The poison of comparison

I met up with a friend for breakfast the morning, so that we could catch up on what God has been doing in each of our lives. I was really struck by a question she asked: do you find it easier to talk to women who aren’t Christians? It sparked a conversation about whether, as Christian women, we can have a tendency to wear masks around each other because we feel we should have everything ‘together’ as it were. I also pondered whether we can enter a conversation unsure of how much to divulge because we are comparing ourselves to the other woman all the time – and feel we fall short.

I came away still thinking about that particular part of our conversation, so I wanted to share the start of an article I wrote on this very subject, which is featured in October’s Woman Alive (the full title is: Why can’t I be more like her?). To read the rest, which focuses on practical ways we can avoid comparing ourselves to other women, do buy a copy of the magazine or consider subscribing to it.

I am continuing to explore this theme in the book I am currently writing: Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically. You will probably hear a lot more about that over the coming months! 🙂

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Letting go of worry

nature-sky-sunset-man“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Yesterday we looked at the negative affects of worry. I’m now going to share some things I have found have helped me during those times when I know I’m allowing worry to overtake me. If you have a tendency to worry, I hope they are useful for you too.

  1. Be honest with yourself – and God

Look at what it is that you are worrying about and decide: is this a legitimate concern or an irrational worry? Then take it to God and ask for His help. If you feel you are really struggling with a particular worry then it can be helpful to share it with a close friend who can pray with you and keep you accountable on the subject too.

  1. Spend time each day focusing on God

Remind yourself of who He is and what He is capable of. With a different perspective, our problems and worries can seem to literally shrink before our eyes.

  1. Remind yourself of God’s promises

Look at the particular thing that is causing worry and ask yourself: what can I do and what should I simply leave up to God?

If you are struggling with a particular area then it could be beneficial to do a study on God’s promises specifically about that. So, for example, if you worry about finances look at what the Bible says about God providing for us.

  1. Learn to ‘pray continually’

If we get into the habit of talking to God throughout our day – bringing Him the big and little things – then it is much harder for worries to overtake us and blow us off course away from him. Here’s another great quote from Corrie Ten Boom: “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” In her book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, Weaver describes how she consciously learned to turn every little worry into a prayer.

If you know your thoughts are mainly made up of worries, try turning those thoughts into prayers.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

  1. Learn to be thankful

This is where a journal can be so helpful. If we record all the ways that God is faithful and how He has worked in our lives, we have a constant supply of practical reminders of how He does look after us and how He “will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

There are a few of us in our book group who have spent time either writing in a thankfulness journal every day or tweeting three good things about our day each evening. Each one of us commented on how it has made us more aware of those little details that made our day special, but which are so easy to overlook without such a discipline (as our minds have a tendency to focus on the difficulties). If you know you find it hard to be thankful or recollect positives, why don’t you try writing down three things you are thankful to God for each evening?

  1. Actively ‘take captive every thought’ (2 Corinthians 10:5)

We can so easily let thoughts come and go in our minds, feeling that we have no control over them, but the Bible is very clear that we have a part to play in ensuring that what we think about is beneficial and edifying to us:

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Have you ever stopped and reflected on what your mind has lingered on in the previous 10 minutes? It can be really revealing – and challenging!

  1. Change what you meditate on

We can think that reading and meditating on the Bible is far too difficult a practise to do daily, but we are often very well versed in meditating on our problems and worries! We simply need to re-educate our minds to focus on those things that will help us rather than hinder us.

Why not try replacing a specific worry with a scripture that speaks directly to it? Each time the worry pops into your head, speak the scripture to it.

Worry is one of those things that we know the Bible tells us not to do, but we can so often struggle to be free of. Putting some of the above simple ideas into action can help us form new habits. Because worry is a habit in itself – and a toxic one at that. Learning to recognise when a worry rears its ugly head, and being equipped with some simple ways of replacing or dealing with it, can be so helpful.

This is taken from an article that first appeared on Christian Today.

What worry does to us…

Stressed-Woman

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength – carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” – Corrie Ten Boom

I love that quote – it is so full of wisdom. But it also challenges me, because I know that I can allow worries about future events to overshadow my present.

While the Bible is full of instances of God telling us not to fear (he says it in various ways more than 350 times), most of us struggle at one time or other with fear or anxiety.

What is it about worry that means it affects us even after we profess that we trust in God and are seeking to serve him and look to him for all our needs?

It is reassuring that God knew that the human heart has a tendency to fall prey to worry. That’s why, I think, he reminds us so often not to fear!

We can worry about so many things. How we are going to pay our rent/mortgage, what a meeting at work is going to be like, dealing with teenage children’s hormones, getting enough sleep… So why is such a ‘natural’, everyday thing as worry so deadly for us?

Worry affects us physically. There is research that shows it can weaken our immune systems, cause depression, heart disease, muscle tension, memory loss, respiratory disorders and digestive conditions.

But worry does more than that, it also affects us spiritually. When we allow fear to overtake us it also pushes out faith and, as a result, we start to feel cut off from God’s presence.

My church’s monthly book study group is continuing to work its way through Joanna Weaver’s Having a Mary heart in a Martha world, and we have just met to discuss her chapter on worry and anxiety. She has a great way of describing how anxiety can be seen like a fog that blocks out our view of God:

“While physical fog may seem dense and almost solid, scientists tell us that a fog bank a hundred feet deep and covering seven city blocks is composed of less than one glass of water. Divided into billions of droplets, it hasn’t much substance. Yet it still has the power to bring an entire city to a standstill… So it is with anxiety. Our mind disperses the problem into billions of fear droplets, obscuring God’s face.”

One of the things I found so useful was how Weaver defines the difference between worry and concern. She recognises that our world is full of struggles and pain, and that there are many legitimate concerns we face every day. But while a concern is specific, and about a legitimate threat, a fear is often general and unfounded. Allowing our minds to be full of worry means that we can start to obsess about a problem and see more problems as a result (worry breeds more worries). We also can forget to turn to God – he seems to be last place we look to for the answer. With a concern, however, we look to address and solve the problem, and involve God in that process. Weaver quotes pastor/teacher Gary E Gilley:

“Worry is allowing problems and distress to come between us and the heart of God. It is the view that God has somehow lost control of the situation and we cannot trust him. A legitimate concern presses us closer to the heart of God and causes us to lean and trust on him all the more.”

I can recognise how I respond when I allow fear or worry to take a hold in my heart: I feel panic literally rising and overtaking me and I cannot concentrate on anything else. The problem or difficulty blows up out of all proportion and I find it hard to talk to God – or anyone close to me – about it. I become totally irrational, can get angry or tearful and lose sleep. Can you recognise the symptoms of worry in your own life?

This is part of an article that was first published on Christian Today. Tomorrow I will look at how we can let go of worry.

 

In the Garden…

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In Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22 we have similar accounts of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His heart is heavy – he describes it as ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’. He needs some time with his father, but also wants his friends to stay nearby.

Just imagine the intensity of emotions Jesus is wrestling with now. They reach their peak where he cries out, ‘Abba Father…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me’. I can sense some panic in the human voice Jesus uses – and yet his spiritual being still submits, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done’. Luke’s account indicates that once he submitted in this way an angel appeared and ‘strengthened’ him. But, even after this visitation, the anguish was still upon him, his prayer intensified and his sweat became like ‘drops of blood’.

Matthew’s account reveals how Jesus went back to his friends – presumably for support and to check they were praying for him. Three times he went to them… and each time found them asleep. It seems they hadn’t grasped the enormity of the situation, and so allowed tiredness to overtake them. He must have felt so let down and alone.

I can’t begin to compare our own situations with Jesus’, but I do know there are times when we are overwhelmed with loneliness, sadness and despair. Perhaps your friends have let you down – by not doing something or by acting in a way that hurt you. Perhaps God is asking you to face a situation you feel is too difficult – why would he ask it of you? How do you respond – to your friends, and to God? I think Jesus is modelling the most helpful response to us in the Garden – pour it all out to God in prayer; the hurt, despair, pain, sadness. At the end he then says, ‘Rise, let us go!’ He uses his time in prayer to be real about his emotional tussle, then meets the situation head on.

One thing to try if you have been hurt or feel overwhelmed is to write a letter (to God or the friend). Express all your emotions as you do this. Sometimes it is necessary to speak to the person, in which case the letter can be a good way to vent your intense feelings before working out the best way to approach a meeting with grace. At other times it is simply right to bring the letter before God, read it out and then tear it up, asking him to take away the pain as you do so – or to enable you to face the difficult situation with his help.

This reflection first appeared in Quite Spaces.

‘In the run up to Easter, I keep thinking about how Jesus was totally betrayed by one close to him – with a kiss. What was going through Judas’ mind? How could he actually do what he did?’ This is an extract from my latest piece for Christian Today, which looks at how the Bible can help us when we are not sure who to trust. To read more, please click here.

Why I’m glad my friends aren’t nice…

beth-new-cropped-w179I’m so pleased Beth Moran agreed to write a guest blog for my site. She is a brilliant writer, drawing the reader in right from the word go in the way she constructs her storylines. Her characters are totally believable and we get to share the best and worst moments of their lives. In honour of Women’s Friendship Month, on this last day of September, I asked Beth to write about the importance of friendship in women’s lives. This is one of the themes that weaves throughout her latest novel, I Hope You Dance, which centres around Ruth, a woman in her thirties who has just lost her husband. She discovers he has left her with a mountain of secret debts so she and her teenage daughter have to move back into her parents’ home. Ruth has to learn to face her past, present and future head on…

I’m going to come right out with it: for a long time, I had big issues with Christian women. Well, not all of them. It was the nice ones I had a problem with. The ones that always smiled, and said encouraging things, who made little jokes about their own deficiencies while their faces glowed and shiny hair sat perfectly in place. Those women who never complained, or gossiped, or growled at anyone. Who tirelessly served others, forsaking the last piece of cake so someone else could have two. Not once kicking up a fuss or making a mess or forgetting a birthday.

Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely liked these women. My issue was, I didn’t trust them.

Oh, I trusted them to do what they promised, to keep a secret, to be kind.

I didn’t trust them to be my friend.

I didn’t trust them when they said, “Well done, you were fantastic!” or “It was so wonderful to see you!” or told me how gorgeous I looked, or what a mess their car was or how they totally understood why I just kicked a chair across the kitchen.

I was dubious about the fact they were doing “really well!”, had an amazing time – every time, no matter what or where or how long the time. I didn’t quite believe they always loved being a mum, or a wife, or a Christian, or none of those things, as much as it appeared. And I couldn’t accept they liked me.

Instead, I felt comfortable with those who were blunt, who sometimes shouted at their kids in public, who made loud, large mistakes. I found myself spending time with women whose houses were a tip, honoured they invited me into the chaos. Grateful they were honest enough to tell me when they’d had a flaming row with their husband, or felt useless and weak, or were too tired to pray anymore. Or that I’d hurt them.

I loved these women, who welcomed me with open arms into their imperfections. I felt safe to be imperfect, too. These were the women I could turn to when I couldn’t forgive, or struggled to do the right thing, or I wanted a genuine answer to “Does my bum look big in this?”

But a weird thing happened. Me and these non-nice women, over time we learnt to have our rants in private, to share our fears, our troubles, our sins, with coffee in our messy living rooms not after Sunday services.

Together we learnt to lean on each other before things reached snapping point. To share advice and faith and lessons we’ve learnt about living well.

And then I realised this: nice women let off steam from time to time. They can feel angry and worried and overwhelmed, just like the rest of us.

The women who appear strong and assured in public, who are pretty darn fantastic at what they do; the women who can laugh at the days to come, despite current trials, or past pain – those women have learnt the value of true friendship in private. To cherish a small number of absolute, 24/7, warts and all people in their life. Those who cheer us on, who pray with us, who help us to be the women we were created to be. Those friends who tell us when we need to find a better balance, or stop whining and get moving, or where to go and have a decent bra fitted.

When we have a few, well-chosen people we can be our worst selves with, we are able to face the rest of the world as our best selves.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be thought of as one of those nice women. I’m embarrassingly honest, prone to getting feisty and I have a sense of humour that hovers on the boundaries of taste. But I’m okay with that. And I’m so grateful that some women love and trust me enough not to be nice to me all the time. It’s how I know they count me as their friends.

9781782641704Beth’s latest book, I Hope You Dance, is available now, and is published by Lion Fiction.

The path to holiness

Light from above, bright sun, blue sky and clouds

Holiness is one of those ‘tricky’ Christian words isn’t it? We know that we are holy in God’s eyes because of Jesus, but we also know that we are called to live holy lives. So why do many of us feel confused or condemned when we think about holiness?

We can get ourselves tied up in knots over the way God chose to make His people holy in the Old Testament, or over the countless times we try to be holy but mess things up. Here are some things I have been reminded about holiness as I’ve been studying the subject afresh:

1. God chose to dwell with His people

It is quite incredible to think that the God of the universe, who is the personification of holiness, would chose to come down to earth and dwell with His chosen people, the Israelites. We often get fixated on the weird, lengthy and at times gruesome list of laws and sacrifices He gave them that we forget this fundamental truth.

When we do ponder the things He asked them to do, we can see that much of it was for their protection. It was also so that they could have their God in their midst, as without the necessary sacrifices and the Holy of Holies to contain God’s presence, His holiness would have simply consumed them. Such is the incredible nature of holiness. We should be in awe of it.

2. A holy God required a perfect sacrifice

The parallels between the Old Testament sacrifices of unblemished lambs were but a foretaste of the sacrifice Jesus would make for us. They point the way to Him, but also reveal how a blood sacrifice was necessary in order for us to be able to have a right standing before our holy God. His very nature means He cannot stand sin of any form and so we need the protection of the holiness Jesus’ sacrifice won for us.

3. Becoming holy is a process

When we accept Jesus we are made holy – God does look on us and see the holiness of Jesus. And yet there is a process to living in the good of our new identity. We can beat ourselves up about how we’ve missed the mark, yet again, but then fail to get to the root of why we’ve failed.

Perhaps it happens because we don’t fully comprehend everything Jesus has done from us. The fact is, He has taken us from one kingdom and put us in His – so we don’t have to be held by those sins that we seem to be forever locked into. The battle to break free from them can often be in our thinking. Jesus has already taken away the power of sin for good, but we are told in Romans 6:11 to ‘count yourselves dead to sin’. So we need to take some action ourselves to lay hold of this truth. Sometimes that means practically rejecting thoughts that lead to sin and replacing them with biblical truth (see Romans 12:2).

Jerry Bridges, in The Pursuit of Holiness, explains: “It is our habit to live for ourselves and not for God. When we become Christians, we do not drop all this overnight. In fact, we will spend the rest of our lives putting off these habits and putting on habits of holiness.”

4. We are to pursue the discipline of being holy

In Romans 12:1 Paul urges us to ‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’. While we can be made holy only through Jesus we have choices to make every day about whether we will lay down our own agendas and offer our lives up to God.

I think that we can shy away from thinking about our part in the journey towards holiness. And yet, as Kevin de Young puts it in The Hole in our Holiness: “The Bible clearly teaches that holiness is possible. This is good news, not bad news … You are allowed (and expected) to be obedient. You cannot do anything to earn God’s love. But as a redeemed, regenerate child of God you don’t have to be a spiritual failure.”

Colossians 1:22-24 says: “he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith”. Again this shows our part: we must ‘continue in our faith’ in order to live a holy life. Rather than telling us that we need to ‘do’ in order to please God, the word Paul uses here is axios, which means ‘in a manner that is worthy’, or ‘in a way that is fitting’. So he is talking about us learning to live in a way that befits our new identity as holy children of God. The joy and mystery of this is that we do not do it through our own efforts but through the Holy Spirit’s enabling.

5. The process shouldn’t be arduous: it’s about getting closer to God

I love the following quote from de Young as I think it turns our understanding of pursuing holiness on its head (which can seem like hard work and huge effort): “To run hard after holiness is another way of running hard after God”. It isn’t holiness as an end in itself that we are seeking, but the One in whom it is all hidden: Jesus. Yes, we must learn to discipline ourselves, but the key to fully grasping the gift of holiness is in reaching closer to the One who gave it to us in the first place.

This article first appeared on the Christian Today website.

The value of wisdom from elders

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Each one of us hopefully learns a great deal through our lifetime, but what do we do with that knowledge? Does it go with us to our graves, or do we learn to share it with others graciously, and without expectation for the way they will use it?

Looking to the older generation for advice seems to have gone out of fashion these days, perhaps partly because families no longer live with or near each other. I don’t know if it is the computer generation with its instant answers from Google (although I suspect it happened long before the internet), but the younger generation doesn’t seem to want to ask for advice and wisdom from their elders. Titus 2 talks about older women offering encouragement to younger women to live their lives well, and I think that’s a great model for us all.

While methodology may change (I still cringe when I think of some of the advice I and my friends got as young mums from older women) those who have journeyed further along life’s path can be a huge source of wisdom, and it is foolish not to tap into it. Surely that’s something of what church family is about? It is both disrespectful and arrogant to think that these people have nothing to offer us in terms of advice and wisdom, so how can we make ourselves more open to it?

And those of us who are no longer spring-like teenagers or in our twenties should also consider what our life lessons have been along the way so far. What wisdom might we have to pass on to those who are younger (in age but also in their faith)?

To read the rest of this article, please click here.

How to be better at encouragement

smiley face

I’m terrible at encouragement. Particularly at encouraging my husband.

There, I’ve said it.

It’s a hard one to admit; particularly when it was the first thing I spoke on when I took over the women’s ministry at church. But I could see how we were all desperately crying out for more encouragement. When I started putting together my talk I began to realise how bad I was at encouraging those close to me.

I am married to a man whose primary love language is words of affirmation. And that is probably way down there on my list: practical help does it for me. (Isn’t it funny how God so often seems to pair us up with a life partner whose love languages are the opposite of our own? Is it His sense of humour or the best way to rub those rough edges off us? Probably both…)

Sometimes I have literally had to force myself to speak words of encouragement to my husband (not because he didn’t deserve them but because it doesn’t come naturally!). I’ve learned how important this is to him and it makes such a huge difference in our relationship. It’s a great discipline for all of us to cultivate, especially if you know encouragement is something you are not good at.

I also have to check myself – and I know I fall down all the time – as I have a tendency to nag. But, as I’m told so often, words of encouragement get better results than nagging…

So here are some things I’ve learned about the importance of encouragement:

The Bible teaches it

Throughout the Bible we can see examples of encouragement. So many of the main characters that we learn about in Sunday school had people around them to encourage them (think of how Jonathan rooted for David even when it pitted him against his father).

The New Testament letters often refer to building one another up. I love the Message translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:11: ‘So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.’

It makes a difference

Having someone consistently in your life that totally believes in you makes such a difference. In The Family You‘ve Always Wanted Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, recognises that: ‘From the smallest child to the oldest adult, when our fan club applauds us, we try harder.’

God wants us to become members of each other’s fan club, but how do we do that? Paul gave a good guideline when he wrote that everything we say should build up the one who is listening:

‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen’ (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

Let’s get a bit more honest now. How often do we spend time with our friends moaning about various things or ‘sharing news’ (aka gossiping), when we could be using that time to build one another up?

To read the rest of this article, please click here.

What one thing has God asked you to do today?

If you don’t know the answer to that question then perhaps, like me, you are a little too goal-orientated and focused on achieving rather than slowing down long enough to hear from God.

lady surrounded by technology

Often our priorities are not God’s, our ‘good ideas’ not ones that He’s dropped into our minds. I was really convicted by a daily devotional I read today, in which the author described herself as someone who is too busy to be interrupted. Too set on being productive and ‘useful’, she isn’t able to deal with the stress and emotions of her own life, let alone those of others.

I gulped. And then admitted to myself that she could have been describing me. So often people comment that I must be extremely busy helping others. As a pastor’s wife I do get my fair share of burdened people wanting a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and someone willing to pray with them. And I consider that a privilege.

The problem is, I have my own ideas about what I should focus my time on, which means that the hours my kids are at school are taken up with work. Of course, the majority of us have to work in order to live, so I don’t feel that that’s a problem. What is, though, is that niggling feeling I sometimes get. The feeling that tries to tell me I don’t need to work quite so much…

To read the rest of this article please click here.

How well do we listen?

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I have been struck recently with how bad I can be at listening. So often I am catching people at church, while needing to speak to countless others, so I can have half an ear on what they are saying, my eyes wandering around to catch the next person on my list – and of course a necessary eye on what my children are doing too. But God has been teaching me how bad a model that is.

Listening is a skill that needs to be learnt well. As the old saying goes, “You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak.”

Who is it that you would say listens to you best? The person who grabs you quickly while on the way elsewhere, asks how you are and nods and smiles before zooming off? The one that takes more time, stands and listens but then begins to interrupt with their own story or advice on what you should do? Or the person who makes a particular arrangement to meet you, sits down, gives you their full attention by looking in your eyes and then simply sits quietly, taking it all in?
Being listened to is one of the main ways we can feel cared for. It gives us a sense of validation because another is interested in hearing about how we truly are.
Please click here for eight practical listening tips.