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Six Practical Steps to Put Our Faith, Spirituality, and Relationships Back On Track— Why Do People Feel So Lonely? Part 3

The first two parts of this series have dug into the source of separation we experience in our lives. We looked at how God designed people for community and how sin has created barriers to our basic connections with God and others.

Life has a way of wearing us down and isolating us. How do we get back to our created design?

This series is a short side trip on a larger exploration of overwork in our lives. You may be asking yourself why loneliness and the fall are a part of that discussion. I believe the answer to this can be found in the writing of a French Philosopher named Blaise Pascal.

Pascal was a child prodigy, mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and Catholic theologian. He formulated a number of interesting arguments regarding the existence of God that are still debated hotly today. One idea, in particular, applies to our discussion of work and how it tends to get out of whack.

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.”

Pascal

That hole is a product of our design being frustrated as a result of the fall. We are made for connection to God. We can try to fill that vacuum in our hearts with all sorts of things.

Work, in particular, is a popular choice. We were designed to work and create. It scratches part of our itch. The problem is that work scratches the itch for a moment, but it comes back worse later. The more we put work in the place of God to make ourselves feel fulfilled, the emptier we are. It’s a little like scratching a mosquito bite. The more you scratch, the worse it itches. Eventually you end up raw and bleeding, but it is still itchy.

The only real solution is to fill the void with relationship with God. That relationship should impact every other part of our lives. Our family, friendships, work, and neighbor relationships will all be impacted by walking with Jesus in our lives. In addition, our work lives cannot help but be impacted by learning to follow Jesus’ teachings and his Spirit’s work reshaping our hearts/minds.

This is the reason Jesus came and died on the cross. He took punishment for our sins and revealed God to us through himself. We are made new through him. Those who walk with Jesus are slowly remade into what we were meant to be. We learn from him and he works in us to reshape our hearts.

These are easy ideas to present, but what does it mean in practical terms?

Follow Jesus.

When a student followed a rabbi in the ancient world it sharing their lives. Disciples would spend all of their time with rabbis. They would share their life. They would observe them in every aspect of life, whether it involved serving the poor or teaching. Watching led to imitating their teachers.

This is the idea behind following Jesus. We learn to be like him by reflecting on how he dealt with life. One aspect of his life was work. He frequently rested. He often stepped away to spend time in prayer. Sometimes he disappeared and avoided crowds so he could regroup.

Pay attention to your “warning lights.”

Every modern car is overloaded with warning lights in the dashboard. They tell you when the car is overheating or when something has gone wrong that needs repairing. You ignore those warning lights at your own risk.

We have similar “lights” that flash to get our attention. I first clued into this idea when I found myself getting cranky and irritable constantly in my early years of ministry and marriage. I spoke with my pastor about it and he explained to me that anger rises out of other feelings, like hurt or frustration. It is not the problem in and of itself.

The trick is to figure out where it was coming from. If we start getting cranky constantly, something is wrong. We may need to rest or spend time with out loved ones or talk about our problems. Whatever it is, those warning lights let us know something is out of whack in our emotional state, relationships, or spiritual life.

Set your priorities and objectives based on his priorities.

When Jesus saves us from our sins, we come under his lordship. He is the boss in our lives, which seems fair because he is God and he bought our redemption by dying for us. Taking time in the morning, midday, and evening to stop and talk/listen to him. We should review his word and listen to him. Our daily goals and schedule should be set based on his direction.

This isn’t a one time thing. We tend to forget, so we need to come back to it daily. It’s sort of like navigating with a map and compass. It is valuable to stop and get your bearings regularly so you know where you are. That way if you drift off course, frequently checking your bearings keeps you from getting too far off course.

Take Sabbath regularly.

God intended for us to take time off to enjoy life. This means resting, spending time with God, spending time with family, and enjoying life. It isn’t some boring restriction from doing anything, even enjoyable things.

Sabbath is taking a day a week to enjoy life. There will be times when you must skip a sabbath. When the Jews were fighting for independence from the Persians, a small army was slaughtered because it was attacked on the Sabbath. They did not fight back because it was the Sabbath. Afterwards the religious scholars agreed that they could ignore sabbath to save their own lives.

The trick is, the easier you make it to skip the Sabbath, the more often you will skip it. The commandment says that we are to keep it holy. That means we set it apart and preserve it as different and belonging to God. Please note: Sabbath is the day you take it. It is not necessarily Saturday or Sunday.

Surround yourself with people who have mastered working in a way that reflects God’s design for life.

The best strategy I can offer is to find people who do this well and spend time with them. The more people like that influence you, the more you will learn new habits. Ask them questions. Find people to keep you accountable and ask you pointed questions about your priorities and time use. There are a few good reasons for this.

First, you will naturally start to look like the people you associate with regularly. It is a strange truth about people that we tend to imitate those we surround ourselves with. This is one reason the scriptures tell us to gather as the church more often. We change each other.

Second, in those circles you will be able to get an outside perspective that is (hopefully) seasoned with real wisdom. You cannot see every angle. Finding wise men to give you perspective and input is vital.

Finally, without accountability it is difficult to maintain high standards in life. You need people who know you well enough and know enough about life to call you out when you drift.

Model a life you want your kids or those around you to live.

We all grow up to imitate our parents in one way or another. We will wind up with their mannerisms, methods of arguing, work philosophies, ways of coping with problems, etc.

Not everything will transfer to your kids, but workaholism has a habit of passing from one generation to the next. If you want your kids to cheat on their spouse with their job or orphan their own kids in the name of long work hours, then model that. I recommend imitating Christ in your work strategies.

There are a million other little things you can do to manage your work life better. These are only a few and they center around the ideas I presented in the first two installments: We are designed to be in relationship with God and others; and sin has thrown up barriers.

By following Jesus in these areas of life, praying and seeking his direction, prioritizing based on his teachings/direction, and surrounding yourself with people whose community will shape you in positive ways you are leaning on the core of who we are created to be.

In addition, by walking with Jesus in these aspects of life, he fills your heart and changes you. This means you are returning to your created design and God is working in you to bring that change about.

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Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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Marital Toolbox: How To Win Fights


Originally published in the “Big Sandy Mountaineer”, October 22, 2014. 

In the bottom drawer of my toolbox, there is a 4 foot long piece of steel pipe. It is exactly the right size to fit over the handle of my socket wrench. Though it is not a proper tool, I have used it more times than I can explain. It has been used to add leverage to my wrench and break a stubborn bolt free. I have used it to pry down the control arm of a Honda while installing a ball joint. I once used it to lift an engine off its lower mount. I even used it to pry a tire off of a car after the rim had rusted in place. Though it’s not a tool, my “cheater bar”, as they are usually called, is by far one of the most versatile and useful items in my toolbox. In a similar way, one of the most useful marital tools I have discovered isn’t exactly a tool or a technique. It is a strategy. The strategy is simple, though counterintuitive: Don’t win. 

I have noticed that many married couples, myself included, take the opposite strategy. When an argument begins, they set out to win. This is a pretty natural response to conflict. We try to win. When we argue, we employ strategies that help us prove our point, gain the moral high ground, undercut our spouse’s position, and often times we try to hurt each other. Both participants cease, for a time, to look at each other as partners, instead seeing each other as opponents. The problem that arises with one spouse winning a fight is that the other one loses. Though, more often, rather than producing a winner or loser, fights end in a draw. This leaves both sides wounded and entrenched. The resulting hurt and damage to the relationship may not be major, but it is present. Marriages don’t end after a single fight, instead dying deaths of a thousand cuts. The “win the fight” strategy is a losing proposition in the long term, resulting only in two individuals who are convinced that they are right in the relationship issues, and both of them alone. 

The strategy that solves this problem is simply working toward not winning. Couples who learn to see each other’s point of view and compromise. This requires a constant and intentional remembering that you love each other and are on the same side. Every problem, issue, or disagreement that arises is either a battle to be fought together or an opportunity to grow stronger in the relationship through communication and mutual submission. This works best when both partners agree on the strategy, but can be effective with only one partner approaching the marriage with this strategy. 

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