Anxiety, Thanksgiving, and Time

Thanksgiving time brings thoughts of good things of which to be grateful.  Having a grateful heart includes a balanced perspective on time, which can be helpful with anxiety, often a part of the holiday season.

Never worry about anything. Instead, in every situation let your petitions be made known to God through prayers and requests, with thanksgiving.
Philippians 4:6 (ISV)

Spiritually, the concept of time is significant, dividing our life on earth from eternity. Temporality is time constrained by linear events.  Our life in the world is ordered by time passing sequentially.  Temporality provides space for us to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

God’s perspective is omnipresence in time as well as space. Living in eternity allows relating without the constraints of temporality. God sees the beginnings and the end, and all that happens in between, all in one snapshot.  After this life, we will share this picture.

Don’t forget this fact, dear friends: With the Lord a single day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a single day. 2 Peter 3:8 (ISV)

This is easy to forget in our current state.  When we are anxious, we see only a part of the current reality. We can be reassured and our fears relieved, when there is a bigger view, seen from eternity. 

 My times are in your hands. Deliver me from the hands of my enemies and from those who pursue me.
Psalm 31:15 (ISV)

We are not of this world, as we have eternity to enjoy if we are one of God’s children through the blood of Jesus.  But in practice, it is natural to forget that our time frame goes beyond this life. If we only had this life, anxiety would rule. The current reality would be the only reality. We would be hopeless and doomed to the death of this world, with no true justice, and no victory of good over evil. We would be dependent on ourselves and our sense of meaning would be lost.

For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for well-being, and not for calamity, in order to give you a future and a hope.’
Jeremiah 29:11 (ISV)

Gratefulness is not born out of compulsion or obligation.  Just thinking about things to be grateful for doesn’t lead to a grateful heart.  The pride of compulsion leads one away from a surrendered self.  Gratefulness is a state of emotional peace that can result from receiving His gifts.  It is a place of the heart that understands salvation, the knowledge of God’s love and the gift of His grace.

In Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes promise that there are blessings in the future. The transformation of pain and persecution depends on a future that is redeemed and recreated by God. Our stories of stress and anxiety don’t end with the current situation or with this life on earth.  God is the original author and creator.  He uses time to create stories of redemption and restoration.  He uses time to fulfill joy allowing us to see His glory.

There is fulfillment in our stories with the passage of time through His redemptive grace. That’s how, if we are faithful, we can be thankful.  With faith, we can believe God’s assurances for our welfare. Remembering God’s bigger perspective of time, we can dwell in Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving holiday allows us to take time to think about God’s time. Practicing an eternal perspective while seeing redemption in time calms our fears of calamity. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful about the good things not just of this world, but the fulfillment of things we will see in the world to come.

Relationships: Practice Grounds for Reconciliation

Many describe loving God as the first act of the process of becoming a loving Christian. This makes sense theologically, as God is the origin of all love, including our ability to love. Because we were created in His image, we were created to love.

However, in this lifetime, God is emotionally more distant. This is due to the fall, which caused the rupture of connection between us and God. We have since been out of direct communion with God.

“‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:30-31 (NASB)

The way we primarily learn and choose to love God and others is through our relationships with “neighbors” in our lives. It is not just a cognitive process learned through the word. It includes emotion. Love is the most powerful and intense emotion of all.

Loving attachments can be where we experience communion with God on earth.  This is through the experience, good and bad, of relationships.

We learn to love through understanding who we are, and how we are different from each other, as we relate to others outside of ourselves.  Sometimes this leads to deeper love and connection with each other, and sometimes this leads to conflict. How we resolve relational conflict expresses how we love. This includes communicating and negotiating, submitting ourselves and giving of ourselves to the other and trusting.  It is also the conflict within us, to empty ourselves, and submit to the Spirit. Will reconciliation be the final outcome or do we withdraw and allow disconnection? This is the difficult emotional work where we try to reconcile, as God is the great reconciler.

As Christians, we obtain spiritual communion with God and others through the Holy Spirit. Through acts of loving our neighbors, not only do we fulfill the commandment in Mark 12, but we allow the Spirit to teach us to love others more fully.  Through this process, we grow in loving God more with our heart, mind, soul and strength.  Through the love we have and experience with those of flesh and blood here on earth, we can more fully know and feel the experience of love and connection, including the amazing reality of God’s love for us.

Depression and the Domain of Darkness

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Eph 6:12, NASB

Major depressive illness affects nearly 7% of the U.S. population each year.  According to the World Health Organization, it is the biggest cause of disability worldwide.  It is a brain disease, a medical illness related to psychological stress and genetic predisposition, causing multiple symptoms that can be severe and life threatening.

Besides the pain of anxiety, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, isolation, and the inability to have positive and hopeful thoughts, there is another, even more insidious destructiveness to this illness.  Depression makes you feel responsible for and in control of your depressive suffering.  It leads the afflicted to accept the blame for their pain.  During depressive illness, even for the smartest and wisest sufferer, perception and judgement is altered.  This is the scariest part of any mental illness.  Depression leads to thoughts that you alone can change the suffering.  It convinces you that it’s your failure that led you to these feelings. Although you can choose to ask for help and get treatment, depression encourages you to resist help from others, and masks the illness process.

With other medical symptoms, such as the sudden onset of chest pain signaling a heart attack, one is immediately alerted to the need for urgent medical care.  On the other hand, depression causes “emotional blindness.” It makes you resist others who may love and care for you. Trusting a loved one and consulting a doctor or pastor can be the way to healing. Depression leads away from these connections and encourages isolation.

Viewing the effects of depression in a spiritual context, it transforms life into a bondage of lies. As Ephesians 6:12 describes the struggle with evil and darkness on earth, so depression prevents the ability to feel God’s presence and love.  The ability to reach out in relationship is difficult at a time when you need it most.

Besides enlisting the best professional psychiatric and psychologic help you can obtain, healing depression requires two spiritual elements:

1.   For the one suffering: search for faith and hold onto your hope despite the loss of feelings. Remember that God is still here, and that hope, grace and love exist. Push yourself to connect. If anyone in your life is trustworthy, trust those who give freely, without strings, and surrender to loving help. Allow yourself to receive.

2.   For the church community and support system around the sufferer: don’t be like Job’s friends, who didn’t understand Job’s suffering, but were quick to judge him.  Don’t add to the dark thoughts of blame and condemnation, but be informed, loving helpers, enable and assist appropriate professional treatment, provide helps and prayer, encourage hope and faith in God’s redemption, restoration and healing.

As we “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ,” we are part of that redemptive process.

There is no magic avoidance of pain and suffering in this life. We are called to have faith that we have a God who loves and heals us, and will never leave us in darkness. We claim the only God who promises restoration and redemption. We are drawn to that light.  

Balancing Identity and Relationship

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Genesis 1:27 (NASB)

John Zizioulas, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, wrote two major books, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, and Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. These together are significant theological works on personhood, identity in Christ, and our relationship to God and others. He sources Greek Patristic tradition, the Cappadocian fathers, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic thought. Through detailed theological study, Zizioulas emphasizes the importance of our “otherness,” our separate identity, and that our true identity can only be realized through communion with God and others.

As all truth is God’s truth, concepts of “communion and otherness” parallel the psychological concepts of attachment and boundaries. These concepts are at the heart of issues in our emotional life, and can cause much confusion and emotional pain.

Psychological theories emphasize the crucial importance of attachment between mother and infant. We later connect to our father, then friends and perhaps a spouse. At the same time, we also need to explore and develop our unique identity using healthy emotional boundaries. Weak boundaries can lead us to lose our identity. However, strong boundaries can prevent attachment in relationships. At times we avoid attachment, other times we attach too much. We want communion, but we also require freedom and our identity to express our unique gifts.

God created us in His image, with specific gifts and a unique identity to act in freedom. He also created us to be in relationship with Him and others (Matthew 22:37). Maturity expressed in these God-given tasks leads to a more Christ-centered life in this world. This is the fruit of sanctification, dependent on the Holy Spirit.

This is the path to spiritual and relational growth, to deepen communion and otherness, balancing relationship and identity, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13, NASB).

Where Does My Help Come From?

From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the Lord
Psalm 121:1,2 (NASB)

This time of year, there are new medical insurance “surprises,” as next year’s benefits and fees are announced.  How expensive will the plans be?  How much will it cost?  Will I lose my doctors?  Is there any hope for the system to change?

If you have an affordable care act plan, will there be a doctor whom you can see?  How long will the wait be for an appointment?

Even if you have a “Cadillac plan,” are a union member, or a congressman or the President of the United States and have the best care coverage, will your doctor be the best doctor?  Will the doctor do the right thing?   Will there be terrible side effects?  Will the treatments work?

You get the point.  Illness, medical or psychiatric, is a consequence of the fall.  The ruler of this world has his dominion.  Medical science has come far, but there are many ways for the darkness to have its way on earth.  Medicine is far from perfect, and some say the system is broken. Our vulnerabilities are many, and opportunities for our decline and limitations begin in the womb.  Our lives are challenged daily with spiritually meaningful health events.

If your hope is in systems of medical care, community or governmental programs, there will always be a way to “fall through the cracks.”  These “cracks” in man-made systems seem more like chasms lately.

This is why a life of faith provides a different source of help, as God is the god of hope, healing and recovery.  His purpose is mercy, grace and restoration. He glories in creating new life out of illness, suffering and devastation.  He is in control of the outcome.  If He chooses, He restores health even through the lowest level of health insurance, the longest of appointment wait times, and despite the doctor.  He is the Great Physician, and He is the ultimate help.

Steward your body, the temple of the Holy Spirit.   Be healthy, avoid unhealthy habits and care for your body.  If illness befalls, get the best care you can, follow directions and be responsible for your treatment.  But also know where your help comes from.

Are Emotions the Engine of the Train?

Voices now decry the old Christian metaphor of the train of Christian life, driven by the engine of God’s Word and facts of Jesus’ life, faith representing the carriage, and the caboose representing emotional life, feelings, trailing in importance to facts and faith.

B.B. Warfield, a professor of theology and leader in the Orthodox Presbyterian church at the turn of the 19th Century, documented Jesus’ emotions in his notable paper, The Emotional Life of Our Lord. In it, he documented the importance of Christ’s emotions, that he had all emotions and didn’t sin.

1 Corinthians 13 clearly states, out of faith, hope and love, love is the greatest. 1 John 4:8 documents that God is love. We are created to be in God’s image. If this is true, then perhaps the metaphor of the train is discredited. Faith and truth is clearly important, but if love is the greatest, that means we need to reorient our thoughts, and our feelings. Although love is not defined as only emotional, we need to have emotions to feel and experience love.

It means emotions deserve more attention and more significance when it comes to a relational life in God. Could it mean that emotions and our ability to love becomes the greatest priority for our spiritual growth?

Besides our inner growth and emotional depth, our ability to appreciate the depths and breadth of God’s love for us also needs growth. Can we feel God’s love deeply? How deeply? How does our understanding fall short of the reality of God’s love? Can we FEEL God’s love?

We can’t “think” our way to a full understanding of God’s love. We can cognitively understand, but we also need to experience God’s love through our FEELINGS. Emotions are not simple. They are not “driven” by thoughts alone. Jeremiah 17:9 warns of the complexity of the heart. We need to find higher understanding, as we test and grow our emotional maturity, hopefully with spiritual wisdom from others and the Word.

How then do we find help to grow and understand our emotions? We already have professionally trained Christians who do counseling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and psychiatry who have tried to integrate faith with emotional growth. This is not an exclusive vocation. Good mentors, pastoral counselors, spiritual directors, teachers, sponsors and friends also focus not just on truth of scripture and the Word, but also on emotions, personal relationship, and having a right “heart.”

Meditate on God’s love. The ability to love is crucial as we understand and mature in God. Our emotional life in God deserves a better metaphor than a caboose.

The Paradox of God’s Love

We love, because He first loved us.
1 John 4:19 (NASV)

1. Love is the main force and identity of God.
2. God created love and freely gives it away.
3. The world makes love a “commodity,” only available to those who are worthy by their standards, or who can afford it.
4. The world tries to hide and undo the concept of grace.
5. Our nature tries to hold love as a conditional reward that we can control.
6. God draws us to love through His grace.

We all search for love. Love is THE driving force of life. “Love makes the world go ‘round.” A small part of an old Broadway tune, it’s recognizable to generations. The idea that love is the central force in the world is not a surprise, authors and composers know that love is the major theme for drama, as it is in all relationships.

No wonder it is the central identity of God. The world shifts the central identity of God just a bit, where love becomes just a part of life, not the major driving force of meaning for life on earth. It becomes recreational, a driving marketing tool or a commodity to sell and exchange. Love labeled as an attraction, without meaning. It’s amazing that people settle for a life with such little meaning. That is the character of evil. To limit our expectation and vision of how much God loves us. To convince us that God is disappointing.
 In the process of psychotherapy, good mental health moves towards healing broken inner parts of a person’s emotional self. Attaching and restoring broken parts is healing. We are subtly encouraged through the influences of the world, to set love in a disconnected place. Love is seen as something to be obtained, earned and worked for, to be “good enough” for. Love was meant to be a part of us, within us, powering us. For love to be separate from us is part of the culture of narcissism and pride, to be the “best a man can be,” to accumulate enough wealth, power or fame, or to be the most beautiful in order to have wealth, power or fame. If we’re good enough, we may be loved.

The world promises love for the “deserving privileged,” and is sold as something not available to the general public. It is revered but separated from us to some lofty, unattainable goal “in the clouds.” We chase after an empty promise of the most valuable, while it is nearby all along. We are led farther away from what we need and want. This falls in our nature, to think we can “earn” love and control how we get it. This is a lie. It is not to be controlled. God gives love freely, graciously.

Fashion models, athletes and celebrities can and often do “have it all,” but ultimately, if they are not fulfilled and loved, they are, (surprise), humans like everyone else. They often find that “having it all” makes them more isolated and alone, and harder to be loved intimately and deeply. The position of high wealth and fame makes it as hard to find love as getting a “camel through the eye of a needle.”

Christian belief in God’s sovereignty and His identity as the creator and source of all real love allows for being “true,” on the mark for love. Being loved truly doesn’t depend on our efforts or our control. Our genetics, intelligence, wealth, health, power, beauty or any “work” on our part, makes no difference whether or not we can be loved. All we “do” is to choose to enter the relationship, and accept the gift. To be part of the family and surrender our selves, is no small choice, with no small consequence. To respond to the “still small voice” and choose a relationship with God, opens the door to all that the world is searching for but runs away from. Love that is healthy, affirming, and powerful enough to move the world, is not separate from us, not something to work hard for or be “good enough” to achieve and deserve. True love is connecting, integrating and restoring, inspiring and exhilarating. Love is here, within, right now. Love from God is the true power that makes the “world go ‘round,” and it’s free, if we choose the gift.

God’s Limitless Love

We love, because He first loved us.
1 John 4:19 (NASV)

God’s love is the strongest force in the universe. It is bigger and more loving than any can conceive. He authored and created the concept, and our existence is based on it. It should follow that we are good at it. But our concept of love is vulnerable because of our humanness and fallen nature. It is limited by the world, and ourselves.

It is surprising how God’s love is limited by some of the religious “experts.”

Beware when you hear that God’s love is dependent on or limited by:

  • our obedience
  • our faithfulness
  • our performance
  • our expectation for more

God offers a more complete, more fulfilling and more abundant love than we can conceive. Some of us are too fearful of thinking God loves us, loves me, individually, more than anyone has ever shown us love in this world. He loves omnisciently, beyond our knowledge of our own failings now and in the future. He loves us omnipresently, through the concept of time and eternity, without separation. He loves through any bad or good, right or wrong action despite any consequence, omnipotently.

God’s love is bounded only by our: own projection/imagination of the process/content of love, based on our own experience of loving or not loving relationships which are “good and bad,” including:

  • disappointments
  • abuse
  • failures as well as
  • fulfillments
  • attractions
  • joys

God is the author and creator/embodiment of love, sovereign over all in love as the definition of love is God’s behavior, but “unfathomable” due to His

  • Omniscience
  • Omnipotence
  • Omnipresence

He loves at a higher level, incomprehensible. To those who dwell in Him, He wants us to see His higher, more complex and complete love that goes beyond our limit.

Emotions, Identity, and God

GOD met me more than halfway, 
he freed me from my anxious fears. 
Look at him; give him your warmest smile. 
Never hide your feelings from him. 
When I was desperate, I called out, 
and GOD got me out of a tight spot.
Psalm 34:4-6 (MSG)
1. Emotions are God-created experiences, felt by Christ.
2. Emotions help us know and understand who we are.
3. Emotions are very powerful; we often avoid them.
4. Christ used His emotions to act in power without sin, and love without fear.
5. Our emotions need to be felt and understood before we can surrender them to God and act without fear.

Even with the 21st century “psycholization” of modern life, my patients are still being told by their churches, “don’t listen to your feelings.” Jeremiah 17:9 is a common cited scripture to support this, but Jeremiah 17:10 directs elsewhere.

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”
Jeremiah 17:9-10 (NIV)

This passage is not a discourse on emotions. It is about man’s nature to sin. The bias against feelings is more human and not scriptural. This is a holdover from Puritan times, leading to dysfunctional family messages that devalue and deny feelings. It is related to the fear of what we do not understand. It is wrongly labeling feelings as directly leading to sin.

The avoidance and denial of our feelings is sin. All of our emotions are part of us and can be brought to God. Feeling our emotions helps convict us of our sin, which leads us to healthy guilt and remorse. Only then can we take responsibility for our sin and confess, repent, and ask for forgiveness.

A reason to discount and devalue emotions is our impulse to control and take power over others. There are those in power who deny others’ ability to express themselves and how they feel. If feelings are not allowed, then it is easier to deny the rights and choices of others and keep them under outside control.  To repress or deny the feelings of others is sin. It twists connection to deny us from honest relationship.

Emotions are necessary for defining our identity, and knowing our identity is necessary for making good choices. 

The ability to choose is necessary for true connection in relationships. Our relationship to God requires our true feelings, which allows us to have a separate will and identity. This is part of a loving relationship provided by God. We are not children of a controlling bully.

Of course, it would be immature to act only on feelings. This would be ignoring your character, and everything learned during childhood to behave appropriately in society. Feeling your emotions is important to make the right decisions. You need your emotions to know how you feel to respond accurately to God when He calls. Emotions allow you to respond honestly, sacrificially and if you choose, to surrender your feelings in obedience to God. You need to know your feelings to make spiritual choices.

Adults make decisions often trying to suppress and deny their emotions. It really can’t be done. Feelings are powerful, and studies show that men and women act on their feelings and not solely on their intellect. So if they try to deny their emotional reactions, and discount their feelings as irrelevant, their emotions will need expression. If you try to ignore feelings and try to make them go away, they often will take control where we don’t expect them. This is how an emotional “blind spot” works. God gave emotions to us, and they are meant to be felt and confronted. Only then can we be aware of them, and use our thoughts and the Holy Spirit to help make good choices.

Jesus had very strong and varied emotions. He clearly and immediately knew how he felt. He then acted on his feelings in powerful and loving ways. Think of how He grieved for Lazarus, and remember how angry He was at the Pharisees. He was very emotional, yet did not sin.

Feelings tell you what you dislike and what you love. Feelings tell you who you are. This is the identity that God gave you when He created you. It is part of your true identity in Christ.

You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29:13 (NASB)

Empty Nesting

empty nest flower.jpg

One of our children is moving out. She’s not the first, and she’s not the last to “leave the nest.” She is leaving under the best of circumstances, so this should be a joyous occasion as a parent. It is, and yet, it isn’t.

It’s a happy milestone for my child. It’s exciting to see her happy, anxious, and looking forward to her life ahead. That’s all good. It’s like producing a play or musical production, going to rehearsals, fine tuning and perfecting the show, then being excited as the curtain goes up. It’s showtime! It’s a joy to see your child spread her wings and fly. For parents, there is also loss. It’s a little sad to see her leave and be on her own. This is a familiar parental feeling that happens throughout your child’s lifetime. In years past, I loved my child by helping, teaching and protecting. Now I love by accepting my grief and supporting her to leave.

For Christians, the parenting role brings a spiritual process, teaching us how God fathers us. The experience of our children “leaving the nest” shows us the process of separation. It reminds us that our children are not ours to own or control. They were created to be separate individuals. However, there is a subtle but significant detail. Even as parents and their children are meant to be separate individuals, total separation wasn’t originally part of the plan. Separation was meant to be within the context of communion with God. We were created to be individuals with special identities, with freedom to live and create to glorify the creator, yet fulfilled by a full relationship with God, as we existed in the garden.

We were meant to be both in communion with God and to have a separate identity from God. This all changed when Adam chose to disobey and separate from God. Our relationship with God was broken, leading us to experience full separation, loss and death. We weren’t created for this. The loss of communion with God magnifies separateness, and makes it existentially terrifying and painful.

God feels pain not only when his children choose to deny him, and reject his Son and his redemption. He also feels when believers turn away from Him. My pain of separating from my child is a mirror to the feeling God experiences when I am distant from God. My parental sadness in the independence of my child can remind me of God’s grief when I separate from Him.

Parenting is a blessing. It is a paradox of joy and pain. It brings joy and celebration to the milestones of our children’s lives, yet there are frequent reminders of pain in their separateness. God redeems the pain in my child’s separateness. I know that separation from me is good for her. I can accept that sadness as it is a measure of my love for her as a father. As God loves me, I realize He feels sadness when I turn away from Him. In that moment, I share in the understanding of God’s experience. Then sadness and pain become redemptive as I am in communion with Him.