No Pain, No Gain

Confession time: I often wish my life was easier. This is somewhat amusing in a sad sort of way, since my life is already quite easy in comparison to the majority of people in the world, both currently and throughout history. 

But more specifically, I spend a lot of time wishing the PEOPLE in my life were easier to deal with. There are some pretty high-strung, anxious, intense, and strong-willed personalities in my family (myself included). There can be a lot of frustration. A lot of tension. A lot of moments wondering if we will make it through the process of raising children without losing our sanity.  

Despite how it sometimes feels, there are no coincidental situations in life that have no purpose. Instead of being continuously frustrated and discouraged, I started asking myself… what is God trying to teach me through this? Obviously God didn’t give us these personalities and orchestrate our lives this way with the intention of having us feel perpetually irritated and exasperated.

I’ve been doing a study of the book of James that has helped me view life differently. I love James’ style. He is blunt and gets right to the point. No beating around the bush with him. The very first thing he brings up in James 1:2-3 is this: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

Why in the world should trials produce joy? Because trials give us an opportunity to rely on Christ for our strength and be made more like Him, which should be our ultimate goal. We don’t grow spiritually if we never have to deal with any difficult situations. The joy comes in knowing that God will use trials in our lives to produce steadfastness. We will become more fixed on Him, firmly established in our faith, as we lean on Christ to sustain us. Trials expose our weaknesses. They remind us that we can’t rely on ourselves. They point us towards God’s sovereignty, provision, and faithfulness. 

Being transformed through trials is evidence of our faith, which is a huge theme in James. If we have true faith, our lives will be changed. James 1:22 says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Likewise, the second half of James 2 focuses on this topic. Faith without works is not a saving faith. Faith by itself without works is dead. Faith is active along with works, and completed by our works. It is not that our works save us… salvation comes through faith alone. But, true faith will RESULT in works. Our inward transformation is evidence of our faith. If there is no evidence, there is no real faith. Anyone can believe facts about God. Even demons believe in God! Obedience to God’s Word instead of giving in to sin in the midst of trials and temptations is what sets us apart. 

Another big theme in James is controlling what we say. Our words reflect what is in our hearts. What I say in response to my kids and difficult people in my life is the outpouring of my heart. If my heart is being transformed by the gospel, then my speech will be too. And James is clear that we need God’s help to do that. His description of the tongue is striking: “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6,8). Jesus himself has sobering words for us on this topic in Matthew 12:33-37: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known for its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” 

What I say in response to disobedient children or difficult people reflects the state of my heart. Is my heart, and in turn my speech, being transformed? Is my faith being proven true by a slow but steady positive change in my words, and increased self control? Our pattern of speech is so closely linked with our hearts, that it is the evidence of true faith (or lack thereof). Our words have the power to cause destruction and destroy people. But Jesus is more powerful… if we submit ourselves to Him. 

Here’s the real kicker- we can’t blame our problems on other people or circumstances. James 4:1 says this: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Remember earlier, when I said I wished the people in my life were easier to deal with? That’s me, shifting the blame off myself, looking for a way to justify and excuse my own contributions to the conflicts and clashes. James says that instead of looking outwardly for someone or something to blame, we need to look within ourselves. Our sin and selfish desires are the source of strife and strained relationships, and we are responsible for how we respond to the situations that God has allowed in our lives. If all we do is try to blame other people and circumstances for our problems, we will never allow the gospel to truly transform us. 

The remedy to all of this is humility and repentance. His grace is greater than our sin. But we must humble ourselves before Him. James 4:6-10 says, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” 

I often don’t think much about repentance. But we can’t truly draw near to God without it. Our sin should sadden us. It’s not something we should brush off, make excuses for, or laugh about. We can only have a right relationship with God through regular repentance, confession, and acknowledging that we cannot live righteously on our own strength. When we see God for who he truly is- limitlessly holy, good, pure, powerful- the only right response is humility, because we know we are nothing in comparison to Him, and we are nothing without Him.

Viewing ourselves through an accurate lens should change the way we interact with other people. James 4:11-12 shows us that we are in no place to speak evil of others, because only God is the lawgiver and judge. Pride keeps us from recognizing our own need for God and wrongly elevates us above others. Humility allows us to reflect Christ in the way that he mercifully and patiently deals with us, so that we may treat others with that same mercy and love. 

The book of James is very practical with many calls to action. It could be looked at as an overview of how the Christian life should be. It has brought a lot of conviction, clarity, encouragement, and peace to my heart. If you have never done a study on James, it is well worth your time! And if you have, I would love to hear how it has challenged and encouraged you in your own unique trials of life.

Opinionated… or Foolish?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been outspoken. I find it very difficult to hold back my opinions, especially when there is a situation where something seems unfair, people are mocking or making fun of others, or someone has a certain perspective on things that doesn’t jive with how I see it. When I was younger, there were many times that I was too bold or just plain tactless, even to the point of being offensive. I was actually proud of my tendency to “tell it like it is” and not be “fake.” One of my youth pastors would even occasionally tease me by saying, “Tell us how you really feel, Krista,” in a playfully sarcastic way… because no one ever had to try to figure out how I really felt. I made it very obvious! 

With age and maturity, in some ways I’ve also grown in wisdom. Typically, I think things through a lot more than I used to, attempting to gauge how my opinions might be perceived by people who view a situation differently than I do. I still don’t have much of a filter between my brain and mouth sometimes, but I don’t think it results in as much offense as it used to, because my thought process is changing from “I’m right and I don’t care who doesn’t like it” to “different people have different experiences, and I should be open to understanding where they’re coming from.” I’m trying to become more compassionate and empathetic, and I’m more concerned about the image and reputation I am creating for myself- especially because, as a Christian, I represent Christ. 

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that several verses addressing this issue have come up recently during my daily Bible reading. While I do believe that we should be able to hold respectful discussions, I feel the urge to express my thoughts about certain topics when it’s probably not always appropriate. Even when I try to carefully word my opinions so I don’t offend people, I don’t often consider if it’s the right time or setting for a particular conversation. I don’t usually think about the possibility that maybe it’s better to stay silent, or try to have a discussion either in person or through private messaging instead of a public social media thread. 

Here are the scriptures I’ve come across, along with my thoughts about them. 

Proverbs 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Ouch! How often do we only care about what we have to say, instead of truly trying to understand someone else’s experience?  

Proverbs 26:4-5 “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” These verses seem to say opposite things. This is meant to make us think about what the best response is depending on the specific situation. Many times, it’s better not to participate in conversations when someone is acting foolish, because you probably won’t get anywhere and might end up looking foolish yourself. But other times, it may be wise to respond with a correction so that people don’t assume that there could be no other options except for what the foolish person is saying.

Proverbs 26:12 “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” This refers to someone who is “stubbornly unteachable,” as my ESV study notes say. We should be careful that we aren’t so convinced of our own opinions, that we refuse to listen to any other ideas! 

Proverbs 29:11 “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the impression that I’ve been a lot more foolish than I may have previously thought. 

Ecclesiastes 7:16 “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” At first this verse didn’t make sense to me, but the ESV study notes offer a helpful interpretation. In this case, the term “righteous” refers not to being morally correct, but “right in one’s cause.” The advice here is to not be obsessed with always being right in an argument. People who insist on always winning arguments or having the last word end up alienating everyone around them. 

James 1:19-20 “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Slow to speak… not usually my specialty. Slow to anger… most of us have a lot of work to do there too. 

James 3:6,8-9 “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who are made in the likeness of God.” James doesn’t mince words, does he? This is a sobering reminder of how powerful our words can be. We need to rely on wisdom from the Holy Spirit to not use our words for evil. 

These verses were convicting for me, and maybe they are for you too. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This isn’t directly talking about our speech, of course, but what we set our minds on has an impact on what we say and do. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 4:23: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (NASB).

What is filling your heart and mind? Is it a desire to show love and kindness to others through your words (or silence)? Or is your greatest concern letting everyone know how you really feel, no matter whose feelings you hurt in the process? It requires a lot of self control to tame our tongues! Fortunately for us, we can take comfort in the fact that God’s grace is sufficient, for His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

Addictive

Every morning started pretty much the same way: my phone alarm rang, I hit snooze at least twice (even though the night before I was determined not to), and eventually turned it off for good. Then, before I was even out of bed or awake enough to open both eyes against the bright screen, I opened my Facebook app. What’s everyone been up to since the last time I checked my newsfeed (which was probably less than 8 hours ago)? I usually spent at least a few precious kid-free morning minutes scrolling social media, before I got up to start my daily Bible reading.

And if that doesn’t expose my priorities, the rest of the day unfortunately didn’t get better. Any time I had more than 5 seconds of downtime and didn’t immediately have another task to attend to, my finger automatically went right to my Facebook or Instagram apps. I don’t even have to think about it. Pick up phone, open Facebook. It’s like breathing. 

Social media addiction is a recognized issue. The website addictioncenter.com has a page concerning this*, and includes the following statement: “Social media addiction is a behavioral addiction that is characterized as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas.” Social media (SM) usage and the rewards of attention via likes, comments, and retweets light up the same area of our brains that is triggered when using addictive substances. 

As many as 5-10% of Americans meet the criteria for social media addiction, but most of us aren’t truly addicted. Still, habitual use of SM negatively affects our mental health and relationships. I can’t count the number of cumulative hours I’ve spent doing absolutely nothing productive while scrolling Facebook, comparing my life to everyone else’s perfect-looking (but filtered and edited) lives, ignoring my kids and housework. 

In fact, SM can quickly become an easy go-to when I want to check out of my reality as a stay-at-home-mom of two active and high maintenance kids. I choose my phone over playing outside with them, asking if there’s something they’d like to do together, or taking the time to teach and train them when there are quarrels or attitude problems. And often, the only real result I get from time spent on SM is a distracted, discontent mind. Not a great trade-off when I could’ve been investing in relationships with my kids, doing something productive around the house, or using my free time in a more beneficial way, like reading, working out, or even going to bed earlier!  

I’ve begun to ask myself some questions and pray before opening SM apps. For a long time now, SM has had far too strong of a grip on me. Before I open Facebook, I’m getting in the habit of considering what my reasons or motivations are, and praying about three things: Is this a good use of my time right now, or is there something else more productive or important I should be doing? Am I looking at SM out of a desire to escape what’s really going on in my life (like dealing with my kids)? Am I prepared to deal with the possible frustration and distraction it might cause? 

I also think there is great value in doing a SM fast. It can start off small- for those of us who are used to opening SM apps dozens of times a day, maybe even one whole day without any of it seems hard. Try half a day, or just a few hours without using any SM, and every time you’re tempted, pray instead. Pray for God’s help in not letting SM control you and dominate your free time. Pray that you would manage your time wisely and not use SM as a way to tune out of the demands of real life. Pray that you will be more focused on investing in your relationships with family and God. And don’t get discouraged if you slide back into bad habits. I still open Facebook first thing in the morning sometimes, and I still choose my phone over more productive and meaningful activities. But I’ve acknowledged the battle, and I’m working towards victory.  

In the end, the only things that will matter are those with eternal significance- people’s souls, the time we spent serving God and others, and our own love and knowledge of God and His Word. SM can be beneficial, and it’s an important way of staying connected and informed in today’s world. But we can’t let it be THE most important, time-consuming part of our lives. Let’s not waste the little time we have on earth mindlessly scrolling SM, comparing our lives to others, being sucked into online arguments, and posting things for the validation we get from the likes and notifications popping up on our phones. Life is so much more than that! 

Do you struggle with spending too much time on your phone? Have you felt any negative effects on the rest of your life because of it? What strategies do you have for managing your SM usage?

*To read more about social media addiction, this is the website I referenced: https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/

To Complain or Not to Complain?

Every parent has probably experienced what can sometimes feel like incessant whining and complaining coming from their children. In this time of social distancing, extra “togetherness” can provoke this even more. Our children’s whole lives have been turned upside down; for months, there has been no school, no church, no events.

This understandably brings about anxiety, discontent, and grumbling. They are sick of being around their siblings and parents nearly all the time with almost no breaks. They are sick of being in the same house. They are sick of the only opportunities for interaction and learning being on screens (thank goodness iPad school is over for now, is all I have to say). They don’t fully comprehend why nothing’s the same anymore, and they don’t know when things will go back to normal. 

Wait… adults complain a lot too 

This is starting to sound a whole lot like my own feelings, and I suspect the feelings of many other adults as well. Although whining might seem especially irritating coming from our kids, the truth is, most adults struggle with discontent and complaining too. How should we deal with these negative emotions? Should we sweep them under the rug, bury them inside, try to ignore the fact that life contains many challenges and irritations? Or should we air our grievances to anyone who will listen, regularly post complaints on social media, and allow negativity and dissatisfaction to take over our lives? 

A Negative Example- The Grumbling Israelites 

The Israelites were notorious for their complaining and grumbling after the Lord delivered them from Egypt. The complaining started almost immediately and never stopped for long: when they saw the Egyptian army pursuing them before they crossed the Red Sea (Ex. 14:10-12); when they couldn’t find drinkable water in the wilderness (Ex. 15:22-24, and 17:1-3); when they were hungry (Ex. 16:2-3); when they were tired of dealing with their problems (Num. 11:1); when they were sick of the food that God provided for them (Num. 11:4-6); when they came to the Promised Land and saw the fortified cities and strong inhabitants (Num. 14:1-4); when they rebelled against Moses and Aaron’s leadership (Num. 16), and many other examples. Despite their grumblings, forgetfulness, and lack of faith, God mercifully provided for their needs. Sometimes, their complaints brought about God’s anger and judgement, and Moses interceded for the people several times so as to escape complete destruction. 

Positive Examples- David, Habakkuk, Job, and Lamentations    

But there are examples of acceptable ways to bring our complaints to God, too. The Psalms are full of laments, sorrow, and grief. In Psalm 13, David expresses feelings of complete abandonment by God. But he ends with praise, saying that he will trust in God’s steadfast love and rejoice in his salvation. Habakkuk consists of the prophet’s complaints to the Lord because of what he saw as an apparent lack of justice and God allowing sin to go unpunished. The book begins with the same question David asks in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?” Throughout the book, he comes to trust in God’s sovereignty and wisdom, and again ends with wording very similar to David- “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:18). 

The book of Job gives us another example of someone who expressed strongly-worded emotions to God about his suffering. Job himself even calls them “complaints” repeatedly in the ESV version of the Bible (Job 7, 10, 21, 23). But he was still considered righteous because of his service and faith in God during his time of hardship, despite the extreme frustration and anguish that he brought before God. Lamentations is, predictably, a whole book of laments concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, but the Lord’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness are emphasized (Lam. 3:22-24), as well as His eternal reign and the hope of restoration (Lam. 5). 

So what do we do?

I get so weary of my childrens’ complaints that my instinct has become to immediately scold them and stop them from expressing negative emotion. But the fact is, the emotions are there; we cannot ignore them and expect them to disappear. We need to find an appropriate way to deal with them.

I believe the many accounts of complaints and laments in the Bible teach us that God can handle our questions, sorrows, fears, and distress. However, the way we do it, and our attitude towards God, is of the utmost importance. In each positive example we looked at above, the conclusion is that, when all else fails, when our lives are in ruins, when we are threatened, persecuted, or suffering… we can trust in God’s faithfulness, love, sovereignty, and wisdom.  We can trust in God because of who He is; not because of what he does for us. (Read Job 38-41 for a magnificent speech by God, detailing his power and sovereignty, emphasizing that humans could never fully understand the ways of God; take note that after Job submits to God and repents, he finds comfort in God before his time of suffering is ended). 

And even if we lose our lives, our God is a God of salvation. If we have put our trust in him as our savior, we will be with him for eternity after we physically die here on earth, with the hope of a bodily resurrection after the return of Christ. Job also alluded to this, saying in Job 19:25, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” No matter how bad life gets, we always have something to rejoice in, which turns out to be the most important thing of all- the steadfast love and salvation of God. 

The antidote- thankfulness and focus on God 

Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6 to bring our anxieties, prayers, and requests to God, with thanksgiving. God wants us to bring our needs and emotions to him, and the reason we can be thankful is because we know God is sovereign, wise, and loving in all his ways, even when we cannot understand his ways. Earlier in Philippians, Paul cautions us against grumbling, so as to not be like the crooked and twisted generation of Israelites (Phil. 2:14). We must be careful to not be characterized by having a complaining spirit, one who forgets God’s deliverance, power, and promises.

I am trying to practice allowing my kids to express their discontent and negative feelings for a short time, then guiding them back to think of the positive aspects of a certain situation, and list things to be thankful for. I think we as adults can follow a similar process in our own lives. While discussions with others about situational concerns are important and necessary, we should do so respectfully and pay attention to our attitudes. Regularly complaining to others, either in person or on social media, reflects a heart that is not focused on thankfulness for God’s provision and blessings. Instead, we should take our questions, frustrations, and complaints to our all-powerful, all-wise God, and then choose to rest in His plan and salvation.