How to Grow in Grace: Step Four

John finds that he has a pattern of anger in his life that just won’t go away. Ethan struggles with anxiety and often feels stuck. He tries and tries to change but nothing seems to improve. Catherine regularly looks for an excuse to go online and shop when she is lonely. Now her credit card is maxed out. What can these individuals do in order to get on a new trajectory of growth in their lives?

If you have been following this series, we have covered three steps for growth in grace:

  1. Look to Christ
  2. Look for Evidence of the Spirit’s Work in Your Life
  3. Rightly Pay Attention to Your Circumstances

These first three steps focus your attention outward in an intentional way. This next step is our first pivot inward.

Step Four: Identify Unproductive Coping Strategies and Ungodly Responses

Step four in the process of growth in grace moves you to see how you are reacting to your circumstances. In particular, you should focus on responses that are unproductive and possibly sinful. This step moves in a more critical direction, which is why the first three steps are so very important. As you begin to see sinful responses, you have to repeat steps 1-3; see Jesus, see marks of the Spirit, and understand that your circumstances are part of but not the whole picture.

A Word of Caution

Since step four requires us to focus on our unproductive and/or even ungodly responses to our situation, we need a gentle warning in order to avoid some critical errors. There are two opposite and equally wrong ways to do step four:

  • One is to view looking inward as unnecessary. This is called unreflective activistism. This person tends to stay busy in an effort to avoid looking at their responses. They might even be tempted to say that looking inward is too mystical and not helpful.
  • The second wrong way to do step four is to turn inward and live under a cloud of guilt and shame. This wrong way of looking inward might be called morbid introspection.

Neither of these ways is helpful. That is why steps 1-3 are so important. These first three steps build a foundation of confident Gospel optimism. This will enable you to move forward, prompting you to run to Christ for mercy and grace so you can start the change process where it should always rightfully begin; with your relationship to Jesus.

Scripture Calls for Robust Self-Examination

Is there any biblical warrant for paying attention to your responses to life’s circumstances? Absolutely. Just start with any of the 10 commandments. The entire history of Israel is a picture of how they respond to God in the midst of life’s blessings and difficulties. The Psalms and Proverbs continue the theme of how to live life faithfully before God in a broken world. Read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-6 and you see a rich picture of what it looks like to live in productive, godly ways in this world. I call this the Psalm 139 or Matthew 7:3 lifestyle.

Psalm 139:23-24 says,

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Matthew 7:3 says,

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

Read the corresponding list of deeds of the sinful nature and fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-26. Heed Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:15-17 where he says,

Be very careful, then, how you live---not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

What Does This Look Like in Real Life?

Since there is biblical warrant to focus on your responses to life, what are some helpful categories to keep in mind as you go about the process of self-examination? Below, I have adapted a process from The Anxiety and Worry Workbook by David Clark and Aaron T. Beck that can be applied to any issue you are seeking to address. For consistency, I will use the word anxiety, but you can substitute any word that captures your own struggle.

Physical Sensations: Your body is a significant part of who you are as a person made in God’s image.

  • Record: Over the course of a week, pay attention to the times you have felt anxious and try to identify what triggered your response. In this step in self-examination, you are trying to determine if there are similar circumstances and responses to those circumstances.
  • Intensity: While you do this, rate the intensity of your struggle on a scale of 1-100.
  • Physical Sensations: Describe the physical sensations associated with the experience. This may involve increased heart rate, muscle tension, chest discomfort, body temperature, chill or hot flashes, etc.
  • What are your negative interpretations that you project on your physical sensations?

Automatic Thinking Patterns: We all are trying to make sense of what is happening around us. What negative thinking patterns do you see?

  • Catastrophizing: “I am going to do the same old thing.”
  • Jumping to Conclusions: “Murphy’s Law--if something can go wrong, it probably will.”
  • Tunnel Vision: “I am only able to think about my typical way of responding.”
  • Nearsightedness: “I am stuck in the moment and can’t see past it.”
  • Emotional Reasoning: “I am going to lose it and really embarrass myself.”
  • All or Nothing Thinking: “Either this is going to be great or terrible.”
  • What other thinking strategies can you think of?

Beliefs: This aspect of your response is tied to deeper issues that we will consider later, but here are a few categories.

  • What do you believe about your current circumstances?
  • What do you believe about yourself?
  • What do you believe about God?
  • What do you believe about other people?
  • What do you believe will help you avoid doing what you don’t want to do?

Feelings: Your emotions are a critical component of who you are. They play a significant role in your responses to your circumstances.

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Afraid
  • Angry
  • Joyful
  • Hurt, etc.
  • What negative interpretations do you bring to your emotions? That is what we call secondary emotions; the way we feel about our feelings. For example, I may get angry and then feel guilt or shame about my anger.

Behaviors: These are the visible responses and ways that you seek to manage/control your circumstances.

  • Avoidance Behaviors: You check out either by physically avoiding the situation or seek comfort usually in an addictive behavior like eating, watching T.V., using some chemical substance, etc.
  • Controlling Behaviors: This usually involves trying to exert your power in a situation to overcome any obstacles. Anger is very common but so are obsessive behaviors.
  • Escapist/Addictive Behaviors: The main theme in these behaviors is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. There are many addictive behaviors that don’t involve a substance. Shopping or cleaning your house could be an addictive behavior.

Application

Take a moment to see how your unproductive and/or ungodly responses to your circumstances are potentially making things worse. This is a bit tricky because ungodly responses and unproductive behaviors can give you the illusion that they are working or helping. Try to look further down the path to see how they might become problematic in the long run. These responses will only complicate your struggles and add more layers to the problem which will make it harder to change. A simple example can be seen in addiction. The substance use or addictive behavior gives you the illusion of helping in the short-term but can prove devastating in the long term.

As you can see, this is a fairly comprehensive overview of your responses. It includes your actual behavior, but it is broader than that. This step in the change process is critical if you are going to see long-lasting change. These responses have likely become so natural that you don’t even recognize them. Take an issue in your life and walk through these various categories to get a clearer sense of how complex your struggle is. As you can see, it captures your entire being. Yet, this can be helpful as you see the complex nature of change and the scope of changes that will need to be addressed.

Finally, if this step discourages you, go back to steps 1, 2, and 3!

Copyright © 2017 Timothy S. Lane

How to Grow in Grace

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to add "steps" that are practical ways of thinking about the process of growth in grace. If you want to be alerted each time the next post goes live, you can sign up to receive e-news here:

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.