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Ann Spangler's sensitivity to the ever-changing spiritual and cultural climate in which we live has enabled her to address themes of profound interest to many readers.
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Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

An image of an annoyed-looking woman with smoke coming out of her ears.

I have a friend whose mother suffers from chronic anxiety. Always a worrier, her mom has grown more and more anxious with the years. Her mother’s doctor recently prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, which she adamantly refuses to take. Because her mother’s anxiety has provoked so many problems within the family, my friend recently quipped that if her mother won’t take the pills then the rest of the family will have to—so they can stay calm enough to deal with her anxiety. My friend’s tongue-in-cheek comment reveals something important about human dynamics. Many of us are easily infected by each other’s emotional weaknesses. Sometimes the weakest member of a family is the one who exerts the strongest influence.

Take, for example, the child who easily whines and cries. Of course there’s nothing wrong with crying, unless it becomes habitual or a method for children to get their way. As mothers, many of us are good at empathy. We understand and sympathize with our children’s weaknesses. But sometimes our empathy can be an obstacle that makes it harder for them to grow up.

Edwin Friedman, a family therapist and leadership consultant, pointed out that people tend to mature more when the leader of an organization adapts toward strength rather than weakness. In that context, Friedman considered empathy an adaptation toward weakness. He counseled leaders to challenge those they lead as a way to help them grow and mature. As Friedman pointed out, there are some people whose real need is to not have their need fulfilled.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t always experience God being as empathetic as we might like. He knows exactly how we need to be challenged in order to become the kind of people who can lead others toward peace.

 

When God Draws Near

An image A single lotus flower on the surface of still water.

In July 2007, twenty-three South Korean missionaries, sixteen men and seven women, were on a bus traveling from Kandahar to Kabul, when the driver allowed two armed men to board the bus. For the next month and a half, members of the Taliban held them hostage, moving them to a series of cellars and farmhouses in order to conceal them. Before they were split into small groups, all twenty-three rededicated their lives to Christ, pledging their willingness to die for his glory. There was even an argument about who might be given the privilege of dying first.

One of the missionaries had a small Bible, which was split into twenty-three sections so each person could have a portion of God’s Word to strengthen and comfort them during the difficult days ahead. Two of the men were executed before a deal was reached to release the hostages.

Oddly enough, when the remaining hostages were safely back on South Korean soil, more than one of them would later comment, “Don’t you wish we were still there?” Several spoke of experiencing a deep intimacy with God in the midst of their terrible ordeal—an experience they hadn’t been able to recapture since their return to the safety and comfort of their own land.1

Why this dynamic? Perhaps because in the midst of their difficulties, God was fulfilling his promise that the Holy Spirit would be with those who would be brought to trial for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps also because desperation can excavate more space in our hearts for God. Instead of feeling full and satisfied, we recognize a need only Christ can fill. Very few of us will ever face the threat these men and women did. But we can take heart from their story, believing that God can give us courage for whatever we may face.

  1. Francis Chan tells the story of meeting one of the missionaries on a trip to South Korea in Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 107–8.

 

More Peace, Less Stuff

An image of a white desk in a white room, very simple and calm.

Ever heard of the terms “hedonic adaptation” or “hedonic treadmill”?

Both of these refer to the fact that in order to maintain the surge of pleasure that comes with every new gadget and thingamajig we purchase, we have to keep buying new things. Of the two phrases, I prefer the latter because it vividly captures the idea that we have to keep running farther and faster in order to achieve the same amount of happiness.

But what would happen if we were to step off the treadmill? That’s what several people in the small house movement have done, building tiny homes so they can live more simply and cheaply. Such homes cost less to heat, cool, and repair and are much quicker to clean. One woman who lives in the tiniest of houses heats her home with solar panels and a propane tank, the kind the rest of us use to power our gas grills, making her heating bills about $5 per month. Her “refrigerator” is a small cooler. By having a small carbon footprint, small-house folks hope to have a big impact on the world around them, spending their time and money on causes, people, and experiences they care about. What a terrific counterpoise to the bloated houses many people have been building in suburbs across the country.

Though I have no desire to call a closet home, the idea of downsizing appeals to me because I’ve learned the hard way that owning lots of stuff usually works against my sense of peace and happiness.

You needn’t move into a tiny house to achieve the goal of living simply. Just decide that you want the benefits simplicity can bring and start making decisions with your goal in mind.

 

How to Get Rid of Fear

An image of a father and daughter walking along the beach, hand in hand.

Have you noticed how easy it is for all kinds of fear to coexist in your heart? You may, for instance, feel fearful for your children, your spouse, your friends, your finances, your future, and your health. You may be afraid of public speaking and taking tests and flying in planes and crossing bridges. When left unchallenged, fear can spread like a contagion inside us. Or maybe fear is something like a great big magnet, attracting more and more fear to our lives. If this is so, how can we neutralize its power?

Perhaps the only way to do this is to replace our fears with what I call a capital F kind of fear. I am thinking, of course, about what Scripture calls the “Fear of the Lord.” But doesn’t associating the word fear with the word Lord end up ramping up our fears, reviving all the old stereotypes about a wrathful God who is always angry? Not if we understand the term rightly. Scripture links fear of the Lord to many good things: wisdom, safety, long life, prosperity, and a sure foundation. Fear of the Lord can protect you from evil, death, bitterness, and ruin.

To fear the Lord is to revere him, to stand in awe of him, so much so that your primary aim is to please him above pleasing yourself or others. Like a young girl who feels secure while walking alongside her father, you heed his voice because you know that doing so will keep you from straying too close to the edge of a cliff or wandering off in the company of a stranger. You know that your heavenly Father has your best interests at heart. Fearing God produces a kind of foundational security, reducing and reordering the lesser fears that threaten you.

Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is a “life-giving fountain,” the beginning of wisdom, and the door to friendship with God. By fearing God, we reduce the other fears that plague us, avoiding evil and courting blessing.

Confession as a Stress Reliever

An image of a woman on the phone in a phone booth

If you want to experience more of God’s peace, try doing exactly what James tells you: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16, nlt). Make it a practice to confess your sins not only to God but to a mature brother or sister in Christ. Confessing our sins to “someone with skin on” sounds like a recipe for creating more anxiety rather than more peace. You may wonder, What will people think of me? Won’t it make me feel worse about myself? Contrary to what you may think, such a practice can be a tremendous step toward healing and a real stress reliever. Let me illustrate.

In his book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey tells the story of hearing author Keith Miller talk about his struggle to face the weakness and sin in his life. Determined to do so, he hit upon a plan, deciding to contact a Catholic priest who lived five hundred miles away in order to ask if he would hear his confession. It must have sounded like an odd request, coming as it did from a Protestant, but the priest agreed. As Miller prepared to meet with the priest, he made a list of everyone he had wronged and every character flaw and defect he could think of. When it came time to confess, he looked down at his list and read them to the priest out loud. Fearing to look up, he then held his head in his hands, awaiting a response. But as Yancey recounts, there was only silence. “Miller,” he says, “kept expecting the blow to fall. Nothing. When he forced himself to raise his head, he saw that the priest was crying. ‘My God, Keith,’ he said, ‘that’s my list too.’ A path opened toward healing.”1

Perhaps in that moment, both men received healing, experiencing God’s gracious presence as they spoke together honestly, openly, and with faith. Ask God today to show you whom you can confide in, and then make the request. Examine your conscience with the help of God’s Spirit, and then do what James instructs: confess your sins and pray so that you may be healed.

 

[Tweet “Confess your sins to someone with skin on, someone you can confide in.”]

 

  1. Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 150.

The Secret to Becoming Calm

an image of a lone figure walking along a peaceful beach

Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful.
1 Peter 3:3-5

I confess that this has never been my favorite Bible passage. But I have come to realize there is something appealing about people, male or female, who are gentle and quiet at the core of their being. Such people have the ability to spread a sense of calm wherever they go.

The Amish have a reputation for being a peaceable people. Have you ever wondered what their secret is? One of their secrets to peace concerns a foundational value they call gelassenheit. Though it has no direct English equivalent, gelassenheit can best be understood, explains an Anabaptist minister by the name of Durand Overholtzer, through synonyms like “yieldedness, humility, calmness, composure, meekness, aplomb, tranquility, imperturbability, serenity, poise, sedateness, letting go, the opposite of self-assertion, a gentle spirit, submitting to God’s will.” Gelassenheit, he says, “is the union and agreement of the inner spirit with the outward response.”1

While many of us are attracted to ideals of calmness, composure, poise, and tranquility, we are not so eager to embrace ideals like yieldedness, humility, meekness, and gentleness. But what if the second set is vital to developing the first, much like physical training is vital to becoming a successful athlete? Or what if the second set is like the thread that forms the pattern on a quilt, making it uniquely beautiful? Join me today in praying that God will thread his character onto the quilt that is your life, making you a person of greater peace and deeper calm.

 

  1. Quoted in Suzanne Woods Fisher, Amish Peace (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2009), 108.

 

 

Unshakeable Contentment

honey pours off a wooden spoon

Journalist Annia Ciezadlo has covered wars in Lebanon and Iraq. Her memoir, Day of Honey, offers an unusual take on what it’s like to live in the midst of a Middle Eastern war zone. Annia explains that whenever she travels, she also cooks “because eating has always been my most reliable way of understanding the world.”1

“We all,” she says, “carry maps of the world in our heads. Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I’ve been.”2 The title of her fascinating book is drawn from an Arabic phrase, youm aasl, youm basl, meaning “day of onion, day of honey.” The point of this rhyming Arabic phrase is that some days will be bad and others will be good. People use it to comfort each other, as though to say that a better day will come.

Our lives are also filled with days of honey and days of onion, times when life is sweet and when it’s anything but. Can we enjoy God’s peace in both good days and bad? Paul seems to say that the answer is yes. One translation of his words to the Philippians says, “I have learned the secret of being content” (niv).

I confess that I have yet to learn the unshakable contentment Paul speaks of. A day of onion can still transform my peace into discord. If you’re more like me than the great apostle Paul, join me today in praying for the grace to become content in any and all circumstances.

 

  1. Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey (New York: Free Press, 2011), 8.
  2. Ibid., 7.

 

 

The Best Way to Discover God’s Will

an image of a clock drawn on blueprint paper

Nowhere in the Bible does God lay down a complete blueprint for anyone’s life. He didn’t take Abraham aside, for instance, and tell him,

“I want you to marry your half-sister Sarah, and then the two of you will move to a land that will someday be called Israel, but a famine will cause you to move to Egypt, and then you will bring back a slave girl by the name of Hagar who will bear you a son and there will be great strife in your household because of arguments between Sarah and Hagar and their children, and then I will ask you to sacrifice Isaac and to turn Ishmael out into the wilderness, and then you will acquire great riches, and then Sarah will die and you will remarry, and finally you will live to a ripe old age and three great religions will trace their beliefs to you.”

True, God did disclose some things to Abraham over a period of time, but there was much that Abraham simply didn’t know about how life would unfold.

Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t offer a lot of guidance about our future, though it does offer considerable guidance about how we should conduct ourselves in the present. One thing Abraham did know was what God wanted him to do in the present, and, to his credit, he did it. To seek to know the future in detail would be like a first-year algebra student demanding to move straight from solving two-step equations to partial-fraction decomposition.

It just won’t work.

As Jerry Sittser points out, God has a plan for our lives. But he doesn’t disclose it to us too far in advance:

“We will discover that plan, however, by simply doing the will of God we already know in the present moment. Life will then gradually unfold for us. We will discover at just the right time what we need to know and do. . . . We will discern God’s will as naturally as we learned how to walk—one step at a time.”1

  1. Jerry Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 39-40.

When You Don’t Feel Peaceful

an image of a person silhouetted against a colorful sky that's reflected in calm water

God’s peace has many facets to it. To grow in that peace is to grow into the likeness of the one we call the Prince of Peace. Since shalom contains the ideas of wholeness, well-being, serenity, healing, safety, satisfaction, and even prosperity, God’s peace is something rich and deep that he works into our lives as we grow in greater maturity.

Like joy, peace is not something we merely feel but something that comes to characterize our lives regardless of circumstances. There will be times when we feel our lack of it acutely even though we are attempting to follow God faithfully. Seasons of difficulty will arise. Trials and tragedies will assail us. Such times may temporarily rob us of the sense that God is with us, making us vulnerable to fear. At these times, it may help to remember the things that lead to peace. I’m referring to things like

  • confessing our sin
  • forgiving others
  • obeying God
  • expressing gratitude
  • finding fellowship
  • praising God
  • resting
  • exercising
  • praying daily
  • reading and studying Scripture

Think of these as pearls on a string that together will make a beautiful necklace. While we wait for God’s peace to adorn our lives, we can actively address any areas that may need shoring up, trusting that as we do, God will help us to grow in faith and trust.

 

 

Our Dangerous Tongues

an image of graffiti on a wall of a long, blue tongue

How would you like it if someone called you a motzi shem ra? Huh? You might wonder if you had just been complimented or insulted. In fact, the phrase identifies you as the lowest of the low—someone who lies in order to give others a bad name. Jesus likely used this phrase when he said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil” (Luke 6:22, niv).

Over the centuries, the Jewish people learned through painful experience how dangerous the tongue can be. Think of the pogroms that have been carried out against the Jews, often fueled by outrageous lies. So dangerous is the tongue, the rabbis say, that God designed it to be kept behind two protective walls—the lips and the teeth. Here are a few commonly cited examples of speech that may seem normal to us but that are forbidden to observant Jews:

Don’t call a person by a derogatory nickname, or by any other embarrassing name, even if the person is used to it.

Don’t ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter (because it would draw attention to the person’s lack of knowledge or education).

Don’t refer someone to another person for assistance when you know the other person can’t help (in other words, don’t give someone the runaround).

Don’t deceive anyone, even if doing so does no harm.

Don’t compliment people if you don’t mean it.1

Clearly, the rabbis have thought a lot about this issue. One way to combat the negative power of our tongues is to cultivate the discipline of silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommended silence at the beginning and end of each day. Conscious and prayerful silence can open a space into which God may speak, giving him the first and the last word. Silence can also be a powerful tool against temptation. As Bonhoeffer pointed out, “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.”2

  1. Adapted from Tracey R. Rich, “Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra,” Judaism 101, accessed June 29, 2017, http://www.jewfaq.org/speech.htm.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 91.