Tag Archives: #mentalhealth

Moving past fake to authentic

If you’re reading this in the future, remember that time when we all had to stay indoors and separate ourselves from each other? Yeah, it was 2020 – the year of the pandemic that cost thousands of lives and caused untold upheaval to so many.

Initially there was a wave of bravado, then fear and then blaming. But there was also a wave of kindness. A kindness pandemic to chase away the global fear and uncertainty. And then these two things balanced in tension as we tried to work out how to do life in the new and temporary normal.

While working from home and home schooling our kids and trying to support our elderly and vulnerable family and friends from a distance, two critical things have happened – we started shaming the people who were organising themselves well and we have started wearing our gritty anti-coping realness as a badge of honour.

Now I say this on the basis of social media which is the worst kind of information-diet we can have, but the easiest source of connection. It’s the equivalent of junk food and we know we shouldn’t binge on it, but binge we do.

And as we do, the people coping (apparently) OK with the working from home and home schooling post pictures and comments that make us feel bad. They have organised school rooms and structured timetables and activities, they’re doing art and puppet shows and crafting – and running a spotless household and working.

What is that bundle of emotions it makes me feel? Is it jealousy? Is it shame because I am not doing nearly so well? Is it anger coming from the assumption that they’re doing it to show off? It could be all of those things and more, but what we can know for sure is it feels like a dull weight in our stomachs, giving us a slightly queasy feeling.

We don’t know why people are posting. Maybe they’re proud of themselves – and frankly from some that I’ve seen, they should be because they’re doing brilliantly. Maybe they’re proud of their kids for coping so well. Maybe they are showing off a bit, but maybe they are also reaching out because in this uncertain time, they feel off balance and they are seeking validation or connection.

But we feel bad because we think it makes us look bad. And so it has very little to do with the person posting, and far more to do with us personally. Because the act of comparison makes us feel like we look bad, it triggers negative emotions – anger, resentment, bitterness, even contempt.

First off, we project. If I am feeling bad, I’m going to make it your fault, so I am going to project onto you the reason that you’re posting those things – and I’m pretty sure it’s deliberately to make the rest of us look rubbish and know what insignificant failures we are. Of course, this is nonsense. We are making up all sorts of thoughts and motives for them and that’s just not fair. But it makes us feel better somehow.

Then, we start wearing our own perceived failings as a badge of honour – its almost a rebellion against the people/posts making us feel bad. We write, like and share posts about not getting dressed, drinking at breakfast, keeping our kids quiet with devices and chocolate, drinking at lunchtime, slacking off from work and so on. What are we saying when we do this? Are we trying to be self-effacing? Are we claiming a false modesty? Is it anti-virtue signalling by showing off our supreme ordinariness?

Of course being real and authentic is good. But I think we can be in danger of wallowing in our realness and even faking a gritty level of authenticity to make us look extra amaze-balls.

And you know why this is such a terrible trap to fall into? It’s all made up. We champion fake authenticity because we feel shamed by others posting their authenticity. We have no idea if that is authentic or not but because it made us feel bad, we needed to respond somehow to make ourselves feel better. Even if you didn’t respond, we’ve allowed ourselves to feel feelings about what we see on social media that then influences our heart, thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. All based on things we have thought and assumed that aren’t even real.

This is terrible for our mental health. It’s terrible for our connections during this time of social distancing. It impairs our relationships – most of all, potentially the one we have with God.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says to the believers, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

When I read that, it feels like I’m breathing in cool fresh air. The bites I read on social media are garbage by comparison. The truth…..the truth….the truth that Jesus came to save us from our sins – the very sins we fall into when we take in too much social media (among everything else!).

The truth is, while we scroll through social media and huff and puff and get annoyed and make assumptions and judge people and ourselves, Jesus watches and waits. He watches and waits for us. He watches and waits for you. Let this be the reminder you need to switch off and breath in the clean air of the truth of the gospel.

We can look at social media, of course, we can stay connected and we can source interesting stories and information. But like all humans, we can take a good thing, and turn it into a bad thing.

Moderation.

But how do we do that? Its like trying to train yourself to have moderation with eating or shopping or anything – you can start off well and then it all goes……horribly wrong…. But Jesus gave us the key. “If you hold to my teaching” he said. Don’t focus on the problem, focus on the solution. Focus on him first and the rest will fall into perspective. We must seek the kingdom first.

So, in this time of social distancing, are you reading your Bible still? Have you got out of the habit of praying? How are you finding online church and Bible study? There are lots of little anchor points that we’ve lost. In some ways, this should be easier for us, but its not. I used to pray in the car – well, I’m not driving anywhere now so I have no markers in my day to do it. I’m finding I have to re-train myself in some things and actively look for anchor points in areas where I can feel myself slipping further away.

Let this be the reminder to look again – even among the chaos – how are you going? How is your faith? How is your prayer life? Do you feel close to God? Get a Skype or Zoom room or Facebook chat happening with some Christian friends. How are all of you going?

If we can take a moment to correct our course, we will be the kind of authentic that is good and godly and healthy. Because we will be authentically following Jesus and living in his truth – not in the “truth” of what we scroll through on our phones and ipads.

Is it OK to feel anger towards God?

Our emotions are strong. They are messy and chaotic. They seem to act on their own – something happens and our emotions just take over. Sometimes they seem to rule our responses.

I’m not talking here about “good” anger – that is, the kind of anger we feel when we see an injustice and the feeling of anger we get that compels us to act for change. That kind of anger has driven the civil rights movement, got the votes for women, started charities like International Justice Mission and A21, it has opened hospitals and orphanages. This kind of anger is a spur to change the things that break God’s heart.

I am talking about our instinctive anger in response to people and events around us that appear out of our control. I am talking about anger that comes from fear, frustration, despair, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and stress.

And these are all feelings that can, in times of trouble, be directed towards God.

Anger is a natural reaction. But it is important to recognise that it is a secondary emotion – there’s something else happening underneath.

The Anger Iceberg
Source: Gottman Institute – https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-anger-iceberg/

Why is there a link? Why one emotion and then another? It’s because we are built to do something with those emotions. Emotions are not just emotional feelings, but also physiological responses. When we feel under threat, anger floods our body with adrenalin and all the chemicals we need to fight or flee. Anger pumps our body with the energy we need to respond.

When we don’t need to physically fight or flee though, where does that energy go? We can turn it inwards, or squash it down, which is terrible for our mental health. It’s like drinking acid and arsenic.

Or, we can direct it towards others. This can involve disproportionate responses over something tiny, having a giant row, having a controlled discussion (I’m talking all the usual stuff here, not the abnormal responses where impulse control can be an issue which are not-not-not OK). We can cry and blame and accuse. We can resent and bear a grudge and hate.

And when we direct this towards God, is that OK?

Partially, yes. Does that surprise you?

There are so many psalms that include some variation on “how long, Lord?”. In that phrase is captured all the pain and fear and anxiety and anger that a person can feel. Look at Psalm 13: 1-4:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

The psalmist feels ignored by God. Things are so bad, they feel as though God has abandoned them. They are crying out to God in their sorrow but there is also implicit blame.

And there are many of these psalms – Psalms 6, 35, 74, 79, 80, 89 and 90 are just a smattering.

Does this mean that the psalmists were a whiny bunch of whingers? Not at all. The Psalms are God’s words. They are the words He gave to us to say when we have no words of our own. They allow us to express anger, frustration, hurt, doubt, anxiety and despair. He wants us to throw this at His feet. He wants us to open our hearts in all the rawness of our emotions.

But He doesn’t want us to stay there. See the end of Psalm 13:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

We cry out and throw our negative emotions at God, and then we remember. It’s like a pressure valve. All that adrenaline needs to go somewhere – it goes to God. And when the energy is drained from us, we remember that He is there, and He is in control. And he still has us in the palm of His hand. We release all that bile and bitterness and acid and arsenic. And then we rest.

You see, it’s worth remembering that often we get angry because “this is not how things should be”. I should not have lost my job. My relationship should not have ended. That person should not have acted like that. They should not have treated me that way.

These hurts are based on our expectations of how things should be. But its not how things are. God is there for us in how things are. But He will also bring about how things should be. Just not yet. That is what we look forward to. Its where our hope lies. We are His now, but we will be with Him in eternity.

So, when you are wrangling with your anger and negative emotions, here’s a few tips:

  • Remember anger is a secondary emotion – what is going on underneath?
  • Recognise that your emotions are causing physiological responses – and that energy needs to be directed somewhere.
  • Direct the energy in ways that cause the least harm to others or yourself (its worth reading more about tools and tips for anger management in the moment. There are lots of useful articles on this, for example at this link).
  • Know that anger is a natural response and don’t feel bad or blame yourself for feeling it.
  • Know that it is OK to express those emotions – in all their ragged and raw honesty – to God. He even gave us the words to use if we have none of our own.
  • Pour it our to God. Don’t try to hide it from Him. Don’t think that He will somehow think less of you. He wants you to pour out your soul to Him – not in a formulaic way – just let is pour out. Blame Him, accuse Him, ask Him where He is. This in itself is an act of faith because you are taking your pain to your God and not ignoring Him in favour of a self-help book.
  • Remember a lot of our anger can stem from the way we think things should be, but not how they actually are.
  • Remember that God is with us in how this are, but He is also bringing about how things will be.

Given that we know that God is bringing about how things should be through His sovereign plans, and that we know God is faithful to His promises, know that it is good to pour out our hearts – but don’t stay there. We don’t want to wallow in our pain or celebrate it – and God does not want that for us either. Remember the end of the “How long” psalms. They all end with the psalmist resting in the Lord.

We are safe in Him, spiritually – and emotionally. Our God is patient. He gives us time. Your hurt lasts longer than a prayer. So keep praying. Keep talking to God. Give God your fears and anger. Give Him your prayers. Give Him your time. But know that He is there in the darkness with you.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

We are not in stasis while in isolation – we can grow and thrive despite our circumstances

OK we’re into the second or third week of working from home, home schooling, online church and gatherings limited to 2 people. It seems a bit surreal. We got all geared up like we were preparing for a couple of weeks of weird holiday and now things are starting to settle, the reality that this is our normal for the foreseeable future is setting in. That means that the current “survival mode” is how things will be for maybe 6 months.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in survival mode for months on end. That means treading water. That means just existing.

No. There has to be more to this time than that. If nothing else, so we can keep our mental health strong, there has to be more than just existing.

So what to do?

I’m about to mention 3 people who we are definitely NOT, but they serve to illustrate a point.

William Shakespeare is thought to have written King Lear while in some form of quarantine from the plague. We don’t know if that’s true or not but its plausible and certainly possible. Between 1603 and 1613, because of plagues and sickness, Shakespeare’s theatre (the Globe) and other theatres in London were shut for more than 60% of the time. So it’s not unrealistic to say he did a lot of writing while in some form of lock-down.

The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London. Source: https://teach.shakespearesglobe.com/fact-sheet-third-globe

In 1665, there was more plague and Sir Isaac Newton went to Woolsthorpe Manor to get away from it. He was there for 18 months and he started to develop his theory of gravity there, as well as working on his revolutionary theories in calculus.

Woolsthorpe Manor - west facade.jpg
Woolsthorpe Manor. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woolsthorpe_Manor#/media/File:Woolsthorpe_Manor_-_west_facade.jpg

Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while in prison. We know these as canon, of course, but for Paul, these were just letters. Legend surrounding Paul’s time in prison says he performed a miracle there which suggests that he was active in his evangelism as well as his written pastoral guidance.

Ancient prison which housed St Peter re-opens in Rome
Carcer Tullianum, Rome’s oldest prison (3,000 years old) where Peter and Paul are said to have been held. Source: https://www.thelocal.it/20160714/ancient-prison-which-housed-st-peter-re-opens-in-rome

Now I don’t know about you, but I am not going to invent some mathematical theorem – I can’t even help my 8-year old son with his year 3 homework. And very few of us are Shakespeare. Even less of us are Peter and Paul.

But what these people show us is:

  1. They went from existing to living life and even thriving. I’m sure that going to Woolsthorpe Manor or hunkering down somewhere in London required some modification of behaviour given what they couldn’t do. But then they clearly then moved onto what they could do.
  2. They used their skills. Shakespeare wrote. Newton did deep thinky brain work. Paul guided. These were all skills that they took into quarantine with them and they allowed to breathe within those confined spaces.
  3. They used their brains. They thought, they worked, they stretched themselves which takes people beyond existing and into thriving.
  4. It involved new things. In so doing, they created new things, even learned to do new things. This is so key in mental health. It keeps our view on things bigger than our current situation. It gives us a focus on possibility, hope, a larger world.
  5. They saw opportunities. When in quarantine or prison, if you can’t do this, then maybe I can do that. Paul couldn’t visit the churches so he wrote to them. Charles Benson Barnett was a missionary with the famous James Hudson Taylor. When he was forced to return to Australia because of ill-health, he founded Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He couldn’t go, so he trained others.

Jesus himself told us that he came so that we might have life to the full. There is no caveat to that – he didn’t say “unless there’s a pandemic and you’re in lock-down”. He came so we could have life to the full all the time. That is what is available to us no matter where we are.

So how can we use our brains? Where can we see opportunities? In saying this I recognise that Shakespeare, Newton and Paul either didn’t have children or had someone else taking care of them – and they didn’t have another day job that they were working-from-home on. But within the restrictions that we have, how can we look upwards and outwards? How can we do something new?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Decide on a goal that you have for your isolation time, for example:
    • I want to grow as a disciple
    • I want to learn a new skill
    • I want to expand my brain
    • I want to build community
    • I want to strengthen others
    • I want to spread God’s word
  • Then, depending on what goal you have identified, you can set out some tasks you want to commit to, like:
    • Commit to listening to a podcast series that is edifying and will expand your thinking and your faith. Try Lionel Windsor’s Lift Your Eyes or Risen Motherhood. I listen to these on Spotify but they’re available wherever you get your podcasts
    • Start looking at YouTube videos if you want to learn how to knit or crochet or learn the rules of cricket or how to draw cartoons
    • Get online books to work through an author or series (I’m currently working through the Narnia books)
    • Work through a devotional book with your family and/or an online group who you’ve never met with before
    • Write letters of encouragement (on your own or with your kids) and post them to your neighbours
    • Meet online with someone who’s on the church periphery to read the Bible and pray together
    • Start a blog or a journal to map your life during this time – it may make for a pretty interesting record in a couple of decades!
    • Look for ways to support others who are less self-sufficient. These are strange times and these are scary times. For some of us, it’s trying to do normal work and life from home. For others it is losing our jobs and potentially a lot more. If you are in the former group, what can we do for the latter? Even if its making an extra meal once a week, sending notes to those who live alone, or committing to buy a few extra groceries for someone every week, or forming a prayer triplet to pray for those you know in your church doing it tough – all these are good. What else might there be?

There are lots of ways we can use our brains and thrive as individuals, as families and as a community so that during this time we aren’t just treading water. We want to come out of this stronger, not having just existed. Not exhausted from the work and the home schooling and the parenting in isolation (although many of us will be), but having found opportunities to thrive. Not beaten down from the fear and the worry (although that is a definite factor), but finding ways to live life in the kind of abundance that Jesus talks about. Being in him. Growing in him. Reaching our families, reaching our communities, thinking bigger than ourselves.

Lets do what we need to do. But then lets use our brains, and our skills. Lets learn new things and look for opportunities. Lets set goals – even small ones. Lets keep our eyes upwards an outwards so we take care of ourselves and our families, but always look for ways to look beyond ourselves.

In Christ, well that is thinking bigger. It would be easy, in a time of uncertainty, to keep our eyes down and do what needs to be done. But lets make sure we keep our eyes on him. If we look to him first, we can live and survive, but we can grow and thrive too.

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)

The diagnostic question to ground you when you feel the fear rising

Fear is both rational and irrational. It is a rational response to a perceived or actual threat. When there is a threat that requires a response, fear is the trigger that floods our body with the right biological chemicals for us to meet it. It gives us the energy to fight or flee (if we think in prehistoric terms).

It is also an irrational response though when we put that energy into circular thinking, leading to amplified fears. Fear becomes panic. No matter how we channel that panic, it is unhealthy. Especially when we are working at home, we can be in our heads too much. Unchecked, we can’t help but think of more things to worry about. Fear flourishes when it finds fertile ground. It’s like cancer. And if we let it metastasize, it can have serious negative consequences.

Now, I am a mad fan of connecting with friends and, when need be, psychologists and therapists. Outside of that though, there is a simple diagnostic question that we can use to ground ourselves and stay focused on the positive and the real.

Write down on one piece of paper:

What I believe

Then jot down everything that you currently believe that your fear is feeding – such as:

  • I will not be able to get food for my kids with all the panic buying
  • My parents will get sick
  • I’m going to face financial hardship

There is power in writing it down. It takes it out of your head. It makes it concrete – not just a half shadowy thought. It makes it something to be acknowledged.

So then, write down on another page:

WHAT DO I KNOW TO BE TRUE?

This is where we can write down everything that is a solid truth, like:

  • I have enough food for the next week
  • My parents are in as safe a possible space as we can make for them
  • I don’t have any savings, but I have a job this week, I am surrounded by friends/family who may be able to help, I am a problem solver and I am resourceful IF I face financial hardship – but that has not happened today.

AND because we are Christian, we can also add so many more things we know to be true:

  • God is in control
  • Jesus is my Lord and savior
  • God is faithful
  • God works for the good of those who love him
  • I am a child of God

Write these down. See them in black and white on the page. Know them to be true.

This exercise can be done as many times as you need to and can be done with a friend or trusted colleague. Hopefully this will be grounding enough to help get you through the day. And since one of the things we know to be true is that God communicates with us in the Bible we can meet him there whenever we want.

I’ll admit, in these times of uncertainty, I have felt fear and worry on various days – sometimes rational fears and sometimes irrational. But I have my Bible open on the desk in front of me so at any time I feel wobbly, I can meet God in those pages.

This grounding exercise doesn’t make the fears go away, but it can re-anchor us when negative emotions are starting to rise up.

If the fears are flourishing though, please seek help. Reach out. We need to support each other and we want to as well – reaching out is not a weakness. It is allowing others to support you and, given strength and support, you can then strengthen and support others.

Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

We must be a life-line for those in self-isolation

Whether you’re in Australia, the US, Italy, China, Singapore or Timbuktu, we are all facing the realities of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. I’m not going to go into the panic buying (although that is shocking) and I’m not going to post prayers as I hope that’s a feature of all our responses as Christians.

What I want to talk about is how we support people in isolation. At the moment that might not be so many, but the number may increase, and potentially quite dramatically.

Parents with kids may look on this with a heavy heart. Some who will be working from home might initially jump at the idea. Some introverts might even look forward to the idea of being able to catch up on all that reading.

But there’s a hidden risk in self-isolation that may only become apparent when we’re in it – and that is an impact to our emotional health and mental well-being.

There are four aspects of this:

  1. We need interaction. Humans are social creatures. Even for us introverts and ambiverts, we need contact and communication. For extroverts, who are energised by being around other people, being stuck in the home can be especially difficult. We can go about our daily routine, work-from-homers can hold our meetings and so on via connective technology, but we’re missing the communication that we get in church, at the play group or at the office that is of vital importance to emotional health and mental well-being. We miss the water-cooler talk, the chats over lunch, the side comments after something funny or annoying happens, the coffee runs, the post-weekend catch ups. In other words, the day-to-day nothingness that enriches our day in community with others. Without it for prolonged periods of time, this can become a slow track into adverse mental health. It provides fertile ground for people being in their own heads too much – unproductive and circular negative thinking – which can lead downwards into depression.
  2. We need a pressure valve. We work in industries and live lives that can involve high pressure situations, whether that means deadlines and aggressive project timeframes, or relentless energy being poured into aging parents or multiple children. One of our coping mechanisms can be the interaction with others in the same situation. It helps us to talk and laugh and blow off steam. Being in isolation can mean that coping mechanism is removed.
  3. People are experiencing fear on top of fear. There have been a lot of scary things happening in the last few months. There’s been the Amazonian and Australian bushfires, floods in Australia and the UK – and now this. These are real life events that we’re used to seeing in disaster movies. Except this is not Hollywood. This is real. This can cause very real feelings of fear and uncertainty. When people are dealing with this on top of their day-to-day real life, this can very quickly become hopelessness. And when people feel hopeless and helpless, they can begin to despair.
  4. The home may represent additional pressure. People’s home lives can come with extra stresses on a normal day, and more so if working/existing in isolation. There could be elderly parents to take care of and kids that becomes extra pressured if fixed within four walls. The home situation might not even be a safe one for them. The world outside the home could be the place that they go to every day that represents safety and security and fellowship. These people could be facing compounded pressures at home during this time that reduces their coping mechanisms. In a time of additional stress and pressure, it could even be a potentially more dangerous place for them.

This sounds very dramatic, but even a fraction of what I’m talking about can mean that we have people working and living in isolation in a way that can have long reaching effects.

As Christians, I would hope that we have a better handle on this supporting people even under normal conditions, let alone a crazy scary time like this. But even we might have to get more creative as we have to limit personal contact and practice social distancing.

What can we do? We need to check in with each other for no reason – create opportunities for that water-cooler talk. Think about doing that over facetime or Skype so you can have a cuppa and see each others faces.

Host a watch party so you can gather as people for something fun and people don’t feel alone. (Even, as a worker from home, host a watch party with you work team of a TED talk or something).

Go back to Old School days and send cards in the mail. Leave notes or flowers or small gifts at people’s doors. Call and pray with people over the phone. Maybe even link everyone in via Skype to have a Bible study – the point is to not just stay connected personally but to stay connected spiritually. When we are under pressure, when there is fear and uncertainty, our faith can take a battering. Remember in the Garden – “Did God really say….?”. All it takes is a shadow of doubt and our faith can fade into the noise of panic. Let God’s light shine in the darkness, even when we are hard pressed on all sides – and help each other to do it. Lets get creative in our care.

There are a lot of ways we can stay connected even when we are far apart. As a community of believers, this is an area we can excel. We are called to have mercy and compassion. Lets get creative with our application so in these uncertain times, we can glorify God and express His character through our outstanding and visible kindness and thoughtfulness.

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

I tinkered with lots of clever and pithy titles for this blog, but in the end, I decided to go with the basic rule of advertising – “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s obvious, but it’s clear. The reason for that is that this is something we don’t talk about much except in high profile cases. When it comes to sexual coercion in marriage, it’s something we don’t really talk about it at all. I wanted the title to be clear so people could engage with it straight away. Because sexual coercion is real, it happens in marriage all the time and it’s horrifically damaging. Which means we have work to do.

But here’s the thing. We have work to do together – men and women together. Sexual coercion is generally an issue that is visited upon women, but women can not solve this problem alone. This is not a women’s issue. This is an everybody issue. So please, let’s engage in this together.

Before we get into it, it’s important for us to be on the level. I know that sexual coercion happens. I have spoken to so many women who struggle with this. Most think it’s something they just have to put up with. Others know it’s wrong, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Some don’t even know it’s wrong and have suffered for years without realising it was not OK.

How can this be? Well, for starters here’s a conundrum. I’ve heard Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon speaking once about how women are like slow cookers – you turn them on and they need to warm up. Men are like toasters – generally you turn them on and they pop up almost immediately. This being the case, if a woman isn’t “in the mood” when her husband is, does that mean we are heading for sexual coercion? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. Getting in the mood is part of the intimate experience. How people do that is very individual. The problem arises when “encouragement” becomes coercion.

I think some men may not realise that they’re doing it. And that’s a problem of awareness and communication.

Some men may realise they are adding pressure, but may not realise it’s wrong. This is a problem of awareness and accountability.

Some men, at the more extreme end, know it’s wrong but feel justified, and that’s just a problem.

But because this isn’t talked about, neither men nor women are equipped to communicate about it – with each other, or with other trusted Christians and pastors. Women can’t raise awareness that the behaviour is not OK, which means they can’t communicate how they feel to their husbands. Men can’t keep each other accountable, or talk honestly about what is appropriate behaviour in marriage, and where the line is.

It’s time to address that. So let’s start with being clear about what sexual coercion is.

What is it?

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways that include:

  • Being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex
  • Being lied to or being promised things that weren’t true to trick you into having sex
  • Having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors about you if you don’t have sex with them
  • Having an authority figure, like a boss, property manager, loan officer, or professor, use their influence or authority to pressure you into having sex.*

The Australian national group 1800Respect includes sexual coercion under sexual assault and violence and describes it as “when someone pressures or tricks you into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. It involves behaviour that may not always be criminal, but is usually abusive in some way. Sexual coercion can include someone:

  • Saying they’ll leave you or have sex with someone else if you don’t have sex with them
  • Trying to get you to drink more than you want to so you’ll agree to sex
  • Making you feel guilty for not having sex when they want
  • Telling you it’s your duty to have sex with them
  • Saying that you owe them
  • Making you feel scared to refuse because of what they might do. This might be a fear of physical violence, but can also include fears of them saying bad things about you to others, sharing private or damaging information about you on the internet, or taking away support, money, children or pets.
  • Saying they will get you out of debt, provide you with drugs, let you stay at their house, or help you with a problem if you have sex with them
  • Holding you down, yelling at you or trying to scare you into having sex**

Some of these seem more overtly “abusive” than others and so the less apparently “abusive” behaviours could be down played.

They shouldn’t be.

Firstly, because individually these behaviours are wrong. Secondly, when taken over many occurrences over weeks, months or even years, the damage this causes to a woman cannot be overstated.

The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode a marriage or make it implode.

The damage to the woman can last a lifetime. Once is bad enough. The real problem is if there is a pattern and especially if this becomes the “normal” approach to intimacy in a relationship.

There is trauma. And with trauma comes nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, a deadening of any interest in intimacy (which can then exacerbate the issue), a problem being touched at all….it is akin to having a major car smash where every bone in the body is broken and which then requires intense medical intervention, healing, time and rehabilitation. Untreated, the woman is just such a car smash victim but has never had any medical intervention or healing and the injuries continue to be inflicted. She exists. Broken.

Perhaps this is part of the issue facing men and women. Given that men and women treat and experience sexual intimacy differently (generally speaking, of course), it is next to impossible for a man to understand the effect of broken sexual intimacy on a woman. Again this is highly individual, but there is enough research to show the effect on women as being highly damaging emotionally and psychologically and traumatic.

It hurts women. It breaks women.

I realise there are impacts to men too. Facing unwillingness to engage in intimacy can feel like rejection. It can feel hurtful. It can be disappointing, frustrating, and, given the right emotional environment, can feel damaging to a man too. And I am not talking here about withholding sex as a deliberate leverage of power over a man which is totally wrong on so many levels. That can be deeply damaging to a man.

I think the difference we need to focus on though is this:

Men don’t need sex. It might feel like they do, but not having is not going to kill them, like the removal of air or food and water will. Yet the importance placed on it can be disproportionate. However, there are deeply felt and real emotional needs and these need to be brought into the light and taken seriously. But there is an opportunity to communicate about these, and that’s as it should be.

Women, when having sex without wanting to, feel violated. That is not a feeling that goes away. Ever.

Is it really a problem?

Unfortunately, yes.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.***

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands.****

A survey undertaken in 2018 revealed some scary results including:

  • Almost 20 per cent are not aware that non-consensual sex in marriage is illegal (just in case there is any doubt – it is!)
  • 1 in 7 believe non-consensual sex is justified if the woman initiates intimacy (so if a woman tries to get in the mood so her husband can have sex, but then cannot go through with it, 1 in 7 people believe the man would be justified in forcing her to go through it it)
  • 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to
  • 1 in 8 believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.*****

What this shows is an alarming number of people who do not see or understand that sexual coercion is wrong, damaging and traumatic. This being the case, it is easy for a husband not to know where the line is if culture largely remains silent on this. Equally, it is easy for women to never know they are being abused even though they feel all the feelings and responses of an abused person.

Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating for creating abuse where there is none. What I’m saying is that the abuse is happening already, we just don’t know to speak into it. Just because the abuse is not understood, does not make it not abusive behaviour. It’s still not OK.

A woman can feel traumatised and damaged, experience panic attacks and irrational fears – and think that it’s her own fault. If we speak into this issue, we can free women from this added burden and actually be clearer about what is appropriate behaviour.

We can equip both men and women.

So what do we do?

First, let’s approach this issue together. Remember, this is not a women’s issue, this is an everybody issue.

Second, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, anticipating blame and confrontation. So there can be a tendency to want to ignore the issue because perhaps women have just decided to raise it now. We need to be clear that women have never been OK with this, and it has never been acceptable behaviour – we just haven’t been able to talk about it before. It can also be driven by an assumption (coming from a place of hurt) that the woman is withholding, not because she is feeling damaged, but because she is making a power play. These kinds of assumptions are especially dangerous. So all assumptions need to be put to one side.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse for man-bashing. The only way to deal with this is to tackle it together. Many men have no idea that this is not OK and we need to equip men to understand the effect of certain behaviours. In fact, we need men desperately in this endeavour. We need men to be talking about it with each other, exploring it, even weeping over it. We need them to feel empowered to grow in gentleness. Biblically speaking, such gentleness is having enormous power, but using it for the care and protection of others. We need our men to grow in this Christ-likeness. To explore and mature in biblical gentleness is critical to this.

We also need to recognise and acknowledge that this is not a blanket issue. Not being in the mood can most of the time, become being in the mood, as part of the honest, trusting and loving intimate experience. What we are talking about here is the genuine cross over into coercion where one party (usually the woman) has sex without wanting to because they feel pressured into it – once, or as a repeated pattern.

So, men and women, start with reading the definitions of sexual coercion. Understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Recognise and accept that it is what it is, and there is a chance that you could be experiencing it, or perpetrating it.

Here is where we need our God, and our Christian brothers and sisters. We need humility to recognise there may be some things to repent of. We need the courage to speak with our trusted Christian friends. We need to call each other out, gently and lovingly if we see behaviour or hear words that raise red flags. We need to be able to talk about this issue in the light – understand it, change it.

And we need to support and enable husbands and wives to talk to each other about this. Do a temperature check in your relationship. This may not be an issue for most of you, but talking about it cannot be a bad thing – it is a deeply intimate but profound issue of trust to be discussed. It may help you as a couple to support another couple for whom it might be an issue.

We need to not dismiss each other’s feelings or experience. This is an area that is extremely difficult and what will make it worse is being confrontational. We need to approach this as far as is possible in the most collaborative and positive way possible.

That said, if this is an issue in your marriage, and it is in any way repetitive, seemingly justified or escalating, please seek help. Immediately. It is not OK and you must be safe. At least seek the guidance of a professional and trusted Christian pastor or friend.

Most importantly, we must lean on God. This is where we need him most. Intimacy can be so broken. Experiencing it is traumatic. Recognising it can be equally traumatic. Seeking to rectify it can be challenging. It is us humans at our most vulnerable.

We need Him. Through and in Him we can seek the best – which is a bringing this issue into the light, talking about it openly and honestly, facing our issues humbly, supporting each other and keeping each other accountable.

Dealing with brokenness. Together. In Him.

* https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/sexual-coercion#7

** https://www.1800respect.org.au/violence-and-abuse/sexual-assault-and-violence/

*** https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

**** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12477095/ and https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

***** https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/violence-against-women-survey-shows-concerning-attitudes/10568638?smid=Page:%20ABC%20News-Facebook_Organic&WT.tsrc=Facebook_Organic&sf203239950=1

Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)

I have. I’ve felt like a nobody. Have you? Many people have, I think. Life is really hard. You work away and you carry this enormous load and your emotions are stretched like a taut piece of elastic – any tiny hit is jarring. You run on fumes. It feels like it’s just you. Only you to carry these terrible burdens. And you run out. You just run out. You’ve got nothing left. Nothing. No capacity to take any more knocks, even small ones. No resilience left.

Nothing.

At those times in my life I have despaired. I feel like I have nothing left. I have felt like I am nothing. I’m nobody. The world goes on and I just slog away alone. And there’s no end in sight. No solutions. No end. Just me.

In Mark 7:24-30 we see a woman who is at the end of her tether. How do we know that? Because of what she does and what she says.

Jesus has headed up to the area of Tyre and Sidon. These areas were synonymous with pagan worship. In fact the notorious Jezebel was a princess of Sidon and daughter of the king of Tyre. She was married to King Ahab (check out 1 Kings 16) and introduced pagan worship to the Israelites and wanted to have the prophet Elijah killed.

Now we have a woman from the same area, but approaching Jesus in faith. Like Rahab in Joshua 2 being the only one who has faith, so the SyroPhoenician woman comes in faith. Her act of faith is driven by desperation. Her daughter in possessed by an unclean spirit. I have two little boys and I would do anything to keep them safe and well. I would endure any punishment and humiliation I had to, to save them.

This woman tracks Jesus down, who has gone there wanting it to be kept secret. But this woman finds him and essentially breaks in to approach him. And she, a Gentile, throws herself at his feet and begs. Desperate, humiliated, hopeful.

And Jesus says something odd. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

The gospel (the bread) is for the Israelites (the children), not for Gentiles (the dogs).

Children in Jewish culture are the rightful heirs. They are honoured. Dogs are dirty. In fact in Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to give to dogs what is holy. Jesus is calling this woman a dog? Not so much. This is a teaching moment.

The Israelites have always been God’s chosen people. They are his children. But Jesus had said “first”. Israel first, others later. This continues the trajectory of the narrative arc of the whole Bible that shows that all the nations are God’s plan. Right from the first promises to Abraham when God had said that “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gen. 22:18), to Rahab being the brought into the chosen people, to Ruth the Moabite who is honoured in the line of David and Jesus, to the prophecies of Isaiah where the suffering servant will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6)

This is that moment.

Jesus is also not as harsh as it might first sound also. The word for “dog” he uses is kunarion which is a pup, or a little dog, or a house dog. Not a wild dog but a more affectionately termed animal. A dog that is around the house, that is familiar.

The woman seizes on the imagery and the hope contained in that word “first”. She says “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Verse 28).

She addresses him as Lord. She identifies herself as the dog. And she asks only for crumbs. She has faith and humility. And Jesus grants her request.

That woman must have felt like a nobody. She throws herself at the feet of the one person left in the world who may be able to help her. She literally begs on her knees. I’m a dog, she says. I’m nothing.

No, says Jesus. There’s a plan. Salvation for all. God’s grace extends to all. And there’s an order. But Jesus himself is the turning point. While later Paul’s mission is to the Gentiles, the promise has been there from the beginning and it is Jesus himself who begins the inclusion of the non-Israelites. We see him with Legion in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes of Mark 5, he heals the Roman centurions servant in Luke 7:1-10, he saves the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. And because of the response of this woman, he casts the demon out of her daughter.

Salvation for all. Mercy for all. We are not nobodys. We are somebody. We are somebody to God. We were outsiders. Just like these other people were. But we are not outsiders any more. That was promised right from Abraham – the very first promise included all of us. And if we are not outsiders, we are now his children.

His children. We are not nobody’s. We are his. Even though life is so hard, and we can feel so alone and burdens can feel impossible. We are his. Hold onto that one truth. We are his.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Inspirational memes I hate: “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Memes can be helpful – quick bites and pick me ups as we scroll through social media, reminders of biblical truths particularly can point us to where our attention should be as we rush though the day.

Some memes sound helpful, but are most definitely not.

One of the inspirational memes I hate is this one:

You may even have seen it like this, as though God himself were speaking to you.

It sounds great doesn’t it? So comforting. So loving. We lean on this when times are tough. When we need to believe we’re going to be OK. When we are desperate to know that things are going to get better.

Except God didn’t say this. This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:12-14:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

What this doesn’t say is that God will not give us anything that we cannot handle. What it does say is that God is present in our temptation. The context of the passage is warnings from the Israelites history and their fall into idolatry, sexual immorality and revelry (ie drunken partying). This is not a passage about God generally making life OK.

So this is the first reason I hate this meme – because it says something that the Bible doesn’t say. It gives us a false Bible knowledge. It’s certainly the kind of thing that God might say. God our Father is all-loving and all-merciful. But he didn’t actually say this. If this is something God didn’t say, we can’t extrapolate (poorly) from things he did say.

Throwing this meme around is well-meaning, but it promises things God didn’t promise. It implies God will make everything alright. It implies God will raise us out of our problems. It implies he will never let us break.

And that is demonstrably not true.

So this leads to the second reason I hate this meme. It implies things that aren’t true. Recently, American church pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life. This article by Ed Stetzer is beautiful and well worth a read. Jarrid Wilson broke. We all know other people who break. It is tragic and terrible – and true.

Our world breaks people. Things happen to people that they cannot handle. If on one hand we are telling each other that God will never give us things we can’t handle and then see people breaking, what does that say about God? Does it say he wasn’t there? Does it say people’s weakness is stronger than God’s power? Does it say God left them?

What does that do to our confidence in him? If our faith is informed by these memes, then our faith is also eroded by these memes. We need to be more discerning than that. Our faith needs to be in the right thing.

This then leads to the third thing I hate. Because if our faith is informed by these memes, and yet we see people breaking, we must believe less of those people – because we cannot think less of God! People around us are dying inside. People we know are crumbling. We cannot be a people who thinks they just aren’t coping like it’s some kind of weakness. If we believe God doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle, and then people aren’t coping, surely it must be their fault. They aren’t strong enough. They don’t have enough faith. There must be something wrong with them.

And that’s how we end up in little huddles in church talking in hushed tones about people.

So then here is the last thing I hate about this meme. We begin to believe these things about ourselves. We believe we must be not strong enough. We believe that our faith is not big enough. We believe that God must have left us. We believe that God is trying to help us but we just aren’t doing things right. We shouldn’t be bending. We shouldn’t be breaking. We shouldn’t be in the jagged pieces that we are.

Here is something that is true – People bend. People break.

In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,  about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was crumbling. He nearly broke. And yes, he relied on God, which makes it sound easy, like a self-help moment. But we cannot forget before he got to that, he despaired of life itself. And despair doesn’t just disappear. Even when we resolve to (weakly and brokenly) rely on God, there is healing, there is loneliness, there is fear, there is even trauma to overcome.

In Psalm 34:18 it says God stays close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. This is a promise we can hold in our brokenness. He doesn’t promise to un-break our hearts. He promises to stay close. And he promises save us when we are crushed in spirit. Save us – not make all the bad things disappear, not take away the anxiety or depression or the trauma. He doesn’t even promise to take away the suicidal thoughts or change the abusive husband, or stop the redundancy. He promises he will be with us, and save us.

What we must also notice in this is that God knows when we are broken and crushed. There’s no holy huddle and talk in hushed tones. He knows and he proclaims his promises to us in a voice loud enough for us to hear. This is where we anchor our faith.

We should all pray for wisdom and discernment. Our faith is impacted by these memes so we need to exercise our discernment to know when they are true and helpful and when they are poor paraphrases, when they are not true.

We all know people who are breaking. If we have God’s wisdom, we will have God’s heart for them. We can be a people of true love and compassion, upholding people who are bent so far their backs are breaking. We can hold people’s hands even when they are shattering into jagged pieces. We can walk with them when they are too weak to walk by themselves. We can pray for deliverance and pray for healing and pray for miracles. And we should pray earnestly, hungrily, expectantly. God can do anything. Anything is possible for him. But we don’t know that bit of the plan. All we know is the surety if he promised. That he is there and will save us.

And if you are reading this and you feel you are breaking, hear God’s true promises. He is with you and he will save you. He is with you in the darkness. Don’t believe what the meme tells you. He knows what you are going through and he knows you cannot handle what is happening to you. What is happening to you is real. It is so real it could break you. But he is with you. And he is just as real as the things you are facing. But he is mightier and louder so even though you might not feel like it, he is there.

He is with us. And we must rely on him. Because when we have nothing else, not even our own confidence or mental strength or emotional clarity, he is the only thing we have. When we can’t see anything of hope, when we believe we have no support, when we think we are completely alone, when we can almost feel our spirit cracking under the pressure of our burdens, he is there.

Hear his promises and never let him go.