5 Ways to Strengthen Your Prayer Life

A Common Concern

A common spiritual concern I hear goes something like,

“How do I get better at praying?”

Sure, it’s worded slightly different from person to person. It also sometimes comes in the form of a statement such as,

“I’m just not very good at praying.”

My response varies in detail and length depending on time constraints the person’s receptivity. As a whole, though, addressing this concern usually contains all or part of 5 recommendations.

5 Ways to Strengthen Your Prayer Life

These 5 recommendations, simply come from my own experience with answering the question for myself.

1. Pray Scripture

Though there are lots more, look at Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-19 & 4:14-19 as well as Colossians 1:9-14 for content to include in your own prayers. I actually have these marked in my Bible for this purpose. Be on the look out for other Scripture that you can use for your own prayers, whether the structure, content or both.

2. Read Scripture

Christians need a steady diet of God’s Word. A daily habit. This is sort of like eating regular meals and having a regular sleep schedule for maintaining a baseline of physical health. Reading the Bible daily maintains a baseline of spiritual health on which you can grow. Reading Scripture keeps you in tune with God’s heart and mind, like a healthy diet maintains physical homeostasis.

3. Study Scripture

This point gets at having a broader approach to studying the Bible as a whole. It involves regular, systematic Bible study. This can be doing a Bible study someone else wrote, or it can simply mean studying a book of the Bible in a structured way. Studying Scripture is in addition to daily reading of Scripture, though they can be combined. Systematic Bible study is how you grow spiritually.

Think of the health of your various relationships. How close you are to another person and how much a particular relationship deepens depends on the amount of quality time you spend together. Your relationship with God is no different. If you want your discussions with him (your prayer life) to grow and become stronger, then you have to consistently spend time with him.

4. Study Prayer

This gets at the idea of doing an intense look at the topic of prayer in the Bible. Studying prayer means looking up all the stories/verses that specifically mention prayer in some way to gain an understanding of the big picture regarding prayer. You can do this with any topic in the Bible, and it will help you tune into God’s heart and mind on that particular topic.

You can even do this on a smaller scale if you want. Take what is known as The Lord’s Prayer for example. Understanding that Jesus provided this as an example of how to pattern our prayers can really help transform your prayer life. See what I mean by checking out The Lords Prayer — An Outline for All of Our Prayers.

5. Be Led

Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you in progressing in your prayer life. Then, allow yourself to be led. In other words, be obedient to his leading. Don’t resist. This means making a habit of listening. So often, we pray to God but fail to listen for his response.

God responds in so many ways, from promptings through the Holy Spirit and insight gained as we read and study the Bible. God sometimes works through other people too, so be open to hearing from others through what other people say and do. Get in the habit of listening FOR God’s response at least as much as God listens to what you have to say.

Tools are Secondary

There are a lot of books and other tools (web sites, apps, etc.) about prayer available too. But, they are secondary to Scripture. If you’re not doing the above, then any tool you use or book you read will have minimal impact on your spiritual growth.

However, if you’re regularly reading and studying God’s Word, then additional tools can supplement those habits. For example, I regularly use a prayer journal or list to help me stay focused in my daily prayers. What I write in/on these often flows out of what I read in the Bible and how that connects with what’s going on in my life.

There are certainly a lot of good books on prayer as well as many terrific articles on the Internet. They can certainly help us see prayer from different perspectives and applications. However, avoid letting what others say about anything in the Bible be your first and primary source of what God has to say. In other words, make sure God’s Word — the Bible — is your primary source of what God has to say.

Progress Over Perfection

As with anything spiritual, remember that the goal is progress over perfection. So, keep taking steps of progress. Along the way, rejoice in how God is faithfully maturing you. Then give him the glory for what he’s doing in your life.

Refocusing on Christ

Should & Could But Don’t

There’s so much information available telling us what we should be doing and how we could be improving our lives. Just take a look at the self-help books currently on shelves, virtual or otherwise, not to mention the many Internet resources dedicated to the task.

With all these resources telling us what we could and should do, self-improvement can seem impossible. Even when we find ways we actually want to change and techniques that would work, we still often just don’t do them.

Why? Too much work. The pain of staying where we are still isn’t bigger than the pain of changing. Or, maybe you’ve taken some of the advice, and implemented change. After a while, though, you find yourself back to your old habits and way of thinking.

This happens with Scripture too. We read it. We know what we should do. But, we don’t do it. Paul describes this struggle well.

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15-19)

Refocus Your Identity

If I dwell on how much I should do and could do but don’t do, I get overwhelmed. Discouragement usually follows. And eventually, I simply feel like a failure.

For many, the solution involves just not thinking about it. Just don’t consider the changes you should and could make. Stay ignorant. Stay conveniently confused. Stay too busy.

My personality doesn’t generally allow for this. It prefers ruminating about how much I haven’t done and then succumbing to depression and defeat.

Whatever your tendency, be sure of this. If you never do any of what you should or could do, you’re accepted, secure and significant. Even if you somehow managed to do all of what you think you should or could do, you’re not any more or less accepted, secure, and significant.

When you accepted Christ as Savior and made him Lord of your life, you were fully justified — declared righteous — at that moment. Your Identity In Christ is secure. Nothing else you can or think you should do will make you any more accepted, secure and significant than you were at that moment. With that realization comes an amazing peace.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)

Refocus on Jesus

That doesn’t mean we can ignore how we should and could improve. But, it does change our motivation for doing so. With that motivation change comes a refocus on progress toward perfection — on progressive sanctification.

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

This is the process of spiritual growth. In general, it involves letting the Holy Spirit work change in us and then doing our part to live out that change.

Train yourself to be godly.” (1 Timothy 4:7)

Even that process can seem overwhelming at times. But that’s usually when we focus on ourselves; at least, that’s my continual struggle. In fact, the only way I’ve been able to maintain consistency in living the fact that I am accepted, secure and significant is by focusing on Christ.

“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Today as I again struggle with feeling out of balance and out of sync, I am reminded yet again that I am still accepted, secure and significant. So, instead of letting depression or anxiety or defeat take over again, I remember my secure position and turn once more back toward the reason it exists.

Strengths & Weaknesses

My awareness of what this culture values significantly impacts the value I place on my strengths and weaknesses. Really, it all too often determines what I believe is a strength or a weakness.

When I focus on what the world defines as valuable, my weaknesses seem abundant. My strengths? What strengths?

Strength in Weakness

Continually, the Holy Spirit draws me back to what the Bible says about my weaknesses and strengths.

“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

In this drawing, I again realize again that I am accepted (1 John 3:1), secure (Jeremiah 29:11) and significant (John 15:16) regardless of how I define my strengths and weaknesses.

I also re-remember that my gifts, talents and abilities exist to glorify God. They’re not for competition or comparison or accolades.

My Identity in Christ must define me. Not my weaknesses. Not my strengths. Not my culture. Not my own thinking.

Continually draw me back to your truth, Lord, to how you define me.

Practicing Righteousness

What is Righteousness?

Like faithfulness, many people struggle with the concept of righteousness. It’s a very churchy-sounding word, after all, and can seem overwhelming, even impossible. Because it feels impossible, many think “Why bother?”

I sometimes feel the weight of the seeming impossibility of righteousness. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit always brings me back to a right focus.

“Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he (Jesus) is righteous.” (1 John 3:7)

Righteousness is a way of living, a way of imitating Jesus based on the divine, moral law given in the Bible. That at its core means we do what God says we should do and live how He wants us to live.

What’s more, practicing righteousness means show I am already considered righteous. This only inflames my inner conflict with righteousness because being righteous, by definition, means I am free from guilt and sin, that I am justified. I don’t feel that way a lot of the time.

Of course, the conflict I express comes when I attempt righteousness all on my own. Not possible. I know this both by my many failures and by what the Bible says of the matter.

Righteousness Exemplified

One activity that helped me better understand righteousness was reading about the first person ever called righteous in the Bible. There’s a good trivia question for you. Know who it is?

“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time.” (Genesis 6:9)

Now, we know Noah wasn’t perfect, at least not of his own accord (Genesis 9:20-22). So what made him righteous… blameless?

If you read all of Genesis 6, you get a solid picture of why Noah found favor and why God considered Him righteous. Three reasons stand out that help me understand how to practice my own righteousness.

1. Noah refused to live according to the culture around him.

Noah was willing to stand out and did not succumb to the evil in the world around him. He alone kept God’s standards.

“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart… But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:5-8)

2. Noah had a relationship with God; he spent time with Him.

“Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)

Like his grandfather Enoch (Genesis 5:21-24), Noah spent time with God. Unlike his grandfather who eventually simply “was not, for God took him,” Noah had more that God wanted him to accomplish on earth.

3. Noah did what God asked him to do, even when doing so went against human logic.

Though it had never rained, God told Noah to build a boat and put animals in it. Noah’s response?

“Noah did according to all that God had commanded him.” (Genesis 6:22)

Noah’s faith in God is obvious by his obedience.

This post is not a comprehensive study of Noah or of righteousness. The point of this post is to instead help each one of us take steps toward increased understanding of what righteousness looks like in a believer’s life.

Practicing Righteousness

To continue on that journey, spend time with God in His Word. Ask Him to help you walk in righteousness. Study the lives of the many other individuals in the Bible described as righteous, and consider doing a word study on righteousness itself.

The following truths will help you get started. Be sure to read through their accompanying Bible references.

  1. God is completely righteous. (Isaiah 45:21-24)
  2. We can’t be righteous on our own. (Isaiah 64:6)
  3. Human nature is the opposite of righteousness. (Romans 3:10-18)
  4. Righteousness is not attained by works. (Romans 4:18-25)
  5. Law following does not make us righteous. (Galatians 3:11-21)
  6. Righteousness protects the core of a person. (Ephesians 6:14)
  7. Righteousness comes through faith. (Philippians 3:9)
  8. Grow in righteousness by studying God’s words. (2 Timothy 3:16)
  9. Righteousness ought to characterize a believer’s life. (1 Peter 2:24)

Think about how these truths played out in Noah’s life and in the lives of others considered righteous. Realize that while we are declared righteousness, living it is not a one and done attainment but a continual way of living that flows out of a relationship with God as faith in Him grows.

In studying righteousness, or God’s faithfulness or any other topic in the Bible, always remember that we are on the road to perfection, to holiness. We journey that road through small steps that add up over time to make a huge difference. Keep taking those steps and following the path God has set before you.

Social Connection… Not Easy But Best

Because introversion is a dominant part of my personality, I used to believe I did not need much social interaction. In fact, I once bragged I could go days without talking to anyone outside of my immediate family.

Gradually, I realized that just because I can doesn’t mean I should. What changed my mind? Three insights.

Introverted ≠ Anti-Social

After reading a lot about introverted personalities, and helping others learn How to Interact with an Introvert, I realized there are a lot of misconceptions about introverts. Unfortunately, I had bought into many of those misconceptions and turned them into excuses for living fully in my introversion.

First, just because so much is happening inside an introvert, as opposed to extraverts whose activity is much more visible, does not mean introverts don’t need to interact externally too. Introverts tend to prefer one-on-one or small group social interaction instead of large groups, but they do need interaction.

Also, the interaction introverts do have, and it is usually less than extraverts, tends to involve less small talk and to instead focus on more in-depth interactions. And after any social interaction, introverts need to recharge with alone time. That’s where we get our energy. Extraverts seem energized by the interaction itself.

Being alone is much easier for me than engaging in social interaction. But as my kids would tell me if they heard me say that, “Easier isn’t always better.”

In fact, most people are some combination of extravert and introvert, known as ambivert. This means that the vast majority of us need some level of alone time and some level of social interaction. It’s just different for everyone.

I finally realized I was taking the easier route, and it wasn’t better. I was often lonely, and I knew this was not how I wanted to live my life.

Social Interaction = Healthier Aging

The second insight came inadvertently. In an attempt to put more variety into my reading selections, I subscribe to a few different RSS feeds. One article sent me on an unexpected quest.

Let the “Black Mirror” References Fly: Britain Has a Ministry for Loneliness

The article initially caught my attention because I wondered what “Black Mirror” was. (In the article, Black Mirror refers to a show on Netflix.) I finished the article and forgot about this reference, instead focusing on how a country’s government would allocate funding toward making sure people are less lonely.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, or carers, by those who have lost loved ones, people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts or experiences with.” (British Prime Minister Theresa May)

The brief article also provided these, to me, startling research findings:

  • Approximately 42.6 million Americans over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.
  • People with social connection have 50% lower risk of dying early.
  • Studies suggest that isolation and living alone impact a person’s risk for early death.
  • Loneliness is worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Additional research on my part showed these findings are accurate. The Brits were on to something, and I wanted in. After all, one of my life goals is to age gracefully, and now I saw that a healthy social life was a major key for that to happen.

God Encourages Fellowship

Even in my regular Bible studies over the years, I somehow managed to neglect the importance God places on fellowship. By no means does that mean a lack of awareness on my part. I knew what Scripture said about fellowship, but I foolishly thought that my minimal interactions fulfilled what God wanted.

The Holy Spirit used the above insights about introversion and loneliness combined with reintroducing me to what God’s Word says about fellowship to redirect the social focus of my life.

“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25)

There are many additional Scripture advocating for the connection we are to have to one another as Christians and to the benefits gained from that fellowship. So, really no surprise to find out that we are physically tied to the benefits of connection with others too.

What finalized the need to shore up my social life is how I finally really saw Jesus’ own interactons during his 3-year ministry.

  • Jesus took time to be alone while also making time with others a priority.
  • He never showed annoyance at those wanting his attention as he was walking from one place to another or as he was speaking to crowds.
  • He spent a great deal of time with his small group, his disciples.

Jesus’ examples combined with the many other references to fellowship in Scripture make me simply unable to deny the importance of social interaction for my own life any longer.

Be More Social!

Likely, I’ll always struggle with social interaction to some extent. Yet, I feel I will struggle less so now that I understand how intertwined it is with our physical and spiritual health.

One of my current goals is to “Be more social!” I realize this goal is much less than what experts recommend for goal setting. It’s not specific or measurable. Yet, I’ve still made progress with it. That progress comes because of the motivation, the “Why?” that pushes me onward.

Ultimately, the “Why?” is to finally live in obedience in this area of my life. It also involves knowing that God encourages social interaction because He knows it makes this race of life better for everyone, much like running with a friend increases our endurance. Having research back up the benefits of social interaction is akin to God putting an exclamation point on my goal.

Social interaction is not easy for me. But, it is important, crucial actually. So, I push toward this goal every day, letting my “Why?” lead me ever on to the best way over the easy one.

Instauration

God Speaks to Us

God speaks to us in unique and varied ways. The Bible provides many examples of this.

Beyond Scripture, the lives of many Christians today hold testimony of how God still speaks to each one of us. Mine included.

One way God speaks to me regularly is through the variety of items I read, from books and periodicals to blog posts and news stories. He makes connections between the ideas in those and the truths in His Word as well as with the activity of my life.

What follows is an example of how this happens. This is meant not as a prescription for how God speaks to a person but as a way to expand your ideas of how God may be working in your life.

“Cool Words”

My mom and I have looked for interesting words ever since she talked me into playing Scrabble with her when I was six years old by allowing me to use a dictionary to find words. This started a lifelong connection we have to “cool words,” a connection my mom and I still share and that I also now pursue on my own.

Toward the end of December 2017, my Dictionary.com app presented the word instauration. The word caught my attention and was deemed “cool” for two reasons.

  1. It fits nicely with goal setting.
  2. It has an intriguing root.

Goal Setting

My family sets goals together around the end/beginning of each year. We don’t create family goals, though my husband’s and my goals often overlap, but we do talk about what we want to achieve or change in the coming year.

I also have Life Themes that have integrated into my life over the years. Those help in assessing the previous year and in narrowing my focus for the coming one.

In addition, I also sometimes choose a single word to focus on for the coming year. This is known as the One Word 365 approach. It provides yet another way for me to consider how I want to grow in the year to come.

Instauration

The word “instauration” pulled all of these goal-setting approaches together for me.

I love that the word combines four words into one, words that integrate well with most goal-setting efforts. I also liked that it has the same word source as the word “store” and “restaurant,” both of which help us renew, restore, renovate and repair, because now I have continual reminders of the word in my everyday life.

And while those are interesting connections, they are not what really brought this word into an intense light for me. What did is a one that led to focus again on my Identity in Christ.

The Greek root for the word instauration is “stauros.” Stauros was used when referring to an upright stake for a foundation. And now we’ve arrived at the really cool part. But first, a Bible verse, to which I’ll explain the connection momentarily.

“Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:39-40)

The cool part? The word used in this Scripture for cross is the stauros that eventually led to the word instauration. In other words, this concept of renewal, restoration, renovation and repair — instauration — has its roots in the cross of Jesus.

When I learned the root of instauration along side its current-day meaning, I realized the connection the Holy Spirit was making for me between my goals and my identity having its foundation in Christ.

Accepted, Secure & Significant

If I’m not careful, I start to let what others think about me (or what I think they think) define who I am. I also let comparisons direct my attitude, actions and words. This leads to my goals becoming self-centered attempts at making myself into something of value.

Connecting instauration with my goals helped me more fully realize that my value — my identity — comes from Christ alone. What others think or how I think I compare do not define me. A Secure Identity is my reality because it is based on Christ alone.

Because my Identity is in Christ, even if I achieve none of my goals — or all of them — I am accepted, secure and significant.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, because my identity is in Him, I am accepted, secure and significant.

Even while I am continually renewed, restored, renovated and repaired this side of Heaven, I am already accepted, secure and significant.

As I assess my goals throughout this year and as I think about how instauration plays into them, I am continually reminded about my identity in Christ too. I am also reminded that I have a Secure Identity that no Identity Crisis can undo or take away.

That is my hope for you as well. Let your identity in Christ define and shape every part of your life. If you do, no matter what happens, you can always know you too are accepted, secure and significant.

A Secure Identity

It’s astounding to think about that in Christ, our identity is secure. Christ paid for it through His death and resurrection. We really cannot comprehend this truth, especially in a world where millions of dollars are spent yearly to secure identities from nefarious people.

A secure identity is the goal, right? We want to avoid any type of Identity Crisis and remain secure in living out our Identity in Christ.

Since our Identity in Christ is secure, how should that affect our lives? In other words, how can we externally live out that internal, spiritual reality?

Living Your Identity in Christ

You live out our identity in Christ by letting what Jesus did for you drive you. Let it really be what defines you. How?

  1. Regularly take in what God says about you in His Word. Internalize it. Digest it. Let it become an integral part of you.
  2. Continually remind yourself of what He thinks of you. You are accepted, secure and significant no matter what happens or what anyone else says.
  3. Determine to let your identity in Christ permeate every aspect of your life. Let His Holy Spirit guide, direct and comfort you at all times. Let your identity in Christ ooze into every aspect of your life.

In other words, make what God says about you — the identity He gave you when you made Jesus Lord of your life — your focus. As you focus on your identity in Him, He shapes and directs your life in amazing ways. Your reality will be one of living out that identity.

It really is that simple… LET how Christ defines you define your life.

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

Identity in Christ

Our identity is important because it is the core of who we are. It creates our values, which shape our beliefs, which direct our actions. Our identity shapes the focus of our lives, and our focus determines our reality.

Our identity is so important, in fact, Christ takes complete responsibility for it.

“He has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts.” (2 Corinthians 1:22)

The only way I’ve ever found stability in my life and avoided or found victory over an Identity Crisis is when I’ve kept my focus on my identity in Christ. As long as I focus on who I am in Him and on what God desires of and for me, I experience confidence, peace and contentment.

Scripture tells us a lot about what an identity in Christ looks like. Let’s focus on three descriptors with the caveat that there’s so much more to discover in God’s Word about our identities.

In Christ, you are…

1. Accepted

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)

2. Secure

“For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

3. Significant

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16)

When we place our identity in Christ, we can never lose or misplace it. No one can steal it from us. It doesn’t change with our mood or how we dress. Our identity doesn’t depend on our performance either.

Why? Because our identity depends fully on Christ.

“Jesus Christ never changes! He is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

Do you find your value in what God says about you? Do you really believe what He says about you in His Word? If so, abandon any image of yourself not from God. Let Him define you.

Life Themes, Part 2

Life Themes

This is a long post. Evaluating a year should take some time. Does for me anyway.

Not only do I need to go through this process for myself, I want to help others in their processes too. I found mine through trial and error. I read a lot about what others did and tried. I kept what worked and threw out what didn’t. My prayer is to inspire you to do the same.

Rather than looking at goal setting, though I do set goals, my focus for making progress revolves around Life Themes instead. Over the years, five themes have emerged and infiltrated my life. I use them to continually evaluate my progress and reset my focus.

These themes serve to help me understand where I’ve been and what I’ve come through in a way that builds toward progress. They help me see my struggles in ways that allow me to focus on victories. These themes also help motivate me to continue moving forward.

Year In Review

Looking regularly at these life themes helps me review my life in a way that sort of hits a reset button on my focus. I don’t believe a true reset is possible in a person’s life. At least, not in the way one can reset a smart phone. It’s impossible for life to start over from a factory default state. A new start, sure, but not a complete do-over.

However, resetting one’s focus is possible. Life themes help me do this. I look at how I’ve applied them in the past, how active they are presently, and how they’re directing  where I’m going.

While I do this periodically throughout the year, I usually look at them more intimately at the beginning of every new calendar year. What follows is a large part of that process.

Life Theme Application

Allow me to share these life themes with some detail and to attempt to provide application points. Use them as motivation for considering your own life themes, whether or not they exist and if you want to adopt any new ones or simply modify the ones you have.

1.) Focus determines reality.

Midlife and empty nest both descended on me this past year. Too often and for too long, I focused on what I was losing. When I reset my focus, I again became grateful for all that I’ve done and experienced.

I’m reminded of the importance of my focus often. Sometimes it’s simply in the movies I watch and books I read, two of my favorite pastimes. Continually, the Holy Spirit whispers this truth back into my life in many creative ways.

No area of life escapes this truth. Where we choose to focus determines the reality of our lives. And, we all get to choose that focus — the place where thoughts dwell and motivations begin. No matter the circumstances, we can always decide to focus on progress over perfection, blessings over trials and protection over limits.

2.) Refuse to quit.

Physically, my body cannot do what it used to do. Take running, for example. No matter how much I decide to do it, my body simply says, “Uh uh.” At least, I can’t do even close to the extent I used to or that I see others my age still doing. I wanted to just stop trying many times. Instead, I adapted. I turned to other types of exercises, lots of different ones. I refuse to quit pursuing physical health.

I wanted to quit in other areas many times too. When a loved one broke trust to a point I thought beyond repair, I verbally said, “I give up.” Multiple times. But, I didn’t follow through. I kept moving. Backwards then nothing for a while, then finally progress with still lots of back and forth. Not the same as before, but I’m finally glad I didn’t follow through on what my feelings directed me toward far too many times.

Perseverance becomes more natural when fueled by obedience to God’s will. Quitting ceases to exist as an option. I wear reminders of these truths daily. Literally, my necklace has two charms: “Persevere.” “Never give up.” Living this has kept me alive more than once, and it’s kept relationships alive too. It overrides feelings and gets me through the afternoon slumps that even now taunt me toward the couch.

When the struggle gets to be too much, I cry out to God to “Help!” I should cry out before this point, I know. His reminder is the same every time: “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Keep moving. Refuse to quit.” I hear the words over and over in my head. They push me forward, and I’m always glad I listen, especially when progress finally appears. And it always does.

3.) Take small steps.

Progress frustrates me. A lot. It does so because I too often don’t see it until I’m ready to give up. Also because I usually don’t see any progress until all of a sudden… there it is! Progress happens in such small increments that I just don’t usually see it right away. Most progress in my life, perhaps all, has happened this way. I simply need to remind myself of this often so the frustration doesn’t completely derail me.

This is where I find traditional goal setting most comes into play. Yes, it fits in the other life themes also, but the idea of small steps creating progress are what I need to often remember when I’m working toward a goal. Weight loss. Raising my IQ. Both goals of mine this year. Both will only happen with small steps taken consistently.

Regardless of the specific goal, educate yourself on the steps needed for its accomplishment. Then, keep taking them. Even if you don’t see or feel progress. Keep taking them. Even if you go backwards. Keep taking them. Pull in the other themes… stay focused and refuse to quit. You will make progress. I’ve experienced this truth enough that reminding myself of it convinces me to take the next step every time. The same will happen for you too.

4.) Keep it simple.

I was once an expert at complicating my life. Over-thinking. Over-committing. Over-emotionalizing. I was so good at this that it still often creeps back in unnoticed until it’s so glaringly obvious that I have to pay attention and do something about it.

Almost every time I start a new project, I venture toward the complex in the beginning. Actually, I do so throughout too and have to reset a simple focus periodically until the project is complete.

Whenever a problem arises in a relationship, I often make it worse than it really is too. Or, I create problems that don’t exist. I’m very creative, you see. I can imagine a lot about a person or situation and make things horribly complex all by myself.

Opportunity falls by the wayside when my life is complicated. I lose focus on Christ when I venture away from simplicity. I cannot keep on track with any of my life themes or goals when I complicate life. Neither can you. No one can.

Simplicity creates a better way to use our energy. It allows for maintaining focus more consistently. Keeping life as simple as possible results in increased productivity. This is true for all of us.

At the same time, simplicity is relative. What’s simple for me may seem boring to you. What’s complicated to me may be your best focus zone. Knowing what simplicity looks like for you and then not comparing it to how others live is key.

5.) Wait on God.

When I push for something I think I want to happen before I know for sure it’s right for me, my life gets complicated. Every time. I’ve done it enough to know it will happen. But I still do it sometimes. Okay, often. But, I don’t get as far as I used to before I hear “Stop. Wait.” And I’m pretty good at actually listening, especially if I do so sooner rather than later before emotions hijack my decision-making ability.

When I don’t wait and instead rush ahead based on emotions or superficial information or even what others think I should do, I end up with regrets. Like, every time. I also get overwhelmed and over-committed along with losing my focus.

When I wait, that means I’m trusting God’s timing. I’m believing He will make clear when I should take a certain step or make a commitment. It means I’m exercising patience, knowing His timing keeps me from overwhelm and overload. At least, the type of overwhelm and overload that runs me down and ushers in depression.

Waiting on God instead allows for the overwhelm that comes with realizing He cares for me more than I can even imagine. It brings me to a place where I am overloaded with His blessings in a way where I cannot out give Him. That’s a great place to be, by the way. That’s the place I seek and aim for every day.

Where Themes Meet Goals

The best way I’ve discovered to tell how I’m doing in any one area is by looking at how all of them are doing individually and how they’re interacting with one another. In other words, if I’m keeping my life simple, I’m better able to consistently wait on God and keep my focus. If I’m strong in my determination to not quit, I’m likely making solid progress with the small steps that I’m taking. Each life focus is intimately intertwined with the others.

What’s more, progress with more traditional type goals tells me how I’m doing with these life themes too. If I’m steadily working toward weight loss as well as toward raising my IQ, for example, I know I’m likely staying focused on my life themes too.

This whole idea of how themes and goals work in my life makes sense to me. It may not to you. If you’ve read this far, though, you’re probably looking for something — anything — that will work for you too. Let me encourage you to simply keep trying different approaches.

Read more about what has worked for others. Try those. Throw out what doesn’t work for you, and keep what does work. Above all, let the Holy Spirit guide this search and lead you to a place where you feel you are making progress too. That place is out there for you. I promise.

Life Themes, Part 1

Effective and Productive

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions. In fact, about half of Americans make them. Unfortunately, according to Norcross & Vangarelli as reported in Psychology Today, most people fail to stick to their resolutions. Specifically…

  • 22% fail after one week
  • 40% fail after one month
  • 50% fail after three months
  • 60% fail after six months
  • 81% fail after twenty-four months

Reasons for this failure involve…

  • Unclear and vague goals
  • Failure to gauge one’s progress
  • Weak self-control and self-regulation

Honestly, not at all surprised by these numbers or by the reasons for them. They’ve certainly proven true in my life over the years.

What I have found to be effective instead is having life themes that integrate into every facet of my life. They have to be biblically-based, though, or even this approach fails to be effective over the long term.

These themes developed gradually and were born out of adversity and failure. And I’m grateful for this process because they now help direct me to being effective and productive in ways goal setting never did.

Focus & Motivation

You’ll may look at the themes I’m about to share and think they are simply positive-thinking mantras. And to some extent you’d be right. But they’re more than that. They also remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve come through, and they motivate me to continue into where I’m being led.

Two passages in Isaiah not only encapsulate these ideas but also help weave these themes together.

“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:27-31)

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

These, and other, scripture serve to remind me of the themes of my life. I need the reminders too. Without them, I just get overwhelmed by life. This is one reason I need to consistently study Scripture. Doing so helps these themes continually come to the surface not just in what I’m studying but in every facet of my life from teaching to talking to a friend or my kids to when I’m alone and working.

My Life Themes

Let me simply share these themes with you now. In next week’s post, I’ll go into some detail on each of them.

  1. Focus determines reality. (Isaiah 26:3; Galatians 5:16-18; Luke 12:34)
  2. Never give up. (Isaiah 50:7; Hebrews 10:35)
  3. Take small steps. (Hebrews 12:12)
  4. Keep it simple. (Colossians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 11:3)
  5. Wait on God. (Isaiah 30:18; Psalm 27:14)

If you were to spend much time with me or even to just read through a handful of posts on this blog, you’d run into each of these themes over and over again. In fact, there are quite a few people you could talk to who could name a few if not all of these since they’ve heard my say them so often. And that’s a deliberate goal on my part.

Which brings us back to the idea of goal setting. The Holy Spirit directs me to goals all the time. And when he does, He also lays out the plan for achieving them. Sometimes the plan comes all at once, but often it comes in just one or a few steps at a time. Always perfectly. And always, these themes saturate the plan.

This approach serves to eliminate unclear and vague goals because I’m following the Holy Spirit, not pushing for progress in my own efforts. As for self-control and self-regulation, that comes through a combination of Bible study and accountability, which both serve to remind me of the life themes planted in my spirit.

No, I have not eliminated all of what keeps most people from achieving goals. However, I do realize my inability to set and achieve goals in my own effort, so I try to continually turn that work over to the Holy Spirit.

As 2018 approaches, I am taking time to review these themes and to remind myself of the Holy Spirit’s continual activity in my life. This week’s and next week’s posts are reflective of that renewal. Including others in more of my life is a goal the Holy Spirit has recently shared with me, and these posts are, hopefully, reflective this too.