Do Your Responses to Your Circumstances Matter?

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As we continue down this path of change, it is now that we must pay attention to the ways we react to our circumstances. In this chapter of Unstuck: A Nine-Step Journey to Change that Lasts, we take our first pivot inward in a “critical” way. But before we do, remember where we have traveled so far.

  • Step 1: You are in Christ and secure in His love.

  • Step 2: The Holy Spirit is already at work in you.

  • Step 3: Change will happen along the contours of your personality and emotional life.

  • Step 4: You have given careful and appropriate attention to your shaping influences.

Now, as you stand at the junction, how will you respond to your circumstances? This step is critical to understanding where you are growing as well as where you need to grow! As we saw in step 2, the Spirit is presently at work in you so you will see responses that are pleasing to God and helpful to others. But you will also see areas where change needs to happen. So, how do you know what to look for? What are good responses and what are responses that indicate change needs to happen? There are many places in Scripture to find answers to these questions. The 10 commandments is one place. The one I choose to highlight in my book is the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-25.

Gauge Your Reactions

Gauge Your Reactions

Unwise Responses: Life According to the Sinful Nature

The acts of the [sinful nature] are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (v 19-21)

False worship. “Idolatry and witchcraft”: This includes any form of worship that is not directed towards the Christian God; Father, Son and Spirit. We are prone to worship (essentially, “give worth to”) many other things instead—from our relationships to our reputation. Notice that false worship leads to a host of behaviors that are ungodly.

A lack of self-control over bodily pleasures like sex, food and drink. “Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery … drunkenness, orgies, and the like”: This includes any sexual activity between unmarried people (real or imagined), unnatural sexual practices and relationships, and uncontrolled sexuality.

Destructive attitudes: “Hatred … jealousy… selfish ambition … envy.”.

Destructive results of destructive attitudes with others: “Discord … fits of rage … dissensions, factions.”

Paul says that anyone who practices these things without any repentance is not a Christian—they “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v 21). But remember, this list is being written to a group of believers. That must mean that Christians can be tempted to live in these ways. Because we are not made completely perfect when we become Christians, we will see ongoing warfare and struggle in these areas; and in some areas more than others, due to the life-shaping experiences that we discussed in chapter 4. One Christian may be more prone to struggle in the area of sexual purity, while another may be more prone to struggle with an attitude of envy.

Nonetheless, this first list highlights those things that are contrary to change.

Wise Responses: Life According to the Spirit

In the next list, Paul shows us the character qualities that should be developing in us as a consequence of our new relationship with God:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Paul lists three sets of three qualities, which encompass all of life; your relationship with God, others and yourself. Notice how they are contrasted to the list of sinful responses listed above.

Your Attitude Toward God: True Worship

  • Love: for God in light of all he has done for you in Christ.

  • Joy: a delight in God for who he is, not just for what he has to offer.

  • Peace: you have peace with God, and confidence and rest in his wisdom and sovereignty.

Your Attitude Towards Others: Love for Others

  • Forbearance: patience with others when they sin against you or persecute you.

  • Kindness: a general disposition of humility and encouragement towards others.

  • Goodness: showing God’s love to others in word and deed.

Your Personal Integrity: Self-Control

  • Faithfulness: to be utterly reliable and true to your word.

  • Gentleness: being humble in your own self-assessment rather than self-righteous.

  • Self-control: expressed in faithfulness and gentleness, rather than being carried along by your impulses.

These two lists could not be any more different! And God desires for every one of his children to grow this fruit, because these godly responses reflect his own character. This is precisely what the Holy Spirit wants to do in your life. Amazing!

And as you look down that list, isn’t that what you want too? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to always live like that? Scripture paints a picture of godly living in order to spur you on to change. You can find similar comparisons between the “old” lifestyle and the “new” lifestyle in passages like Colossians 3 v 5-17, Ephesians 4 v 17-32 and James 3 v 13-18.

You can find more information in chapter 5 of Unstuck: A Nine Step Journey to Change that Lasts

Comment

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

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

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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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.