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.

Becoming a Person of Love

“Claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others. The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing. It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness.” 

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved 

Henri Nouwen has always been one of my favorite authors and I just love this quote! It is so simple, but true.

The way I view myself profoundly impacts the way I treat others.

When I’m hard on myself, I tend to be hard on others. When I’m self-critical, I find myself leaking an attitude of criticism towards others. And when I focus on my flaws and mistakes, I tend to also notice the faults in others.

However, the opposite is also true. When I claim my own belovedness, I see the belovedness of others. When I know that God delights in me, I more readily delight in the people around me. And when I experience God’s unconditional love, that same kind of love flows out of my heart towards others.

Recently I’ve been struck by how Jesus’ identity was deeply rooted in His Father’s love. When Jesus was baptized,  His Father said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” It is clear that Jesus’ ministry came out of a deep sense of security in His Father’s love. Love was the reason Jesus came to earth and the core motivation behind everything that He did.

Oh, how I want that to be true in my own life!

Lately I’ve tried to intentionally spend time in God’s presence simply letting God love me.

During these times, I’ll ask God to show me what He loves about me. I’ll accept His love even in the areas where I am broken and far from perfect. I’ll meditate on the love He showed for me when He died on the cross. And I’ll picture His love filling the empty places of my heart and overflowing to others.

I’m realizing that knowing about God’s love and actually experiencing it are two very different things.

I want to become a person of love.

And the first step is letting God love me.

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.

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.