Not Enough?

I turned 40 years old in April of this year, and we all know what that means: I’m at that age. When the eyesight starts to fade a little more. When the physical prowess begins to decline. When the luster of the job begins to wear off. When, theoretically, half of a man’s life is over, which means two dreaded words…

Midlife … crisis.

midlifeI actually do plan on writing about this subject a little more in-depth here in the future, but for this particular post I only introduce it to bring up a line I noticed in a book I was recently reading: Men in Midlife Crisis, by Jim Conway. I checked the book out of a local library just before Christmas, and, unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish reading it, but what I managed to get through was quite insightful. In fact, I may have to add it to my own personal library at some point in the future.

As expected, the book contains plenty of discussion on affairs, a hallmark of many men’s midlife periods. I’m certainly not going to explore that subject here, but I was struck by something Conway wrote about it. Observe the following paragraph on attempting to end an affair:

I have helped both Christians and non-Christians through the painful disengagement process. None of these people has been willing to disengage simply because of the clear moral teaching of scripture – “You must not commit adultery.” Nor have any of these midlife men been convinced to disengage because of obligations to their families or previous commitments. It is my experience that people are only ready to disengage from an affair if the dissatisfaction level rises high enough so that the couple feels there is greater stress and less satisfaction than what they had hoped for.

A local Bible teacher who passed away earlier this year used to have a saying: God plus nothing equals everything. There’s the principle of sola scriptura, the sufficiency of scripture. There’s even an old Southern Gospel song that says, “When Jesus says it’s enough, it’ll be enough.” What gets us to Jesus and draws us into scripture, though? There has to be some breaking point where we just say, “Okay, I’ve had enough. This is just not working anymore. I’m done.”

I’m not trying to say that Jesus cannot lift us out of any situation, or that scripture is somehow not sufficient to instruct us on how to live our lives correctly. God, after all, parted the Red Sea and formed man from the very dust of the Earth. In many instances of life, though, we have to come to a place where we decide the path we are on is vastly inferior to the one He wants to take us on. We have to see in real life that our decisions aren’t working and our habits are harmful to us and we need to make a change.

It almost feels blasphemous to even suggest it, but sometimes what works isn’t enough. Sometimes the strain of what is not working has to become so great that we are spurred to action. Things have to become intolerable sometimes to make us want to change. I wrote here Friday about the insanity of how I stubbornly refuse to give up certain habits that only worsen my depression. I’m beginning to notice a life principle here: Getting sick of a situation or a behavior is often the only way to begin the process of getting rid of it.

So as the new year rapidly approaches, if you’re hearing that tiny voice in your head saying, “This isn’t worth it anymore,” maybe you should give it a listen. It might be prompting you toward the answer that really is enough.

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The Threshold And The Fear Of Flying

Several years ago, I gave up drinking caffeine. I didn’t even wean myself off it. One day I was memedrinking it; the next day I was not. Consuming caffeine was causing me some pretty scary health issues, most notably severe headaches, so I came to the conclusion that it was harmful enough to me that I had to cut it out completely. I went through three days of headaches that actually seemed worse than the headaches I was trying to get rid of, but eventually this new pain subsided. Now I feel so much better that I don’t want to drink it ever again.

It would stand to reason that I would be able to kick out everything in my life that is harmful to me with just as much resolve and swiftness. If only that were true. I have habits and hang-ups that have plagued since my teenage years that I still wrestle with today as a 40 year old. I have thought patterns that lead me down rabbit holes to nowhere. I sabotage myself on a daily basis in one way or another. It should be easy for me to want to put these things down; it isn’t.

There are certain times in our lives when we feel like we are on the threshold of a breakthrough. That if we could just step off the ledge and believe, we could fly to the places we’ve always wanted to be. These are also the times when we realize we have to surrender something to get to those places. Oftentimes the things we have to give up are so ingrained in us that they feel like a part of us. We wonder how we can even exist as a person without them.

So, instead of giving them up, we hold onto them. And we don’t fly.

It doesn’t make any sense to hang onto things that hurt us, whether they’re behaviors or thought patterns or relationships. We do it all the time, though. These things become who we are after a while, and we feel as if letting them go will be like cutting off a part of ourselves. I keep saying “we,” but I really mean “I.” I run back to unfruitful relationships. I am so afraid of failure I don’t try new things. I don’t change the habits in my life that lead me down paths of sin because, well, maybe I don’t want to change all that much.

cliffSo I’m back at the threshold again, and I’m feeling that fear of flying again. I know if I go back I’ll regret it, but the old places are comfortable and familiar. They don’t require change. At the same time, they always eventually make me feel bad. I always think they won’t, and they even deliver good feelings for a while, but they inevitably let me down. Giving them up will cause pain, but just like the post-caffeine headaches, that pain will eventually go away, and I’ll wonder why I ever tolerated them in the first place.

I’m weak, though. I need prayers. I need support. I need encouragement. I need Jesus to step in and move things supernaturally out of my way and out of my life. For what feels like the millionth time in my life, I’m standing at the edge. Will I actually want to step off it this time?

Perhaps I’ve Said Too Much

I’ve been very fascinated recently with the concept of self-sabotage, where a person either sabotageconsciously or subconsciously engages in behaviors that will almost certainly lead them to failure. According to an article published on the Psychology Today website, “The most common self-sabotaging behaviors are procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.”

These are all definitely very serious behaviors and deserving of special attention, but I’ve been thinking of a different kind of self-defeating behavior lately. It has to do with how we view ourselves, the faults we either have or believe we have, and how open we are in sharing those faults.

The very nature of this blog is very confessional, and I’ve pointed out several negative aspects about myself. Inevitably, in the course of a natural conversation with me, I will point out at least one unflattering trait about myself as well. Most of my humor is self-deprecating, and I’m always the first to point out my own mistakes.

Why do I do this? Well, I’ve been trying to figure that out lately. I have several different theories. Maybe I have low self-esteem. Maybe I’m a very honest person. Maybe I believe I’m somehow being more genuine than everyone else if I show all my warts. Maybe I think it shows other people that I’m human, just like them. Maybe I hate myself. Maybe I’m desperate for someone to tell me I’m actually not all these negative things.

My latest guess is this: I bring all these things to the light because somewhere, deep down inside, I am convinced the deficiencies in me will cause whatever I’m involved with to crash, so I might as well let everyone know what kind of person I am.

Self-SabotageIn all honesty, though, the reasons don’t matter. I’m putting myself behind the eight ball every time I bring one of these traits to light. I’m planting a seed that very rarely yields anything good. I’m not saying it’s not a good thing to be honest with yourself about your faults and confess the sins that need to be confessed. When they become what defines you, though, and basically drive you in every relationship, they veer into self-sabotage territory, in my opinion.

I think about the apostle Peter often. Peter flat-out denied he knew Jesus. There was no grey area; he bold-faced did it. Have you ever noticed, though, that in all his writings and in all the recorded instances of him speaking after Pentecost, Peter never mentions this again. I would be like, “Okay, look, I am the guy who denied knowing Jesus three times, but…” He just doesn’t even go there. He didn’t even introduce that negativity into the conversation.

He believed he was better than those moments of denial.

I don’t believe we should all put on masks and act like we’re perfect. I also don’t think we should blab every fault we have to anyone who will listen. I am convinced there is a happy medium between the two extremes. The battle to find it can be bloody and difficult sometimes, though, and it can be so much easier to wallow in the depression and pain and fear. Staying in that place, though, sabotages everything in my life, from my relationships to my job to my spirituality. I become toxic to myself.

I’m trying to do better at identifying the thoughts that would sabotage me before they can take root and cause me problems. This is usually where I would say I’m not doing such a good job of that. To avoid planting that see of negativity, though, let me just say I’m just going to keep right on trying.

Gray

You do what’s right. If you don’t do what’s right, you’re wrong. Plain and simple.

It sounds like a noble and upright philosophy, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s ethical, it’s truthful, it’s, well, right. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things. It’s neat, it’s tidy, and it makes life so much easier to navigate.

Except it doesn’t. Especially if you apply it to yourself.

I only recently stumbled across the term “cognitive distortion.” In short, a cognitive distortion is cognitive-distortionsthe term given to the way our minds can convince us certain things aren’t really true. They’re mostly used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions. We lead ourselves to believe cognitive distortions help us make sense of things, when in reality they usually only serve to make thinking even more difficult for us.

I use the words “us,” “we,” and “our” here to refer to those who have developed cognitive distortions as a result of depression or some other mental illness. Of course, the trick with a cognitive distortion is being able to recognize it, which, ironically, lies at the heart of how such faulty thinking begins in the first place. Whatever distortion is in place just becomes natural over time, so the impetus to correct it starts to disappear. It’s just sort of there.

So I’ve been a guy who believed in justice, in people living out what they say. One of my favorite sayings of all time has been, “If I go out to lunch with you and you’re nice to me but rude to the waiter, you’re a rude person.” The middle ground is where ethics get violated, where virtues get compromised, where hypocrites breed. There can be no gray area; life is black and white.

This particular cognitive distortion, I’ve come to find out, is known as polarized thinking. It’s a tricky one, because it seems so well-meaning on the surface. In reality, though, it’s a sure-fire recipe for perfectionism. If I expect this high of a standard in others, I should expect it in myself as well. If I think John Doe is a bad guy because he says cuss words, I’d better not be saying them either. Doesn’t matter if John Doe does a hundred other good things every day; I’ve honed in on a negative entrenched within the positives. Likewise, my positive traits never outweigh my negatives. One dark blot corrupts the entire picture.

The-Perfectionists-Guide-to-Results-LoI’ve always believed in absolutes. I believed I could separate the bad bosses from the good ones by whether or not they hosed their employees. Notice I didn’t use the word consistently, though. I could separate the hypocrites from the real Christians by how badly they sinned. Notice I didn’t take repentance into consideration. This was how I was going to live with integrity and virtue.

The only problem was I left myself no room to fail. I either failed or I succeeded; there was no middle ground. I took scriptures from the Bible that talked about how if even a small part of the law was broken the whole thing was, and I magnified them one-hundred-fold. I either did everything right or I failed utterly. I judged my performances so harshly that eventually the negative connotations began to seep into my soul.

I’m not just doing things wrong. I am wrong.

I’ve been challenged lately to break this pattern of thinking, but it’s so ingrained in me. I’m petrified someone is going to see the “real” me, the one who not only isn’t perfect but is actually pretty despicable a lot of the time. I keep hearing that the things I find so unappealing about myself are pretty common in most guys, but I don’t believe it. They couldn’t be as bad as me, could they?

It’s been a long day, and I plan on writing more about this in the future. I’d like to close with a little revelation I had just this week about the level of righteousness God expects of us.

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus says that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse has terrified me for years, because I’m not even close to that level. For some reason this week, though, I saw this verse in a different light. Jesus was constantly critical of the scribes and pharisees for attempting to display a level of righteousness they hadn’t truly attained. The only way to achieve true righteousness would be through Christ, and that could only happen by admitting sin and weakness, not by touting strength.

I’m imperfect. I don’t always get it right, but I don’t always get it wrong either. I’m gray, and I have a feeling you probably are, too.

 

The Journal & The Confessional

I once dated a Catholic girl in high school, but I think the only real experiences I had with the Catholic church involved a youth group meeting and an Ash Wednesday service. Oh, and I gave up potato chips for Lent one time – which is actually much more difficult than it sounds.

The point is, I know next to nothing about the Catholic faith. I have some vague notions of Hail Marys and sacraments and sainthood, but none of it really jibes with what I believe the Bible says about Christianity. I also don’t believe it’s necessary to be absolved of your sins by a priest, since the Bible describes Jesus as our high priest. None of this means I dislike Catholics or think they’re going to hell; I just don’t agree with all of their practices.

The one aspect of Catholicism that has always intrigued me, however, is the confessional. The Bible does state that we are to confess our sins confessional“one to another,” but sometimes it’s difficult to be sure whether what you say to just any other person will stay between the two of you. Plus, you usually have to look them in the eye. There’s something strangely appealing to me about going into a small room, face obscured by a divider, and being able to bare your soul to a human being who is bound by his position not to tell anyone else what you just said.

On second thought, it’s not that strange at all. It’s freedom.

Some things are just very difficult to say out in the open. They’re either too shocking or too embarrassing or too troubling. The fact remains, though, that they are there, somewhere inside us. Our responses to these issues often become muddled. We either present them with halfheartedness to others because we don’t want to look bad or we just stuff them down deeper and deeper inside our souls. In either instance, they don’t fully come out, and we’re usually not strong enough to carry them forever.

So the priest exists for the Catholic, and I suppose the counselor or psychiatrist exists for many others. What happens, though, when there are no listening ears you’re necessarily comfortable with? Someone once suggested to me that I begin keeping a journal of my thoughts. This type of journal would work more as a diary – no one would see it but me. I’ve tried for a while to pass this blog off as my “journal” … but it’s just not enough anymore.

I need a confessional.

Hello-Kitty-Summer-Fruits-Strawberry-Lock-Diary_700_600_3Z89VI suppose as long as I don’t go out and purchase a Hello Kitty diary with a padlock I’ll be able to treat this as an adult endeavor. Fact is, I’ve always viewed journals as sort of a juvenile thing, even though some of the greatest historical writing on record has come from the journals of astounding men. The purpose of my doing this isn’t to hide all my dirty little secrets, but rather to try to understand where certain thoughts come from and have a record to look back on.

Oh, and it’s also to hide things. Sort of.

Doing It For Ourselves

Question: What is the chief end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

It’s so easy to pick on the Osteens. From the Texas-inspired drawl that creeps into their speech from time to time to the weird plastic-y shine on their faces to the way they fumble over questions about Jesus being the only way to heaven, Joel and Victoria Osteen are practically sitting ducks for anyone with a beef against prosperity gospel teachings and the fall of biblical doctrine in the United States. And, quite frankly, most of the time they deserve what they get, in my opinion.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, Victoria Osteen has been drawing a larger-than-usual amount of fire this week for remarks she recently made to the congregation of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Just to let what was said speak for itself, here is a transcript of her exhortation:

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?” 

Oh, my gosh, they just make it too easy sometimes, don’t they? (And I say they because Pastor Joel is standing right beside his wife, smiling the entire time, while she’s saying this.)

Everyone from Albert Mohler to the pastor at the church down the street have been teeing off on this one all week. I did actually come across a few apologists attempting to clarify what Victoria said, but c’mon. There’s no theologically sound argument for this kind of logic. Yes, God does bring us joy in the morning and peace that passes all understanding, but He never promises happiness. All of our joy is to be found in Him, a fact that’s stated over and over again in the Bible.

There’s no way I would attempt to try to defend such remarks, but I’ve been wondering if maybe all the furor isn’t so much over what the Smiling Preacher’s wife said so much as that she may have inadvertently unveiled a sort of ugly truth about the church today.

We don’t go there to worship God. We go there to feel happy.

I used the pronoun we there because I’m not going to pretend I haven’t done this myself. “Gotta recharge the batteries. Let’s go to church!” I mean, I’m going to go sing songs and listen to a sermon, but what I really want is to feel better. Judging from the fact that Lakewood is the largest Protestant church in the United States, it would seem plenty of other people want to feel better, too.

Is it wrong for people to want to feel happy? Well, I don’t know. I think the Bible draws a pretty clear line between joy and happiness. Joy operates irrelevant of our circumstances; happiness is an emotion that hinges nearly entirely on our circumstances. I would wager, though, that there are an awful lot of people out there besides the Osteens who show up Sunday morning looking for happiness than those who show up seeking joy. I believe that’s why so many staunch theologians are up in arms over Victoria’s remarks. They know she’s wrong, but they also know that she’s peddling what more and more Christians are looking for.

This could wrap around into the “Did the Osteens create us or did we create the Osteens?” debate, but I really don’t care to get into that right now. What I think these recent remarks should do is cause each one of us to look at ourselves and ask a very hard question: Do I play at worshiping God to make myself feel better or do I offer Him authentic and real worship simply because of who He is? This could be an example of God using all things for good. If not, well, at least there’ll be a bunch of happy people running around, right?

 

Sins vs. Mistakes

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I hear the word “mistake” used a lot these days. Thing is, I don’t think many people are using the word correctly.

Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, for example. By now, most people know that Rice knocked his wife out and dragged herray rice from an Atlantic City elevator (Thank you, TMZ.). He would later apologize and call the incident “the biggest mistake of my life,” but I don’t think his wording is quite adequate. I mean, to me a mistake would have been aiming for her stomach and hitting her in the head. Taking a swing, well, that doesn’t accidentally happen.

As far as wording goes, I don’t believe a “mistake” is something that can happen deliberately. For instance, if I decide to drink a bottle of tequila and get drunk, my inebriation is not an accident. It would be poor judgement, but the alcohol wouldn’t have accidentally spilled into my mouth. I would have put it there. In fact, the Bible refers to drunkenness as “debauchery,” which leads into a very uncomfortable three-letter word…

S-i-n.

I have only recently begun to understand what this word actually means. To put it more accurately, I’m gradually realizing what Jesus dying for our sins really entails. For years, this is how I thought forgiveness works: If I commit a sin by mistake (like cutting someone off in traffic accidentally or something), God is cool with that because I didn’t know what I was doing. If I knowingly did something wrong, though, I would suffer dire consequences because God does not take kindly to His rules being broken. Thus, any bad circumstance that occurred in my life must be my fault because I can’t … stop … sinning.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Okay, I like that verse. I always say that the apostle Paul wouldn’t have spent so much time telling all those churches to stop doing bad stuff unless, well, they were doing lots of bad stuff. And these were the Christians he was writing to, not the heathens on the street. It would appear, then, that God stands ready to forgive a Christian if they sin, whether it is on purpose or not.

But…

“No one who is born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he hasbrennan been born of God.” This scripture is not so reassuring. There are countless stories out there of alcoholics who poured all their liquor down the drain the night they got saved, but there are also those stories of people who continued to struggle with addiction for the rest of their lives (Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, would be an example of this.). Did the second group not really get saved? If they confessed every time they got drunk, were they still covered? I’ve never been drunk, but I’ve done plenty of other dumb things since becoming a Christian. What does that mean for me?

To be honest, I’m still struggling with the answer to that question. I look at the story of Peter in the Bible, and I see forgiveness written all over it. In fact, Jesus even told Peter how he was going to sin. Peter didn’t accidentally not recognize a photo of Jesus that night; he deliberately and purposefully said to the crowd, “I don’t know the man.” You can’t inadvertently lie and say you don’t know the son of God when, in fact, you do. If Jesus could have mercy on Peter after that, it would stand to reason that deliberate sins could be covered.

Regardless of the answer to this question, though, the key point I’m trying to make is that sins should be owned. They shouldn’t be reclassified as “mistakes” because they’re usually not committed accidentally. And if they aren’t owned and confessed as being deliberate acts – no matter how awful the judgement may be – then they can’t ever be dealt with properly.

john newtonThe mistake would be to think I’m not the kind of person who would do that kind of thing, because I obviously was. We all are, and that’s why we need Jesus so desperately. As John Newton once said:

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Humans In The Bible

You have got it made. You’ve just been told you’re going to be the top dog, the big cheese, the man in charge very soon. It is destiny, and no one can take it away from you. You have all the backing in the world behind you, and now all you have to do is patiently wait your turn.

That is, until the acting boss decides he doesn’t want to give up his seat. Because of what he knows about you and your future, he decides you’re the biggest threat to his position. He knows you need to be taken out of the picture, so he decides to chase you down and kill you. You know that, though, so you go on the lam and engage in a tense game of cat and mouse for the next several years. The boss has enemies of his own, however, and they eventually take him out, clearing the path for your triumphant return.

Or picture this: You’re living in a really, really bad town. I mean, bad to the point where you’re told by someone in the know that you’re the only good person left there. So this person gives you a tip that some nasty stuff is about to go down, and you had better start making preparations for you and your family to escape. You heed his warning and put everything else on hold while you create a safe haven.

There’s only one catch, though: No one else in the town is going to make it out alive. Even if they come banging on your door for help, you’re told to not let them in; this is the way it has to be. As everything hits the fan, you can hear them dying outside – men, women, children, neighbors, friends. You have your instructions; you have to carry them out. When you emerge, all the people outside of your family that you knew are gone.

I know if I were placed in either of these situations, I would emerge more than a little traumatized. I would definitely never be the same. I might even go kinda nuts and make some poor decisions down the road. I would also probably garner some sympathy, though. The people who knew everything I went through would wonder how I held it together as well as I did, and when I flubbed up, hopefully at least one of them would call me on it and try to get me some help.

Thing is, those two scenarios actually did happen. They happened to two men almost every one of us learned about in Sunday School – David and Noah. Most people are familiar with the good stuff: David killed Goliath and was a “man after God’s own heart,” and Noah loaded his family and two of all the animals on Earth onto a giant ark to maintain a remnant of life after the great flood. Nine times out of ten, these are the stories we remember … but they’re only a part of the picture.

David’s failings later in life are probably more well-known than Noah’s, mainly because of his affair with Bathsheba. Noah, however, wound up drunk and naked in a cave, a state you would not expect to find the last righteous man on the planet in. Even when these stories are recounted, however, they are rarely with any kind of sympathy. The question always arises: How, after everything God had done for them and all the miracles they had seen, could they act in such despicable ways? How could they be so stupid?

I once heard a sermon that brought up the possibility that the Apostle Paul should not have gone to Jerusalem. After all, he was warned several times by others not to go there, and the eventual result of his trip was being taken to jail. I’m not sure if I agree with this take on the scripture or not, but the very possibility of it brought an interesting thought to my mind: People in the Bible were human beings just like you and me. They got ticked off. They got depressed. They were burned out, stressed out, and put out. Some had touchier tempers than others. Some were stubborn. I might not have been friends with all of them.

We have this tendency, though, to build these people into caricatures. They couldn’t possibly have experienced something like PTSD in those days … even though the Bible is full of wars and acts of violence. They could be depressed … even though their loved ones died, their cities were destroyed, and their prayers didn’t quite turn out the way they expected. They couldn’t have been anxious … even though Jesus made it a special point to caution them not to be anxious. These people weren’t perfect; they were normal human beings, just like you and me.

Instead of diminishing them in my eyes, this way of looking at the names in the Bible made them more relatable to me. The way God viewed them suddenly didn’t seem unattainable to me, as it had in the past. It also taught me to be less judgmental, realizing that God could actually still love a Christian in the midst of them falling apart. And, finally, it gave me hope in knowing the battles that go on in our heads today are nothing new to God. They’ve been there throughout time.

What I don’t understand is why God seems to deal differently with mental illness today than He did in biblical times, but that is another topic for another day. I only have so much time to write. I’m only human, you know.