Spiritual Disciplines to Help with Growing Self-Control

shhContinued from here.

Jesus said that to be his disciple, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Denying yourself requires self-control because it’s quite unnatural for us to do. Spiritual disciplines that involve denying yourself can help you grow the seed of self-control into fruit more quickly.

Fasting can be a particularly powerful way of help you develop the fruit of self-control. While people tend to think of fasting as abstaining from food, you can abstain (deny yourself) from other things as well, such as words (spiritual discipline of silence) or social interaction (spiritual discipline of solitude). Each of these practices places you in a position of denying yourself so you can gain the greater reward of recognizing that you do, in fact, have the ability to exercise self-control.

As an example, let’s say I had reacted differently in the situation I shared in my introductory blog entry for this series: instead of refraining from saying anything negative, let’s say I cussed the person out. This fruit would show that I lack self-discipline over my mouth. A great way to combat this is to fast from words for a period of time by practicing the discipline of silence. I could check myself into a hotel for a weekend or, better yet, go away alone to a cabin in the woods and NOT SPEAK for 48 hours. I could spend that time praying, studying the Bible, going for walks, etc. Whenever I am tempted to speak, I can silently thank God for this opportunity to learn how to exercise self-control over my mouth. After not speaking for 48 hours, I will be more mindful that I do, in fact, have the ability to control what I say … not through willpower but through the fruit of self-control that God implanted in me as a seed.

The spiritual disciplines of fasting, silence, and solitude can be applied to any area of your life where you struggle with controlling yourself, even in areas of addiction and compulsion. To change the way you behave, you must first change the way you think. Spiritual disciplines that involve denying yourself can be powerful ways to help you take your focus off your problem and align your thoughts with God’s ways. As you do this, you will become more effective and productive in God’s Kingdom.

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace with her finger over her lips, saying, “Shhhh.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]


Recognizing Self-Control is Possible for You

trafficContinued from here.

I stated in my last blog entry that changing your thoughts is pivotal to growing the fruit of self-control. The first step is to stop saying you have no self-control, such as “I cannot control myself when I’m around a chocolate chip cookie.” When you became a Christian, God planted the seed of self-control inside of you, so you actually DO have all the self-control you need to resist eating that cookie or taking that next hit. However, you must do it God’s way, and that involves changing how you think.

I used to believe that I had no ability to control my urge to binge eat. God showed me that was not true by challenging me to wait five minutes before giving in to the temptation to binge eat. During that five minutes, I was to do something else that was constructive, such as watching a comedy, calling a friend on the phone, or writing in my journal. Today, I would replace that “something constructive” with reading the Bible or spending time singing praise & worship songs to God. At the end of the five minutes, if I still could not resist the temptation to binge eat, I could give in with no guilt. I found that about half the time, I was able to continue engaging in the constructive activity and not give in to the urge to binge eat. God then led me to extend the “cooling off” period to 10 minutes … and then to 15 minutes … and then 30 minutes … until the binge-eating dragon lost its hold on me.

What I failed to grasp at the time was that this process taught me that I did, in fact, have the fruit of self-control inside of me. I simply had not been exercising that muscle. With each success, I built more confidence in my ability to exercise self-control, but it was not through willpower: it was through changing the way I thought. I believed that I was powerless to control myself around food, and what I believed became my reality. As God challenged my thinking about my ability to control myself, I gradually developed the fruit of self-control, the seed for which had been planted inside me all along.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace sitting in traffic. Courtesy Bitmoji.]


We are Powerless to Exercise Self-Control on Our Own

weakContinued from here.

One of the biggest lies people tell themselves is that they can exercise self-control through sheer willpower. Anyone who has ever blown a diet knows how useless willpower is when facing down the object of their temptation. Been there, done that more times than I can count.

For decades, I wrestled with binge eating disorder, and no amount of willpower, shame, or guilt was strong enough to overcome the lure of overindulging in food to “stuff down” my emotional pain. If it were possible to overcome an eating disorder by sheer force of will, I would have done it because I put my heart and soul into the fight, but I repeatedly lost. I did not experience victory over the eating disorder until God changed me, and He did this by changing how I thought. As I grew to recognize that my God was bigger than my eating disorder, the seed of self-control that God planted in me when I became a Christian took root and began to grow. Today, fasting is not difficult for me whereas it was once one of the most difficult things I was asked to do, such as fasting overnight before a morning doctor’s appointment.

One reason the binge eating disorder controlled me was that I fixed my gaze upon my problem rather than upon my God. I thought about food all the time, and I saw food as a refuge – as an idol that would provide me with temporary relief from my emotional pain. This was idolatry because I repeatedly turned to food to meet a need that only God could meet in me. For a long season, God allowed me to experience repeated disappointments so I could recognize the folly of seeking comfort through food. Before he could break me free from the eating disorder, He had to awaken me from the self-delusion that I was addicted to bingeing on food.

One of my greatest struggles was trying to slay my binge-eating dragon once I became mindful of the power the eating disorder wielded over me. I did not appreciate that my thoughts were fueling my bondage. If you want to develop the fruit of self-control, you must change your thoughts to align them with God’s thoughts.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace’s legs sticking out from under the words, “I’m Weak.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]


Meekness as One Form of Self-Control

cover_faceContinued from here.

Meekness is a topic I don’t hear discussed much in church settings, but it’s a very important aspect of developing self-control. I used to think that meek = weak because from the outside, it can appear that way, such as in the story I shared in my last blog entry. Apologizing to someone who is being unreasonable and rude can look like weakness from the outside. It can look like giving the other person his or her “own way” as that person walks away triumphantly after forcing an apology out of you.

However, that’s not what’s happening on the inside. Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of meek:

enduring injury with patience and without resentment”

Meekness is actually quiet strength. It took much more strength, or self-control, for me to endure the injury of this person’s sharp words patiently, and especially without resentment, than if I had chosen to take offense and fight back. When someone comes at you with a knife in hand, the natural response is to take out your own knife and fight back. It takes much more strength to leave your knife sheathed and allow the other person’s knife to plunge into you. People only do this for two reasons: (1) They are too weak to fight back; or (2) They love too much to fight back. People mistakenly believe that allowing someone to metaphorically plunge a knife into them is always a sign of weakness, but it can actually be a choice motivated by strong love.

God values meekness:

But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity.” ~ Ps. 37:11

“But I will leave within you
the meek and humble.
The remnant of Israel
will trust in the name of the LORD.” ~ Zeph. 3:12

“Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.” ~ Matt. 5:5

This person was looking for a fight but instead received what was most needed: grace. People who seek to bully others with their words don’t “win” when they plunge their knives into the meek. They instead get a glimpse of God, whose Son embodied meekness as he submitted to the cross.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace covering her face. Courtesy Bitmoji.]


The Fruit of Self-Control

fistI recently had the misfortune of interacting with a Christian who was not behaving like one. This was in my capacity of my position in professional ministry, so it was doubly important for me to model Christlike behavior, even while this person did not. The situation arose out of a simple misunderstanding that was nobody’s fault and was easily and quickly corrected, but this person was determined to remain offended nonetheless. When it became clear that no matter what I said, or how kindly I said it, this person’s reaction was only going to escalate, I said in the most sincere and gentle voice I could that I was very, very sorry. And despite that end to our conversion, this person then escalated the complaint to my superior, who responded with a mild and much-deserved rebuke, which ended the “complaint process.”

When I recounted this experience to my husband, he asked how I could have remained so calm and even apologize when this person was being so unreasonable. I responded that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and that God enabled me to control myself and respond in a way that honored Him. In addition to this, I prayed for this person because something was driving this over-the-top reaction to a simple misunderstanding that truly was not a big deal. I am praying that God will reveal His grace to this person because those who have received more grace give more grace. Perhaps this person has never known grace and thus has no idea how to extend it. I cannot imagine how miserable this person must be in day-to-day life if every single time something doesn’t go as expected, offense is taken. When I view this person from that perspective, I feel pity rather than anger or offense. I truly hope and pray that God will heal whatever is broken inside of this person and for grace to be experienced.

Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit that enables us not to allow the unreasonable actions of others to steal our joy. This week, I’ll share what I have learned about developing the fruit of self-control and encourage you to apply it to your life as God places you in situations ripe with opportunity for growing this fruit.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace balling her fist. Courtesy Bitmoji.]


Having Compassion for Broken People

hippoContinued from here.

This is the final blog entry in a series based upon this quote from the movie I Can Only Imagine:

My dad was a monster. I saw God take him from being the man I hated to the man I wanted to become.”

It’s hard, if not impossible, to develop compassion for a monster. However, when we forgive those who hurt us, God transforms our perception from seeing them as monsters to viewing them as broken people. You may be surprised to learn just how much you have in common with your monsters as God opens your eyes to see their brokenness.

If someone had told me this truth before I experienced it myself, I would have had a hard time believing it. I suffered from so many monstrous abuses that I believed only a monster could inflict. However, as I chose to let go of my bitterness and pull in God’s healing, He opened me eyes to the brokenness that drove the monstrous behavior. While I could not (and never will) relate to someone’s choice to rape and torture a child, I can relate to the brokenness that drove that behavior. I never imagined I could feel compassion for my abusers, but I actually do. I know the pain that drove the monstrous behavior, and my heart breaks for anyone who knows the level of pain that I have myself experienced.

I actually now feel sorry for my childhood abusers. I am saddened that they know similar to pain to what they inflicted upon me, but I’m even more sorry to know that they likely carry around guilt and shame at a level that I (thankfully) cannot relate to. The brokenness was bad enough. I cannot imagine the weight of guilt and shame on top of that brokenness.

God’s love is more powerful than all the hate in the world. It’s hard to believe that, which is why we hold onto our bitterness. I mistakenly believed that if I forgave my abusers, I was letting them off the hook or saying that what they did wasn’t “that bad.” I have since learned that forgiveness is only needed when someone is guilty and when what they did was “that bad.” The sobering reality is that Jesus forgave me, which means that I was guilty and that what I did was also “that bad.” Praise God for His forgiveness! I choose to pay that forgiveness forward, forgiving those who don’t deserve it, just as I have received it – in my brokenness and guilt.

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace being squashed by a hippo eating ice cream. Courtesy Bitmoji.]


Transforming Perception from Monster to Broken Person

godzillaContinued from here.

I’m continuing a series based upon this quote from the movie I Can Only Imagine:

My dad was a monster. I saw God take him from being the man I hated to the man I wanted to become.”

While it was great that Bart Millard’s father came to Christ and invited God in to transform it, many of our monsters will not make the same choice. Does that mean we are destined to remain victims, fearful of the monsters in our lives?

God taught me that forgiveness is not only the vehicle He uses to heal our pain, but it also transforms us from viewing ourselves as victims to survivors as we change our perception of the monsters and begin seeing them for what they are: broken people. The truth is that nobody is born a monster. Even diagnosed sociopaths have a combination of both a genetic disposition AND traumatic experience to become sociopaths. (For more on this topic, reach Martha Stout’s excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door.) The point is that no matter how evil the person is who harmed you, he or she was first a victim, just like you. That’s a tough lesson to learn, but embracing this truth will radically change your life and help catapult you out of seeing yourself as a victim into a survivor, which is a much more empowering label. (That’s not the end, though – God can lead you further to become an overcomer, but that falls outside the scope of this discussion.)

As long as you continue to hate the monsters in your life, you won’t make the transformation to seeing them as broken people, which only hurts you. I was shocked to realize this truth the day I completed the process of forgiving my abusers. My choice to forgive them did not change their lives one iota, but it powerfully changed mine! All the years I spent nursing my bitterness, reliving the pain, and thinking about how unfair it was that they continued to have this power over me, they were off living their lives! And when I laid all of this down and chose to let go of my bitterness, their lives stayed the same. Forgiveness was the key out of my emotional prison and had absolutely nothing to do with anything that the monsters did or did not do.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace dressed as Godzilla. Courtesy Bitmoji.]


The Problem with Viewing Other People as Monsters

Continued from here.

I’m continuing a series based upon this quote from the movie I Can Only Imagine:

My dad was a monster. I saw God take him from being the man I hated to the man I wanted to become.”

I truly believed that my childhood abusers were monsters, and I based this perception on their monstrous behavior. How could someone engage in monstrous behavior like raping and torturing a child without being a monster? And yet I gave myself a pass on the monstrous ways I treated other people (typically through my negative words) because I was broken. I never stopped to consider that perhaps those who inflicted monstrous behavior might themselves be broken.

This dynamic was powerfully portrayed in the movie The Shack. Mack, the main character of the story, is given the opportunity to serve as judge. When he’s shown a scene of a man savagely beating a child, he’s asked whether the child is guilty. Mack says no but then learns that child grew into the father who beat him. His father committed monstrous behavior when he beat Mack as a child, but he was not born a monster. He was broken by his own father’s monstrous behavior and then, out of his brokenness, inflicted the monstrous behavior onto the next generation. Mack’s father experienced the same pain and brokenness that Mack experienced. Yes, Mack’s father was guilty of monstrous behavior, but he was also a victim of monstrous behavior, just like his son.

When we view those who hurt us as monsters, we set ourselves up to view ourselves as victims. After all, how can a broken person slay a monster? Because a monster is, by definition, much more powerful, we set ourselves up to go through life living as helpless victims. Some react to this victim mentality by trying to seize control and engaging in monstrous behavior toward other people. Others turn that monstrous behavior inward in the form of self-loathing and self-harm, not necessarily through self-injury but also through addictions, compulsions, and negative self-talk that breaks their spirit. A powerful moment in my healing journey was recognizing that something another person said only once continued to hurt me because I repeated it to myself thousands of times. The other person was guilty of saying it, but I was much more guilty of repeating and believing it, which meant I was actually the one inflicting this monstrous behavior on myself.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cover of The Shack. Courtesy Amazon.]


Monstrous Behavior and Monsters

monsterContinued from here.

This week, I’m focusing on how forgiving those who hurt us can help transform our perception of them from monsters to broken people. My inspiration for this topic came from this quote from the movie I Can Only Imagine:

My dad was a monster. I saw God take him from being the man I hated to the man I wanted to become.”

Today, I’ll focus on the monster part, which is easy for us to relate to. I had no problem seeing Bart Millard’s father as a monster as he broke a plate over his head, told him that he isn’t “good enough,” or admitted to beating him so badly as a child that Bart had trouble sleeping because of his wounds. I also saw my childhood abusers as monsters who raped and tortured me.

There’s no question that beating, raping, and torturing a child is monstrous behavior, so it makes sense for those who suffer at their hands to view those who inflicted monstrous behavior as “monsters.” However, we tend not to view our own monstrous behavior in the same way. We judge others by their actions (monstrous behavior = monster) while we extend ourselves mercy based upon our intentions: “I didn’t mean to say those terrible things to him/her… I have a lot on my plate… I suffered so much as a child and never learned how to communicate well… I wasn’t feeling well…”

And then we also tend to maximize the monstrous impact of what was done to us while minimizing the monstrous impact of our actions toward others. Because I did not beat, rape, or intentionally torture anyone else, I gave myself a pass for all of the terrible words I said to the people in my life. God has opened my eyes to the many ways I used words to hurt the people in my life, and I have had to repent of so many mean things I said to other people … sometimes to their faces but more frequently behind their backs. How many people from my past continue to think of me as a monster because of the monstrous things I said to them out of my pain and brokenness?

This dynamic was evident in the movie as well. When Bart confronted his father about beating him as a child, he father said he cried all night because of it. Bart’s father was broken and did monstrous things out of that brokenness, but did that make him a monster?

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace dressed like Frankenstein’s monster under the word, “Brains.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]


Lessons from “I Can Only Imagine”

If you are an Amazon Prime member, take note – The movie I Can Only Imagine is now available for streaming FOR FREE for Amazon Prime members. Woo-hoo!

I saw this movie in the theater and was blown away by the power of Bart Millard’s story. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with this movie, it’s the life story of Bart Millard, lead singer of the Contemporary Christian band Mercy Me, and what led him to write the popular song, I Can Only Imagine, which I heard on a secular radio station because I was not yet listening to Contemporary Christian music.) The movie was just as powerful the second time around from my living room!

This week, I’d like to focus on some life lessons that I have learned that are are inspired by this quote from the movie:

My dad was a monster. I saw God take him from being the man I hated to the man I wanted to become.”

I, too, have experienced seeing the transformation from monster to man, although my story is different from Millard’s. In his case, God truly did transform his father, who was repentant whereas in my case, many of my abusers were not. While it could be easy to watch this movie and assume that the father had to be transformed before Millard could stop seeing him as a monster, my experience was different. I have learned that forgiveness also brings about this transformation, and the other person’s participation is not necessary for this to happen.

Most Christians are (sadly) resistant to giving forgiveness (although they certainly want to receive it!) because they don’t understand what forgiveness really is. That was my story for decades. In fact, if I could have taken a red pen and crossed out the passages of the Bible I didn’t want to have to obey, my starting point would have been those passages commanding me to forgive those who hurt me. The actions of my childhood abusers devastated me – they shattered my heart and negatively influenced every single aspect of my life. (I am not exaggerating.) They didn’t deserve forgiveness! And yet, forgiving them was the very tool that God used not only to heal the wounds they inflicted but also to transform my perception of them from monsters into broken people. I’ll explain how this week.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cover of I Can Only Imagine. Courtesy Amazon.]