Christian Mindfulness?

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If you are alive and reading these days, you have probably heard the term “mindfulness.”

You might know people who are practicing mindfulness to help them navigate the pressures of daily life. Maybe it’s used in your school or workplaces as a tool to reduce stress and boost creativity. In recent years mindfulness has been promoted by public health bodies as a way to promote mental wellbeing, and as a treatment for depression and anxiety. The guided meditation app Headspace—one of dozens you can find in your app store—has been downloaded over 31 million times.

So what should Christians make of the mindfulness trend? Should we jump on the bandwagon? Should we be suspicious and hold it at arm's length? Or is there another way?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us (https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/).

The theory is that when we are mindful in the present, we can avoid the pitfalls of letting the past or the future hijack us from living in the moment. While definitions can vary, the word “meditation” is often used synonymously with “mindfulness”.

Here’s a sample step by step mindfulness practice:

  1. Take a moment to be still and relax.

  2. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. If you are anxious, angry, sad, etc, where can you locate that in your body? What is your body saying?

  3. Stay present in the moment and focus on what you are thinking and feeling. Do this without judgement, even if it is a “negative” emotion like sadness or anxiety.

  4. Label the emotions you are feeling with as much precision as possible.

  5. Ask yourself why you feel this way, and what triggered it.

  6. Let the emotions pass.

  7. Re-enter your world with calm and a commitment to be grateful and caring.

In recent years, scientific research has confirmed what most religious traditions have been saying for a long time: practicing meditation is good for the body and soul. That is why you will find most religious traditions include meditation as a vital element to living out the tenants of one’s beliefs. This is true of the Christian tradition as well.

Today, most mindfulness practices are secular. They don’t emphasize any faith component, which is partly why it has become so popular—mindfulness is for everyone. You don’t have to necessarily believe anything in particular.

What is Christian mindfulness?

I believe that there is a way to practice “Christian mindfulness”—something that connects with the secular trend, but adds a very important dimension. In my new book, Unstuck: A Nine Step Journey to Change that Lasts, I walk through nine steps that share some similarities to the steps above with one main difference: the presence of a personal God, who communes with us and redeems us as we are mindful of his presence with us in the moment.

It is impossible to overstate the difference this makes. Secular mindfulness is personal and horizontal: you pay attention to yourself, so as to be more present for others. Christian mindfulness introduces a vertical dimension: you are paying attention to who God is and your relationship with him through his grace to you in Jesus. This is what is utterly unique about Christian mindfulness.

In one sense, all Christians should be “mindful” Christians. Paul encourages the believers in Philippi to be consciously mindful of the present benefits of being united to Christ.

"Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…" (Philippians 2 v 1).

His next statement is a call to live in light of that present reality and awareness.

"… then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." (v 2-4)

Christians have a personal, loving, accepting, forgiving, gracious and present Savior, who aides us day by day through the work of the Holy Spirit within us. As we go about our daily lives, with all of the stresses and busyness, we are constantly invited to be mindful of God’s presence with us, his care for us and new power in us that he has provided to face each moment of each day.

One way we are to be “mindful” Christians is through prayer: we are to live our lives as we “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5 v 17). The word “without ceasing” does not mean “non-stop” but “constantly recurring”—in other words, we are encouraged to punctuate our daily lives with intervals of prayer. You might describe this as living with a moment by moment mindfulness of God’s presence with us.

As you go about your day today, you can practice Christian mindfulness. It isn’t that complicated, and you don’t need an app. Find ways and times to slow down and allow yourself to be mindful of your connection to Christ. As you do, allow his love to calm you and encourage you.

You don’t have to call it “mindfulness”, but all Christians are called to be mindful—mindful of our unity with Christ, and the presence of his Spirit. And it’s with that awareness that we can live with gratitude and move towards others with compassion.

Copyright © 2019 Timothy S. Lane

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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.

How to Grow in Grace: Step Five

Have you ever been in a heated conversation with someone and it was just the two of you in a room? In the middle of the argument, your cell phone rings or someone else enters the room and you change in an instant from angry and agitated to quiet, calm and sensitive! Have you ever wondered why you were able to change so quickly? This is the next critical step in the change process that we will cover in this blog series.

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

  1. Look to Christ
  2. Look for Evidence of the Spirit’s Work in Your Life
  3. Rightly Pay Attention to Your Circumstances
  4. Identify Unproductive Coping Strategies and Ungodly Responses

If Step Four begins to move inward, Step Five goes even deeper. All the more reason to keep the first three steps on the horizon. The more you look inward, the more you must keep the grace of the Gospel central. Your ultimate identity is not found in a specific struggle with some temptation and sinful behavior, nor is it located in some form of suffering you may have experienced. If you are in Christ, you belong to God and you are deeply loved by him.

Step Five: Ask the “Why?” and “What?” Questions

That being said, if lasting change is going to happen, you must begin to ask “Why?” and “What?” questions. Why do you do the things you do? What motivates you to do the things you do, either good or bad, helpful or unhelpful? It is at this very point that you begin to grow in self-awareness. The passages of Scripture from our last blog on self-examination are as relevant here as they were in looking at certain behaviors. The call to self-examination includes behaviors but goes deeper to the heart of one’s motivations. Consider Paul’s admonitions in Philippians 2:3:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Selfish ambition and vain conceit are attitudes that express themselves in certain behaviors that will propel someone to put themselves first instead of seeking the well being of others. In Philippians 2:5, Paul goes on to say that your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. This way of talking about behaviors growing out of fundamental attitudes is confirmed all throughout Scripture. Consider Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:25 where he describes the inner disposition of the non-believer:

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

From Paul’s perspective, human beings are fundamentally worshipers. The word “worship” is not a common word in our culture. It means to give worth to something, to honor something. For a human being to worship something, it means that they are ascribing worth to it, consider it worth pondering and revolving one’s life around it. Paul says that the tendency for all human beings is to find something in the created world and revolve one’s life around that rather than the only one who rightly deserves it; who is the true God. This fundamental loyalty will express itself in specific behaviors.

Jesus is saying the exact same thing in Luke 6:43-45:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

If Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor to describe what drives our behavior, James uses that as well as one of a spring’s source in James 3:10-12:

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Scripture is painting a picture of what ultimately drives our behaviors. It is a fundamental orientation of one’s inner person.

What’s Under the Hood?

For the sake of argument, let’s use a more modern metaphor; the car engine. Suppose you are driving down the road and you notice that your temperature gauge is running high, moving into the zone where there is a red bar. What would you naturally conclude if this happened? Hopefully you would conclude that the temperature gauge is not the ultimate problem and that the real problem is under the hood. It could be a bad water-pump, a broken belt, a hole in the radiator, low oil or a busted hose. In order to fix the car, you would need to get under the hood and diagnose the problem in order to fix the issue. Only then would the temperature gauge return to its normal and appropriate level.

The same can be said of humans and their behavior. If you see good or bad behavior (like the gauge) it is revealing what is going on in someone’s heart (under the hood). The Bible has many ways to describe this; idolatry, spiritual adultery, false worship, evil desires, over-loves. St. Augustine called these struggles “disordered desires.”

Be Careful

It is fairly easy these days to diagnose what is wrong with a car engine. But you must keep in mind that you and other people are much more complex than even the most sophisticated car engine. Therefore, it is important to move carefully and wisely when asking the “why?” question. You want to avoid becoming simplistic when assessing motivational drives in yourself as well as others. You certainly don’t want to assume that you have such clear discernment that you have the right to go on an idol/sin hunt in someone else’s life. This could be devastating if you are not careful, wise and loving in how you help others grow in self-awareness.

Application

The challenge at this level is growing in self awareness so that you begin to see the kinds of things that drive your behavior. When you begin doing this, you will likely see themes and patterns that are unique to you but are also common to many other people.

How do you begin to determine why you behave in unproductive and even ungodly ways in response to your circumstances? You need some tools to help you gain clarity of what you are living for in the moment. In How People Change, you will find some guidance on detecting underlying motivations in chapter 10. Here is another tool:

Look at negative behaviors and ask two questions:

  1. What did I want in the moment but was not getting?
  2. What did I not want in the moment and was getting?

These simple two questions will open a window into what you tend to live for and what drives your responses to your circumstances.

Let’s take the example at the beginning of this blog of two people arguing and then suddenly stopping when one of their cell phone rings:

  • You are arguing with another person.
    1. Why? Because they are getting in the way of something you want and giving you something you don’t want.
    2. What is that? You might want comfort, respect, affirmation, acceptance, and/or peace, but you are getting disagreement and/or disrespect instead .
  • You change immediately when your cell phone rings and become very polite.
    1. Why? What do you want? To be thought highly of? To be seen as a nice person?
    2. Why? What do you not want? To be seen as a mean, selfish person? To tarnish your reputation?

Take a recent situation and describe what was going on and how you responded in an unproductive and ungodly way. Now begin to ask the “Why?” and “What?” questions. What did I want that I was not getting? What did I not want that I was getting?

Chances are, as you do this in a variety of areas in your life, you will probably see particular themes that show up in many other areas of your life.

This step is critical for the next step which involves engaging in robust repentance and faith and savoring the grace of Christ.

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 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.