Some Musings on Fear and Pain

Everyone has fear.

I had tons of fear, it leaked out of me. I allowed it to run rampant in my thoughts and actions. My life became a blur of awful. What happens when your life becomes a blur of awful? The lives of everyone around you become blurs of awful. Soon you start making your fears a reality.

You see, fear is typically irrational. You latch onto the idea that something catastrophic will happen and then you let it run your thoughts. From your thoughts come your feelings, and from those feelings are born actions. We act on the irrational.

Some fears are rational: death, losing someone else to death… actually, that’s about it. Death is the only certainty in life, therefore it’s perfectly rational to fear it, for most of us. For Christians, not so much, but that’s another topic.

This fear of death can manifest in both rational and irrational fears. We fear out of self-preservation, which is rational, but most things we fear won’t ultimately kill us. Sure, they may be painful, but pain itself doesn’t kill. There is a fine line between rational and irrational though, and sometimes we take some pretty stupid risks because we don’t categorize correctly. And what may be a rational fear for some, like rock climbing the face of Half Dome if you’re an untrained couch potato with literally no experience, may be completely irrational for someone else, like a trained and experienced rock climber. It would be absurd for that person to refuse to climb what is probably easy for him.

But as I said, most of the circumstances we fear won’t kill us. Most things we fear won’t even come close to killing us. Why do we fear those things?

Why do we fear our feelings? Why do we fear rejection? Or losing material things? Why do we fear taking chances? The words of others? None of these things can kill us.

Ultimately, we fear pain. We are comfort loving creatures and pain is what we seek to avoid the most. Even our fear of death is largely tied to the pain of it. We all want to die peacefully in our sleep, not in some horrible drawn out pain. But pain doesn’t kill us.

Depending on what we do with it, pain can injure us or it can strengthen us. Our goal should be the latter. What we think about pain ultimately determines what we do with it. If we think negatively of it, and begin to fear it, we will act in ways that weaken us. We get hurt and think “I’ll never do that again.” and instead of learning how to work through the pain and become stronger we give in to fear and become weaker for it.

If we think of pain as an opportunity to learn and be strengthened we fear it less. Sure, we hate it when we are in it, but we are less likely to cower the next time it comes or avoid it all together and miss out on some of the best things in life. This applies to both physical and emotional pain, accepting both can be a tremendous step towards growth.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a cliché, but it’s a true one. However, it’s only true if you let it be. Sometimes we let the things that hurt us damage us and hold us back. We allow the hurt to create fear in us. We fear that we will be hurt again. We then allow this fear to drive our actions and end up getting hurt. Our fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often the process of creating this self-fulfilling prophecy is subconscious. No one wants to be locked up in fear. But our brains are cautious creations. Our brains want to keep us from pain, and will do anything to keep us safe, even things which make absolutely no rational sense. This is where anxiety disorders, PTSD, dissociative disorders, and other such trauma illnesses come from. Our brains would rather function in disarray than allow us to get hurt. Ironically, this disarray ends up hurting us more in the long run.

Outside of those particular disorders, which require professional and often spiritual help to overcome, our fears are in our control. We can turn them around. We can use them to our advantage just like any other negative emotion in life. Fight your fears, face them, you might just find yourself stronger the next time they attack.

Paul’s Contentment

“…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11b-13

A few months ago a sermon on these verses whacked me over my head.

Contentment eluded me for my entire life. I had spent years familiar with these verses but never finding the meaning. Here was someone (Paul) saying he had learned to be content in every circumstance.

Wait. What? How? How was Paul content when he was low, hungry, and in need? Was he bluffing?

I could understand his contentment in plenty. I was frequently quite settled when things were going well, but when times were hard I freaked out, often disastrously.

What was Paul’s secret?

We often hear that last verse quoted as though it were some kind of good luck charm. But “I can do all things” isn’t pertaining to some feat of strength or passing a test. In context it’s so much more.

The secret to Paul’s contentment was his faith in Christ. Instead of depending on his ever changing circumstances for his peace he depended on the solid foundation of Jesus. Jesus never changes. There is no fluctuation in the love of Christ, unlike the other things we put our faith in.

A lifetime doesn’t seem to be enough to grasp this concept. Even though I tried to be content in Christ as all good Christians should be, I didn’t see my idols. For many years I was plagued by anxiety because this or that wasn’t right in my life. I experienced long periods of want. Instead of trusting God and being content, I allowed these periods to devour me. Anxiety and fear ran my life.

Only recently did I discover that I made idols out of so many things. And everything failed me one way or another. Instead of rightly seeing the things I had and desired to have as gifts from God, I made them into demands. When I didn’t get my demands, I became a poster child of discontent. This discontentment then proceeded to destroy many of those good gifts.

It took losing the most important thing in my life (my biggest idol) to show me the power of my idols. It took months of floundering and grasping for that idol to wake me up. I had depended on something temporal, something delicate. When it broke and went away, it almost broke me.

I was drowning but those verses hit me like a lifebouy. Paul depended on Christ, and Paul made it through excruciating suffering. Not only was I made aware that what I had lost was an idol, but I realized that all of those things which had driven my anxiety were idols as well: financial security, steady employment, well behaved kids, a clean house, sex, intimacy, friendships, my pride, etc. All of these things had failed me at times and because I had depended on them I was always left staggering.

Christ never fails. He never gives up on me. He never stops loving me. Even when I run towards my idols He always pulls me back into the fold. When I lean on Him I am never left staggering. It took going through hell to teach me this, but when I started to grasp it I felt a peace like I never have before.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt or have days of discouragement and discontent. I am still going through this trial. I am still suffering. At times I feel like a train is sitting on my chest. It’s hell. I still want to restore what was lost (it is a good thing in and of itself, when properly esteemed). But I am content. Christ is sovereign, God is working for my good and His glory. I don’t have to flail or kick against His Providence because I know it is perfect.

When I am lonely or struggling with thoughts of suicide (I am ashamed to even admit this) or wasting away in pain I can call on Him and He restores peace to my soul. I can read His word and find comfort in His promises, as well as instruction on how to handle difficult people and circumstances. I can know that no matter what happens to me I am secure in my salvation. I may suffer and even die, but my eternity is secure.

Perhaps “I can do all things” means “I can endure all things”. No matter what God gives or takes away in His Providence, we can be sure that if we (like Paul) rest in Him we will endure. If we call on Him when in trial or despair we can find real comfort. When we obey His law and trust in His word we can handle any circumstance that comes our way.

That is true contentment.

The Trimming of the Vine



“‘Rid me, good Lord, of every diverting thing.’
What prodigal waste it appears to be, to see scattered on the floor the bright green leaves, and the bare stem, bleeding in a hundred places from the sharp steel.
But with a tried and trusted husbandman, there is not a random stroke in it at all; nothing cut away which would not have been loss to keep, and gain to lose.”

-Amy Carmichael, quoted in Sinclair Ferguson’s “Maturity”.

We often get angry with God for taking away the things that we love. But why?Because losing things sucks, whether it be money, people, or health. When we grow attached to things (or people) we often get tangled up in unhealthy affections for them. When they are ripped away we feel disoriented. We feel as though a part of us has been removed.

But God knows exactly what He is doing. As the quote above states, nothing is random. God knows what we need, and when He takes away, it’s for our growth. Like I said in my last post, pain is inevitable. Pain leads to growth, and sometimes the loss of someone or something is the most painful thing we can experience. There is almost an exponential correlation between the amount of pain and the amount of growth potential.

This doesn’t mean that we go seeking pain, or that pain isn’t painful. We shouldn’t deliberately cut things off that God wouldn’t. Nor should we masochisticly relish in our pain. But we should see that our most painful moments and circumstances carry in them the promise of great fruit.

When God takes away He knows that it would have been a loss for us to keep whatever it was He took. He also knows that we will gain from losing it. For perspective, I like to invert the lyric of “When I Survey the Wonderous Cross” to say “My richest loss I count but gain.” Every loss is a gain, even if not immediately perceived.

Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes that it may bear more fruit. – John 15:2

Fruit takes time to grow, and even more time to ripen. It’s easy to grow impatient in our world of instant gratification. We want results now! But to God a thousand years is like a day. His timing almost never matches our desired speed. We must wait for fruit. We must endure the suffering of loss before we see the gain.

We may be tempted to despair when we see the leaves of the vine of our life scattered on the ground. We may have invested decades of our life in something, just to watch it get cut away. But we must remember that the vine isn’t dead. Just because it was trimmed doesn’t mean it is gone. In fact, we are assured the trimming will produce more fruit. In one way, shape, or form, the trimmed branch will regrow into something healthier and more productive.

But again, this takes time. Sometimes the first fruit of a loss is patience. If we can get past the initial pain, we can find a calm place to wait for the next fruit, whatever that may be. God’s trimmings result in multiple fruits.

Be patient, sufferers. It’s worth it.

Perspective

Perspective is a hell of a thing.

What we may perceive as small is actually an illusion created by our relative position to the object. This kind of illusion applies to many places in life, not just visually. Sometimes when we are distant from a person we tend to underestimate the big affairs going on in his or her life.

Sure, we may see the problems, clearly even. But because of our distance from the situation we may interpret what we see as a small issue. We may even think “we could handle that, why don’t they seem able to?”

But we don’t see how big the problem truly is to the person standing right under its power.

The only way to truly see how big the troubles are in someone’s life is to get closer to them. Spend time with them, talk to them, maybe share some of your big struggles with them to encourage them to bring up theirs.

Remind them that with time and distance problems always seem to shrink. What seemed big last week is now a tiny speck on the horizon of memory.

Of course this also should remind us all that what appears to be a little problem way out there in the future may end up quite large by the time we confront it. Small problems grow to big ones if not taken care of.

Don’t let your perceptions fool you. “Small” is not always small.

Thankfully “big” isn’t always big either.

Is It Wrong To Want Things?

Sometimes you just have to scrap an entire blog. My original title for this was “Happiness As a Goal”. But I’ve renamed it and rewritten it. And then rewrote it again. And then renamed it again.

So here it is, after a ton of editing:

I have struggled with the concept of wants and needs for a while. God gives us everything we need, so everything we don’t have we don’t need, right? And if God doesn’t give it to us and we don’t need it, it’s sinful to want it, right?

For a long time I felt that contentment meant being completely satisfied with what you have. This means that any desire for something one doesn’t have is discontentment and therefore sinful.

This was my train of thought: It is a sin to be discontent, to be content means you don’t want anything, you are satisfied with what you have. Therefore to want is to be discontent, therefore to want is to sin. Furthermore, God gives us everything we need, if we don’t have it we don’t need it. If we don’t need it we just want it, and wanting anything is a sin.

From the last three paragraphs you can see why my life has become kind of messy. I have shoved down a lot of desires and drives mistaking them for sin. This has made me a bit of a limp noodle. If wants and desires are inherently sinful what’s the point of trying? After all, you’re going to get what you need.

But then I realized that the Bible clearly talks about wants.

“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:2b-3

James does not condemn his audience for asking for things.

In 1 John we read this:
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”

One only asks for things if one wants something. Since asking is not condemned, wanting is not condemned. I was wrong to think merely having wants was sinful. God clearly wants us to want things that are in accordance with His will and to ask Him for them. Asking is encouraged, and we are to do it with confidence.

Ultimately I don’t have to feel shame or guilt for wanting things (or experiences, or good feelings). But I do have to ask the question “is this in accordance with God’s will?”

Probably the easiest way to determine this is to ask the questions “Do I want this purely for selfish gain? Does my desire ultimately serve others and/or bring glory to God?” If the answer to the first is no and the answer to the second is yes then I am free to ask and to pursue what I want.

This whole train of thought has further implications, obviously. This is me after all. I can’t keep anything too simple. Keep checking back and I will try to further expound on these thoughts in other posts as I get to them.

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Hide Me Under a Rock, I Don’t Want Your Intimacy!

I know I said I wanted intimacy, but maybe not that much!

If you follow me at all you probably know I write about all kinds of subjects (how to be a Butthole Wife, abortion, art, music, modesty, sex, politics, you name it). Sometimes I get really personal. I don’t have much of a filter on how much I share. This might get in me in trouble one day!

My post last week got a Facebook like from none other than my pastor. The post where I called out pastors and elders for not being out there in homes. Yeah. That one.

The thing is, I’m not sure I really want what I called for in that post.

Right now my wife and I are working 90 hours a week between the two of us. That means that our time is extremely limited. When we are home we are either sleeping, cleaning, cooking, eating, or catching the kids up on school.

I say cleaning, but what I really mean is we are trying to keep up with just that day’s mess. Not the previous mess from yesterday (and before), just today’s.

We are juggling. And when you juggle you drop things. When you drop things you make a mess. And you’re too busy keeping the rest of your life in the air to clean up every mess.

So messes pile up. Real messes, metaphorical messes, mental messes.

From all outside appearances my life is falling apart. I have nothing together.

Outside appearances are often all that anyone who bothers to peak in sees. Which is precisely why I am terrified of someone suddenly becoming interested in my life. What if they see the messes? What if they see my juggling and my dropping? What if they judge my entire character on the circumstances surrounding this terrifically tumultuous season of my life?

I have to be careful what I say. Someone might take me up on my challenges. Someone my try to get to know the real me, not the mumbly me that most people know. They might see the silly me, the sloppy me, the me that loses his temper way too easily, the anxious me, the passionate me. They may see the ugly side of me. The side of me that struggles with all types of temptations and often fails.

They might get to know me intimately as a friend, only to find out that I can be a disappointment as a friend. I am selfish and miserly. I am far too busy with my own life to take on the weight of others. I can’t invite you to my messy house and I’m too broke to go out for a drink. My texts are all somber and I breathe on the phone. I take far more than I could ever give in return.

I may speak a big game when it comes to intimacy, but ultimately I am too ashamed of myself to let you in.

Except when I blog. I’ll lay it all out for you here.

Behind the safety of my keyboard and screen.

Diversions

Ooo, shiny!

We live in an insatiablely intolerable world at times. Life is a messy, dirty, steaming pile of excrement some days. There is no escaping the to-do lists and the schedules and the ever growing piles of bills. It almost makes me jealous of the people of old who lived short miserable lives. At least they were short…

I’ve never been able to drown out my worries with diversions. I hear of people escaping their troubles and woes with movies, music, video games, or even alcohol. Perhaps I’m just not a focused enough person to forget my cares and immerse myself in numbness or fantasy? I can only be so distracted before my mind wanders back to the struggle of the day.

Painting, writing, playing Pokémon GO with my kids and wife. I enjoy these. But none provide any forgetfulness. Stress is always right there making it hard to find forgiveness for not accomplishing everything on that to-do list. “Why are you taking a break when you should be doing this?!”

Will it ever change? Maybe. Maybe one day my cares will be few enough to drown out with frivolity, at least for fleeting moments. Until then I’ll just continue distracting myself half-heartedly.

Honesty

How honest are you? In real life? In social media? Would the people who know you be surprised if you did something shocking?

Back in the day when someone went off and committed some horrid thing you would see the neighbors saying things like “He was always a little strange, but we never saw this coming.” Now that we have social media the circle of people who “never saw it coming” has grown.

And the ability to sugar coat has gotten easier.

Not only have we gotten better at hiding the bad, we have gotten better at exaggerating the good. When a man flies off the handle and kills his wife and children, we look back at their posts and say “but they had such a great marriage!” We look at smiling pictures of those who commit suicide and wonder where the problems were hiding.

So how honest are you? How much do you show the warts in your life? How much do you confide in real people? How much do you share with virtual people? How much do you exaggerate the good? Would your friends and neighbors on and offline be shocked if you did something tragic?

Why do people hide behind positive posts and perfectly filtered pictures? Are they afraid people might know their secrets? It’s easier to hide secrets now that we can bury them under a facade of beauty. It’s no longer just “he was a quiet guy”, now it’s “he really seemed to have it together.”

It is my goal here and elsewhere to be honest and open. I don’t ever want to sugarcoat my situation. If I ever seem too optimistic, call me out on it. If you ever need to confide something, I’m here.

The last thing we need is to be all over the news with our friends and neighbors surprised that our lives were really not so great.

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Not There

I’m not where I want to be.

This might come as a surprise to most of you.

Or not.

Maybe you have guessed that I am a bit restless in my current situation. Maybe you suspect that I am merely living a lie and will eventually give it up and go back to my old way of life.

I don’t want to go back.

I left a career of nearly ten years to go do something else that I loved. Then I left that after two years to give my wife an opportunity to do something I knew that she would love (and I wasn’t wrong). But am I doing what I love?

Yes and no.

I love being with my kids. I love teaching them and talking to them and watching them become great little people.

But sometimes they are real jerks. Sometimes I get tired of being around them. Frequently I feel like I fail them on so many levels. But I love them. So yes. I love what I do.

But.

I need adult interaction. And more than just the superficial internet interactions. The presence of people is a balm for my anxiety and loneliness. There are times when being around the kids perks up my spirit, but they are the takers in the relationship. Adults give and take, the dynamics are different. Right now where I am I do not get the kind of adult interaction I need.

I have dreams and goals. But I never think I am good enough. I am always the contingency guy. I have a goal, I assume right off the bat that I won’t get to it, so I automatically search for all the secondary plans.

Where do people get their optimism? How does one make a goal and dream and actually think themselves good enough to get them? How do they take control of their lives and make the things they want happen?

Or do they? Do people ever actually get what they want? Or am I just watching too many movies? I swear I see people out there on blogs and Facebook and elsewhere living the lives that they want. Surely there is something flawed in their life, something they don’t like, something that is not quite right.

How do they live joyously despite those things? How are they successful in jumping past those kinds of problems and focusing instead on the good things, the successes?

The simple answer is that they aren’t. Everyone has struggles. No one is arrived 100%. Some people are just better at displays than others. They are simply good at social media.

Or perhaps they really are hopeful. Some people are just optimists. They do a good job at seeing the good and understand the best way to make those good things happen is focused work towards them.

So the answer to getting where I want is simply focused discipline? Make an effort to get adult time? Focus on the good goals and spend a little less time on contingency?

Time will tell.

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Stabbing Anxiety In the Face With a Soldering Iron, Part 2

Last week I discussed some of the things I do to conquer the physical aspects of anxiety. But what about the thoughts?

In order to kill bad thoughts it helps to understand the motives behind one’s thoughts. Most of my anxious thoughts stem from my severe need to be in control of all things. I am a control freak. When things are out of my control I panic. I begin to think the worst. I lose all faith and go into the selfish cocoon of anxiety.

Knowing what motivates my wrong thoughts helps in creating a strategy to defeat them.

So what do I do?

Well, I take control of the things I actually have control of. Despite my negativity, there are things I actually have some power over. Like my time, my children, and my personal space.

I make a schedule and try to stick with it, understanding that sometimes things happen that make that schedule obsolete for the moment. At the very least I follow a routine and make habits.

I work on establishing healthy boundaries with my children. Kids can be chaos incarnate, but usually only because we don’t put a foot down and make it clear what is allowed and not allowed. Discipline goes a long way towards helping calm that storm. Boundaries are important to all relationships, if there are other relationships in your life that create stress and anxiety it is likely that you need to establish some basic rules regarding it.

By personal space, I mean my house. I have control over the cleanliness and clutter of my home. Part of a good schedule and routine is taking time to organize and clean up. Visual clutter and messes are huge triggers for anxious thoughts. It took me years to figure this out, but it has made a huge difference since.

As for the things I can’t control… (which are far fewer in number than my mind will let me believe) those things get put into my prayers. Only God can control those things.

That may seem like a cop out answer, but I assure you that faith is harder than any scheduling, disciplining, or cleaning. Having faith requires catching my thoughts and correcting them. Taking every thought captive requires constantly telling myself truths to correct the lies that my mind wants to tell me. In order to do this I have to know truths, I have to study and think about truths, and I have to believe truths.

Anxiety is ultimately the antithesis of faith. Faith is ultimately the solution to anxiety.