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.

Broken Widows

Broken Windows

The Broken Widows Theory in criminology provides a metaphor for tackling disorder within neighborhoods. The creators of this theory developed it because…

“They saw serious crime as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crime would not occur.”

The theory says that physical disorder, like broken windows and vacant buildings, along with social disorder, like noisy neighbors and aggressive panhandling, begin the chain of events that lead to serious crime. Addressing these things creates a positive chain of events where serious crime is minimized and even eliminated.

This theory is not without its critics, though it has also resulted in positive results in some areas. Regardless, it offers another way to think about disorder in our own lives.

Small Steps

We often get overwhelmed by significant disorder in our lives. I don’t have to name what that looks like. You know what it is if you have it. Others see it too.

When we’re overwhelmed by disorder, taking time to look at our broken windows can give us the small steps to take toward addressing the bigger issues. In other words…

Small steps, taken consistently over time, add up to make a huge difference.

Broken windows can be anything from daily habits like what you read, what you watch on television, how much television you watch, the negativity you allow into your life, and basic self care habits like what you eat and physical exercise. They are things that you can break into small steps and work gradually toward revamping.

Addressing small habits, over time, led to the defeat of depression in my life. Depression was horribly overwhelming for me, but it now exists firmly in my past. And that victory began with addressing the broken windows in my life.

Self Assessment

Start with a good self assessment. Ask yourself what broken windows need repaired in your life. In other words, what small steps can you start taking today to work toward big changes?

This doesn’t mean you won’t face big or difficult tasks. It simply means you begin by strengthening your base and then moving forward from there.

Going Backward

Slowing down enough to address the broken windows in our lives can feel like we’re going backward. We want a new start, not to remake what we have. Yet, if we’re honest, we realize that renovating what we have is often the best way to create that new start.

“Going back is the quickest way on.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Progress sometimes means doing an about turn. And, the sooner we make this about turn, the sooner we’ll be able to make progress.

Take some time today to look at the broken windows in your life and to determine what needs done to repair them in way that allows you to move forward stronger than you were before. Even if it means going backward, know that doing so is probably the quickest path to progress in your life.

Progress over perfection, my friend.

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.

Dealing With Stress

This text began a multi-day conversation with my son, a college freshman, as he attempted to prepare for his first round of college finals. This discussion not only stirred memories of my own college days over 20 years ago but also brought fresh ones to back mind from when I took my GRE a couple of weeks ago.

Because of this discussion, I began thinking about how I’ve dealt with stressful situations and seasons in my life. I realized that I’ve progressed in how I handle them and even in being able to mitigate their impact by the way I live life as well as by the mindset I choose before, during and after trials.

A Part of Life

Every person deals with stressful situations. You’re either going through one right now, have just gone through one or seem to be having an endless string of them. They are just a part of life.

Instead of expending energy to avoid them, the better approach is to expect them and be prepared for them as best we can. Realizing that the situation my son was going through was just a part of his lifelong development of learning and growing, I sought to help him not only get through his current tests but to learn an approach that would benefit him in the future as well.

The approach is nothing new, and many people will pass off this information as simply a “good reminder.” While we do need reminders since in the emotions that accompany stress we often forget how to best deal with it, we also need to realize that we are still learning and growing and adapting with each stressful situation we face. This never stops, and neither should our intention to improve how we move through life’s stressful situations.

Not IF But WHEN

We also have to remember that it’s not a question of IF we’ll go through trials and tests (stressful situations), it’s a matter of WHEN they’re going to happen. Knowing this, we can continually work on how we handle the load stress places on us. 

There are 5 areas that need continually addressed and maintained in order to ensure that we’re dealing with life’s stress to the best of our ability.

1.) Physical

Staying properly fueled, hydrated and rested are minimum requirements. Not doing these almost negates the other items we’ll discuss. In addition, stretching and exercising regularly will help us stay as ready as we can physically for the stresses of life. They’ll also help relieve tension in the midst of stress. We need to be sure to do what we can to head into any stress from a place of physical strength.

2.) Mental

Stress and burnout don’t come as much from what’s actually going on, from the situation itself, as they do from our thoughts about the situation. This is why we must continually renew our thoughts (Romans 12:2). It’s also why we have to remember that worry is distracting and mentally exhausting. Ask, “What would I tell someone in my shoes?” to gain an outside-looking-in perspective. Both of these approaches have served me well for strengthening my mental approach to life’s stresses.

3.) Spiritual

Addressing the spiritual aspect involves regularly making time for God through daily Bible study and prayer as well as through weekly church attendance. Also, staying grateful for blessings helps more than I can ever express. In my son’s situation, for example, him being grateful for the ability and the opportunity to learn and study at a quality university helped him realize how much he’s blessed to be where he is right now. My spiritual state is also immensely healthier as I listen to the Holy Spirit guiding and comforting me. The spiritual aspect of my life is essentially the glue that holds all the others together. Without strength here, nothing else will stay strong for the long term.

4.) Relational

Feeling alone infects any other positive going on in life. This can be especially true during heightened times of stress and burnout. It’s also why staying connected to others is so very important. This also involves asking for help and not stubbornly trying to do it all on your own. I’m grateful my son knows the truth of this and regularly connects with myself or my husband when stress begins to build and often before it gets too weighty for him. He’s great at listening then, too, which is essential in staying connected and warding off feelings of loneliness. And finally, laugh often too. My son is terrific at this. Actually, he’s often the source of this for me. Being strong relationally and refusing to be lonely is essential for living victoriously through the stress and burnout life tends to dole out.

5.) Situational

Making sure this area is working well involves doing what you can and not trying to control what you can’t control. In other words, prepare based on the information you have. Do your best. Simplify where possible. Refuse to dwell in areas you cannot control. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed with what others are or are not doing since you have no control over them. For my son, that meant studying as best he knew how, and it meant not letting his imagination for what could go wrong get away from him. We all have made a situation worse by getting outside of the facts and what we control, so we all understand the need to limit doing so again in the future.

A Pattern of Life

Life is a pattern of ups and downs. The details differ from one person to the next, but the pattern exists for everyone. Look back on your own life, and you’ll see this to be true if you haven’t discovered it already.

As we learn from these seasons, we realize that the areas discussed above work together to either bring us victoriously through stressful times, or they make us feel like we just can’t win. Fortunately, we have a lot of control over what happens.

I’ve stopped trying to keep stressful times from existing in my life. First because it’s not possible. Secondly because the stressful times, really more than the good ones, help me learn and grow in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

Don’t you find this to be true as well?

Knowing God, Part 1

6 Degrees of Separation

Know anyone famous? Want to know anyone famous? According to the theory “6 degrees of separation”…

“All living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other.”

That means, the famous person you want to meet is only six steps — or degrees — away from you. So, Harrison Ford or John Travolta (or whoever it is you want to meet) are connected through five or less other people. Not sure you buy into the theory?

Consider this…

I met a guy in the grocery store a while back who is friends with Harrison Ford. Had I been able to get the guy’s name and number, you would be connected to Harrison Ford through just two people.

Here’s another example. I worked with a guy years ago who is friends with John Travolta. Had John’s number in his cell phone. So, that means you are connected to John Travolta through just two people.

Don’t take my word for it, though, the theory actually has scientific merit too.

“Assuming everyone knows at least 44 people, and that each of those people knows an entirely new 44 people, and so on, the math shows that in just six steps everyone could be connected to 7.26 billion people — more than are alive on earth today.” (Are We Really All Connected by Just Six Degrees of Separation?)

Experiments have been carried out to give the theory even more credence. Not only that, but the shoot-off game “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” provided additional scientific data to strengthen the theory.

Who You Know Matters

Let’s personalize this a bit. When someone wants to find a job today, how valuable is it that they know someone at the company where they’re applying? Almost all of my own work right now exists as the result of knowing someone, not of me actively seeking the work. Even in the Bible we see that who you know matters. Consider Moses and Daniel as examples of this.

Who we know matters. It matters to us in a variety of ways from personal and professional to satisfying a need within us to connect with people who make us feel important.

A Need to Be Known

All people have a need to know and value themselves and to be important to others. Psychologists call this the Relational Value/Social Influence need. Being known is important to us because of how it connects with our individual experiences, private thoughts and public image. This knowing has a tremendous impact on our character structure and well being.

Timothy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage makes a poignant statement about the power of this need.

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is… a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

This statement is even more profound when we remember that Scripture uses marriage as a metaphor for Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-32). Those of us in Christian marriages understand the value of that relationship for better understanding how our relationship with Christ is to exist.

Yet, no matter how good our marriages or any other relationships are, we never have 100% knowledge in them. We aren’t fully known, and we don’t fully know others. The fact is that any knowing outside of God never fully satisfies.

Everyone desires to know and be known because God created us for relationship. More specifically, he created us for relationship with Him.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:16)

And as our creator, only he can know us fully. In fact, he knows us better than we know ourselves.

God Knows Us Intimately

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” (Attributed to Socrates)

As Christians, we believe that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). However, we can still agree that knowing yourself does bring a depth of wisdom essential for living life in a successful way.

Psychologists say that knowing yourself brings the following benefits:

  • Happiness.
  • Less inner conflict.
  • Better decision making.
  • Self control.
  • Resistance to social pressure.
  • Tolerance and understanding of others.
  • Vitality and pleasure.

Yet, we can’t even know all there is to know about ourselves. The Johari Window illustrates this truth well.

Only God can truly know all there is to know about each one of us. And He can do this because, well, He did create us after all.

“For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance. And in Your book were written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

God created us. He knew us before we had physical form and even orchestrated the days of our lives before one of them began. He knows us intimately. It stands to reason, then, that the best way to knowing ourselves better is to know God better.

Next week we’ll explore exactly how we can know God.

Digging In to Scripture

The Value of Research

As a writer, I fully understand the value of research and knowing my topic well. Regardless of length or type of work, research allows me to better know my writing topic.  When I struggle at any point in a writing project, research always produces the breakthrough I need to move forward.

This same approach plays a significant role in my faith walk too. Regardless of the struggle or challenge, seeking God’s will by digging into scripture always strengthens my faith.

I’m referring to going beyond daily devotions. I’m getting at digging into all the scripture related to the struggle or challenge and refusing to stop until your faith revitalizes. It may take several hours, days or even longer, but the time spent won’t be in vain.

If you refuse to quit and push through, you’ll come through the stronger because you’ll know God and his will better than ever before.

Steps for Digging In to Scripture

Below are my basic steps specific to digging in to scripture. Take them and make them your own!

  1. Make a list of related scripture and read through them. Make note of the ones that most connect with your struggle. I usually find them with the concordance in my Bible or by doing a Google search. If doing a Google search, only look at Scripture at this point. Stay away from any articles or commentaries. Just you and God for now.
  2. Write out the scripture that stood out to you. Don’t question why some click while others don’t. Just go with it. It’s the Holy Spirit working.
  3. Make bullet points for each scripture. Write down any thought or connection you make with the reference. No editing. Just record what comes to mind.
  4. Meditate on each Scripture. I often take walks or go for bike rides or even take a nap where I fall asleep thinking about the Scripture as related to my struggle or topic. Just spend time directing your thoughts toward the Scripture you’re studying.
  5. Read through the Scripture and your notes again. Make note of additional thoughts and revelations.
  6. Pray using the Scripture and your notes. Talk to God about what you’re studying. You may have more notes to take during this step.
  7. Listen for God to speak to you. Again, go for a walk or bike ride, but this time just listen for God’s whisper in your mind. Don’t make yourself think anything.
  8. Seek outside sources. Only do this after you’ve spent significant one-on-one time with God. These sources include commentaries, sermons and articles about the scripture and topic you’re studying.
  9. Talk out what you’re studying. Again, only do this after lots of one-on-one time. Find a good listener and share what you’ve discovered. Then, let that person give you some input.
  10. Consider journaling. This works best if you do it throughout the process. I actually do these steps in my journal.

The key in this process lies with refusing to quit. Keep reading through the scripture, and keep meditating on them too. Push through and continue digging in even if you don’t feel or hear anything at first. God will speak to you. Expect it to happen.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)

Select Your Thoughts Like You Select Your Clothing

Enclothed Cognition

What determines the clothing you’ll wear each day? Weather? Activity? Fashion? Cost? Mood? Comfort? All of the above?

“You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day.” (Eat. Pray. Love. by Elisabeth Gilbert)

Since I work at home, I could wear sweats most days. I don’t, though, because I struggle getting into a work mindset if I dress too casually. I usually plan my clothes well ahead of time, based mostly on comfort but also largely on the task at hand.

We all give some mental energy to the clothing we wear. Those choices are impacted by many factors, the combination of which are unique to each individual.

In Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat, the New York Times explains that studies show people are better test takers when they dress up. Researchers call this “enclothed cognition,” saying it’s the effect of clothing on our cognitive processes.

“Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.”

Research proves that clothing impacts thoughts. The Bible shows that this truth extends far beyond our physical dress and into our spiritual dress as well. Essentially, both show that there’s definitely an intimate link between our clothing and our thinking.

Spiritual Clothing

“Clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.” (Romans 13:14)

“Dress yourself in humility” (1 Peter 5:5)

“Since God chose you to be a holy people he loves, you must clothe yourself with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)

Our spiritual dress impacts our thinking. Where we allow our thinking to dwell affects our actions. We simply must continually consider how to dress ourselves spiritually if we are to please God with our attitude, actions and words.

Clean Clothing

Whether physical or spiritual, dirty clothing is easy to spot. Stains and smells almost always give them away. A washing machine and some detergent keeps our physical clothing clean. Likewise, our spiritual clothing receives cleaning too.

Unlike physical clothing, though, our spiritually clothing doesn’t wear out and become permanently stained.

“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)

How are we renewed daily?

  1. Encouraged by the hope of eternity. No matter what happens in this life, we have the promise of eternity. Be encouraged by and focus on this truth.
  2. Strengthened by the resurrection power of Christ. Christ conquered death. Is there anything going on in your life more powerful than death?

A transformation of the mind happens when we focus on and allow the Holy Spirit to work this daily renewal within us. The result?

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

We get to choose what we wear, both physically and spiritually, which determines our thoughts. And a power greater than death washes clean any stain that gets on the spiritual clothing we choose to wear. This daily renewal serves to transform our thinking, which leads us to pleasing God with our attitudes, actions and words.

Discover Encouragement and Determine Reality

sticky-notes-1159958Discussing Discouragement

Lack of progress. Politics. Stupidity. Illness. Aging. Unemployment. Failure.

These things continuously discourage me. If I dwell on them too often and too deeply, I become depressed. Before I reach that point, though, I try to focus on what Scripture says about encouragement.

My visits usually begin here:

“Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. 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 1:6-9)

If we focus on remembering God’s activity in our lives, on what His Word tells us and on His promises, we too receive encouragement from the Lord just as Joshua did.

Discovering Encouragement

sticky-notes-1159969God gives us encouragement in countless ways. We choose to be a part of it simply when we accept it.

Encouragement from God comes through…

  1. Prayer, scripture and progress. (Psalm 138:3, Romans 15:4 & Philippians 1:6) Prayer gives us strength to live as God desires and refocuses us on the encouragement He offers. God’s word offers encouragement through stories, guidance and hope. And the progress He works in us keeps us motivated for continual growth.
  2. Remembering. (Joshua 24:16-17Do you regularly remember what God has done in your life? Scripture certainly sets that as a necessary pattern for the lives of men. Through it, we see that God never changes, and that certainly is encouraging.
  3. Reflection in our eternal hope and our position in Christ. (1 Peter 1:6 & Philippians 2:1-2Think about what the Bible says God has in store for us. Exciting and encouraging, right? Plus, belonging to Christ encourages in a profound way as we regularly experience God’s grace and mercy.
  4. Through visible faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:7)
    How often does seeing another person’s faith in action encourage you? The reverse is also true. Look around!
  5. Through other Christians. (1 Thessalonians 4:18, Romans 1:11-12,
    1 Thessalonians 5:11, Acts 14:21-22 & Hebrews 10:24-25
    We can help each other refocus on eternity. We can gather regularly encourage one another through faith. Encouragement also comes as we strengthen and motivate one another.

When you are encouraged in these ways, doesn’t it feel like anything is possible? That’s kind of the point, actually.

Determining Reality

sticky-notes-1159963When I seek encouragement because I feel sorry for myself, I’m always disappointed. Doing so just focuses me more on my own discouragement and cultivates depression.

When I let God encourage me, I’m never disappointed. When I purpose to encourage others, I’m also always encouraged.

Focus determines reality, after all. When I seek out encouragement, I focus on myself. When I let God encourage me and when I look to encourage others, I focus outside of myself. One results in regular discouragement, the other growing encouragement.

Wondering where to start? Not sure how to specifically live this out?

Begin with what encourages you. Do that to encourage someone else. Sure, everyone is different, but we’re a lot alike too. Plus, as the old adage goes, it’s the thought that counts.

5 Habits for Getting and Staying in Shape

athletic-2

The New Testament uses a variety of athletic metaphors to describe the life of a Christian. These references were certainly understood by those to whom the letter was written since the Olympic games, along with the Isthmian Games, the Nemean Games and the Pythian Games, had been held for hundreds of years prior to any New Testament events taking place. And these metaphors are understood well still today in a culture where exercise and healthy lifestyles exist on a continuum from obsessiveness to belligerent avoidance.

These athletic metaphors were used in Scripture because many of the same habits for getting and staying in physical shape hold true for getting and staying in spiritual shape as well, not the least of which are similarities regarding the necessary mindset needed for both. Better understanding of these connections can lead us to effectively,

“run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).

Perseverance. Discipline. Self-control. All essential elements, along with many others, in both physical and spiritual vitality. These elements, all laced within the athletic metaphors used in Scripture, work with other related habits to create a solid training program applicable both spiritually and physically.

athletic-1For me, the following 5 habits for getting and staying in shape are crucial for my continued physical and spiritual health, both continual struggles even within consistent victories.

  1. Accountability. Physically, a gym membership and/or an exercise partner provide accountability, a key component to staying physically active. Likewise, membership in a Bible-believing fellowship along with connection to individuals through deepening relationships establish the essential element of accountability needed for spiritual fitness. Surrounding yourself with others for support and encouragement goes a long way in remaining consistently strong, both physically or spiritually.
  2. Variety. Exercise can become boring very quickly without variety. For this reason, my workouts vary from running and elliptical to biking and boxing to weights and video workouts. Relating this idea to spiritual fitness, avoid limiting yourself to one way of serving or studying God’s Word. Yes, serve in your area of strength (play on the worship team if you have musical ability) and have systematic approaches to reading God’s Word daily, but be willing to go outside of your comfort zone too (work in the nursery even though you normally teach adults or do a key-word study once in a while). Healthy variety not only helps prevent boredom, but it allows space for God to work in weaknesses, which ultimately makes us stronger overall (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  3. Rest. Neglect adequate recovery time between workouts, and injury will eventually occur. Spiritually, this equates to regular quiet time with God as well as getting physical rest since lack of proper rest inhibits the ability to confidently say “Yes!” when asked, “Are You Giving Your Best?” Being tired physically as well as spiritually significantly impacts effectiveness in every area of life.
  4. Stretching. When was the last time you did something for the first time? Are you will to try new activities? Stretching physically means trying new activities as well as regularly stretching muscles to make them better able to handle activity without injury. Spiritual stretching might involve getting to know new people, especially if you’re an introvert like me, doing an in-depth Bible study if you always just do a short devotional, or joining the choir even though you’ve never performed in front of an audience. Be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading for opportunities to stretch physically, mentally and spiritually.
  5. Refueling. Our minds and spirits are like cars with regard to fuel; they need it in order to function. Physically, a healthy diet gives us the energy we need. Mentally, proper fuel (what we eat as well as drink) allows us to think and reason clearly and effectively. Spiritually, our spirits need filled up regularly on the truth of God’s Word. They need constant filling by the Holy Spirit through prayer, praise and submission. Life constantly asks more of us, which continually drains our energy. Refueling properly allows us to give without being drained and to do so on a consistent basis.

Adding to the connection between spiritual and physical fitness is the realization that both involve also ridding our lives of negative influences. Physically, this means avoiding unhealthy habits such as a poor diet, smoking and drugs. Spiritually, this means avoiding those things like that Paul tells us in Colossians 3:5-9 to “put to death.”

Developing positive habits and eliminating negative ones helps strengthen our perseverance, discipline and self-control, all essential elements of getting and staying in shape physically, mentally and spiritually. Development in this way increases our effectiveness and productivity in amazing ways.

“…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

What habits can you adjust to become physically and spiritually stronger?

Consider studying this topic further by meditating on the following Scripture:

  • Philippians 2:16
  • Galatians 2:2
  • Galatians 5:7
  • 2 Timothy 2:5

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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