When You’re in the Belly of a Big Fish

Jonah, one of Scriptures most interesting characters, finds himself in the belly of a big faith after he ran from God. Sometimes crisis, pain, and difficulty can feel like we’re stuck in the same place Jonah found himself. So what do we do? I believe Jonah 2 (a prayer he prayed while in the big fish three days) gives us some insight.

jonah 2

First, what might it look like for you to be in the belly of a fish?

  • You are losing your job and there are no jobs on the horizon.
  • You hate your job but can’t get out.
  • Your marriage is on the rocks.
  • Your teens are walking down a very dark path.
  • Your church seems like it’s going nowhere and things look hopeless.
  • You never seem to have enough money to pay your bills (or pay the church bills if you’re a pastor).
  • You just got a bad doctor’s report.

Can we learn anything during those times? R. T. Kendall believes we can. He writes, “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.”[1]

So, what does Jonah teach us about what to do when we are in the belly of a fish, in a difficult situation, crisis, or pain.

1. Pray.

Verse 1 tells us that from inside the fish he prayed. Unfortunately, we often pray after we’ve tried every thing else. James counsels us to pray in James 5.13.  Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray.

2. Don’t stuff your emotion, suppress your pain, or pretend all is ok. 

Sometimes leaders fail to admit to others or themselves that things really are bad because doing so might us look weak. So, we stuff our emotions, over spiritualize, or busy ourselves to push the pain away. Jonah didn’t do that, though. He graphically describes his situation with words like these: distress, grave, currents swirling, waves and breakers sweeping over him, banished from his sight, engulfed, seaweed wrapped around his head, barred in forever, in the pit, life ebbing away.

Instead of stuffing, one way we can actually dampen painful emotions is to label them, put a name on them. Learn more in this post about dealing with painful emotions.

At the same time we must admit our painful emotions, we must not go to the other extreme and ruminate, replay, and constantly rehearse the difficult situation. Doing so will actually amp them up.

3. Stay hopeful by redirecting your thinking.

As Jonah recounts how difficult things have been, he shifts mental gears with the phrase, “But you (God).” In fact, the Bible often describes God intervening for his people with this phrase, But God. Stories about Noah, Joseph, Joshua, David, and Paul describe But God moments in their lives when the Lord rescued them.

When you’re in the belly, don’t deny the reality of the difficulty. And instead of rehearsing and ruminating, redirect your thinking to the But God’s in Scripture and in your life.

4. Remove any God substitutes.

In verse 8 Jonah talks about worthless idols, probably referring the pagan sailors who were in the boat and who practiced idolatry. For believers today, we can get easily get attached to subtle idols and false gods in our lives. Idols and false gods look different to different people.

Some people drive in their gods.

Some people live in their gods.

Some people live with their gods.

Some people work for their gods.

Some people serve in the gods (their church or their ministry).

The problem with all these gods is what my daughter Tiffany and I discovered a couple of years ago when we took the Hollywood backstage tour in California. The tour involved riding a tram that drove by many familiar houses and buildings used in the movies and TV shows. However, the guide explained that all the sets were facades, false fronts. There was nothing behind them but junk.

Those sets parallel false gods and idols in our own lives. They promise to fill our hearts and give us life, happiness and joy, but they don’t stand up to the rigors of real life. They are all false fronts.

When in the belly of a big fish we often think about what’s truly most important. If you’re in the belly, use this time to root out and discard any God substitutes.

When you’ve been in the belly of a big fish, what life lessons did you learn?

Related posts:

[1] Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. (1995). Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Vol. 19B, p. 241). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

A Powerful Tool to Help Create Change in your Church

Change in every church is difficult, but necessary. Things that are alive, change. One powerful tool that can help move change forward in your church is storytelling. I’ve excerpted a brief portion of my newest book Brain-Savvy Leaders, the Science of Significant Ministry below that describes the power of storytelling to create change.

Hand writing Make a Change with red marker on transparent wipe board.

Narrative persuasion is a technique that uses indirect communication through story and example. Often we try to persuade others with a direct approach that communicates just the facts, like, “We are going to make a change, and here are the reasons why.” The direct approach often is not effective. Neuroscientists have confirmed common sense that storytelling has a powerful effect on behavior (Falk et al., 2012).

Storytelling helps others “see” through the eyes of another. As you solicit feedback as you prepare for your change, look for stories of people who are managing the change well. Tell their stories as you give updates about your progress. When your team members can see successful responses to change through stories of others, it will help them navigate the change better.

How has storytelling helped you move a change initiative forward in your church?

If you’d like a free chapter of my book Brain-Savvy Leaders, you can request one in the right hand column on this page by signing up for my blog postings.

Related posts:

Sources:

  • Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 2746-2752). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition (permission granted for use).
  • Falk, E. B., Berkman, E. T., Mann, T., Harrison, B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2010, June 23). Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30( 25), 8421– 24.

When We Run from God: 7 Insights from One who Did

I just began a sermon series on the book of Jonah. The book describes the prophet Jonah’s call by God to preach to the city of Nineveh (a quintessential sin city of antiquity). Jonah initially ran from His call. As a result he spent three days in a big fish before God got his attention and Jonah decided to obey Him. Jonah 1 reveals these 7 interesting life lessons when we run from God.

Giona, libro, Bibbia, ebraica, cristiana, ebraico, Giudea, predicazione, profeta, Ninive, conversione, racconto, Antico Testamento, Dio, fuggire, ira, divina, obbedire, salvezza, gettato, mare, grande,  pesce, mangiato, inghiottire, dentro, ventre, preghiera, vomitare, spiaggia, ribelle, ribellione, perdono, bene, male, rifiutare, rifiuto, illustrazione, disegno, vettoriale

1. Running from God may indicate bitterness or unforgiveness toward another. 

Jonah ran from God because he hated Israel’s archenemy, the Assyrians where Nineveh was located. He couldn’t stomach their receiving forgiveness from God.

2. You can run from God but you can’t hide from him.

Jonah thought he’d get as far away from Israel as possible by taking a boat and fleeing 2500 miles in the opposite direction to Spain. But, even though Jonah knew that God was all knowing, he still tried to hide on a trip in a boat.

3. God never gives up on you.

When Jonah bought a one way ticket to Spain, God could have written him off and chosen someone else to preach to the Ninevites. He didn’t. He pursed Jonah.

4. God allows the storms of life for our benefit.

God sent the storm not to punish Jonah, but as an intervention. Jonah needed to be saved from himself and the storm (and the fish that swallowed him) were God’s tools for Jonah’s benefit.

5. When you run, others often get hurt.

When Jonah was on the boat, the boat and every innocent sailor was in danger of losing his own life because of Jonah’s disobedience. Although we may think we can sin and nobody else get hurt, inevitably somebody else gets hurt. We never truly disobey God in isolation.

6. The longer you run from God, the worse the storm will get.

As the storm arose, the men cast lots, an ancient way to divine God’s will, to determine who was causing the ‘gods’ to get angry and cause the storm. The lots fell to Jonah as the source. He could have repented then but didn’t. The storm got worse and worse. Often when we run from God, we dig a deeper and deeper hole.

7. Your sin can never outstrip God’s grace.

Although not every time we sin does God still offer us the same opportunities, in this case God kept pursuing Jonah. He sent the storm and a big fish. And Jonah survived them both. The rest of the book describes many other examples when God extended grace to Jonah. We can never sin, disobey, and run from God so far that his grace can’t forgive and restore, if we are willing.

What other lessons have you seen in yourself or others who run from God?

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Are these a Pastor’s 5 Greatest Fears?

If you are human, you have secret fears. I don’t mean ones like fear of snakes or fear of heights, but deeper ones. You may have never verbalized them to anyone. Perhaps they have burrowed themselves deep into your subconscious. Perhaps they’ve become like a shadow that dogs your every step. Perhaps they’re no big deal. However you’d classify yours, I believe we all carry them. And pastors deal with them as well. Although I’ve not based my list below on science or surveys, I believe they capture several fears pastors often face.

Surreal dark portrait of a young man covering his face and eyes with his hands, but he can see right through them.

A pastor’s 5 greatest fears (not in any special order):

1. What if my ministry is insignificant? In writing my second book (Five Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, IVP, 2010, ), I included a quote by David Goetz that captures this fear well.

I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and mega-church pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance. I deduced, albeit unscientifically, that often clergymen in midlife had worse crises of limits than did other professionals. Religious professionals went into the ministry for the significance, to make an impact, called by God to make a difference with their lives. But when you re fifty-three and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol, the glory that was promised to you. That can be a dark moment-or a dark couple of years. (Kindle e-book loc 1919).

2. What if I really mess up?

One of the rising stars in the Baptist world in the 80’s and 90’s in the US, Joel Gregory, rose to what was then the pinnacle of the Baptist world to pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX and succeed W. A. Criswell. However, two years later he resigned, his marriage failed, and he sold cemetery plots to make a living. His remarkable journey (nicely chronicled here), however, led him to a place of redemption and he is now a respected preaching professor at Baylor.

3. When if people leave my church because they are upset?

I know of no pastor who has every led a church where 100% of the people stayed. Some leave for good reasons. Some don’t. And often the pastor is the last one to hear they left. When that happens, it hurts, notwithstanding the good feelings that come from ‘blessed subtractions.’

4. What if I can’t make the people happy?

In my third book (People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership), I surveyed over 2000 pastors and discovered that from 79%-91% of pastors self admitted that people pleasing affected their ministry to some extent. This common temptation is even wired into our brains. Social rejection lights up the same regions of the brain that physical pain does so when we know someone is not pleased with our performance, it actually hurts.

5. What if the people really knew my deepest struggles?

Acceptable struggles like overwork or eating too much usually don’t affect how church people see you. But, what about pastors who struggle with secret jealousies of more successful pastors, lust, or feeling that they often ‘fake it’ on Sundays. If the people knew their deepest struggles, what would they think? What would their boards think? What would those who hold them in high regard think?

The Bible says we are broken people. That’s what makes grace so good. God extends his unmerited love and mercy to us to restore, remake, and remold us. Salvation freed us from the penalty of sin. His Spirit is freeing us from the power of sin. Yet, it won’t be until heaven until we are freed from the very presence of sins, including our deepest fears.

Perhaps we should admit our deepest fears to the Lord and to a close, safe friend who can help us face them and conquer them with the Spirit’s power. In this post you can learn what to look for in a safe friend.

What would you add to this list?

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5 Brain-Savvy Tips that Improve Team Creativity

Great ministry teams are creative. They generate new ideas to solve current ministry problems. Because our world is changing so rapidly, we must constantly seek to generate new God-prompted ideas. In my just released book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, I write about how to generate creativity and insight. I include a portion of that chapter below with these 5 tips.

businessman sitting and  tags on wall
  1. Daydreaming: Insight often comes when we daydream and allow our minds to wander (Christoff et al., 2009). Teach your team how daydreaming can help them solve problems. Encourage your team to schedule times to daydream and to allow their minds to wander rather than always actively trying to solve problems. Help them realize that thinking less about a problem may actually bring the solution. In fact, some companies such as Google, Intuit, and Twitter expect their employees to take time for daydreaming about projects other that than those they’re working on (Waytz & Mason, 2013).
  2. Mood: When we are in a positive mood, problem solving often comes more easily (Subramaniam et al., 2008). Yet when we’re anxious, we solve fewer problems because the anxiety uses up brain resources. So if you’re facing a dilemma in your organization, it might help if the team watched a funny movie to stir the creative juices.
  3. Location: Encourage your team to discover the kinds of activities that help put them into an insight state. Two settings have helped me generate insight. Ideas pop into my mind when I read and walk at a reasonable pace on my stationary bike. Insight also comes more readily when our family leaves for vacation while it’s still dark. I’m the driver and I’m usually the only one awake that early in the morning. With little roadside distraction, my brain has generated many good ideas during those three or four hours of solitude.
  4. Application: Although insight gives us a nice dopamine rush (the feel good neurotransmitter), we all know that the feeling eventually wears off. Remind your team to record their insights in an easy-to-remember location so that they won’t forget them. Even if your team member can’t immediately act on an insight, getting him to commit to acting on it at a later time can help translate the insight into action (Rock, 2007, p. 108).
  5. Speed: If you’re working with a team member who is trying to find a solution to a problem, don’t rush the process. Give her time to engage her brain. Allow space in conversations and encourage her to carve out some down time to give her brain a break.

What has helped foster creativity in your team?

If you’d like a free chapter of my book, you can get it here when you sign up for my twice weekly blog postings. And, the book is available now on multiple on-line sites and through your local bookstore.

Related posts:

(re-printed by permission)

Sources:

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719–8724.

Rock, D. (2007) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Reprint. HarperBusiness.

Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008) A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21 (3), pp.415–432.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013) Your Brain at Work [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2013/07/your-brain-at-work/ar/1> [Accessed 26 June 2013].