The Importance of Habits

I’m becoming convinced that our habits are one of the most important things about us. What we do truly does shape who we become. I’ve been especially aware of this reality during this long pandemic season. On the one hand, this season is such an opportunity. I believe that God wants to use this time to develop our character, to deepen our intimacy with Him, to strengthen our relationships with others, and to establish life-giving rhythms and habits in our lives.

However, we must recognize that the enemy also wants to use this time for evil. He wants to isolate us, distract us, and trap us in destructive habits and addictions to numb the discomfort of this season.

I don’t know when this pandemic will end and life will return to some level of normalcy. However, when that times come, we will either be closer to Jesus and His vision for our lives or we may find ourselves isolated, addicted, and caught in destructive habits to numb our pain. Therefore, I believe that mindfulness of our habits is especially critical right now.

The honest truth is that maintaining healthy habits is not my strength. I’m a creative person which means that I tend to only want to do things when I feel inspired or “in the mood”. As a result, my habits are often dictated by my fluctuating emotions and desires. I’ll have great intentions that last for a while and then peter out. Since habits are difficult for me, I’ve been really asking God to develop me in this area. I want to share a few things God has been teaching me about establishing life-giving habits.

Building Habits Based on Identity: In his book Atomic Habits, (highly recommend!) author James Clear challenges an outcome-based approach to habits. He writes:

“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start focusing on who we wish to become.”

-James Clear

When creating habits, James Clear suggests first asking ourselves who we want to become. He suggests focusing on identity statements more than on tangible outcomes. For example, if I create a goal to run 20 miles a week (a tangible outcome), I will quickly become discouraged when I miss that mark and I may decide to abandon running completely. However, if my mission is to become a runner (an identity statement), then I am successful every time I run, even if it’s for just 10 minutes. This motivates me to keep running and go farther the next time. I’ve found that I stick with habits more consistently when I focus on the person I want to become rather than on a specific outcome.

Just starting: I think that the hardest part of developing a habit is simply getting started. However, once we’re started on a habit, it’s difficult to stop. I love how James Clear articulates this idea. He writes:

“Habits are like the entrance ramp to a highway. They lead you down a path, and before you know it, you’re speeding toward the next behavior. It seems easier to continue what you’re already doing than to start doing something different.”

-James Clear

This is true for negative habits. It takes just a second to turn on Netflix, but haven’t we all experienced the vortex of wasted time that usually ensues? However this is also true for positive habits. Putting on my running shoes and driving to the park is always the hardest part of going on a run. But one I’ve started running, I don’t want to stop. Waking up early and reading my Bible feels hard initially, but once I’m spending time with Jesus, I don’t want to leave. It’s been so helpful to realize that the true battle isn’t the habit itself, but rather the first couple minutes of getting started.

Crafting a rule of life: In His book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer describes the power of developing a rule of life.

“What a trellis is to a vine, a rule of life is to abiding. It’s a structure— in this case a schedule and a set of practices — to set up abiding as the central pursuit of your life… If a vine doesn’t have a trellis, it will die. And if your life with Jesus doesn’t have some kind of structure to facilitate health and growth, it will wither away.”

-John Mark Comer

According to John Mark Comer, a rule of life is basically an intentional set of practices and habits that shape the people we become. I created a rule of life this summer and it has been so life-giving for me. I navigate my rule of life imperfectly and struggle to always be consistent, but the cumulative effect on my life has been so good.

I started by writing out daily habits that I wanted to incorporate into my life. Some of these included daily gratitude, limiting my phone use, running, and quiet time with Jesus. Then I wrote out weekly practices that are important to me like community with my small group, ministry at church, intentional time with friends, and taking a weekly Sabbath. Finally, I decided on monthly habits. Several of these include going on a hike, taking one day away with Jesus, and seeing a counselor or mentor.

I think that a healthy rule of life will look different for everyone because God has wired us all so uniquely. The things that are life-giving for me, might not be life-giving for you. Therefore, I think it’s really important to invite God into this process and ask Him to show us who we are becoming and what habits will help get us there.

Taking time to Reflect: One of the most important parts of creating a rule of life is reflecting. I try to take a little bit of time each night, each week, and each month to reflect on my rule of life. I’ll notice how my habits are affecting my feelings, relationships, and closeness to Jesus. When I consistently maintain a life-giving habit, I’ll celebrate the joy and growth that it’s bringing to my life.

Additionally, when I find myself repeatedly breaking good habits or engaging in destructive ones, I need to invite God to examine my heart. The purpose here is not condemnation or to be super hard on myself. Instead, I try to compassionately ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. What’s the deeper reason?

For example, if I find myself spending too much time on social media, I might ask myself: What need is this filling in me? I may recognize a feeling of loneliness or disconnection. Those feelings aren’t inherently bad, I’m just filling them in an unhealthy way. This realization helps to me reach out to tangible people or spend time with Jesus instead.

Or let’s say that I’m eating too much fast food (definitely my weakness!). Instead of feeling bad or guilty I can ask myself: What feelings or emotions am I numbing with food? How does Jesus want to meet me in this place?

Seeking Accountability: This is probably the biggest game changer. We’re not met to walk through life alone. Therefore, accountability is vital, especially in the areas where we struggle. I find that I’m so much more likely to stick with a habit if a friend or family member is doing it with me or at least checking up on me. Although, this requires vulnerability, accountability is so important. And when I find myself in a destructive habit, I need people in my life to speak God’s grace to me and encourage me to move forward in freedom.

I’d love to hear from you. What have been some life-giving habits for you in this season? How do you develop and maintain those habits in your life?

Navigating Loneliness

This is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but I have struggled to articulate my thoughts until recently. I believe that our world is currently going through one of the loneliest seasons in human history and therefore the topic of loneliness is more relevant than ever before. The global pandemic is stripping away many of the social supports that people have depended upon. It’s driving people into isolation and disconnectedness. And whenever I ask people about how they’re doing, loneliness seems to be the strongest emotion that surfaces.

Loneliness is such a universal experience. In his book Together, an incredible book about the power of human connection, author and former US Surgeon General Vivek Murphy describes 3 circles of loneliness. He writes:

“Intimate, or emotional, loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner—someone with whom you share a deep, mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational, or social, loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.”

-Vivek H. Murphy

Murphy’s theory is that if even one of these circles of connection is missing, we feel lonely. This perspective makes so much sense to me. It explains why someone can be happily married, but feel lonely because they don’t have quality friendships. Or someone else can have close friendships, but feel lonely due to a lack of community.

I believe that it’s even possible to be lonely while with other people. In fact, I think that this is the most painful type of loneliness. It’s possible to feel lonely in a crowd, lonely while with friends, and even lonely in a marriage. We are wired for connection— to know and be known. However, since we live in a fallen world, our connection with others is riddled with misunderstandings. We regularly miss each other’s hearts and even our best moments of connection fall short of the perfect intimacy God designed us for.

As a result we’re lonely.

However, I’ve noticed that we often avoid admitting our loneliness. In his book The Restless Heart, Ronald Rolheiser describes this phenomenon.

“Most of us are reluctant to admit our loneliness even to ourselves. All of us tend to have a congenital need to deny that we experience loneliness and that it is, in some way, responsible for many of our feelings, actions, and pursuits… We admit that we are lonely only with feelings of shame and weakness. Also, most of us feel that loneliness is not something that should affect normal, healthy persons.”

-Ronald Rolheiser

We tend to dance around the word “loneliness”, saying that we feel “sad”, “disconnected”, and “confused”. But I think that at the core, many of us feel just plain lonely. However, I think that there’s a social stigma around loneliness that keeps us from admitting this to ourselves and to others.

I believe that naming our loneliness and facing it head on is what limits its power over us. Loneliness can be a destructive force in our lives. But it also can be used by the Lord in beautiful ways if we’ll let Him. I want to share some strategies God has taught me for navigating loneliness when it pops up in my life.

Honesty with God: We never have to pretend with God. He knows our feelings and emotions before we even know them ourselves. When I feel lonely, I will simply tell God, “I feel lonely right now.” And the best part is that Jesus understands. We have a High Priest who understands our weakness. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all the loneliness in the world. When He said, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus experienced the deepest possible loneliness— separation from the Father. He understand loneliness in a way that no one else can.

Refusing distraction and busyness: When I feel lonely, I tend to throw myself into a flurry of activity and distraction. I try to have every weeknight scheduled and I make plans for a busy weekend. However, when I notice myself becoming flurried and frenetic, I need to slow down and ask God several questions: Am I feeling lonely? Did you ask me to do these things? Or am I just avoiding being alone? If I realize that loneliness is the root, I need to take that to Jesus and ask Him to fill my loneliness.

Pursuing intimacy with Jesus: This is by far the most important step. if we don’t look to Jesus first, then we will look to others to fill our emptiness. This puts a pressure on our relationships that they weren’t intended to bear. When I feel alone, the thing my heart needs most is quality time with Jesus. He knows us in a way that no human being can. Psalm 139 beautifully illustrates this truth. It reads:

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.

Psalm 139:1-4

Prioritizing relationships and community: Not only does God bless us with His presence, but He also invites us into the blessing of community. It is a beautiful gift to have tangible people in the flesh to walk beside us in life. When I used to feel lonely, I would isolate myself even more from people. However, this past year, God has been teaching me to reach out. I can spend time with my roommates, I can call a friend or a family member, or I can be intentional with my church community. Loneliness is a reminder that we need one another and aren’t meant to walk through life alone. Our loneliness can propel us into deeper connection with the people in our lives.

Noticing others who are lonely: I believe that the most painful experiences in our lives can be transformed into gifts when we allow God to use them. Seasons of loneliness increase our sensitivity and empathy for others who feel lonely. When I feel lonely, I ask myself, “What can I do to lessen someone else’s loneliness right now?” In times of loneliness, it’s so easy to get lost in ourselves and in self-absorption. However, God invites us to look out and see the people around us, to make them feel noticed and cared about.

God can transform our loneliness into a deeper understanding, compassion, and empathy for others.

And that is a beautiful thing.

The Power of Gratitude

“Live in gratitude: To be a saint is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less… Holiness is gratitude.”

-Ronald Rolheiser

When I read this quote the other day, it challenged me deeply. A heart of gratitude does not come naturally to me. It’s so easy for me to see all that is wrong and broken in the world and in my own life. However, in this season God has been inviting me to focus on all that is good. I think that during this challenging season in the world, gratitude is especially vital. Gratitude is a powerful antidote for discouragement, disappointment, self pity, and any other scheme of the enemy.

I want to share some ways that God has been inviting me into deeper gratitude. I hope that these ideas might be an encouragement to you if you find yourself in a similar place.

Accepting Difficulty: I think that as humans, we tend to approach life with a lot of idealism and expectation. In doing so, we often forget the simple truth that sometimes life is just plain hard. In his famous book “The Road Less Traveled”, M. Scott Peck opens with the following line:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we see it, we transcend it.”

We often approach life expecting it to be heaven on earth. But it just isn’t. We live in a fallen world and all is not as it should be. Pandemics and natural disasters happen. Our bodies get sick and let us down. We experience the pain of broken relationships. Our callings and vocations sometimes lack the fulfillment and tangible results that we desire.

There’s so much freedom in simply accepting this. Moreover, this perspective inspires gratitude. When we stop viewing the good things in life as rights that we’re entitled to, we begin to see good things as they actually are. Unmerited favor. Gracious gifts from a loving Father.

A daily gratitude practice: The past few years I’ve experimented with making gratitude a daily habit. Sometimes gratitude bursts out of our hearts, completely unprompted. But more often I’ve found it to be a discipline that grows through daily practice. Our actions shape the people we become. Just like someone becomes a runner by running each day, we become grateful people by practicing daily gratitude.

For me this means making a list in my journal each night before bed. I title my list “evidences of grace”. Then I write down simple ways that I experienced God’s grace throughout the day. This could be something profound and beautiful like a sunset on my drive home or something simple like a moment of laughter with my students over Zoom. I love this practice because it changes my attitude during the day. As I discover God’s gifts throughout the day, I’ll write them down on a note in my phone so that I’ll remember to add them to my list at night. This centers my heart in a place of deeper gratitude throughout the day.

Regular worship: Recently I was struck by how much of Christian worship music is centered on our human feelings and our problems. While I think that this music definitely has a time and a place, I’ve noticed that sometimes it can put me in a place of self-absorption. Lately God has been challenging me to take some time each day to worship Him with songs of adoration and gratitude. These songs center my heart on God’s character and who He is rather than on myself. This naturally moves my heart to a posture of gratitude rather than entitlement.

The gift of memory: I’m a very future-oriented person and don’t spend a lot of time focusing on memories. However, I’ve been wondering if God might want to use our memories during this season. I was recently listening to a sermon by John Mark Comer where he suggested writing down the ten best moments of your life. He then said to go back to each of those memories in your mind and spend some time intentionally thanking God. I tried this idea and found it to be very joyful. I wonder if during this challenging season in the world, we may need to draw strength from joyful memories from the past.

Allowing loss to inspire gratitude: It seems that basically everyone is experiencing some form of loss right now. The other day my mom shared with me a powerful perspective on loss. When we find ourselves missing something, we can have renewed gratitude for that thing we’ve lost.

For example, as I currently teach my students over Zoom, I feel so much more grateful for the 5 years that I taught them in person. And I know that I will be so much more grateful for that gift when we are back in the classroom again. Additionally, as we all anticipate the holidays looking different this year due to covid, we can be grateful for previous holidays. And I know that we will treasure our relationships with family even more after this season.

Thanking others: This idea is simple, but so powerful. Lately I’ve tried to notice the specific ways that people bless me. And instead of just noticing those blessings, God’s been challenging me to actually say thank you. It’s so easy to take for granted the people we spend time with on a daily basis. We can so easily miss the gift of their support, kindness, and friendship. Lately. I’ve really enjoyed writing old fashioned thank you notes and sending them in the mail. But whatever the means, I think there’s something so powerful in saying thank you to the people we love.

I’d love to hear from you! How has God been teaching you to practice gratitude and find joy during this season? I’m way in process with this one and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Perfect Timing

“My timing is in all things. I am faithful in being, providing, arriving, communicating, and changing things at exactly the right time.”

Blessing Your Spirit, By: Sylvia Gunter and Arthur A. Burk

The honest truth is that lately I’ve struggled to trust God’s timing. I know that God’s timing is best. However, sometimes it’s hard for my soul to believe this, especially when there are so many unknowns in the world right now.

As a 3rd grade teacher about to start the school year online, I want to know if I will be teaching online for just a few months or for the rest of the year. As I pray for several loved ones whom I desperately want to be saved, I wonder how long it will take for God to soften their hearts. As I become more aware of broken areas in my life that need healing, I feel frustrated by the long and often slow process of transformation. As I gain a deeper sense of God’s calling on my life, I want to know the timeline of the ministries He has placed upon my heart. And as I wrestle with several personal desires in my heart that continue to go unmet, I’m not hearing a clear answer from God about if or when those desires will be met.

This truly is a season of trusting and waiting.

The past couple of months, I have spent a lot of time meditating on Psalm 31. Verses 14 and and 15 have been especially highlighted to me:

“But I trust in you, Lord. I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”

It’s such a simple truth, but one that I need to dwell on until I believe it in the core of my being.

My times are in God’s hands.

God’s perspective is so much bigger than ours. He sees the big picture of human history and is orchestrating events to fit His perfect plan. Therefore I have to trust that even when I don’t understand what He’s doing, His timing in the world is perfect.

And I know that the same is true in our daily lives. God cares so much about the people we are becoming and the character He is developing within us. He wants our ultimate good more than our immediate happiness. He knows us intimately and therefore knows the perfect timing of every detail of our lives.

I want to close by sharing a song that has really blessed me in this season. I hope it is an encouragement to you. Some of my favorite lyrics are as follows:

Take courage my heart
Stay steadfast my soul
He’s in the waiting
He’s in the waiting
Hold onto your hope
As your triumph unfolds
He’s never failing
He’s never failing

Take Courage, By: Kristene DiMarco

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.