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.

Should You Care About Your Past?

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Step 4: Do Your Past And Present Circumstances Matter?

How much weight should you place on the things that have happened to you in your past? How should you pay attention to your physical body and your particular vulnerabilities? What does your brain have to do with change?

Consider the following people:

Tom was born with a photographic memory but struggles in social settings. He tends to miss social cues and can say things that seem awkward.

Susan grew up in a very volatile home, never feeling safe. She was also in an abusive relationship while in college. She struggles to feel safe around other people and is on edge when she is in a large crowd or strangers.

Mike was the youngest of 5 siblings and has never experienced a day where he felt unsafe. He has always succeeded in whatever he does. Some say that he can be insensitive to others who are struggling.

Johann was raised in a very strict, legalistic, religious home. Whenever he would fail to live up to certain standards, he experienced guilt and shame. Whenever he crosses paths with a religious person, he becomes very angry and agitated.

These are just a few examples of past circumstances that have shaped these individuals. One of the most critical things in the change process is knowing your story and being aware of the good and difficult things that have happened to you. In chapter 4 of my book, Unstuck: A Nine-Step Journey to Change That Lasts, I provide some basic but essential categories for understanding your own story as well as the story of those you are called to care for. Here they are:

You

You

You

This category includes your physical body, your brain and your gender. Every person is utterly unique. We all have strengths and weaknesses and we all experience life through our own perceptions.

Your Baggage

Your Baggage

Your Baggage

This captures all the things that have happened to you throughout your life—both blessing and suffering. Every person has their own story to tell. We all have unique events in our lives as well as relationships with other people that have been good and bad. Where did you grow up? How often did you move? What political/cultural/socio-economic context shaped you? What kind of exposure to religion was present in your life? How has your ethnicity impacted you for good or ill? It is important to consider these things as you seek to grow and change.

The Terrain

The Terrain

The Terrain

The terrain are the things that are currently happening in your life—your present big-picture situation. This can include things like your age and stage of life. As you age, loss becomes a greater reality. Loss of loved ones. Loss of a career. Loss of health. It also includes your work and family life. What unique larger blessings and sufferings are currently at play in your life at the present moment?

The Weather

The Weather

The Weather

These are the small micro-moments of daily life, which change throughout any given day and affect your mood. These little moments are often called “triggers.” They trigger us to respond in the present but often with a past history that is connected to the experience. If I grew up in a very critical home, I may be more sensitive and react disproportionately when I perceive that someone has been critical of me.

So What Do You Do With all of This Information?

There are two wrong ways to handle this information: 1. Ignore it completely as if it doesn’t matter. 2. Consider them as the determining cause of your responses to life and conclude that you can never change.

The wise, compassionate and helpful way to handle this information is to acknowledge the things that have happened to you and realize that you have been shaped by many good and difficult things in your life. While these things matter, they are not your identity. This view opens the door to experience the compassion of Jesus in your sufferings and have hope that he can and will help you to grow in grace. If you listen to someone else’s story and look for these details, it will make you more compassionate as you seek to support and encourage them.

You can read a more thorough explanation of these in Chapter 4 of Unstuck: A Nine Step Journey to Change That Lasts.

2 Comments

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 Three

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

Step Three: Rightly Pay Attention to Your Circumstances

Step three in the process of change continues to look outward, but now challenges you to start considering your circumstances. Often times, to our peril, we make this the first step because it is what is most obvious to us in the moment. The tricky part is that there is a right way and wrong way to view our circumstances. Before we talk about that, let’s define what we mean by our circumstances or situation.

What Do We Mean by "Circumstances?"

Your circumstances encompass everything outside of your soul or inner person beginning with your physical body. The Bible uses the word “world” and “body” to capture the context in which we live. This includes blessings and sufferings. You don’t exist in a vacuum. You exist as a physical person in a specific historical context. This is completely unique. Here is a diagram listing a few components that make up your "situation:"

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  • Brain: We all have brains that determine our personalities and predispose us to a host of strengths and weaknesses. All of us are constitutionally wired differently. Our brains are also impacted by the fall of humanity. We are all broken at some level and exhibit various mental strengths and frailties.
  • Body: We have bodies that have strengths and weaknesses. They too are broken in different ways and impact how we respond to difficulty.
  • Event and Relational History: We have good and bad things that have happened to us, along with people who have blessed us or hurt us.
  • Political/Cultural/Socio-economic Context: We exist in a context that impacts the degree to which we may struggle.
  • Gender: Our gender plays a role in how we struggle.
  • Religious Upbringing: The beliefs that shaped us growing up influence our struggle.
  • Age: The longer we live, the more grief and loss we experience. This can make us wiser or more prone to anxiety.
  • Race/Ethnicity: Whether we are the majority or minority culture in a given context will also shape the way we experience our circumstances.

This list is not exhaustive. You may be able to think of other external shaping influences. Each one can be nuanced to fit every person who has ever lived. No two people are alike.

Now that we have defined our circumstances, let’s take a look at the wrong and right ways to view them.

The Wrong Way to View Your Circumstances

Wrong Way #1: Maximizing our Circumstances

If John and Sally are arguing, what is the most immediate thing that they might focus on? The other person! My problem, says John, is Sally. And Sally would likely say the same: John is her problem. Or suppose Arthur has had a long day at work and now he has a headache. When he comes home, he finds that he is agitated with his children. He might likely say that he is irritable with his children because of his headache. He also might blame his children. Concluding that the reason you do what you do is completely due to things outside of you would be a wrong way to consider your circumstances.

Wrong Way #2: Minimizing our Circumstances

On the other hand, the other error runs in the opposite direction. You minimize yours or others circumstances and don’t factor them in at all. Suppose Joe struggles with anxiety. At first glance, you might think that his anxiety is irrational, and that if Joe simply changed his thinking about possible bad outcomes, his behavior would change. But what if you got to know Joe and you found out that he had recently returned from a second tour of duty in the Marine Corps and had narrowly escaped being killed? That knowledge about his past experience would significantly change the way you think about and treat Joe. If you fail to factor in circumstances, you may minimize patience and compassion with yourself and others.

The Right Way to View Your Circumstances: Acknowledging Your Circumstances

If we don’t want to maximize or minimize our circumstances, then what are we to do? We must see them in their proper perspective. You want to view your circumstances as the context of your current struggle. Doing this allows you to forge ahead in a proper direction as you depend upon God’s grace.

Blessing and Difficulties

It is important to see that in all of these areas, we experience blessing and suffering. Consider your relational history. All of us have had people who have loved and blessed us and some who have hurt us. For example, if you have suffered abuse as a child, it is imperative that you take that seriously as you seek to grow in grace. This can be applied in each of the categories listed above.

When you are seeking to grow in grace, there are two things to keep in mind. 1. Look for the blessings and be thankful to God, not prideful and self sufficient. 2. Look for the sufferings and be dependent on God, not bitter. James puts it this way in James 1:9-10:

9 Believers in humble (poverty) circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.

James is helping us consider our circumstances rightly. If you see suffering, remember that God is for you and loves you. If you see blessings, remain humble.

Application

Consider each of the above categories and write down the blessings and sufferings you have experienced or are currently experiencing. As you do this, give thanks for the strengths and blessings in each area. Also, pay attention to the areas where you are vulnerable. This will increase your patience as you grow in grace and it will increase your compassion as you consider others in the same way.

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.