When you Feel Beaten Up

Life and ministry can sometimes beat you up. And when that happens, we don’t need a kick, we need a lift. Read a part of this old children’s story first published in 1922 and be encouraged. They are wise words offered by the Skin Horse to the Velveteen Rabbit taken from the book, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.

small bunny soft toy withdaisy flowers, Author's work with prope

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else.

For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.

“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

If you’re going through a tough time and feel shabby and it seems like your eyes are dropping out, remember the wise words of the Skin Horse. Once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. 

Remember, no matter how you feel, God sees you not as bruised and broken baggage, but as a beloved child of God, cherished and accepted beyond measure.

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Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 2

In my last blog post, Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 1, I shared an insight that helped me deal with anxious thoughts and emotions when spiritual practices like prayer and fasting didn’t seem to work. I realized that when I prayed for God to take away my anxiety, I was often asking God to do a miracle, to suspend his created laws of nature. I came to realize that often He wanted me to respect His natural created order (i.e., my anxiety may be due to me not taking care of my body). I had to be OK if He chose to work in ways other than a miracle. In today’s post, part 2, I share a simple A-B-C process that God has used to give me greater internal peace.

anxiety cartoon

In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul intuitively understood how our internal world works long before we knew anything about hormones or neurotransmitters that profoundly affect our emotional life.

In verse 6 he commands us do not be anxious about anything, something easier said than done. In the verses that follow, he tells how we can turn down our anxious thoughts and emotions.

Here’s the simple outline that verses 6-9 suggest.

Don’t fret.  

Instead, re-direct your…

Attention

Brain/thoughts

Conduct

Redirect your attention.

He says in verse 6 that instead of fretting and worrying, we should redirect our attention…

from the problem (do not be anxious): whatever is the source of your anxiety

by prayer (by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present yours requests to God): to the Lord, who is the problem solver.

“Prayer consists of attention,” and “the quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” [Laird, Martin (2011-06-29). A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Kindle Locations 232-233). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

for peace (and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and mind)

We must do this because often we get caught in an infinite thought stream and these thoughts and feelings become our identity because we have reinforced them through rehearsing them and ruminating over them. It’s like a video constantly playing in our minds that we can’t seem to pause. These thoughts can actually become the themes in our mind… I’m ugly, fat, skinny, she hates me, life is hopeless, my church will never grow, I can’t do anything, they are talking about me, my preaching does not connect with others, etc.

When we constantly rehearse these anxious thought and emotions, our brain actually rewires itself. It’s called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rezone itself. Those themes become rivers of neuronal networks in our brain and form much like how a river forms. A river starts as a small stream but the more water that flows into it, the deeper the channel the water creates and the wider its banks grow until it becomes a river.

The only way to divert the river’s flow is by starting another small channel that comes off the river. Over time the new stream digs a deep channel and widens its banks until it becomes the main river and the former river becomes a stream.

Our brains work in a similar manner. When we re-direct our attention, our brain creates new networks that reflect more healthy thinking. And as we continue to redirect our attention from the problem to the Problem Solver, we create new networks that diminish the power of those anxious ones (make that river smaller). As we do that, God sets His peace like a sentry over our minds and hearts.

The key is to keep redirecting, even when the anxiety comes back. Repeatedly redirecting our attention is crucial. The re-zoning process takes time.

Redirect our brain/thoughts.

Next Paul speaks directly about our thinking.

Phil. 4.8   Finally, brothers, 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.

When he writes, think about such things, he means a deliberate, prolonged contemplation. Intention is crucial… to deliberately choose to think a different way. And to do that we must be aware of what we are thinking about. This is easy to do, but hard to remember to do. Often our inner mental chatter goes on and on without our conscious awareness. Our minds are often stuck on autopilot.

Yet, as we repeatedly redirect our thoughts/brain to such things, God will create a new river of truth and joy and peace in our minds. He will transform our minds (Romans 12.2).

Martin Laird gives one of the most helpful metaphors about our anxious thoughts and emotions, weather around a mountain.

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. (Ps 125.1)

Mt Zion symbolizes God’s power, blessing, and protection. So, when we trust in the Lord and redirect our thinking and our attention, we are like a mountain and how it responds to weather.

A mountain has weather around it all the time. The mountain does not become the weather. It simple observes it. In Christ we are like that mountain with all kinds of external and internal weather around us. Now we may prefer certain kinds of weather, but we are not the weather.

Your anxious thoughts and emotions are not you. They are simply the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured … When the mind is brought to stillness (what Paul calls thinking on these things) we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. [Laird, Martin (2006-06-07). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-293). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

So, paying attention to our thoughts is essential to spiritual and emotional well being.

Without paying attention to our thinking, we become captive to the changing weather patterns of our lives, our emotions, moods, thoughts, experiences, anything, everything that we have little awareness of, this constant chatter. These thoughts can blind us and victimize us. We can let them become us, or convince ourselves that they are us when in reality they are just the weather in our minds.

We must see our thoughts and emotions like weather and remind ourselves that we are hidden in Christ in God… our rock, our fortress, our sure foundation. We are like Mt Zion.

As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 Re-direct our conduct.

The Apostle Paul then writes in verse 9, Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me put it into practice.

Ultimately, as we pay attention to and redirect our thinking from anxious thinking to that which is good and wholesome, we will develop Godly character and virtues which will show up in conduct.

So, the next time anxiety strikes, heed the counsel of the Apostle Paul.

Don’t fret. Instead, re-direct your…

Attention

Brain/thoughts

Conduct

What has helped you deal with anxious thoughts and emotions?

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Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, Part 1

The Apostle Paul commands this in Philippians 4.6, Do not be anxious about anything. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done. Anxiety, an inner mental and emotional state, often feels like we’re being pulled in a zillion different directions in our soul and in our mind. Anger and regret about the past and fear and uncertainty about the future breed it. An old English word for it captures its essence: strangulation. Anxious thoughts and emotions often seem like a incessant video playing its strangulating messages over and over and over in our minds with seemingly no way to press ‘Pause.’ What do we do when we can’t turn it off? I think I may have stumbled upon how.

Anxiety

For years I struggled with turning off the anxious worry video replaying in my mind. I tried every spiritual practice in the book: prayer, Bible reading, Scripture memory, fasting, confession, spiritual warfare, and even more of the same. But often the anxiety still remained. I wondered…

  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Do I have some hidden sin?
  • Is God punishing me?
  • Am I not doing the spiritual disciplines right?
  • Has anxiety hopelessly trapped me forever?

I struggled with it until I learned this insight that is slowly changing my life: I had subtly missed how God usually works.

First, I believe that all truth is God’s truth, including science and the laws of nature that He Himself created, whether those laws be gravity, electromagnetism, physics, or the biology of how our bodies and brains work.

What I realized, however, as I unsuccessfully dealt with my anxious thoughts and emotions through increased spiritual practices, was this:  Often I expected God to bypass his own created laws of the universe about how my body and brain works when I prayed/fasted/quoted Scripture/etc. for relief. I realized that I was asking God to suspend his created laws of nature. And what do we call it when God suspends the laws of nature? A miracle. I was often asking (or demanding) God to give me a miracle to end my incessant and distracting anxious thoughts and feelings.

I do believe God works miracles. But He more often works through His designed nature of things.

For example, I have no problem NOT praying for God to miraculously transport me to work from my home without driving, à la a Star Trek transporter. Most of us never ask God for something like that. Yet, when I asked God to relieve my body of its anxiety, I was actually asking him to bypass how He created my body and brain to work.

Consider this example.

Let’s say my annual review is coming up soon and for the next two months I incessantly worry about, rehearse all the worst case scenarios, and daily ruminate about how bad my review will be. The result is that the fight-flight part of my brain, the amygdala, sensing threat, signals my adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. For short periods of stress and danger cortisol is a good thing for our survival and response to danger. After danger passes, however, it will settle back to a healthy blood level. However, since I’m continually worrying for two months, my body has become stuck on an high level of cortisol and other blood and brain stress chemicals. And in those cases it takes days or weeks for those levels to drop to a healthy level. Only when those levels come down will the feeling of anxiety go away.

Yet, as I pray for God to make the anxiety go away and plead for Him to give me peace, will He do the following?

“Ah, Charles, I hear your prayers and see your predicament. I will answer your prayer. I choose to suspend my established laws about the biology of your body and brain and give you an instant miracle of no anxiety. I immediately eliminate all the cortisol that has built up for the past two months. I now force your amygdala to go off-line. I fill the thinking center of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex, with positive thoughts about your meeting with your boss. Additionally, I now force your mid-brain to produce an extra boost of the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine and flood your nucleus accumbens, your brain’s pleasure center, with that chemical to make you feel perfectly at peace.”

And poof! I feel great. No more worry. No more fear. No more anxiety. At perfect peace.

Were God to do that, bypass His created laws of biology by instantly lowering those chemicals to remove my anxiety, we’d call it a miracle, on the order of transporting me to work through the Star Trek transporter (well, maybe not that extreme). God could have done it that way. But most of the time He will not suspend the laws He Himself created that work in our bodies and our brains. He often works through His established natural order.

In order to get relief, I had often subconsciously prayed for a miracle. Yet, I’m learning that every answer to prayer does not have to circumvent His natural laws to make it a God thing. 

When I prayed for relief from these emotions, I was not taking into consideration that God may have simply wanted me to respect his biological laws of nature and slowly change my thought life in response to whatever was fueling my anxiety. And by doing so, He would gradually bring down those unhealthy chemical levels, thus reducing my anxiety.

I’m learning that debilitating, difficult, and even pesky emotions may not actually have spiritual roots or direct spiritual solutions (i.e. just pray more and have more faith). Rather, they may lie in a lack of understanding of, a lack of cooperation with, and a lack of respecting how God designed our bodies and brains.

God made hormones that flow through our blood stream and neurotransmitters that traffic in our brain. Both profoundly affect our emotional and mental well being. And our thought lives affect how much they flow in our bodies and brains.

So, as I began to learn this insight a few years ago I began a quest to understand how our brains impact our walk with God, life in general, and leadership. I even have a book coming out next year on this subject that shares my journey, Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry.

When the Apostle Paul commands us to not be anxious, what he says following that statement indicates His intuitive understanding how God designed our bodies and brains, far before science had any idea.

In my next post this week I explain a simple A-B-C process that is helping me more consistently press the ‘Pause’ button on my anxious mental videos.

Do you agree that sometimes spiritual practices won’t give us emotional peace? Why or why not?

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A Unique and Fresh Approach to Bible Reading

A few years ago author and discipleship expert Bill Hull introduced me to a fresh approach to Bible reading through one of his books. He explained an ancient yet growing Christian devotional practice called lectio divina, which includes four phases: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. I took those four concepts and created my own acronym to make it more easily remembered: RIPE. RIPE stands for Read, Immerse, Pray, and Execute. Try reading your Bible in this way and see how it can freshen your experience. It’s also helpful to record insights you learn in a journal.

Reading the Bible

First, pick a section of Scripture of reasonable length, say 10-20 verses. Then read that section four times and apply each part of RIPE each time you read the passage. Here’s how to do it.

R: Read

Slowly read the passage, both silently and out loud. Make yourself aware of cultural, theological, or other biases you may be bringing to the passage. Read it without allowing those biases to cloud your reading. Read it first from the viewpoint of a child who knows nothing about the cultural and theological underpinnings of the passage. After you do this first, then bring into your thinking the background or theological insights you already know about the passage.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

I: Immerse

As you read it a second time, immerse yourself in the scripture and ponder it by imagining yourself as one of the original hearers of this passage, physically present in the time and place in which the scripture was spoken, written, or read. Use all five senses to re-create the context and setting in your mind. Enter into the hearer’s world. Center your thoughts on how the passage relates to Jesus.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

P: Pray

Pray over the scripture and actually ‘pray’ the scripture by personalizing it for yourself. Allow the Lord to search your heart as you ponder it. Let Him speak to your heart and reveal His will to you. Choose a learner’s posture as you ask the Lord about what He wants to stop, start, change, develop, or grow in you.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

E: Execute

Now, as you read it one last time ask yourself what you learned as you immersed yourself in the reading, and what you felt God impress upon you to do. Commit to the Lord that you will carry out today what He has impressed upon you to do, be, or change. Write down what you will do. Be specific in your commitment.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

What Bible reading methods have helped you keep Scripture reading fresh?

When Tough Times Hit: Reflections During my Daughter’s Eighth Brain Surgery

As I write this post I’m sitting in the waiting room of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago as my 27-year-old daughter Tiffany undergoes her eighth brain surgery. Due to intractable epilepsy (epilepsy non-responsive to drug therapy) caused by a brain tumor diagnosed at age 1, doctors implanted a device in her brain 8 years ago to stop the seizures. And four years ago they performed a temporal lobectomy to remove her right temporal lobe. During the last 4 years she has been seizure-free but due to complications from a recent surgery when the device’s battery was replaced, we’re back to have it reinserted again. As I’ve traveled down this road multiple times, I continue to learn these lessons about tough times.

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  1. Christ promises to sustain us through tough times.
    • “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13.5)
  2. A strong marriage makes it easier to navigate tough times.
    • Because my wife, Sherryl, and I have developed a strong marriage in good times, we can draw upon each other’s strength during this tough time.
  3. Uncertainty is an inevitable reality in tough times. 
    • A life of faith demands that we learn to live in a world with no certain tomorrow, except God and his sustaining grace.
  4. We all need a church family (and friends) that will care and pray for us in tough times.
    • Knowing our church and friends support us and pray for us encourages us.
  5. Nobody can escape tough times.
    • ‘Nuf said.
  6. Freaking out does not help us weather tough times.
    • Then calmer we’ve remained, the better we’ve been able to keep perspective and kept our emotions from running rampant.
  7. Life goes on during tough times.
    • I’m still a pastor and have responsibilities even during these interruptions. Life still happens.
  8. One day we no longer will face tough times.
    • Heaven awaits every follower of Jesus Christ and He will banish forever tough times. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev. 21.4)
  9. We must tend to our bodies during tough times.
    • Tough times causes our bodies and brains to release cortisol, the stress hormone, which can dampen our immune system. During tough times we must give special attention to body care, as much as possible.
  10. We WILL slow down during tough times.
    • When tough times comes, we realistically can’t expect to fit in all the normal life stuff as well. It’s ok to cut back on other commitments.

We pray that Tiffany will weather this surgery well (I just found out she did) and that she will recover quickly. However, we know that ultimately her future and ours as well are in the hands of our loving Heavenly Father.

When you’ve experienced tough times, what lessons have you learned?

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