Finishing Well

emptyI am nine weeks away from completing my Master of Arts in Christian Ministry with a focus on discipleship and church ministry. It’s been a long, hard year as I have juggled full-time school with running a ministry (in my first professional ministerial role), taking care of my family, and leading a Bible study. I haven’t had much free time over the last year, and I’m tired. I’m tired of having to say no to invitations … tired of not being able to spend time with cherished friends … tired of always having one more thing to do in order to keep up with all of my responsibilities. I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m having to muster up the energy to dive into two brand new classes one last time. I have 10 classes behind me and two left to go. I want to finish well and am trying to gear myself up to do so.

Paul knew something about finishing well. He used the metaphor of running a race to describe the arduous journey that God led him on:

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” ~ Acts 20:24

As his race went on for many years, it was clearly a marathon, not a sprint. He was not able to pump himself up for a few days or weeks and then celebrate victory. He had to keep running that marathon, even on days when he saw no positive results … when his muscles cramped up … when the finish line was so far beyond the horizon that he questioned whether he would ever reach it. And yet, he finished well. In his letter to Timothy, Paul said,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” ~ 2 Tim. 4:7

I want to finish well, just as Paul did, and doing so has taken a lot of effort. This Christian journey is not for the faint of heart! In this blog series, we’ll explore aspects of finishing well.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace lying under a gas gauge on empty. Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

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Victorious Living through Victorious Thinking

Continued from here.

Holding every thought captive to Christ is simple: it’s just not easy. It is simple because God has given you the power to choose what you think about. It’s not easy because it feels natural to allow your thoughts to flow freely without questioning them. Victorious thinking takes effort: passive thinking takes none. I choose to challenge and control my thoughts in obedience to God’s Word, which is why I generally live in victory these days. And when I don’t, I know how to get back on track.

I blogged previously about a method I learned about through Lysa TerKeurst’s book, Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions, which I shared about here. In a nutshell, whenever I catch myself allowing my thoughts to run rampant, I’ll press the pause button by saying,

God, help me do this right. I know you love me, you are good, you are here with me right now, and you are in control. It doesn’t matter what I see or what I feel; it matters who you are. I know my God is able. You were faithful before; you will be faithful again. Help me do this right.”

This five-step response stops my runaway thoughts dead in their tracks and helps me shift my focus so it includes God.

I generally don’t struggle with runaway thoughts in the first half of the day, likely because my hour of quiet time before starting my day gets me off to a strong start. However, as the afternoon turns into evening and I have been juggling one issue after another, I’m more vulnerable to becoming passive about what I am thinking. When I find myself feeling “off” toward the end of the day, I remind myself that God will give me a “do over” tomorrow. I thank Him that his mercies are new every morning, which helps me go to bed with hope for a better day tomorrow. I do not allow myself to wallow or engage in a pity party. I have been to enough of those in my life, and I know where they lead.

If I can learn how to hold my thoughts captive to Christ, then so can you. It takes time, effort, and repetition, but you can learn how to walk in victory by challenging your thoughts and replacing the negative ones with God’s truth.

[Graphic: Cover of Lysa TerKeurst’s book, Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions. Courtesy Amazon.com.]

How to Change Your Thoughts

i_dont_think_soContinued from here.

What are the specific steps for changing your thoughts so you can change how you are feeling? The first step is to stop putting your thoughts on autopilot and take responsibility for your thoughts. As soon as you realize that you are feeling anxious or depressed, press the pause button to your free-flowing stream of thoughts and pray for God to show you truth. Pay attention to what you were thinking about, and look up scriptures that address each concern.

For example, let’s say you were thinking about not having enough money. Meditate (focus your thoughts on) on Matthew 6:25-34, where God promised to meet your needs. Were you thinking about how somebody wronged you? Meditate on Romans 12:19, where God promises to take up your cause for you. Also, mediate on Matthew 5:43-45 and do what it says: pray for the person who wronged you.

It is true that your problem is big. It is equally true that your God is much, much bigger than your problem. You get to choose where to focus your thoughts. If you are passive about your thoughts, they will natural gravitate to your problem, zooming in on the size of the problem so that it fills the entire frame of your attention. However, you can be active about your thoughts by zooming out so that the frame includes God. When God is in the frame, even the largest problem will be dwarfed by the size of your God because He is so much bigger than any problem.

Despite people’s belief that they can multitask, the brain actually only focuses on one thing at a time. (Multitasking is simply shifting your attention from one topic to the next in rapid succession.) You can choose what that one thing is. If you choose to focus on what you cannot handle on your own, your feelings will reflect that thought and weaken you. Conversely, if you choose to focus on God, feelings of joy, peace, and contentment will flow. It’s entirely your choice.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace thinking under the words, “I don’t think so.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Connection between What You Think and What You Feel

thinking2Continued from here.

I ended my last blog entry by sharing a secret: that what you are feeling right now is a byproduct of what you are thinking about. Let’s focus on that truth for this blog entry.

The reason we cannot allow our feelings to drive our thoughts is that it’s like allowing the tail to wag the dog. If I think about the many specific ways that God has blessed me in my life, those thoughts will produce feelings of joy, peace, and contentment. My body will react to those positive thoughts. My breathing will slow down and deepen, and my tense muscle will relax as I meditate on the many ways that God has been faithful to me. As my body reacts to my positive thoughts, my feelings will shift to align with those positive thoughts.

Conversely, if I allow my thoughts to gravitate to a problem I am facing that it too big for me to handle on my own, those thoughts will produce feelings of anxiety. My body will prepare itself for battling that huge problem by causing my breathing to grow shallow as my muscles tense up in preparation for either fight or flight. The flood of adrenaline in preparation for battle will draw my feelings toward anxiety as I project myself into the future, imagining all of the ways that I can be hurt by this looming problem.

Now, let’s say I realize what I am doing – that I have gotten myself all worked up about a problem. Once I recognize that I have allowed my feelings of anxiety to drive my thoughts, I can actively choose to change the direction of my thoughts. I can remind myself that my God is bigger than my problem. I can meditate on scripture reminding me that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me and that God will be with me as I face this problem. I can remind myself of specific instances where I faced problems too big to handle alone and how God was faithful in intervening on my behalf. As I change my thoughts, my body will react to this change, and my feelings will follow.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace thinking with a status bar over her head under the word “Thinking.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Taking Responsibility for Your Thoughts

thinkingContinued from here.

For most of my life, I did not take any sort of responsibility for controlling what I was thinking. If I woke up feeling anxious, my thoughts would feed the anxiety until I either had a panic attack or sank into depression. I was passive about the thoughts flowing through my head and simply allowed them to flow wherever my feelings took them. It never occurred to me that there was any other way to live.

The Bible tells us not to be passive about what we think. Instead, we need to be active in redirecting our thoughts to truth. Here are some biblical passages on the subject:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” ~ Phil. 4:8

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” ~ Rom. 12:2

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” ~ Eph. 4:22-24

All three of these passages are instructions to take responsibility for what you are thinking. In other words, stop being passive about the thoughts that flow through your mind and, instead, be intentional about what you allow yourself to think.

Here’s the secret that most people don’t know: What you are feeling right now is a byproduct of what you have been thinking about. Change what you think, and your feelings will follow.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace thinking about an emoticon thinking. Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Battling Anxiety and Depression

cry_me_a_riverA couple of people I dearly love are struggling with anxiety and depression, so I thought I would blog about the role our thoughts play as we struggle in these areas. Before I launch into this topic, I want to be clear that some people’s issues with anxiety and depression include a physical element requiring medication. I am not a medical professional and am not going to focus on that aspect of anxiety and depression – that’s something that should be discussed with your doctor. The advice I have to share on this topic comes both from the Bible and from personal experience.

I used to have an anxiety disorder that would sometimes spiral into depression. I would feel anxious and think about the external factors in my life feeding the anxiety. As I came up with backup plans for my backup plans in a futile attempt to control my circumstances, my feelings of anxiety would grow stronger and stronger until I had a panic attack, which temporarily relieved some of the pressure. My body would actually relax for a little while after a panic attack, and I would get a good night’s sleep before it all started over again.

Sometimes instead of my anxiety building up to a panic attack, I would instead fall into an emotional pit of depression. This, too, gave me a little relief from the anxiety, but it was far more difficult to manage because I would feel despair. While I was anxious, I was at least coming up with backup plans for controlling my world. When I sank into depression, I lost all hope of being able to control my circumstances and battled strong suicidal urges. While in the emotional pit, I had trouble believing I would ever feel OK again.

In this blog series, I will share some of what I learned as God has healed me from both an anxiety disorder and periodic depression. While I will likely always be vulnerable to feeling anxious, I have learned not to allow those feelings to drive my thoughts. This life lesson has been critical to successfully walking in victory over anxiety.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace crying. Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Believing God will Work this Pain for Good

amazingContinued from here.

No matter what you are going through in your life … no matter how painful it is … no matter how broken you are … God is BIGGER! I know this because I have seen what He can do. The same God who was able to heal me from the suicidal urges, self-injury, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, insomnia, and nightmares is the same God who is able to heal you. I had a mental health professional tell me that I needed to be realistic about my goals for therapy, and a book written by someone who endured a similar level of child abuse and brokenness advised me to accept my limitations: to become comfortable in an emotional wheelchair. However, God had other plans! God has no limits. If He can heal me from an “incurable” mental health disorder, then He can heal you as well.

While I have my moments (as everyone does), I am generally not an anxious person anymore. I experience much joy and peace in my life. I am no longer anger or bitter toward anyone. I am generally patient with other people. I feel excited, passionate, and even grateful for my life. My history has not changed, but my perspective has. While I would never wish child abuse on anyone, I am grateful for mine – not because the child abuse was good but because God is good. The backdrop of the child abuse has helped me see God’s amazing love and power in ways that most people don’t experience to the degree that I have, simply because few people have been broken to the degree that I was.

If you haven’t been deeply broken, thank God for sparing you the pain. If you have, hear me as someone who has been in a similar place: God is bigger. If God can healed my shattered heart, then He can heal yours. If God can lead me to a place of gratitude where I once felt nothing but bitterness, He can do the same for you. There is NOTHING so big that it overshadows God – He is simply that amazing!

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace with her hand on her head and mouth agape under the word, “Amazing!” Courtesy Bitmoji.]