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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are You Stressed Out for the Holidays?

I've seen tons of stress-relieving tips popping up all over the internet these last few weeks, but unfortunately I haven't seen anything to help the spiritual needs of stressed-out people.  I mean, telling people to cook and freeze an extra casserole for busy days is a good idea, but that solution doesn't address the deeper needs at present.  What is causing the stress?  How can God help us deal with it?

Obviously, the holidays are strongly associated with lots of activities, most of which require a lot of time to plan and lots of money to pull off.  Besides deadlines and finances, there are also the trials of dealing with difficult people (including visitors and people in the stores), work-related projects or even lay-offs, and generalized feelings of inadequacy.  When in the midst of all of these stress generators, we need comfort and refreshment--and God can do that for us.

God Expects Obedience, Not Perfectionism

We often miss the difference between obedience and perfectionism, and it can be a cause of some serious stress right about now.  When I write about obedience, I mean doing what is right by God's standards, whatever the personal cost.  On the other hand, perfectionism, especially at its holiday worst, is the pursuit of the appearance of goodness by following all the rules and pleasing people.  It is okay to want to please, but it's a mistake to lose sight of God's standards of goodness and perfection.  Social rules can sometimes be tougher to achieve, or can even lead us away from God's plan.

For example, the hostess who burns the turkey will not be barred from heaven for doing so, but social circles can remind her forever of her mistake.  God measures and values us by our hearts (1 Samuel 16: 7), not by our cooking, the way we dress, the way our house looks, or our choice of wrapping paper.  Anyone who is getting stressed out about these things should keep this in mind, and relax, because we cannot be justifiably held to a higher standard than God's.  If we are right with God, we are "good enough."

For those who are going to be guests rather than the host or hostess, it is also important to remember God's standards of conduct and treat the hosts and fellow guests with love at all times.  That includes when someone snaps at us while under stress, or when someone comes to a party looking to reopen old grudges.  If we let perfectionism take over, we will get stressed out because "nothing is going right," but if we focus on obedience and conduct ourselves with grace, God will credit it to us as wisdom and righteousness (Proverbs 19:11).  Things may not go "perfectly," but "love covers over a multitude of sins," (1 Peter 4:8 NIV) and "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," (Proverbs 15: 1 NIV).  If there is any path to perfection during the holidays, it can be achieved through obedience to God.

God Has Time to Hear Us

Speaking of interacting with others during the holidays, I can say that frequently, when we get really stressed out, we bottle it up and blow up at others.  Unfortunately, that can be pretty stressful for those individuals, especially if they are going through the same stress we are.  That's why it's important to release our troubles to God, before they come out of our mouths as abuse of our brothers and sisters.  The Apostle Peter wrote, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you," (1 Peter 5:7 NIV).

It's not just a trite phrase.  Letting God know what is bothering us is the first step toward overcoming the stress and anxiety in our hearts (Philippians 4: 6, 7).  It always takes away the stress to share our problems with a good listener, who is not in a hurry to go elsewhere, or ready to pass judgement before the whole story is told.  God is that listener!  Some of us try to perfect that skill, but I must say, God will take the call at 3 a.m. without grumbling or reminding us of the time.

God Can Take Away The Stress or Change Our Attitude

Besides being a good listener, God is also a good "fixer."  Sometimes we keep our troubles to ourselves, because we fear unwanted help that is more disruptive than helpful.  God is not the bringer of that kind of help; He hears our requests, and gives us what we need to receive (Matthew 7: 9-11).  He is our peace!

Now, I know that many would like to read here, "God will always take away the cause of the stress."  However, that would be a lie.  Sometimes God chooses to let us go through stressful situations without any relief in sight.  He's trying to help us grow in our faith that He is really in control, and really our strength, in every situation.  Otherwise, we could forget God and imagine that we can manage life on our own.

That said, God doesn't send us into a stressful or difficult situation alone. The Bible says, "I can do all this through him who gives me strength," (Philippians 4: 13 NIV).  The essential ingredient is God's strength, not our own.  Where we lack endurance, God can help us.  Where we lack patience, God can instruct us.  Where we lack stamina, God can give us a boost of energy or physical strength that helps us get the job done.  It is a comfort, even for the most independent soul, to depend on God rather than our imperfect selves.

These are some things to think about as we go into the busiest time of year, the Christmas season.  I'm praying for you that you receive God's comfort and that you are able to manage your stress through the grace of God, putting all things into their proper perspective and overcoming the obstacles in your path.  Until next time, stay savvy, talk to God, and rest in God's peace!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Six Things I'm Thankful For

It is almost Thanksgiving here.  For those international readers who may not know, Thanksgiving is a celebration in the United States where we traditionally gather with family and sometimes friends to eat a banquet and thank the Lord for the good things that happened to us this year.  It was first celebrated at harvest time by a group of our earliest settlers, after a terrible winter that killed many of their members.

For so many in the US today, the Christian origin of the holiday, together with the focus of the occasion, seems to have been lost.  Many of us have not known the kind of hunger and tragedy that those first settlers had faced.  That itself is something to be thankful for.  Sometimes we get so caught up in the joy of seeing family members who have traveled far, and we forget the other blessings we have received throughout the year.

So, at the risk of seeming trite, I wanted to thank God for my blessings today.  I know that just going through the exercise will improve my outlook.  I encourage each of you to do the same!
  • I'm thankful for the lessons God has patiently taught me this year.  More than anything, I think the lesson has been to hang on and wait for His plan to unfold, because "godliness with contentment is great gain," (1 Timothy 6:6 NIV).  Waiting can be frightening and frustrating. I've been through the whole spectrum of emotions, but I'm thankful that God held me throughout.
  • I'm thankful for the great people I have come to know in the past year.  I don't have permission to specifically name names, but you know who you are.  You've taught me to put my life in perspective, particularly in a global perspective, and the freshness of your faith and steadfast hope in the Lord that you have exemplified is inspiring! "I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.  For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you," (1 Corinthians 1: 4-6 NIV).
  • I'm thankful for the great people I've known for another year.  I'm so glad you put up with my shortcomings, and I'm thankful for all the ways you have helped me throughout my life.  You are priceless! "How can [I] thank God enough for you in return for all the joy [I] have in the presence of our God because of you?" (1 Thessalonians 3: 9 NIV).
  • I'm thankful for the difficult people and trying times that God used to make me grow.  It hurt at the time, and remembering still hurts, but I see that I learned invaluable lessons that easy times don't teach.  "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance," (James 1: 2, 3 NIV).  You put me to the test, but I have forgiven you.
  • I'm thankful for the great distances God has carried me over the years.  Earlier this week, I found an old photograph of myself, from almost ten years ago.  I could see some naivety that the past ten years has knocked out of me, and I found myself thanking God for being my Teacher and Friend, but most of all for carrying me through it all, as I know He will continue to do.  I am His handiwork, and I am who I am because of His faithfulness, "rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as [I was] taught, and overflowing with thankfulness," (Colossians 2: 7 NIV). 
  • I'm thankful for the material blessings God has brought my way.  So often over the past year I have focused too much on my finances, and I've given worry too much of a place, but when I look back over the year, I see it has been the most prosperous year in memory for me.  I'm still not where I want to someday be, but I see the miracle in it all.  In a struggling economy, I've been blessed with an increase, and in the global economy, I am richer than most people on the planet.  The only appropriate attitude is gratitude! "The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.  I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread," (Psalm 37: 23-25 NIV).

 I could go on, but I think that is enough to get everyone thinking about their blessings.  What do you have to be thankful for?  Write about it on your own blog, and backlink your post to this one.  I'd love to read it!  Thank you for being such faithful readers!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Five-Step Cure for Anxiety

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God," (Philippians 4:6 NIV).

The past few months have been a real test for me in the realm of anxiousness.  I see that, just like the church at Philippi, I still need to work on my worry.  I have too often given in to anxiety about money, or about wasted time, or about relationships.  I don't know what the Philippians were worried about, but I suspect it was about these same sorts of things, or perhaps a more general need for security in the midst of trials.

We don't have to let anxiety shut us down.  In fact, we should not even let it enter our lives!  It is the opposite of what God wants for us.  He has given us a hope and a future (Proverbs 23: 18; Jeremiah 29: 11), one that we can look forward to, and be certain of.  Let me say it again: Our future is not in jeopardy; it is determined, and certain! Our future and our very lives may seem threatened, but God is in control, and He is holding us.

Even though I know this is true, I still struggle with it from time to time.  I imagine I am not alone in this feeling.  Paul gave us some good tips for dealing with anxiety, if we read the context of the verse at the beginning of this post, in Philippians chapter 4.
  1. Have an attitude of praise, no matter the circumstances (verse 4).  Paul didn't say "rejoice in the Lord when things are going good," nor did he write, "You are allowed to stop celebrating when things are rough."  Why should we praise God when we are having a hard time?  Because directing our minds off our troubles and onto the God who takes care of us can improve our mood and maybe even put some things in perspective.  Why should we praise God when we are having an easy time?  Because God gave us the good times and the bad, and He is with us through them all!
  2. Be gentle to others; God is near (verse 5).  When we are upset, harried, or otherwise burdened down or burned out, we tend to be rough on others around us.  The resulting arguments and troubles between ourselves and others will only make a bad situation seem worse to us.  It adds to worry and anxiety, rather than lessening it.  It's important to remember that God is near to comfort us, and He sometimes sends others to comfort us.  We need to be gentle and ready to receive that strength from others, rather than receiving them with unkindness, in an unchristian manner.
  3. Always pray, thanking God (verse 6). We serve an awesome God, who is always listening to our requests and is ready to deal with them for us.  There is no need to worry about how we're going to perform miracles to solve our problems--God will take care of our needs, and He will take care of us during the time of need.  Remembering to pray always shuts down anxiety in me, and I imagine it works for others just as well.
  4. Focus your thoughts on good, positive, and praiseworthy things (verse 8). The key to furthering your anxiety is continually mulling over every circumstance that is worrying you, one by one, without stopping.  I've soured many good moods this way, and I've let a few bad things cause me to forget the good things that happened during the course of the day.  If you find yourself only thinking about worrisome things,  change your thoughts.  Play some uplifting music.  Read your Bible.  Talk to God about what He did for you in the past.  Read a chapter in a fun novel.  Go outside, away from things that remind you of trouble and anxiety.  This is very important!
  5. Mimic good examples and good habits that take you away from anxiety and into the peace of God (verse 9).  If a Christian you admire has overcome the circumstances that are making you anxious, study how he or she did it and glean what you can from that example.  A good teacher can help you learn how to apply the principles in the Bible to your own life, so seek out good examples!
If we can get into the habit of following these steps, our moods and anxiety will improve greatly.  In fact, I believe this is the cure for anxiety.  God's ways of doing things are greater than our solutions.  We should give it a try, and let God work in our lives.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Trying to Disprove Christianity?

My last post managed to draw one visitor who was looking for ways to disprove Christianity, but I must say that doesn't trouble me much.  I confidently believe there is an answer from the Bible for every question of that sort.  I speak from personal experience.

I can't count the number of times professors and others have cast doubt on belief and made me question things I'd always taken for granted about the Bible.  One great weapon I once wielded against this sort of quasi-logic was C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which was originally presented as a series of radio talks broadcast during the London Bombings of World War II.  That must have been something to hear, in those circumstances!  I really should read that again soon.

There seems to be three main lines of attack against Christianity, and I've encountered them all in a variety of places, from churches to news shows and from public universities to internet websites.
  1. A subtle twisting of facts as they are written in the Bible, such as pulling verses out of context, or pairing them with verses that are unrelated, to create unsupportable positions.  The goal is to create a doctrine, or line of reasoning, that appears to be backed by Scripture.  The next step is to knock down this strange logic and make it appear as if Scripture is unsupportable and self-contradictory.
  2. Omitting facts that are inconvenient for the theories and teachings being presented.  For instance, last time I spoke about the theory that Christ fainted rather than died, and pointed out that the stab wound on the cross would make that theory unsupportable.  A similar argument that Jesus was a good, accepting guy cannot stand against His strident and decidedly intolerant statements against sin and polytheism in the culture He lived in.
  3. A direct attack on the provability or accuracy of the Bible, including a dismissal of prophecy, miracles, and supernatural events, and attempts to undermine the authority of the Scriptures themselves.  This appears to be the most successful, because in the same stroke, it attacks the logic and good sense of opponents and also appears impossible to disprove.  However, it is extremely risky, because it can be dismantled in the same kind of direct approach, using secular historical records, natural science, archaeology, and anthropology.  For instance, scholars long used the lack of an Israeli state as "proof" that the End Times prophecies could never happen, but 1948 changed all that.  Others tried to undermine the authority of Scripture by suggesting it has changed over time, but the Dead Sea Scrolls disproved that.
I believe that God defends Himself, and defends the truth about Himself. We don't need advanced degrees in logic and reasoning to address attacks on our faith, because God already did the work--we just need to benefit personally from the work He's already done.

When presented with these three types of attacks, the best approach is the direct one.  Don't try to put it out of your mind, because it will gnaw on you.  Do your research.  Question what the Bible actually says on the topic, and take no one's word for it until you have read it yourself.  This defeats the first and second types of attacks.  When faced with the third (which is often accompanied by belligerence and bluffs), seek the counsel of several good sources, who have experience in addressing these issues.  They will guide you to proofs, both internal and external to the Bible, that belligerence can't overcome.  That's where Mere Christianity and other similar books come in.  Don't rest until the matter has been completely put to rest.

Above all, we should treat our opponents with grace and understanding, addressing their questions but not returning in kind.  They may be trying to tear us down, but that is only because lies have torn them down.  As Paul instructed Timothy,
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 23-26 NIV)
I know how these attacks can erode faith to the breaking point, but I believe that spending time studying the Word will fix these painful doubts.  It brings us back to the reasons why we first believed, and reminds us of points we had forgotten in the midst of the attack.  It grounds us in the truth.  That's why it's valuable to look into these things.

Until next time, this is my reminder to you to stay savvy and stay up on your reading!  It's a lifesaver when you are under attack.