Cultivating Healthy Awareness

In the month of June I wrote a blog post every day for 30 days. Then came July, then August, then September, and now October. The cobwebs built up and the blog remained empty. My journal got minimal attention, and my pen went un-clicked.

This absence was not because I forgot about writing. My excuse was valid and fair, considering I got married (yippee!) and that is a life event that deserves all my attention. But I thought about my writing, and its absence, frequently. The majority of those thoughts marinated in tones of disappointment and failure, leaving me with a pessimistic and critical attitude.

I consider myself to be a very self-aware person. In the United States dominant culture, this is a good thing. I always believed it was admirable that I was aware enough to not be an idiot or an annoyance. I thought being conscious of all my faults was important to make the necessary changes to improve myself. And there is nothing wrong with improving oneself right? Improvement is part of America’s blood.

But at some point self-awareness turns into self-consciousness. In that space fear, insecurity, and a lack of confidence breed like rabbits.

In My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers confirms this problem:
“Self-awareness is the first thing that will upset the completeness of our life in God, and self-awareness continually produces a sense of struggling and turmoil in our lives. Self-awareness is not a sin, and it can be produced by nervous emotions or by suddenly being dropped into a totally new set of circumstances. Yet it is never God’s will that we should be anything less than absolutely complete in him.”

If feeling lost is a consequence of self-awareness, then feeling found can only come from Christ-awareness. 

Christ-awareness results in the peace, love, and grace that can only from God. I tend to forget that grace is not only about forgiveness, but also a freedom from the wandering feelings of our soul when we are too self aware and insecure. It is grace that allows me to escape my insecurity and embrace a completeness in Christ that doesn’t require any form of improvement.

Those who are complete are not perfect, but when they look at their lives they see the goodness of God and are content with their place in the world. They still strive for a better life, but they do so in an effort to glorify God instead of worrying about proving themselves.

I’ve seen this truth as a newlywed who has a vision for her perfect apartment. I spent the first few weeks of my marriage focusing on what the apartment needed, whether that was internet, glassware, a chair, or pictures on the wall. The motivation to complete our apartment and make it perfect drove me straight into exhaustion and frustration. No home is ever complete, but I desired this dream because I knew completion in my life as a whole was a much harder goal. 

My life didn’t become any more complete when I graduated college, when I got a great job, or when I got married. The apartment didn’t become any more complete once we got internet or pictures on the wall. We search for fulfillment in the high points of achievements and the objects of materialism, but neither can give us the abstract satisfaction we truly seek.

I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to prove and improve myself. My self-awareness has never led to any accomplishment that was enough. Yes it is good to have goals, but our awareness of those goals should be full of the grace of God. Writing or not, married or not, finished apartment or not—I am complete in Christ.

This isn’t an easy mindset for me to change, and I know that even my faith in God may never be fully “complete” by worldly standards. I wrestle daily with being self-conscious, anxious, and insecure. But by  focusing on Christ-awareness I am one step closer to the true peace and rest that only comes from God.

“If we try to overcome our self-awareness through any of our own commonsense methods, we will only serve to strengthen our self-awareness tremendously. Jesus says, “Come to me… and I will give you rest,” that is, Christ-awareness will take the place of self-awareness.”
– Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

How Decisions Do and Don’t Define You

Anyone who has access to the internet is probably aware of a major decision that happened in the United States today. As the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to prevent gay marriage, people across the country either celebrated or scoffed at the announcement.

Regardless of your position, there are some critical things to remember:
  1. This is still a free country. Just because other people get to do something you may not approve of, that does not directly infringe on your freedom.
  2. Jesus always, again ALWAYS, took a stance of loving others. That should be our first priority as Christians.
  3. This decision was not taken lightly. And it does not define you.
That last point is what I want to focus on today. Making decisions is hard, whether it effects a whole country or just you. But regardless of the decisions other people make, you always have control over your ability to decide who you are and what you believe in.

You may have noticed that I did not post anything on the blog yesterday. Even though I challenged myself to post everyday for 30 days, I am not perfect. A storm of everything going wrong spun through my day yesterday, leaving me disheveled in body and mind. By the time I had the chance to try and write something, I only had an hour before I was supposed to be at a book club. So I could either eat dinner and not post, then go to book club. Or I could eat dinner and then write a post, and not go to book club. Or I could skip dinner, write a post, and go to book club. And most likely break down afterwards.

Faced with this monumental decision, heavy with serious consequences (sarcasm font please), I sat down and cried. Anyone with anxiety knows that one of the greatest sources of stress is having to make decisions. It doesn’t matter how important they are, even the smallest option can send you into a tailspin.

After blubbering on the phone to my patient fiance, I resolved I needed to eat. There was decision one. Then, when faced with the decision between writing a blog post that would probably end up cranky and whiny, or going to be social and feel comforted by wonderful friends, I decided on the second one. And I don’t feel at all guilty about choosing people over my pride.

This may seem minor to you, but the way we make decisions, and the way we live with them, is important. 

Sheena Iyengar in her TED talk “The Art of Choosing” points out the many assumptions we hold about the importance of choices, and how her research on choice, both in the U.S. and in other cultures, suggests that having endless choices isn’t always a good thing. She says, “A number of my studies have shown that when you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, other critical areas. Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them.”

Iyengar points out that “the American standard of choice requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act.” So when the Supreme Court makes a choice that someone may not agree with, this feels like an imposition on his or her own identity and ability to privately define such things.
“For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is,” Iyengar says.

Following this logic, a nationwide choice made by someone else may feel like a direct affront to who you are.

I’m here to tell you it’s not.

Whether you are deciding between writing a blog post or going to book club, supporting gay marriage or speaking out against it, these decisions are part of the free will that God gave us all. Let me repeat that, God gave us ALL free will.  God did not only give free will to the Christians and then say they could mandate everyone else’s decisions. Whether you agree with the SCOTUS decision or not, free will enables us to make our own choices, as long as they don’t directly hurt anyone else.

We need to trust that the Supreme Court took this decision seriously, that they consulted and debated with everyone’s best interest in mind. This is democracy in action, and it applies to all of us. A decision has been made, and how we live with that decision will define us and the God we represent. 

Let us be people of love rather than people of hurt. Let our decisions be driven by fellowship, rather than fear. Let others make their own decisions, and know that it doesn’t change who you are.

Iyengar finishes her TED talk with this wisdom–“No single narrative serves the needs of everyone everywhere. Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.” The American narrative of choice is still important, and your ability to make decisions isn’t going anywhere. However, we need to remember that our narrative may be different from our neighbors, and that is ok.

Some decisions may be minor, but other decisions are a complicated bundle of pride, fear, anxiety, hope, and faith. The only way to trust in the decisions you make is to be confident in who you are. God loves you deeply, and the decisions we make don’t change God’s sovereignty or love. The decisions others make won’t change that either. 

How do you feel about the decisions other people make?
How do your decisions define you?

 

When Neurochemistry Meets Religion

Many people are hesitant about trying to combine science with religion. These are two areas that have long been defined with strict boundaries and very little overlap. However, as scientific discoveries and advances continue to expand the boundaries of knowledge, Christians must adapt to understand and interact with their findings.

Often, the fear of science is really a fear that someone is trying to change our ideas about God. But redefining the world around us does not mean erasing old beliefs; instead we can look at this as an opportunity to broaden the boundaries of how we understand God. After all, God doesn’t need us to defend Him, He only asks that we represent His love in the world. In order to do that we must be willing to take down the boundaries, such as those between science and religion. Instead of letting questions divide us, we can find common ground and actually let science help us improve our lives of faith.

Someone recently sent me an article from the Harvard Business Review titled “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.” Although the article focused on applying neurochemistry to managerial communication and business environments, there is still a beneficial message for Christians.

The following chart, which was included with the article, reminded me why this is applicable to Christians.

This chart gives us a hint about how the  neurochemistry associated with positive and negative behaviors is useful knowledge for Christians

This chart gives us a hint about how the neurochemistry associated with positive and negative behaviors is useful knowledge for Christians.

Notice the common behaviors of managers they include: they are similar to the behaviors of Christians trying to talk about religion or engaging with other people. How many times have you heard someone say they can’t converse with a Christian because the person is focused on convincing others, not understanding the other point of view, and they are always suspect of a non-Christian’s intentions? Those are the same negative behaviors that caused problems for managers in the workplace.

 

On the other hand, the positive behaviors are strikingly similar to the ideal, loving interactions Christians should be having as followers of Jesus. It isn’t out of line to say that Jesus showed concern for others, was truthful about what was on his mind, stimulated discussion or curiosity, painted a picture of mutual success, and was open to difficult conversations.

 

So what can we learn from this? The article’s emphasis are the effects of those negative and positive behaviors. Neurochemistry has shown that negative interactions produce high levels of cortisol in the brain; positive interactions produce the feel-good hormone of oxytocin.

 

As Christians, we can benefit from understanding this neurochemistry as we attempt to spread God’s love to other people. Many Christians don’t realize how powerful the effect of their negative behaviors can be on others.

 

The article details this problem:
“When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists.”

 

This sounds like the case of most non-Christians today. They have been criticized and rejected in such a way that their brains push them into sensitivity, defensiveness, and aversion to further interaction. This is true not only of their interactions with Christian followers, but with God.

 

In the book The God-Shaped Brain (InterVarsity Press), Dr. Timothy R. Jennings explains how the way you think about God actually changes your brain. If you only think of God as judgmental and angry, it will influence your brain to constantly associate threats or fear with negative emotions. But, when you understand God as loving and good (which He is) your brain becomes programmed to think in more positive ways.

 

As Christians, if we want to share the love of a truly good God, we need to remember that everyone we interact with is wired to be neurochemically influenced by how positive or negative the interaction is. If we focus on making our conversations about faith, God, or life in general more positive then we are forging a pattern of openness that can improve the way people think about and relate to Christianity.

 

Dr. Judith E. Glaser summarizes the lesson here perfectly at the end of the article:
“Be mindful of the behaviors that open us up, and those that close us down, in our relationships. Harness the chemistry of conversations.”

How does this change the way you think about your behaviors?

 

Do you think Christians can benefit from scientific knowledge like this?