Pursuing Encouragement

runnerDiscouragement, like people, comes in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of the shape or the size or the person, discouragement stinks. Deflated. Struggle without progress. Stuck. Directionless. Yep, stinks.

My discouragement with running really epitomizes my battle with discouragement in general. Sure, I’ve experienced periods of relative success. But overall, running exists as simply a 20-year struggle. One might ask, “Why keep doing it?” Well… I guess because it helps me stare discouragement in the face and tell it, “I refuse to quit. I refuse to let you stop me.” If I quit running altogether, that opens the door for me to give up in other areas… in writing, in relationships, in faith. In the midst of discouragement, I often don’t know what to do, but I definitely know what not to do… quit.

While my own discouragement leaves me lethargic and frustrated, my inner locus of control keeps me moving even in the absence of any perceptible progress. However, seeing those I love — my boys and my husband especially — in seasons of discouragement creates a whole new level of struggle and even gets me to believe the possibility of defeat. If I felt knee deep in miry clay before, I feel like I’m laying down in it now and letting the mud seep into my orifices.

When the ones who usually encourage you lack their own courage, and when the ones who you usually encourage can’t or don’t receive it, and when all of this happens simultaneously, life just feels frozen. Yet we continue about our days, continue on the treadmill of life, waiting for that moment when we see the upward path again and can jump off into progress.

If I’m not careful, debilitating loneliness creeps in when I’m discouraged. And if that isn’t held in check, depression usually comes next. I’ve experienced this process one too many times in my life, and I’m determined to not experience it again. Ever. And I don’t want my family to live in discouragement one moment longer than necessary either because I know all to well what comes if it lingers.

BeBold-Verse

Perhaps this battle with discouragement exists as an all-too-familiar place for you too. Perhaps you want to admit defeat and quit running, especially when the end seems hidden somewhere in the unknown depths of the mud. While I don’t know when this season will end for any of us, I do know where to go for encouragement within the struggle.

  1. Studying Scripture
  2. Pursuing the Holy Spirit
  3. Spending time in fellowship
  4. Allowing ourselves to be encouraged 

In our pursuit of encouragement, we must realize that truth often comes long before we believe what it’s saying — before the feelings take hold. Knowing this, I see discouragement as a struggle awaiting victory, and I believe encouragement happens in the midst of — not after — discouragement. What I also know is that the path to being encouraged, to becoming unstuck, lies right on top of the path of discouragement. In other words, struggling through discouragement is the only way I’ll find true and lasting encouragement. With that, giving up simply isn’t an option.

DISCUSSION: What testimony can you give regarding discouragement, struggle, encouragement and victory?

 

Spiritual Fitness

dumbbell-1306867-1599x1066My home gym contains everything I need stay in good physical shape. The treadmill, elliptical and boxing bag give me great cardio workouts. The kettle bell, weights and stability ball provide strength training and toning.

A healthy diet filled with the right balance of fruit & vegetables, carbohydrates & protein also contributes to my overall physical health. Avoiding unhealthy foods is a big piece of the puzzle too.

Health experts say that neither exercise or diet alone do the trick. Both are needed to be physically healthy. They also say we must not just do good for our bodies but also avoid the negative — unhealthy foods, overexertion, being sedentary, etc.

In general, we understand the need to operate at our best physically and that it impacts our productivity. We also know that being unhealthy causes our bodies to become overloaded and toxic. Most people at least acknowledge the importance of improved health through eliminating negative habits and increasing positive ones.

No doubt being healthy and strong physically holds tremendous value; however, that value has limits because our physical bodies have limits. Our spiritual health, on the other hand, holds infinite importance since it goes into life beyond the physical we see now and into eternity.

“Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding a promise for both this present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)

Knowing this, how can we make spiritual health a priority?

Like the way I have stocked my home gym for physical fitness, having the right tools and equipment on hand is important for spiritual fitness too. In addition, establishing healthy habits — simply using the available tools — also contributes to spiritual fitness.

With that in mind, consider the following as a sort of spiritual fitness guide:

  1. Know Your Bible Religious Stock ImagesRead the Bible. Open it regularly and read the valuable instructions included inside for living a godly life. Take this knowledge a step further by receiving instruction from godly pastors and teachers to help propel you into higher levels of spiritual fitness much like a personal trainer can take you to another level physically.
  2. Prioritize life around God. Making God one of your priorities puts him at the level of other priorities that fill your time. Instead, plan around God’s will. This puts Him at a higher level and shows He is not an item on our “to do” lists but rather the director of how we spend our time.
  3. Do an attitude check. Regularly assess the state of your heart, your intentions. Does what’s going on inside of you fit with what the word of God indicates about what our attitudes should look like? (Print and read ”Attitude – The Aroma of Your Heart” for a scripture study on what the Bible says about attitude.)
  4. Schedule fellowship. Growth happens best in the company of others. You can read books about personal growth, and you can read scripture about love. You can certainly pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to work in you for change. But what does doing these things really mean if we don’t interact with others? And, we can’t expect fellowship to happen by itself, especially in our busy culture. We must intentionally and deliberately put fellowship on our calendars on a regular basis.
  5. Pursue spiritual health. If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else. If you’re doing nothing to change the path of your life, then do something. Set a goal. Have some area in which you are pursuing a more spiritually fit existence. Remember that small steps add up over time to make a huge difference.

Spiritual fitness involves an intentional effort on our parts, as does physical fitness. So take some time today to ask yourself if spiritual fitness is a priority in your life.

DISCUSSION: How have you made God the director of your schedule rather than just an item in it?

You Are a Piece of the Puzzle

puzzleIf you enjoy putting puzzles together, the ultimate in frustration comes when you realize you only have a a few pieces left, and one is missing. What a letdown! No matter what, that puzzle will always be incomplete. Just one piece is indispensible for the complete picture.

My boys once put together a puzzle shaped like an elephant. The elephant was made out of hundreds of smaller pictures of other animals. So, not only was the puzzle itself a picture, but within that picture were other pictures. Therefore, a missing piece not only affected the puzzle as a whole, but it also the individual pictures that combined to make up the whole picture.

We all have our own puzzles that are our lives. Each of our lives also combines to create a larger picture. For the Christian, that is the body of Christ. The absence of any one piece and the picture is incomplete. The absence of any person and the whole picture is marred by the gaping hole much like a missing piece stands out in an otherwise-completed puzzle.

A body of believers (often called a church body) works the same way as a puzzle. Every individual in the body is a crucial piece for the complete picture.

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12)

In other words, we are all integral parts of the whole, which is the body of Christ. Each part has a specific function with a different purpose. We must avoid thinking we are the most important part, but we also must not think we are unimportant either. Instead of comparing one part to another, each part must fulfill its own purpose and must also work together to create a cohesive unit that glorifies Christ.

When a piece of the puzzle is missing in the body of Christ, there is a void that cannot be filled. While that does not mean that the work of Christ won’t ultimately be accomplished, because we know it will, it does mean that it will go forth differently than if that void was filled by the piece created to go in that space. God created each person to play a role in His will with each role being unique and able to be filled by only one person. If you don’t place yourself into the pile of pieces, you can’t become a part of the puzzle and the puzzle essentially can never be completed.

Life is so much bigger than any one person, but each person plays a part in making life complete. No one has all the pieces alone; we all need each other to complete the puzzle. We are each a piece of the puzzle of God’s will within the larger picture of the church. We all need to be in the box together, ready to complete the picture.

DISCUSSION: How does this play out in your life? What does it mean for you to be a part of the body of Christ?

What is your fear doing?

no fearWhat does fear look like in your life?

Zombies, ghosts, vampires, and evil witches (as opposed to the good ones) — only get to me when I read stories or watch movies containing them. My solution? Avoidance. No matter how much I tell myself (and truly believe) they aren’t real, I still get nightmares. So while I’m not exactly afraid of them (seriously, I know they’re not real) they somehow get to me on a subconscious level. But these fears really don’t affect the way I live my life much.

But many fears do affect daily living and life choices to varying degrees. For example, those afraid of heights avoid skydiving and climbing ladders, and a fear of spiders causes entertaining reactions from many people. These fears are manageable though, and not usually significantly life-altering.

Then there are the fears that keep us from progressing in life.

Fear of failure makes us not even try. Fear of what others think leads to dangerous conformity. Fear of rejection prevents relationships from blossoming. Fear of the future causes staunch routine and vehement resistance to change. Fear of what might happen motivates many to seek relationship-damaging control. These fears I know well either through observation and/or personal experience. How about you?

To some extent, every fear holds the potential to limit life and keep us from following God’s will, but some fears certainly seem to have more power for doing so than others. So what can we do when fear grips us, and we simply want to hole up somewhere and live a safe, comfortable life?

The Bible says numerous times — someone counted 365 times, one for every day of the year — to not be afraid. God obviously knew fear would be a stumbling block, so he gave an abundance of encouragement for overcoming it.

Overcoming Fear

For me, overcoming fear lies with the examples found in God’s word of how others handled fear. These stories help change how I think about fear.

My favorite example is when Joshua became the leader of the Israelites and then faced the daunting task of leading God’s people into the Promised Land. God encourages Joshua by telling him to “not fear” and “be of good courage” multiple times (Deuteronomy 31 & Joshua 1:5-9).

The same God who encouraged Joshua and promised to never abandon him — and Scripture  shows God followed through on that promise — is the same God who will do the same for me today. That gives me courage to keep moving in spite of my fears.

Benaiah is another example of courage in the face of fear (2 Samuel 23:20-23 & 1 Chronicles 11:22-25). He faced a lion, two great warriors, and a man with a spear when he himself had only a club, and he came out victorious. In fact, his bravery (as well as many other positive characteristics) moved him up the ranks in both David’s and Solomon’s armies. Benaiah must have felt fear (who wouldn’t?), but he still did what was necessary to achieve victory.

We can’t stop fear. We will face it, and it will grip us. And while we may not be able to control the circumstances surrounding our fear or often even our reactions to what we fear, we can choose to pursue freedom from all fear (Matthew 6:25-34 & John 11:25-26).

Remember that focus determines reality, and with the power of God working in and through us, we can face our fears and push through to accomplish the will of God. We can focus on the fear itself or on the one who conquered sin, death and the grave. That choice determines the impact fear has on our lives.

DISCUSSION: Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. How does that fear shape your life? Are you focusing on the fear or on the one who calms all fears?

Believing is Seeing

Birthday 2Until the recent past, shopping existed as therapy and a way to for a least a little while forget about life’s struggles. I loved finding good deals and saving money on unplanned purchases. Loved the image I showed from being stylish, though I’m not sure how much others actually noticed.

For whatever reason, the feel of some new thing energized me and gave me a sort of high. A high I forgot and needed again as soon as the new became old.

I’m not sure when, but the same sort of fading of newness happened with my physical self too. I find myself wondering…

When did the physical weariness begin to rear its ugly head?

When did the groaning and sighing become so commonplace?

When did my desire to recuperate replace my desire to be active?

I’m not talking a negativity, really, but rather an increased awareness that feeling new and energized — like I used to in a new outfit — happens a lot less frequently in the physical sense now than it used to not too many years ago. My body simply doesn’t respond and renew physically like it did even 5 years ago. At the same time, my desire to focus there exists more for maintenance purposes now anyway.

When I read 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, I gain a better understanding of what’s likely happening. I’m becoming more aware of my earthly tent and its weaknesses. At times, I focus there and allow the number of my life as it increases toward finality to consume me. If I stay in that thinking, I get increasingly discouraged. But if I choose to dwell instead on God’s truth, I find tremendous encouragement once again. Specifically, I am renewed in my knowledge that…

I will have an eternal home in Heaven one day, one God Himself made.

The body I will have will be like wearing heavenly clothing, like putting on a new outfit but knowing the newness will never fade.

Not only did God prepare this eternity for me, He guarantees its reality through His Holy Spirit.

This reality — one more real than the physical one we live in now — not only encourages me, it gives me great confidence too. And this confidence…

Always exists even though I’m not yet in my real home.

Focuses on believing rather than seeing.

Provides motivation to always please the Lord.

The encouragement and confidence instilled by God’s truth in my heart through His Holy Spirit helps me turn my birthday focus from a melancholy perspective that feels overwhelmed by the current reality to one that aims to please God rather than self. One where the earthly weakness still exists but that matters less and less as eternal life draws increasingly near.

DISCUSSION: How does “believing is seeing” play out in your life?