There are many benefits to expressing our emotions in a healthy way, yet most of us struggle to do it. We explored why in last month's blog. (See October 5, "You Have to Feel It to Heal It.") Add in the stressors and expectations of the holiday season, and it can be challenging to manage our emotions this time of year under the best of circumstances, much less if you are navigating difficult circumstances or loss.
But what if managing our emotions is an unhelpful concept? What if, rather than managing our emotions, we could simply befriend them instead?
Managing suggests overseeing, supervising, and bearing responsibility for outcomes. It sounds like work! Befriending, on the other hand, suggests acting as a friend, offering help or support. Befriending your emotions is being a compassionate friend to yourself regardless of how you are feeling, offering yourself the same grace and kindness you would extend to a close friend. It's a kinder, gentler approach to healthy emotional expression that enables you to gain understanding about what’s happening within you so you can respond in healthy, beneficial ways.
Instead of having one more thing to manage during the holidays—your emotions—allow yourself to feel what you feel and respond to your emotions with gentleness and kindness. That sounds more inviting, doesn't it? And more doable.
So, practically speaking, how do we do it? What does it look like to befriend our emotions—at holiday time or anytime? Let’s walk through some basic steps together, keeping in mind that they are not necessarily linear.
1. Normalize your emotions, including painful ones.
Despite cultural tendencies to minimize emotions and apologize for emotional expression, having and expressing emotions is not bad or undesirable. It simply means you’re human. This is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to painful emotions. Because our culture encourages us to “get over it” and move on, we must remind ourselves regularly that it’s okay not to be okay—it’s okay to have painful emotions.
Having painful emotions is a necessary part of the human experience. Emotions are gifts of God meant to be our teachers or guides as we become aware of our needs and desires so we can make choices that move us toward emotional health. As Chip Dodd expresses in his book The Voice of the Heart, emotions are like lights on the car dashboard—they tell us what’s going on inside us, pointing us to what needs our attention.
It can be difficult for us to acknowledge painful emotions at the holidays, especially when we think everyone else is celebrating what is said to be "the most wonderful time of the year." But the truth is that despite any song lyric, painful emotions are common this time of year. According to statistics, levels of anxiety and depression increase—not decrease—during the holidays.
Rather than trying to downplay or ignore painful emotions in order to measure up to unrealistic holiday expectations, try normalizing the full spectrum of your emotions instead. Remind yourself that whatever you might be feeling in any moment, you are not alone. Many others are feeling just as you are. As human beings, we feel a variety of emotions on any given day, and that remains true during the holidays. We don't expect ourselves to be happy and joyful 24/7 any other time, so why do we do this to ourselves during the holidays?
Let your mantra this holiday season be "It's okay to feel however I feel." It's not only okay, it's the best way to move through your feelings and respond in healthy ways.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
2. Become aware of your emotions and name them.
Dr. Dan Siegal, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, has said that when it comes to unpleasant emotions, you have to “name it to tame it.” Science has shown that putting our feelings into words actually reduces the intensity of the emotions. Simply noticing and naming a feeling as it is happening decreases the stress in the brain and body caused by the emotion. When you name your feelings, you "tame" them by acknowledging them, enabling them to soften.
Most of us were not taught or encouraged to name our emotions, so it can feel awkward or even challenging for some of us. But with just a little intention, we can learn to do it. The key is to be persistent and patient with ourselves in the process.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
3. Welcome your emotions.
Often we want to get rid of painful emotions, not welcome them. A common way we try to do this is through positive thinking. Yet despite popular opinion, positive thinking is not an effective way to handle emotions if it keeps us from authentic emotional expression. An emotion must be acknowledged and witnessed in order to be released. Positive thinking without this honest witnessing is more like emotional bypassing. We do a similar thing when we use scriptures or religious platitudes as a way to avoid painful emotions—called spiritual bypassing.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, welcoming your emotions helps you move to a place of authenticity, non-judgmental awareness, and acceptance—all of which fosters healing. Though some are reluctant to welcome emotions because they are afraid they will get stuck in those feelings, the opposite is actually true. Welcoming emotions reduces internal conflict and resistance, allowing us to benefit from our emotions and move through them.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
4. Allow yourself to feel your emotions.
In addition to naming and welcoming your emotions, it's important to allow yourself to truly feel everything that a particular emotional experience might elicit. Sometimes an experience will prompt conflicting emotions, such as a situation that causes you to feel both happy and sad for different reasons. Give yourself permission to honor every emotion. Every feeling is valid and requires expression if you are to move through it. Feeling our emotions moves us to a place of integration and healing rather than disintegration and internal chaos.
Because most of us are unable to plumb the depths of our emotions in the moment, we must be patient and give ourselves space, over time, to sit with our emotions as we're able. Depending on the emotion or experience, it might take days, weeks, months, or perhaps even years to give full expression to our feelings.
When it comes to feeling our emotions, slower is faster. Rather than speeding through the process, give yourself permission to feel your feelings in manageable increments over time—for as long as it takes. Rather than predetermining the ending date for the process, trust that it will take as long as it takes, and that God will guide you.
During the holidays, this means giving yourself permission to choose the activities you're able to participate in and those you are not. It means allowing yourself time and space to feel your feelings. And it means letting go of expectations and outcomes, which can inhibit our true feelings.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
5. Get curious about your emotions and listen to them.
Your emotions are messengers bringing information essential to your healing and wholeness. All emotions, particularly those you would rather avoid, are here to tell you about your hurts, wounds, needs, and desires. They are guides leading you to parts of yourself that need healing.
Instead of being critical or judging your emotions, move to curiosity. Listen to them as you would to a good friend, and learn what they need you to know. Only then will you be able to respond in a compassionate and beneficial way.
One of the reasons we resist our emotions is we're afraid they will take us over and overwhelm us. Often the opposite is true. When we stop trying to suppress, numb, or control our emotions and allow them to have a voice, they tend to soften. The parts of our soul that are holding emotion want to be heard, and when we are willing to listen, often it is no longer necessary for them to be loud or unreasonable.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
6. Offer yourself self-compassion and understanding.
Once you have listened to your emotions with curiosity and compassion, you're better prepared to offer yourself self-compassion and understanding. For most of us, self-criticism comes much more easily than self-compassion. We tend to beat ourselves up for faults, both big and small. But according to psychologist Kristin Neff, self-criticism comes at a price, making us anxious, dissatisfied with life, and even depressed.*
The key to offering yourself self-compassion and understanding is treating yourself with the same kindness and caring support that you would show to someone you care about. Doing this regularly leads to genuine care for your own well-being, producing deep emotional benefits.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
7. Allow your emotions to be witnessed by God and others.
Witnessing is an invaluable step when it comes to processing our emotions and moving toward healing. God designed us for relationship, and we find healing as we allow God and safe people (those who will not judge us or try to fix us) to witness our pain with love and compassion. As someone who has tended to push down grief all my life, this is something I'm stepping into more intentionally myself.
Though my father passed away almost four years ago, recently I sensed God inviting me to allow my unprocessed grief to be witnessed in community by attending a grief group at my church. On the week when we shared our stories, I was amazed by the depth of emotion that surfaced as I shared the account of my father's death despite the passage of time. I experienced how valuable it is for grief to be witnessed, validated, and comforted even after the passing of time. When there are unprocessed emotions, there is a need for them to be witnessed.
Depending on your life experiences, you may find it easier to share with others before you're ready to be completely real with God about how you're feeling, even if you know that God knows already. If wounds have affected your image of God or your ability to trust God, you may find it helpful to share with a trusted person before baring your soul to God in prayer. Or you may find it easier to be vulnerable and authentic about your emotions with God first, which helps prepare you to share later with others. As others see us, hear us, and are with us in our pain, they serve as conduits of the loving presence of God, creating healing experiences.
SOME THINGS TO TRY
My prayer for you is that learning to befriend your emotions will help you to love yourself well, deepen your relationship with God, and experience greater healing and joy—in every season.
(Click links below to read book descriptions)
The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero
No More Faking Fine, Esther Fleece
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
Permission to Feel, Marc Brackett
*"The Power of Self-Compassion," Jason Marsh, Greater Good Magazine, March 14, 2012.
There’s a popular saying that packs a wealth of wisdom: You have to feel it to heal it. Our emotions are gifts of God intended to give us important information about what’s happening within us so we can gain understanding and respond in healthy ways. Yet, despite this incredible discernment tool God has given us, most of us are reluctant to sit with our emotions for very long—unless, of course, the emotion is gladness or joy. Some of us struggle even to name our emotions. Why is this?
Barriers to Healthy Emotional Expression
Understanding the barriers we face helps us to address them. So, let’s explore three barriers to healthy emotional expression. See if one or more of these resonates with you.
1. Our resistance to pain makes sense neurologically.
All pain, whether mental or physical, has a common neurological circuitry. The brain perceives emotional distress as a threat and processes it in a way similar to physical pain. Because we’re hardwired to react to threats with a fight-flight-freeze-fawn response, most of us attempt to eliminate or fix (fight), minimize or run from (flight), numb and ignore (freeze), or please and appease (fawn) painful emotions.
2. Painful emotions are uncomfortable.
When we respond to a perceived threat with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, the sensation generated by our body chemistry is anxiety, which is intended to motivate us to take action to escape the threat or danger in some way. Because anxiety is uncomfortable, we naturally want to avoid it. Digging beneath the anxiety to identify the underlying emotion and then listen for what it wants us to know can feel like work, which tends to accentuate our discomfort.
3. Socialization plays a major role in our tendency to resist painful emotions.
Many of us grew up thinking that showing emotion is showing weakness or inferiority. Our culture encourages us to be strong, independent, and resourceful, making the most of the hand we’re dealt. Did you ever hear, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” or “It could be worse; other people have bigger problems than this,” or something similar? As a result, we come to believe that crying in the presence of others is neither advisable nor acceptable. No wonder most of us say “I’m sorry” when we begin to cry in the presence of others! One of the things find myself saying repeatedly in spiritual direction is, “No need to apologize. You never have to feel sorry for showing emotion.”
For many of us who are part of a faith community, showing emotion is not necessarily about showing weakness but about revealing a weak faith. Tragically, strong faith often is conflated with emotional control. The erroneous thinking is that those who rely on God are in control of their emotions, while those who are weak in faith are more outwardly emotional. To illustrate this way of thinking, consider a few examples.
Have you ever attended a funeral and heard someone say, “She’s holding it together and doing so well; she has such strong faith”? Though it may be true that she has strong faith, a lack of emotional expression is not evidence of that faith but, in fact, might be the result of shock or denial—two stages commonly experienced early in grief.
Or, have you ever been struggling emotionally only to have some well-meaning soul offer a spiritual platitude or scripture verse as a spiritual Band-Aid for your pain? Rather than validating your pain and compassionately witnessing your expression of that pain, their discomfort with your outward expression of emotion compels them to try to fix or soothe it.
Or, have you ever told yourself something along these lines: “I don’t know why I’m being so emotional about this. I know God is in control. God’s got this.” While it’s true that God is in control, it’s also true that God gave you the gift of emotions to help you navigate the challenges of life. Trusting God does not mean pushing down our emotions.
In each of these examples, spirituality is used as a shield or defense mechanism, rather than allowing ourselves and others to feel our emotions and work through them. This is called spiritual bypassing, and it is a subtle yet harmful way of using faith to avoid painful emotions.
Here's the reality: Any sentiment, whether spiritual or otherwise, that denies the reality or depth of our pain and the necessity for it to be expressed and witnessed by others only delays the healing process.
Do you relate to these three barriers? If so, it simply means you’re human. The good news is that when we stop putting up barriers and trying to resist our emotions, real healing can begin.
What We Resist, Persists
Another true saying you may have heard is, What we resist, persists. Though we may be successful in suppressing—or consciously blocking—painful emotions for a while, eventually they will seep out sideways or demand our attention in other ways, such as depression, addiction, or even physical illness. Because suppressing emotions keeps the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response activated, the body is continually under attack from stress hormones, causing inflammation and a higher propensity for developing illness or disease. This does not mean that unexpressed emotions are the cause of illness or addiction, but they certainly can be contributing factors.
A similar thing happens when we repress emotions, which is an unconscious blocking of unwanted emotions. Sometimes we’re not even aware that we are pushing down painful emotions. We may think we’ve dealt sufficiently with sadness, grief, anger, fear, or shame and have returned to “normal” when we’ve merely pushed down our emotions and moved on much too quickly. The result, as Bessel van der Kolk explores in his book The Body Keeps the Score, is that unprocessed emotions remain within us, affecting our minds and bodies. He encourages and challenges us with these words: “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can [heal] is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”
Befriending Our Emotions
To befriend is to act as a friend, offering help or support. It is listening to, bearing witness to, and offering loving presence to another. If you’ve ever had someone do this for you, then you know the power of being seen, known, and loved just as you are—whatever you may be feeling.
Here’s a liberating truth: We can befriend ourselves by being a loving witness to what is happening within us. We can teach ourselves to become aware of our emotions, allow ourselves to feel them, and offer ourselves self-compassion and understanding. This is a skill that many of us have not been taught, but it is never too late to learn.
I've been on a journey of intentionally befriending my emotions for about six years, and I'm still a work in progress. About a year ago God gave me an insight about my childhood that helped me to realize why grieving is so difficult for me. Though I had never understood it this way before, I came to see that loss was a normal part of my childhood. As a preacher's kid in the United Methodist Church, moving was a regular occurrence, which meant picking up and starting over again. Saying goodbye to friends and schools and neighborhoods and church families and routines was a regular occurrence. There wasn't time or space to grieve what was ending or lost. We had to move and adjust quickly to a new environment. No time to grieve or look back. It was full steam ahead. I never learned to sit with my grief, much less welcome it. There is no blame here; it was simply how things were. And I know kids in military families experience this to an greater degree.
If I'm honest, I've pushed grief down all my life. I've allowed myself to spend time with grief in very short allotments, but then I'm off again to what's next, what's ahead. Always looking forward, not back. I believed sadness was like one of the friends I had to say goodbye to in order to embrace the new. That was the lie I believed.
God has been inviting me—and teaching me—how to sit with grief. I'm a slow learner, but I'm committed to the process. Recently while listening to a podcast on healing from sorrow and grief, I realized that allowing my grief to be witnessed in community has been a missing link for me. So, I have decided to participate in a grief class offered by my church this fall. It feels uncomfortable, and a part of me even thinks it's silly to participate almost four years after my father's passing, but I know I haven't fully grieved his death—and I certainly haven't grieved in community. And I suspect there are many other griefs—some decades old—that have not been witnessed or fully expressed. I'm trying to practice what I teach others, and I know the good will outweigh the hard.
Despite the barriers we face when it comes to acknowledging and expressing our emotions, the benefits of doing so always outweigh any momentary discomfort we might feel. Take a look at some of these benefits of befriending your emotions:
Sounds good, right? I'm going to keep this list before me, and I encourage you to do so as well. Let's remember that befriending our emotions is a learned skill we can become more proficient in, and it will get easier with practice.
Next month I'll be sharing six suggestions, or steps, for befriending and handling our emotions in a healthy way. Until then, every time you are tempted to resist or suppress your emotions, gently remind yourself, "You have to feel it to heal it." I'll be doing the same!
It has been quiet here on the blog for a few months—about four, to be exact. For a while I told myself it was just a busy season. Then I began to call it writer’s block, which it was. But after reflection and prayer, I’ve come to understand the reason. Though I won’t go into the details here, here’s the crux of it: My soul needed a sabbatical.
A traditional sabbatical is an extended period away from work—most often granted in academia, though more and more companies and institutions are offering paid or unpaid sabbaticals these days due to increasing levels of burnout. Generally, a sabbatical is anywhere from two months to a year, with six months being standard.
Sounds nice, right? Can you just imagine what you would do with that kind of free time? Though it would be wonderful to take a literal sabbatical, few of us have that option. But we can take what I’m calling a “soul sabbatical.”
A soul sabbatical is giving ourselves permission to let go of unnecessary demands or unrealistic expectations—often ones we've placed upon ourselves.
A soul sabbatical is giving ourselves permission to let go of unnecessary demands or unrealistic expectations—often ones we’ve placed upon ourselves. It’s stepping away from “productivity mode,” which our culture instills in us from a very young age.
Productivity is about performance—ensuring outputs exceed inputs and striving for excellence. That may be good for business, but it’s bad for the soul.
When we try to get more done than we have the internal resources for, our bodies will begin shutting us down in one way or another. We cannot continue giving more than we’re receiving and expect to avoid a dry spell—or, eventually, burnout.
There’s a time and a place to be productive, but the problem is that we tend to apply the productivity mindset to virtually every area of our lives. Our culture tells us that if something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing more, better, and faster. We might say that “more, better, faster” is a mantra of our culture. But when we live that way, whether consciously or unconsciously, we wind up spoiling the very things that give us life because we’ve attached unhealthy expectations to them.
Our culture tells us that if something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing more, better, and faster.
See if any of these statements rings true for you:
We’ve all experienced something similar in some area of our lives, but how often do we just “push through,” ignoring the cue that something is happening within us that needs our attention?
Over the past few months, every time I sat down to write a blog article, I found myself unable to enjoy the process. I had thoughts such as…
Someone else has already written about this.
No one will want to read this.
There’s something else I need to be doing right now.
I don’t have the mental energy for this.
These thoughts stifled my creativity and joy. They also signaled to me that something was going on internally, and I needed to pay attention to it. Though a part of me felt it was “necessary” (i.e., expected) to get a blog post out, thankfully I listened to the still, small voice within, which assured me that writing a blog was non-essential and I could give myself permission to take a break for a while. So, I did just that, stepping away from the “productivity mindset” and trusting that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well.” Spoiler alert: It was.
Taking a soul sabbatical is replacing “more, better, faster” with “less, good enough, and slower.”
Be “good enough.”
That almost sounds ludicrous at first. But the truth is, it’s the way to a more fulfilling life.
A soul sabbatical enables us to attend to our souls—and our bodies—while still carrying out everyday responsibilities. Rather than being a full-stop rest from work, a soul sabbatical acknowledges that life goes on and we have responsibilities. We have work to do, clothes to wash, bills to pay, kids or grandkids to take care of, yards to mow, and meals to prepare. Sure, we can modify or pause those essential tasks for a while, and sometimes that is necessary. But a soul sabbatical is continuing essential responsibilities while pausing the non-essential activities that are draining us of life and joy, choosing to lay them down temporarily.
A soul sabbatical is continuing essential responsibilities while pausing the non-essential activities that are draining us of life and joy, choosing to lay them down temporarily.
Here’s where it can get tricky: distinguishing between what is essential and non-essential. It can be helpful to invite a soul friend, spiritual director, coach, or mentor to join us as we discern what we might need to step away from for a time so that we can return to it with a greater sense of freedom and joy.
A good place to begin is asking ourselves a few questions as we reflect on our current life experience:
As we get curious and ask God to guide us, we listen for the still, small voice within. Then, we respond to what we’re hearing or sensing with compassion and kindness instead of judging, minimizing, or ignoring it. We listen deep within and take the courageous steps necessary to care for our own souls. Rather than being selfish, this is one of the best things we can do for the people we love and serve.
It feels good to be writing again—though I know that writing is a gift and not something I can control or manipulate. So, I hold it gently and loosely, knowing that if I need to pause my writing again, it will be okay. I’m grateful for the gifts that this soul sabbatical has given me. It has helped me to
If any of this speaks to your heart, consider whether you might need to take a soul sabbatical for a season and what that might look like for you. Use the questions above as a starting point. And remember the words of Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. (Matthew 27:66 NLT)
Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. (John 20:1 NLT)
Holy Saturday is the day between these two verses—the day between what we now call Good Friday and Easter Sunday. On this day Jesus’ followers were grief stricken. Their Lord, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had been killed—and all their hopes and dreams died with him. In this time of “in between,” darkness reigned. They couldn’t fathom what was coming—resurrection—even though Jesus had told them to expect it. Grief is like that, rendering us helpless against the blinding waves of despair.
Because it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ followers rested. But I imagine there was no rest for their souls on that Sabbath. Surely they were overcome with fear and uncertainty, wondering what they would do now.
We have our own days and seasons of “in between”—times when our hopes and dreams seem to be dead and buried in a sealed tomb. Times when sadness and disappointment crowd out joy and celebration. Times when doubt and confusion yield uncertainty, making us unsure of what to do.
What are we to do when we find ourselves stuck “in between”? Here are three suggestions for these times of grief, struggle, or waiting.
1. Give yourself permission to feel however you feel.
The “in between” is not a time to power through with positive thinking or spiritual platitudes. Though we may be able to distract ourselves from our feelings for a time, the only healthy way to handle emotions is to move through them—to allow our feelings to move through us. There are no “bad” feelings. In fact, every feeling is a gift, because it has something important to tell us about what’s happening inside us. Judging our emotions or being critical of how we are feeling only makes matters worse, but welcoming our emotions with grace lessens their heaviness and enables us to listen with compassion. Then, as we talk about our feelings with God and with safe people in our lives, we open ourselves to receive God’s comfort and healing.
On a two-day personal retreat recently, I became aware during the prolonged hours of silence that a part of me was judging myself for holding certain feelings. Once I had that awareness and began to welcome those feelings, I felt that critical part of myself softening. The remainder of the retreat I was able to rest fully in the all-encompassing, unconditional love of God, which is exactly what I needed.
2. Give yourself permission to grieve however you need to grieve.
No two people are alike, and this includes the way that we grieve and process loss—whatever that loss might be. Whether it is a death, illness, move, disappointment, or other loss, we all go through similar stages in our grieving. However, the timing, expression, and duration of those stages differ from person to person. There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to grief. What is universal is the need to give ourselves time and space to grieve—whatever that might look like for each of us. Rather than conforming to societal expectations regarding when, where, how, and how long we grieve, we can give ourselves the freedom to grieve in the times and ways that are helpful and meaningful to us.
My mother passed in October 2002, and my children were ages five and eight. In many ways caring for them helped me to process my grief, enabling me to honor the memory of Mom as I poured my love into my own daughters. I also discovered that the lack of her presence at different stages and milestones of their lives made it necessary for my grief to be an ongoing process, one in which I allowed myself to acknowledge and express my loss and sadness through the years.
When my dad passed in December 2019 and the pandemic began just a few months later, I learned that my grief would be more complicated than I had experienced previously because of the collective and personal loss that resulted from lockdowns and isolation. My grief was further compounded when I lost my job in 2021. A combination of seeing a counselor, talking regularly with my spiritual director, journaling, and doing a lot of walking and hiking helped me process my grief in ways that were meaingful to me. Though I have grieved well, I continue to allow layers of grief to surface as needed, offering myself generous doses of self-compassion whenever they do and remaining open to God's ongoing healing work within me.
3. Give yourself permission to do the necessary next thing.
Recently I ran into a friend who has been going through a challenging time ripe with loss and grief. She said that she has been holding onto these words from scripture: “While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb” (John 20:1 NLT). In the darkness that cloaked both the garden and her heart, Mary went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Perhaps she knew the tomb had been sealed, or perhaps she didn't. All she knew was that she had to participate in the burial custom of anointing the body of her Lord. She needed to participate in that rite. It was the next necessary thing to do—or as author Emily P. Freeman says, “the next right thing.” There was nothing “magical” about anointing Jesus’ body. It wouldn’t end Mary's grief. But it was the thing she felt compelled to do. And it was as she set out to do this next necessary thing that she encountered the living Christ!
What is the next necessary thing for you? What is it for me? This is an especially helpful question to ask ourselves when we’re in a season of “in between.” When we’re sad and disappointed and don’t know what to do, the next necessary thing, or next right thing, is always a good choice.
Just as the Risen Jesus met Mary in the garden, where she had intended to fulfill a burial custom, so he meets us in the ordinary tasks of our everyday lives—as we walk the dog, pick up the kids or grandkids from school, go about our work, visit a friend, volunteer, tend a garden, or a million other things. If we’re open to the possibility, these experiences can become holy moments when we encounter the living God.
At first Mary didn’t recognize Jesus, thinking he was the gardener. In the same way, Jesus may make himself known to us through ordinary people and experiences as we do the next necessary thing. May we have eyes to see him. For it is as we become aware of Jesus in the ordinary and everyday moments of our lives that the light dispels the darkness and the hope of resurrection—renewed life—takes hold of our hearts once again.
Rhythm is hardwired into all of creation. Day and night, tides, seasons, migration patterns, and our own biological rhythms—all are evidence that rhythm is integral to life. Our very breath and heartbeat are continual reminders of the natural rhythms that sustain us. Something as simple as an irregular heartbeat or interrupted breath can cause great distress and even be fatal.
Rhythm is equally critical to the way that we live. I’ve learned this the hard way, when I’ve allowed life-giving rhythms to be crowded out by the busyness and chaos of life. My guess is that you have too! When our lives are out of rhythm, it affects us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We might describe it as feeling…
out of sorts
…or a myriad of other things. But whatever words we might use, we have a sense that—despite our faith and spiritual activity—we’re lacking something necessary for a life of joy, meaning, and fulfillment.
Often what we’re lacking is not any one thing—not a vacation or a new self-care practice, though those are good things—but a rhythm of life.
What Is a Rhythm of Life?
A rhythm of life is simply a rhythm of practices or habits that help us to experience God in our daily activities and live fully as our authentic selves—the wonderfully unique individuals God created us to be. We might say a rhythm of life is a way of living wide awake to God.
Like listening to beautiful music with a steady beat, living according to a rhythm of life is pleasant and inviting. It feels right—like a “get to” instead of a “have to.” It feels light and free, not heavy or limiting. Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). The Message Bible expresses it so beautifully: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
These unforced rhythms of grace look different from person to person and even stage to stage in our own lives. Margaret Guenther writes, “What liberates one person may constrict another…Likewise, what serves me well at this stage of my life would have been quite wrong, even damaging, for me as a twenty-year-old."* Your rhythm of life, then, consists of the life-giving habits that help you to grow and flourish in your walk with God in this season. After all, there is no formula for spiritual vitality and growth, and we need different practices in different seasons. So, a rhythm of life is a working document that we review and revise regularly.
Your rhythm of life consists of the life-giving habits that help you to grow and flourish in your walk
with God in this season.
It's important to remember that the practices in our rhythm of life are not ends in themselves. They are not about performing or achieving or manipulating our own health or growth. They are not even about establishing "balance," because that's unrealistic. We all know that some areas of life can be more demanding at certain times. The purpose of the practices in our rhythm of life is simply to position us to experience and enjoy God. That’s why I prefer the term “rhythm of life” over “rule of life”—another term commonly used for what I’m describing—because the very word rhythm connotes flexibility and grace.
If you feel you don’t need a rhythm of life, here’s the truth: you already have one; it’s just unwritten and may be a rhythm of disharmony rather than a rhythm of grace. Justin Earley writes, “We are all living according to a specific regimen of habits, and those habits shape most of our life”—and I would add, “for better or worse.”** We are shaped by the habits that make up our days. The question we must ask ourselves is, How are my habits shaping me? Perhaps it is time to replace an unwritten rhythm with an intentional and prayerfully crafted one that will help you to live into your most authentic self and experience the fullness of life and love God desires for you.
We are shaped by the habits that make up our days. The question we must ask ourselves is,
How are my habits shaping me?
How Do I Create a Rhythm of Life?
There are many excellent books on creating a rhythm or rule of life (see Recommended Resources below), so it is not my intention to provide an exhaustive discussion here. Instead, here are a few simple guidelines to help you get started.
1. Prime the pump by prayerfully considering a few “big picture” questions.
Take some time to reflect and pray with these questions—and feel free to add others. Though you may not have an answer for each question (and that’s okay!), simply considering them will help to prepare you for the process of creating a rule of life. You might find it helpful to write your thoughts in a journal or notebook or record your responses in a voice memo on your phone or computer. Again, the questions are intended simply to orient you toward the purpose or focus of a rhythm of life.
2. Determine the framework for your rhythm of life.
There are many formats you can use when creating a rhythm or rule of life. As you prepare to identify the practices and habits you find most life-giving and supportive of who you are called to be in this world, consider what categories make the most sense or have the most appeal for you. Below are several examples.
There are many other possibilities as well. Once you choose a format, begin to write the most life-giving practices and habits related to each category. The idea is not to fill every box or create a to-do list—we have enough of those! The idea is to focus on the essential, life-giving rhythms that are right for you in this season. Perhaps it's time to renew some practices that have fallen by the wayside or try some new practices—especially new spiritual practices that might breathe life into your relationship with God.
If desired, you can include additional elements in your rhythm of life—such as key Scriptures and songs, your roles and values, a personal mission statement, and even representative photos or artwork. If that’s your jam, go for it and get creative! If that sounds oppressive, just keep it straightforward and simple. Either way, give yourself permission to do it your way and make it your own.
For a variety of examples, visit www.ruleoflife.com/myrule
3. Eliminate the non-essentials.
Now comes the hard part. Determine which practices are most important—those you consider vital. My spiritual director encourages eliminating at least half of what you’ve recorded! The idea is to streamline your rhythm or rule so that it is doable, something you’re able to commit to with consistency. It can be helpful to share your abbreviated version with someone you trust and respect—a spouse, spiritual director, or friend—and invite feedback and accountability. Is this a practical plan for a rhythm of habits, rather than a list of goals or wishes? Are you missing anything?
4. Prayerfully live into your rhythm and revise as needed.
This may be the most important part of the process. Creating a rhythm of life can—and should—take time and involve careful reflection, prayer, and even experimentation. I spent an entire year creating and revising a new rhythm of life when transitioning from a career in publishing to full-time spiritual direction, and during that time I “tried on” different practices to discover what my soul truly needed and desired in this new season. Once you have your list of essential practices or habits on paper, you’re then able to prayerfully live into them, listening to the Spirit and making revisions as you feel led. It can be helpful to set a reminder on your phone or calendar so you can be intentional in reflecting on your rhythm of life, whether monthly, quarterly, or (at the very least) annually.
Throughout the process, let your attitude toward yourself be one of grace. Above all, remember that a rhythm of life is not meant to be a checklist demanding rigidity or performance but a loving invitation and gentle guide toward the unforced rhythms of grace that God desires for you!
Above all, remember that a rhythm of life is not meant to be a checklist demanding rigidity or performance but a loving invitation and gentle guide toward the unforced rhythms of grace that God desires for you!
*Margaret Guenther, At Home in the World: A Rule for the Rest of Us (New York, NY Seabury Boos, 2006), 179.
**Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2019).
Advent is a time of waiting, a time of anticipation and expectancy as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ into our world. Emmanuel—God with us. As a child, I loved the tradition of lighting an Advent wreath, with four candles representing the four Sundays of Advent and the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. Though I didn’t understand the significance of the candles then, the simple practice of lighting one each week helped to mark the time in what seemed like an unbearably long season of waiting.
That’s often how waiting feels to us, isn’t it? Unbearable and long. I wonder if that’s how Mary felt about her own season of waiting after learning she would give birth to God’s Son. What was it like to be expecting—quite literally—the hope of the world?
God invited Mary, an ordinary adolescent girl with hopes and dreams, fears and weaknesses, to participate in God’s plan—and she said yes. But contrary to romanticized notions about Mary, her yes was anything but simple or easy. In fact, her story acknowledges the challenges and difficulties that are part and parcel of saying yes to God and then waiting for God’s plan to unfold. And within her story we find four principles or “steps” for saying yes to God’s invitations.
1. Acknowledge your fear.
In Luke 1:26-38, we find Mary’s dramatic encounter with an angel, and we’re told right away that she was greatly troubled. Some translations say that she was confused. I would have been too! No doubt it was startling to see an angel face to face. But perhaps she also was confused by the angel’s greeting: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28 NIV). Sit with those words for a moment.
The Greek word for “favored” means “endowed with grace; to receive special honor; to be graciously accepted.” It’s likely that Mary felt that the words did not fit her, that she was not worthy, that the angel had the wrong girl. We can relate, can’t we? How often do we doubt our worthiness or ability when God calls us to something, leading to doubt and confusion and perhaps even fear. We know that Mary was afraid because the angel says, “Do not be afraid” (v. 29). Then the angel repeats, “You have found favor with God” (v. 30). The Greek word for favor in this verse is Charito, which means “free or unmerited gift.” And that's good news. We don’t have to earn God’s favor to be chosen by God. God loves us and calls us just as we are.
Notice that the angel didn't chastise Mary for her fear but reassured her, going on to describe God’s calling or invitation—to give birth to God’s Son. And I love this part—Mary’s immediate response was not to say yes but to question the angel. Again, I can relate! The angel gave a few sketchy details about how it would happen (I’m not sure I would have been satisfied with that limited explanation!) and then told her that her older relative Elizabeth, who was too old to bear a child, had conceived and was in her sixth month. It’s then, after Mary heard of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, that she said yes: “May your word to me be fulfilled” (v. 38).
2 Takeaways for Us:
2. Seek encouragement and support.
In Luke 1:39-45, we see that Mary didn’t waste any time making her way to Elizabeth. After saying yes to God, she needed encouragement and support. That wasn’t a weakness on Mary’s part. She knew her calling was not something she could complete on her own. So, she sought someone she knew would understand, someone who could offer her both empathy and encouragement. And we see that Mary was encouraged through the words of Elizabeth and the witness of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb.
2 Takeaways for Us:
3. Practice praise.
In Luke 1:46-55 we find Mary’s song of praise, called the Magnificat, which took place while Mary was with Elizabeth. It’s significant to note that Mary did not immediately praise God after her encounter with the angel. It wasn't until after she had received confirmation and encouragement from Elizabeth that she offered this praise. She began her song by proclaiming, “My soul glorifies the Lord…” (Luke 1:46 NLT). Some translations use the word “magnify,” which I think helps us to wrap our minds around how we glorify God. To glorify God is to magnify God and what God is doing in our lives—to make much of God. Yet so often we magnify our circumstances or our feelings or the behaviors of others. A good question to ask ourselves is What have I been magnifying lately? In other words, Where have I been fixing my gaze?
2 Takeaways for Us
4. Expect God to come through.
In Luke 2:1-19 we find the familiar story of Jesus’ birth, which shows us the faithfulness of God. Mary did not have an easy journey. It was roughly a ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem, and she was quickly approaching her due date. Though most nativity stories indicate Mary was riding on a donkey, it’s likely that she and Joseph had to walk most of the way. Imagine what it was like walking the unpaved terrain with its steep slopes and tremendous changes in elevation. Given Mary’s condition, it’s likely they covered only ten miles a day, so this would have been a nine-day trip. They may have encountered wild animals along the way—perhaps even thieves.
When they reached Bethlehem, the city was overcrowded with visitors, and there wasn’t room for them to find comfortable accommodations. Before they knew it, Mary was in labor. Though nativity scenes often depict Jesus’ birth in a barn or stable, it’s more likely that it was the lower level of a house where livestock would have been kept and a stone manger would be found. Not the most suitable environment for giving birth! After the baby arrived, so did some unexpected visitors—a group of shepherds from nearby fields. No doubt Mary and Joseph were surprised. Their journey had been full of challenges and obstacles—as well as provision and wonder. Lowly shepherds came to worship and testified of a choir of angels singing praise, confirming yet again God’s message to Mary.
2 Takeaways for Us
The spiritual journey is a continual process of saying yes to God and then "expecting"—anticipating with hope—what God will do in and through us. God is always extending invitations. Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” When we say yes and follow him, there are continual invitations to come closer and move deeper in our life with God.
So, what is God inviting you to say yes to in this season? And how might you begin to say yes? As you ponder these questions this Advent, I encourage you to acknowledge your fear, seek encouragement and support, practice praise, and expect God to come through. And if you’ve said yes to an invitation of God yet find yourself in what seems like an unbearably long season of waiting, remember Mary and take heart. As was true of Mary, God is both with you and within you. May the light and hope of Christ be born anew in you this Christmas!
I’ve been savoring lately. It seems appropriate to the season. What am I savoring? God’s love!
To savor God’s love, we must experience it. My personal passion and the foundational message of my ministry has to do with experiencing the love of God, because I believe this is the key to the spiritual journey—the doorway to a deeper connection with God and to spiritual growth, healing, and transformation. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about God and God’s love and far less time experiencing it.
We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about God and God’s love and far less time experiencing it.
Brain science supports the idea that it is experience, not information, that transforms us. Truth must move from factual knowledge to experiential knowledge, which requires the integration of both sides of the brain—the left side, which houses logic and reason, and the right side, which houses experience, emotion, sensations, and belief. (Though talking about the "left" and "right" side of the brain is more of an analogy, it's a helpful one.) We might say that information or knowledge about God is the foundation of our faith, but experience is what builds upon that foundation to create a safe, secure, and enjoyable relationship with God. We stand upon the foundation, but we dwell in the everyday experiences of life. Experience, then, is how we get to know God personally and intimately and come to feel loved by God.
I love a little brain science. Recently I learned that it takes the amygdala 20 seconds to register a positive experience but only a fourth of a second to register a negative one. No wonder we get stuck in negative thought patterns, because our human tendency is to focus on what’s wrong in a situation while overlooking or downplaying what’s right or good. We’re more accustomed to "sitting in" negative moments than we are to savoring positive ones.
The good news is that with awareness of this tendency, we can choose to be more intentional about savoring God’s gifts of love, remembering that God is love (1 John 4:16) and the giver of every good gift (James 1:17). As we do this, we are experiencing God’s love—not a generic love but a very personal love expressed in the details of our everyday lives.
How do we savor God’s love? It’s really very simple. First, we become aware of an experience of love—a loving moment or gift of love—and then we take it in with all our senses for at least 20 seconds (or longer). This allows our brain to register and integrate it as part of our lived experience—which drives what we truly believe and live from, not what we say we believe. An experience of love might be a moment when we feel loved; experience joy, delight, or wonder; feel seen and known; sense God’s presence; or feel gratitude for something we’re experiencing or observing in the present moment. It might be as simple as delighting in a warm beverage or favorite food, appreciating something beautiful in nature, receiving a warm hug or encouraging text, cuddling your pet, enjoying a moment with friends or family, meditating on a scripture verse that touches your heart, being moved by a song or piece of art, or a million other ordinary things. The idea is to experience and savor these moments as personal love gifts from God—which they are.
Here’s the cool part: We can savor the moment not only as it’s happening but any time afterward by remembering and rehearsing it, which enables us to experience it all over again. Each time we rehearse God’s love gifts in this way, we’re creating new neural pathways in our brain, helping us to break free from negative thought patterns and false messages we’ve believed about God and ourselves. The more we experience God’s love and feel loved by God, the more we’re able to “live loved”—to love ourselves and others as we have been loved by God.
The more we experience God’s love and feel loved by God, the more we’re able to “live loved.”
That’s why I love the Daily Examen, which is a simple practice of reviewing our day and rehearsing the loving moments, letting them live again in us. (We also can allow the not-so-loving moments to surface, talking honestly with God about them. This helps us process unpleasant moments and experience God’s love as we feel seen, known, and loved just as we are.) The Examen is one of the spiritual practices I recommend most often because it’s a simple and effective way to open our eyes to the many ways God is actively loving us in the details of our lives. This, in turn, fuels our gratitude and our own loving responses—to God and others.
This month I’ve been doing a public “November Examen,” savoring and sharing one love gift each day. Even though it’s already the middle of the month, I encourage you to join me. You might even want to make this a practice you do through the end of the year, helping you keep your focus on the meaning of the season as you savor God’s love in every good gift. You just might find it so beneficial that you decide to make it an ongoing practice. I hope you will, because my heart’s desire for you is that you would come to experience God’s love more and more.
In the words of the apostle Paul, this is my prayer for you: “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Ephesians 3:19 NLT).
As I’ve sat with people over the last year, many have described a sense of being stuck emotionally. Because I’m human, I’m no stranger to that experience. What I’m learning is not to judge the stuck-ness but to accept it with self-compassion and patience, trusting that God is working in it and will help me through it if I simply allow myself to feel what I feel.
One morning I was on my way home from my chiropractor’s office, and I got turned around while taking the back way through a beautiful residential area. As I stopped at an intersection, I quickly activated my trusty navigator—the Waze app—to find the best route home. After turning right as directed, I drove a short distance before passing the beautiful, historic white church where my father served as pastor in his retirement years. It’s common for retired pastors in the Methodist tradition to be invited to serve a small local church in need of a shepherd, and I believe he was equally blessed by their love and care in those years after losing my mom. It was the last church where I heard him preach and knelt to receive Holy Communion by his hands, just as I had done countless times throughout my life.
Suddenly my eyes were filled with tears, and in that moment, it occurred to me that I’d had a similar tearful experience the previous week while driving by the long-term care facility where Dad passed away in December 2019—just a few months before the pandemic rocked our world. I knew this was evidence that physical places were evoking a grief response—something that hasn't always been the case since Dad's passing. Out of the blue I had an inner nudge, “Drive to the cemetery where Dad and Mom are buried.”
Instantly I knew this was a prompting of the Holy Spirit because I’m not one who visits gravesites regularly. In fact, other than a few funerals, I’ve visited the cemetery where Mom and Dad are buried only a handful of times in the last twenty years since Mom’s passing. I prefer to hike or walk or journal to process my thoughts and emotions. But admittedly, I’ve needed something more of late. During the last year, after the loss of my job and the official end of a dear friendship I’d hoped might be restored, I’ve been sensing an invitation to go deeper and address some unprocessed grief. Intuitively, I knew that this prompting to visit the cemetery was a part of that invitation to grieve. With two similar experiences two weeks in a row, I knew it was time to say yes to the invitation.
So, I drove to the cemetery that I had not visited since our family stood huddled together under a small protective awning that, despite its best efforts, could not shield us from the bone-chilling wind as we laid my father to rest. I was struck by the contrast of that winter’s day to this one—a mild August morning with low humidity and a gentle breeze.
As I parked and walked slowly toward their resting place, the tears began to form. Then, as I stood gazing at their names and dates, the tears I had been unable—and perhaps reluctant—to access now began to flow freely. Simultaneously, memories began to surface as if a photo album had been opened, but rather than shut it quickly as I tend to do, I allowed the images to come, increasing the flow of my tears. With no one around to see or hear me, I sat on a nearby bench and cried freely as I shared vulnerably with God. After acknowledging authentic feelings that had lain dormant for some time, I gave thanks that God has been with me through every loss, every heartbreak, every disappointment, every time of loneliness. I acknowledged, with sincere gratitude, that only God’s presence can meet my deepest needs. Amazingly, in that moment the clouds parted and the sun shone down strongly on me. Overcome by the literal expression of the light and warmth of God’s love, tears of joy mingled with tears of grief, and I sat with my face upturned toward the sun, soaking in the love of God.
As I walked back to my car and prepared to drive away, I looked to my right and was struck by the beauty of a bed of purple petunias. Suddenly two yellow butterflies emerged—and then two more. As they flitted and danced among the flowers, I thought of Mom and Dad—and my mothers-in-law Miriam and Judy—who are now fully transformed and whole in God’s presence.
The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for mourning and a time for dancing, but what the author doesn’t say is that they are not mutually exclusive. Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible to hold opposing emotions at the same time. Sadness and joy are not either/or but both/and. So, if we feel stuck in one emotion, we can get curious about what other emotions we haven’t acknowledged or allowed ourselves to feel and allow space and time to feel whatever surfaces.
Whatever you’re feeling today, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself as you pay attention to your inner movements and the invitations of the Holy Spirit. As I experienced today, sometimes going to an actual place—or holding a physical object of some significance—can help you to access emotions that need to be expressed and witnessed as you focus on God’s presence in the here and now through your surroundings and five senses. (Referring to a feelings chart or wheel is another helpful way to identify and express emotions when you're unsure what you're feeling.)
Most of all, here's what I want to leave you with: wherever you find yourself on any given day, God’s loving presence is always with you, even if you don’t recognize it. Even if you feel stuck. Even then—and especially then—God is laboring in love in your life. Feelings come and go, as do times of stuck-ness, but God's love for us is as constant as the sun. And God's loving presence is the safest place to allow ourselves to feel our feelings.
Are you tired of the conflict that has come to characterize our culture? Me, too. Some days I wish there was a failproof prayer or plan that would eliminate it for good. Other days I do my best to ignore it—and I’m able to do that for a while if I unplug or limit media intake. But try as I might, I cannot truly ignore, escape, or eliminate conflict—and neither can you. The only healthy way out of conflict is through it, addressing it patiently—person by person, moment by moment—with love, wisdom, and grace. And the only way to do that is to look inward at our own internal conflict, because all conflict begins within us.
That statement may make you want to stop reading right now! But I encourage you to stick with me and keep reading. Because when we deal with the conflict within us, it has a positive affect on how we handle the conflict around us. We must invite God to bring healing and harmony in us if we want God to work through us to bring healing and harmony in the world. If we will address our own internal conflict with love, wisdom, and grace, we will be equipped to do the same in our relationships with others.
In case you’re thinking, I don’t have any internal conflict, here’s a simple litmus test. Ask yourself if you’ve ever said something like this:
“Part of me thinks/feels…, but another part of me thinks/feels…”
We use this kind of language all the time, and when we do, we’re describing internal conflict. Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of the therapeutic model IFS (Internal Family Systems), explains that each of us has different internal “parts” that hold various roles and points of view. You might say that each of us has an “internal family,” and the family members don’t always see eye to eye!
Understanding how our internal family works can help us to extend more compassion and grace to ourselves—and to others—in the face of conflict. That certainly has been true in my own life, which is why I'm so passionate about sharing IFS, or parts work, with others. (At the end of this article, I'll share some ways it has been transformative in my life and the lives of those I meet with for spiritual direction.)
Here’s a simple overview of the model.
A Snapshot of the IFS Model*
IFS divides our internal family members into three types of parts:
As in any family, some of these parts get along and others don’t. But unlike many dysfunctional families in which certain family members have ill intent, all our parts have our best interests at heart. Every part is trying to help us in its own way, even if the outcomes are not always desirable. Understanding this moves us from criticism and condemnation to curiosity and compassion.
In addition to these parts, there is the core of our being, our True Self or Spirit-led Self, which serves as the wise parent of the family. In union with God, the Spirit-led Self leads the internal family with love, wisdom, and grace. However, because our various parts have taken on burdens and false beliefs, they must learn to trust the Spirit-led Self and allow it to lead the family system toward internal harmony. This process is the work of IFS, which involves befriending and unburdening each part so that it may integrate harmoniously within the family system. From a Christian perspective, this is a beautiful picture of the process of sanctification, or becoming whole in Christ.
4 Principles to Help Us
Often simply having a basic understanding of the internal family model increases our ability to give ourselves grace and be patient with ourselves when different parts of us hold conflicting thoughts and feelings. I’d like to highlight four basic principles from the model that can help us take practical steps toward addressing the conflict within—which, in turn, can help us to navigate the conflict around us. (These principles are taken from the steps of IFS but are not the steps themselves.)
1. Pause and get curious.
Often we become irritated and frustrated quickly rather than pausing to wonder what’s going on within us. Simply taking a few deep breaths and getting curious about what’s happening inside us can help us move from a defensive or offensive posture to a more neutral one.
As we look inside with curiosity, we become aware of our feelings. Are we frustrated, irritated, angry, sad, afraid? Then we follow those feelings, eager to learn whatever they want us to know. We might ask ourselves, Why am I triggered? Why am I so angry? Why am I feeling sad right now? Pausing with curiosity enables us to ask questions that will lead us toward clarity.
2. Listen with genuine compassion.
Pausing and becoming curious helps us to listen to ourselves with compassion—not with a particular agenda or with feelings of self-pity, but with the genuine care and concern of our Spirit-led Self. This is a time to listen attentively to the stories, hurts, concerns, and fears held by some part of ourselves—often a younger part. It’s a time to “walk in another’s shoes,” so to speak, even though the “other” happens to be a part of ourselves.
Sometimes as we’re listening, an inner critic or another internal part will interrupt our thoughts, discounting or objecting to what is being said. When this happens, we can gently acknowledge the interrupting part and ask it to soften back so that we can continue listening to the one who was sharing. If it is willing, we can let it know that we will circle back to listen to it as well. When we make this promise, it’s important to keep it and check in with that part later, allowing it to be heard too. If the interrupting part will not soften back, then we should pause and listen compassionately to its concerns, acknowledging that they are important. Though sometimes we may want to silence a part of us, true healing comes from letting every part know it has a voice.
Listening with compassion enables us to show honor to every part of ourselves. Because we are image bearers of our Creator God, every part of us is worthy of honor and love.
3. Bear witness to concerns and pain.
To bear witness is to “be with” someone in their joy or pain. It is to be a safe, non-anxious, compassionate presence who allows another to share their experiences with vulnerability and authenticity without judging, shaming, or “fixing.” When we bear witness, we communicate our “with-ness” to another.
Just as we bear witness to others, we can bear witness to ourselves. Rather than trying to “fix” or get rid of a part of us, we can connect with that part from our Spirit-led Self and offer compassionate presence. As our Spirit-led Self assures the part that it’s not alone but is seen, known, and loved, the part comes to trust that there is someone who understands the burdens or pain it is carrying, as well as any ways it has been trying to help us. As trust builds, the part becomes willing to release its pain and burdens and take in the gifts or resources of God. This is the process of unburdening, when the Spirit of Christ draws near and does the work of healing and transformation that only God can do.
4. Express ongoing love and support.
Just as realizing we are not alone is necessary for unburdening, so receiving ongoing love and support is necessary for continued health. God designed us for community, and we need one another’s love and support throughout life’s journey to be healthy and whole. Likewise, when our internal family members love and support one another, we experience harmony and wholeness. Each time we express love and support to a part of ourselves, we are strengthening our connection and creating loving community within our internal family. The reason we address conflict is not simply to bring peace, though peace is a wonderful thing. We do it to foster loving community, which our Triune God both demonstrates and desires for us.
* * *
Personally, I have found IFS to be an incredibly effective tool in my own journey toward greater healing and wholeness. It has helped me to pay attention to parts of me that are skeptical, fearful, or guarded and learn from them about ways I've been hurt in the past so that I can allow God's healing in those places. It has enabled me to identify spiritual wounds, those experiences that gave me a false representation of God and caused parts of me to carry ideas about God that have created distance or doubt. I have seen IFS uncover lies that have dominated an individual's actions and feelings for years without explanation or understanding. I have watched someone find freedom from harmful labels that created overwhelming shame and begin to understand their resulting drive to be whatever others want or need them to be. I have witnessed another breaking free from the tyranny of having to perform constantly in order to feel worth and acceptance. I have walked with someone who had all but given up on God and is discovering the reality of an intimate and loving God by identifying the wounding representations of God that came through early caregivers. I have seen another recognize how conflict with a spouse has more to do with the ways they've both been wounded than with each other. This is why I believe these principles from the IFS model can help all of us to address our own internal conflict with love, wisdom, and grace. And as we do that, we will be equipped to do the same in our relationships with one another. My prayer is that we will not seek to avoid or eliminate conflict but will work through it together and grow in loving community.
Want to Learn More?
* This overview of IFS is expressed through a Christian lens (see Dr. Alison Cook's book Boundaries for Your Soul). If you'd like to learn more about IFS and how it can be helpful to you on your spiritual journey, I'd love to talk with you about it. I have completed a 16-week comprehensive IFS course and am an IFS informed spiritual director.
If that question sounds odd to you or you have trouble answering, you’re not alone. Many of us give little thought to our relationship with self because we’re so focused on our relationships with others. Yet according to Dr. Caroline Leaf, neuroscientist and author of the bestselling books Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and Switch on Your Brain, “At the end of the day your relationship with yourself will determine the quality and longevity of all other relationships, and ultimately your mental health and well-being.” We can devote countless hours of time and energy to cultivating and improving relationships with others, but unless we’re cultivating a healthy relationship with self, our efforts will not bear long-lasting fruit.
“At the end of the day your relationship with yourself will determine the quality and longevity of all other relationships, and ultimately your mental health and well-being.”
—Dr. Caroline Leaf
The truth is, we cannot have healthy relationships with others without a healthy relationship with self. Scripture supports this idea. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), which implies that a loving relationship with self enables us to love others well.
Some say that self-love is selfish and self-centered, and it can be when self is understood apart from our relationship with God. But healthy self-love, which flows from our identity as one who is deeply loved by God, is good and desirable and necessary for abundant living. Healthy self-love is knowing that we are a beloved child of God—one who is unconditionally and completely loved because of who we are, not what we do. In our performance-driven culture, accepting this can be more challenging than we may realize.
Healthy self-love is knowing that we are a beloved child of God—one who is unconditionally and completely loved because of who we are, not what we do.
Even if you are quick to affirm that you are a beloved child of God, perhaps you sometimes struggle to fully believe it. It may not always feel true in your daily life.
At a recent retreat for women called Beloved, I invited each woman to complete this sentence anonymously: “I know God loves me, but…” They connected on common ground with honest and vulnerable responses such as these:
Do any of these statements resonate with you?
Often, we give lip service to our identity as God’s beloved child without fully embracing and living from that identity. We know in our heads that God loves us, but we struggle to believe it in our hearts, especially in those moments when we feel we’re not “measuring up.” At the retreat we explored why head knowledge alone is never sufficient when it comes to knowing and believing God loves us. We must experience the love of God if it is to change the way we interact with ourselves and the world.
We must experience the love of God if it is to change the way we interact with ourselves and the world.
Scripture affirms it is our experience of God’s love, not our knowledge of it, that changes us:
“May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God”
This verse speaks of the transformation that occurs when we receive God’s love—when it becomes lived experience rather than merely head knowledge. Experiential knowledge of God’s love is what heals us, making us complete or whole within. This transformation, first and foremost, is for our own good, because only when we love ourselves as God loves us can we love others the same way. Yet, how often do we wear ourselves out trying to love others without experiencing God’s love ourselves?
How often do we wear ourselves out trying to love others without experiencing God's love ourselves?
Simply put, self-love is allowing ourselves to be loved by God and then loving ourselves as God loves us. This brings us to an important question: How does God love us?
Just as we are.
This is how God loves us, and this is how we are to love ourselves. If we’re struggling to love ourselves this way, it’s likely we’re not experiencing and receiving the unconditional love of God.
If that’s true of you, what can you do? Here are a few ideas. Perhaps you might need to…
There are many other possibilities. The idea is to slow down, bring your authentic self to God, and let God love you however you need to be loved. As you become more aware of God’s love in the present moment, it will become easier to receive God’s love. And as it becomes easier to receive God’s love, it will become easier to love yourself. Loving yourself includes things such as...
So, let me ask you again: How’s your relationship with yourself? Rather than judging yourself, let this question be a gentle reminder to let God love you so you can love yourself as God does, with compassion and grace. Only then will you be able to “love others as yourself”—and cultivate healthy, long-lasting relationships.
 Dr. Caroline Leaf, Instagram post, May 18, 2022.
Longing for connection. Does that description fit you these days? It does me, and I know I’m not alone. Recently I returned from a retreat of about seventy women, and I’d say that “longing for connection” aptly describes the common sentiment of the group after a couple of years of isolation, uncertainty, and so many disruptions in our lives—including all kinds of losses. It was beautiful to see their hunger to connect and to share their stories with one another in small groups, at meals, and during other activities of the retreat.
Of course, this renewed longing for authentic connection is not limited to women. Our church recently started an early morning men’s prayer group, and between fifty and sixty-five men are showing up each week to pray together at 6:30 am. Let that sink in. I’ve heard of men getting up before the sun rises to go the gym, go for a run, or beat the traffic and get a jumpstart on the workday, but only a spiritual longing for relationship with God and one another could motivate that many men to gather weekly at 6:30 am to pray!
Though I’ve been gathering with small groups for decades, the depth of openness and vulnerability I’ve witnessed lately seems to be indicative of an acute desire to be witnessed—to be seen, heard, known, and loved just as we are. Perhaps the isolation of the pandemic has contributed to this phenomenon. Perhaps the struggles and losses we’ve experienced have increased our awareness of our need for deep and meaningful connections. The truth is, we always need deep connection, but often our awareness of this need is dulled by activity and distractions. As a result, we become lulled to “sleep” and accustomed to more superficial relationships and experiences, avoiding the authentic sharing that leads to healing and wholeness.
We always need deep connection, but often our awareness of this need is dulled by activity and distractions.
A significant positive outcome of the last two years is a communal reawakening to the importance of deeper connections—with one another and with God. So often it is a heart-to-heart connection with others that facilitates a deeper connection with God, helping us to experience God’s presence and love in real and tangible ways as we are witnessed, accepted, and loved by others.
Deep down, we all desire to be known as we truly are—to take off the masks we wear and allow others to witness our most authentic selves. This is what drives our longing for connection, and I believe it is our deepest longing as human beings created in the image of God. Being seen and known as we are—loved unconditionally and completely—is how God loves us. So, when we experience this kind of acceptance and love from one another, we are experiencing the love of God. This is why I believe all healing happens in relationship. As we bear witness to one another and accept one another unconditionally, the healing love of God is at work.
We all desire to be known as we truly are—to take off the masks we wear and allow others to witness our most authentic selves.
Who loves you in this way, encouraging you to be yourself, to grow, and to become more and more integrated and whole as you allow God to continue working in you? These individuals welcome you even as you let go of behavior patterns that may be outwardly “pleasant” but are inwardly unhealthy, such as people pleasing, co-dependency, avoidance, or peacekeeping (which is different from peacemaking). With whom do you feel the freedom to share your hopes and dreams, fears and struggles, hurts and disappointments—even when this requires discussing needs or unhealthy issues in the relationship? And to whom are you this kind of friend? Cultivating intimate, authentic relationships requires time and patience and sometimes involves heartbreak—because authenticity requires vulnerability, which can open us to hurt or even rejection. But it’s worth the risk because we cannot have abundant lives without deep connections.
Cultivating intimate, authentic relationships requires time and patience and sometimes involves heartbreak…but it’s worth the risk because we cannot have abundant lives without deep connections.
So, how do we begin? Here are six simple suggestions.
In and through all these suggestions, we can pray, inviting God to help us cultivate deeper connections with others. Then we wait and watch and respond to God's activity—because God is always at work. Because God is the One who has given us the desire for connection—the longing to be seen, known, and loved just as we are—God will be faithful to fulfill this desire as we let go of our own agendas and expectations and join God where God is working. We also can ask God to open our eyes to those people in our lives who are already offering safe, authentic connection and express our gratitude—to God and to them. Best of all, as we seek and cultivate intimate relationships with others, we will come to experience God’s deep and unfailing love for us!
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.” I grew up singing this song based on Jesus’ words in John 13:35, and I still believe the truth of these words. Sadly, a quick look at the news or social media reveals a desperate need for more love these days, including among those of us who follow Jesus.
I’ll be the first to admit that love isn’t always the thing that unquestionably signals I’m a follower of Christ. The events of the last two years seem to have had a cumulative effect on all of us, making it more challenging for us to love at times because of our sense of overwhelm. That’s not an excuse but simply an observation. My intent is not to criticize, blame, or discourage. We’ve had enough of that! Rather, my hope is to offer some encouragement based on a simple concept that has been invaluable to me in my own journey to love more consistently—and to stay connected to God when the warm and fuzzy feelings aren't there and disappointment and doubt have rolled in like a fog. It’s called the Love Loop.
We see the Love Loop in 1 John 4:19 (CEB): “We love because God first loved us.” God initiates a cycle of love by loving us, and we respond by loving God and others. This beautiful cycle of love begins with God, who scripture tells us is love (1 John 4:8). Scripture also tells us that our loving God is a giver of good gifts:
"Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from...the creator of the heavenly lights." (James 1:17 CEB)
What's more, God's love is generous and extravagant:
"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!" (1 John 3:1 NIV)
Saint Ignatius, who lived in the sixteenth century, put it this way:
"God's love is poured forth lavishly like a fountain spilling forth its waters
into an unending stream."
God’s lavish love comes to us in many ways—through other people, God’s continuing work in the world, the promises of scripture, God’s self-giving gift of Jesus, every aspect and creature of creation, and countless blessings that are evident every day if we have eyes to see them. All are loving gifts inviting us to love in return. Especially on those days when we don't feel very loving—toward God or toward others—simply noticing these gifts allows love to seep back in to our depleted souls, softening our hearts. Sometimes the most ordinary gifts can flood our hearts with love and gratitude: a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a word of encouragement, a smile from a stranger, a phone call from a friend, a hug, a delicious meal, a simple answer to prayer, the singing of birds, the comfort of a pet, a word of scripture, or a million other everyday things. Even our very breath, which sounds like God's name—YaHWeH—reminds us that we live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). These gifts enable us not only to know God loves us in our heads but to actually experience it in our hearts. Even when we're struggling to believe God loves us or feeling disappointed or angry with God, simply noticing these love gifts can be like a lifeline, keeping us tethered to God.
As is true of all gifts, the real impact comes when we not only notice the gifts but actually receive them as personal expressions of God's love. Getting there can be a process, and that's okay. It may take time for us to view God's gifts and graces as expressions of God’s love for us personally. Perhaps God seems more distant to us, or we may feel we have to do something in order to receive God's love. The beautiful thing is that as we continue to notice and appreciate God's loving gifts, slowly but surely we will begin to receive them in a more personal way, which will fuel a response of love. The more we take in God’s good gifts of love, the more we are able to love as we have been loved.
The more we take in God's good gifts of love, the more we are able to love
as we have been loved.
The Love Loop, then, is noticing God's loving gifts and responding in love. Whenever we realize we’re not being very loving, that can be a signal that we’ve fallen out of the Love Loop and need to get back in it. There's no shame in this realization but simply the recognition that we're human and imperfect and in need of grace, which God freely gives. This awareness prompts us to make an adjustment—an intentional choice—that positions us to receive God's love once again, which results in our own response of love.
So, how do we get back in the flow of God's love? It’s different for each of us. For me, getting outside and enjoying God's creation—especially hiking in the woods—helps me to get back in the flow, as does meditating on scripture, journaling, and sharing from the heart with a good friend. Worshiping in community is another powerful conduit of God's love for me. Since the pandemic began, simply being present and noticing the simple gifts of the moment have been extremely powerful, as well. I’m offering some steps below that I hope will help you to make your own list so that you can implement the Love Loop in your life.
My prayer is that as we practice being aware of God’s gifts and learn to receive them as personal expressions of love for us, God’s love will flow more freely through us to a world in desperate need of love. May they know we are Christians by our love!
IMPLEMENTING THE LOVE LOOP
1. Ask yourself a few questions.
Go ahead and make a list. If you have trouble, reflect daily for a week or two on the ways you receive love, and then make your list.
2. Periodically check in with yourself, asking: Am I loving well? Become aware of "where you are"—whether you’re in or out of the Love Loop.
3. If you’ve fallen out of the Love Loop, as we so often do, offer yourself grace (the same grace God extends to you) and make an adjustment to get back in it. Look to your list and choose something that helps you to receive and experience God’s love—even if you don’t feel like it at first. Trust the process and be patient.
4. As you begin to receive and experience God's love once again, respond with gratitude and love. Perhaps your loving response will be to others before you're ready to respond in love to God, or vice versa. Wherever you are in the journey is okay. Just stay in the loop and let love flow. God will take care of the rest.
Traditionally the start of a new year is a time to focus on resolutions, goal setting, and action steps. But often what happens is we set off chasing what we think will make us happy and fulfilled—such as a lower number on the scale, a higher number on our bank statement, or a greater sense of organization or efficiency in our lives—without first considering our deepest desires. When we take time to prayerfully identify and reflect on our deepest desires, we discover what is most life-giving to us so that our plans, goals, and actions can flow from our truest longings.
Sometimes we talk about “desire” as if it’s a dirty word, as if having desires is wrong or all desires are dangerous. That’s simply not true. God created us to have desires! Jeremiah 17:9 is often quoted in reference to desires, warning us that “the heart is deceitful above things and beyond cure” (NIV). But this verse is talking about the heart when it is not connected to God and seeking God’s will. It describes a heart that is focused on the flesh or the ego—the feelings, will, and intellect apart from God.
A heart that is connected to God and seeking God’s will is not deceitful but discerning. Psalm 37:4 speaks to us about this kind of heart: “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (NIV). When we delight ourselves in God, God gives us the desires of our hearts—desires that God has planted within us. These desires, which I’m calling our deepest or truest desires, enable us to draw closer to God and live as our most authentic selves—the persons God has designed us to be.
When we delight ourselves in God, God gives us the desires of our hearts—desires that God has planted within us.
Saint Ignatius, who lived in the sixteenth century, wrote about the importance of our desires. He said, “God inflames the heart with holy desires and with attractions toward a life of greater divine praise and service.” In other words, our deep desires or soul yearnings grow our love of God and deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with others.
So, how do we go about discerning our deepest and truest desires? Here are a few questions to guide us:
When we recognize and do those things that help us draw closer to God, experience God’s love, and feel like our most authentic selves, we discover our deepest desires—those things planted within us that will enable us to live in the flow of God’s love. And as we live in that flow—receiving God’s love and responding in love according to our unique design—we fulfill the desires of our hearts.
When we recognize and do those things that help us draw closer to God, experience God’s love, and feel like our most authentic selves, we discover our deepest desires.
Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame said that when he ran, he felt God’s pleasure. Perhaps the most basic starting point is to ask yourself, When do I feel God’s pleasure?
The answer is different for each of us. I feel God’s pleasure when I sit one-on-one with others, hearing them share their hearts and stories and listening together for how God is at work in their lives. I experience God’s pleasure and love when I’m connecting with someone deeply, from the heart, offering encouragement and companionship for the soul. Even during my long career in publishing, the times when I felt like my most authentic self were when I was encouraging and helping authors to discern God’s callings and lean into God’s invitations and giftings.
One of my deepest desires is to companion and encourage others on the spiritual journey so that they can experience, receive, and live in the flow of God’s love, which brings healing and wholeness. I can fulfill this longing in different ways, but the underlying desire remains the same. Knowing this enables me to focus on those things that nurture and satisfy this desire, rather than allowing myself to be distracted by other things that may be good but do not connect in some way to this desire. Of course, balance is important in all things. But the idea is to attend to our deepest desires so that everything else can flow naturally from a place of authenticity and love.
Focusing on your deepest desires is not selfish; it is the way to center your life in God—to fall in love with God.
I encourage you to spend some time reflecting, praying, and journaling about your deepest desires. Let 2022 be a year to discover, reclaim, or reaffirm those things that fuel your connection with God and your experience of God’s love. Focusing on your deepest desires is not selfish; it is the way to center your life in God—to fall in love with God. Then your actions and your very life will become a loving response to God’s love.
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
—Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe
Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ—and the second coming of Christ. In a sense, it is a season of intentional longing and waiting. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to waiting this Advent, perhaps because we’ve been in an extended season of waiting since the pandemic began. But the truth is, we do a lot of waiting on the regular…
Even when we’re sure that what we’re waiting for will come and will be good, it seems we rarely enjoy waiting. In general, our default in times of waiting is to become impatient and restless. And when waiting is prolonged, with no guaranteed ending, it often leads to frustration, sadness, and even despair. The truth is, whether it seems good or bad, happy or sad, waiting is just hard because it magnifies our longing. Every unmet desire creates a hollow place in the heart that longs to be filled.
Every unmet desire creates a hollow place
in the heart that longs to be filled.
Do you have any unmet desires? If you do, then you have hollow places. I do, too. Here’s the question I’ve been asking myself: What am I going to do with my hollow places?
One option is to ignore them, pretending they’re not there and everything is fine. I’ve done this so often that I’ve become very proficient at it, but I’ve discovered that it’s like driving a car low on gas—eventually the car will stop running, forcing me to acknowledge and address the situation.
Another option is to numb any pain, frustration, or disappointment I’m feeling. I do this far more often than I’d like to admit. It’s so much easier to turn on Netflix or reach for some chocolate than to attend to my longings and the emotions connected to them. But this, too, is only a temporary fix—and one that can lead to other problems.
A third option is to try to fill the hollow places with busyness. This actually can be a helpful coping mechanism in the short-term, when there is a known or projected end to the waiting. I have a friend who busies herself with sewing during temporary periods of waiting, and it not only occupies her mind and her hands but also provides beautiful gifts of love for others. Busyness, however, is not a permanent fix for the long haul. It can never fill the void caused by ongoing, indefinite waiting.
As I’ve considered what to do with my hollow places and how I can move more readily from impatience and frustration to perseverance and hope in times of waiting, I’ve realized that I can benefit from the rhythms of Advent—a season marked by waiting with expectancy and hope. In Advent we light candles to remind us that light has pierced the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. In Advent we give generously to others to remind us that Love expels all fear. In Advent, we sing songs of hope and praise to remind us that God sees us and comes to our aid. In Advent we lean into prayer to remind us that God is with us—always.
Light. Love. Praise. Prayer. These four rhythms fuel my hope and remind me that I’m not alone in my waiting. When I make them a regular part of my life—by doing things such as lighting candles, gazing at the stars, appreciating the sunrise and sunset, giving and receiving love in countless ways, listening to hope-filled music, singing songs of praise to God, and talking with God about my longings and feelings—these rhythms invite me to ache along with the rest of the world for the answer to every unmet desire. Whatever our longings may be, beneath them all is the desire for intimacy with our loving Creator—the One who made us, came to live among us in Jesus, sends his Spirit to dwell within us, and promises to come again to make all things new and right.
Whatever our longings may be, beneath them all is the desire for intimacy with our loving Creator.
In the meantime, as we wait, we have God’s loving presence through the gifts of creation, the Holy Spirit, and other people. God knows it’s not good for us to be alone and we need to experience love in tangible ways. So, just as God came to be with us in Jesus, God also comes to be with us through the loving presence of other people. In fact, when I asked friends how others have encouraged or supported them during extended times of waiting, they all mentioned the gift of presence. They said that whether others sat with them, checked on them, did things with them, texted or called them, or prayed with and for them, the gift of presence was an expression of love that communicated “I’m here with you” and “You’re not alone.” This is essentially the message of Advent: God loves us and has come to be with us.
Waiting is hard, but it can yield good things. Whatever you are waiting for in this season, I invite you to join me in making light, love, praise, and prayer regular rhythms so our hollow places can become hallowed ground where we welcome Christ to be born anew in us.
Our hollow places can become hallowed ground where we welcome Christ to be born anew in us.
Taste and see that the LORD is good. (Psalm 34:8 NLT)
Imagine you’ve been invited to Thanksgiving dinner, and you don’t have to cook or bring one thing. As you walk into the house, you’re greeted by the alluring aroma of turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, along with a variety of delicious desserts. Everything is spread on a beautifully decorated table. As your host ushers you to your place at the table, your mouth begins to water and your stomach rumbles uncontrollably. After a blessing is given, the dishes are passed around the table so that all can help themselves. But as each dish comes to you, you pass it on to the next person without taking any for yourself.
Your plate remains empty as you sit there, watching everyone else eat. When your host entreats you to fill your plate and enjoy the delicious foods, you reply that you are enjoying them—they look and smell wonderful, and that is enough. “Besides,” you say hesitantly, “I believe this food was prepared for everyone else but not for me personally. To think that would be presumptuous and self-centered.” With great sorrow, your host responds, “I made this meal for each of you, and I took care to include your favorite dishes. It was a labor of love for you, and it would fill me with great joy and delight if you would taste and see how delicious it is.” Still, you politely decline, convinced the meal is meant for others but not for your personal consumption. You tell yourself you are content just to sit at the table.
This scenario seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why would someone attend a Thanksgiving meal and refuse to eat anything, including his or her favorite foods? How could someone accept a personal invitation yet believe the meal was not intended for them? Yet, we do a similar thing when we fail to “taste and see” God’s goodness and love in the many gifts God so generously provides each day. We might notice them and, on some days, even feel gratitude for them; yet often we stop short of actually “tasting” them—receiving them as expressions of God’s very deep and personal love for us.
God, who is love, showers us with “love gifts” every day—gifts of creation, other people, and experiences—all so that we can know God’s love and respond in love. A delicious meal. A beautiful sunset. A bird’s song. A loved one’s embrace. An encouraging word. A moment of joy with a child. A needed talk with a friend. A kindness from a stranger. An answer to prayer. An unexpected opportunity. And a million other things. Saint Ignatius, who lived in the 16th century, said that "everything God has created [and is continually creating in the moment] is a gift presented to us so that we can know God more easily and return God’s love more readily."* So, failing to receive these gifts as expressions of God’s personal love for us means we’re missing out on the sweetness of an intimate love relationship with God. We’re essentially taking ourselves out of the reciprocal flow of God’s love. When this happens, God is displaced in our lives and we become attached to lesser things—things that can never fully satisfy, things that leave us wanting. We tell ourselves that this is enough—that we’re satisfied to just sit at the table—but God has so much more for us.
Everything God has created [and is continually creating in the moment] is a gift presented to us so that we can know God more easily and return God’s love more readily.
In this season of giving thanks, I invite you not only to notice and appreciate God’s many gifts but to actually “taste” them—to receive and savor them as love gifts meant just for you. Pay attention to how God is speaking to you personally through the ordinary gifts of your daily life, and then consider how you are being invited to respond in love. You can do this at the end of the day or in the morning, reflecting on the previous day. Simply take a few minutes to recall the gifts and loving moments of the day and then reflect, prayerfully listening and talking with God. This simple practice, called the Examen, will deepen not only your relationship with God but also your relationships with others as you become more and more aware of God’s loving activity in the details of your life and choose to respond with love. It cultivates a beautiful, ongoing “love loop”—God loving you, and you responding by loving God and others. I encourage you to give it a try for thirty days and see what happens. Remember, you’re invited not just to sit at the table but to feast on God’s never-ending gifts of love.
*Adapted from The First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, paraphrased by David Fleming, S.J.
Have you ever seen people on social media ask, “What has been saving your life lately?” I’m always interested to read the responses. For me, the answer is two simple but powerful words: radical grace.
Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I’ve been “swimming” in the waters of grace all my life—learning about grace, singing about grace, receiving grace, extending grace—yet not always consistently and certainly not perfectly. Though I can say that God’s radical grace literally saves me every day, and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for that, it wasn’t until just a few years ago, when I began my journey through the nine-month Retreat in Daily Life (the Spiritual Exercises), that I truly began to extend this same radical grace to myself. And that has been a game changer for me.
What does it mean to offer ourselves radical grace? And what is grace anyway? It's one of those "church words" that is used so often it can get watered down and lose its impact. Grace can be defined as unmerited favor, and that means undeserved approval or kindness. In other words, radical grace is lovingkindness without judgment--freely given, not earned. And the source of this lovingkindness is God. In John’s Gospel we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.... For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16 ESV). In addition to God’s general grace, evident in so many gifts that are ours to enjoy every day, we have God’s specific and ultimate gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we have unlimited forgiveness, unconditional acceptance, and never-ending love.
Radical grace is lovingkindness without judgment—freely given, not earned.
Because God showers us with radical grace, we can extend to ourselves the same grace that we receive from God. Brennan Manning writes, “Genuine self-acceptance is not derived from the power of positive thinking, mind games or pop psychology. IT IS AN ACT OF FAITH in the God of grace.”1 To put it simply, because God accepts us as we are, we can do the same, trusting that our faithful God will do the work of refining and shaping us. This point is critical. God is the one who changes us, though we are involved in the process. So, if God accepts us completely as we are in every moment, continually showering us with lovingkindness, we can too. This kind of radical self-acceptance, made possible by God’s radical grace, is what opens us to true transformation.
I’ve found this to be true in my own life, especially during the last 18 months, which have been filled with so much loss, fear, change, transition, conflict, division, and uncertainty. I’ve discovered that offering myself radical grace in the midst of the highs and the lows, just as God does, opens me to God’s deeper work within. Radical grace helps to shine a light on those tricky and sometimes imperceptible obstacles within us such as unrelenting obligation, performance, comparison, criticism, false guilt, and shame so that I can talk honestly with God about them, leading to healing and freedom.
Offering myself radical grace in the midst of the highs and the lows, just as God does,
opens me to God’s deeper work within.
Of course, I am and always will be a work in progress. But it helps me to know that God’s love is continually at work in my life, regardless of what I may be thinking or feeling on any given day. Paradoxically, the more I accept myself as I am, the more I can let go and trust God to do the work that only God can do.
The more I accept myself as I am, the more I can let go and trust God to do the work that only God can do.
So, what does offering ourselves radical grace look like? Here are a few examples:
This isn't easy. Many of us find it much easier to give grace to others than to ourselves. As the saying goes, we are our own worst critics. We would never speak to a friend the way we sometimes speak to ourselves—with harsh, unkind, and even condemning words. The truth is that our inner critic is only a part of us, and this part needs radical grace, too! We can begin by speaking to our inner critic with compassion, love, and kindness, thanking it for trying to help us do better while affirming that it’s okay to be just as we are in this moment as we look to God for whatever help we need.
As with anything, it takes practice to get better at giving ourselves radical grace—which goes beyond “knowing” that God gives us grace. And "practicing" radical grace requires time and persistence. But here's the good news: the more we do it, the easier it becomes to…
I encourage you to give radical grace a try. Start small and be persistent. Then begin offering yourself more and more radical grace—just as God does—and watch God work. And remember, you don’t have to worry if you’re “going too far” with grace because you can’t out-grace God! God can be trusted to complete the work begun in you. My prayer is that you, too, will be able to say that grace has not only saved your life but is saving it each and every day.
You don't have to worry if you're "going too far" with grace because you can't out-grace God!
1. Excerpt from The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2008), 32.
As I was reading the story of Moses and the burning bush recently, I thought about how Moses saw something that caught his attention and then paused to stop and be curious about it. As a result, he encountered and heard from God. I wondered if there had been other burning bushes prior to that day but Moses had been too distracted or preoccupied to notice. Or perhaps God had tried to get Moses’ attention in other ways on other days. We don’t know. What we do know is that on this day, Moses was paying attention, and that opened him to hear God’s invitation to embrace and participate in the vision of freeing God’s people.
As I continued to reflect on the story, I heard in my spirit: “Today is a day to remember one of your own burning bush moments.”
I sat with that perplexing thought for a moment, and then suddenly I knew what it was. About eight years ago during a group activity at a work retreat, God very unexpectedly but unmistakably planted the seed of a vision within me—to be in ministry with my husband, Neil, who is a counselor. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, and it would take several years of discernment and then several years of training as a spiritual director before we would begin to have a hint of “shared ministry” as we led a few small groups together. Now, on this day, we would have our first ministry session together with a couple preparing for marriage—each of us bringing our unique training and insights as well as our shared experience of leading others through the resource “How We Love.” I recognized the significance of this day—of having eyes to see God’s vision taking shape—and I was filled with overwhelming gratitude. Gratitude for that “burning bush” moment at the retreat all those years ago, gratitude for the journey of discernment that led to the path of spiritual direction, and gratitude for all that God has done and is doing. It seemed important not only to remember my burning bush moment but also to share it, giving God all the glory.
There are potential "burning bush" moments every day. All we have to do is pay attention, be curious, and listen.
Perhaps you will be encouraged, as I have been, by the realization that there are potential “burning bush” moments every day. All we have to do is pay attention, be curious, and listen. They’re usually not “spectacular” or miraculous events but ordinary moments when God breaks through the mundane. In fact, that’s God’s specialty—communicating to us through everyday moments we might be tempted to overlook or dismiss.
God wants to speak to you through your “burning bush.” Just be attentive, curious, and ready to listen.*
*If you're uncertain how God is communicating with you, meeting with a spiritual director can help you to become more aware of and attentive to God's presence and activity in your life. Talking with a trusted spiritual companion about what you sense God is saying and doing—as well as your doubts, fears, and questions—helps to bring clarity and facilitates the process of discernment. Spiritual direction creates a safe space where you can be seen, known, and loved as your authentic self and deepen your relationship with God—the one who knows you best and loves you most.
If you’re online, you’ve probably seen at least one of the Holderness family’s funny music parody videos (theholdernessfamily.com). They’ve been especially relatable and entertaining this past year as we’ve all been walking through this unprecedented pandemic wilderness experience together. Believe it or not, Kim Holderness is an introvert, and recently she wrote about needing to ease back into social activity after this long season of isolation. (She admits extroverts will feel very differently about that!) Kim says when it comes to all sorts of relationships, she approaches them the way she gets into a pool—slowly and deliberately. She writes, “I take my time, but once I’m in, I’m loyal for life” ("To My Friends Who Keep Showing Up").
I can relate to that. I’ve always been one to ease into the pool—both literally and figuratively. But once I’ve waded into a relationship, I’m “in.” Even if I haven’t seen or talked to someone in a while, I carry them in my heart, always ready and eager to reconnect without skipping a beat. For those who have the desire to maintain an active, reciprocal friendship, I’m like a Collie—as loyal as they come. But one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that others approach relationships differently. Some of us are more like Labradors, always eager to make new friends and embrace change. Others of us might be more similar to a Bloodhound by being drawn to our work or callings and seeing friendships more as bonuses than necessities. None of these approaches is necessarily “right” or “wrong,” only different. And it's important to understand and accept our differences while learning to navigate them in a way that leads to health rather than harm.
It's important to understand and accept our differences while learning to navigate them in a way that leads to health rather than harm.
Regardless of our approach to relationships, there is one thing that is vital for all of us, and that is to recognize that every relationship has incredible value and sacred worth. For many of us, this pandemic has heightened our awareness of this truth. We were created to live in relationship, to need one another. And those whom God has brought into our lives—especially those we call family or friends—are precious gifts, each one meant to offer us something valuable. We can lose sight of this if we’re focused on always wanting others to conform to our needs and desires rather than considering theirs.
Every relationship has incredible value and sacred worth.
The truth is, we all are works in progress and have areas where we need to grow. In fact, each of us should seek to be self-aware and keep moving toward health and wholeness, because we’re all on a healing journey in this life. None of us has arrived yet. Each of us—even that person who seems to have it all together—has more healing and growing to do. (If you doubt that, just have coffee with them and really listen.) Simply recognizing this fact goes a long way toward helping us to appreciate and value every person, giving them the grace to be where they are on the journey. Of course, there will be some people who are unsafe—who repeatedly hurt us, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally—and we must learn to set appropriate, healthy boundaries in those cases. (Sometimes we can establish boundaries and remain in relationship, while other times it's wise to remove ourselves from relationship. A counselor, spiritual director, or pastor can help with discernment.) Yet even in situations involving unsafe people, there are lessons for us to receive, such as wisdom and self-love.
As things are beginning to open up and we’re emerging from this season of isolation into more connection and social activity, it’s healthy to spend some time talking with God about our relationships. Whether you’re an introvert who wants to ease back into social activity or an extrovert who’s ready to go full blazes; whether you’re more like a Collie, Labrador, or Bloodhound in your approach to relationships; whether you have a large circle of friends and acquaintances, a small circle of more intimate relationships, or something in-between—contemplating the purpose of relationships and the value of every person God has brought into your life can help you to be both intentional and open as you assess where you are now and where you’d like to be in these relationships.
It's healthy to spend some time talking with God about our relationships.
Is this a time to renew old relationships, pour into current relationships, or anticipate and cultivate new ones? Perhaps it’s a time for all three. Rather than making this determination on your own and jumping ahead to decisions about what you will and won’t do, I encourage you to pause for prayerful reflection and allow God to direct you. We can rest in knowing that God desires for us to live in community and have lifegiving relationships, and God promises to direct our path when we release control and trust in God’s wisdom and guidance (Proverbs 3:5-6). My prayer is that we all will have eyes to see every relationship in our lives as a gift from God and an opportunity to both receive and offer God’s love.
Reflective Exercise: Attending to My Relationships
You will need paper (or a journal) and pen for this exercise.
I just returned from a three-day personal retreat. Why on earth would I go away by myself for even more solitude when we’ve been isolated for so long in the pandemic? Because the noise, distractions, and challenges of daily life can dull our spiritual ears and hearts—even if we live alone or in relative quiet with just one other person, as I do. Add in some delayed grief and another recent loss, and I knew I was overdue. I longed to hear God’s voice within more clearly and reconnect with my spiritual heart, discovering my God-given desires in this season.
This time away brought rest, release, and renewal as I surrendered to the invitation to simply “be” and enjoy things that bring me joy. For me, that included things like taking walks, journaling, meditating on scripture, practicing yoga, coloring, painting, playing my flute (I realized how much I have missed that), savoring fresh juice, observing the beauty of spring, going barefoot, and simply sitting and listening to a thunderstorm. Besides talking with God in my usual ways, I allowed all of these activities to become prayer—moments of enjoying God’s company as we just hung out together. Despite some popular misconceptions, God is a really fun companion! And that’s good news, because God’s Spirit, who dwells within us, actually is our constant companion.
Despite some popular misconceptions, God is a really fun companion!
Throughout my three days of solitude, I sensed the invitation to simply receive and rest in God’s great love--for me. It was a beautiful time of allowing God to love me and allowing myself to love me, too. At times my inner critic and task manager whispered that something I was doing was “wasting time” or nonproductive. And I just gently responded that being with God and enjoying each other’s company is never a waste of time; it actually redeems time by restoring what so much of our “productive time” has stolen from us. God knew that this simple yet profoundly meaningful “resting and receiving” is just what my soul needed right now.
Being with God and enjoying each other’s company is never a waste of time; it actually redeems time by restoring what so much of our “productive time” has stolen from us.
Though I did receive some clarity about my heart’s desires, I realized with great clarity that my deepest desire is simply to be filled with love—to remain in what Ignatian spirituality (which, by the way, is incredibly practical spirituality) calls the “love loop”: God loving us (in a million different ways each day), and us loving God and others in response. Becoming more and more aware of this love loop each and every day is what helps us to remain in it—and then to get back in the loop when we fall out of it, as we all do (quite regularly, in fact).
When we’re attentive to how continually and overwhelmingly God loves us, just as we are, nothing is more natural than to love in response. Take in these beautiful words of Pedro Arrupe:
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.*
I encourage you to take time for solitude and silence, even if all you can think about right now is being with others and returning to some sense of normalcy. I long for that too. But unlike the solitude of the pandemic, the gift of intentional solitude—chosen for the purpose of connecting more deeply with ourselves and with God—refreshes our souls and spirits unlike anything else. And that's something we all need in this season.
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” —Anonymous
“Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others.” —Alice Koller
“There is a difference between loneliness and solitude, one will empty you, and one will fill you. You have the power to choose.” —Anonymous
I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which is the period of forty days preceding Easter. Traditionally, it is a season for reflection and repentance—turning toward God and away from whatever separates us from God—as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter. The forty days of Lent represent the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring temptation and suffering before he began his ministry. It’s an opportunity to identify with Christ and deepen our relationship with God. A common practice during this season is to fast or give up something so that we become more aware of our reliance on God and both increase and intensify our time in prayer.
In the past I’ve given up certain foods, social media, and unhelpful practices such as complaining—some with more “success” than others—though it’s really not about “success” at all but about the practice of focusing our minds on God. Yet, if we’re really honest, there are times when our self-denial may be less about deepening our relationship with God and more about losing weight, becoming healthier, or bettering ourselves in some way. Or we might tell ourselves that any self-improvement resulting from our self-denial is merely a nice “bonus.” I’ll admit I've told myself that before—just keeping it real.
If we're really honest, there are times when our self-denial may be less about deepening our relationship with God and more about . . . bettering ourselves in some way.
Like many others, I’ve found that giving up something for Lent is not always the best way for me to draw closer to God. Sometimes taking on something—such as adding or recommitting to a spiritual practice or being intentional in the ways I love and serve others—helps me to experience God more fully. Just as God speaks to us in different ways, we can be drawn to different practices at different times, especially if we’re in a season of hardship or loss.
The last two years have brought some significant losses in my life—the loss of my mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s, my father to Parkinson’s, several family friends to Covid and other illnesses, both of our longtime pets to advanced age, and another loss I will share more about at another time. Though your losses may be very different than mine, the truth is that the last year has brought loss and difficulty to all of us. This continues to be an ongoing wilderness season, adding the weight of communal loss to what we are carrying personally. So, this Lent I’m sensing an invitation to journey through the season with gentleness and grace, giving myself permission to do the things that draw me nearer to God and help me to experience and rest in God’s extravagant love—which, after all, is the reason God sent Jesus in the first place (John 3:16). God’s message always has been and always will be, “You are so loved!” That’s a message I need every day, and I suspect you do too.
This Lent I’m sensing an invitation to journey through the season with gentleness and grace, giving myself permission to do the things that draw me nearer to God and help me to experience and rest in God’s extravagant love.
For the next forty days, I’m letting go of rigidity and choosing simply to “hang out” with God each day in whatever way I feel drawn. Some days I may spend time in Centering Prayer, which is sitting quietly with God without words. (If that appeals to you, see below.) Other days I may choose to journal, capturing my conversation with God on paper. (If that interests you, also see below.) Some days I may choose to spend time in imaginative prayer, entering the Scripture scene through the God-given gift of my imagination—one of the most experiential and powerful ways we can pray. No doubt there will be days when I simply take a walk or spend time on my yoga mat, meditating on God and God’s Word as I move my body. Whatever I do, I will allow the Spirit to lead me, asking myself questions such as these:
What will give me life today?
What will deepen my connection with God/Christ today?
What will increase my sense of faith/hope/love today?
What will give me joy in the Lord today?
Giving up something may be just what you need to draw you closer to God this Lent. If so, I encourage you to allow your self-denial to be a way of walking gently toward Easter, remembering that the objective is not to be “successful” but simply to focus on your relationship with God. Or perhaps, like me, you may decide that what will bring more spiritual growth in this season is to add rather than subtract something from your life. Maybe you will choose a combination of the two. Whatever you decide, I encourage you to discern what will deepen the life and love of God in you
Lent is not a one-size-fits-all season, and it’s okay for your practices to look different from those of others.
Lent is not a one-size-fits-all season, and it’s okay for your practices to look different from those of others. Listen to your deepest, truest self—the part of you where the Spirit of God dwells—and allow God’s Spirit in you to reveal what will be most nourishing to your spiritual heart right now. Then choose to do that, trusting that your journey will bring you closer to the heart of God!
Join us each Wednesday during Lent for 30 minutes of Centering Prayer and learn to rest in God's love as we sit in silence with no other agenda except letting go and trusting him. Click here to register.
Join us on Saturday, March 6 from 9:00 am - 12:00 pm CST for this introduction to journaling as a spiritual practice. Click here to register.
Hi, I'm Sally!
I'm passionate about connecting with God and connecting with people, offering spiritual encouragement and companionship. I'm so grateful to be on the journey with you as we walk with God together.