Good Happy? Bad Happy?

Kids on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Kids on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Ever had to try to explain to a 15 year old why glue sniffing is a bad idea? I have. Now, imagine trying to do so when he doesn’t speak much English, lives on the street without parents, has been glue sniffing regularly for four years, and loves doing so because it makes him happy!

I wondered, how in the world am I going to get through to this kid? I needed to find a simple but effective way to talk about the risks and consequences of drug abuse, while acknowledging that he may indeed feel happier when he uses glue in the moment. As I thrashed about considering various strategies, the concept of “good happy” versus “bad happy” emerged out of prayer one morning.

Chances are, you have never been tempted to sniff glue, and never will be. However, you probably know what it’s like to seek out or settle for a “bad happy”–enjoying a “feel good” in the moment that you later regretted or caused suffering for others.

Think about the times, for example, that you made an impulsive purchase on your credit card, took one too many drinks at the party, got something off your chest in a cruel or thoughtless way, betrayed a friendship by passing on juicy gossip, looked for comfort or satisfaction from the wrong kind of entertainment, or indulged in some other self-gratifying behavior that threatened to destroy or undermine something or some relationship you really cared about. Maybe you did feel happy or happier for awhile, but, if you’re honest, you will also admit that it wasn’t a “good happy”. Your experience wasn’t something that left a clean, joyful feeling that nourished your soul and enriched your storehouse of memories. Whatever you did wound up hurting you or someone else, and the fallout from your actions was anything but happy.

If you’re struggling with making poor choices that wind up being a “bad happy”, there are some things you can do to turn your life around.

  1. Think about the choices you’re making. What did it cost you last time you gave in to your impulse or desire, and what is it costing you to live this way?
  2. Make a conscious decision. Instead of just going with your feeling or desire in the moment, force yourself to deliberately choose a course of action, and explain to yourself why you are deciding as you are. When you hear yourself talk, do you buy your rationale? If someone else came to you with the same line of reasoning, what would you say to him or her?
  3. Get ahead of the temptation, and make alternative plans. When tempted to go for the “bad happy” choice, ask yourself if there is another way, a healthier way, for you to have your needs met. What else could you do to bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart that you won’t regret later?
  4. Structure your life differently. What could you do to re-structure your life to provide more support for the good decisions you want to make? Perhaps you need to find new places to go in your free time, new friends, new forms of recreation, a small group, accountability partners, or something or someone else who can help you to stay on track more consistently. In the case of the glue-sniffing street kid that we were trying to help, we found him a job, a new place to live with a caring family, and provided regular check-ins with caring adults, new routines and structures that are minimizing his opportunities for drug abuse and are helping to meet many of his needs in healthy ways.
  5. Focus on giving rather than receiving. Of course, you want to feel the warmth and joy of being loved, but when you focus mostly on loving others first, so much of what you thought you were looking for from someone else is likely to come to you in the giving. The more you focus on loving without expectation of return, the more you can avoid much of the disappointment, frustration, conflict, and even anger that floods you—and often sets you up to seek a “bad happy”—when others don’t give to you what you were hoping for.
Nativity sculpture in the Chartres Cathedral, France

Nativity sculpture in the Chartres Cathedral, France

“Good Happy” Holidays

Whether your holidays are times of high expectations for joy and love for you, a dreaded time of loneliness and conflict, or something in the middle between these two extremes, it is a particularly good time to think about “good happy” versus “bad happy” as you make your plans for the holidays.

For me, the best happy I know comes when I have spent sufficient time just talking to God about my life, my desires, my questions, my longing, and all the people and all that matters most to me. Sometimes I will simply focus on how much God loves me or on what it means that God took the form of a human being in Jesus, and that he gave his life so generously to others, even to the point of dying for us.

When I genuinely seek to be close to God, alone or amid others, I feel something deeper than “happy”. Sometimes it is pure joy. Other times I feel at peace and content, and the drive to seek “bad happy” dissipates.

Sometimes I find this place of peace and joy through silence and solitude in prayer. Sometimes, it’s worship that re-orients me and frees me to let go of selfishness and wrong-headed behavior. Other times, it’s doing something for someone else with no other expectation than inner satisfaction for doing good, or maybe hoping to see a smile cross their face or light up their eyes.

You have heard it said many times, “Let’s not forget the reason for the season,” and “Be sure to keep Christ in your Christmas.” These are not just clichés. These words are wise counsel to help you lift your eyes off of yourself to the one whose life, death, and resurrection have given us an opportunity to experience life in ways not possible otherwise.

You have to find for yourself what spiritual practices and lifestyle choices produce the “good happy” your heart most desires and that fits with Christ’s calling on your life. But before you plunge headlong into the holiday activities, pause for a moment. Think about what you can learn from your life experience. Make conscious decisions about how you want to go forward. Find good alternatives to the poor choices you are likely to be tempted to make. Structure your life in supportive ways. Focus on giving rather than receiving.

Above all, seek to be as close to God as possible, as often as possible, and in every way possible. Take time, multiple times, to focus on Jesus this Christmas, so that your heart and mind will be nurtured by the only enduring Source of life, love, and contentment—the best possible “good happy” you could ever experience.

[Jesus said,] Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28) I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10, NIV)

Icon of Jesus and child

Icon of Jesus comforting a child

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4 Steps to Loving ‘Hard-to-Love’ People

What do you do if you’ve just had it with someone? It may be a family member, a friend, or maybe a co-worker. You may have even been quite close at one time, but lately the relationship just isn’t working.

I am not necessarily talking about someone who is actively spewing forth hostility or hatefulness, or someone you have to avoid for your own safety. I’m thinking of those people you simply don’t want to be around, but can’t avoid, or you feel as if you shouldn’t give up completely on them for one reason or another. On your best days, you would still like to be able to love them better or show Christ’s love to them.

Loving such “hard (for us)-to-love” individuals is, well, hard! Sometimes the slightest comment or look by “hard-to-love” individuals can stir up a whole rash of negative feelings and even bring out your worst self. Then, there are all those times when your best efforts to try to love them actually backfire, and the relationship deteriorates even further. You’ve figured that you can’t change them, and you also probably realize that it is harder to change yourself than you might like to admit. You may already be at the point of giving up completely.

Tough times on the Camino 2006

Tough times on the Camino

So, what hope is there?

Lessons from the Camino

In 2006, when my wife, two sons, and I walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino, a ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, we had a LOT of time together as a family. We were deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to be together for 37 days on this kind of spiritual and physical adventure. On the other hand, our close proximity under these conditions made it impossible to avoid facing unresolved tensions in our relationships.

Blow ups, sulking, withdrawing, attacking, followed by more conversation, trying to listen better, many miles to walk and think, praying, and stumbling along under stressful circumstances made the journey a lot harder than we ever imagined. Yet, facing the truth of our relational issues all led to some new insights over time. What emerged were four practical steps anyone can take to improve a broken or difficult relationship that proved to be quite helpful to us then and ever since in many different contexts. Here they are.

1. See—The first step is to open our eyes to see people for who they are, not who we want them to be, or who we’ve caricatured them to be.

2. Accept—We need to let go of any negative emotion we might be carrying from our dislike/disappointment/resentment/frustration etc. arising from the fact that they are not who we want them to be.

3. Appreciate—From a peaceful place of acceptance of another person, we are in a much better place to look for the other person’s qualities and unique gifts and contributions, and to begin to genuinely appreciate something about them.

4. Delight—From an attitude of appreciation, we can now let ourselves actually delight in this or that aspect of their personalities or way of being in the world.

On the journey together

On the journey together

How these four steps transformed my marriage

In my own marriage, this four-step process has been extremely helpful. My wife and I share many things in common, but our personalities are quite different, and clash rather easily. Learning to “see” her for who she is has included giving up my ideas of what I thought a perfect wife should be and even who I thought I was marrying! One of the most helpful things I have tried is to consciously set aside my previous expectations for her and start over. I step back and try to see what is real about her. I keep asking her and myself, “Who is Jill?” Not, “Who do I want her to be?” but “Who is she, actually?” (step one)

Seeing her for who she truly is leads then to a decision point: Will I accept her as she is? A negative answer perpetuates my unhappiness and the tension between us. A positive answer opens the door to greater peace—not resignation, but simply accepting that this is the person she is without a big, negative emotional charge. (step two)  Then it becomes a whole lot easier to stop reacting when she doesn’t meet my expectations in one way or the other. With this, I have been training myself to say, especially when the old reactions flare up, “Well, that’s Jill.” (That is, “That’s who she is, and I can live with that.”)

At this point, the marriage can take a real turn for the better. I’ve decided that I don’t want to stay stuck in disappointment or resentment, thinking about all I might want her to be or to do. Instead, I choose to focus my attention on her unique gifts, her tremendous love for me, all that she does for me and for our family, and the many ways that she creatively contributes to the world. (step three) Then, delighting in her suddenly didn’t seem so impossible to imagine anymore. In my case, I begin to genuinely enjoy many of the idiosyncratic ways Jill gives of herself to love and help me, our family, and many others day after day. There’s nobody else quite like her, and I am now more sure than ever that I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone else! (step four)

Tim and Jill dancing on the Camino

Learning to dance together again

Not giving up

It may be easy to blame “hard-to-love” individuals for our feelings or attitude toward them.  But Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbor and even our enemy doesn’t really support that kind of thinking. He simply doesn’t give us much room to blame someone else for our not trying to love them. To love others is our calling regardless of how others behave, not our reward for their approved or desired behavior.

So, in the end, from Jesus’ point of view, loving others is not about them, it’s about us. It’s about our commitment to being people of love, who continually ask God to love others through us more and more. It’s about our willingness to humble ourselves and to let God change our hearts. It’s about doing the hard work of learning how to see—accept—appreciate—and even delight in our “hard-to-love” neighbors, so that we may love them as God loves us and we love ourselves.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV)

If you want more suggestions…

Who is one “hard-to-love” person in your life? You may be at a complete loss to know what to do differently or you may feel powerless, but you still would like to learn how to let God’s love flow more freely through you to him or her.

  1. Make a list of their characteristics as fairly and objectively as you can. Who is he? Who is she? Without judging them, try to “see” them for who they are.
  2. Let go of all that you’ve been wanting them to be, and choose to accept that this is the way they are—and who they are likely going to be unless they choose to change. Take a deep breath and release all your pent up feelings as you exhale. Pray for the grace to get to the place where you can observe this person and simply say, “Well, that’s _________________ (so-and-so).” You know you have successfully completed this step when you can mention their name without an emotional charge, and you can think of them without disdain or distress in your judgment of them.
  3. Now, identify their strengths as you perceive them. What do they contribute to the world or others? What potential do you see? What of their life do you genuinely value, even if they are not offering their best side to you personally?
  4. Lastly, from a place of peaceful acceptance and genuine appreciation, is there anything about this person that you actually like or enjoy? Don’t try to force this step, but ask God to give you eyes to see what Christ delights in when he sees this person, and to free you to begin to enjoy some aspect of that person, too.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Stepping Out in Faith

Myanmar Institute of Theology faculty and students seeking God's guidance

Myanmar Institute of Theology faculty and students seeking God’s guidance

What important decision lies before you right now? How are you going to decide what you’re going to do, and how willing are you to step out of your comfort zone to reach for what you really want or feel called to pursue?

If you’re considering a major life change, John Wesley’s four-legged stool is still a very valuable guideline for any discernment process. This model seeks to balance input from Scripture, reason, tradition, and your Christian experience. You would ask yourself: “What does Scripture say about this idea or issue? What wisdom can I draw from my elders and tradition? What makes sense when I think the matter all the way through? What have I learned from my experience that might inform me now, especially as it relates to trying to listen and cooperate with the Holy Spirit? [1]

Then, without neglecting the standard guidelines, often you will still need to venture beyond what you can know from Scripture, reason, tradition, and past experience. Every situation is unique, and important life-affecting decisions often require “real time” assessment of all the variables involved (who’s affected, cost to you, resources available, opportunities, priorities, capability, motivation, support, etc.).

Sometimes, the Spirit may prompt you to do something unheard of or completely creative, not found in Scripture, not tried in your tradition, and perhaps quite unreasonable to reasonable folks. If the proposed idea doesn’t “make sense” by your way of thinking, ask yourself, are there compelling reasons to step into uncharted territory anyway? Without killing your enthusiasm, what safeguards need to be put into place that will limit the risks but will not undermine the new venture?

A Risky Venture

When I decided to leave my role as Executive Director of Family Hope Services (TreeHouse) to develop a global teaching ministry, I didn’t know if I was following a calling, a dream, or a fantasy. I was pretty sure that I needed to get back to teaching and more direct ministry, but what was the best way to do so? I didn’t want to go backwards to a conventional teaching role just because it seemed a safer route. But, how could I be sure that my being creative and taking a risk was truly going forward and not actually running away from the demands of my current position?  Would others judge me courageous or foolish?

On the Camino, trying to discern God's leading

On the Camino, trying to discern God’s leading

So many questions and self-doubts swirled in my head, but I was willing to take all the risks if I could just be sure that the Spirit was guiding me. Yet, such confirmation did not come before I had to make a decision. I knew I had to make a change, and I was willing to strike out on my own. I finally concluded that even if I could not answer all my questions with certainty, I would have to trust that God would guide me as I explored and experimented along the way.

However, at the same time, my move was not a blind leap. I had already made three trips to Bulgaria where I taught pastors and spouses and did some leadership coaching with very positive results. Over the previous decade I had developed numerous workshops, courses, and written resources. I sought the counsel of others, and conducted two more experimental mission trips, one to Myanmar and the other to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Finally, the enthusiastic response we received from each venture, combined with affirmation and support from our home church, prompted us to take the next major step.

In 2008, we created Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries (www.fhlglobal.org), a 501(c)(3) non-profit ministry as a vehicle for sending us and providing accountability, and we ventured forth. Over the past five years there have been many ups and downs and surprises, but as time goes on our step of faith has been confirmed repeatedly as we have now taught and ministered in Rwanda, the Congo, Ukraine, France, Vietnam, and Myanmar. So, on we go, more and more sure of our calling, and yet never knowing for sure if the decision we are making at any given point is from the Spirit or not.

A Dream Realized: Teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon

A Dream Realized: Teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon

Don’t Be Afraid

When it comes to stepping out in faith, how willing are you to get out of the box to try something new, creative, or otherwise unheard of and unexpected?

Truly, discerning the will of God can be a complex subject, requiring a lot of thought and prayer. In seeking to learn how to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit, you should expect to stumble, get confused, make mistakes, and sometimes be completely fooled at times. If you’re self-aware and honest enough, you may never have complete assurance that what you’re thinking or feeling is truly from God, or whether the decision you made came from the Spirit or from some other source.

Nevertheless, at some point you have to make a decision. You have to take some action. You have to take a chance. No matter how thorough your discernment process may be, there will always come a point when you have to step out in faith without sure and certain knowledge of what God wants you to do. This is where you need to have some guts so that you don’t just take the safe option or choose a path with a small vision, and miss out on the full and fruitful life God intends for you.

Is something holding you back from stepping out in faith in some important aspect of your life? If you haven’t done your homework, do that first. But if you’re just waiting for more signs or more certainty, you may never take action. Don’t be afraid. Be brave. Take the next step as best as you can discern it, and see what happens.

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work … of the LORD is finished. (1 Chronicles 28:20, NIV)


[1] Many good books have been written on the subject of discerning the will of God, such as Elizabeth Liebert’s, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (2008).

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“It’s a Question of Love”

The voices. The voices. What do you do with all the voices in your head and conflicting motivations in your heart?

I’m not talking about grappling with audible sounds or crazy stuff. I’m referring to the many competing thoughts, feelings, and impulses that vie for your attention and make it difficult to confidently choose a good course of action. You may sincerely desire to be Spirit-led, but you aren’t sure whose voice is whose in your head.

“What am I supposed to think?”

On top of it, most of us are well aware of the power of self-deception, not to mention the lies and deceits of the devil. We know we’re fools if we think that every thought, “insight,” and impulse we have is sound and reliable, and are fooled if we believe our motives are always pure.

When torn between various inclinations, motivations, and ideas, what do you do? When seeking help from God, how do you differentiate the leading of the Spirit from all the other “voices”? Consider the following scenarios from the social domain of life:

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” You see a homeless person on the street (or simply get a call from yet one more fundraiser), seeking money. One voice says, “Give.” Another says, “Look the other way.” Another voice judges the person asking. Still another speaks from your heart. What’s moving you? The God of compassion, basic human decency, unresolved guilt, fear, or something else altogether?
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” You feel drawn to someone, but you’re experiencing a range of conflicting thoughts. Are you being moved by the Spirit, responding to a basic need for love or friendship, being driven by your physical desires, compensating for some unmet emotional needs, trying to avoid feeling so lonely, or what?
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” You’re sure that you’ve got someone or something figured out. Has God given you insight and wisdom, or are you simply a perceptive and astute person? Are you seeing the person or situation clearly, or are you blindly projecting yourself or your desires on to others? Are you making a sound judgment or are you being influenced by unwarranted assumptions?

It’s a Question of Love

Amid the din of conflicting internal voices and our incessant tendency to want to serve ourselves, Jesus’ teaching on the priority of loving God, others, and ourselves offers a simple but extremely practical guideline (Mark 12:30-31). Make a habit of always asking yourself, “What about the Rule of Love?” As the Apostle Paul taught, always think about how you can put love into action by “look[ing] not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). That’s love. Thinking about the impact of your words, attitudes, and actions on those your life touches, and choosing to put their best interest even ahead of your own. The rule is to make love the guiding principle in all you do.

Now, back to the hypothetical scenarios mentioned earlier. How would you apply the Rule of Love in the three situations? Here’s how I might do it.

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” My suggestion: If you want to give, give. If you don’t, don’t. But regardless of whether or not you give something, love calls for treating the person with respect. If you choose to not give money, at least let your smile communicate that you see them as a fellow human being, loved by God. And if you do give (in this scenario or any other charitable endeavor), remind yourself that God has given you an opportunity to give to serve God’s purposes in ways that bring glory to God not yourself.
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” Relationships are trickier. So many factors influence our interests in others, and every relationship is different. Here I will only make one suggestion. Remind yourself that you can best love others when you have experienced the love and grace of God for yourself, and when your relationship with others is not a substitute for the love you can only know in God. The less you “need” to love someone or be loved by him or her, the more free you will be to truly love others in ways that are life-giving rather than life-imprisoning or even destructive.
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” There’s a difference between “judging” someone, behavior Jesus forbid; and “making a judgment” based on your perceptions and evaluation, our human responsibility for survival and good citizenship. Judging is prejudicially thinking you can know someone’s motives or evaluate their choices. Making a judgment, on the other hand, is carefully determining what is good, right, and true in a given situation. When you must make a judgment, remind yourself that love cares more about building up others and restoring broken relationships than “being right” and securing your identity or status vis-à-vis someone else’s.

I keep going back to the Rule of Love especially when I’m in the midst of a complicated or confusing social situation. I do so, not because I’m so loving or spiritually mature, but because on my own, I’m not.  I need help. I need a simple way to get the right perspective, quickly.

The Rule of Love may not give you a complete answer in every complex or confusing situation. Yet asking and praying with the question, “How are my actions an expression of God’s love for those God wants to love through me?” is what Spirit-led living is all about in its purest and simplest form. The more you ask yourself this question of love, the more you will be able to discern the Spirit’s voice amid all the other voices, and feel confident about how to proceed.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-8, 11-12, NIV)

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Use Your Head!

A friend of mine gathered his family of four around the television. It was a big day. Everyone was excited. The Holy Spirit had whispered in his ear that this would be a good week to buy lottery tickets. Millions of dollars would be such a huge blessing to this family encumbered with debt and college tuition looming. They would be sure to use some of it to advance the kingdom of God, too! Clutching their tickets, they could hardly wait for the show to begin.

What a surprise (to them and no one else) when none of their numbers were selected. What went wrong?

Various

What was I thinking?

We may raise our eyebrows at what seems like an obvious case of wishful thinking, but who hasn’t let their hopes make a monkey out of them at one time or another? We get so emotionally involved with what we’re doing that we spiritualize our own desires, biases, and preferences. We conclude that God is leading us forward when we are actually leading ourselves astray.

Simon and Garfunkel sum up well this common human weakness in their hit song, The Boxer: “All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Hmmm Hmmm. Hmmm.”

What’s the remedy? Various

Am I suggesting that you stop trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you, contrary to what I argued in my previous essay, “Spirit-Led Living: A Simple Path”. No, not at all. Rather, I’m cautioning you against naiveté and false expectations. In any discernment process, instead of just going with your feelings and what you want to be true, you need to prayerfully use your head, too.

Learning the hard way

It started with an overwhelming sense of compassion and grief. None of the kids I met on the streets of Yangon had fathers. Begging for food was a daily occurrence. One orphan boy had been living on the street for much of the past three years. Their clothes were filthy, their bodies skin and bones. Was I being called to give them the helping hand they needed in order to transform their lives?

Soon, everything seemed to be falling into place. We were successful at getting two of the kids off the streets and into homes, and three of them back into school. They looked so proud in their new school uniforms, and seemed so eager to ride their new bikes to school. It felt great to be doing something so concrete and meaningful for the poorest of the poor.

Various

Trying to sort out the truth

Four months later, I found out that the kids had been lying to me about having to pay school fees. School is free for children in Myanmar, but no one told me; and when someone did, I chose to believe the kids and their ready explanations over the adults who knew better.

Then I found out that they were lying about going to school at all. Some of them actually did go to school occasionally, but I eventually found out that the one who I thought was my star pupil had been lying from the beginning. They were using the “school money” for food, games, movies, gambling, and sometimes drugs (glue).

If you’re thinking, “What did you expect? You should have known better,” you are simply making the point of this essay. Yes, I should have known better, but I was too driven by my own emotions, personal needs, and desires. I wanted to believe that we were making more progress than we actually were. I didn’t check up on them as I should have, and blinded myself to what I should have been able to see.

VariousWe’ve now addressed the issues, and have made the necessary corrections in how we are going to work with the kids going forward. We hope to not make the same mistakes in the future, but the past six months have taught me again how easy it is to fool yourself. No matter how experienced you may be, how knowledgeable, how prayerful, or how full of love and compassion, there simply is no substitute for paying attention to what is truly going on, facing the truth, and thinking through what you’re doing.

The balance

Are you struggling with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or hurt from some actions you’ve taken that you thought were prompted by God, but now question? If so, maybe you need to make some adjustments to your discernment process. Don’t over-react, but don’t miss the learning opportunity either.

If you feel yourself in the grips of emotion or driven by your desires to the point that you or others are starting to question your judgment, maybe you need to take a step back and take an honest look at what’s going on. For the sake of those you care about, for your sake, and for the sake of whatever work you are doing for Christ in the world, beware of just believing what you want to believe.

Pray more, not less, but don’t expect answers to come in the form of sentimental feelings and implausible revelations. And don’t expect the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance to replace your responsibility to think through your course of action. Ask God to guide you through your rational thought process as well as through your feelings and desires. Listen to those who know you well and who can be a bit more objective. Face whatever truth the Spirit wants to reveal to you, and use your head.

Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And,  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).

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Spirit-Led Living—A Simple Path

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Workshop participant reflecting on God’s leading in her life, Tahan, Myanmar

In its most simple form, Spirit-led living is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and then cooperating as fully and quickly as possible. Listen and cooperate, listen and cooperate, in one situation after another. Step by step, a long string of saying, “Yes,” to the Holy Spirit becomes a Spirit-led life.

The concept of “cooperation” with God, normally emphasized by the Catholics (to describe the proper use of a regenerated human will) is sometimes shunned by Protestants (to some, it sounds too much like works-righteousness). Yet, in using the concept here, I am not talking about relying on ourselves to do the will of God in our own strength, but rather utilizing our human faculties to “go with the flow” of the Spirit.

The Apostle Paul teaches that our wanting and having the capacity to do what pleases God—our ability to cooperate—is not from ourselves but actually comes from God (Philippians 2:13). Yet, in our experience, our cooperation feels like dropping our resistance, submitting to God, or actively embracing whatever the Holy Spirit is putting before us.

Spirit-led living, then, means taking the action that flows naturally from whatever you hear the Spirit say. A simple model to grasp, to be sure, but not so simple or easy when it comes to putting it into practice. Why? But first you have to be listening, and to listen, you have to be in a state of mind that is truly open and ready to hear what the Spirit wants to say. Learning to get your own self out of the way, to quiet the competing voices in your head, to be willing to stop and change course, to be patient to wait for the voice of the Spirit, or to be willing to step out of your comfort zone is hard work. You may feel uncomfortable or unsure of yourself when it comes to listening to the Spirit. You may not be sure what is the voice of the Spirit and what is your own voice. But you can learn.

Various

Fatherless boys in Yangon

Lately, my workshop for learning how to better listen and cooperate has been on the streets of Yangon. Talk about challenges and the need for the Spirit. I work with at-risk youth when I’m not teaching seminarians or doing leadership training, and I frequently find myself over my head. Between being overwhelmed by their physical needs—extreme poverty, hunger, and stressful living conditions—and trying to navigate all the lying and manipulation, my head is often swimming. I often don’t know what to believe or what to think, let alone what to do.

Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have been critical to my ability to truly make a difference in the lives of these kids, not to mention preserve my sanity. When I start to get frustrated and uptight, sometimes I hear, “Relax. Just enjoy the kids. Let them experience God’s love through you.” Or, “Listen to their stories. See their hopelessness and desperation. What would you do if you were in their place?” My heart opens again, and I feel God’s compassion surging through me.

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A needed conversation, Yangon, Myanmar

Not infrequently, when everything seems to be deteriorating or going backwards, I suddenly realize that we’re in the midst of a teachable moment. Yesterday’s disappointment, frustration, and discouragement have laid the groundwork for having a meaningful conversation today about responsibility, values, or relationships. The Spirit helps me to see that it is not only appropriate to confront them, but doing so turns out to be the most loving and constructive thing I could offer them.

I look around and see some people getting taken in and used by these kids. Others who have been trying to help them over the years have become so disappointed and burned that they want to walk away. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have helped me to avoid the extremes of naivety and cynicism. The Spirit helps me to stay calm, to be willing to step back when I have no idea what to do, and to wait until I can see more clearly what is needed; but to not lose heart or give up.

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1 woman and five kids share a 1 room shack, Dalla, Myanmar

I’m always praying, “Spirit, what should I do now?” I don’t usually get immediate answers, but living in a continual state of prayer, acknowledging my dependence on God’s leading and working, keeps me humble and keeps me listening.

My desperation and distress have forced me to my knees on many occasions. There, the Spirit often reminds me to put the kids in God’s hands and to stop thinking that their well-being is all on my shoulders. When I listen, I become more peaceful. Cooperation here means letting go of what I cannot control, and waiting for the Spirit to open the door when it’s time for me to say or to do something that will be truly helpful.

Where’s your workshop for learning to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit? The simple path of Spirit-led living is meant for everyone. What’s the Spirit saying to you? What’s your next step?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)

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Between Sundays—Spirit-Led Living in Ordinary Life

U Zaw

U Zaw (pronounced oo zo) teaches and mentors poor, teenage boys who work for Helping Hands, a small social service program in Yangon, Myanmar. Annie Bell, the wife of an British diplomat, started this skills-development outreach several years ago. A deeply compassionate woman, Annie has generously opened her heart and home to these boys and to many other individuals in response to the overwhelming poverty and needs that surround her.

As Annie’s right hand man, U Zaw is responsible to teach 20 boys and young men how to refurbish furniture for resale. He’s there to help them develop marketable skills; and, just as important, he quickly adds, character. Most of those who work at Helping Hands are fatherless, with huge voids in their lives. U Zaw is genuinely concerned for each boy, and takes his mentoring role very seriously.

As a Christian, U Zaw’s faith is very important to him and is a source of inspiration for his work. I was surprised by his low impression of his own spiritual life.

Love for these kids oozed from his pores, and his dedication was manifestly obvious; but it was his wife that he praised. She is the one who truly loves Jesus, he told me somewhat sheepishly. She is the one who is committed to the church, he explained, obviously self-conscious about his own minimal participation. U Zaw works six days a week  and rarely has time to even attend a weekly worship service, let alone any other church activity. He clearly feels bad about his lack of church involvement.

We only had a few minutes, but there was no way I was going to walk away without commenting. The measure of our spiritual vitality goes well beyond what we believe or how much time we spend in Bible Study or church. Spirituality is also—maybe chiefly—about how we live out our faith between Sundays. I had to tell him what I saw in his love and dedication for those kids, that his heart and actions shouted a living spirituality and were beautiful expressions of what it means to follow Christ in ordinary life.

Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita in the Jesuit School of Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, California and pioneer in the academic study of spirituality, captures well the interplay of belief, relationship to God, and relationship to the rest of humanity. Schneiders defines spirituality as one’s “lived experience” of faith.[1] Spirituality, then, is not just belief, on one extreme, or a collection of religious experiences, on the other; and it certainly isn’t the accumulation of religious activities. Rather, our spiritual life is grounded in God’s activity on our behalf, is enlivened by our response of faith, and is marked by our experience of seeking to live out the faith in myriad ways, affecting every dimension of our life.[2]

Please don’t misunderstand me. We need to worship, and we need spiritual disciplines to strengthen and encourage us as we seek to follow Christ. Personally, I depend on guidance and inspiration from reading my Bible, fellowshipping with other Christians, singing, worshipping God, and praying.

Yet, between Sundays, the real measure of our spirituality is in how we live out our faith in the context of our daily life. It’s in how we fulfill our duties and responsibilities, and in how we treat one another. We must resist the temptation to measure our spiritual maturity by how much we’ve learned intellectually, how many spiritual practices we observe, or even how many spiritual “highs” we may have experienced. Instead, what matters most is how much we let the love of God move us and flow out of us toward others.

As I turned to go, U Zaw began shaking my hand vigorously, a huge smile spreading across his face. It was apparent that no one had ever explained to him what spiritual vitality looked like in the life of a humble, sincere follower of Christ. “You must come back and talk to me again!” he insisted. “I want you to meet my wife, too!” I would be happy to do so, I thought. You’re just the kind of person I want to be around.

 “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “The Discipline of Christian Spirituality and Catholic Theology,” in Exploring Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM,” ed. By Bruce H. Lescher and Elizabeth Liebert (New York: Paulist Press, 2006), p 200.

[2] Adapted from my book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2008), p. 6.

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