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.

Evaluating Your Own Decision Making

Today, I’ll put it to you.

What decisions have you been putting off making? Or, what decisions are you currently confronted with?

What values are at stake in this decision?

What do you want to value? How would certain actions add to, or take away from, that value (or set of values)?

Spend some time reflecting on what you want to prioritize in life and how your current options could play into those priorities.

Decisions Create Opportunities

Now, surely most of us have made decisions we knew to be out of accordance with our values. In fact we may even do this on a semi-regular basis. How do we explain this phenomenon according to this way of seeing?

One option is this: What we say we value doesn’t match what we actually value. Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re not honest with ourselves. When this is the case, it’s totally reasonable that we might act on a value different than what we say we value. I might say that I value being close to family more than making more money. If I get offered a job where I make 30% more money (but away from family), and I instantly take it, what am I communicating about what I value? I’m taking that money!!!

The other option is this: We aren’t being intentional enough about putting our practices into action. I’m guessing that we all want to be people who are able to live consistently, to value what we say we value, to prioritize whatever we deem to be “the right things” in life. Our decisions give us that opportunity. Sometimes there are confines, and sometimes the choices are less than ideal. Even in those cases we have the opportunity to choose to value something, even if it isn’t our “ideal.”

Demonstrating Your Values When Times Get Tough

We’re talking about decision-making. Get caught up, it’s too much to summarize.

Yesterday we talked about the fact that there are different levels of priority when it comes to our values. In the decision-making process, it’s a luxury when we can choose between preferences as opposed to choosing between needs. The example we worked through in the first few days dealt with a choice between taking a fictional job in California verses staying in my current job. That’s a decision that I am, theoretically, in control of. There are no external pressures forcing me to either leave or stay. If I leave, I do so freely. If I stay, I do so freely. This is because I have a job and a means of providing for my family either way. I can choose to value warmth and traffic, or I can choose to value stability and proximity to family. Either way, I’m (roughly) in control.

If I lose my job, the confines increase. I’m no longer making a low-stakes choice between two roughly equal, but opposite, outcomes. I need to find a job in a hurry in order to provide for my family. How do I demonstrate my values in such a case as this? What do we do when we have no desirable options? Using yesterday’s example, we can either stay put and be jobless or move to Arkansas, where the only relevant job offer comes from. I do not want to stay put because I value providing for my family and don’t want to lose my house and live on the street. I do not want to move because I value proximity to our extended family.

There’s a few things we can say here. One option is to get creative. Can you sell your home and temporarily move in with parents while you do an extended job search? Possibly. I could even get a less desirable job temporarily while I search. One option is to take the job and move and instantly start looking for jobs closer to the extended family. It’s okay to choose a temporary outcome in order to create the possibility for a long-term choice that matches our values.

The other option is to settle into different values than what we have previously said we prioritized. Let’s say we’re uncomfortable taking a job temporarily because we view that as being unfair to the new employer. Well, we’re choosing to value a certain kind of loyalty. We could also say that moving would be an act of valuing self-sufficiency. That’s not a huge value for me, but I could see why it might be for some. It would also be an act of valuing the immediacy of being able to provide for the family, which takes a great deal of anxiety off the table. In this case, we’d be valuing safety and security.

Each of these outcomes is perfectly acceptable, and values different things. It doesn’t necessarily matter which one we choose but, according to the way we’ve been looking at things, it matters that we know what we’re choosing so that we can live consistent lives.

Prioritizing Your Desires

We’re in the middle of a week-long (so far) series on decision making. Get caught up before reading today.

In the view of decision-making we’ve been presenting, our actions are what indicate our feelings (or our values). So, if I say my highest value is living close to family, for instance, and then move away from family the first chance I get, then I am indicating with my actions what my feelings truly are. In this case, I would be communicating that my highest value is not living close to family but something else altogether.

Now, how does this apply when there are lots of confines around the decision-making process? For instance, I say my highest value in life is staying close to family but I lose my job unexpectedly and have little to no savings, and so I must find a job quickly. Let’s say I can only find a job in Arkansas that allows me to return to work immediately. Am I communicating that I do not value family by leaving to take that job?

I would say no. Here’s why. There are different levels of priority for our values in life. Being able to put food on the table for my immediate family is a higher priority than our proximity to family. I’d rather be able to keep a roof over our heads in Arkansas than live on the streets in Virginia near my family. That means sacrificing some desires that are of a lower-order priority. Issues of survival are always going to take precedence over preferences.

More on this tomorrow.

The Responsibility of Decision Making

If we are free to choose our values, and therefore completely consciously responsible for whatever decision we make, then decision-making is both a skill and a huge responsibility. We’re confronted not just with the decision itself, which is the surface-level part of the process, we’re also confronted with the question of what we’re going to choose to value.

We often assume we already have our values sorted out somewhere inside of us and, with enough soul-searching, we can find them. This is certainly true on one level. We all value things whether we know it or not and often act in accordance with those values without any kind of consideration at all. But, when we’re making a conscious choice to do something (or not do something) we get to choose what we are /going/ to value.

We all have regrets, right? We all have decisions we wish we could go back and re-make. That is, unless we’ve just come to a place of radical acceptance and let that stuff go (which is a good thing). The beauty of this way of looking at things is that we can choose a new set of values to act out of so that we’re not acting out of the values of the things we’ve previously regretted. That is the responsibility. We’re responsible for making decisions in accordance with what we /want/ to value, not just what we think we already value.

I’m going to pause here. All this typing is making me tired.

Taking Radical Ownership Over Our Decisions

We’ve spent the prior four days talking about decision-making, and pushing back on a really common stereotype of the decision-making process. Why, might we ask, are we pushing back on a more conventional understanding of decision-making? (By “more conventional,” I mean, the view that says we way our feelings about the options available to us and choose the stronger feeling.)

To me, it’s a question of taking radical ownership over our decisions. For instance, if decisions are solely the product of determining which feeling is the strongest, have we really owned the outcome, or do we simply get to “blame” our feelings for our choice? If we frame our decisions in terms of what we already value, or desire, or feel, then we’re letting go of the opportunity to choose what we value, desire, and feel. It’s as if our values, desires, or feelings happen to us, rather than being things that we choose (or things that we do).

If I’m trying to decide between starting life afresh in California or staying put, then I want to make sure I’m acting in accordance with my values and desires. What is the best way to do that? To choose, fresh, as if for the first time, my values. For me, in my life, I want to prioritize family above all else, both my family, Brittany’s family, and Norah’s birth family. In order for me to value those family units in the way that I want, then I need to stay nearby. Therefore, I choose to stay nearby. I choose the value (being near family) and, therefore, I choose the outcome of prioritizing that value (not moving to California or any other such place). In so doing, I exercise great freedom.

Choosing Your Values

If we only determine our values through the act of making choices, then how do we make decisions? How is this of any use? Doesn’t this only make things more complicated?

It certainly has that potential, I’ll admit. But, at the same time, I think this could be a useful way of looking at the decision-making process. Here’s what this way of seeing does for us: It gives us freedom. We don’t need to spend hours deliberating and trying to discern the perfect outcome, or the best possible outcome, or the “right” outcome. We can decide which outcome is correct by making a conscious choice to value certain things.

I keep returning to a made up example of having to choose between moving to California verses staying in Virginia. Rather than weighing which outcome I feel strongest about, I give myself permission to choose values. Let’s say I choose to value warm weather. Let’s say I choose to value proximity to the ocean. Let’s say I choose to value being close to friends from graduate school. There are all sorts of things I can choose to value. The reverse is also true. I can choose to value staying close to family, or a lower cost of living, or stability, or staying close to Norah’s birth family.

The point is this: I can choose what to value and I do so by making a decision. This frees us from getting trapped in a cycle of revving up our anxiety trying to determine what we value based on feelings. It’s okay to admit that we may not know what we value. It’s freeing to assume we can choose it.

Decision Creates Our Desires

This is the third day of a series. Get caught up if you need to!

From yesterday: According to Sartre’s way of seeing, I only know how I feel about something once I’ve decided how I’m going to act on it. This means we have great freedom and great responsibility when making decisions.

I often feel paralyzed when I’m trying to search my feelings and determine how important one set of feelings are in comparison to another set of feelings. It would be nice if there was some way to measure them. Now, if Sartre is right, when it comes to making decisions between two opposite outcomes, we have no desires or values until we make the decision. The decision itself is what creates our desires and values.

So, in my example of choosing to take a job in California vs. staying in my current job (totally made up), I do not know what I truly value until after I’ve chosen. If I choose to go to California because I want warm weather year-round, then, at that moment, I have valued it more heavily than staying close to family. But, those values are not determined until I’ve acted.

If this is correct, trying to follow my heart by attempting to discern my values in advance of making a decision is kind of a waste of time, because it is not possible. We only know what we value in retrospect.

I’m trying to go through this slowly, because I know it’s going to seem very unusual.

More to come tomorrow.

Don't re-write history in a single moment

There is another skill we need to develop in order to avoid unfairly assassinating someone’s character: giving people credit for who they’ve proven to be over time.

Why are we so tempted to re-evaluate everything we think we know about a person in the moments when they hurt us?

People are going to hurt us, and that doesn’t mean that they are actually NOT kind, that they do NOT care, or that we’ve misunderstood them. (Understand, I’m not talking about abusive relationships here). It just means that relationships are difficult.

Here’s what we need to learn: don’t give negative experiences with a person more weight than positive ones. At least, don’t let one negative experience wipe out ten positive ones. Give people credit for their history.

How do we do this?

Talk. Have a conversation. When someone has a history of treating you well followed by a really bad experience, talk to them. Wait until you’ve processed it with some trusted people, wait until you’ve calmed down a bit, and then approach the conversation with a sense of humility. “Hey, ___ happened, and I’m hurt. Would you mind sharing your perspective with me on this?”

Having a conversation can go a long ways towards overcoming relational problems. It provides clarity on the events, which may resolve the conflict in an of itself, and it grounds us. It prevents us from too hasty in our judgments of others. That’s really our main goal: learning not to be too hasty in judging others.

One Action Cannot Destroy a Reputation

If one action cannot destroy a person’s reputation, as we suggested yesterday, then we must learn a few skills. One, as we said before, we must learn our own triggers. Two, we must become disciplined at evaluating who people prove themselves to be over time.

As for number one- we will not be able to avoid being triggered. We will always have triggers in life, and they may change over time, but there is no way to completely avoid them. What we can do, is learn how to pay attention to them and, when we learn what to pay attention to, we can, over time, learn different kinds of responses to them.

The way to know when you’re triggered is to use the gift of hindsight to evaluate when your emotional response to a situation was entirely too strong. This is going to require some serious honesty, self-reflection, and non-defensiveness. Once you’ve learned that you were triggered, you need to then spend time figuring out what exactly caused the overly-heightened emotional reaction.

In the example of Tim and James from a few days back, the trigger was actually a broken promise, not a “lie.” The broken promise led to the accusation “liar” because of Tim’s sensitivity to broken promises. It would then be his work to figure out why he’s sensitive to broken promises and, more importantly, to make a mental note of the fact that he’s sensitive to that. It would also be important, going forward, for Tim to make mental notes about the times in which people promise him things and to practice thinking through what might happen if they break that promise. This way he can be prepared for his trigger which may help him respond differently.

Using History to "Judge" Someone's Character

For the past few days, we’ve been exploring a case-study about character assassinating, get caught up before reading today’s post.

Too often we will character assassinate a person because we’re feeling hurt as a result of our pasts, and not a result of our past history with that specific person.

Our goal, our ideal, is to treat a person in accordance with who they have proven to be over the course of time. One moment, one action, does not make a person. It does not define their character and it does not describe the totality of who they are.

And yet, how often will one action, one moment, one situation, cause us to doubt everything? He (or she, or whatever) isn’t who I thought he was, we might say.

So let’s just start here, because this may just be a new idea. One action alone cannot erase a person’s entire history. If a person has proven to be reliable, trustworthy, dependable, honest, upstanding, generous, and kind, and they have one bad moment where they act mean and nasty, this doesn’t mean they were secretly mean and nasty that whole time. It means they had a bad moment.

Everyone has bad moments. We all lose our heads from time to time. The fact that someone’s head flies off does not mean that their character is substantially different from what you thought. It’s much more likely to mean they’re tired, stressed, or distracted. Perhaps they are grieving silently.

Who knows? That’s the point. Who knows?

A Triggered Reaction

Yesterday we started a character assassination “case study.” In the example, a made up person named Tim called another made up person named James a liar because he did not follow through on a promise.

Now, if Tim has a history of being on the wrong end of broken promises, we can understand why he might accuse James of being a liar. This has been a pattern elsewhere in his life that has caused great pain, and this similarity has led to a heightened emotional state that does not match what this particular situation demands.

That is what we call a “trigger.” (We talk about triggers too much these days, and we are calling too many things “triggers” that are actually just “bummers,” but stick with me nonetheless). When something happens to us that reminds us of something negative from our pasts that causes us to have a reaction that is too strong given the details of the specific situation we are in, we are “triggered.”

It is important to be aware of these. Why? Because when we are not aware of them, we run the risk of acting out of our heightened emotional state that does not match the situation we are in. We run the risk of causing unnecessary harm.

The first step in unnecessarily assassinating someone’s character is being triggered without awareness of our triggers.

An example of a character assassination

For the next few days, we’re talking about unfair character assassination. Yes, I know, there are times when people do not have great character. We’re not going to talk about that over the next few days. We may spend some time at the end, depending on how things go, but that is not our focus.

We’re going to start with an example. Let’s say someone is caught in a lie (we’ll call this person James) in an “in community” type of relationship, and the person who caught them calls them a liaras a result (we’ll call this person Tim).

Now, we have to start by asking the question, what is a lie? The word “lie” can mean or imply many different things depending on the context in which it is used.

Let’s say James said he was going to do something and then legitimately forgot to do it. Let’s say James has no real pattern of this behavior. Maybe he’s done it a few times over the course of a few years. It’s happened before, but it’s happened at the same rate that it might happen to anyone. It is hardly a defining attribute.

Let’s also say, since I’m making up this example, Tim is particularly sensitive to broken promises because of his own history. He’s more likely to assume ill-intent than most as a result.

Would you consider what James did a lie? Why or why not? How would you approach a conversation with him?

Is it fair for Tim to call James a liar? Why or why not? How would you approach a conversation with him?

The Character Assassination Station

What determines a person’s character? Have you ever thought about that?

It’s not uncommon for people to use the word “always” in the midst of conflict. You always do ___. Or, let’s say a person is caught in a lie, we may call that person a liar. These are judgments about character. So, what determine’s a person’s character?

To be clear, I’m not talking about your character, I’m talking about our perception of someone else’s character. How do we determine the nature of another person’s character? And, once we’ve done that, are we able to treat them as if that is their character?

This is what we’re going to be talking about over the next few days. So often, when we’re in conflict, we resort to character judgments that may not necessarily reflect the character a person has proven to have over the history of a given relationship. When someone does something we don’t like, it’s easiest, and most temporarily satisfying, to character assassinate. What might it look like to rise above that?

Joy and Belonging

The last thing I’ll say on joy is this: you’ll find it where you find acceptance and total belonging. You’ll find it where you find grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.

In the Western world, we live an increasingly isolated existence where our primary sources of connection are digital (social media) and we think of television personalities as the mouthpieces for our views- for the real “truth.” We don’t find belonging on Reddit, or in the comments sections of Facebook posts or news outlets. These things do not connect us- they isolate us. We will find no joy without belonging.

So, find a place to belong. Truly belong. Find a place where the people, when you expose a dark piece of yourself, do not react. A place where people do not tear you down but build you up. A place where you are not rejected because you haven’t grown fast enough or, even better, where you are not rejected because you’ve gotten worse! Sometimes we will get worse- and we need a place that allows us to belong even then.

There is no joy where there is no belonging. All of the rest of the posts this month are moot if you do not belong.

Find a place to belong and you will discover joy.