Monday, November 14, 2011

Thorn In Your Flesh

I have found that most people tend to struggle with the same frustrating weaknesses over and over in their lives and no matter how hard they try they can't seem to make them better.  I know this sounds like blasphemy coming from a Christian counselor whose career is based on helping people get out of stuck patterns and getting to a state of increased healthiness, but it is often the case.  There is definitely a sanctification process where we as believers are transformed by God over the course of our lifetimes being shaped more into His image, and there are insights and tools that counseling can provide that facilitate this process, but often there is a point where no matter how hard I work as a counselor or how hard my client works the weakness doesn't seem to go away.  The young man who is afraid he might actually lose his job soon if his business finds out he regularly surfs for porn during work hours, who works extremely hard to institute changes, does everything I tell him to do, and fervently begs God to take the temptation away from him.  The woman who has been in counseling for decades and studies scripture daily looking for God to lift her depression that even medication doesn't seem to touch.  The spouse that tries and works their tail off trying to transform their marriage and years later continue to get nothing in return.  There seems to be cases where people work hard and get better and cases where people work hard and don't get better, but rarely if ever are there times where people are irresponsible and put forth no effort but they are magically transformed by God.  So maybe the two necessary components for significant life change are a determination to put forth effort and take responsibility paired with the transforming power of God, where one without the other is ineffective.  Don't get me wrong, I believe Non-Christians can improve their marriages and become less anxious, they just have to do all the work on their own and have to fight an uphill battle against their own sin nature to which they are a slave.  I also believe that God is sovereign and could choose to transform a person without them doing a thing, I just more often observe in counseling as well as scripture that God seems to like for us to invest in the process rather than sitting back and waiting on the magic.

So this post isn't expressly for those who just don't have a relationship with Christ, or for those who just aren't interested in doing the work of getting better, but rather those who are crying out desperately to God to rescue them from their sinful flesh and are doing everything in their power to take responsibility but consistently see no change.  Paul says this, and we can all relate:

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

New International Version (NIV)
7 Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The relationship between man and sin, before and after salvation is a deep and theologically rich topic which can't be fully fleshed out here but the basics I am working from are these: God could have chose to create a world without choice and therefore no sin but it would have also been mindless automatons devoid of the ability to really love.  He also could have set it up to where when we accept Christ we are not only forgiven of our past but allowed to move forward without ever sinning again, but that seems to not be the case.  And while many believers experience the supernatural deliverance from their sin, weakness, or affliction there are many more that, like Paul, never seem to catch a break.

What this indicates to me about the heart and character of God is that he seems to be more interested in us relying on him in humility and dependence, regardless of what kind of benefit we get from it, far more than he is interested in us becoming more and more perfect and sinless according to the law.  It seems that the work of sanctification, where we are rescued from the bondage of sin and able to live more in the image of God, is a work that we are powerless to do in and of ourselves.  But it is also a process in which God likes for us to do our part, to struggle and fight, to make responsible choices, and to step out in audacious faith - kind of like my kids cleaning up the playroom on a much grander scale.  I know I will be doing the vast majority of the picking up of toys and that by the end I am lucky to get a toy or two a piece cleaned up from my boys but I want them to take ownership and engage in the process even though I could lock them in there for days and they could never get it exactly perfect, but would more likely just create a bigger mess.

I think this is important for people to remember for several reasons, one of which is that it reminds us that if we aren't seeing significant reduction in our sinfulness and we can't easily just acknowledge our own lack of responsibility that maybe God teaches us just as much from allowing us to stay in our sinfulness as he does from rescuing us out of it.  It's really just our stubborn humanness that convinces us that the chief goal of life is to stringently stick to a set of laws and work towards becoming more and more perfect.  The Bible, however, is chock full of stories and injunctions that suggest us focusing on being more and more sinless is not the correct focus as it ultimately is on us and our elevation instead of God and his glory.  God flat out tells Abraham to commit the worst kind of sin, killing his own son, just to make the point that we are to be about listening to his voice and obeying rather than blindly following dogma.  In Micah 6:8, God indicates that our acts of sacrifice, trying to become more and more perfect, are worthless compared to a heart of humility and mercy, broken and contrite.  It seems keeping us weak and helpless gives God the richest, fertile ground for these things.  If you can just get it in your mind to kick a sin and you do it then it becomes hard to stay humble.  If you never have to struggle with something far beyond your own power and steely resolve then it is much easier to interact with others based on judgement rather than mercy.  And Paul speaks clearly when he says God's power is made perfect in our weakness.  I believe God prefers a dependent person over a sinless person any day, someone who knows his frailness and desperate ongoing need for not just a far off savior but a daily strength to get through the day.  Someone who knows that they don't have the power to stand toe-to-toe with temptation, that they'd lose 10 times out of 10, and that their only hope is to run full speed away from sin's tempting influence and into the arms of God.

Maybe your weakness is a mouth that can't help but gossip, slander, and judge whenever you are around your friends.  Maybe for you it is a nagging sense of never feeling good enough that keeps you working late and disappointing your wife once again.  Maybe there are weeks on end where it takes the effort of climbing Mt. Everest to get you out of bed in the morning and reading your Bible just feels like ash in your mouth.  Maybe you weep while praying that today when your wife leaves to go to work you won't be haunted by urges to surf for porn or get out your stash of whiskey she doesn't know about.  All I know is that over the years I have met many men and women of every age that deeply love Christ and desperately cry out to him to be delivered from their weaknesses only to hear that God's grace is sufficient.  These are also the humblest, least judgmental, pious, and Christ-like people I've had the pleasure of knowing.  God likes to use weak people, prone to sinfulness, and flawed in every way because when he does great things in and through us the watching world has no other logical recourse than to see the handiwork of an powerful and praiseworthy God.  God chose a murdering adulterer to bear the title of a man after his own heart, used a fanatical murderer of Christians to spread the gospel further than any other man, and he uses weak, recurrently sinful, and hopelessly dependent me to counsel broken people because I am and always will be one too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Listen Up

Most of our parents did a pretty good job of teaching us how to talk but few did as well at helping us learn how to listen, a skill that most of us struggle with.  Some of this comes from when our parents tell us to listen to them they really mean obey, they aren't just as happy if we were to say, "Father, I know you worked hard to provide the money for my hard working mother to purchase and prepare these brussel sprouts, and that your desire is that I eat them all.  I regret to inform you, however, that I have chosen not to eat them, but to wait for the ice cream later."  We sort of grow up believing that listening automatically implies obedience, and often this is poison in our other relationships, because when people feel they are not being heard they tend to either get louder or repeat themselves - or both.  It happens all the time in marriage counseling that a spouse says to me something like, "My husband just never listens to me.  I've tried talking nicely, yelling, repeating myself, and nothing gets through!"  I then ask the other spouse what it is that their partner is trying to get them to hear and they almost always can parrot back exactly what it is - they have heard what was being said. Then a foreign concept is introduced where you have to help a person understand that just because someone hears what you are saying, it doesn't mean they will agree with it or be willing to submit to your demands.

So then, how do we become better listeners, and help others understand that we are listening without just placating and agreeing to get them off of our back?  It first starts with reminding ourselves that core truth about marriage that 70% of what we are going to argue about over the course of our marriage are perpetual issues that will never be resolved, but still need to be discussed.  He will always be late, she will always have a lower sex drive, they will never be best friends with your dad, and they will never be able to hold onto cash in their pocket for more than a day, and no amount of deeply hearing your brilliant wisdom on life will change these things.  So most of our conversations about frustrations, disappointments, and hurts will best be handled by really hearing the other person's perspective, validating and empathizing with them, and reassuring them of your love and commitment, not fixing them so they never do it again.

The second thing we have to do is learn to temporarily shut off our self-centered brain long enough to truly put ourselves in our partner's world and experience long enough to get where they are coming from.  This requires two difficult tasks, shutting our mouths, and shutting down our internal conversation where we are fact-checking their statements, determining if we agree with them or not, and figuring out how to counter their obviously flawed viewpoint.  This takes metaphorical muscles inside our brains and wills that for most of us are extremely weak and atrophied.  We have to get to a point where we care at least as much about hearing the other person as we are about being heard.

Once we get those two things down it gets a lot easier and you can then just make sure you are internally hearing the content, perspective, and emotions behind what is being shared as well as externally reassuring our partner that we get those three things.  Mirroring or reflecting content is the first of the three and it is crucial to get before you can really do the other two, or else you will each be having two different independent conversations with each other.  Often we assume we know what our partner is saying or what they are REALLY trying to say rather than just working to hear exactly what they are actually saying.  Once you have the actual content you are less likely to remember each other having said different things down the road, "Remember last week when you said X?  No way, I said Y..."  The second part is to make sure you get their perspective by validating them, letting them know that even if you disagree or did not mean for your actions to be interpreted the way they have, that you can see how they view it that way from their point of view.  They aren't crazy or irrational, just rationally convinced of a different perspective.  Then you finally can make sure you reflect their emotions through empathizing with them, picking up on how the situation makes them feel and letting them know you understand.  If you assume it is possible to have a disagreement and don't feel you need to bully the other person into agreeing with your perspective, can shut up and focus wholly on the other person, and let them know you get the content, perspective, and emotion behind what they are saying then you are listening.  They will feel heard, be more likely to be OK with you having a different perspective, and actually curious to hear what it is, rather than just having the usual control battle about who will be heard.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Anxiety and Control

Wow, after a hefty month off from the blog I will finally deliver on the promise from the previous post of a helpful strategy for getting yourself out of an overwhelmed state of worry.  Anxiety is a huge topic which I am sure I will hit on more at some point but for this post I will focus more on worry and some practical steps that can help manage and process worry state.  The first thing to remember about worry and anxiety are that they are not only unavoidable but necessary and even helpful in the right contexts.  When you have a big test next week it is worry that gets you off of the Xbox and your nose in the books.  When your child is walking a little too far ahead of you at the county fair it is anxiety that keeps your vision locked onto them.  When you get your credit card statement and it makes you want to vomit it is worry that makes you tough it out at an unpleasant job rather than telling your boss to shove it.  Worry is helpful when you are faced with a situation where you need to do something that is within your control in order to prepare for or respond to something in the present. Laying in bed late at night worrying about whether the upcoming budget cuts will cost you your job is not useful or beneficial.  Lamenting the poor quality of the local high school that your 3 year old is districted to attend some day isn't helpful.  Assuming that because you are 23 and have not yet received a marriage proposal that you are destined to a sad and decrepit life ending as an isolated elderly shut in who is eaten by her 95 cats and the world doesn't even notice for weeks is perhaps premature.

A horse who is working and supposed to only focus on what is in front of them to avoid distraction and wandering off is outfitted with blinders, because it really doesn't matter what is to the left or right, only what is straight ahead.  In a similar way I have found a big part of determining whether worry is helpful or destructive is to put on two blinders by asking two questions about the situation.  Blinder #1 - What can I do right now in the present about the situation.  This means if you are focusing on fixing some mistake or beating yourself up for something from the past and you are NOT in possession of a functioning time machine then you need to forcibly focus yourself on the present and what you can do now.  If you are living in the future, mapping out 90 different scenarios of what might possibly happen and preparing contingency plans for each of them, and you are not one of those creepy precogs from the movie, Minority Report, then you are doing what Beth Moore refers to as paying payments on debts that most likely will never come due.  What can you do right here and now about your big job interview in the morning when it is midnight?  Go through your mental Rolodex of every possible question that has ever been asked from one human to another, or just roll over and get some good sleep for the big day.  Rather than once again convincing yourself that you will never dig your way out of the debt you have piled up and that it is just a matter of time before your house is foreclosed on and your kids repossessed, you could step out of the line at Starbucks and decide that starting right here and now I'm going to stop spending money frivolously starting with the couple of bucks you have in your hand.  We like to think that if I can be prepared for something bad to happen then it can hurt us less, which is true if you have set up an emergency savings fund in case your job gets outsourced, but getting shot in the leg pretty much hurts the same whether you anticipated it or not.

The second major blinder to keep secured into place is to ask the question "What do I have control over in this situation?"  If you are honest with yourself then usually the answer is very little as the vast majority of the control we convince ourselves we possess is just an illusion.  We can't really force our kids to make good decisions so worrying that if we were good parents that they would never make mistakes is giving yourself a little too much false control.  Being riddled with anxiety about losing your job is helpful if it pushes you out of your comfort zone to start sending your resumes out to better opportunities or to buckle down and start actually doing the job you've been getting paid to perform for years, but just rehashing over and over that somebody in a boardroom somewhere might make a decision that will cost you your current job doesn't actually lead to preparing yourself or responding to the situation.  What do you have control of?  Your thoughts, feelings, decisions, beliefs, values, and commitments?  What do you not have any control over?  Basically everything outside of that.  I'd say everything outside of your own skin but marathon runners with high cholesterol and health food nuts with cancer would say that's even a myth.  I'd say everything outside of your own mind but those suffering with debilitating depression or in the midst of intense grief would say that you often don't even have control over that.

So you find yourself absolutely crippled with anxiety, worried about the million troubles in your life and how you are going to fix them, what do you do?  You get out a piece of paper and write out each major issue and list them out, which immediately shrinks your list from a million to like 6.  Counting anxieties in your mind is like counting toddlers in a room, you end up getting a much higher number because they keep moving around.  Once you have each of the main categories you hit each one individually with the two big questions of what do I have control of in this and what can I do right now about it and it will look something like this:

It's 10 at night and you are getting ready for bed and just feel overwhelmed:
1. Aunt Suzy is having a hip replacement - I can pray for her and ask God to give her a speedy recovery.  I can write on my task list to pick up a card tomorrow while I am grocery shopping.
2. We are in a bad economy - Pray.
3. I think my daughter is sexually active - Pray.  Stop by her room and just tell her I love her, hope she sleeps well, and that if there is anything at all that she feels like she needs to talk with me about that I am here for her.  Put on my to do list for Wednesday while I am having tea with Mary Beth to get the contact info for that hit-man she hired for her rotten husband to see if he does grungy teen boys as well (Just Kidding).
4. My marriage is falling apart and I'm afraid my husband doesn't love me any more - Pray that God will help you forgive his shortcomings and that he would reveal your own and give you the strength to become better.  Before going to bed tell him I am committed to him, that I love him, and that he is good enough in my eyes.  Write down in task list for Friday night to make him a big steak out of the blue and rub his back before bedtime.  Spend my last few minutes before I fall asleep tonight reading a book on being a better wife rather than using the time to watch CSI: Hoboken reruns.

One last great resource on this topic is a recent sermon at my church called "Work, don't worry.  Because worry don't work." - If you have an ipod/pad/phone just get the elevation church app as it has all the old sermons and find it under the "Treatment" series - or hopefully this link works -