Uncertainty is not the worst-case scenario

Uncertainty is not a worst-case scenario. Living in pain for a life unnecessarily might be.

Now, of course, life is not pain-free. There is not a version of life without pain, without conflict, or without hardship. In fact one of the most important things we can do as people of faith is learn to face pain, conflict, and hardship head-on. It is vital that we learn to live with some level of pain, to work through conflict, and to tolerate hardship. Otherwise we are fooling ourselves.

The kind of pain I’m describing is the kind that is unnecessary and avoidable. Should we make a change, it would not exist. Making that change, though, may give rise to some other problem or pain. That is the uncertainty piece.

Embracing uncertainty is difficult, but it can be an act of hope. It suggests that we’re willing to tolerate some pain, some discomfort, for a time in order to ensure a future where we are better suited to reflect God’s image because we’re not bogged down by pain. We have pain, but we are not bogged down. There’s a difference between having some pain or discomfort and being bogged down by it such that our ability to live as the kind of people we hope to be is compromised.

I am not suggesting you go out and end every relationship that causes you pain. I am suggesting that you consider whether a relationship or situation is /defined/ by the pain it causes. If so, it may be worth considering uncertainty.

Hope and acceptance

Many of us get to a certain point in life where we’ve become so accustomed to the way things are that we fear change, even though change brings with it the possibility that things will be better. The status quo, or the familiar, offers us comfort because it’s a known entity. We know what we’re up against day-in and day-out even if what we’re up against robs us of our joy and our ability to thrive. It can be, ultimately, an act of faith to abandon the familiar in order to create the possibility of a more joyful, more free life of thriving.

I get it, though, even if the familiar isn’t particularly pleasant it often offers us benefits. If your child has a use disorder, it can ease our anxiety to be able to put eyes on them whenever we want by allowing them to live at home. It can be comforting and secure to go to work everyday and receive a steady paycheck even if the work environment is negative. My point is, even things that are negative experiences on the aggregate generally offer some benefits. So, when we make a choice to change those things we’re leaving behind not just the “familiar negatives,” which we tolerate because they’re familiar, but also the benefits, though they may be small. This is a challenge. A big challenge.

All that said, though, making a change will offer new positives, even as it offers new negatives. The question is whether these changes open up the possibility of living out of our new way of seeing. You certainly don’t need to change what is familiar just for the sake of changing it, but it may be a good idea if it supports our ability to love as God loves at the same time as it decreases our pain. Changes also bring the pain of loss, and this, too, can keep us stuck.

Acceptance is about embracing the truth that the familiar may be quite harmful for us. Hope is trusting that changing what is harmful is ultimately for our benefit, even though it brings with it a great deal of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is not a worst-case scenario. Living in pain for a lifetime unnecessarily might be.

Is "acceptance" really just giving up?

Acceptance is about living in reality. It’s an acknowledgment that things change and we must adapt to those changes. In my mind, it’s not about giving up so much as it is learning to operate within the confines that life throws at us. But, sometimes acceptance is about giving up. It’s about giving up when we’re holding onto a fantasy that is either destructive (to self or others) or otherwise impeding our ability to live out of our certain way of seeing.

For instance, if you’ve lived the past 20 years in a toxic relationship that has robbed you of your dignity and your ability to thrive, it may be time to “give up” on that relationship. If it were me, though, I wouldn’t consider this giving up. I would consider it an act of hope. It’s an act of hope because it’s trusting that there is a better alternative for you, even if it’s not your ideal. In romantic relationships, again, for instance, we often hesitate to let go even when they’re particularly harmful because we fear the alternative of being alone. Being temporarily alone, though, may have unforeseen benefits. You may not have to walk on eggshells. You may not have someone regularly scream at you, or hit you. You may not have to suffer any number of indignities. And, you open the door to the possibility of meeting someone who values you, respects you, and uplifts you.

This isn’t only true in romantic relationships. It can be true of a family sharing a house with someone with a use disorder. It can be true in a working environment. It can be true of a friendship, or a family relationship. Whatever your circumstances are, consider whether or not you have the capacity to thrive. Consider whether or not you have the opportunity to live out of your certain way of seeing. If this isn’t possible, then it might be time to make difficult changes. Don’t make the mistake of calling this “giving up” or “quitting” though, that’s the kind of language people use to try to keep you trapped in a dehumanizing situation.

Call it hope.

Is it a limitation or a temporary obstacle?

Today I’m returning more explicitly to our conversation about limitations. One of the questions that came up during a recent message dealt with discerning when to view something as a limitation as opposed to an obstacle. How do we know when what we’re faced with is something we can transcend as opposed to something that must be accepted?

Well, my answer to that isn’t going to be particularly satisfying: context is king. I follow a guitar builder on Instagram whose hand got mangled in an industrial accident. It will never work the same way again. Is this a limitation or an obstacle?

Let’s start with this question: Can he overcome it? It depends on what we mean by overcome. His hand will never function identically to how it functioned prior to the accident. When I use “overcome” or “transcend” I tend to think of these terms as meaning that whatever got disrupted could be returned to its original state. In this case, he cannot overcome it according to that definition.

This does not mean he has to give up building guitars, though. In fact, he has not stopped. His process has changed. His speed is reduced. This means fewer guitars each year. It means he will make less money. But he doesn’t have to give up on his dream job of building guitars. As was true in our example earlier in the month, we could view this as a kind of overcoming, I suppose, but it’s the kind that requires acceptance and adaptation.

So, was his accident a limitation or an obstacle? Perhaps a little bit of both. Sometimes we must treat our limitations as obstacles in order to figure out how we can best adapt to them. This may even be a form of acceptance. This guitar builder figured out how to adapt such that even though his life greatly changed, the change was not the most hopeless version that it might have been. This is our key point. Acceptance is not about giving up, it’s about making sure that the outcome isn’t as hopeless as it otherwise might be. We do not need to choose between accepting and fighting. Accepting is a form of fighting, it’s just a kind that does not involve living in denial.

More on this tomorrow.

How to be brave

How does a person become brave, or strong, or whatever, such that they can withstand all of the junk life throws at them? Well, the simple answer based on the past few days is that this is the kind of strength God offers us through faith. I believe that, I really do. But sometimes we still need a little help learning how to access that strength, right?

The first piece is we need a firm grounding in several key relationships where people both allow us to be ourselves and offer us strict accountability when we are not abiding by our chosen “way of seeing.” (Remember, we talk about faith as a “certain way of being based on a certain way of seeing.”).

We need other people in our lives for God to work through. This isn’t to say that God exclusively works through other people, or that He could not just work on us individually, but it helps to offer him multiple opportunities to go to work in our lives. That is one important role others play.

Sometimes in my life I have been the recipient of hardship and not been able to withstand it. I was alone. Other times, the opposite. I was surrounded. Being brave doesn’t mean having more inner resolve, necessarily, though we often think that. It can mean having exterior resolve- we can borrow from the resolve of those who love us.

Endurance and thriving

Yesterday we established that part of experiencing joy, patience, and endurance, as people of faith, is consciously choosing the long-term perspective that God is actively at work to remove hardship. We learn to use this lens to remind ourselves that our hardships are part of a version of creation that is fading away (albeit slowly, too slowly). In this way, we find joy in anticipating the end of God’s work.

But what does that have to do with today? How might we thrive in the present?

First we should ask, what do we mean by thriving? Under what circumstances would you consider yourself to be thriving? Is thriving all about having desirable circumstances? I’d suggest not, because life will never offer totally desirable circumstances. Some things will be desirable, some things won’t be. This is just how life goes.

Thriving is not just about removing negative things from life, but being people who respond to negative events with courage, grace, and dignity. It is about being people who can speak back to the tragedy of life, instead of being people lose their identity in response to suffering, or who become defined by that suffering. What I mean is, it’s possible for life to smack us in the face without losing our sense of who we are. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. That is the essence of thriving. It is the essence of contentment and joy. When Paul says he can do all things through Christ, I believe this is what he means.

How do we become those kinds of people?

I’ll speak on that tomorrow.

Endurance and joy

From yesterday: Enduring gets a bad wrap. It sounds negative, as if to “endure” means to just barely make it. As if to imply that we can’t thrive, we can only survive. Today, we’re going to begin to move in the direction of discussing how endurance can be about thriving, but it’s going to require us taking some small steps first. Today is one small step in that direction, so do not be discouraged. Hang in there over the next few days.

We recently talked about the following verses about endurance and joy in both in the blogs and in the weekend messages, but let’s revisit them:

2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.

~ James 1:2-4, CEB

There’s a certain logic to this that we must walk through slowly and carefully in order to fully understand what is going on here. It is not saying that we should be happy about life’s difficulties. It’s suggesting that people of faith take on a bold, long-term perspective. That perspective reminds us that God is not yet done working. Because he’s not yet done working, there are going to be hardships. These hardships are reminders, ultimately, that God is not yet done working. Let’s phrase it positively: God is working to remove hardships, so that there will be no more tears. That may not make us happy, and it may not completely relieve our pain, but it is a reminder we hold onto that limits the damage.

Joy isn’t about masochistically enjoying hardship, it’s about damage limitation. It is about the long game. It’s about using our perspective, as people of faith, to remind ourselves that God is still at work, even amidst our trials, and part of his work is to create people who can endure such that we become whole, or complete. Joy is not about feeling happy about suffering. It’s about reminding ourselves that suffering does not get the final say.

More to come.

Faith and limitations redux

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

According to verses that lead up to this one, Paul is saying he is empowered, by Christ, to live in contentment regardless of his material circumstances. In other words, whether in wealth or poverty, Paul is capable of being content because Christ strengthens him to do so. In this way, we should hear these verses as saying something more like, “You can be content in the midst of your limitations because Christ offers you the kind of strength necessary to live with your limitations.”

Again, this isn’t really a popular message. People would likely be more interested in this post if I said that anything was possible with the appropriate amount and type of faith. That’s a fantasy- but it’s a tempting one because it suggests that it’s possible to go from powerless to powerful with faith. We can manipulate the world, our lives, our life circumstances, even God. Sadly, this is not the case. Even Paul does not think anything is possible, he thinks it’s possible to be strengthened by God, through Christ, to endure limitations.

In other words, this is really a message of acceptance more than it is a message of power or strength. Faith doesn’t give us more power. It gives us the power to endure.

Enduring gets a bad wrap. It sounds negative, as if to “endure” means to just barely make it. As if to imply that we can’t thrive, we can only survive. I do not think this is what enduring really is, and we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

Faith and limitations

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

These words have become more about tearing people down than lifting them up. How so? Well, if you have limitations, then you must not be a faithful person because faithful people are strengthened (by Christ) to do anything. Let me pause here. I don’t believe that is what these verses are saying, nor what they mean, but it is the most common presentation. People who have limitations cannot help but feel ashamed when their lives do not match this image of strength.

It might surprise you, then, to see the words which precede these famous verses.

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor.

Working backwards, we ask the question, “What is it that Christ strengthens Paul to do?” Not literally “all things.” He can’t fly. He can’t jump over a mountain. So, what is it? According to verses 10-12, Paul is empowered, by Christ, to live in contentment regardless of his material circumstances. In other words, whether in wealth or poverty, Paul is capable of being content because Christ strengthens him to do so.

This should blow your hair back, because these verses are often used to encourage people to think that hard work, or effort, can help them rise above their limitations. What Paul is saying is more like: You can be content in the midst of your limitations because Christ offers you the kind of strength necessary to live with your limitations.

Those are very different messages, aren’t they?

Limitations threaten our perceptions

Acknowledging limitations poses a major threat to a number of our cultural values and norms. Our culture teaches us that people have unlimited potential and that they can be whatever they want as long as you work hard enough. It’s a silly philosophy- but it’s also one that is difficult to tear down because, if you don’t accomplish your goal, then someone easily rationalize it by saying, “They must not have worked hard enough.” That allows us to continue the fantasy that nothing can stop hard work and that means we all have the potential for “greatness.”

Acknowledging limitations isn’t popular because, if we did acknowledge them, then it would mean giving up on this fantasy that everyone has equal opportunities at greatness. Even worse, we are a culture of people so obsessed with avoiding pain such that we will go out of our way to deny that pain even exists. When we can’t deny the pain exists, we will deny that it continues to impact us. “I’m over it, I’ve moved on.”

So, we try to deny limitations. Or we talk as if we’ve overcome things that we haven’t yet overcome because it’s hard for us to face the fact that we are limited. Or we simply come up with a replacement “thing.” Yesterday, I wrote about my friend who lost his fiancé to a car accident. Today, he is happily married with children. But that isn’t a replacement wife, and those aren’t replacement kids. He still carries the pain of his loss, and that is okay. If he doesn’t acknowledge that then the pain itself may run amok, causing all kinds of damage he is unaware of. That unintentional damage can be limited if we’re willing to acknowledge life’s limitations and its confines and learn to work within them. In other words, acknowledging limitations as a result of our pain does not create problems for us. However, refusing to acknowledge our limitations does.

Tragedy and Limitations

Some limitations will always be there and we must learn to live alongside them. They put confines around the types of outcomes we can expect to experience in life and we can only learn to tolerate or accept that reality.

Here’s an example. I have a friend who was once engaged to a woman who died, tragically and unexpectedly, in a car crash. He never got the experience of being married to her, neither the joy nor the sorrow of marriage. He will never raise children with her. This was an outcome he anticipated, even expected. Her death placed a confine on his life: he will never see the future they planned. He can’t overcome that.

Let me be clear: he may very well find a happy and hopeful future with someone else. We could call that a certain kind of “overcoming,” because his life would not be defined by grief and victimhood. That would be legitimately good. But, at the same time, he will never see the future he planned with his fiancé and that is a reality that can only be grieved, mourned, and, hopefully, accepted as he enters a new phase of life. In that sense, specifically, he can’t overcome the tragedy. What I mean is, he can’t erase it from existence and he will always be impacted. He can’t bring his fiancé back nor change the past. He will carry it with him. Because he will carry this pain with him, there will be limitations. He will live with unmet expectations, remorse or regret (potentially), disappointment, shock, sadness, anger, and more. Likely he will struggle with emotional intimacy for a time because his burden is great. The list could go on. His life has confines now. He cannot marry the person he wanted to marry. Because of that, his future is limited to options other than the one he planned on. While this is deeply sad, this does not have to be hopeless, and we’ll talk more about that in the days to come.

The point is, life will throw things at us, at times, that we cannot undue, ignore, or simply move past. They must be confronted, somehow, some way and, even if we’re able to confront them, they may still impact us moving forward. In short, life’s difficulties can be so great that they place confines on us. They limit us and they limit our potential outcomes for our lives.

Here are some questions we’ll try to tackle in the next few days:

What do we do about this? How do we, as faithful people, respond to these limitations? Is the acknowledgment of these limitations an example of hopelessness?

Stay tuned.

Facing Limitations

We all have limitations of various kinds. Some of us have been so deeply wounded that we have become detached from our own lives to the extent that we experience a limited range of emotion. It is difficult to connect. Some of us experience unexpected, random tragedy, such as the loss of a child. This is a grief that never quite subsides. Some of us develop dependencies on substances while watching others who use in an identical manner go on about their lives unharmed. Some of us have physical limitations, such as sight or hearing or even strength. Some of us have mental limitations such as intelligence or a mood disorder or a psychotic disorder. These limitations places confines on our lives. Or, at least, they have that potential. Certainly some types of limitations can be transcended, even overcome, others we must simply learn to live with.

It’s the latter kind I’m particularly interested in as I write these posts over the next few days. Some limitations will always be there and must learn to live alongside them. They put confines around the types of outcomes we can expect to experience in life and we can only learn to tolerate or accept that reality. What do I mean by this? Stay tuned. I’ll begin to unpack this tomorrow.