time, I think the opposite is also possible. The Enemy can also distort our good and beautiful desires. Sometimes I fixate so intently on the blessings in life— on things like my job, my family, and other meaningful relationships. This can be a problem, especially when I start to view these things as necessary to my happiness, safety, or security. Good desires become ultimate desires. And that’s the definition of idolatry.

As a result, I was deeply impacted when I read the above quote by John Mark Comer.

Our attention is one of the most powerful resources we have. And the things we give our attention to really do define who we become.

Recently I was talking to someone about my tendency to fixate. While they agreed that fixation can be dangerous, they reminded me that it’s always safe to fixate on the Lord. In fact, He’s the answer to all of our other fixations.

When I fixate on the Lord, my anxieties and problems seem to melt away. I gain His big picture perspective and realize how much energy I’m wasting trying to analyze and control my own life.

And when I fixate on Him, I become less attached to the good things in life that I think I need to be happy. I realize that He’s the only thing that will every fully satisfy the deepest needs of my heart.

I’m reminded of Hebrews 12:2 which says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…”

Jesus is the only thing worthy of our fixation. And if it’s true that our fixations shape who we become, I want Jesus to be my heart’s fixation above all others.

Anxiety and Technology

The past couple of years, I have been considering how technology affects my anxiety. As I’ve become more mindful of my phone use, I’ve noticed a strong correlation between my anxiety level and the amount of time I spend online.

As I’ve pondered this, I’ve realized that we live in a culture characterized by information overload. There is so much digital content created every day and it can feel overwhelming to keep up with all of it. At the click of a button, we can learn about any news event happening anywhere in the world. On social media, we know intimate details about people we barely know in real life. And the amount of entertainment available at our fingertips is seemingly endless. As someone who struggles with anxiety, too much time online causes my already overactive brain to feel even more stressed and frenetic. Even more importantly, I’ve realized that an unhealthy relationship with technology hinders me from living life to the fullest in the real world.

As a result, I was deeply impacted by the following sermon by John Mark Comer from Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon. You can listen to it here:

The Case for a Digital Asceticism

I highly recommend his message. Honestly, he’s the only pastor I’ve heard dive deep into this issue. His message is so timely and relevant.

One of my greatest takeaways from John Mark’s sermon was the importance of developing a “digital rule of life”. Basically he suggests creating a set of rules and practices around technology in order to use it in a healthier way.

These are some practical steps that I’ve been taking to create my own “digital rule of life”:

Deleting unessential apps: First, I went through my phone and deleted many of my apps. I focused on the ones that regularly waste my time. YouTube was the first to go. I find that if I don’t have the app on my phone, I’m much less likely to spend time on the website. And if I do decide to intentionally spend time on sites like YouTube, I can use my laptop instead of my phone. I also consolidated my apps into a few simple categories so that my home screen is simple and less cluttered.

Putting boundaries around social media: I’ll be honest that I still struggle in this area. However, I’ve found it helpful to set time limits on my phone for social media apps (you can do this on the iPhone, but I’m not sure about other phones). I set a specific time limit for social media each day and then my phone turns off the app when I reach that limit. I’ve also found it helpful to take intentional breaks from social media when I notice that my soul needs it.

Turing off my phone: Sometimes I like to power off my phone completely. For example, when I’m at church or spending intentional time with God, it’s helpful to completely turn my phone off. When I’m spending one-on-one time with a friend or family member, I try to leave my phone in my purse so that I can be fully present with them.

I also love John Mark’s idea of “parenting your phone”. This means putting it to bed in another room each night and turning it back on the next morning only after spending time with the Lord. I recently bought an old fashioned alarm clock to wake me up (so I’m not dependent on my phone’s alarm). I’m excited to make this a part of my daily practice.

Limiting TV and movies: About a year ago, I stopped regularly watching TV. And it’s been one of the best decisions of my life. I discovered that TV was probably the biggest time-waster in my life. I hated the restless feeling I had after binge-watching a TV show. I also noticed that the twisted perspectives and worldviews of many TV shows were affecting me more than I realized. So I just decided to stop.

At this point, I’ll occasionally watch a movie or a single episode of a quality show. But I’m much more selective about what I watch. And if I do watch something, I try to include a friend or family member so that we can discuss what we’re watching together.

Keeping beneficial technology: I want to be clear that I don’t think all technology is harmful. In fact, I’ve found that certain types of technology actually enrich my life. For example, I absolutely love streaming music on Spotify.  I also get so much value from podcasts and listen to them daily. I use WordPress to express my thoughts creatively and to read the writing of others. I’m also a big fan of Pinterest. I regularly use it research topics of interest and find new and creative ideas. And I don’t know how I’d survive without the maps app on my phone!

We are all so different and so finding a healthy relationship with technology may look very different for each of us. What is beneficial for you, may be unhealthy for me. And what is life-giving for me, may not be helpful to you.

Therefore, I would encourage you to simply ask the Lord about your relationship with technology and be open to trying what He says.

Since I am very in process with this, I would love to hear from any of you. Have you noticed a correlation between technology and anxiety? What are some practical ways that you put healthy boundaries around technology?

Dealing with Disappointment

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

-Proverbs 13:12

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of disappointment. As human beings, God has made us with deep desires and longings. We are hardwired to hope for what is good. However, we also live in a fallen world where all is not as it should be. As a result, many of our dreams and ideals are never fully realized.

We all get disappointed.

In my personal life, I’ve noticed that disappointment is a word that has come up for me in many different seasons of my life. I’ve realized that disappointment is one of the main strategies the Enemy uses to hinder my relationship with God. I know from personal experience just how easy it is to get stuck there.

Therefore, instead of acting like a victim of my disappointment, I’ve been asking God to show me healthier ways to navigate the losses in my life. These are some tools He has taught me for dealing with disappointment:

Healthy grieving: I believe it’s important to grieve our losses. And it’s okay to feel sad. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary. We can’t truly get to the other side of disappointment without facing it head on and allowing ourselves to feel the pain.

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazerro talks about the importance of embracing grieving and loss. His perspective has been so helpful to me. He writes:

“Our culture routinely interprets losses as alien invasions that interrupt our normal lives. We numb our pain through denial, blaming, rationalizations, addiction, and avoidance. We search for spiritual shortcuts around our wounds… Sadly the result of denying and minimizing our wounds over many years is that we become less and less human, empty Christian shells with painted smiley faces.”

As Scazerro points out, grieving is both necessary and Biblical. Two-thirds of the Psalms are laments of grief. The Bible even describes Jesus as a “man of sorrow”and “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Part of being like Jesus is embracing grief and loss. I’m learning that grief isn’t just an annoying interruption to my life that I need to quickly pass through. Instead it’s an important process that has the potential to shape me, grow me, and deepen my intimacy with God. It is always safe to grieve in the presence of God. And there is something so intimate and comforting about letting God grieve my disappointments with me.

Refusing self-pity: There is such a difference between grieving and self-pity. In my experience, grieving draws me closer to God and His comforting love. In contrast, self-pity distances me from God and from others. When I dwell in self-pity, I start to doubt God’s goodness and guidance in my life. I compare my losses to the people around me and feel like no one can understand what I’m going through. Self-pity isolates me from the love of God and the very people who want to help me. Hannah Hurnard writes about self-pity in her book Kingdom of Love. She says:

“There is no prison house so cruel as the prison of resentment and self-pity, and the effect on those who languish long in that bondage is to suffer a progressively destructive influence on character, personality, and physical health.”

What a sobering truth. Self-pity has the potential to destroy me from the inside out. Therefore, I must actively refuse self-pity when I find myself dwelling there. 

Re-kindling desire : In seasons of disappointment, it’s tempting to shut down the heart. Chronic disappointment has the potential to harden us. It’s so tempting to kill our desires in an effort to avoid future pain. However, this is not the way to live. I love John Eldredge’s perspective in The Journey of desire. He says:

“The greatest human tragedy is to give up the search. Nothing is of greater importance than the life of our deep heart. To lose heart is to lose everything.”

It takes courage to keep hoping and desiring. But it’s so necessary. I never want my current disappointments to keep me from believing in what God can and will do in my future. Disappointment gets me in touch with my deep desire for God and for heaven. One day all will be restored and made right. And it’s good to desire that.

Thanking God for what is: When I get stuck in disappointment, I focus on what is missing. I obsess about the missing puzzle piece, while ignoring the rest of the picture. As I’ve mentioned before, gratitude and thankfulness are such powerful practices at times like this. When I shift my focus from what’s missing, I see all the gifts and blessings that surround my life. And even more importantly, I see the gifts and blessings that have entered my life through my disappointments. God loves to take even the worst situations that the Enemy intended for evil and transform them into something beautiful and redemptive. 

Looking for new appointments: Recently I was talking to an older and wiser woman about her experience with disappointment. She suggested that the “dis” words (like disbelief, discouragement, and disappointment) are all strategies of the Enemy. God’s invitation to each of us is the opposite of those words. For example, in our disbelief, God wants to give us deeper belief. When we feel discouraged, God wants to give us deeper courage. And when we feel disappointed, God invites us into new appointments.

I just love this perspective. Rather than seeing disappointment as a dead end, I can view it as a door to something new. When I feel disappointed, I’m learning to ask God, “What is my new appointment?” God won’t leave us stuck in disappointment. Whenever something ends, God invites us into something new.

Death means that resurrection is coming.

Endings mean that there are new beginnings.

And disappointment means that there is a new appointment.

We just need to have eyes to see it.

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.

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.