Psychology and Behavior

The Theology of Taking Responsibility.

In my article on 10 Simple Things to Improve Your Life the first “thing” I advised was to take responsibility. There is a theology behind this Personal Responsibility ethos: The God given mandate to exercise dominion over what He has given us.

But this ethos is often obscured in our current Christian culture behind the slogan of wanting to “do God’s will” or a belief that being faithful only means waiting for God to make all the moves – a belief that we have little or no part to play. “Everything happens for a reason” people will rationalize, generally implying that God is the only agent at work behind all events. A person contracts lung cancer, and brushes the existential questions aside, with “Everything happens for a reason” implying a reason outside of himself. When I hear this in my office (or in church services, meetings, or casual conversation) I want to shout back, “Yes, the reason is you made bad decisions. It’s time to take responsibility and make wise decisions.” (I don’t actually do this, or when I do I don’t shout and I use much greater self-control than is implied here ;-)

What looks like Christian virtue (Seeking God’s Will) can become a vice; a disguise for laziness, passivity, and even cowardice. This is deterministic Calvinism run amok; an over-reliance on the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to explain all events in our lives – and excuse ourselves from responsibility. And its misuse has Real World, negative consequences in people’s lives (failed marriages, poor health, children not parented, careers lost or not advanced). Many of us have come to believe that passivity is the same thing as faithfulness. Waiting on the Lord has come to mean, “I don’t need to do anything.” We say “Let go and let God” as though we have no actions, choices, or changes of our own to make. God is sovereign, and in His sovereignty He has declared us responsible for our own lives. If my criticism seems too harsh, look at what Jesus says about this kind of passivity:

“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” [1]

God has given us dominion over our lives and wants us to do something with them. To be sure, we are to place our life dominions under His (I Corinthians 11), but still we are the stewards and God wants a return on His investment in us. He wants us to initiate action, and He wants us to develop the maturity that requires taking responsibility. In Genesis we find,

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” [2]

At the beginning of creation God declared that mankind had dominion over everything on the earth. It was ours to do something with. Adam and Eve, of course failed in governing this dominion, ceding it over to Lucifer in a sinful act and the rest is literally history. We have been plagued ever since with the sin of Adam: being passive, and not caring for, tending to, or developing what God has given us. We have also been chafing under the dominion of an utterly evil being. By Adam and Eve’s actions, the whole of humanity was placed under the dominion of Lucifer. There was nothing we could do about it on our own. We needed someone to come in and win back the domain and take us out from under the dominion of our enemy.

Enter Jesus. God placed Him into that domain, to conquer it from the inside out. Jesus was both inside and outside of that dominion all at the same time. He was physically born into humanity but his Spirit remained divine, and outside the jurisdiction of the enemy. Jesus did everything by God’s authority. Jesus was given dominion of certain things (us) as His ministry progressed, and he was quite active at protecting what had been given to Him by the Father. After the resurrection He was given All Authority (Matthew 28:18), and the first thing He did with that authority was to exercise dominion and to extend it out to us with the Great commission. He set about expanding his domain through the work of the church; “Go out into all the world and make disciples of them.”

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, Satan recognized the threat to his system, and he tempted Jesus with a short-cut to regain the dominion that had been lost.

Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me. Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’ ” [3]

It was, of course, a cheap trick and a lie, because if Jesus had taken Satan up on the offer, Satan would still hold dominion and Jesus would have been caught up in it as well. Our salvation would be lost to us. By biding His time and regaining the dominion by God’s rules, Jesus won the whole thing back. That is why the New Testament Christian writers say things like this:

“He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” [4] - The Apostle Paul

If you witness the life of Jesus, you will see him exercising the principle of dominion. Jesus is responsible and takes responsibility. And He gives it. We are responsible for much of our own success or failure. And while Jesus will be there to redeem us when we mess up again, He does not make our decisions and choices for us. He wants us to do that and to be just like He was during his earthly ministry.

Jesus was never passive about his choices and never projected blame, made excuses, or simply waited for someone else to do it. He was never careless. He never waited when action was called for. He was never fearful or anxious with the weight of the responsibility, always trusting in His Father, to fulfill the promises of His ministry. If we are to be like Christ, we, too, must live by these same active, courageous, responsibility-taking character traits. We must sow and watch God provide the harvest.

“Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” [5] - The Apostle Paul.

Go sow bountifully. Take responsibility for what God has given you in your life.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Matthew 25:26–27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Genesis 1:26). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (Matthew 4:8–10). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (Ephesians 1:20–23). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

[5] New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995 (2 Co 9:6–7). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

10 Things to do to Improve Your Life (part 2).

First off, I cannot believe that so much time passed in the writing of this two part article.  Part one was started almost nine months ago, and I was not initially satisfied with it. The roots of the article started in an Adult Bible Fellowship study, and I promised a quick posting of the list to people in my class at that time.  I got bored then distracted with the article and kept putting it off.  I stopped writing. Recently I’ve had several nudges from people to write more for the Blog.  Now it’s Fall, the perfect time of year for doing academic type things, like writing.  So I revisited the article, edited it a bit, and decided it was worth posting. But there are supposed to be 10 things, and I only posted five. So before I can get to the next Big Thing on my mind (an article about dominion) I need to finish the seconds set of five things.  So, here goes . . .

Most of the first five things on the list are health related:  Sleep, Hydration, Exercise, Weight Loss.  Most of the rest of the list, are Soulish and Spiritual in nature. The order of the list is not intended to imply an order of importance.  Rather is meant to be somewhat developmental. That is, sometimes we need to take care of our bodies before we can care for our souls; a phenomenon first observed by Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs.  In contrast to most developmental processes, however, you need not wait to finish the first five before you begin the second five.  The list is, after all, intended to be Simple.

Simple is not necessarily easy however.  And these next five “Things” are decidedly process oriented things. That is, you make the choice to do them in your life (simple), but they will necessarily lead to other changes in your life.  In the end they might not be so simple.  It’s a lot like learning to read.  If you are reading this now, it feels pretty simple.  Just open the text and read it.  But your ability to read was initially complex. It took a few years to learn to read, first learning the alphabet, then learning how syllables or phonemes correspond to sounds, learning about grammar, and expanding your vocabulary, deepening your knowledge of metaphor and writing convention etc.  Now you can read without thinking about the mechanics of reading; it’s simple.  That is somewhat how the last few items on this list are.  Choosing to implement them is simple, carrying them out is initially complex, but then once they are a part of you, they are simple again.  Ok, enough theorizing, let’s get to it!

6.  Eliminate Addictive Habits:

This is clearly one of those simple but complex "Things.”  Here is my definition of addiction:  Anything you use to meet a need, when the thing can’t really meet the need.  Under this definition, anything can be an addictive medium. Certainly the common ones:  tobacco, alcohol, street drugs, gambling, and pornography.  These things have almost no “nutritional value”, that is, they add nothing good to our lives.  But things that are essentially good can also be addictive when we use them to  meet needs they cannot meet. Examples include work, exercise, sex, prescription medication, hobbies, entertainment, the internet, and even bible reading.  For example, exercise is good to keep us in shape and to improve health.  But when we use it to make us feel better than others, or when it becomes a substitute for relational or spiritual expression, it slips into the realm of addiction.  Similarly, I think Bible reading is one of the better things we can do, but I’ve known people that read their Bibles obsessively and never learn how to live, relate, and love.  Scripture itself says it this way:

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.   James 1:22

It is easy to develop an addiction (and difficult to rid yourself of it).  God made us to be efficient with our learning and behavior so we don’t have to learn things over and over again.  When you were a child, you most likely struggled a bit to learn to brush your teeth.  You didn’t like it, it took time, it hurt a bit, the toothpaste didn't taste very good, and you could not understand the immediate benefits of it.  You didn’t want to do it, and you most likely resisted your parents instructions to do it.  Once you got it down, however, it really wasn’t a big deal. You just stand there in the bathroom and scrub.  You don’t have to think about it, and now if you go more than a day without brushing your teeth, you don’t like how your mouth feels, tastes or smells.  The learning is efficient; you don’t have to think or work at it, you just do it.  That same process of habitual behavior is at work in acquiring an addiction, but with two important difference; good habits meet the need they are intended for, and good habits emphasize long-term benefit over immediate gratification.

All addictions give the illusion of meeting needs (for love, comfort, fulfillment, spiritual connection) but really just give you an empty experience that very briefly feels good. Because the need felt met for a time when you feel the need arise again, your mind is wired to repeat the behavior.  “do that again” it says.  You do it again, and again, and again, and soon you are addicted. You feel compelled to do it again because the need is not met; you’re still “hungry.”  Now you have to do that thing over and over again. Not only has it not met the real need it’s slowly causing destruction to you in some form. All addictions work relatively fast, particularly in comparison to the thing that really will meet the need.  These two things: immediate gratification, and easy / quick access to the medium form the basis of addictions.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to eliminate addictive things in your life.  The biggest, most destructive things to you are smoking, drinking too much, gambling, drugs, and the misuse of sex or pornography. These things are universally and deeply destructive.  If you are doing any of these things, take the simple step now, and decide your going to eliminate the addiction from your life.  You may well need help because our attachment and return to addictive things can run very deep in-deed and changing addictive habits often requires complex changes to our lifestyle.  But the decision to eliminate an addictive thing is simple.

7.  Be Intentional About Your Relationships.

Alright, this one is perhaps not so simple.  But it’s born out of hearing hundreds of life stories, where people make repeated and consistent choices to avoid or sabotage relationships. They don’t resolve conflicts, they don’t learn how to love, they don’t make time for other people.  They are driven inwardly to places of self-centeredness.  They do this with their friends, they do this with their spouses and children, and they do this with their parents and siblings from whom they learned the practice.  People who are happy have rich, meaningful relationships.  People not good at relationships look at such people from the outside, and assume others are merely lucky.  But in reality, all relationships take work, and having good relationships start with a choice, an intention to have good relationships and enjoy them.  Luck has nothing to do with it.  Skill does and so does choice.

There are, of course, some people who are very limited in their capacity for relationship, and some of those people are your family members, and some may be people in your circle of friends.  My wife is fond of the quote, “the best friends are friends in spots.”  This is on the whole, true. Make peace with that fact.  But don’t allow other’s limited capacity to keep you from developing your capacity to love.  My disability clients, through a series of life events, often have very few people in their lives.  When they exhaust their own resources, as all of us eventually will do, they are left alone; family-less and friendless.  It’s much, much harder to get back on your feet in life when you are alone.  Scriptures says it this way:

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if ??either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not ??another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they ??keep warm, but ??how can one be warm alone? And if ??one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.”  - Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 New American Standard Bible

Being intentional about relationships means that you make time for them.  It means that you decide to improve your skills at listening, being with, and enjoying other people. It means that when you have a conflict with a friend or family member, that you work to resolve it, so as not to ruin relationship.  It means that when someone you love communicates that you are hurting them, you believe them, and try to figure out what you’ve done so you can stop it.  Being intentional about relationships requires that you reject the belief that isolationism and compartmentalization is a virtue (there are many people that believe this).  Jesus spoke often and deeply about relationships; perhaps no place better than in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7).  Life is always better with good relationships.  Remember the words of Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.”

8.   Feed Your Soul.

People who are happy routinely do things that they enjoy. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing to  me how many people forget to have fun, or do things they like to do.  The excuses are myriad:

I don’t have the money.

I’m too old, sick, (fill in the blank)

I don’t have the time.

My husband/wife doesn’t like what I like.

One of the more common excuses is to view such caring for ourselves as selfish.  Whatever, the excuse there are many people who don’t take time to feed their souls. I used to work at a Children’s Home and in counseling with teens would often ask the question “What do you like to do for fun” or “What do you want to do when you leave here.”  Many, most even, answered these question with “nothing” or “I don’t know.”  At first I thought they were just putting me off, but I came to learn that they really didn’t know.  They never had anyone model having fun or celebration.  They were never encouraged  to want something enough to work hard to pursue it. They took what came their way, which was usually not very soul satisfying.

Do you know what feeds your soul?  Do you make sure you get to do those things routinely?  Have you discovered the warning signs that your soul is hungry?  Do you settle for cheap substitutions that fill your life with busy-ness but don’t really satisfy your soul’s longings?

Here’s what I’ve learned about me:  I need regular doses of beauty.  I need to see beautiful natural places.  I need to do things that are creative (such as writing a blog).  I need to listen to and make music.  If I’m not engaged in something that makes music, I'm not truly happy.  I need to satisfy my curiosity, and I need to learn new things. I need to travel and explore. I need to minimize noise of all kinds in my life.  I need time to read.  The enemies of feeding my soul?:  too much work, settling for TV, fatigue, volunteering for too much at church, too many errands, and poor planning (particularly to take advantage of time for travel or the Arts).

If your life has changed in some major way, such as an illness or injury, or death of a loved one, a sure sign that your are adjusting well or over-coming, is when you reinvest yourself in something that feeds your soul.

??One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may ??dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, To behold ??the ??beauty of the Lord. And to ????meditate in His temple.

For in the ??day of trouble He will ??conceal me in His ??tabernacle; In the secret place of His tent He will ??hide me; He will ??lift me up on a rock.

And now ??my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, And I will offer in His tent ??sacrifices ??with shouts of joy; I will ??sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.  (Psalm 27:4-6  New American Standard Bible

9.  Read Your Bible Every Day.

This one truly is simple.  Just read your Bible.  I have found that when I go through a dry spell of neglecting my Bible, my heart starts to get crusty, dry and hard and I’m not happy and there is little joy in life.  When I feel this way, the Lord will bug me to read, and I’ll put Him off.  It just doesn’t sound interesting at those times to read The Word.  Eventually I’ll relent, and for the first 10 minutes, reading my Bible is shear drudgery.  My mind wanders, I think things like, “how many times have I read this?” But then it happens.  The Living Word cleanses my heart and mind, and the root fibers of my being begin to soak up the water that is the Word of God and my soul comes alive again.  When this happens, I realize how starved I am for the Word, and I just want to sit in my office, cancel all appointments and just read and read and read.  Reading my Bible regularly keeps my mind balanced, my heart softened, and my spirit rejuvenated and alive.  Reading my bible is key to “keeping my mind set on the things of the Spirit so that I don’t carry out the desires of my flesh.”

Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  He also said to his disciples, “you have been cleansed by the Word.”  We really are meant to spend regular time reading or listening to the Bible. That’s why God took so much care to write, preserve and transmit His word through the millennia.  There's no substitute for it.

If you struggle with reading your Bible here are a few pointers:  Use different translations or a readable paraphrase like Eugene Peterson’s The Message.  Listen to the Bible on CD or MP3 format; a free version of which is available here.  Use your commute time and turn off the radio. You can “read” the entire Bible in a year with just 15 minutes per day.  Put the Bible on your Smartphone and read at lunch.  Download a free version of the Net Bible and read it on your computer. What are you waiting for?

10.  Prayer and Worship

Ok these are two things, but I ran out of space on my list!  Prayer really does  make your life go better.  You can pray for anything and everything and there isn’t anything that is too trivial to tell God.  My favorite book on Prayer is by Richard Foster, “Prayer, Finding the Hearts True Home.”  Foster gives us permission to start our life of prayer exactly where we are, and not get too concerned with how whiney or selfish we sound when we start to pray.  He teaches us the different forms of prayer, and teaches us that talking to God is not like asking Santa Claus for a toy at Christmas.  Mother Theresa once said that when she prays, she Listen’s to God.  When asked what God does, she said He listens back!

Really, prayer is such a simple thing, but most people don’t start doing it until they are in a crisis or in trouble. Being out of practice, they then feel foolish, and may not know how best to pray, or how to avail themselves of the help and comfort God offers through prayer; even when he doesn’t give us what we want.  God always answers prayer by the way, and He is always talking to us, but our radio station is not usually tuned to His station.

The twin brother of prayer is Worship.  While you finish this blog, listen to this song, “Madness Dancing” on Youtube! We were created to worship God and when we don’t do it regularly our soul dries up.  It feels so good to simply say or sing to God that you love Him and that you’re thankful to Him and for Him.  The next time you see a pretty sunset, cloud, cute child, or beautiful flower, before you Tweet or Facebook it, simply say “Wow God that’s awesome.”  If you practice paying attention to His Presence, you can feel him laughing and enjoying it with you.  Worship is the best cure for anxiety, depression, sadness and aloneness. To be sure, it takes faith and a little effort to worship when we’re feeling these things, but with a few minutes your efforts will be rewarded with a gentle and sustaining uplift in your mood.  Worship is God’s anti-depressant.

OK.  This piece has gone on long enough.  Pick a few things out of this list and start doing them. They really are simple, and life will go better if you do.