Tag: #providence

How anxiety can interfere with your relationship with God

Anxiety can manifest in different ways. A particular brand is a fear of people thinking badly of us. This can manifest as people-pleasing, mulling and stewing over things we should have done or shouldn’t have done and things we did say, didn’t say, how people will have taken things we did or didn’t say, or did/didn’t do or how they might have misinterpreted our facial expressions, messages and body language or how they might have disliked or disagreed with things we said or posted on social media.

You’d think the one place we could feel safe is with God, right? Wrong. Because there is a difference between what we intellectually know and what we believe to be true.

We know what we are supposed to think. We know what we are supposed to feel. And yet, when life is throwing us curve balls, it would be very easy to think its because we had displeased God.

Recently, life has thrown me some flaming missiles that felt like I was being dive bombed by enemy aircraft in an old war movie. Last year, I felt God’s blessing and providence palpably. I could see it in the many problems that were solved out of thin air. I saw it in the thousand kindnesses from random friends and strangers. My recent experience was the exact opposite. Unexpected bills out of nowhere – lots of them, and big ones. Things that were unjust and unfair all crowding in, heap on heap.

The result was tears and sleeplessness and a feeling that I had displeased God. Was I not faithful enough? Was I not obedient enough? Had he removed his blessing and providence? I don’t mean salvation – I know nothing will remove that. But I was left with this feeling that I had made God unhappy with me and so he had removed his providential blessings.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course that’s not the case. But let me talk you through the “logic”.

Last year I praised God for his providence and how he was heaping blessings on me in abundance. They came thick and fast. The timing was unfathomable. I knew they were from him. So this year, when tribulations came at the same rate and with similar conspicuous timing, I had to think these were also from him.

If blessings were from God, then the tribulations must also be from him. If the tribulations were just a product of a fallen world, then the blessings had to similarly just be coincidence. We can’t claim one and ignore the other. So, for the anxious person, if we are given blessings, then we are pleasing to God, and, if tribulations follow, then we are doing something to displease him.

What we need to unpick here is the logic.

I assume I have done something to deserve the tribulations – that I have displeased God somehow. But the truth is that tribulations are not deserved. Just in the same way that blessings are not deserved. No blessing is deserved but God is gracious to the humble – James quotes Proverbs when he says “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”” (James 4:6)

Does that mean I have been overly proud?? That takes me back into that anxiety loop about things deserved.

What I realised is that my brain was doing the same somersaults that Job’s was doing. Job says to his wife (who is telling Job to curse God for the tribulations that have befallen him) “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

Throughout Job, his friends keep telling him that he must have sinned and that’s why God is visiting these tribulations on him. Job stays faithful by refusing to pay religious lip service – what his friends are basically telling him is to sacrifice for atonement on the off chance he’s done something. That’s not a heart thing. That’s an outward show of religion.

Of course what we know is that the book of Job is about whether a righteous man will stay faithful during the bad times as he stays faithful in the good times. I am not comparing our situations – I  am not suggesting that God and Satan are fighting over me in a spiritual courtroom. What I am reminded though, is that when tribulations come, I am focused on me and what I might have done wrong. While it is wise and correct to self-reflect and assess my motivations for things, it is not wise to be so focused (in my anxiety) on my own deficiencies and how they make me displeasing to God.

This over-emphasised self-focus is, itself, sinful. I know that sounds harsh. But thinking I am deficient and not pleasing to God assumes I know what is in God’s mind. I don’t. It assumes I know how he sees me – the only thing I know about how he sees me is that he loved me so much that he sent his only son to die for me. Outside of that, I am speculating.

So putting aside what I believe to be true (that I am deficient and God is displeased with me), what do I know?

I know that no blessings are deserved. That is not something to be anxious about. That is just a fact and there is no moral judgement in it.

Despite none of us deserving blessing, I know that God is gracious to us – not because we are pleasing to him but because he delights in it.

While God is gracious to the humble, his blessing is not a reward for good behavior, it is because it glorifies him. When he blesses us, we praise him and others can see his work in our lives.

So, what I also know is that on that level, this is not about me. This is about him.

So, if this is about him – when these things happen, I need to re-work the logic and remember to stop thinking about myself (especially in such a negative way). When I have re-worked the logic, I need to self-reflect a bit more dispassionately on my motivations to see if there’s anything I genuinely need to repent of. Then I need to re-focus back to God again and pray in Jesus’ name to help me and deliver me.

Our faith needs to stay in God, not the blessing. Because if too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, we will too quickly crumble when tribulations occur. If too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, it means too much of our faith is wrapped up in our ability to please God. And that’s not how God works. Sure, he requires us to be faithful and obedient, but his salvation, blessing and providence is not based on us being able to maintain a certain level of goodness – as though when we meet the bar we are blessed and when we dip below the line he removes his goodness from us.

To many this may seem obvious. To people of an anxious persuasion, this can be a useful corrective. This blog itself came from a process of self-correction.

Here is a super important point. When we experience low self-esteem we tend to fall into the trap of believing God thinks less of us. Then we will start to agree with this perception we have imagined. It becomes our new truth. Then we will wonder why God would ever love someone like us. And suddenly our self-esteem is in the basement. And so it continues.

This does not glorify God. In fact, this is where we have let Satan in. Because if our self-perception is so low, what we are witnessing to others is that our God only loves us when we are being super holy. Remember, in the Garden, all Satan had to do was sow doubt. “did God really say…..” (Genesis 3:1). This is how we fall into sin “Surely I am not good enough for God….Surely I have been displeasing to God…..”

This is hard for people with anxiety. It’s not a quick fix. Especially because when you’re in this state, it feels like you’re drowning in these thoughts and it’s hard to get your head above the water line. But please persevere. See your mental health professional. Talk to your Christian friends and pastors.  Admit out loud that you  are struggling with these feelings. Take the time to read scripture and pray – even if your prayer is just “Please God help me”.

Because God does not see you like you see you.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

 

The kindness we give v. The kindness that is needed

Kindness is so in right now. It’s been in for a while actually, especially since Ellen DeGeneres became so huge with her mantra of “Be kind to one another.” Its a great mantra and I love how she uses it. Side note – when I was pregnant with my first child, I’d watch Ellen and sobbed uncontrollably “Coz, she gave them a car! That’s so beautifuuuuuul <sob sob hiccup sob>” (It was the hormones).

Her mantra took off like wildfire because it felt like, in a cold and demanding world, she was the only one saying it. That’s sad. Firstly it’s sad because kindness shouldn’t be such a rarity. For starters, it’s central to the Christian message. And while one might argue that not everyone is Christian, most of our western civilisation is built from Christian principles so it’s sad that it has become such an alien concept in our culture.

In Exodus 34:6-7 God passes in front of Moses “proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love [hesed] and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

The key word in the original Hebrew here is hesed. It means so much more than “love”. It is deeds of devotion, acts of loyalty and favour, mercy, kindness, faithfulness and goodness. God abounds in it.

God wants us to abound in it too. In Micah 6:8 we are told what God requires of us: “To act justly and to love mercy [hesed] and to walk humbly with your God.

This love and kindness is central to God and to us as Christians. So how has it become forgotten?

This comes to a second reason for sadness – It feels as though kindness (which requires powers of observation, thoughtfulness, willingness and effort) is culturally at war with self interest. It’s sad because it feels as though self interest is winning – and we’re all getting swept up in it. We are human and prone to sin which means we are wired to think of ourselves first. But we are culturally trained too. This means we have to work extra hard to overcome our natural and learned-behavioural inclinations.

Jesus knew this. In Luke, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. When he tells the story of a man beaten, robbed and left for dead and the priest and the Levite who left him, and the Samaritan who cared for him, Jesus then asks which of the men were a true neighbour? The reply is “the one who had mercy [eleos] on him”. The Greek word eleos (because bear in mind the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek) is the word the Greek speaking world used to translate the Old Testament word hesed. This shows us that the same mercy Jesus speaks of in Luke, is also the hesed of Micah and in God’s character we see described in Exodus.

Read the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37. As you do, don’t imagine yourself as the Samaritan. Imagine yourself as the helpless, broken and robbed person who has been left for dead. And imagine God is the Good Samaritan who found you and healed you and saved you and blessed you. So when, in Luke 10:37, Jesus says “go and do likewise”, we are not to do as the Good Samaritan did – we are to do as God does.

This is something that can be a barrier for us. Because that’s pretty huge. We imagine if we are to give kindness, they are acts of enormous import and grand gestures.

But remember how you felt when you needed kindness. When I have been at my lowest, I prayed simply for the kindness of strangers. I wanted someone to look me in the eye and to hear me and to help me see for one moment that I mattered. Sure, I needed money and help, but what I prayed for was the kindness of strangers – that’s the kindness that I needed.

We don’t need to have kindness in itself to be a barrier for us because we are fearful of the level of kindness we are able to give. We need to only remember the kindness that is needed. Sometimes we are able to give a lot, on many levels. But sometimes it’s a word, a smile, a touch on the arm and a look in the eye that says “I see you and you matter.”

God sees us and we matter to him. He abounds in this love. We are to abound in it too, but we are not God. We are not expected to give as much or in the same way as God. We are to love hesed. Our acts of kindness are acts of devotion to God, reflecting his love back to him. We are to go and do likewise, having the eleos of God, being observant and seeing people and showing them (in many ways) that they matter. Each of us must think and pray about what that means. But it is central to God’s call for us. It is central to our Christian way of life.

Kindness is not counter-cultural for us. But it is counter-cultural in our world. Show kindness. Show love. Abound in it. See kindness as acts of devotion to God. Shock the world with the kindness we have – that we have because of him.

An important diagnostic for us, and a gentle challenge for our churches

When I meet ministers or visit a new church, I have three questions that give me an immediate insight into the leadership, direction and culture of that church. These questions aren’t designed to give me ammunition, they are purely to give me insight. That’s the beauty of diagnostic questions – they reveal the state of play. There is no moral weighting attached to the answer, it’s just to establish fact.

The first question is “What is your theology?” This is to make sure I’m going to get good, bible-based teaching. This does not query quality, just foundation. I need to make sure the church is founded on Reformed Evangelical theology.

The second question is “Who is in charge of pastoral care?”. If the answer is “Everyone” that may sound good, but is actually concerning to me. Because if everyone is in charge of pastoral care, then nobody is. Pastoral care needs to be headed up by a minister (paid or lay minister doesn’t matter, as long as it’s one person with responsibility and authority). Someone needs to have overall oversight to make sure pastoral care is a) happening, b) is happening effectively, c) is proactive and not reactive and c) that ensures that the people doing the pastoral care are trained and coached and supported and have the resources they need.

If pastoral care has no minister in charge or proactive leadership, if pastoral care is delegated to small group leaders, this is a concern. Small group leaders and congregational leaders will undoubtedly do most of the care, but it needs to be led by a minister. If it isn’t, the message it sends is that pastoral care is not important. That may well not be true, but that’s the message it sends. And if it is not led by a minister, it may not be part of the culture. It may lack focus and direction, it will lack communication and effectiveness. If we want a church where pastoral care is cultural, it is important for us to know who leads this.

As my first gentle challenge to our churches, I would like ministers to know that this is important to us parishioners. I would ask ministers to consider leadership in this area and recognise the perception (and reality?) that if everyone is in charge of pastoral care then nobody is. Maybe it’s time for a stocktake. Are your people really ok? Is the pastoral care proactive? Is it cultural?

My third question may be the most controversial. It is “How much does the church give?” That is not how much do your parishioners give. This question is about how much does the church give – specifically, give away. Now, bear with me on this because it sounds like a desperately unfair question. Our churches barely have enough to keep themselves afloat without giving anything away.

But let’s look at this another way. Generosity is rarely “caught” by being taught. Generosity is usually caught and spread by being modelled. I spoke to a Presbyterian minister in Sydney’s outer suburbs and he answered “We give about 10% That’s not a deliberate number, it just generally adds up to about that.” I spoke to an Anglican minister in Sydney’s inner suburbs and they also give a substantial amount – enough to pay for additional part time member of staff if that’s what they wanted to do. But they don’t. They want to model generosity by donating a part of their parishioner given income to a variety of Christian charities and missions.

It’s also important for church integrity and authenticity. Churches want (and need!) parishioners to give and to give generously and joyfully. Given that that is the case, it feels as though it would be right and proper for the church to also give sacrificially. To ask others to sacrifice, but not do so as an institution feels lacking in generosity. If we are to exercise generosity of spirit, and engender a generous and joyfully giving church, then I would gently challenge churches to start giving.

This is a gentle challenge because I understand the financial pressures that churches face. I believe a challenge is warranted however because the parishioners who are asked to give, are also facing pressures. What would we say to a parishioner who wants to give but feels they can’t because of the financial pressure they are under? First of all – grace. We don’t know a persons (or a church’s) story. But if we would encourage the person to step out in faith and if we would motivate them to give what they could – then I would direct these responses to our churches also.

Churches are under immense financial pressure. But I believe that churches should challenge themselves and step out in faith and give what they can – even starting with a few dollars a week. My apologies to any minister reading this and thinking its patronising. I certainly don’t mean it to be. I also don’t mean it to be remotely judgemental. I am merely describing what is important to me in a church and what (for me) reveals where the heart of a church is. I do not believe that generosity can be delegated to an external body. For example, encouraging people to give directly to CMS or Anglicare or BaptistCare or Compassion does not count. As worthwhile as that is, it is not generosity. Churches cannot abdicate responsibility for generosity. Generosity is a non-delegable duty.

I have noticed that the churches who give away resources, tend to have the strongest cultures of generosity. Because culture comes from the top and if the church gives and models generosity, the people are more likely to give and be generous more quickly, more instinctively, and more joyfully. This doesn’t mean those churches are devoid of financial worries. It’s just a noticeable difference in churches I’ve seen.

For any ministers reading this who’s churches do give, I want to thank you and appreciate you for the sacrifice and the hard choices. If you are a minister reading this and your church has not felt in a position to give, I want to thank you for reading this far! My gentle challenge to you, brothers and sisters, is that this is a step out in faith. But it will be one that throws ripples throughout your church.

If you are a church-goer reading this, these diagnostic questions are important – but they should never be used to judge. That is not our job and it’s not healthy, productive or helpful to point fingers or complain. We need to be gracious and understanding. We need to be proactive, positive and helpful. A church having the capacity to self-reflect on these matters should be nothing but praised and respected.

I also think it is important to ask these questions though. We are sheep and Jesus is our good shepherd. But that doesn’t mean we are mindless followers in our churches. It is important to review where the heart of the church is.

We want our churches to be strong, vibrant and teeming with a generosity of spirit that is so visible to our communities that it is shocking to them – shocking in all the best and most wonderful ways.

Let’s be honest about our attitude to godly wisdom

As a single mum, I think about money a lot. I mean, I have to, but it is also habit forming. Let me explain. I have to think about money every day, several times a day. What can we afford, what bills are hitting at what point in the month, what do we need to cut this month, what do I need to move and twist and delay. Everything is so finely balanced that it’s like a taught elastic band – which means it can snap at any moment. That bill you forgot. That new bit of school uniform you need. Parking and tolls for work. The vacuum cleaner carks it. Suddenly the wheels fall off the budget and your brain is in overdrive to solve the impossible money riddles.

Most months are like this. But even in a month where things seem to be going ok, I find myself thinking about it obsessively. “By this point in the month I should have this many dollars.” and “If I put off this then I could save a little for next month when that bill is coming.” I’ve learned a behaviour. I’ve developed thinking about money as a habit. I think about it all the time. My brain has become trained to think about a thousand scenarios and consequences simultaneously so I can make decisions about what to spend and when.

That’s not so bad, you might think. I mean, budgeting is good, right? Maybe not. And when there’s no financial backup, I have to think about it a lot – it would be careless of me if I didn’t. But….BUT….when it becomes a habit for its own sake it’s a bad thing.

I was challenged and rebuked in the book of Proverbs. “If you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search of it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” (Proverbs 2:3-5).

The first bit is easy. We can all pray for wisdom, right? As good Christians we pray for this all the time. But what about the second bit? It is to my shame that I can honestly say I have never sought wisdom the way I do money. I have never planned and plotted how to get wisdom the way I’ve planned and plotted to make my money stretch. I have never given the search for wisdom the kind of mental real estate that I give to budgeting.

Now, one thing I do know is reliance on God for what I have. When I had nothing, God provided. He provided what we needed in some very surprising ways (that’s how I knew it was from him!). It very much changed my view on his gracious provision. But now I have it, I spend an inordinate amount of time planning what to do with it and how to make it stretch.

On one hand, I’m content that I am stewarding his provision, knowing it is not mine. On the other hand, I’m ashamed that it is still an obsessive thought pattern that puts my ability to manage things, ahead of thinking on him and seeking the knowledge of him.

It’s a useful corrective. I am still working on this. I need to manage my budget, but work to break the habit of thinking about it all the time. I need to re-direct that time. I need to plan for, and practice, diverting my thoughts to seeking God’s wisdom when I find myself obsessing over money without cause. Like a trip wire to stop a repetitive and unproductive thought pattern.

I need Jesus to do this. The first thing to do is write down the issue I am wrangling with, this helps me to solidify things. It takes it out of my brain and puts it in black and white on the page. Then I need visual cues in areas where I usually find myself slipping into these habits. For me, that’s in my bed as I lie there mulling over things. So, I have a postcard with a “circuit breaker” stuck next to my bed:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9). I can look at this and take a moment just long enough to stop my brain in its tracks and re-direct it.

I’ll need to keep working on it, but it’s a start.

When God’s grander plan affected me too

You wouldn’t think that God working in the lives of one family in Indonesia could have consequences for you personally, right?

About a year ago I was financially running on fumes. I was down to my last $7 in the bank with 2 weeks to go before more money would be coming my way, and as far as I knew at the time, that was my new normal for the foreseeable future.

I’d budgeted everything within an inch of its life and cut everything I could think of (including meat), but still drastic cuts were needed. The thing I had not cut was my Compassion kids. If you’re not familiar with Compassion, they support kids and their families through sponsorship to lift them from the poverty cycle. Me and my boys had two Compassion sponsor kids – one was the same age as my eldest and the other, a teenage girl who wanted to be a doctor when she grows up.Compassion_Logo-1

It was one of my bigger monthly expenses. I couldn’t cut them though. My thinking was that as little as we had, I was still rich by comparison to what they had – they have quite literally nothing.

I prayed. What to do? What to do? God, I need your help – what should I do?? I can’t let them go, but what shall I do?

Within 7 days I got a letter from Compassion Australia saying that my teenage girl had left the program because her family had been lifted out of poverty.

Stunned. Just. Stunned.

God had answered their prayer. But his timing was extraordinary. By his love and faithfulness to them, he had relieved a financial burden on me.

If I ever needed a sign that my resources come from him, this was it. I knew that God had been providing for us. I knew that what we had came from him. But this showed me just how present he is in the detail of day to day life. It showed me the intricacy of a prayer answered in Indonesia, affecting my little life in western Sydney.

There are 7 billion people in this world. I wonder how many prayers intersect and overlap. I have no doubt in my mind that he sees it all and is in control of it all.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21

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