living with the heat in your life (a biblical understanding for life’s weather)

how people changeOur church’s Sunday school is studying “How People Change” as one of the two classes offered for adults. [Insert shameless plug here: my pastor-husband has done an incredible job over the past five years of revamping our Sunday school so that it’s now something worth attending for an extra hour each Sunday – there are usually two classes offered, one that’s a biblical-theological track with a team of professors and educators from our church teaching through the Bible and one that’s practical theology] I introduced the DVD yesterday, and the topic was focusing on the “heat” aspect of CCEF’s model for change. [CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, is where I did my counseling internship, and their counselor-professors taught the counseling courses I took as part of my M.A. in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary.]

Identifying the “heat” in your life, or the weather, as I think it would be more aptly named, is the first place to begin in the process of change. Sadly, I’ve observed all too often that this is where ministry, friendships, and counseling/therapy can stay. And we are missing so much! The “heat/weather” in our lives is important, and there are equal dangers of either maximizing or minimizing it, but more often than not, we cannot change the “weather” of our lives in a similar way that we cannot determine the weather of our days. We learn to identify it, even understand it and possibly predict it, but at the end of the day, the weather is one of life’s givens. Our response to life’s weather is where change happens, or not. Where there is growth, or stagnation. Where there is joy mined through the depths of suffering, or a heart becoming bitter and resentful. And if we are honest, we have observed both tendencies in our lives. Right now, there are life situations I’m responding to with bitterness, and there are also life situations I’m responding to with hard-fought joy.

Without further ado – my intro to the DVD is below:

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What is “heat”? Of the following scenarios, raise your hand if you think that it would qualify as “heat”:

  1. Discovering that raccoons have been nesting in your attic for several months
  2. Going on vacation to the Caribbean
  3. Being sick with strep throat
  4. Finding out that you got a job promotion
  5. Moving across country for a new assignment
  6. Having a baby
  7. Getting asked out on a date by someone you’ve admired from afar for a long time
  8. A break-up of a dating relationship
  9. Your child getting first place in a competition
  10. Winning the lottery

Most likely, it was easier for you to identify the “bad” things than the “good” things as “heat,” but heat refers to both. I think a broader way of describing heat would be “what’s the weather in your life?” Sometimes it’s beautiful and sunny; other times (like this week!) it’s cold and rainy and cloudy. Weather can last for days on end, or shift from hour to hour. And so do the circumstances in our lives, and the opportunities for our hearts to be revealed shift constantly. In fact, I think this constant shifting is part of the “weather/heat” that reveals our hearts! Just when you’re enjoying a very pleasant season with your children, one of them gets sick – and then you get strep – and then she stays sick and you’re isolated and frustrated and angry with God. (True story of our past month in the Nelson household!)

And isn’t that how we view our “heat”? The circumstances in our lives? The biggest problem I face in my own heart and that I’ve observed through my years of counseling ministry is this tendency to blame the weather for my heart’s response. It’s why parents get such a bad rap – we’re always blaming them for every bad quality in our lives. It’s why I expect in marriage counseling that it will take a few weeks (at least) to begin to get down to work – because both of them tend to blame the other as the problem. It’s why I can get sucked into complaining as my primary mode of communication: I really do see my primary issues as my circumstances … and if only my kids would get well, my work schedule would calm down, my husband would listen better, summer would come, then I could live the godly life I know I should be living. Or at least be happy.

As you watch this video and discuss it afterwards at your table, and then reflect on it personally, think about the ways that you tend to blame the “heat” for your problems.

In many ways, this is the easiest week of Sunday school because “heat” is the easiest and first thing that we recognize in our problems. Let me present to you two tendencies that you may find in yourself – and consider this as we dive into this week’s lesson:

  • Over-focus on (maximize) the heat: This is the M.O. for most of us. It’s why we blame our spouses for marriage conflict, and why I think that if I lived in a bigger house, life would be easier. It’s why I think that once my kids are older and better behaved, I’m going to enjoy them more and be able to fully be “myself” again.
  • Under-focus on (minimize) the heat: This is less common, but just as distorting. There are some of you who tend to blame yourself so much that you never take into consideration the “heat” of your life as something that’s contributing to your heart’s response. You assume that your struggles today are always because of the sin in your heart. An example of this is someone who’s experiencing panic attacks. As she begins to tell me about them, and I am hearing the stress of her past year (moving, job change, parenting and marriage difficulties, health problems), it seems obvious to me why she’s having a panic attack. It’s her body’s reaction to so much external stress/heat. When I point this out, she has an “aha!” moment – she didn’t see it because she discounted the real impact of the circumstances of her life. This may also be your tendency if you’ve been abused – you tend to take on the shame of your perpetrator’s sin against you, and you assume the abuse occurred because you deserved it, or you were/are a bad person, or you didn’t lock your door at night, or you wore something inappropriate on a first date. Absolutely not! Part of the “heat” of a victim’s life is the way he/she takes on what’s not meant for him/her to take on – and part of believing the gospel truth will be the ability to disown the shame handed to you by the abuser, and to say, yes, the abuse was/is a major part of the “heat” of your life but it’s not the whole story nor is it the end of the story/your story.

This is inherently a hopeful message – to realize that “heat” is just that – the occasions/circumstances in your life that reveal your heart – because none of us can change much of our life’s weather anyway. To focus on changing what’s unchangeable brings great frustration. You usually cannot significantly change your “weather” – the past abuse, even the good things like job promotions or vacation – but you can always by the power of grace and the Spirit change your response to the weather. Naming heat as “heat” frees you to start focusing and prayerfully engaging your part – what can change – instead of getting frustrated by being stuck in what you cannot change (or what may never change –  e.g., you can’t rewrite your past).

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