The Toxic Impact of Multitasking

multitasking

My Multitasking Mistake

On a recent work task, I completed what I thought fell precisely in line with my directives. Instead, what I thought I needed to do was completely wrong. Not even close, actually. The mistake devastated me and threatened to send me into a dark, self-deprecating pit.

After the emotions wore off and I quit trying to blame someone else, I thought about my mistake and what led to it. Essentially, I performed a mental root cause analysis. I first tried to credit the error to the general excuse of miscommunication but realized that just lets everyone involved off the hook and doesn’t help much. So, in all honesty, I admitted that the cause of the mistake fell solely on myself, more specifically, on my attempt to multitask.

Instead of putting my full attention into a planning meeting, I got distracted by other tasks. The worst part? Well, there are two worst parts, actually. First, I wrote down the correct task needing completed. I just didn’t look at my notes because I failed to even remember I took them. Second, I thought this type of mistake existed only as a habit broken long ago. Clearly not.

The mistake serves as a reminder about the importance of maintaining focus, which impacts reality in significant ways.

multitasking-2

Focus Determines Reality

Not only does what you focus on determine the direction you take, but how many tasks you focus on does too. Focusing on multiple tasks at once divides and weakens your attention and productivity. It diminishes the quality of your efforts and slows overall progress.

Multitasking — originally a computer term — is technically impossible for humans. Our brains actually task flip, but it happens so quickly we can’t tell the difference. Computers can process several tasks at once. Humans cannot. Instead, as Jon Hamilton on NPR Morning Addition explains:

“Even simple tasks can overwhelm the brain if we try to do them all at once.”

“We frequently overestimate our ability to handle multiple tasks.”

I thought I’d beaten this bad habit of multitasking that contributed to my overwhelm and overload so many years ago and created the mediocre quality that eventually crept into every area of my life. And while it’s not fully returned, this backslide served to remind me of habits I need to refresh and reestablish if I am to maintain a right focus that in turn establishes the reality I desire for my life.

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The Mental Impact of Multitasking

In Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter, Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., calls multitasking toxic because it drains the brain, zaps cognitive resources and promotes early mental decline. Multitasking also decreases sharpness and increases cortisol, which can damage the memory center of the brain.

And those are just the long-term consequences. In the short term, multitasking overloads the brain, makes you less efficient, keeps thoughts at surface level and causes mistakes to occur more frequently.

Honestly, before experiencing the difference between a life filled with multitasking and one more oriented toward single-tasking, I did not buy into what Chapman asserts. Now, I realize the truth in how multitasking consumes a person’s mental resources to the point of almost complete ineffectiveness.

What toxic evidence of multitasking do you see in your life?

Next week we’ll explore the benefits of single-tasking and look at some basic habits to help get there.

How to Get Unstuck

stuck 2When our van got stuck in the snow years ago, it overheated and caught on fire when I tried to get it unstuck. In hindsight, I should have just waited for the tow truck my husband went to call. Not one of my better decisions.

Stuck in traffic. Stuck in the mud (or snow). Stuck in a rut.

Doesn’t matter what kind of stuck… Frustration grows the longer I’m stuck, whether mentally physically or spiritually. The more frustrated I become, the less patience I have, and the more stuck I feel.

Being stuck gets my emotions all riled up, and I simply become unable to make good decisions. Until the frustration, impatience and anger abate, I feel lost in an endless maze of emotions. So, feeling stuck too easily turns into more like being trapped unless I find a way to overcome the emotions and get unstuck.

For this reason, my first step when I feel stuck is to get out from under out-of-control emotions. Sometimes this means simply walking away from the situation if possible and letting the emotions abate. When physical space can’t happen, I try creating mental space through praying, reading, singing… whatever gets my mind off how I feel, which is rarely a good lens for handling a situation well.

After my emotions fade, I can see more clearly and am able to assess the situation and consider the root cause. I ask myself, “Why did I get stuck in the first place?”  Sometimes, the cause is simply a wrong turn. Other times, being stuck serves as a warning from my subconscious alerting me to a problem I might not recognize on my own.

stuck 1With our van incident, while a wrong turn led us to getting stuck, and my impatience resulted in a significantly worse situation, the whole incident alerted us to a problem with the vehicle’s electrical system.  In this case, we just lost the van, and no one was hurt. Had this particular situation not happened, we might have learned about the recall through a much worse scenario.

Once we have a better idea of what caused us to become stuck, we can make the best choice for how to wisely work through the problem. If a wrong turn is the cause, the best solution is usually to just get back on the right path. Sometimes this means getting help, and sometimes this means backtracking. Either way, simply accepting the loss — and apologizing if needed — is often the best way to get unstuck.

In the past when I’ve felt stuck, I’ve generally made one of two bad choices for dealing with being stuck. Sometimes, I got stubborn and pushed (forced my way) through to progress. Other times, I did nothing and simply wallowed in my doldrums. Both of these approaches ended the same way… chronic stuckness from never actually dealing with the root cause.

Over the years, I’ve learned that being stuck is not necessarily a bad thing. It brings me to a standstill, to a place where I am unable to proceed or go back, and that makes me stop and think. When I get out from under my emotions and find the root cause, I also discover needed adjustments I would not have seen had I not gotten stuck.

Getting stuck never feels good, regardless of the details. Yet when we realize that the best adjustments in our lives often come because we get stuck, we see the benefit to this unavoidable waiting. We begin to understand that progress often comes with forced course corrections largely because we often don’t stop to look for them otherwise.

DISCUSSION: How do you get unstuck?

Struggling With Patience

PatienceYears ago, I thought I had a patience problem. I needed more of it. So, I worked to be more patient. Unfortunately, trying to be more patient didn’t work all that well.

I then decided I instead had an anger problem. If I simply prevented anger, patience would increase. You know, walk away before anger gets out of control. Avoid trying situations that erode patience and promote frustration and anger. That didn’t work either.

My efforts toward increased patience and decreased anger weren’t a complete loss, though. I sometimes managed patience if I wasn’t hungry, tired or thirsty and if everything else was basically going my way and if it wasn’t too big of a deal and if the other person was obviously just being difficult, and if…

Honestly, consistency consistently eluded me with regard to patience.

At some point, I finally realized my struggles with patience stemmed from control issues — I wanted to control people and situations… yes, all of them. I lost my patience and replaced it with anger and frustration when that didn’t happen, which was most of the time.

Understanding Patience

We most often associate patience with putting up with another person, but it goes well beyond that. Patience also means waiting and not forcing a situation to happen according to your preferences.  Having patience means staying emotionally steady when a person doesn’t do what you expect or a situation doesn’t happen as you expect.

Patience involves making a decision to not force a situation, to instead wait and let it happen — or not — as it will. Having patience and not insisting on your will requires faith as a way to not simply get through something but to instead know the Lord will direct your actions (Proverbs 16:9).

Patience involves a refusal to insist on your own way. It means letting others make mistakes because that’s the only way they’ll realize they’re mistakes and because you want the same to happen when you make mistakes. It means forgiving when a person doesn’t know they should be sorry or knows and simply isn’t sorry.

Patience toward people and circumstances often requires knowing what your emotions want and choosing to head in the opposite direction. It means employing flexibility to the utmost of your limits.

Don’t Force The Situation

Somewhere along the way, I learned to tell myself “Don’t force it” when patience evaded my grasp and anger and frustration took its place. This motto enforces patience and reminds me to wait even when my feelings want to push and pull and control.

“Don’t force it” provides a practice that receives reinforcement through remembering all the times I did the opposite and found myself overwhelmed and overloaded in getting what I wanted only to discover it was not what I needed or that it distanced me from those I loved.

“Don’t force it” is a determination that keeps me from getting ahead of God and discovering I left His presence behind for the benefits of His promises (Exodus 33). It’s a reminder to let Him be God and to follow His leading.

Psalm 37

Focus Determines Reality

Patience says you trust God to work in another’s heart and mind to their benefit and His glory (Romans 15:5). It says you trust Him to present opportunities as you actively wait in what you already know to do.

It means placing an inner stillness over your desire to control and to instead focus on His presence. It’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit we make room for as we deny the flesh (Galatians 5:22).

Patience exists as an attribute, a requirement really, of truly loving others (1 Corinthians 13:4). It’s a habit that flourishes in simplicity of living (James 5:7). It’s an aspect of the Lord’s character we must pursue as we focus on who He is, not just what He does.

Victory In The Struggle

Patience now exists with consistency in my life, now that I know the root cause isn’t a lack of patience or an abundance of anger but a control issue. Sure, patience needed to increase and anger needed to decrease (and sometimes they both still do), but I now realize neither of those could happen until my need to control others and situations diminished.

Until my focus turned away from my own efforts and instead fixed on the One who holds all control, my reality remained in the muck and mire of out-of-control emotions.

Knowing He has ultimate control over all aspects of life brings me peace. Knowing He gives wisdom and guidance in every moment of life produces staying confidence. And knowing His Spirit plants and cultivates patience within me allows me to focus on the victory within the struggle.

DISCUSSION: How have you struggled with patience? How have you found victory over it?

Struggling with Expectations

Note: This post was originally published on July 11, 2012 under the title “Could This Be Your Biggest Source of Irritation, Frustration and Even Anger?” It has been revised and updated significantly.

Expectations Are a Part of Life

Though my boys left elementary school years ago, I still remember the grading system used for their report cards.

  • BE = below expectations
  • ME = meets expectations
  • AE = approaching expectations
  • EE = exceeds expectations

In a college communication class I took years ago, the professor asked for our expectations on a particular assignment. Most students said, “I don’t have any.” Upon completion of the assignment, the teacher asked if expectations were met, and students answered either “yes” or “no.” The teacher then asked, “How can your expectations be met or not met if you didn’t have any to begin with?”

Anyone in sales knows that business revolves around meeting customer expectations. As Curtis Fletcher says in Creating Customer Expecta…, every aspect of a business creates expectations, from the tag line, to the company name, to the web site.

From business to education to personal relationships, expectations direct every area of life.

Analyzing Expectations

“Expectations are beliefs that spring from a person’s thought process when examining evidence.” (“What does the Bible say about expectations?” at GotQuestions.org)

With that definition in mind, consider that…

  • Expectations are often formed automatically and without effort.
  • Expectations are often unknown until they’re unmet.
  • Expectations are not always requirements, but we often treat them as such.
  • Expectations set standards that are often not agreed upon by those involved.
  • Expectations can be reasonable and still go unmet.

If you analyze your irritation, frustration and anger at any given time, in most instances you’d likely discover the root cause to be unmet expectations. And if you fail to adjust how you operate within these expectations, they’ll eventually wreak havoc in your life.

To avoid the chaos expectations often create, start by realizing that expectations become irritations, frustrations and anger when they are…

  • Unmet
  • Unrealistic
  • Unfair
  • Unset
  • Unclear

When we simply let the resulting emotions (irritation, frustration and anger) bubble up without assessing from whence they came, we’ll constantly find ourselves caught in the struggle that expectations create when left to their own devices. In other words, we need to deliberately make a point to understand and clarify expectations.

Expectations As Fuel for Healthy Relationships

We can’t escape the fact that expectations exist and that they are often the nemesis to healthy relationships. But they don’t have to be. Instead, the existence of expectations can fuel our communication, which can strengthen and deepen relationships. Expectations, especially when clarified and agreed upon, can actually help direct action toward progress.

Consider the following points to help clarify expectations in a way that can strengthen relationships, whether with your spouse, kids, coworkers or customers.

  • Understanding other people’s expectations takes work.
  • Telling someone your expectations takes courage.
  • Discussing expectations is often appropriate and necessary.
  • Writing down expectations can help clarify them.
  • Flexibility must accompany expectations.

Expectations must be acknowledged and communicated if they are to be a positive force in relationships. Yet, even with all our efforts toward communication of expectations, we still will regularly deal with the unexpected.

Expect the Unexpected

To ward off the negative impact of unmet expectations, we need to learn to expect the unexpected in the form of disappointments as well as surprises, unmet as well as exceeded expectations. They are a part of life because expectations are a part of life.

As we expect the unexpected, we can expect expectations to sometimes be unmet, unrealistic, unfair, unset and unclear because that is their nature. We can also learn to decrease the gap between expectations and reality as we learn to communicate better with those around us.

DISCUSSION: What is the most helpful piece of advice you have for managing expectations?

This post was inspired by the comments of Mark Allman in the post Happy Anniversary.

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5 Ways to Upgrade Your Attitude

The word “upgrade” leaped to a whole new level in the world of marketing over the past several of years. When you go on a cruise to the Caribbean, you’re encouraged to “upgrade your diamonds.” At pretty much any time after you’ve purchased a cell phone, you have the opportunity to “upgrade your device.” Fashion magazines also constantly encourage you to “upgrade your look” in one way or another.

Everywhere we look, we have the opportunity to go to the next level, to upgrade in some way. The question that I find myself asking is, “Am I spending my efforts going to the next level in the areas that truly matter?”

At some point, we all feel the need for a new direction or even a new beginning. Whether we’ve become overwhelmed by overload, saturated with stress or defeated by disaster, we sometimes simply feel like a whole new start or even a remodel of some area of our lives will give us the renewal we need to finally make progress instead of constantly spinning our wheels.

Yet most of the upgrades offered serve only to give us that “fresh” feeling temporarily. In time, the new becomes old, and we find ourselves once again in need of another upgrade. Fortunately, one area exists where an upgrade comes guaranteed to positively impact all of life.

An attitude upgrade brings a fresh start to those who feel stale and defeated. An attitude upgrade, if developed and maintained in a deliberate an intentional way, brings renewal to anyone’s outlook.

5 Ways to Upgrade Your Attitude

Developing and maintaining a godly attitude could be the upgrade that changes your life permanently.

  1. Let yourself be renewed. (Ephesians 4:22) Be teachable, flexible and willing to change. Allow yourself to be renewed by staying open to others speaking into your life and to new ideas and approaches for growth.
  2. Acknowledge and repent of bad attitudes. (Acts 8:22; Genesis 4:6-7; Numbers 14:1-4) Let go of pride and admit areas of struggle. Confess the areas your attitude slides, and open yourself to renewal.
  3. Discipline your thought life. (2 Corinthians 10:5; Philippians 4:8; Philippians 1:20-25) Choose positive input and allow it to push out the negative. Remember that a key in any discipline involves constant, deliberate and intentional effort.
  4. Understand the relationship between attitude and emotions. (Habakkuk 3:17-19) Nothing derails a positive attitude more easily and more often than emotions. The Bible tells us we are to choose to rejoice no matter our circumstances. That choice may need made place every minute at times, but we allow our emotions to only exist as gauges and not pilots.
  5. Consider how your attitude affects others. This area of attitude adjustment provides tremendous motivation when we realize that our kids, co-workers, family, friends, spouse, and other Christians as well as non-Christians pay attention to our attitudes. We are setting examples and sending messages through our attitude, action and words.

When you’re tired, hungry or sick, what happens to your attitude? When your day (or week or month or year) is particularly stressful with little (if any) relief, is it okay to let your attitude slip?

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)

We all need attitude upgrades. We all must choose to get to the root cause, which generally originates in the heart where our intentions lie. We must intentionally take steps, such as the ones listed above, to improve the aroma of our hearts (our attitudes). Doing serves to upgrade our attitudes, which in turn upgrades our lives in increasingly significant and probably unpredictable and uncountable ways.

For a scripture study on attitude, check out Everyday Attitude.

DISCUSSION: What is the aroma of your heart? What changes can you make to create a better scent?

Patience is a Virtue

PatienceHeraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 535-475BC, made the following connection between patience and character.

“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”

This quote connects well with one of my personal life philosophies.

“Small steps taken gradually and consistently add up over time to make a huge difference.”

The role patience plays in solid character brings to mind the phrase “patience is a virtue.” This well-known saying comes from the poem “Piers Plowman” written somewhere between 1360-1387 by William Langland.

A virtue is “behavior showing high moral standards.” So this statement, written almost 1000 years ago, equates patience to being a way we can show the state of our morality, or as Heraclitus calls it, our “good character.”

Patience exists as one of the biggest struggles of my life, and I don’t believe I stand alone in this struggle. For these reasons, I want to take a few posts to look at what Scripture says about patience. We won’t get to every point made about patience in the Bible, but we’ll go far enough for immediate and far-reaching impact.

What is patience?

Two different Greek words are used in Scripture for patience.

Galatians 5:22 (the list of the fruit of the Spirit) uses the word “makrothumia” for patience. This word focuses on love for and patience with others.

Romans 5:3 (part of a discussion about peace and hope) uses the word “hupomone” for patience. This word connects patience with hope, such as what we have through our salvation.

Both of these perspectives on patience get at the idea of long-suffering, forbearance, long-tempered, perseverance, constancy and steadfastness (all words used in various Bible translations in place of the above Greek words). Also, both call upon the mind to hold back before expressing itself in action or passion.

Both “makrothumia” and “hupomone” involve using self-control to refrain from letting emotions and feelings direct actions. As a whole concept, patience in the Bible drives home the idea of making choices that reflect our “good character” and our “high moral standards” even when we feel like doing quite the opposite.

One aspect of patience that I find fascinating involves how different it looks from one person to the next. Observing both my husband and myself in our daily lives illustrates this fact quite well, but so does a simple trip to the grocery store. Some people just seem to have an inner disposition toward patience while struggle is obvious for the rest of us.

What’s also interesting is that even though patience comes more easily for some, every person has limits. Those limits exist because of our humanness. Boxer Mike Tyson captured the idea this way:

“Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”

What is impatience?

Impatience, according to the Dictionary of Bible Themes, is “a refusal to wait for people or developments, frequently displaying a lack of faith.” Biblical examples of impatience include Esau, Moses, Israel & Saul.

Personally, I describe my history with patience as “consistently inconsistent.” Sounds better than saying I’m often impatient, don’t you think? However it’s said, my impatience shows up consistently when…

    • I lack control over a person or situation.
    • I’m uncomfortable or worn out physically or mentally.
    • My expectations go unmet.
    • I make false assumptions.
    • I fail to forgive someone.
    • I’m hungry.
    • I’ve neglected the other fruit (Galatians 5:5).

Even though patience exists as one of my greatest struggles in life, it also lives as one of my greatest victories. When I realize the progress made in uncountable small steps, I fully understand just how much protracted effort developing a patient character requires.

At the same time, I’m painfully aware of how inadequate I am at becoming consistently patient. On my own, I’m sporadic at best. While I’ve learned that patience comes gradually, I’ve also learned I need a lot of help in cultivating it. In the next post, we’ll look at what that help — really, a partnership — looks like.

DISCUSSION: What does your story of patience look like?

BE Encouraged

God gives Christians a variety of ways to receive encouragement, including through scripture, through the Holy Spirit and through fellowship with other Christians. All of these provide consistent and bountiful resources of encouragement for His children.

Even in this abundance, we’ve all come across a brother or sister who simply refuses to be encouraged. They’re usually identified by the words “Yeah, but…” in response to any sort of verbal encouragement and often appear blind to any other sort of encouragement.

With total transparency here, I must admit I’ve been that person way too often. Not only have I refused verbal encouragement at times, I could hardly stand to be in an encouraging atmosphere (worship service, for example).

At its heart, failure to be encouraged through the ways God offers encouragement exists as an issue of obedience. We can’t escape the truth that Scripture does in fact command us to “be encouraged.”

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

What I notice most about these and the many other Scripture about encouragement is that the focus of an encouraged individual lies outside of the self. In fact, the focus lies specifically on the Lord.

During the times I’ve refused to be encouraged, my focus fell on myself — my feelings and my emotions — rather than on what God has done, what he’s doing, and what he says he’ll do. The first nine verses of Psalm 77 show this state of mind, the one we find ourselves stuck in when we are discouraged.

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

When we choose to focus on God instead of our feelings and emotions, we’ll experience a building confidence for the present and the future. We’ll realize that experiencing discouragement is inevitable, but being encouraged is a choice. The transition in Psalm 77, verses 10-12, shows this switch of focus.

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

The rest of Psalm 77, verses 13-20, then take us through all there is to focus on with regard to God — His activity, His holiness & power, redemption and His creation. In doing so, we discover much-needed encouragement.

Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Turning our focus to God as Psalm 77 illustrates helps us find peace in chaos and to discover courage as we wait for God’s timing. Moving our focus from emotions and feelings toward God and His might, power and goodness, allow us to move forward in confidence because we know God goes with us as our constant source of encouragement.

DISCUSSION: If you dwell in discouragement, how can the encouragement God offers help you move forward?

Some Days…

Some days, all my writing sounds terrible Everything I write makes no sense; in fact, it’s horrible. This isn’t writer’s block, I promise. I could write for hours. Just some days, the words only sound stupid and useless. Like today.

way wrongToday, my inner self wants so desperately to write something meaningful, even profound. But the words that come out are trivial and childish. Today, I feel like giving up on dreams of becoming a successful writer (whatever that means). And when I let my imagination wander down this road, I always arrive at the same conclusion — What would I do if I did not write?

You see, I know writing is my calling. At some level, I’ve always known this to be true. Just some days, my heart and my head fail to connect in carrying out this calling. Some days, I lack the faith to walk down the path of God’s leading. Today is that kind of day.

cagedWhen I meet with this kind of day, which happens infrequently but still with some regularity, two very strong emotions rise to the top. The first is fear. Old feelings of depression and pointlessness surface on days like today, and I fear returning to my old life in the pit. The second is desperation. A part of me starts pacing like a caged animal desperately wanting what it sees standing outside the cage.

Only, I can’t exactly see what’s standing outside the cage. I know it represents hope and increased faith and removal of fear, but I can’t quite focus on the specifics. All I seem to be able to hone in on is the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that says I’m trapped.

You might not be a writer, but that doesn’t matter. Just insert whatever description you have for your calling, and I’m certain you have days like I’m having today. At least, I assume this is a common human experience and not a corner of the world that only I know exists. Right?

Everyone has desperate days where they wonder if they missed a lane change somewhere or perhaps even took a wrong turn. Either we have these days and we know we have them, or we have them but have mastered the art of busyness to keep us from admitting we have them.

Since we all have had them and will have them again, the only question that remains then is “What do we do about them?”

What I feel like doing is hurling my computer across the room because it fails to put into words the ideas and thoughts and musings of my heart. Yet, I know the regret and shame that would soon follow, and so I refrain. What, then, is left?

First, I make sure I’m physically at my baseline. This means assessing if I’m hydrated, properly nourished and not overly tired. And where possible, I make needed adjustments.

Second, while all of Scripture exists as a guide for living a Godly life, most Christians have a “go to” verse or chapter or even book that always provide not only a place to rest but a place to reset. For me, that’s the book of Isaiah. I read the highlighted portions, sometimes stopping to read around them too, and if that doesn’t bring relief, I venture into other highlighted areas of Scripture.

Third, and really this exists infused within the other two, is prayer. While I feel what I’m feeling and as I try to convey those feelings in writing, a part of me prays for relief. I ask for the answer for this sudden onslaught of anxiety and fear and if not the answer, then simply relief.

Beyond these, I must refuse to think. Because if I allow my thoughts to further internalize what I am feeling, that’s when vain imaginations begin to take me down some very dark and all-to-familiar paths. Sometimes, if I am to focus on facts over feelings, that means simply not allowing myself to dwell on my feelings.

DISCUSSION: What do you do when you have days like this?

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What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

God's way 1One spouse quits a marriage. A child rebells. A friend refuses to reconcile differences. A boss pushes productivity levels.

We all – likely too often – find ourselves in situations like these where we feel stunned, frozen and helpless, and we hear these words come out of our mouths in desperation, “I don’t know what to do.”

Ever felt that way? Ever said those very words?

When this happens, I must admit that what I initially want to do is turn on the television or open a book and get lost in a made-up world. You know, pretend my life — and especially my problem — doesn’t exist. I’ve chosen that path many times before, and it works… but only temporarily. Eventually, panic comes back.

Recently when I said the words “I don’t know what to do,” I actually received a helpful answer, one that changed my way of thinking about situations that leave a person feeling at a loss, especially when that person is a Christian. That response? “Do what you can. Do what you know to do.”

My pastor gave me this advice and then elaborated a bit and reminded me that as Christians, we have some very specific activity we always know to do even when a situation seems impossible.

  1. God's Way_scripturePray. From short, spontaneous prayers like Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:4) prayed when King Artexerses gave him opportunity to share his troubles to lengthy sessions such as the one recorded in Psalm 88, prayer always exists as an option.
  2. Ask for prayer. Quit thinking you have to go through troubles alone… God wants us to pray for and with each other (James 5:16).
  3. Read Scripture. Get God’s thoughts on situations from the everyday ones to the impossible ones. Psalm 119:105 says God’s Word is a light for our path, so turn on the light!
  4. Watch where you lean. My own understanding when in a struggle, at least initially, is usually wrought with emotion. And when I’m emotional, I don’t think clearly and can’t see anything but the problem. Getting God’s perspective, through Godly counsel and Scripture, gives us a place of strength on which to lean. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
  5. Give thanks. So many examples of prayer in Scripture involve spending time thanking God. If you’re not sure why this is, spend a few minutes simply giving thanks for all He’s done for you and all He promises for His people, and you’ll soon realize why giving thanks is such an important activity during a struggle. (Philippians 4:6-7)
  6. Guard your thoughts. Doubt and loneliness rise up at their strongest during a crisis. Don’t allow your thoughts to dwell in the pit. Instead, focus on God’s promises recorded in Scripture. (Philippians 4:8-9)
  7. Wait. Looking again to Nehemiah, we know he waited four months from the time he felt a burden for his people in Jerusalem until the opportunity to ask for the King’s help. Nehemiah didn’t force the issue; instead, he kept doing his job (what he knew to do) and trusted that God would give him the opportunity to act. (Nehemiah 1-2)

Unfortunately, my quality of thinking easily goes down the drain when the emotions of a helplessness hit (especially if I’m tired or hungry and definitely if I’m both). I need reminded of right thinking, which then makes way for the peace of God.

When we finally realize that the statement, “I don’t know what to do,” simply isn’t true for Christians, we see a whole new place of victory even during the struggles of life.

DISCUSSION: What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

The Babel of Unity

Babel

Most Christians know that God desires unity. We’ve also likely experienced the effects of disunity on individual as well as group effectiveness. So we get the basic concept that unity is good, and disunity is bad. Right?

Then enters the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. The people build this tower, working together in unity with one language, only to discover that God is displeased. Why? What about their unity upset God?

Here’s the point… While God does desire unity among believers, he does not want it at the expense of our obedience to Him.

To help understand this truth, let’s consider the following points from the story:

  1. The people settled in one place when they knew God wanted them to spread out and populate the earth.
  2. The people focused on “building a name” for themselves rather than on obeying God.
  3. Left alone, the people only focused inwardly rather than on God’s bigger purposes.
  4. The people were led astray by ungodly leaders.

In that basic outline of the story, I see my own struggle with remembering what God desires of me and with keeping His will as my focus at all times. And this struggle is not because God’s directives are too big or overwhelming. It’s because I’m an imperfect human being with a part of me that wants to go and do and be all on my own. I want to say and do what I want when I want, and I sometimes balk at this idea of obedience to anyone else’s way.

Reading stories like the Tower of Babel, along with the many others in the Old Testament, I realize how much human nature does not change. In these stories, I see how my life might play out should I continue to settle where I want, build a name for myself, and focus inwardly. So it helps me tremendously to think through these stories, ones I’ve heard and read many times during and since my childhood days in Sunday school, and draw lessons to help me avoid the same mistakes others have made.

With that, consider the following application points drawn from the Old Testament story of The Tower of Babel.

  1. Arrogance and pride lead to thinking we can match and even exceed God’s wisdom. (Proverbs 16:18)
  2. Desire for self-sufficiency leads to rebellion. (Isaiah 65:2)
  3. Building anything through relying on our own efforts rather than on God alone is futile. (Psalm 62:5-8)
  4. Be careful of following others into disobedience. (James 4:4)
  5. God will step in to diffuse rebellion. (Genesis 11:5-9)

When I think of the times in my life when I lost my focus on God, I usually (always?) replaced that focus with selfishness and independence. I also stopped moving forward, and I planted my feet in order to establish myself. I looked to my own wisdom and ability to achieve success, and I simply followed the whims of my fickle emotions.

Let’s be clear on one point, though: God always intervenes when his people head down the path of disobedience. The problem is, we don’t always notice his activity because we’re too inwardly focused. And the more we ignore Him, the less sensitive we become to His voice, and the more blind we are to our arrant ways. Eventually, God simply leaves us to our own devices (Romans 1:24).

BUT, if we listen to His still, small voice, and if we acknowledge our wrong ways and simply, as Bob Newhart says, “Stop it!”, we can avoid the confusion that comes into our lives when we take the path lined with arrogance, pride and rebellion. When we turn our focus back toward God, we’ll experience a rushing return of his grace and mercy, and his blessings once again will begin to flow in our lives.

But don’t take my word for it, take God’s word for it.

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

DISCUSSION: Can you think of additional application from the story of the Tower of Babel?

 For another take on the story of The Tower of Babel, see Loren Pinilis’ post “Why God May Oppose Your New Year’s Resolutions.”

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