Pursuing Encouragement Through Scripture

Psalm 119During a season of discouragement, I can’t convince myself that it’s going to end. Current discouragement always seems permanent. When discouraged, Scripture often frustrates me. I understand little to nothing and struggle with wandering thoughts. So, I just go through the motions and do my best to fight through wondering, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

When I’m discouraged and feel like reading God’s word is pointless, I must remember that my feelings often inaccurately gage the impact of God’s word on my inner self. I must force my vision outside of my feelings and remember that all previous seasons of discouragement eventually ended, which means this one will too.

Never has consistently meditating (reflecting) on Scripture failed to significantly aid my struggle through discouragement. Though the process seems minutely gradual at times, that’s how progress journeys to visible growth. Perseverance is essential to spiritual growth in the struggle through discouragement.

While I cannot feel the progress during this current season of discouragement, I can replay the memories of moving through and out of previous ones. In doing so, I come to know the truth currently at play even though feelings fail to confirm its activity.

While there are many others, three portions in particular showcase why Scripture encourages me.


God doesn’t just suggest encouragement, he actually commands it. What’s more, he gives us reasons to find that encouragement along with sources for making that happen. Scripture reminds believers that God’s promises continual support for his people, particularly when they become weary, depressed or disillusioned. And the encouragement it offers comes through a focus on God, not on ourselves or our problems.

For me, that focus consistently involves allowing Scripture to:

  • Shape my perspective
  • Give me boundaries
  • Keep me thankful
  • Guide my every step
  • Renew my hope

The most poignant times of discouragement in my life came clouded with depression and despair because of the absence of God’s Word in my habits and routines. Yet every time, God drew me back and drew me in. The seasons eventually ended, and I understood their role in my growth. Because he’s done this so many times before in my life, and because His Word promises He’s always with me, I know he’ll bring me through this season too.

DISCUSSION: How does God’s Word encourage you?

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?

Defeating the Winter Blues

While debate exists over the cause and even the existence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), few doubt the impact of the dreary conditions of wintertime, especially those who live in areas with little sun in winter. For me, the term that best describes the blues that seem to hit in the dead of winter (December through February for the most part) is “doldrums.”


This term fits well for most who struggle with mood and energy during the winter months, about 12% of the population. Another 3% or so suffers true SAD , something I’ve also experienced. (Note: I migrated from SAD to the doldrums after finding victory over depression.)

10 Tips for Defeating the Winter Blues

Fortunately, much of what relieves the doldrums also helps with SAD (and depression too). So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s lump SAD and the doldrums into one category and call them the “winter blues.” However, realize that these exist along a continuum of severity. In most cases of SAD, there’s usually a significant biological reason (research shows that people with SAD produce significantly less seratonin in winter than in summer) that must be dealt with first with the help of a professional.

Based on my experience with the winter blues at almost every point along the continuum from SAD to a slight funk, I offer the following tips for defeating the winter blues.

  1. Move. Any activity beyond sitting or lying down positively impacts mood. This can mean a 10-minutes stretching routine, a 30-minute walk, cleaning the bathroom, or a quick trip to the grocery store. Just move!
  2. Budget. Money concerns, especially right after Christmas when the winter blues hit their peek, can drag even the most optimistic person down. Get some control by creating – and using – a budget.
  3. Breathe. I’m continually amazed at how just taking 10 deep breaths improves my outlook. Not only does it lessen my winter blues, but it helps me deal with stressful situations too.
  4. Eat. While eating your blues away is often a bad idea since it usually involves poor food choices, that doesn’t have to be the case. Instead, learn about healing foods that help lift mood and increase the “feel good” chemicals in your brain, and then purpose to get more of those consistently in your diet.
  5. Drink. Drinking more water is one of the two main activities that most quickly improve overall health. Whatever amount of water you’re drinking now, drink more. Hydration plays a huge role in virtually every bodily system.
  6. Sleep. Here’s the partner to drinking water. Establish a regular sleep/awake routine and stick to it year round. Figure out the amount of sleep that allows you to operate at your best, and get it consistently.
  7. Socialize. When I’m at a low point, I often avoid social interaction. Unfortunately, I avoid a terrific way to improve my mood when I do. We’ll cover this topic more in next week’s post, but let’s say for now that positive interaction with others does almost as much to improve mood as sleep and water.
  8. Simplify. This one took me years to truly establish as a life principle. Now, when I feel a funk setting in, which I know will grow into the doldrums if left unchecked, I look for ways to simplify.
  9. Supplement. Over the past 5 years, I’ve learned what supplements I need to operate optimally, especially mentally. A naturopath helped me get established, but now I do my own research & assessment. Start by learning the basic supplements everyone needs.
  10. Enjoy. Take time every day to enjoy simple pleasures from a hot bath and great music to a sunset and fresh air. Do this daily to help ward off the winter blues.

Hopefully you’ve gotten the idea there are a lot of ways to successfully battle the winter blues, and the more tools you have, the better. Yet, I have found that none truly help for the long term without the existence of one, specific focus always present in my life to motivate and drive me toward victory. I’ll let C.S. Lewis explain and close out this post.

Happiness quote

DISCUSSION: What tips do you have for gaining victory over the winter blues? What tips from the above list will you try this year? Any questions?

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Spiritually Healthy During the Holidays & Beyond

Light 1Focus Determines Reality

In previous years when the holidays approached, my thoughts immediately went toward negative memories. The cat using the presents under the tree as a litter box. My parents telling me they were divorcing. No decorating or celebrating the first Christmas after the divorce.

Seems silly, really, since those years represent far fewer Decembers than ones with neutral or even positive memories. But since my focus dwelt there, my holiday reality existed in the negative for many years. This meant that depression easily met me each holiday season as well.

Slowly, as I learned how to be Physically Healthy During the Holidays and Beyond, I discovered a desire and ability to choose my focus rather than just allowing it to happen.Light 2

Jesus Changes Everything…

The biggest impact on my focus for lasting transformation and increasing joy during the holidays and beyond came when I truly met Jesus in the pages of Scripture and allowed His Holy Spirit to direct my focus. I’ve technically been a Christian my whole life, but it took almost 30 years for my faith to become a significant driving force.

This doesn’t mean my faith didn’t impact my life before that point, because it definitely did. However, when I finally realized and admitted my utter dependence upon Christ to work in me through His Holy Spirit for a joyful reality, my faith became so much more than mere fire insurance.

If You’ll Let Him!

Jesus always wants to change the focus of our lives toward one of living for God. But He doesn’t force Himself on us. His Holy Spirit doesn’t force its way in as the director of our focus. We must let Him change how we think, which changes our focus, which then changes our reality.

And often, our “letting” involves those activities we already know to be spiritually beneficial. In other words, “letting Christ” simply means doing that which Scripture extols as necessary habits for continually increasing spiritual health. What might those activities include?

  1. Not neglecting the basics. This is never a good idea but especially not during the holidays. Personally, I get knocked off kilter much easier during the holidays, so keeping to a routine of Bible study, prayer & worship proves immensely beneficial.
  2. Renewing the Christmas story. The longer you’ve been a Christian, the more difficult having a wonderment about the Christmas story may seem. Yet, seeing it with fresh perspective can help renew your spirit. I do this by reading a Christmas book every year. Can be fiction or nonfiction, but it must have the Gospel message.
  3. Try simple & minimal. Take this approach with everything from gift giving to party preparation. Consider it with clothing and schedules too. Allow yourself the mental space to enjoy the people in your life by keeping the material aspects as simple as possible.
  4. Pay attention to physical health. Staying Physically Healthy During the Holidays and Beyond is so very difficult with all the parties and special family gatherings focused around food. While indulging may feel good in the moment, the later consequences usually outweigh any momentary, immediate pleasure. Consider the long-term impact of choices before you make them.
  5. Make relationships a priority. Choose relationships over doing and going  and accomplishing and impressing whenever possible. Make Romans 12:18 a goal for all of your relationships this holiday season.

Focusing more on Christ, the Christmas story and beyond, even when feelings or circumstances work to steal that focus, creates habits that work toward a purpose beyond ourselves. Deliberately considering what I allow to direct my focus, the thoughts I allow to dwell in my spirit, helps me continue making right choices that lead to a positive and joy-filled holiday season. And each year, living spiritually healthy during the holidays and beyond becomes a more natural part of who I am.

Establish your focus on the only person able to align all you are with with truth, light and hope. Let Jesus continually and increasingly direct your focus and shape your reality.

DISCUSSION: What activities help you obtain or maintain joy and stay spiritually healthy during the holidays and beyond?

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For another take on how to stay healthy during the holidays, check out the post “How to Keep Emotionally Healthy This Holiday” by Laurie Wallin. While you’re there, take some time to look at the rest of her blog where she writes about how to “live with joy and confidence no matter what life brings.”

How to Retreat With Purpose


A few weeks ago, I went on a writing retreat. At first I felt guilty for going away by myself and leaving my family to fend for themselves. Funny, since the retreat was my husband’s idea, and I followed through with it only at his encouragement and insistence.

As I thought about the idea of a retreat, and as I realized the deeper meaning of the concept beyond its obvious military application, I began to understand the value behind a focused retreat.

Retreat 2The planning as well as the actual retreat itslef convinced me of the value of making time to retreat. Below are the revelations coming from the planning and execution of my first personal retreat.

  1. Have a very specific purpose. The specific purpose of my retreat was to reach 50,000 words in a rough draft of a book I am writing. I already had 10,000 written but struggled dedicating time to the project. My retreat had no other purpose beyond this.
  2. Set specific goals. While my ultimate goal was 50,000 words, I quickly discovered the need to set smaller goals during the retreat. In the 48 hours I was gone, I set smaller word count goals and rewarded myself (coffee, snack, Big Bang Theory, etc.) when I reached a goal.
  3. Keep it simple. I went to a hotel about 1 1/2 hours from home. No glamourous location. Just a simple location where I could focus with minimal distraction.
  4. Focus. I refused to think much beyond my goal. All I thought about, except during break times, involved reaching 50,000 words.
  5. Plan some variety. While I spent most of the time in my hotel room, I found variety by visiting a Starbucks (good coffee = good writing) nearby for a couple of hours each day. This change-up helped me physically and mentally.
  6. Create a plan of action. Before going on the writing retreat, I developed a project outline. I also brought notes to read through to help generate additional ideas.
  7. Minimize distractions. I brought much of my own food, which saved a lot of time. I turned off the volume on my phone and did not log on to the hotel’s wifi except during break times. I did not bring any books to read either (that’s a big deal for me, btw).
  8. Plan ahead. I made sure I did not have any unrelated tasks hanging over my head to distract me while I focused on my goal.
  9. Work ahead. To prevent coming back to overload, I got as much work as I could done ahead of time. This takes a big of extra work on the front end, but it made a huge difference for keeping me focused during my retreat.
  10. Get enough sleep. One mistake I made was not sticking to my normal sleep routine. I was exhausted the second night just from writing so much, and the lack of sleep the first night caused me struggle a bit toward the end of the second day.

I plan to take regular retreats, perhaps one every quarter or at least twice a year, since this one was so productive. Specific purposes I am considering for these retreats include reading/researching, editing, and generating ideas. I want these retreats to be fulfilling and meaningful to me, which is why I choose to focus on writing.

DISCUSSION: What could you focus on if you took a personal retreat? What are your suggestions for planning and executing a successful personal retreat? Anyone going to do something like this in the near future?

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How to Have Consistent Focus Even When No One Is Watching

how-to-focus-hacks-infographicFocus Determines Reality

The object of focus as well as the existence or absence of focus itself determines the reality of a person’s life. Do you believe this?

The truth that focus determines reality drives me. I believe it to the point of frustration when focus remains allusive. When my mind continually engages distraction, anxiety and frustration set in and depression approaches.

Establishing & Keeping Focus

When I transitioned from working in an office where others held me accountable for my productivity to working for myself at home where only I truly knew my level of accomplishment, the discipline of focus taunted me while at the same time taught me a great deal about establishing and keeping focus. Here’s what I learned about establishing and keeping focus in that process:

  1. Know your purpose. This requires regular (daily) Scripture study & prayer before moving on to the specific tasks of the day.
  2. Eliminate distraction. Leave your phone in the other room. Work in a room without a television. Go for a walk or bike ride to brainstorm and plan. Find ways to reduce the temptations of distraction.
  3. Simplify. Reduce possessions to regularly-used items. Keep calendars simple and clutter free. Focus on simple, healthy meals. Establish routines to reduce decision-making. When overwhelmed, this one word – “simplify” – works wonders for refocusing.
  4. Talk. Working alone means I’m in my head a lot. Regularly scheduling exercise time or coffee with a friend gives opportunity to get out of my head and process thoughts in more tangible ways. Evenings with my husband and time with my kids also help me cultivate and process ideas.
  5. Follow the Spirit’s leading. Remove blockades (don’t “hinder”) the Holy Spirit’s ability to work in your life. Put yourself in a position to regularly hear the wisdom He offers.
  6. Take small steps. Returning and staying focused happens through small steps (choices) that over time add up to make a huge difference.
  7. Establish accountability. Voicing my goals creates one level of accountability. Partnering with others creates another. Creating deadlines takes accountability up another notch. Make accountability a reality and not just a good idea.

Learning to Focus

When talking to others struggling with focus, I hear excuses like, “I’m not just good at focusing,” or “I just get distracted easily,” as if they lack the ability to focus like some lack musical ability. In this ADD-culture, many seem to believe focus comes only for those blessed with unique ability or at the very least live absent of attention deficit.

My personal success in achieving a focused life convince me that focus is not a special talent like running speed but instead a learned ability. If you’re not yet convinced, consider the story of a young boy diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD & FAS at age 8.

All three of these disorders rip apart one’s ability to focus. Yet, in the past five years through the avenues listed above done in a consistent manner in a stable environment, this boy went from being several years behind in reading to reading just above grade level. He also gets As and Bs in school and stays out of trouble as much as any other 13-year-old boy.

My youngest son taught me anyone can learn to focus. While it may exist as more of a struggle more for some people than for others, anyone can improve their ability to focus.

A Biblical Formula for Focus

Let’s look at one more element involved in one’s ability to focus. Scripture provides a great deal of help on the topic, but let’s look at two passage in particular to finish our discussion on focus.

Focus all energy on one thing: Forget the past, look forward toward the goal, and work to reach the end and receive the prize. (Philippians 3:13-14)

Refuse to focus on the temporary and instead fix your focus on the unseen, the eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Focusing where God tells us to focus results in an extraordinary ability to hone our effectiveness. Keeping eternity in mind as we plan our lives results in living productive and meaningful lives. No longer do we wonder if our daily activity matters because we know we’re connected with the eternal, with what matters most to God, so all we do matters.

Remember the question in the beginning of this post? Go ahead, take a look again.

When we truly believe – because we know for certain – that focus involves choosing to have it as well as placing God as the object of that focus, we find that our ability to focus grows in supernatural ways. We discover that an inability to focus may simply mean a wrong focus. We realize that an overwhelmed life often means a life focused on the wrong or too many different things.

No one can convince me that consistent focus ever exists as impossible for anyone. Learning to focus without being under constant watch by others taught me about the possibility, and my youngest son’s progress over the past 5 years further confirmed the truth. And both leave me excited to live a future focused on God and pleasing Him.

DISCUSSION: What struggles do you have with focus? How does the above advice provide hope for learning to focus?

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Staying Out of the Pit

The post below first appeared at Cycle Guy’s Spin as part of a series on depression with the focus of helping those who have loved ones struggling with depression but who have never themselves personally struggled with it. The depression series stemmed from my second chance story, which was part of a series on 2nd Chances on Cycle Guy’s Spin.

With depression coming even more to our attentions with the death of Robin Williams recently, I decided to repost the depression series here on Struggle to Victory.


Staying Out of the Pit

What you read on Struggle to Victory covers my main approach to keep from falling back into the pit of depression. I get into the details of topics I am struggling with, find out what Scripture says about them, and process them by writing about them. Doing this helps tremendously in capturing thoughts and not letting them hold me captive, which is what happened when I didn’t know how process feelings. At some point, I just determined not to let my thinking exist without boundaries and structure anymore, and writing gives me a way to establish the boundaries and structure I need to keep well away from the pit.

But writing isn’t all I do. I’ve discovered that one thing rarely does exactly what you need in any area, at least not for very long. Writing simply provides an outlet for my very busy inner life. Being an introvert, my inner life is as busy as the outer life of most extroverts. Writing gives me a way to order that world and to deal with it in a healthy way.

In addition to, or rather alongside and within writing, there are various ways I keep from going in the direction of pit dwelling. First and most importantly, I maintain a daily, consistent relationship with God through Bible study and prayer. I’m not saying this as a high and mighty “look how spiritual I am” statement; instead, it’s meant to simply say that I know I am completely and utterly unable to stay out of the pit of depression without Him. Without the Holy Spirit working in my life, and without God’s mighty power active in and through me, I would not be alive today.

I also make staying physically healthy a priority by eating healthy, exercising and getting plenty of adequate rest. I’m willing to try different approaches to health and wellness because I’ve learned that limiting yourself to the approach of traditional, Western medicine only limits and may even inhibit your ability to overcome depression and become healthy. My approach is along the lines of integrative medicine.

Staying aware of personal triggers is important too. I know the signs of my getting overwhelmed (digestion issues, sleep problems, anxiety & general grumpiness, for example), and I make adjustments as soon as I realize what’s happening to prevent any more veering off into bumpy territory.

While I need routine and structure to some extent, I must balance them with flexibility and variety. Otherwise, I get into a rut of boredom that also leads to depression. Fortunately, my husband and sons help tremendously with this area not just with their busy schedules but also with their zest for discovery and adventure.

Knowing what to avoid is also key (examples for me include sugar, romance novels, and television shows in general). One area of thought that I need to be extra careful with is absolutes. Saying “I never…” or “I can’t…” or “I always…” usually takes me down a very narrow and precarious path. I’ve learned to leave the absolutes up to God who has the capacity to follow through with them simply because He doesn’t change and I do.

As you can see, I have a variety of ways I keep from falling back into the pit. All of them are negotiable except my reliance on God.

sooner quoteIn Retrospect

Some ask what I would have done differently now that I am able to look back on depression with some objectivity. Let me simply say that I just would have done all of this sooner. I would have taken the small steps needed to get out of the pit sooner. I would have asked God to help me sooner. I would have let others help sooner. I would have let my pride go sooner. Nothing really done differently since all were necessary parts of the journey. They just all could have happened sooner.

So much (most really) of what caused my depression was outside of my control, so I don’t think I personally could have prevented it. I could have just taken the steps to get out of it sooner. That’s all on me.

DISCUSSION: How can someone not suffering from depression help those who do struggle stay out of the pit?

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Why We Need Variety within Spiritual Disciplines

Below is a guest post by Chris Peek. Chris blogs at Trail Reflections where he offers content that encourages leaders to discover their life mission, live with intention, pursue adventure and become fully alive.


Why We Need Variety within Spiritual Disciplines

My heart is prone to forget. For seven years, my wife has struggled with a chronic health condition known as POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) – a form dysautonomia. From 2008-2011, we traversed the specialty medical circuit – VCU, Vanderbilt, Toledo, and the Mayo Clinic – as Karen underwent test after test, consultation after consultation.

Over time, it became apparent that she would be forced to manage the disease rather than be cured of it. Through the days, months, and years of pain and struggle, Karen has shown incredible strength and resolve. And as her condition became our new “normal,” our attention turned to growing our family.

Some doctors opined that we should hold off on having children. However, Karen’s POTS specialist in Toledo encouraged us to pursue pregnancy, stating that many POTS patients do really well while pregnant.

Yet after three miscarriages, we contemplated whether or not we should simply give up. Thankfully, we didn’t lose complete hope, even in the midst of some extremely dark days. Eventually, Karen got pregnant once again, and this time, everything seemed to be on track right up through the first several hours of labor.

I have a saying that few things in our lives seem to come easy, and the delivery of our son would be no exception. About 4:30 AM, the doctor burst into our room, jarring me out of my light nap. With a deep concern in his voice, he confirmed that both Karen’s and the baby’s heart rates were unstable. They needed to perform a C-section right away. After the longest hour-and-a-half of my life, she gave birth to our beautiful, healthy son.

Peek 1

Prone to Forget

Six months later, my heart is prone to forget about the struggle and pain. I am more apt to go about our daily routine of diaper changes and battling acid reflux without spending a moment recognizing God’s blessing of a beautiful baby boy.

Similarly, my heart is prone to lose sight of the cross and the brutal sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. I am so self-absorbed that I am more concerned about paying the bills than God’s work throughout the nations. I can stand in awe of God’s blessing one day and have completely forgotten about His favor a mere 24 hours later.

Maybe that is why the apostle Paul urges us to “Pray without ceasing…” or why the Psalmist prayerfully offers, “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.”

There are so many distractions in our world that it takes discipline to remain in firmly entrenched in God’s presence. Spiritual discipline. That’s not a phrase we hear bandied about too much anymore, even within the walls of the church. Discipline sounds so twentieth century. We live in the century of instantaneous pleasure and success.

I’m probably the last person who should be writing about spiritual discipline because my heart is prone to wander and is filled with inconsistencies. Nevertheless, an ongoing relationship with God cannot exist without spiritual discipline. Discipline is a word we often associate with routine and boredom. Yet by adding a little variety, we can keep our relationship with God alive and vibrant.

Variety within Spiritual Disciplines

We don’t have to sit in the same location to pray or read the Bible. We don’t have to attend the same church service and sit in the same pew we have been sitting in for the last 20 years. If your spiritual walk feels stale, it’s probably because it is. The goal of spiritual discipline is not discipline in and of itself, but to draw into a more intimate walk with the Father.

What are some ways we can add variety to spiritual disciplines?

Worship – This can take on so many forms. Why not look for creative and meaningful ways to worship? Work is worship. Art is worship. Singing is worship. The key is whether the worship points back to God or to self.

Prayer – I like to pray while I am walking on a nature trail. Sometimes I talk to God while driving. Other times, I prefer to pray just sitting in silence. We may need to break away for an hour and spend time with God in His Creation.

Acts of Service – There are an infinite number of ways to serve the church and community. They key involves utilizing our unique calling in a variety of others-centered ways.

Bible Reading – There are numerous, sound Bible translations available to us, and it may help to switch up every once in a while. In addition, we have limitless books, courses, Bible studies, and workbooks available at the click of a mouse. These resources provide a helpful way to inject life into devotional times.

DISCUSSION: Is your heart prone to wander? What other ways can we add variety to spiritual disciplines in order to make our hearts come alive?


Consistent Stretching & Strengthening

Stretching 2Foot and leg pain began when I started running at age 14 because a boy I liked ran cross country. (Incidentally, over 20 years later, not only do I still run, but I’m married to that boy who also still runs.) My first memory of these problems were shin splints. My cross country coach faithfully taped my feet before every practice & meet to help alleviate some of the pain.

My mom took me to the podiatrist who fitted me with orthodics, which I don’t recall really wearing much (okay, not at all). In college, I ran very little, so the pain subsided, and I all but forgot about it.

Then the pain started again after college because I started running again. I also started teaching college classes, which meant a lot of standing, and the pain in my feet and legs gradually increased and returned worse than ever.

Stretching 1After trying orthodics again, expensive shoes & lots of rest, I finally sought to revamp my running form as well as to incorporate cross training activities. Still, the pain increased to the point of not being able to walk without a limp.

Next, I endured the most painful event ever in my life, nerve testing of my feet (seriously, huge crochet needs stuck in the side of my feet). No problems found. Next came hours of physical therapy on pretty much every joint & ligament from the waste down. Painful.

The point? I’ve done a lot to find relief from this chronic feet, leg & hip pain. But only one route brought any consistent relief… stretching & strengthening.

Physical therapy taught me how to stretch the tight muscles in my legs and feet. About the same time, I began to strengthen my core too. When I do these regularly, my feet and leg pain – along with any back pain – almost disappears. Missing a day or two here and there isn’t a big deal, but chronically missing them gradually brings back the pain and tingling sensation.

My lifelong struggle with foot, leg and hip pain and finally finding the solution of stretching and strengthening remind me of the importance of consistent Bible study, prayer and fellowship. When I do these activities regularly, my focus remains steadily on Christ and my purposes set toward His desires. When I don’t, I lose focus easily and find myself lost and unbalanced in a chaotic world. These activities, when done consistently, do for my soul what stretching does for my muscles… prepare me to better handle the stress and strain of life.

So, why don’t I always keep with the habits of prayer, Bible study & fellowship?Probably for the same reason I neglect my stretching & strengthening routine at times. When the pain goes away, I forget what brought relief. Conversely, when I feel the pain, I’m motivated toward the habits that keep me flexible and strong.

The same holds true spiritually. Unfortunately, I’ve sort of trained God that I need to feel pain and/or discomfort in order to keep to the good habits that provide for my protection. He knows I need to be reminded of the basic habits needed to remain strong and flexible in this journey of life.

Does your life reflect this truth? Share your story in the comments.

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory (neuromuscular facilitation)…

“occurs when you have repeated an action enough times to have etched that pattern into your brain. The action becomes automatic, requiring no conscious input on your part.”

memoryGetting dressed, walking and tying your shoes are examples of activities completed by muscle memory. To get a feel of just how comfortable you are in your muscle memory, try changing your routine in any of these activities. Put your clothes on in a different order than usual. Try imitating how someone else walks. Change the way you tie your shoes. You’ll find just how comfortable muscle memory makes you feel and how hard it is to change it.

We also have negative habits established in muscle memory. Clenching your jaw and poor posture are examples. Take that a step further to our thought processes. Do you find yourself saying, “I can’t…” all too easily before even trying something new or changing a routine? These negative habits and thought patterns are examples of muscle memories too.

We need muscle memory to automate tasks that we don’t need to give mental energy toward, which allows us to redirect that energy toward that which requires active thinking and processing on our part. Our lives are filled with muscle memory activities, some of which make our lives easier and some of which present struggles we need to focus on and overcome in order to grow and mature. Muscle memory can both free us for bigger tasks and keep us from attempting them.

Spiritual Muscle Memory

Do you feel stuck spiritually? Consider reprogramming your spiritual muscle memory. If prayers feel aimless and/or worship seems a dry routine, perhaps muscle memory needs changed. And if loving others seems like a forced “should,” then changing spiritual muscle memory might lead to transformation.

The following elements, adapted from what psychologists and athletes alike use when breaking down old muscle memory habits to create new ones, hint at beginning steps for changing spiritual muscle memory:

  1. Repetition. Too often, a positive habit fails to get established in muscle memory because we fail to repeat the process enough times. Only through repetition can we effectively rid ourselves of bad habits and replace them with good ones.
  2. Consistency. Once you find out what works, stick with it. Keep doing what works (repetition) to establish it as a habit.
  3. Comfort. Creating new muscle memories and letting old ones go creates discomfort. Keep comfort zones for times of rest and recuperation that generate energy needed for the discomfort of stretching and growing.
  4. Brokenness. Sometimes, we must break down what is not working in order to create a new habit that will make us stronger. This gets at the idea of rooting out  bad habits holding us back and replacing them with new ones that helps us grow.
  5. Variety. Just like we need comfort in order to work through discomfort, we also need variety in order to not get swallowed up in the repetition of consistency. Establish consistent habits but allow for variety within them.

What can you immediately apply from this list to help you move forward and go deeper in your relationship with God? The principles of breaking down and establishing muscle memory were deliberately discussed generally to allow for more unique individual application. Take some time to consider how you can personally apply these principles, and share your ideas in the comments.

Note: This month’s focus lies with taking aspects of our physical selves and making spiritual connections. Also, this week begins a summer schedule for Struggle to Victory with a scheduled post every Tuesday and periodic posts at other times throughout the month (my attempt at being a bit more spontaneous). I’m open to publishing guest posts as well, so leave any interest in writing one in the comments below.