Friday, January 22, 2010

Balancing Act

I live my life by a large set of values that are primarily informed by my Christian faith. The Bible, the Spirit, and my neighbors have taught me many lessons about how I want to behave and what choices I want to make. These lessons span a broad spectrum, as evidenced by the miscellaneous nature of this blog, and sometimes it can be hard to organize what I've learned for the purposes of practical living. What lessons and values come into play in each situation? What do I do if my values come into conflict with each other?

Lately I've found myself in situations in which it's not immediately clear to me what choice to make. The wisdom I've gained over the course of my life suggests different strategies and multiple choices, but I sometimes I don't know how to choose amongst those options. If the choices before me are all based on different values, how to I choose amongst them? Consider the following scenarios:
  • I lead a busy life, and the stress can sometimes take a toll on me. I want to contribute in as many ways as possible, but I also want to take care of myself so that I can do my best work. Do I reduce my commitments so that I can have more time to rest and rejuvenate with the hopes that I will do better work in my other pursuits? Or is the work I'm doing important enough that it justifies putting this stress on myself to get it done?
  • I believe that when people are adults, they have to be free to make their own decisions. I can try to convince them, but I cannot force them. I also believe that I cannot just stand by while others are hurt. Where is the line between those two convictions? In the absence of blatant violence, abuse, or infringement of rights, is there a point at which an intervention becomes necessary? 
  • I believe I should behave well towards even my adversaries. Yet, I do not think I should allow people to run roughshod over me or the people I love. I must be able to stand up to them without abandoning my foundation of love. How can I be firm in defense of my convictions without crossing over into anger or aggression?
Each of these scenarios requires me to strike a balance between multiple values. I want to be productive and healthy. I want to give people the freedom choose for themselves, but I also want to protect them from overly destructive behavior. I want to behave with dignity and respect, but I also want to be able to stand up to adversaries who might be willing to play dirtier than I do. I have to figure out how to balance these values and come out in just the right spot. I have to make these determinations on a case-by-case basis, and the answers might not be the same every time.

If you want to physically keep your balance, then you need to pay attention to what your body is telling you and to the environment around you. Likewise, in these abstract situations, I need to pay attention to the specifics of the situation at hand, my own personal state, and God's input. I am not clever enough to read every tricky situation correctly, so I need God's help if I'm going to keep my balance. Am I strong enough to persevere through a busy schedule? Is my friend's behavior harmful enough to require me to step in? What strategy should I use to be strong yet righteous? I may not know the answers to these questions, but God does. He probably won't give me the answers in a booming voice from heaven. Instead, God will probably lead me through intuition, outside circumstances, or even the advice of others. In order to get the message, though, I must be paying attention to what's going on inside and around me.

I cannot blunder through life based on a narrow set of values. My values are only a starting point. If I want to live gracefully, then I also need balance, and that means listening to God and accepting assistance when I don't know what to do.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


This past Sunday I heard a sermon about spiritual gifts. The preacher spoke of the spiritual gifts that each of us have received and encouraged us to use them. She reminded us that all of us have gifts and that none of us is gifted at everything; therefore, the community is at its best when everyone is using his or her particular gifts. She talked about Paul's imagery of the Body of Christ, illustrating how each member needs all of the other members in order to be part of a well-functioning body. No part is better than any other part because the body needs all of its parts. Likewise, no part is insignificant—every part is necessary.

This sermon reminded me how important it is to refrain from comparing myself to others. I am a special and unique person with good (and bad) attributes and work to do. I stand alongside others who are also special and unique, who also have work to do. Comparing ourselves to each other does not make us better or worse and does not help us do our work, so why do we do it? I want to be the best that I can be, but I also want my brothers and sisters in Christ to be the best they can be because their successes contribute to the whole to which I belong. I can't do all of the body's work by myself, so outperforming everyone else shouldn't be my goal. Instead I should compete against myself to elicit my best performance, and I should cheerfully help others do the same. Deep down, I know that I don't really want to be better than everyone else. As a Christian, what I truly want is for all of us to be good together.

When I compare myself to someone else, my love for that person is diminished. I resent her for having a talent or a quality that I do not. I dismiss him for lacking a skill or trait that I possess. In these scenarios, I'm focused solely on myself and my own goals and attributes instead of appreciating the gifts of others. I care more about how good I look in comparison to others than about the beauty and triumphs I could celebrate with them. People should be my family, not my benchmarks. When we stop competing with each other we each become free to work together and do our best. Our love builds us up so that we don't even want to be the best anymore—eventually we feel happy just being who we are.

In the end, that's what I want for myself: to be happy with the gifts and talents that God has given me. When I am satisfied with myself, I will have to reason to look at others with envy or arrogance. Likewise, if I am comfortable with my own talents, I will be able to use them better. I must accept the gifts God has given me in order to be a happy and effective servant. I am not lacking just because there are gifts I do not have—God specifically chose which gifts to give me and which to withhold. Therefore, I must endeavor to stop comparing myself to others and simply be myself. After all, that is what God created me to be.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Love Is More Important

A friend of mine has a bad case of obnoxious relatives. A group of family members on her dad's side have consistently exhibited arrogant, mean-spirited, and even unethical behavior. To make matters worse, they made a scene at her wedding a few years ago. Since then she's done her best to have no contact with them because she gets upset by their inappropriate behavior. But now her grandpa is dying, and she's going to be forced to interact with these people as the family gathers together. She doesn't want to have to "make nice" with them when she disapproves of their behavior, but she also doesn't want to add to her father's stress in his time of grief. She's decided that she will do whatever is necessary to keep the peace with these obnoxious relatives for the sake of her dad. Her love for her father is more important to her than her revulsion for his family.

My friend's resolve inspires me. She has every right to be curt with these people because they have not treated her well, but she is wise enough to recognize that her father's needs are more important right now. She doesn't want him to have to deal with family fighting in addition to grieving. The fact that she's willing to put up with these people because her love for her own father is so strong speaks volumes about her character. I admire this kind of prioritizing in the face of challenges, and I endeavor to choose love more often myself when I find myself in these kinds of situations. If I say that love is the most important thing in my life, then I must be willing to choose it even when the choice is hard, even when it costs me something.

I know that I want love to be the most important thing in my life, but I struggle to live that out. I find myself in many situations where I have to keep reminding myself that love should be the most important thing:
  • Love is more important than pride. I can't sacrifice love in order to save face when someone challenges or belittles me. 
  • Love is more important than fairness. Evening the score or defending my reputation isn't worth it if I have to leave love behind.
  • Love is more important than being comfortable. I have to be willing to go outside my comfort zone if love demands it.
  • Love is more important than self-centeredness. I need to choose to help others instead of focusing only on myself and my own needs.
  • Love is more important than following any plan. If love calls my aside from my planned path, I need to be flexible.
  • Love is more important than right or wrong. Love covers a multitude of sins, so I must not let sins squelch love.
This may seem like an abstract list, but it has plenty of practical applications in my life. Prioritizing love means that I don't get to go out and attack the people who haven't treated me very well, even though their actions hurt and anger me. I can't forget about compassion by sticking it to others when they make mistakes. I shouldn't be complacent when people need help that I can provide. I can't focus on doing the right thing and forget why I am bothering to do it. That means there are a lot of times when I need to stop myself from saying what I'm thinking. I need to challenge myself to love others better instead of focusing on becoming a more "successful" person.

Love is the point of my entire life, and anything that leads me away from love is a pointless distraction. So many things that seem important like prestige, security, intelligence, judgment, and strength have the potential to distract me from my true mission. Everything that is good in my life exists so that I can give and receive love. That's what my life is really about, and I need to remember that as I make difficult decisions every day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Next Step

The task of being a Christian is never over. We never reach a point where we master the concept and then we get to just sit back and bask in our saintliness for the rest of our lives. Christianity doesn't offer us the chance to reach enlightenment or to achieve perfect balance in our lifetimes. It's a relationship and a journey, and it never stops requiring effort. No matter how much we learn, there will always be more to learn. No matter how much we know, we will always have to put in effort to act out our beliefs. No matter how many steps we take, there will always be another step.

I really like to finish projects, and that means it's a little frustrating to have a project—my Christian life, for example—that will never be finished. Occasionally I feel a little bit like a wanderer trapped in a labyrinth or Sisyphus pointlessly pushing a rock up a hill whose pinnacle I will never reach. Am I doomed to toil to no avail, to wander in circles? I suppose the answer to that question depends on the point of the exercise. If my goal is to get to a state of completeness where everything is right and I don't have to try anymore, then I've probably chosen the wrong religion. If I can focus on growth instead of endings, however, then I'm in a wonderful place. I have to remind myself that the fact that my Christian life is a project with no ending is actually a gift—it means there is no ceiling to my potential, no limit to my growth. I can keep becoming better, healthier, stronger, and more loving.

I constantly have to keep re-learning this lesson. I'm still so tempted to see no progress just because the end is nowhere in sight instead of appreciating what I've gained in the process. A few years ago, I got the feeling that God was calling me to write a book on a specific topic. It was a daunting task, and I felt kind of intimidated. I invested a lot of time and discipline into researching and writing this book, and when it was finally finished, I felt a huge surge of exultation. It was done! And yet, that was only the first step. Next I had to figure out how share it with others. It was like I was standing right back at the beginning of that two-year project, only this time I had to do something I'm not naturally good at—networking and promotion. I couldn't figure out what to do. I e-mailed some queries to literary agents and got the typical rejections. I asked a few people to read the book, and only a handful of them did. (Only one person sent back detailed notes.) I wallowed in my seemingly pointless mission. But slowly, a step at a time, I'm beginning to pick up and keep moving. I started this blog as a way to help myself learn how to reach out to others and share my thoughts. I looked up Christian writers' conferences that I could potentially attend in 2010. I talked to Christian friends about my struggles. I got some unexpected advice—that I should consider teaching and speaking about the content of my book in Sunday school classes and at youth groups as a way to help me get used to sharing the message. All of a sudden the outlook doesn't look so bleak, even though the path is still uncertain.

I don't know where this project is going or how long it will take. I don't even know if publication is even one of my destinations. There is no end goal for me to focus on because my mission is simply to share whatever wisdom God has given me with as many people as possible. How could I ever completely finish that task? Each step is scary for me. It was hard to make myself write a book as I worried about what people would think of my ideas or my prose. It's uncomfortable for me to put my thoughts out into the wide world and to try to get people to pay attention to what God's given me to say. I'm not really good with children (I don't have any), and the thought of teaching a Sunday school class terrifies me.

And yet, where God leads, I must go, even if it's scary, even if there is no specific goal in sight. At least along the way I will learn some important lessons: faith, trust, charity, and hopefully the ability to talk to children effectively. I can't get bogged down in frustration just because there's a next step. That next step is a golden opportunity for more personal growth and for more chances to touch others with God's love. I am incredibly lucky that God gives me the unlimited opportunities that come with all of those next steps.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Don't Take the Bait

All of us have buttons. When people push our buttons, we go off a lot more easily than we would under normal circumstances. Even if we aren't typically grumpy people, we can become really irritable when we're provoked. Of course, we all have different things that provoke us. What bothers one person might not bother someone else. So we can't automatically expect others to know what things bother us and what things don't. As Christians, we have to take responsibility for regulating our reactions, even if people are pushing our buttons. We have to choose not to take the bait.

After spending a weekend being baited over and over again by my husband, I can attest that it is no easy task to avoid snapping at someone who is annoying me. It takes a lot of effort (and sometimes yelling in the privacy of my own vehicle) to keep from snapping at someone who's pushing my buttons. I can sometimes keep myself from lashing out at the person who's offended me, but I usually can't manage to completely keep my calm. I may not say something sharp, but I still end up treating the other person a bit coldly or retreating to a private place where I can vent. It's so hard to let those annoyances just roll off my back without turning into a nastier version of myself.

Still, I think that this might be what Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek was all about. I don't think that Jesus was suggesting that we all act like passive wimps who let people walk all over us. Instead, Jesus was asking us to deal with belligerence or offensive behavior without responding in kind. Jesus himself provided an excellent example of this—people insulted him, plotted against him, even arrested him without cause and gave him a sham trial, and Jesus never played dirty against any of them. If I want to live like Jesus, then I can't throw a verbal zinger at my husband every time he behaves a little rudely to me. (I've been repeating this to myself over and over again this weekend. It helps a little.) Jesus wasn't even belligerent to the people who crucified him, so why is it so difficult for me to hold my tongue when someone speaks slightingly to me? I feel like I should be justified in striking back, but that's not what following Jesus means. I'm supposed to be loving, not fair, and that means holding my tongue even when I think someone deserves to be told off.

I do recognize the benefits of refusing the take the bait. If I retaliate, then the conflict escalates—by behaving calmly, I don't provide any additional fuel for the bad behavior. In fact, behaving well and treating others with basic respect can even encourage them to do the same. Not to mention, if I can keep myself from erupting in anger every time someone steps over the line, I can probably save myself a lot of stress and maybe even an ulcer. I don't have to allow others' bad behavior to pull me away from my peaceful, loving Christian center. Jesus didn't take the bait because he knew there was no profit in doing so. Even though it's difficult for me, I continue struggling to be calmer when others provoke me because I know it's not only the Christian thing to do—it's also the smart thing to do.
Christian Love Lessons - Free Blogger Templates - by Templates para novo blogger