When Desire Conflicts with Reality

I just read this from Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: “When desire conflicts with reality, sooner or later reality wins.”  I think we’ve all faced the collision between our desires and reality – what we want to be real versus what really is real.  We can find ourselves living in a perceptual reality framed by our desires, where our desires become an allusive avoidance of the actual reality we live in.  Or, sometimes based on our desires we can find ourselves bemoaning our reality, living constantly in that tragic gap between what we want and don’t have.  Most people on some degree experience this conflict between their unfulfilled desires and their reality.  The inevitable outcome of living in a worldview of our desires is reality will eventually win.

In my leadership discipleship group this morning, we had a discussion on the meaning of courage.  I believe for many people it takes incredible courage to face their realities that are in conflict with their deepest desires.  We said in our group that courage is not the absence of fear but the facing of ones reality in light of the present fear.  Recently, I’ve also come to realize that reality doesn’t have to “win” over us if we do more than merely accept it, or worse, merely tolerate it.  I think the key is to own it.  It is about saying this is my lot that God bestowed on me, this is my story that God has given written for me and this is my path that God has called me to.  It is mine and, within it, I will live it out well and faithfully.  I’m drawn back to the great human question of what it means to have a “good life.”  It’s easy to be led to believe that a “good life” is when reality conforms to our desires; it’s what we would normally define as fulfillment.  Little do most know that fulfillment doesn’t necessarily equate to fruitfulness nor faithfulness.  I’m led to remember the age-old notion held by the early and medieval Christians as well as the ancient Greek philosophers that a good life cannot be separated from a “good person.”  Who we become will determine the quality of our lives.  What we do with our reality will say a lot about who we are.  Though, it also takes courage to change the realities that can and should be changed.  That is a different kind of reality.  Some realities cannot be changed.   It goes back to that famous poem that was widely circulated which said wisdom is knowing the difference of what can be changed and what can’t be.  And perhaps the unchangeable reality we face is unchangeable only for a season.  If that’s the case, then that’s the reality we have to own for that season.  This principle of desire versus reality reminds me a lot of the film Midnight in Paris, which I’ll write a separate blog for soon.  I think, therefore, one of the best things to do with reality is not to simply accept it but to own it.  And by owning it, we strive to produce fruit out of it.  Let’s live well.  Another musing…

The Difficulty of Developing Self-Control

Someone asked two questions during a class I taught at my church on the subject of the roles of thoughts and feelings in spiritual growth: why is self-control so especially difficult? and how do you develop the virtue of self-control?  That question lingered in my mind for days and my ponderings were trapped on how can self-control be developed other than saying “to will yourself” as the answer.  And then it hit me last night while I was having my time with the Lord – it was one of those insights that seemed oh-so-familiar and yet strikingly fresh.

A major problem with self-control is desire.  Our desires naturally run up against many things that we are trying to have self-control over, so that we feel like we’re fighting against our ourselves as we attempt to resist our own inclinations and wants.  How do we resist something we really want?  I think most strive for one of two answers: 1) a behavioral modification approach of discipline and forcing oneself to not have what one wants & 2) praying for the appetite to go away.  Both of these have biblical validity and are important.  We experience problems when we find ourselves repeatedly failing in these two approaches – either when we don’t have the will power to resist the urges or when our appetites don’t subside or go away.  When we’ve invested in the latter approach with no results, we find ourselves getting angry with God.  Along with the first approach, the discipline of feeding our thoughts with truth and moral goodness helps.  But desires are a strong human compelling that don’t easily go away.  Immanuel Kant wrote that we are driven by our pleasures or our pains.  If we find it pleasurable, we’ll want more of it; if it’s painful, we’ll avoid it.  But this sort of self-centered, animalistic living does not take into account any standard of moral goodness.

Then last night I read Jesus’ words in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”  I used to think this verse felt non-genuine, combining love with obedience though logically it makes sense especially if you thought of it from a parent-child/master-servant perspective.  But another insight into this principle is the wording of the if-then statement: the love is the condition for the obedience, not the other way around.  That is, the genuine love for Christ is the drive and motivator for obedience and obedience is the natural consequence of a fervent love for Christ.  What resolves the desires we should not have is a having a greater desire for someone else.  The greater loves in our lives will win over the smaller and lesser ones.  So that, when faced with a temptation or distraction that challenges our ability of self-control, it will be the quality of our love for God that causes us to say no to other desires.  In essence, I’m saying no to something because I choose to say yes to someone else.  The principle ruling in me is that I’m avoiding sin not just because it is morally wrong or spiritually corrupting, but because it displeases the God I love.  So I find myself not focused on trying to diminish my abhorrent desires within in (though I still give attention to that) as much as I’m investing time and energy into increasing my love for God.  What keeps me from dating other women is I’m already spoken for and my heart is already captured by another.  What keeps me from turning to sin and temptation has to be that I’m already spoken for by Jesus and my heart is captured by my God.  There are certain things I like to do but avoid doing because I know they would annoy my wife, but I gladly avoid doing them because my love for her outweighs my simple wants.  There is no loss when one is giving up something for the one he/she loves.

Perhaps then, the problem of self-control is not merely a matter of a weak will or a lack of discipline; it can be a question of the place, quality and depth of one’s love.  I think self-control which is a matter of the will always points to an issue of the heart.  Perhaps we are still too Kantian in our thinking because we are wrestling between a self-love versus a love for God which delineates between what we do for ourselves and what we do for Him.  When we are faced with the struggle of self-control, what we need is not only a smaller desire for the forbidden things but a greater desire for the God of beauty.  So my answer to the question of developing self-control is to develop a mad love for the Lord.  At least, I think that’s where it starts.

Misperception Problem

This past Sunday, I preached on the power of perception from the story of Elisha and the chariots of fire in 2 Kings 6.  Right perception leads to right beliefs and emotions.  Some suffer from ill feelings because of a misperception of reality, and some are confronted with a barrier to faith because of a lack of perception.  The Bible says that judgment can be a passive withholding of correct perception so that we become our own demise.  Seeking the right perception of reality, like seeking wisdom, puts us in touch with the truths of reality.  As one of my mentors said, “perception always wins over reality” when it comes to people’s reactions.  But as I continued to ponder on the cruciality of perception, I was perplexed by a problem: what does a person do when he/she has the wrong perception and doesn’t realize it?  Within that person’s perception, he/she won’t automatically realize he/she possesses a misperception.  It’s like trying to explain to a fish that it’s in water.  It can be a frustrating, enigmatic problem.  But there is a solution.  I think two things will help a person who doesn’t perceive rightly.  The person will need a third person party to begin granting feedback to the one with the wrong perception.  Challenging our perceptions is often needed.  Having someone offer insight and reflect a different perception helps us to “see” things in a different way and to begin to at least consider the alternative possibilities.  Without the third person intervention, we’re stuck in our own first person perspective.  The other crucial factor I believe is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a master of the soul, who can enlighten a person’s mind towards certain realizations.  Wrong perceptions are frequently like a walled-in bondage of our minds that seems impossible to break out of.  Often times, the Holy Spirit is the most and final crucial factor where he can evoke changes in a person that no third person party can do.  What we need is supernatural intervention and illumination.  In the end, however, the critical matter for someone to receive these solutions is the person to do one thing – listen.  Only a person who is willing to listen will create the opportunity to attain a new perception.  For the person trapped in a misperception, this is the first thing he/she can do: be in a listening spirit.  And if a person were an active listener, he/she might even take the initiative to seek out other people’s perspectives.

The Difference Between Love & Desire

Love is one of the most important things in life but one that’s difficult to define.  What do we mean when we say, “I love you,” to a family member, best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife…?  Are we saying, “I want you,” “I have to have you,” “I can’t live without you,” “I need you,” or “You fulfill my dreams”?  While this meaning can feel endearing, it’s not quite the same as meaning, “I care for your good”, “I want what’s best for you (even if that best may not be me)”, “I desire to see you shine,” “I honor you,” or “I would sacrifice my good for your benefit.”  I think it’s easy to confuse mere desire for love.  They can look a lot alike because we can be very emotionally passionate about our desires, which can appear as love.  But there is one key, distinguishing factor for love that separates it from mere desire: it’s the otherness factor.  Genuine love has to be about someone other than you.  Otherness is about the other person; it’s about wanting something good that is not for you but for the other; it’s about getting outside of yourself in order to consider the other; it’s about valuing the other more than yourself.  The famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage in the Bible on the definition of love lists traits that are all about otherness.  Love is patient, love is kind, it is not proud, it is not self-seeking… The powerful impact love has on us is it teaches us the lesson that we are not at the center of the universe.  That’s why love has to involve humility – without humility, otherness cannot emerge.  Self-centeredness is the antagonist to otherness.  Desire is about self, what I want for me, for my gratification and for my good. Human nature is generally and automatically self-centered and not other-centered.  Learning to truly and genuinely love others in varying degrees, including romantic love, is a redeeming aspect of our humanity.  One of the greatest redeeming qualities of our humanity is to learn that there can be a good that is greater than my own which I hold true to.

This is why love can define desire but desire cannot define love.  Since desire by itself is about self, it leaves out otherness.  But desire framed in love that is about otherness redeems that desire so that our desires are not ultimately about pleasing ourselves.  Desire without love will inevitably and unavoidably use people for ones own gain and gratification.  Many who think they love their spouses or boy/girlfriends but merely have a desire unknowingly use the other person.  When someone feels like “a million bucks” as a result of you loving him/her, it is because your otherness-love attributes value to the other person and validates the person’s worth.  Love honors worth; desire takes worth when it uses the other person.  Love gives to the good of the other person; desire gives to the good of self at the expense of the other person.

It can be a scary thing to mistaken desire for love, whether we think we love someone or we think someone loves us.  You might say that under this otherness principle it’s easy for the one who is truly loving to be used by others.  True.  But wisdom in life is not only finding those we would truly love but finding those who would truly love us.  When otherness-love (the 1 Cor. 13-agape kind) is mutually exercised, the two people lift each other up in life in redeeming ways that they could never have done by themselves and in doing so, they beautify one another as human beings of worth.

The Kind of Friends That Are Good For Us: Encouragers vs Enablers

After watching the last few movies, I took note of the people the hero surrounds himself with either enhanced or hindered him.  It got me thinking of the influence relationships have on us.  Who we surround ourselves with helps to shape who we are and what our lives become.  I think friends are biblically a vital part of our spiritual formation.  We generally understand that we should surround ourselves with good people and healthy relationships that build us up.  We can even generally identify which friends are good and which are destructive.  But the precarious part is when we don’t recognize the unhealthy relationships that actually feel good to us.  I think specifically of the difference between encouragers and enablers.

Encouragement and enabling look similar on the outset.  They both intend to support you.  They both generally demonstrate a form of grace to you.  They both offer care and concern for you.  But there’s one critical factor that differentiates the two – truth.  Encouraging friends offer genuine comfort and empowerment along with truthfulness.  While, enabling friends will be your cheerleader, support you, make you feel better about yourself, and generally tell you what you want to hear.  Enabling friends offer cozy, comfortable and sentimental sympathies without the substance of truth.  Enablers will be the ones who say to you time and time again, “Don’t worry, just be happy.”  But encouraging friends look out for you by edifying you with grace and truth.  They are the friends whom you can count on to give you their full honesty.  They are also the friends whom you trust are mature enough to bear wisdom and truth.  Enablers won’t expect you to change.  Encouragers will challenge you to grow which presumes change.   This is one of the reasons why Jesus makes the perfect friend.  The Bible  says he is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).   He bears the perfect balance of both qualities so that the combination offers you a kind of friendship that edifies.  He would never offer you only the weak coziness of sentiments without truth nor only the critical judgment of truth without grace.  It’s in the combination of truth and grace that our friendship with Jesus empowers us to grow.  He is that friend who is willing and ready to tell us the things that other would-be friends know about but won’t say.

Some people in order for them to feel “safe”, they’ll gather enablers around them rather than encouragers.  But I think it’s just as dangerous to surround ourselves with enablers as much as destroyers.  Enablers damage our lives more subtlely; they reinforce our vices, minimize our mistakes, permit our wrong choices, and nurture our blindspots.  So while enablers won’t directly tear us down like destroyers would, they enable us to tear ourselves down.  Jesus would never do that.  Whether we like hearing what Jesus has to say to us or not, he’ll still say it.  We should not always expect Jesus to tell us what we want to hear.  We should not expect the Bible to always leave us feeling good about ourselves.  God’s words are truthfully honest – sometimes affirming and validating but sometimes rebuking and correcting.  This is because God’s Words are the words of a true friend.

Our lives are enhanced or eroded by the kinds of relationships we have.  Jesus is one friend everyone should have in their lives.  Then maybe we’ll also use that as a model for how to form healthy friendships.  And an even more peculiar question arises as we think about what kinds of friends we surround ourselves with, and that is what kind of a friend are we to others.  Jesus could teach us something about that too. What kind of friends do we pull in close?  What kind of friend are we to others?

Caring for the Protectors in Our Lives

I’ve come across people where their whole roles are to be protectors for others.  The mindset of a protector is to ensure the safety and well-being of those he cares for.  The protector is concerned about making sure his loved ones are not hurting, and, if they are, he will focus on bringing those loved ones to a place of peace as soon as possible.  The protector is the one who eats last, always opens the door for others, makes sure that others are served first and offers the TV remote to others.  The protector will rarely cry, and, if he does, he cries because the one he cares for is crying.  The protector lives by the phrase, “As long as so-and-so is ok, then I’m ok.”  Many of us have protectors in our lives; most of us welcome protectors in our lives; some of us are protectors in others’ lives.  As a pastor and husband, I think I somewhat understand and identify with the protector mentality.  A shepherd frequently focuses on the needs of his flock and a husband always loves his wife above himself.  I’m sure many of us who are parents, spouses, best-friends and siblings can identify with the “protector” role.  But the protector’s mantra is not always true, that when others are okay then the protector is okay.

Protectors easily neglect themselves.  Their self-neglect is not out of depression, but out of their focus on others’ well-being.  Protecting others doesn’t ensure that the one doing the protecting has been cared for.  Sometimes the needs of others are so great and numerous that the protector sees himself as having little option but to focus on the needs of his loved ones – there’s, in a sense, no room or time for the protector to look after himself.  His first priority is to look after those he cares for.  And a protector would rarely admit needing protecting.  But while protectors may not need protecting, they do need comforting from time to time.  Receiving comfort allows for the protector to admit to being human – a protector is not Superman, even though we take on the role of Superman.  Protectors should and need to allow themselves to be human and allow for space and others to offer them comfort.  The comfort is for the nurturing and healing of their own souls.  And mostly likely, protectors accumulate more wounds through the trials and strife than they realize because they’ve been too busy focusing on defending and taking care of others.  Comfort is the compassion God offers the weary and worn (2 Corinthians 1:3-11).  The practical protector may still say that there’s no time for him to be cared for.  But the comfort and care the protector receives will enable him to be a better protector for others.  Protectors do burn out.  What every protector needs, especially to be an effective protector of others, is to know the comfort and compassion of God that nourishes and sustains those who are not Superman but take on the roles of Superman.

How To Grieve Losses

“How do I grieve?” someone asked me after we talked for an hour about her tragic loss.  I think one of the most difficult things to know how to do is dealing with loss.  Because losses are an inevitable part of life – loss of dreams, aspirations, capabilities, freedoms, friendships, loved ones and family members, knowing how to grieve is significantly important.  I don’t think there’s a hard-fast rule on the right way of grieving, but there are unhealthy and healthy ways of grieving.  The healthy ways allow our souls to be nurtured, to grow and to heal from the tragedies.  Unhealthy ways tend to do damage to us that’s not realized until later down the road.  Pain is a given in life – how we sort through it is the question.  So what are some healthy ways of grieving?

The old medicinal advice of time can sound cliche but is undeniably valid.  Giving oneself the time and space to grieve is perhaps the first crucial step.  Often, we may tend to do the opposite of giving ourselves space by adding clutter.  Keeping ourselves busy, as we say, feels good initially because we crowd so much into our lives that we don’t have to think about what we lost.  But busyness can be a tool for denial.  Denial of any form will always be harmful to ourselves and others around us in the end, because denial is an avoidance of reality or truth.  Initially, we may need to be busy because we can’t grieve at the immediate moment, and that could be okay.  But schedule in that time at some near season in our lives to allow for that space of grieving.  Once we have that space, what do we do with it?  Many will say you just need a good cry.  That can be true and cathartic.  However, if the crying is without end, that is also damaging.  Sulking and wallowing in endless misery is as unhealthy as denial.  Your spirit can only take so much punishment.  The human spirit is meant to move on and not be trapped in repetitive misery that eats away at the soul.  There is one suggestion I have for grieving, among the many out there.  It’s a creative way.

Creativity allows our souls to express the deep thoughts and emotions that we have difficulty forming into explanatory phrases.  When we are able to fully express ourselves we find some wholeness from our loss.  This is important especially when the loss we’re dealing with is a significant person or a loved one.  Our worlds are made up of people in our lives and so losing a significant person feels like our world has somewhat fallen apart, like a branch that was broken off of a tree.  Our souls don’t always seek answers for the loss but they do seek wholeness.  How can we be whole again and go on with tomorrow without this person in our world is the big question we’re left with.  Creative grieving can mean creating a story, a poem, a song, a play, a painting, a drawing, a dance, a quilt, or a movie to express our thoughts about this person.  But perhaps you say you’re not a storyteller, songwriter, poet or artist.  You don’t have to be in order to be creative.  But if there is no artform that you can comfortably express yourself in then there are still other creative means of expression.   Creativity is an ability God has equipped every person with.  You can put together a photo album, a scrapbook or a slideshow of the person.  Why do this?  Because people who are created in the image of God will have two essential qualities about them — their stories and their dignity.  Both of these are inherent to every person.  Everyone, no matter what background or lifestyle, has an inherent God-given dignity to them that is bound up in the image of God that was impressed upon them.  And every person, no matter how old or young, has a story to them.  Our creative expressions are attempts to capture their stories and display their dignity as the unique human beings they were on this earth.  In telling their stories and showing their dignity, we not only remember and honor them but display the wholeness of their lives, and thus discover a sense of wholeness we need in ourselves from losing them.  The making of these creative expressions may be accompanied with tears, and the process may at first be excruciating.  But that’s part of the path of grieving.  Through this painful process what keeps us going on to finish this expression is our desire to find wholeness by putting together their stories and portraying their dignity. What is surprising is when we discover that our creative expressions will help someone else who also loved that person to find a way to grieve as well.

It’s easy for me to write about this but the reality is there is never an easy way to grieve the loss of loved ones – only healthy ways.  But it’s the uneasiness of the grieving process that honors them.  It’s our pain that validates how genuinely special the persons were to us.  And it’s the difficulty of richly portraying them and their stories that affirms the depth of how wonderful they were.  And it’s our efforts in attempting to portray them, imperfect as it may be, that echoes our sincere love for them – a love that continues on even passed their lives on this earth.

The Impact of Good Customer Service

I was recently inspired by good customer service at a burger joint.  I was at the In-N-Out drive-thru the other day to get a cheeseburger.  I wasn’t physically feeling too well and thought an In-N-Out cheeseburger would help (don’t ask why).  When the drive-thru attendant took my order, he walked over to my window with a smile.  He  was genuinely kind, respectful and courteous to me and patiently took my order.  The good customer service made me want to work at a restaurant just so I could give others good customer service and make their day.  His kindness felt infectious.  Then I thought what if we all treated everyone with good customer service as a way of life?  Why don’t we?  I realized in that moment that it had to do with the context.  I was in the context of In-N-Out, a business establishment where employees were known for being happy and giving good customer service.  I used to comment on how pleasant all the workers there seemed.  It was part of their work ethic.  Somehow it seems like even the food tastes better when you’re treated well!  I wondered what life and society would be like if we translated a good restaurant business context and ethic into daily life.

What if giving each other good customer service was the norm in our interaction with each other and the guiding principle for our daily lives?  Most good businesses teach and train their employees to provide good customer service, because businesses, especially good restaurants, understand something fundamentally basic about people – everyone likes being treated with respect, kindness and courtesy.  We too can be trained in a  lifestyle of good customer service if we understand this basic human need.  The Bible’s “one another” verses trains us on how to treat each other with Christ-like kindness and respect.  What if we all assumed the role of a server and thought of each other as customers?  Our motto in our interactions would shift from what can I get from someone to how can I serve you? and how can I treat you well?  We would be living under the principle of good customer service as a general way of life.  With this kind of infectious and inspiring kindness, society would be transformed.

Growing When Life Isn’t Moving

I think sometimes life feels like it doesn’t move forward when you go through the same struggles year after year. We look at ourselves and feel like we haven’t moved forward in life because our circumstances look exactly the same — same financial problems, same career status, same living situation, same relationship issues. The feeling of life not moving on although time and age has moved on is one of the worst feelings.

But I think our movement in life is not indicated by the change of circumstances but by the change of our hearts and minds. The important thing is whether we as persons grow through our circumstances even when our circumstances don’t seem like they’re moving. The real question is, are we as persons moving? Are we growing in our thoughts, understandings, beliefs, perceptions, insights, feelings, love, faith, hope, and choices. There are many things that we are powerless to change in our life circumstances, but the non-changing nature of our circumstances shouldn’t preclude us from changing as people. As long as we grow, we are moving forward in life even if it feels like life isn’t moving forward. We may even be surprised to see that when we change some of our circumstances may follow suit. But in the end, God won’t ask us to give a report about our circumstances but about who we were and what we did with the circumstances we were in. I believe the quality of a life is not measured by what’s outside of a person but by what’s inside of a person. I think what’s on the outside is often an opportunity for what’s on the inside to grow and show.

Person of Peace vs. Person of War – Knowing Which You Are

I was recently reading the transitional period between King David and his son King Solomon and found it interesting how distinct their roles were as kings: one was a king of war and the other was a king of peace.  God even specifically said to David that he would not be the one to build God’s magnificent temple because he was a king of war.  Instead, the task of building the temple of God was for a king of peace, Solomon.  Almost in a sad way, David had the genuine desire to build God’s temple but couldn’t and he did the next best thing by giving from his personal treasury for its construction.  The handing off of the task to Solomon and the highlighting of one being a king of war versus the other being a king of peace, an important life principle dawned on me: some of us are called to be fighters to pave the way for others to have peace, like David did for Solomon, while others are called to be in peace and to build in those times, like Solomon did with the Temple.  Some of us are Davids and some are Solomons.  To live life well, it seems important to discern the difference of the two and appreciate the other.

There had to be a David in order for there to be a Solomon.  Some of us are called to be David’s to fight so that others may have peace while others are called to build in a time of peace.  David led war campaigns and defended the cities during the season of war.  Solomon managed the prosperity and built up the cities during the time of peace.  Wisdom is knowing which we are.  Most of us want to be Solomons, enjoying the time of peace and prosperity, but some of us who want to be Solomons are called to be Davids; we’re called to fight so that others after us might have peace.  Some are called to be Solomons but we live like we’re Davids, always fighting and ready for a fight, not realizing that it’s okay to put down our sword and stop fighting.   Sometimes we’re fighting when we should be building and sometimes we’re trying to build when we need to fight.  Knowing what we’re called to be and what season we live in is critical for living life well.

Perhaps God has appointed some of us to fight so that others may have peace.  I think of my parents who fought their way here as immigrants so that my brothers and I may have lives of peace.  I think of mothers who work two jobs to save up for their sons’ college tuition.  I think of the husband who works an odd end job to pay the bills so his wife could pursue her dreams.  I think of the best friend who defends his/her friend in hard times at his/her own expense.   There are those in life who are meant to fight so that others may have peace.  But there are those who are meant to build in a season of peace.  I think of the person who has been hurt but doesn’t need to fight anymore and can take time to heal and rebuild his life and spirit, unless he starts fighting with friends thinking they’re foes.

It seems to live life well means knowing which we are at the present season of our lives AND knowing who around us have been/are fighters and peacemakers to us.

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