Random thoughts 2018 - a collection of thoughts which arise in the course of life; they may come from counselling situations, random conversations or observations. New posts will be added frequently so visit the site regularly to read John's thoughts. These random thoughts are also sent out by email - click here if you are interested in receiving the regular emails and also to add your comments or further questions.
A firm foundation
On Sunday morning we sang the Housefires song, ‘Build my life.’ It includes the line, ‘I will build my life upon your love. It is a firm foundation. I will put my trust in you alone and I will not be shaken.’ I thought about what turns a firm foundation into a shaky one. It is fear. I expect you know that horrible sinking feeling in your stomach when you think you might have got something wrong or that nagging, ‘can’t get it out of my system’ feeling that stops you settling and enjoying life. Now sometimes fear is there for a good reason. It is telling us to be careful or to resolve something – but all too often it is there because there is a weak point in our make up that has become a home to fear. There is an ‘over-vulnerability’. It is not wrong to be vulnerable, that is how we retain our sensitivity and tenderness, but if something or someone taps into an emotional air bubble within us then that vulnerability can become our downfall.
What are the signs of that over-vulnerability? When you cannot settle your mind, however hard you try to settle on a course of action. When you know you shouldn’t be anxious (anxiety is a form of fear) – but you still are! When you know you are not guilty but the nagging persistent ‘guilty emotion’ won’t go away. Remember that guilt also has fear at its root – the fear I have done something wrong.
What is the antidote to fear? It is love. ‘Perfect love drives out fear, wrote John (1 John 4:18). When your heart sinks or your mind races or false guilt nags or anxiety keeps you on hot coals, sink into love. Settle your heart with a simple statement to the Lord – ‘I know you love me, Lord, and you know that I love you. I can trust myself to you and rest in your peace.’
Peter tells us to ‘do what is right and do not give way to fear’ (1 Peter 3:6). We choose, either yield to fear – or to love.
Leave the table
A friend shared this quote, ‘Knowing your worth is about being ready to leave the table when respect is no longer being served.’ Train yourself out of it
Recently, a friend who has struggled with negative emotions that visit from time to time like uninvited guests and insist on taking up residence took his frustration to the Lord and received the clear instruction to ‘train yourself out of it.’ The fears that had accumulated were from the past and whilst they needed recognising and processing, they were not saying anything about the present that needed attention. They were left-over baggage from earlier years. ‘Train yourself out of it’ implied making good and robust decisions that involved not being subject to those unwanted emotions. This requires an attitude that is determined to exercise the will against all the odds to behave and believe in a way that is consistent with the truth. What does that look like? If there is nothing to fear, then I will not fear; I will not make allowances for fear. I won’t accommodate it. It won’t influence my decisions. The fear only has power in our lives if we believe it is saying something to us that we need to take notice of. If we ‘train ourselves out of it’ we consistently defy that feeling because we know it to be an imposter.
Imagine that you have put on much more weight than you wish to carry, and you determine to get rid of it. You sign up at the gym, get your workout regime and get to work. You are pushing against the resistance, physically and emotionally. When you find you are starting to shed the pounds it becomes deeply satisfying. Why? Just because you are losing weight? Well, there is that, but I think what brings greater satisfaction is what happens to you on the inside. You made good decisions against what you felt, you stuck at it and won through. You may have a super-slim body but, far more importantly, you have acquired an internal strength and robustness because you consistently pushed against what you felt until those feelings fell into line and became useful servants instead of troublesome masters.
Trusting beyond fear
Someone wrote to me recently and said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever known what it is to trust beyond fear.’ We all happily trust when the sun is shining. In fact, is it trust when everything conspires to make us feel good? Did Abraham feel good when God asked him to sacrifice his only son? Imagine the fear, pain and possible anger – not to mention what the wife might want to say to him! God will always ask you to do things that take you outside what you want to do and what you are comfortable with. Only then does it become trust. Understanding that gives us a different perspective on the challenges of the journey. Is there something in your life that is bigger than your trust? Embrace it – it contains the key to your growth.
More on trust Imagine our two temperaments as being like two people living in two separate rooms in the same house. Our introvert lives in one and the extrovert in the other. Chances are that you will spend most of your time in the extrovert room unless you are comfortable in your own skin. This means that what you feel in your introvert can seem to be somewhat out of reach. In other words, the introvert is feeling many things – some of them deep and intense – but you can’t quite get to them to do something with them. As a result, many of those emotions remain unprocessed and just inhabit that room without going anywhere. In addition, your introvert is not getting the practice he needs in handling emotions. For example, he hasn’t learnt how to always put difficulties into a bigger context, one in which you know God will have the last word. That lack of practice can show itself in a number of ways. For example, when several issues come along at once, it can all feel too much, and everything gets out of perspective. So, if a Melancholic has several things going wrong, he will be sure he is the target of a conspiracy to destroy any hope of happiness that he might have been foolish enough to believe he had. Similarly, if he receives a stream of bad news, then the resultant sadness can reach an intensity that can throw him off balance. Similarly, put a Phlegmatic under too much pressure and his perspective can be quickly lost if he hasn’t developed the ability to respond constructively at the time. If his pattern is to not look, he will store up anxiety. When that accumulates, that resident anxiety rises up in response to any new pressure – and he collapses. He is convinced his ‘victim mentality’ was justified all along! The answer to all of this? To know you are secure enough to go into that introvert room – and stay there, learning to process all that you are feeling. What will that require? Trust. The willingness to venture to the depths of who you are, with the Lord and with those who know you and love you.
Purpose and context
It is vital to have a sense of purpose. Without it we are just filling in time, finding things to do, getting from one day to another. We need a reason for getting out of bed that extends beyond it not looking good if we stayed there. We are called to be who we are, where we are, to the glory of God. If you are a single lady living on your own, be that single lady to the full. Use your freedom to glorify God to the full in your attitude and behaviour. The same is true for all of us in whatever situation God has called us to be.
There is more. When God called you to himself, he had a responsibility for you that only you can fulfil. The analogy of the body that Paul uses demonstrates that each of us has a specific and unique function. So, if you don’t get out of bed and live that day under the impulses of God’s Spirit then there will be a gap. There will be ‘stuff’ not being done that only you could do. Having that sense of purpose provides a context for facing challenges, going through a multitude of difficulties and using all of that as a means of being refined so we get even better at fulfilling God’s purpose for our life. We see everything as producing a win-win situation. Life is worth living after all!
The importance of sharing
Everything we experience in life registers somewhere within. The problem is, it probably registers primarily in the part of us that we have tried to distance ourselves from because we didn’t know what to do with what we felt there. We must share it otherwise it controls us. What we don’t look at drives the car. We might think we are in control of our lives but at best we are only backseat drivers. Share what you really feel and move into the driving seat.
All too easy
I was thinking today of how it is all too easy to blame our past, our upbringing and our experiences for the way we are today. Yes, it is important for us to see patterns and, in some cases, be set free from damage done but it is also important for us to see how much of what we are today is the result of who we are by nature and how we have chosen to respond to that. In other words, we are far more responsible today for our character than we may care to admit. The good news is that we can choose to make good choices. God will never make the decisions for us but choosing right means all the power of the resurrected Christ aids us in carrying through on those choices.
On being tough
In a couple of situations recently I have found myself having to be direct and clear in conversation. In both cases the next time I visited the people involved they were in a different place within themselves and in their relationships. No-one wants to be tough but if we put our own feelings first then we never help people to get those breakthroughs that they need.
We are responsible for what we do with what we feel
A definition of maturity that appeals to me is ‘the ability to make the right choices despite what you feel.’ A child can be dragged along by what they feel at any given time. We don’t teach them to not feel but we do teach them that they can choose to do something that contradicts what they feel. If we teach them while they are young, then that capacity to go against what they feel increases incrementally. For those who teach their emotions that they cannot rule they discover that those same emotions make very good servants.
If you don’t like you then you won’t expect other people to like you. You will anticipate rejection, and either be overly pleasing (which is off-putting) or act in a way that causes people to reject you anyway.
If we don’t value ourselves we don’t give value to others. We might say positive things to someone to encourage them but they will sense the way we feel about ourselves and that will override our words.
Just today someone told me that they always try and look for the good in others. I asked them why they didn’t apply that same principle to themselves.
Imagine that you are clearing out an old shed. Along with all the junk, an old battered painting is thrown into the yard. A neighbour who happens to be very knowledgeable when it comes to art, spots this painting and immediately, despite the grime, recognises it as potentially very valuable. When he tells you that it could possibly be worth millions, would you leave it lying in the yard, in the rain! No, suddenly your whole attitude towards it would change and you would treat it with the care and respect it deserved. When it dawns on us that we are God’s faultless workmanship then we will act in a way that is consistent with the amazing value he gives us.
Two emotions at the same time Do you ever find yourself feeling two very different things at the same time? You could feel like running away or staying and sorting something out. You could feel peaceful and anxious. Peter wrote to Christians about their hope saying, ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in various trials’ (1 Peter 1:6). Joy and grief together. You could feel really cross with someone – and intensely compassionate at the same time. God himself knew those feelings – at the same time (Hosea 11:8). It’s alright to feel both. It’s how we are made. When we try and mix those feelings we end up with guilt because we are caught between the two. The emotion we don’t act on condemns the other. Far better to fully acknowledge both. We don’t have to choose which one to feel but we can ask God for his wisdom as to which one is appropriate to act on in any given situation. We are free to be the whole of who we are – without condemnation.
Career advice When we know who we are, we will be much more likely to know what to do with who we are.
Over the last few years, my grandchildren have loved to run on to Southwold Pier and see themselves in the ‘Wacky Walk of Mirrors’. Fat legs, skinny bodies, stretched out heads – and plenty of laughter. If you really believed you looked like the reflection that comes back at you, then you would certainly be having multiple ‘negative body image’ issues!
People around us are like mirrors. How reliable is the image that we see reflected? Should we believe all the images that come back at us? When we were very young, we had little choice because we trusted and our view of ourselves was influenced strongly by nature (how we see ourselves), and nurture (how we perceive others see us). As we grew, increasingly we used our capacity to choose which image we believed. But how good are we at making those choices? How do we know if the mirror is distorted? Which mirrors can we trust?
We can trust the mirror of the person who has been prepared to look at themselves and be honest with what they see. They are dealing with the distortions and impurities in their glass. Their vested interests don’t distort the image they reflect. This is important for, as much as we might like to believe that other people’s views of us don’t affect us, something of their distortion can imprint itself on our own soul and affect us deeply. Be careful what you look at.
You can choose what you think
How do we deal with thoughts and feelings that insist on getting in the way of our ability to walk with the Lord in freedom? That is a theme that runs through our ‘Understanding Yourself’ courses but I want to share here a simple practical point that I hope you will find helpful.
The first encouraging thing is that the Bible says that there will be times when our hearts mislead us. The apostle John wrote that sometimes our hearts wrongly condemn us (1 John 3:20). I like the fact that this is recognised as a normal part of the Christian life. The great apostle, who was so close to Jesus, includes himself when he says, ‘if our hearts condemn us’. He knew what that felt like.
The second encouraging point is that we can do something about it. John says that we can, ‘set our hearts at rest in his presence’. John knew the truth so well as a companion of Jesus, but he is acknowledging that our hearts will tell us things that will contradict that truth. It therefore becomes a straightforward choice about which one we believe.
Now it doesn’t always feel straightforward because a condemning heart might be our norm. Our emotional patterns were shaped by our perceptions so if our perceptions were negative our feelings will be the same. That means when we try and change our thinking we will have to consciously contradict the opposite message that our feelings are giving us. If we understand that clearly, then we can confidently refuse to go where our negative emotions would take us. We can refuse to let our thoughts be shaped by those negative emotions. We can choose what we do with our minds and once we get to grips with our minds, our emotions will begin to follow suit. Try it and see!
Although I am describing a breakdown here, you will see several elements that can be present for a Phlegmatic in day to day living. 1. What does it look like? A Phlegmatic can be going along quite nicely in life when suddenly it feels as if a massive hole is opening up in front of him and he is slipping and sliding into it. It is a hole of fear, horrible, paralysing, destructive fear. All joy is gone. The ability to enjoy the normal things of life has disappeared. It feels as if life is ended – no hope, no future.
2. What has happened? This temperament comes into the world with the question, ‘How substantial am I?’ ‘Is there anything to me?’ ‘Am I just a fraud bluffing my way through life?’ Breakdown comes when a point is reached at which the ‘fragility’ of the temperament explodes and envelopes the whole temperament. Any foundation you may have felt before is washed away and even a strong extrovert can collapse into the resultant sinkhole.
3. Why does it happen? A number of factors can combine to produce such a situation: a. Parents didn’t connect with the child’s introvert. This can be due to the parents not living in their own introverts or the child refusing to allow the connection to take place. This can leave the introvert insecure, lacking in self-worth and unaffirmed. Such a Phlegmatic becomes vulnerable when the pressures of life expose those lacks. b. Parents didn’t encourage or oblige the introvert to make good choices when faced with powerful emotions. The ability of the Phlegmatic to protect means that the natural use of his strength is often devoted to doing just that – self-protection. It comes across as stubbornness. If the child doesn’t learn from an early age that maturity is the ability to make choices that sometimes contradict what he feels then those emotions become disproportionately powerful. When the ground collapses beneath his feet as an adult then the emotions he falls into feel overwhelming. c. Often this collapse occurs after a period of sustained pressure – physical or emotional – or after a particularly difficult event or situation. The reason for this takes place in the depths of this temperament. Because of his perceived fragility, he will feel, while under pressure, ‘This isn’t fair.’ ‘This shouldn’t be happening to me.’ ‘I need some sympathy.’ It is likely that he will be completely unaware of these emotions, but the natural ‘victim’ stance will kick in and look for sympathy. Think of it as like a piece of elastic being stretched. That is what it will feel like to a Phlegmatic who feels unsubstantial. Sustained pressure stretches the elastic. Now we know that emotional health is dependent on our self-giving. When a Phlegmatic feels under pressure he can instinctively protect himself, any self-giving dries up, the elastic feels too stretched, it pings back into a tiny ball and it all becomes about what he feels. He loses sight of the other person.
4. What can I do about it if it is happening to me? Now the good news is that, despite feeling unsubstantial, the Phlegmatic is as solid as the next person. He doesn’t act like it because he doesn’t believe that to be so. We are governed by what we feel about ourselves. a. Act as if you are solid and strong, because you are, even when you don’t feel like it. b. Remember that you had no influence over the nature you were born with or the nurture that you received – but you do have choice. If nature and nurture conspire to make life difficult – you still have choice, however tough that choice might be. c. For the Christian, when we make that tough choice the Bible says that God injects his resurrection power into the equation (Ephesians 1:18-21). It will feel as if we have been thrust into a weightlifting competition without any training or preparation and then asked to lift weights way beyond what we feel we can lift. Bend down, pick the thing up and lift – and God’s power will flow. d. Just do it – and keep doing it, regardless of what you feel, until all your emotions get the idea and fall into line. Remember that your feelings are great servants but awful masters. Stay in charge.
5. How can I help someone who is struggling with this? A decision would need to be made as to whether the person needs medical help. The advice that follows assumes that this isn’t the case. a. Be patient. You are not feeling what they are feeling. b. However, they still have to do this thing for themselves. There is no magic wand. Nor is it enough to simply climb back up into the extrovert. The will has to be exercised within the introvert. c. A familiar cry will be, ‘If only I felt better, I would be able to do what I should do.’ The tough but necessary reply is, ‘Do it anyway, despite everything you feel.’ Again, the person may come back with the fact that they have tried, and nothing has changed. Growth takes place when the right decisions are made over a period of time until the emotions begin to gravitate around the new choices. d. Be there for the person. Don’t just be an observer. Walk with him, support and encourage him. The storm will blow through but what you are really after is not simply that the person will feel better but that the introvert will grow and be strengthened so that when he meets times of pressure again, he is equipped for the challenge and avoids falling into the sinkhole. To that end, encourage him to make good choices in the midst of the storm rather than hiding under the bedclothes until it passes.
When painful things happen, or untrue accusations are made, or someone simply doesn’t understand what you are saying or why you are saying it, then it is easy to turn that back on yourself. In other words, someone else’s opinion negatively affects your own about yourself. If you are already struggling with low self-worth, then it is easy to see how those negative emotions get sucked into the vortex – and you get dragged down with them.
Be careful how you see
Make sure that what you see in others isn’t just a projection of what you feel about yourself. The moth caught behind the projector lens looks like a monster by the time it reaches the screen. Clear the debris out of your own life and you will look at others differently.
Live in the moment
When you live in your introvert, it is much easier to live in the moment. The ability to feel enables you to connect with that point in time, that person or that scene.
The unforgivable sin
Today I replied to a letter from a man who was being tortured by the fear that he had committed the 'unforgivable sin' (Mark 3:29) when he vented his anger on God. This was part of my answer:
What Jesus meant was that anyone who continually resists the attempts of the Spirit to bring a person to repentance cannot find forgiveness because it is the Spirit who leads a person to repentance. Put simply, God will always forgive when we repent. How do we come to a place of repentance? It is God’s Spirit that takes us there. Resist him and we will never see the need to repent. As I have often said to people, the very fact that it is bothering you shows that you haven’t committed the unforgivable sin.
Another verse that often troubles sensitive people is Hebrews 10:26, but the whole context there is similar to the above with the emphasis being on the redemptive work of Christ on the Cross. All the writer is saying is that, if his readers go back to the old Jewish sacrificial system instead of faith in Jesus, then there is no other way of having our sin forgiven because the sacrificial system was a visual aid pointing to what Jesus has done. It isn’t saying that if we have sinned badly over a period of time then there is no way we can be forgiven. Those two passages combine to say that there is forgiveness through Jesus and the Holy Spirit leads us to Jesus.
A question relating to the Phlegmatic temperament: 'Just thinking about the ‘unsubstantial feeling’ - how do you build back the solid foundation feeling? Presumably it's engaging the Phlegmatic but how do you do that effectively?'
This question is important for many reasons, including the fact that the ‘unsubstantial feeling’ referred to is at the heart of many of the responses of the Phlegmatic and many of his struggles. It is this feeling of not being substantial that can lead to defensiveness, anxiety, many phobias, collapse and breakdown.
What can we do about that lack of a sense of internal solidness that can plague a Phlegmatic? The questioner is right to point us in the direction of engaging the Phlegmatic. The problem is that this is the last thing that this temperament will feel like doing if he is feeling unsubstantial. This is the paradox. The more he protects himself, the more vulnerable he will feel. The more he chooses, against everything he feels, to give himself away, the more the ground beneath his feet begins to consolidate. Building an emotional ‘no-go’ area creates a breeding ground for fear, anxiety and false guilt. It is easy then to focus on those issues and the specifics within those issues and to miss the key element of giving yourself away.
A word of warning: make sure it is the Phlegmatic you are engaging. You may have the Sanguine or Choleric temperament and it is so easy to use either of those to connect with people or situations – but that misses the point. It must be the Phlegmatic or that introvert is further marginalised.
So, how to engage?
1. Choose to engage with the difficult conversation. Don’t spend your life skirting around potentially painful or costly conversations. If something needs to be said for the good of the other person, giving yourself away involves saying it. The other side of that coin is that you need to be open to hear painful truth and not use your well-rehearsed defence mechanisms to keep it at bay.
2. Choose to get into the other person’ shoes. If someone has shared something with you that matters to them, don’t leave that conversation until they know you have felt what they felt. Your healing comes when what they feel matters more to you than what you feel.
3. Find out what task you have been avoiding and do it. In fact, make it a priority. Taking the ‘line of least resistance’ and procrastinating is self-protection. Break that defence and give yourself to the difficult things.
4. Don’t focus on the fear, anxiety or false guilt. ‘Perfect love drives out fear’. Choose to put the other person first, genuinely focus on that and there will be no room left for the negatives. Equally, learn to receive love. Recognise when people are saying and doing things for your best interests and respond accordingly.
I was talking with someone today who feels she is a failure. She has struggled with ME. She turns things back on herself very readily. A few days ago, she tried to express some feelings to someone in her church but the reply she received was that ‘perfect love drives out fear.’ Now that is a wonderful truth, but wisdom required that this lady was properly heard and understood. Once the lady knew that she was not condemned for feeling what she did, then she can face those feelings, work her way through them and discover the freedom that comes from knowing that perfect love does drive out fear. Love seeks to understand so the love that you show in listening and getting the feel of what is said is what will drive out the fear. Just saying, ‘perfect love drives out fear’ simply condemns the person because they will feel bad for feeling fearful! Truth wrongly applied becomes dangerous – like a sword in the hands of a child. It is the sword of the Spirit. We need his wisdom in when and how to quote the Bible – not wildly slashing around with truth, thinking that because it is the truth it will do good anyway. To wield the sword of the Spirit effectively, we need a listening, still and loving heart. ‘Take the … sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’ Ephesians 6:17
Disturbing the Phlegmatic's pond!
I was recently asked a question about an analogy I use about the Phlegmatic temperament; that a Phlegmatic likes to sit and fish in his pond, undisturbed, with a ring of barbed wire around the perimeter to prevent anyone coming in and disturbing the water. The question was 'In terms of operating in strength in that temperament, is the aim for the phlegmatic to get used to the idea that the pond water will be turbulent at times and that's OK? Or does a healthy phlegmatic still manage to keep the water tranquil but manage the intrusions/ invasions better so that it doesn't feel like the water is turbulent and inner peace is still maintained?'. It's a good question and the answer is that the whole protective mentality of the Phlegmatic is wrong. Life moves forward. At the core of the Christian faith is a call - a call to follow. It involves leaving the safety and serenity of the pond and going on a journey into the unknown. The pond mentality is that of the man who hid his talent - to preserve what he had. The better picture is that in Psalm 23; 'He leads me beside the still waters'. Yes, there are times to rest - because you are on a journey. It's that way round. Click to read more about the Phlegmatic temperament.
Why would 2 people approach a difficult situation differently?
I was asked recently why 2 men handled a visit to resolve a difficult situation very differently. My answer was that the differences lie mainly in their approach to life in general, due to their differing introvert temperaments. The Phlegmatic approach is that of an observer, the Melancholic one of involvement. The Phlegmatic is able to detach himself emotionally, the Melancholic less so. The Phlegmatic will deliver facts, the Melancholic the feelings involved. This encourages the objectivity of a Phlegmatic and the subjectivity of the Melancholic. If the desired result or conclusion is not realised, the objectivity of the Phlegmatic will be more clear cut in his response to a lack of cooperation. However the Melancholic will analytically try to resolve the apparent inability of comprehending the issues. Both have their plus and minus. The Phlegmatic can be too dismissive or bring an authoritative truth to bear. The Melancholic can become too emotionally involved in the pursuit of the right conclusion and be unhelpful to both parties or, because of a right emotional insight, be able to leave the situation to the person themselves to sort out. Generally a fully engaged Phlegmatic is better at doing this but the Melancholic can discipline themselves to also draw a correct line under the situation.