Lured by Grumpiness

I’ve been asked before (by a child) if I smile while I’m sleeping, which is a reasonable inquiry given my generally happy disposition. What that child could not recognize from my smiley disposition, though, is that a happy face can easily cover a grumpy soul.

Paul Miller, in his book A Loving Life, says that grumpiness is universal. A cranky soul manifests itself in at least two different ways. One is the “passionate, cathartic blasting” or “self-righteous dumping” that is elevated as being “real” and “authentic” with one another, but really is a relationship-destroying “mask for enshrining my feelings, for doing my own thing.” [pg 108-109] The other is a “leaking, low-level irritability”–stewing instead of venting. Miller describes it this way:

A leaking, low-level irritability is a great temptation on a journey of love. You feel you have the right to be moody–you’ve earned it. It is a way of exacting emotional payment from a disappointing life. Grumpiness provides momentary relief, but it always involves a splitting of the self. I commit outwardly, with my hands, but not with my heart. I go through the motions of love, but anger smolders just below the surface like a simmering rant…. My will has slipped off the tracks of quiet surrender to the Master, and I’m just going through the motions. Life ceases to be fun. If left unchecked, my inner moodiness begins to distort my heart, and I can slip into cynicism, which begins a downward trajectory into bitterness. It’s not a good path. 

Self-pity, compassion turned inward, drives this downward spiral. Instead of reflecting on the wounds of Christ, I nurse my own wounds. Self-as-victim is the great narrative of our age, capturing whole cultures…. Enshrining the victim is so seductive because you have been hurt. But self-pity is just another form of self-righteousness, and like all self-righteousness it isolates and elevates. It elevates you because it says you are better than the other person; you are the victim. It isolates you because you live in and are nourished by your interior world, which can’t be criticized. [pg 109]

Can you relate? I certainly can. Self-pity seduces my heart and promises comfort for my difficult life. But it cannot deliver on that promise. So how do I escape the allurement of grumpiness? How do you escape?

The cure for a cranky soul begins by repenting, by realizing that my moodiness is a demand that my life have a certain shape. Surrendering to the life that my Father has given me always puts me under the shelter of his wings. That leaves me whole again, and surprisingly cheerful. [pg 110]

Confession and repentance can be followed up with a discipline of giving thanks. Choosing to rehearse reasons for gratitude whether I feel grateful or not may be dismissed as “fake” by the proponents of “authentic venting” (a.k.a. grumpiness), but in doing so I am reminding my soul of what is true. And what is most true is that the God who loved me–without grumpiness–while I was His enemy (Romans 5:6-8) is the same God who provides lasting comfort in my darkest valleys…lasting comfort which self-pity can never deliver.

 

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Fuel for Worship

What fuels your worship of God?

Or maybe before thinking about worship of God, what fuels any kind of worship?

The fuel for worship is undivided attention, high value, affection and enjoyment, devoted seeking, and sacrificial serving (among other things). These are things that give energy and passion to our worship, whether we are worshiping God or something or someone else.

If the battle for our hearts is a battle of worship, how do we intentionally fuel our worship of God, so that all other worships pale in comparison?

I believe spiritual disciplines are the ways we fuel our worship of God. Disciplines themselves are not the fuel, but only the ways that we access the fuel. Disciplines create space for undivided attention, high value, affection and enjoyment, devoted seeking, and sacrificial serving.

In our busy, noisy world, it is difficult to give undivided attention to anything, therefore even if we know that kind of attention will fuel our worship of God, it doesn’t just happen automatically. But when we set aside a few hours (or a whole weekend) to retreat with God, that discipline creates space for us to give undivided attention to God. And in that space, our worship deepens.

A great many things compete for our affections, thus enjoyment of God doesn’t magically blossom in our hearts. But when we choose to sing with abandon and to think deeply about the truths that we’re singing, that discipline creates space for our affections for God to deepen and grow.

We gravitate toward serving God in the areas that are comfortable or beneficial to us, and shy away from anything that would require us to sacrifice, even when we know that sacrificial service invigorates our worship of God. So when we intentionally spend time with someone we find uncomfortable, that discipline creates space for us to grasp in a deeper way the sacrificial love of our Father toward us, and our heart of worship expands.

So how will you–and how will I–create space through disciplines for our worship of God to be fueled? We are fueling worship of someone or something by what we value and where we sacrifice our time and affections. If worship of God is to eclipse all other loves in our lives, we need to have intentional practices that create space for that worship to grow.

 

What I Learned from an Uber Driver

 

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While in England recently, I had a brief conversation with the Uber driver who was delivering us to our destination. When he found out that we were Americans on vacation in the UK, he asked where we had visited and what we had enjoyed most. I mentioned our hiking in the Lake District as a highlight for me, and his face brightened as he shared his similar enthusiasm for the outdoors.

I was bemoaning the fact that in LA where I live, there is very little greenery and natural beauty, at least in comparison to what we were experiencing in England. Living amidst the unending concrete jungle and dead brown desert of a Southern California metropolis makes a visit to the natural beauty of the English countryside very refreshing.

In response our Uber driver made a rather profound statement. He said that when we stop enjoying nature, we lose something of our personhood. I don’t think he was saying that from a Christian worldview, acknowledging nature as God’s creation that points us to His beauty and glory. But even so, I appreciated his implication that we as humans are made to encounter and enjoy beauty and nature; thus when we are not regularly immersed in the beauty of creation (whether due to busyness or to lack of interest), there is something of our personhood that shrivels and withers.img_2027.jpg

Now certainly each one of us is wired differently and distinctly by God, and not everyone enjoys being immersed in the beauty of the outdoors to the same degree as I do, so I cannot make this a universal prescription. But I do know that my own soul is refreshed greatly through the beauty and stillness and wildness of God’s creation; thus when I get caught up too long in the treadmill of busyness that keeps me tied to an office and laptop and long commutes, my soul begins to shrivel. But when I can set the busyness aside and step away from the city and enter into the beauty of all that God has created, there is a refreshment and life that enters my soul.

Hiking in the Lake District of England is amazing and wonderful, and if you have a chance to experience it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. But there is natural beauty and stillness to be found much closer to home as well…yes, even in LA! May you be reminded (as I was by my Uber driver) that God has made us to enjoy and learn from and be refreshed by the beauty of His created world—so we would be wise to take regular time for retreat, not merely to enjoy nature but to enjoy the Creator of that nature, that our souls may be expanded and refreshed in Him.

Dazzled

I like watching clouds–especially the interplay of sun and clouds around sunrise or sunset–but clouds are not as common a sight where I live in Southern California as where I grew up in Oregon. (I’m talking big, fluffy white clouds here, so smog doesn’t count.) Sometimes, if I’m watching the sun peek from behind the clouds and trace their edges with fiery gold, when I turn my attention back to what’s in front of me, my eyes are momentarily dazzled by the brightness and it takes a second or two for them to adjust.

I’ve been reflecting this week on an old chorus that we sang in our worship service on Sunday. And this chorus seems to be speaking of a similar “dazzling” effect that leaves our eyes blind to other things. This is what it says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, 
Look full in his wonderful face; 
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim 
In the light of his glory and grace.  

Turn your thoughts upon Jesus 
Think deep of His wonderful love 
And the thoughts of sin and of self and strife 
Will be lost in that rapture above.

This is a very different strategy than saying “Stop focusing on the things of this earth!” or “Don’t be so wrapped up in yourself!” Trying to directly quit focusing on something that our eyes and mind are drawn to is often impossible. But when our eyes are dazzled by something else or our mind is captured by a different thought, then those earthly, self-focused things are more likely to fade away.

Either way there is a turning that happens. Either I follow the inward-turning rut of my sinful autonomy from God, or I turn upward and outward toward God in trust and worship of Him. And which way I turn has much to do with my eyes and my thoughts–what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about.

The author of Hebrews says much the same thing as this chorus when he writes of “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and “consider[ing] Him” (Heb. 12:3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul says we are to “look, not at the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen.” In other words, we turn our eyes, and our thoughts, upon Jesus, in order to not lose heart.

This is a mellow chorus, which may give the impression that turning our eyes and thoughts on Jesus is something to be done stoically and calmly. However, I believe that loud laments and intense emotions could also accompany this kind of turning toward God, because that is what a lament does–it voices my complaint and need to God (rather than to myself).

So turn…and let your eyes be dazzled by the beauty of your God! He is good. He is merciful. He is holy.

The Cost of Productivity

I’m a fan of productivity. Certainly God has not called us to live lazy, unproductive lives. Rather, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, emphasis added).

But as with any good thing, productivity out of balance with relationship or rest can become detrimental to what God says matters most–love of God and neighbor. Sadly, Christian culture can be just as wrapped up in the drive to do more (and do faster, and do better, etc.) as the culture around us, and there is a serious cost to that preoccupation with productivity.

So these words of J.I. Packer–who has walked with God for many years–should be considered carefully:

“For the Christian, the outward journey takes the form of learning to relate positively and purposefully to the world and other people–that is, to all God’s creatures–for God the Creator’s sake, and the inward journey takes the form of gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God the Father and with Jesus the Son, through the mighty agency of the Holy Spirit.

“Now in the hustling, bustling West today, life has become radically unbalanced, with education, business interests, the media, the knowledge explosion, and our go-getting community ethos all uniting to send folk off on the outward journey as fast as they can go and with that to distract them from ever bothering about its inward counterpart. In Western Christianity the story is the same, so that most of us without realizing it are nowadays unbalanced activists, conforming most unhappily in this respect to the world around us. Like the Pharisees, who were also great activists (see Matt. 23:15!), we are found to be harsh and legalistic, living busy, complacent lives of conforming to convention and caring much more, as it seems, for programs than for people. When we accuse businessmen of selling their souls to their firms and sacrificing their integrity on the altars of their organizations, it is the pot calling the kettle black. Perhaps there are no truths about the Spirit that Christian people more urgently need to learn today than those that relate to the inner life of fellowship with God, that life which I call the inward journey.”     [J.I. Packer, Keep In Step with the Spirit, pg 68-69]

Toward that much-needed end of “gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God,” I have found regular days of solitude retreat to be tremendously helpful. For those who are a part of the church that I serve (as well as for those who live in the Southern California area), I lead several half-day retreats during the year–you can find information about them (or register to attend) on my church website.

Intentionally Indirect

There is a difference between training and trying.

Trying is a direct attempt to produce some kind of result. Take knee surgery, for example.  If your knee is injured in some way, then surgery is a direct attempt to repair the injury. Surgery is a way of trying a specific methodology that has good potential to produce a positive result.

Training is very different from trying. Training may be aimed at the same end goal, but it is an indirect means of getting there. If your knee is injured, you could opt for a training regimen in place of surgery. The stretches or exercises you do may not be directly producing repair in your knee, but they are creating conducive conditions for repair to happen.

Christian, you are called to “Train yourself for Godliness” (I Timothy 4:7), not to “Try to be more Godly.” There is a big difference in this as well.

None of us can produce Godliness simply by our own fortitude and effort. Rather, Godliness is only produced by God as He forms our character to be more like Christ. So when we tell ourselves (or demand of others) “Just try harder!” or “Tsk, tsk, next time try to be more loving,” we are attempting to do the impossible.

Rather than trying to muster up will-power to somehow produce a change in our hearts, we need to learn how to be intentionally indirect. And that means training, not trying, for Godliness. Unlike knee surgery, we cannot directly operate on our heart spiritually and remove the cancerous anger or replace the longsuffering “ligament.” Instead we train our heart to worship Christ (not “getting my way”) as our greatest treasure. We train our heart to “Count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We train our heart to share honestly with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive their encouragement and prayer or even rebuke.

Sinful anger is not overcome by directly trying not to get angry. (I could tell you firsthand how effective that is!) No, sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my heart of worship increases through training. Sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my confidence in God’s goodness grows through training. And sinful anger is overcome indirectly as its power is diffused in grace-filled community through training.

Training is not aimed at producing change, but at opening our hearts to the change that God alone can produce.

Double-Sided Change

As a disciple-maker for Christ, I am fascinated by how people actually change and grow and mature in relationship with Christ–I want to know how I can best facilitate that process of change in others. And as an apprentice of Jesus myself, I long to grow deeper in my own relationship with Christ–how does that happen for me?

Different authors have different perspectives on how the change process takes place, and (nerdy person that I am) I’ve been studying the variety of perspectives and trying to figure out where they overlap, with the goal of being able to articulate my own perspective of how a believer in Christ grows toward maturity.

One thing initially is very clear: change is double-sided. There are two sides of the same coin in this process of change. Change is fully a work of our sovereign, good God…AND change is a work that we engage fully in as well.

God is clearly the agent of change. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) He is sovereign over all that he has created–he alone can produce change. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding…” (Daniel 2:20-21) There are other foundational “stones” which make up the structure of the change process, but God is the “capstone,” without which the whole structure would collapse.

God is the producer of change, but he does not bring change about by magic. Though he has the power to do so, he does not do his work of change by simply zapping Christians in their sleep so that they wake up one morning fully sanctified. Rather, he calls us to abide in him (John 15:4), to obey all that he commands (Matthew 28:20), to set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2), to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). He calls us to actively participate in the process of change, yet with the understanding that apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

 

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Here is my attempt to summarize and visualize the process of change: the triune God brings change in Christians as our minds are shaped by his truth, and as we train our hearts to worship him in the midst of the trials he ordains and the tribe (or community) he places us in.

 

 

 

 

 

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God is the producer of change–sanctification is his work from beginning to end. No growth or maturity would happen apart from the foundational saving mercy of God, apart from the truth the Spirit reveals, and apart from the Christian’s union with Christ. The shaping influence of community is because we are united in the Body of Christ, and the formative power of trials is because we share in the sufferings of Christ.

 

 

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God alone forms and sanctifies his children, but we are not passive in the process. We respond and obey and depend and abide, and our action creates space for God to carry out his transforming work–it puts us in a posture of receptivity to the work that he is doing.