Trained Hopefulness

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When life feels like it’s spinning out of control, or like the task you have in front of you is insurmountable, it’s easy to default to hopelessness. To “What’s the point?” That’s natural. Your body evolved to conserve energy. We need to train for hopefulness. To clear the path to continue. It doesn’t take big heroic efforts to train hope. Small signals that you are in control, that you can have an impact, will be enough to turn our prefrontal cortex back on. If too many emails are causing you consternation, define a specific hour each day in which you’ll answer them. If grief has destroyed your motivation, give yourself permission to feel the strong emotions, binge on Netflix, but also to let go. You don’t need to be “back to normal” the day after a major loss, but you can take small steps toward normalcy to flex your control muscle: going for a walk instead of a full-blown workout, meeting friends for coffee, spending an hour a day diving back into your work project. Too often, we get stuck in the rut of apathy, because we haven’t flexed our hopeful muscle. Small actions that remind you that you have a choice go a long way to training the ability to put your brain back online.

Steve Magness, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness [affiliate link]

“Hope” is a learned behavior. As expressed by Steve Magness, hope can be trained, like a muscle. Exercising agency, or the human ability to choose, activates and invigorates us. Small, positive choices snowball and build momentum. When we recall that we do have some control over our choices, even if that range is limited, we are able to keep going, to persist.

Magness’ assertion above is based in cognitive science, in research on the prefrontal cortex and its power to control our emotions while under stress. When times get tough, our default is to feel helpless. We can be overwhelmed by our circumstances and tempted to shut down, cowered, and quit. But we’re never totally helpless. So long as we exercise agency, even if it is over our attitude and inward disposition, we can continue moving forward.

How does this connect to toughness? We develop toughness when we learn that we always have a choice, that there is always something over which we can exercise control in any and all circumstances, no matter how challenging. Magness prescribes moving from small choices to large choices, “giving yourself a choice,” turning a negative into a positive (he calls it “flip the script”), and adopting a ritual, or focusing on what you can rather than what you can’t control (such as a batter’s routine before stepping into the batters’ box, or a basketball player’s pre-shot rhythm at the free throw line) when entering a high pressure environment.

For people of faith, the development of “trained hopefulness” has a twofold dimension. First, we remember that our first choice, in every circumstance, is to trust in God. Our second is to remember that our agency is exercised before God, and that if we seek the kingdom and answer our call, all that we do unto the Lord is not in vain. We’re not helpless. Nothing is impossible with God. In our most challenging circumstances, God is with us.

One Idea to Digest that Day

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I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. But now make sure that reading many authors and every kind of book-roll does not represent a kind of unsettled drifting. You should linger over and feed yourself upon a few chosen intellects if you want to take in anything that will stay faithfully in your mind. The man who is everywhere is nowhere. When men spend their life in traveling around, they have many hosts but no real friendships. The same thing must happen to those who do not devote themselves intimately to any one intellect but take in everything at speed and in haste. Food that is evacuated as soon as it is consumed gives no benefit and does not add strength to the body. Nothing delays healing as much as a constant change of remedies. A wound on which medications are tied out does not knit into a scar. A seedling that is constantly transplanted does not build up strength. Indeed, nothing is so beneficial that it can do good on the run; hence a great number of books slackens the mind. So, since you cannot read as much as you possess, it is enough to have the amount you can read. . .When you have surveyed many writing, choose one idea to digest that day.

Seneca, Letter 2 (Book I.2), in Selected Letters [affiliate link]

Seneca lived from 1 BC to 65 AD, a Stoic philosopher who lived during the Roman Imperial Period. Born in Spain and educated in Rome, this man was highly involved in politics. He served as a tutor to an adolescent Nero and later became a close advisor when Nero ascended the throne. Prior to service in Nero’s court, Seneca was exiled after being accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister. His life ended in forced suicide, after he was found complicit in a plot to assassinate Nero.

The quote above, found in one of his philosophical letters, made me think of the oft cited self-description of John Wesley, who called himself “a man of one book.” Wesley referred to the Scriptures. He was a student of the Bible, first and foremost.

But Wesley read other books. This is evident through his sermons, journals, and other works. But Wesley read these other books through the lens of the Scriptures. He read widely, but routinely returned to Scripture. His interaction with other minds was done in consult with his familiarity with the mind of God, as it has been revealed through the canon of the Bible.

Seneca’s advice also made me think of Cal Newport, who’s commendation of the deep life and slow productivity aligns well with Seneca’s prescribed benefits of association with select intellects, key writings, and the contemplation of “one idea to digest that day.”

The Hidden Path

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A child was filled with a question, which like an itch demanded to be scratched.

“Jacob, what I don’t understand is how you are to decide whether to follow what you feel is right or what you think is right?”

Jacob touched his own chest and said, “My heart know what my mind only thinks it knows.”

The answer pushed the boy to another question.

“What if neither my heart nor mind can help me find the way?”

And Jacob answered, “Prayer is a path where there is none.”

Noah benShea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World, p. 36

I’m of the opinion that discernment involves thinking and feeling prayerfully as one seeks to determine their way. Thus, prayer isn’t a last resort, but a first.

Nevertheless, “prayer is a path where there is none” suggests that the wise person understands that when they are at the end of both their emotional and intellectual capacities, help comes from outside the self, and is found ultimately in God. Prayer can show us a way where there is no way, because it focuses our attention on the One who can raises up valleys and levels mountains, who makes alive the dead, who makes possible the impossible.

Meditation and Prayer: Kindle the Fire

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Do we not miss very much of the sweetness and efficacy of prayer by a want of careful meditation before it, and of hopeful expectation after it? . . . We too often rush into the presence of God without forethought or humility. We are like people who present themselves before a king without a petition, and what wonder is it that we often miss the end of prayer? We should be careful to keep the stream of meditation always running, for this is the water to drive the mill of prayer. It is idle to put up the floodgates of a dry brook and then hope to see the wheel revolve. Prayer without fervency is like hunting with a dead dog, and prayer without preparation is like hawking with a blind falcon. Prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit, but He works by means. . . The Holy Ghost is the author of prayer, but He employs the thoughts of a fervent soul as the gold with which to fashion the vessel. Let our prayers and praises be not the flashes of a hot and hasty brain but the steady burning of a well-kindled fire.

Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon and the Psalms, Commenting on Psalm 5

When teaching the Christian spiritual disciplines I have encountered a surprising amount of resistance when introducing meditation. Most students think of meditation as only emptying the mind, and not, as is prescribed in the Scriptures, of filling the mind with the things and thoughts of God.

Here is Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, comparing meditation to water that powers a mill, a hunt, hawking, gold, and fire. He says the meditating person is a person prepared to petition and praise God. Why? Because a person who thinks on the things and thoughts of God supplies the Holy Spirit with material from which to draw and choose for the occasion, the moment, of address.

Meditation invites God to refashion, reform, and renew our minds, not only so that we might think more clearly in relationship to God and God’s kingdom, so that we might converse more plainly, accurately, and cogently with the God who has called us into fellowship.

Think on the things and thoughts of God.

Peace in Battle

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Last Thursday I read J. C. Ryle’s tract Fighting for Holiness and came across the following:

We may take comfort about our souls if we know anything of an inward fight and conflict. It is the invariable companion of genuine Christian holiness. It is not everything, I am well aware, but it is something. Do we find in our heart of hearts a spiritual struggle? Do we feel anything of the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things we would (Gal. 5:17)? Are we conscious of two principles within us, contending for the mastery? Do we feel anything of war in our inward man? Well, let us thank God for it! It is a good sign. It is strongly probable evidence of the great work of sanctification. All true saints are soldiers. Anything is better than apathy, stagnation, deadness, and indifference. We are in a better state than many. The most of so-0ccalled Christians have no feeling at all. We are evidently no friends of Satan. Like the kings of this world, he wars not against his own subjects. The very fact that he assaults us should fill our minds with hope. I say again, let us take comfort. The child of God has two great marks about him, and of these two we have one: He may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace.

J. C. Ryle, Fighting for Holiness [affiliate link]

The things you read while sitting in a quiet corner of a coffee shop.

I shared with friends that Ryle was addressing a movement in his own time, which continue to be present today, that we should simply rest in God, to “not wrestle, only nestle,” or, more popularly now, “let go and let God.” Ryle was writing in the latter half of the 1800s. Pendulums swing.

Resting and contending, both, are found in the witness of Scripture. More than one thing can be true at the same time. Our present struggles, though unpleasant, can be used by God for our good, and as Ryle says, they may be “evidence of the great work of sanctification” and a sign that we are spiritually alive. Ryle’s statement that Satan “wars not against his own subject” should stiffen our spines when we do experience the “inward warfare.” If we weren’t a threat, we would not be assailed by the powers of hell.

Whatever your trials, troubles, are temptations, stand firm. God is at work, drawing us into a deeper, fuller life. Don’t grow weary. Continue the pursuit; keep up the fight.

A Human Being Like Ourselves

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Perhaps it may be well explicitly to note that our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Mt. iv.2), thirsted (Jno. xix. 20), was weary (Jno. iv. 6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred his soul. That he did so is sufficiently evinced by the simple circumstance that these emotions were observed and recorded. But the bodily expression of the emotions is also frequently expressly attested.Not only do we read that he wept (Jno. xi. 35) and wailed (Lk. xix. 41),sighed (Mk. vii. 34) and groaned (Mk. viii. 12) ; but we read also of his angry glare (Mk. iii. 5), his annoyed speech (Mk. x. 14), his chiding words(e. g. Mk. iii. 12), the outbreaking ebullition of his rage (e.g. Jno. xi. 33,38) ; of the agitation of his bearing when under strong feeling (Jno. xi.35), the open exultation of his joy (Lk. x. 21), the unrest of his movements in the face of anticipated evils (Mt. xxvii. 37), the loud cry which was wrung from him in his moment of desolation (Mt. xxvii. 46). Nothing is lacking to make the impression strong that we have before us in Jesus a human being like ourselves.

B. B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of Our Lord, p. 96-97

Christians believe Jesus was (and is) fully human and fully divine.

This teaching was clarified and affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. As noted in this article, the Chalcedonian Definition is not a confession or creed, but is, rather, an explanation or commentary on a series of terms appearing in the Nicene Creed, detailing for us how the Nicene Creed should be understood with regard to Jesus’ nature and essence.

When Christians says the Son came down from heaven in the incarnation and was born as a human being, what does this mean for his divinity? And what does his divinity mean for his humanity?

These were challenging questions for the early church. They remain challenging questions for us today. But, as then, so now; these questions remain relevant. In his humanity, Jesus identified fully with us. In his divinity, Jesus accomplished for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves.

B. B. Warfield’s essay The Emotional Life of Our Lord examines the witness of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and shows us the ways in which Jesus displayed emotion, that he was “a human being like ourselves.”

In my pastoral ministry experience, I have found that it is common for those inside the church to easily see Jesus as divine, but to be reticent to understand him as a human being, like us.

And with those outside the church, I have found that people are compelled by and interested in Jesus as a human being, but are very hesitant to believe that he was and is divine, worthy of our adoration and worship.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly, and by paying the penalty for its transgression as our substitute.

Jesus was (and is) both fully human and fully divine.

Warfield’s entire essay can be read here.

Calling: Adjusting the Dials

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We think that a correct theology of calling can and will apply to all Christians, but not so the all-too-popular individualized understanding. Or better yet, we contend that a more faithful theology of calling will help direct the shape of a believer’s life no matter what their current circumstances. Put still another way, we contend that a theology of calling that is truly faithful to Scripture and not just pious language must apply to all Christians at all times and in all places. An overly individualized and specific view of calling as popularly presented just does not work. It ends up limiting more than it liberates.

William W. Klein and Daniel J. Steiner, What is My Calling? A Biblical and Theological Exploration of Christian Identity

This summer three new titles on vocation and calling landed on my desk for review, and the first of those titles I have picked up to read has been published by Baker Academic: William W. Klein and Daniel J. Steiner’s What is My Calling?

Klein and Steiner contend that current Christian discourse on calling, or the words we use and how they shape culture, distort, mislead, and malform Christians more than they clarify, direct, and aid in faithfulness. In a survey of the literature, the authors find that the vast majority of the current writing on calling focuses more on the individual and unique circumstances than it does the universal call to follow Jesus as his disciple.

Furthermore, by equating job-as-vocation with the idea of calling, the authors observe that the stress is frequently misplaced. Christians downgrade a variety of jobs and fields as possibilities because of a subjective feeling that it is not right for them. Christians can also identify job satisfaction or fulfillment (“living your passion”) as the key signifier they are living according God’s will. A great deal of modern discourse on calling puts the individual at the center of inquiry, and not God. That’s a mistake.

This way of approaching calling introduces a variety of problems. These criteria may work for some, but not all. Klein and Steiner ask us to consider the biblical witness and the ways Christians in other eras have approached calling in an effort to free us from our current individualized approach.

As I’m reading this book, I think that project is worthwhile. But I also suspect that Klein and Steiner have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

In an effort to standardize our discourse on calling and avoid the pitfalls of subjective assessments Christians attach to their testimony about calling, they draw our attention back to the universals, such as the calling all people have to live as disciples of Jesus.

But in doing so, they minimize the biblical witness concerning the leading of the Holy Spirit, the responsibility of the believer to discern God’s will, and the active and near presence of Christ as advocate, counselor, teacher, and guide. In an effort to clean up the messes created by our commonly used words about calling, they sterilize the environment in which callings are clarified and worked out–the chaos and disorder of our everyday lives.

I’m still thinking about these ideas. When I speak with brothers and sisters in Christ, I do make distinctions in our understanding of calling.

First, I emphasize the calling of all Christians, which is to take up the cross and to follow Jesus, to become his apprentice, to learn his way, to declare allegiance to him, and to demonstrate complete trust and confidence in him. This dimension of our calling to Christ is universal and shared.

Secondly, I invite everyone to consider everyday faithfulness and the specific, particular outworking of that first and primary calling. This dimension of calling is individual and unique.

Klein and Steiner’s point, however, is well taken.

If anything, I think the dial on universal calling needs to be turned way up, while the dial concerning individual calling needs to be turned way down.

Everyone wants to know and do God’s will but no one wants to follow Jesus and become like him.

We want to know what to study in college, where we’re supposed to work, who we’re supposed to marry, where we’re supposed to live, etc. And if we follow Jesus and become like him, that’s a bonus.

But if we inverted our pursuits, if we contented ourselves with following Jesus and allowing him to remake us according to his image and way, knowing and doing God’s will is assured. Those other identity pursuits have been satisfied; the associated idols have been long cast aside. We will have found our calling, because we have entrusted ourselves fully to the Caller.