Taking an inventory is less scary when we remember who God is

In deference to living and working an honest program, I have a confession to make. I did not grow up in a home where honesty was practiced or rewarded. For most of my growing up years I lied when it was easier to tell the truth. It was a habit. It was a safety measure in light of my family system. Partly it was fantasy living. Mostly it was trying to read the room and figure out what others expected from me and then giving the people what they wanted.

Today I understand that this was my attempt to win approval, avoid punishment and seek positive attention - but I did not understand it then. My adult self has compassion for the little girl who felt like she had to perform like a circus clown to get anyone’s attention. It was a terrible habit that turned into a character defect and although it worked fine at home, out in the real world most people prefer to relate to people they can trust.

When I turned my life over to God, I was ill-equipped to deal with the truth. I expected God to be either apathetic or downright hostile towards me. I still struggle to maintain a more accurate view of God and his love for me. My first Fourth Step reflected my lack of understanding of God’s love for me. Undergirding all my efforts to become a more honest human has required me to increase my conscious contact with who God is, not who I imagined him to be, as I looked for him in my father. I use scriptures to teach me that I can trust this God, which has turned out to be a better guide than what I heard from the pulpit in my grandparent’s church or the speculations of others who often tried to convince me that I needed to be afraid and perform for God.

You may also struggle with this, so before we get into the weeds of Step Four - here is a reminder of who God is....

This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

~ 1 John 4:9-10, The Message

Sin - living independently of God, only a problem in that living independently of God is not healthy focus.

God - not as worried about how we live as he is about the effects of how we have lived and our relationship with him, ourselves and others. God is not worried about his reputation; he is not asking us to be good so that he feels better. He is focused on the object of his love - us - and is deeply committed to healing our wounds.

Keep this in mind, we might just need this kind of support going forward. And, FYI, as you are building a team to support your work, make sure it is people who don’t practice shame or blame or are judgy McJudgsters. However, they do need to be people who can not only hear the truth, but can speak it too.

Healing starts with honest self-reflection

An inventory is when we basically take stock of our life. This means everything, not just the problem that got our attention. Inventories are done thoroughly when we include EVERYTHING on the list. This includes the positive and the negative, and later on I will make it easy for you to complete one with instructions so thorough it will make your head spin. I have yet to meet a person who does a particularly decent job listing the positive traits about themselves AND no one gets all giddy over the possibility of inventorying their fears, resentments and sexual history. Despite our collective reluctance, the list needs to be as complete and honest as we can bear.

A couple came to Northstar Community (a recovery church I co-pastor) looking for help for the wife’s drinking. He thought she had a problem, she did not agree with his assessment. During our conversation I asked the husband about his drinking habits. I do this to assess what we’re working with when we meet a family. He said, “I have one drink a night.” Sounds reasonable.

I replied, “Would it be possible for the two of you to go alcohol and drug free for thirty days? This will help us establish a bit of a baseline for whether or not there is a problem with alcohol in your family, especially since the two of you are not in agreement about the severity of the issue.” They agreed.

Within twelve hours the wife was in detox; after another twelve hours, her husband joined her. It turns out that his single vodka per night was poured into super-sized Yeti cooler. He was pounding the vodka but was technically accurate when he said he had “one drink” per night. Figuring this out saved him from detoxing in an unsafe manner. It helped the treatment team treat the real problem, not just the identified patient in the family (his wife).

When you do this inventory, problems will emerge. That’s reality. But because this is a spiritual program, we can trust that it is not a harsh reality intended to shame and blame. It is a pathway to healing. The more honesty you can muster, the better the support available to you will be because your team will be better informed.

If you are interested in taking this step, begin today by building a team of folks who can support your work. You need more details about how to build this amazing support group? Give Scott or Teresa a shout out! (scott@northstarcommunity.com or teresa@northstarcommunity.com)

New Strategies for Future Challenges

We are all hot messes. It is hard to examine ourselves. This may not be your first rodeo with recovery and Step Four. That’s okay - you are not alone. I have a friend who was working, by all accounts, a decent program. Her mother died unexpectedly in a car accident. On the day of her mother’s funeral, she had a slip up and drank at her mother’s memorial service. She feels like a failure.

Of course she does. But what we are learning in recovery is that our feelings are not always fact. Her friends empathize with how lousy she feels AND they remind her that she did not lose all her clean time because she had one slip. She feels a lot of shame - and we can all relate to that! But using on this particularly difficult day without a support network around her to navigate the funeral and after party? That does not make her a failure. And it does not negate her recovery efforts. It does, however, make her vulnerable if she doesn’t jump right back on the recovery train.

Perhaps you are not a person in recovery from Substance Use Disorder. Maybe you cannot relate to her struggles. Take a few breaths and re-evaluate your situation. How many times have you promised yourself ‘A’ only to live ‘B’. Maybe your blood work indicates you are headed on a direct path toward diabetes and you know that you MUST change your way of eating. After your son’s birthday bash. After the holidays. Or your marriage is kind of a mess and you know you SHOULD go get some help, but who to go to? And it’s expensive! And time consuming!! So there we have it - we are all far more alike than different.

Early recovery and initial efforts to change feel bad and are hard to sustain. It is easy to think that this means life is bad. It’s hard work but helpful to remember that this bad feeling may be just a blip on the road to an otherwise abundant life. A slip that is rapidly followed up by a return to recovery or new ways of living can help a person and their support team figure out how to tweak their program for more effectiveness. In the case above, my friend has decided that she will no longer attend high stress, heavy drinking family functions without a recovery buddy. She will go early and leave early. She has new strategies for future challenges, even those that are not as traumatic as her mom’s funeral.

We need to "find our way back home"

If turning our life and will over to the care and control of God “fixed stuff” we wouldn’t need a Fourth Step. We would also see a statistical difference in divorce rates, fewer problems with Substance Use Disorder in Christian families, and a host of other problems people face daily. Folks who are faithful believers should, in theory, have fewer problems than those who do not profess a faith in God. But we do not see statistical differences. Faithful people struggle with the same issues at approximately the same rate as folks who spend Sundays cutting grass and watching sports on television.

In trying to explain this, a few gurus and experts have resorted to blame. They talk about how people at church are struggling because they do not pray right, they have never really accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior, they have unconfessed sin, etc. etc. etc. But, what if it is actually more complicated than that? What if blame is not the answer?

Maybe our humanity lends itself to control issues, forgetfulness of our divine image-bearing capacity, and confusion about what it means to turn our life over. This is certainly true for the men and women we read about in the scriptures. Why wouldn’t it also be true for us? Look at Hebrews 11, the Hall of Fame of God’s righteous people. They are, every one of them, a cast of characters with spotty resumes and plenty of bad behaving.

Maybe there are those among us who simply have been selfish and self-seeking and need a good strong kick in the spiritual pants. However, this has not been my experience with people. I find that most people do not ruthlessly and wantonly try to screw up their lives by making poor choices. Underneath every story that appears to be about callous indifference to others is usually a wounded animal fighting to survive. Often this wounded soul has been traumatized in some way. There is much here to be both merciful and gracious about.

Wounded or not, when we do screw up our lives, behave ruthlessly, wantonly disregard the needs and wants of others, lie, cheat and steal...we need to change all that. We need to figure out how to turn around and find our way back home. Home base for humans includes the capacity to behave with empathy and compassion, to regard others’ needs and wants as well as our own, to know and live by the truth, to live honorably. To love well. In a few studies we will start that process.

Accurately assessing ourselves creates peace

There is absolutely, hands down, no better way to make peace with myself and others than to take stock of myself and see, really see, who I am and how my personhood impacts those around me. This is an essential part of a fresh start.

Imagine you are transferring the ownership of your life to God in the same way you would transfer ownership of a business. One of the first things you would do in negotiating to sell a business would be to take an inventory to discover the damaged or out-of-date goods that are no longer salable.

In Step Four we call it a “moral” inventory because we compile a list of traits and behaviors that have transgressed our highest moral values. We also inventory our “good” traits and the behaviors that represent them. In our life’s moral inventory the defects or dysfunctional behaviors might include some that once worked; some dysfunctional behaviors may have saved our lives as children, but they are now out-of-date, self- defeating, and cause us a great deal of trouble when we use them as adults.

- Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing

Another person in recovery talked about his own Step 4 inventory when he said, “The inventory is the first thing I do in conscious partnership with God. And that’s why prayer is so important in the process. It is not something I’m going to figure out when I’m preoccupied with and deconstruct it and analyze it...all those things I’ve tried to do [on my own] and came out disastrously wrong.”

An inventory is how we STEP UP. But we can only do so when we have leaned into this sure-footed understanding that God is not out to get us. Tomorrow, we will look more closely at the process itself.

Learn to question your feelings

When I was a kid I often dreamed of the police coming to the house and hauling my dad off to jail. As I aged up, I often had these vague feelings, fear and dread mostly, that I was a person who might get hauled off to prison for wrongdoing. What wrongdoing? I did not know. I wondered - am I a bad person?

I could shrink all this down and hypothesize about my chronic shame, but it would bore you and miss the point I am trying to meander to. Here’s the deal: There are a ton of things we cannot know for certain, but one thing that is true enough and sure enough to make all of us collectively jump for joy.

This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit.

~ 1 John 4:13, The Message

Our feelings are helpful, but don’t get the final say in determining our value. Neither do other people’s feelings, thoughts and opinions. Here is what we can know: We are living in the light when we wrestle with what it means to love God. There is no major renovation needed to turn us INTO a someone God can love, he created us as beings he deeply and profoundly loves. This changes the nature of our work, and the confidence in our capacity to be faithful people.

We were made for this abundant, loving life. It is our best and most natural look. But we still screw up. We do bad things. God knows this, and made provision for us. It is beautifully laid out in the 12 Steps of AA. In case these are not steps you trod, we’ll unpack it in future blog posts.

Commit to the process, not the outcome

When faced with a stubborn problem with a high stakes outcome most of us freak out. We give up. We fight back. We freeze up and hope a miraculous solution will just reveal itself. We manipulate others. We berate ourselves. We get all whipped up. Turns out that there is one simple but totally counter-intuitive reaction that is far more effective than any of our machinations. WE LET GO OF THE OUTCOME. This doesn’t mean that we give up. Far from it. Here are some questions that I TRY to remember to wrestle with when I am deeply invested in a particular outcome:

What is my part in this matter?

Do I even have a right to claim investment in the outcome?

Is this even my business?

Am I staying within my boundary? Is this my problem?

If any of these are answered “no”, then I need to bail on thinking, feeling and doing with regards to this issue. I need to practice the art of the STEP BACK.

If I decide that this is indeed my business, I am appropriately invested in the outcome because it is my business and I am NOT overstepping any boundaries if I take on the work of trying to be a part of the solution, then:

What is my part in this matter?

Who are the other stakeholders in this situation? Who is the primary stakeholder?

What part do I play in relation to the other stakeholders?

Am I a bit player? A lead dog? A co-laborer?

Am I over-invested in the outcome in light of my role?

Is my ego involved?

How do I fit in with the whole picture?

If I am over-invested based on my role, I need to practice the STEP BACK. If I am highly invested, I need to slow down and listen up.

Who do I need to learn from? Listen to? Consider? Have I really gathered all the data?

Get curious, without trying to sway or influence others.

How can I contribute?

Do I have a super power I can bring to the table? If so, have I been invited to use it?

If not, STEP BACK. If yes, the final question.

What can I responsibly contribute to the situation without any regard for the outcome?

If we are too focused on the outcome, then we will have a very tough time detaching from our feelings, thoughts, preferences, and habitual ways of acting while under stress. When we can practice objectivity and live life without attachment to a particular outcome, we are well-positioned to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Our actions can change our feelings

Behavior is defined as what we do. Our thoughts and feelings certainly impact our behavior but do not necessarily have to control it. We can establish recovery habits to slow our roll and pause to prepare so that we can learn strategies for evaluating both our thoughts and feelings. We can fact check them; consider other perspectives; get curious. Although we may struggle to apply these principles, I do not think they are particularly new or shocking. In fact, the scriptures have made this plain for all to see.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

~2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV

This is tough to actually accomplish. But lately I have been introduced to a different concept. I suspect it is tied to a saying that I have always had a hate/hate relationship with that goes like this: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” I am not a fan. I am disingenuous enough without choosing to fake stuff! However, like all pithy sayings, I am coming to believe there might just be a kernel of truth in the phrase.

Interestingly, we can also use our behavior to redirect our thoughts and feelings. It turns out, that behaving in a manner that is counter to our thoughts and feelings can actually realign our thoughts and feelings!

For decades I have had some thoughts and feelings about my physical capabilities. I believed that I had certain limits as to how high I could jump, how fast I could run, how heavy I could lift weights. When I began working with a personal trainer, she disavowed me of my self-imposed limitations. I didn’t give up my way of thinking and feeling without a fight. I whined and complained and practiced the fine art of non-compliance. But she just kept suggesting that I plug away and “Give it a try”. I have surpassed every self-imposed limitation and am now enjoying the experience of pushing my boundaries to find my capacity.

My behavior taught my thoughts and feelings to stand down. I could not have led with my thoughts or feelings and changed my behavior. How about you? What thoughts and feelings are holding you back? Maybe you need some good coaching to push you to try new behaviors that challenge these old assumptions.

P.S. I did not “fake” anything; I did, however, submit to a higher authority and reluctantly follow her lead. I did change my behavior in spite of my reluctance to believe that it would bear fruit. I did feel and think that this was crazy talk coming out of her mouth. But I was also willing to consider the possibility that I was wrong and she was wise.

Honest self-reflection helps us live with limitations

I bought a cool feelings chart for my grandchildren. Underneath pictures of children in various moods, the author included a feeling. The little boy with the tears flowing down his cheek is “sad”; the little girl flinging her arms and legs out in a leaping motion is “joy”. Soon I will start reviewing this with tiny Norah; Christian is already subjected to my “feelings” lessons each time he visits. In fact, it is often one of his first activity requests when he visits.

Recently Christian used “confused” in context to describe his feeling. Later in the day he used “frustrated” without throwing a fit for emphasis. When Norah yawns or rubs her eyes, her parents have taught her the sign for “sleepy” (which is adorable). Norah might not be ready for Meme’s feelings chart, but thanks to wise parenting she is already learning how to name her feelings.

The rest of us? Not necessarily great at naming our feelings. And when we do, we often forget how fleeting they are. After Igor completed his fifth step, his big feelings about Boris slipped away, shed without any conscious choosing on Igor’s part.

Feelings are trying to get our attention but they are not designed to make our decisions. Igor’s big feelings ultimately served to drive him to some needed self-reflection. Soon he had other issues to address that were far more his responsibility than beleaguered Boris.

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy…

~Psalm 30:11, NIV

God does not use magic wands to do his work. He does, however, provide us with inspired ways of seeing and the tools necessary for us to join him in his work - healing the world, one soul at a time.

Today, what would it look like for you to participate in your own healing? Not to avoid anything, but to identify and address your limitations that are being revealed as you notice and tend to your emotions.

Hold your reactions accountable

I am an admirer of Byron Katie’s work. She has a method of self-inquiry that involves asking the question, “Is it true?” Her system helps the inquirer test their thoughts and feelings for veracity. Obviously, the theory is that our thoughts and feelings are NOT always true.

She wrote a children’s book called “Tiger, Tiger, is it true?” and my grandson loves it. In the story, Tiger Tiger wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. He hops out of bed, lands on a toy truck and goes flying. He decides in that moment that he is going to have a lousy day and the day does not disappoint. Several events happen that support his theory. Fortunately, his friend Turtle introduces him to the Byron Katie system and by story’s end Tiger Tiger has learned to turn his thoughts around. The book illustrates some important points about our thought life, including:

Just because I think it does not mean it is true. Thoughts come and go.

A while back Pete and I had to replace our sewer line. It was a big, expensive, and inconvenient project. It messed up our beautiful lawn and threatened to damage a newly installed sprinkler system. Pete and I were kind of bummed until we chose to take our lemons and make lemonade - a phrase I usually find cliched and annoying until I actually use it. We had points about to expire for a free room with Marriott. They had a room available at their location down in the Shockoe Bottom so we locked that stinky house and headed downtown. We dined at a lovely restaurant sitting on the patio in perfect weather. (How many days do we get that in RVA?) We walked in the city. We had access to a functioning bathroom. We both worked intentionally to turn our thoughts around about the mess at home; the effort was worth it.

No one could have done this work for us. We are responsible for checking our thoughts for accuracy, choosing from a myriad of equally true but different perspectives that will result in changed ways of thinking and even feeling. Our choices resulted in a perfect night out and the very fine team of a local company that repairs sewer lines had our home back to mostly normal by nightfall.

Our thoughts are not always our best work, but when we know that, we can pause to prepare and make different thoughts our highest priority (so long as we are not living in a fantasy world).

Pro tip: The kind of work we need to do changes over time

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

Igor’s third revelation:

“I cannot go an hour without thinking about Boris and his stupid decisions.” Perhaps the most difficult realization for Igor to come to grips with was how addictively he was living - without actually using.

This was extremely upsetting and resulted in a need for extra support for a time as he grieved the illusion of his own sobriety. He found a counselor. He started going to our Family Education meetings. He switched out one AA meeting a week for an Al-Anon meeting. He complained that he felt ashamed and even embarrassed by his need for support. But Igor did what recovery had taught him - he humbly asked for and received the particular kind of help he needed at this time in his recovery journey.

Today, Igor is appropriately aware of how close he came to losing his way because of his complacency. Is this an issue for you? Are you resting on the laurels of previous work to give you what you need for today?

Tomorrow we give Igor and Boris a break from our obsessive inventory-taking of their lives.

Problems in one relationship can create problems in another

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

Igor’s second revelation:

“I resent Boris for MAKING me feel this way.” Igor resented Boris for “making him worry”. It took a while but eventually Igor recognized that he, Igor, was solely responsible for what he chose to think about and how his thoughts impacted his emotions.

The result of this revelation gave Igor the opportunity to practice a bit more self-discipline in his thought life. When he started fretting over Boris, he learned how to actually hold up his hand in a “STOP” motion and say, “This is not mine to think, feel or do.” He did a great job, with assistance, coming up with a few alternative things he could do immediately following his self-command to STOP.

Number One on the list was phoning friends and asking how they were doing (without bringing up Boris). This had the immediate effect of having more friend interactions. People had gotten rather tired of hearing about Boris and were “stepping back” from Igor to avoid having to listen to any rants.

When we are behaving in a compulsive manner, obsessing over almost anything, we often fail to notice how our compulsivity begins to wear down our friends and family members. They get tired of watching us run on a hamster wheel.

Today, pause. Consider how an unhealthy relationship in one area of your life might be messing up the good and decent relationships you have in other areas. Is it worth the risk to unproductively obsess over a broken relationship at the expense of the people who love you and want to spend time with you?

We can't afford to obsess over another person's behavior

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

Initially Igor was resistant to working on himself; but he self-corrected. He grabbed a Fourth Step workbook and began his study. (Editor’s note, the 4th step reads: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves). All of us were shocked to discover that Igor was experiencing a ton of pro-addiction thoughts. Man was he glad that he had paused to prepare. We were relieved as well. What if Igor had not paused to prepare? Who knows what dead end roads his distorted thinking might have led him down!

Here are some things we talked about when Igor returned with his Fourth Step list and completed his Fifth Step by sharing his list.

“I have thoughts that are not under my control; I cannot stop thinking about _____.” (I am a victim; there is nothing I can do.)

When Igor began observing his thoughts, he was frightened to realize how much time he was spending obsessively thinking about Boris. He reported that it reminded him of how he obsessed over using all those years ago when his own life was in a shambles. Igor was relieved to be reminded of the fact that even in full-blown relapse, pro-addiction thoughts do not have absolute sway over our thought life. If that were the case, absolutely zero people would ever get sober. People do change. They actually can “change their mind” - but it starts with realizing their mind needs to change!

Tune in tomorrow for Igor’s second revelation.

If you're angry, take stock of your shortcomings

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

One afternoon Igor showed up at NSC to vent about his friend Boris. He was mad. He said a lot of things, most of which I am sure he regretted upon reflection. We suggested that Igor do a fourth step inventory on his relationship with Boris. (Editor’s note, the 4th step reads: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.)

He was not pleased with this suggestion. “Why should I have to do an inventory? I’m not the one with the problem.”

Our response, “Well, you are the one who is here complaining about a problem named Boris. He evidently is a problem for you.”

Is an inventory really necessary? Yes, it is necessary and here is why. It helps us learn how to think clearly, increase resilience and build our coping skills. Our brains are compromised under stress and that negatively impacts the way we think, how we process our emotions and how we control and evaluate our behaviors.

Igor needs to remember his own limitations, and not be so distracted by the limitations of Boris. It isn’t enough to just know that we all have maladaptive coping skills, we need to SEE exactly what our coping skills look like and the effect they have on our quality of life and the life of those we love.

Boris needs help but Boris is not currently asking for it. Igor, however, has an opportunity to improve his own life if he recognizes that his critical spirit is a warning sign that he has work that he can do in his own life.

Do you have any red flag warning signs (critical of others, distracted and not doing your recovery work, irritable, restless, discontent) that indicate you need to get back to work on your own recovery from what ails you?

Friendship: A Safe Space to be Real

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

One of the things I love about our community is the gift of having folks in recovery. People are grateful; people do not gossip; people are usually patient but when they are not, they self-correct quickly. I think most of them learned these skills at AA, NA or other mutual aid groups.

No one expects easy fixes or permanent solutions. People believe that life is hard. Many of us know that life is a challenge and spending time thinking about what we do or do not deserve is unproductive rumination. Nevertheless, with all this gifted-ness we still struggle to use our recovery tools when times are too good or too hard. This too is real life.

The story of Igor and Boris is a cautionary community tale. It points out the need to play a zone defense as opposed to man-to-man. When we find ourselves in a position of feeling critical and judgmental - sometimes it is time to ride the bench and take a breather.

Soul work is exhausting. Fortunately, it rests primarily in the hands of God. No one person is essential, although each of us has a place.

In what relationships have you acted as if you are essential personnel - the ONLY one who can help?

Criticism is not the same thing as accountability

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

How can Igor help Boris? Probably not by criticizing his every move.

It might help Boris if Igor had the skills to comfort Boris in the midst of his downward spiral without the need to throw stones. Should everyone simply ignore Boris’ antics and just give him warm fuzzy hugs? No. But if Igor has to choose between criticism and cuddling with no skill sets in between - choose the hug.

Fortunately, in a community we do not have to choose between two extremes. We can take a more nuanced approach. We can find the right people to support in the area of accountability; we can provide ways to comfort.

What are your skill sets? What part could you play in helping Boris? In helping Igor? How can you name your super powers and use them, without judging the limitations and weaknesses of others (and yourself)?

Anger is closely related to fear and anxiety

Over the next few days we’re telling a story about a couple of friends using fake names. Feel free to get caught up before reading.

It might help Boris if Igor is less reactionary and emotionally invested in Boris’ choices. This is particularly hard to do. I cannot help but think about all the ways Igor might be triggered by Boris. Maybe Igor is afraid that if Boris cannot maintain a healthy lifestyle, he may suffer the same fate. Maybe he secretly depends on Boris for his own wellness; maybe he is afraid that his own support structure is crumbling.

When we are super frustrated, oftentimes we are even more afraid. Our anger may be a convenient and more distracting feeling than digging deep and realizing that we are using anger to power through our terror.

Can you think about a time when you were angry? What were you anxious about? What were you afraid would happen?

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.