Five Reasons Why It Is So Hard to Love

Everybody thinks about the love they need. Few think of the love that others need.

Most of the songs we enjoy are about our own need for love and not about the love others need. I was trying to think about a song that was about the joy of loving others. My mind went to Jefferson Airplane’s “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love?” Then, I read the lyrics. The song is more about a person who has made a wrong romantic choice about the author of the song. Sure enough, Darby Slick had just experienced a breakup before writing the song. The person who is addressed is being rebuked for choosing the wrong person. They messed up. Not as noble as it first may sound.

The problem is that we all have trouble loving others. Parents may show real love and concern for their children but moving beyond that is very difficult. Why is loving others so hard? Let me give five reasons.

1. Our natural perspective is to see ourselves first. There’s nothing we can do about that. We see things from our own perspective. We see our own needs. We see our own inner world and no one else’s. We are always present to ourselves. There is a natural focus on self that is simply impossible to avoid, but it creates an obstacles to seeing the perspective of others. It will require more work.

2. Our natural self-perspective becomes exaggerated. We not only have a natural and legitimate focus on self, but it becomes illegitimate in all of us. We worry too much about ourselves. I would suggest that this is rooted in our alienation from God and our tendency not to trust Him as the source of love and provision. Without this anchor for our soul, our anxiety about our own needs runs wild. Continue reading “Five Reasons Why It Is So Hard to Love”

When Overwhelmed, Ask, What Do I Need to Do Today?

Keeping sane and productive in an insane world, principle #8: When overwhelmed, ask, what do I need to do today?

When the world seems big, it’s O.K. to make it small. You can do that by focusing on today.

You have a million things that will confront you in the future. You have a million things that you can imagine will confront you but will not. So, what do you do when the future of your kids, your job, your church, your friends, and your health overwhelm you? You can set it aside and focus on today.

What does that look like? I have had plenty of times where I have felt overwhelmed. When I started worrying about relationships, my children, or the church, I just started asking, “What do I really need to do today?” My list of worries was large. My list of actions for today was relatively small. My answer would be something like this, “I need to pray, exercise, spend time with my family and friends, do certain tasks related to work.” As I got about doing these tasks, I would feel less overwhelmed. I would be more sane and productive.

If you think about it, this is a good practice even when we are not overwhelmed. Focusing on what actually needs to get done today is a great way to organize our mind and hearts and ground them in what matters. You can imagine the future, but you can live today.

The Roman philosopher Seneca was captivated by this idea. Seneca asks, what harm is there in looking forward to tomorrow? “Infinite harm; for such people do not live, but are preparing to live. They postpone everything” (Letter XLV). Worse is when people look forward to living in a far off time when they can settle down to “a life of ease” (Letter CI).

So, what should we do? Seneca says, “let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day. . . . Therefore, my dear Lucilius, begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life” (Ibid.). This will enable us to see tomorrow better, too. “If God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts” (Letter XII). This will focus our energies where we need to focus them and keep us from worrying about things that we do not need to worry about.

This is what Jesus taught as well. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34). Focus on the tasks you have today. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

I remember running on a rural road in Pennsylvania. We were staying in a remote cabin. We had literally no internet service. No wi-fi. No cell connection. It cleared my head. I started thinking, what would I do if I only had this day without any connection to the outside world? What would I do? The answer came back: I would run. I would enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. I would spend time with my wife and children. I would accept the good God had for me. That’s what I had: today. That’s what I had, and that was good.

Asking, what do I need to so today is a principle that we can use to get us grounded at any time and especially when we are fully of anxiety and overwhelmed. Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I pray that it will be a blessing to you the next time you feel overwhelmed. If you liked this post, please share it on social media or subscribe below. You can also read some of the other principles that I have used for keeping sane and productive in an insane world here. I hope to see you hear again.

When Struggling, Start at Zero

Keeping Sane and Productive in an Insane World, Principle # 7: “When Struggling, Start at Zero.”

Last year, our family went through some very difficult times. No matter how bad it got, there was one thing that continually helped me regain sanity. Starting at zero.

What does that mean? It means that you imagine that you have nothing that you have. You imagine that you might not have any of it. Then, you mentally add it back bit by bit until you feel gratitude swelling up in your heart for all that you have.

What are some of those things? I might not have a wife, but God has given me a wonderful one. I might not have children, but I have seven of them. I might not have friends, but I have many of them.

When it comes to God, I might not know Him. Yet He has forgiven me and accepted me through the cross of Christ. That is enough, really. If I had nothing other than that, that would be enough.

But I have so much more. Doing Uber, I have met many people who do not have cars. I have a couple of them. I have freedom to move around. I have a home. That home has running water and a heat pump and electricity. I have means to communicate and receive information on my phone and computer. I have music and books.

I was born in America. It has its issues, but there is an opportunity to make money, if you need to. If you are healthy, you can work here. Speaking of that, I do have good health.

Where I get stuck is when I get some specific vision of what good things should be like. Then, when that situation doesn’t come to pass, it feels like there is nothing good. This feeling is loud and strong sometimes, but it does not reflect reality. When I start at zero, I realize that there are all kinds of good things that I already have that I might not have had and do not deserve more than others who do not have them. This helps my heart move toward gratitude and thankfulness and away from despair. So, that’s why I have this rule: when struggling, start at zero.

Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again. When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.

Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.

Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21). In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27). Think about it, he says: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).

We just don’t take in the good. We get stuck in the bad.

How do we start to balance this out? How can we do a better job of taking in the good things that are already part of our lives? We can start at zero in our minds and add all the blessings back from there. This doesn’t ignore the bad. It just helps us take in the good.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope this is a helpful concept that will help keep you sane in an insane world. This is part of a series on 40 principles for keeping you sane and productive in an insane world. These are principles that I collected over the years battling for sanity and productivity while serving as a Pastor for 19 years, raising seven kids, earning higher degrees, traveling the world, and trying to be a good citizen. You can read more of them here.


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Why Gossip Tastes So Good But Is So Unhealthy

In conversation, bulldozing is a way of trying to force our viewpoint through without really engaging with people. Failure to listen is also a failure to actually engage with people. Another way we fail to engage is when we have a problem with someone, we talk about that person rather than to that person. This is just one more way that we fail to have the conversations we need to have. As Joseph Grenny, et al., noted in their book Crucial Conversations, “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well.” Our society is filled with talk about people, but few people are actually talking to the people with whom they have an issue.

The Bible presents to us a different alternative. It’s basic default is that we should talk to the person that we have problems with. For example, Leviticus 19:17 says, “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.” Jesus tells His followers, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Mt. 18:15). In Galatians 6:1, we read the same from the Apostle Paul, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” When we are concerned about someone, we should talk to that person.

Now, not every issue we have is on the level of what we read in Leviticus, Galatians, and Matthew. There are many lesser issues about which we are afraid to talk. We often struggle even confronting someone who disappointed us in some way, who talked to us in a way we did not like, or did not do something we may have wanted them to do. If the bias on major matters is to talk to the person, how much so on lesser matters?

Why Gossip Tastes So Good
In spite of the obvious benefit of talking directly to people, we often prefer to talk about people instead of to people. Why? Because gossip tastes so good. Proverbs 26:22 says, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels, they go down to the inmost parts.” The Message translation and paraphrase makes it a bit stronger: “Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy . . .”

Why does gossip taste so good?

1. It builds intimacy. When you share your problems about someone else, you feel connected to the person with whom you are sharing them. It builds a connection and a sort of friendship. As Dan Allender put it in his book Bold Love, “It is a tantalizing thrill to repeat words that simultaneously deepen our position of power in an inner ring while we exclude someone else from being part of the group–a double pleasure” (100).

2. It gives relief. One reason we want to share about our problems with other people is because they give us anxiety. Sharing with someone provides relief. That’s one reason people don’t talk to the person they have a problem with after talking about them. They have found relief by sharing it with you, so they don’t need to share it with the person they are concerned about.

3. It refocuses attention. When we talk about other people and their problems, we can avoid dealing with our own. Dealing with our own problems is difficult. Dealing with the problems of others can be a welcome diversion. It also can make us feel better about ourselves.

These and other reasons are why I call gossip the best way not to solve our problems. They do not really solve the issues about which we have anxiety, but they provide considerable relief.

So why not do it?

Why We Shouldn’t Eat It
In spite of the advantages of gossip, we should avoid it. There are many reasons.

1. It freezes the problem; it doesn’t solve it. It makes us feel better, so we are less likely to deal with the real problem. That’s why a community characterized by gossip often explodes. There are all sorts of unsolved issues there.

2. It often makes things worse. The more people talk about another person and not to a person, the more distorted it often becomes. This is like waving a fan over a fire. “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:20). It just gets worse and worse, and communities quickly become polarized and stuck.

3. People don’t like it. “. . . a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28). When others find out about it, it often breaks down a friendship.

4. It’s unjust. Gossip generally reduces someone’s reputation without a just hearing. “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Prov. 18:17). Gossip gives one side a hearing without giving the other side of the story.

5. It builds a false connection. Be sure that if someone is talking to you about others, they are talking to others about you. “The one who reveals secrets is a constant gossip” (Prov. 20:19).

6. God’s authority. The Bible forbids it: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Lev. 19:16). This means that we should not go about talking about others and listening to and sharing reports about what other people have done. The idea instead is: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.”

So, there are many reasons not to engage in it or to eat that cheap candy.

A Couple of Questions
The question people have is, what if I need advice on how to deal with someone? Well, gossip is often couched in a request for “advice.” The question I would ask is this. Is asking for advice merely release and relief, or is it seeking real advice?

Here’s how you know. First, does the person giving you advice challenge you as well as encourage you? If they just encourage you, you are not interested in advice. Get advice from those who will help you take a look at your own behavior. Second, does the “advice” ever manifest itself in you actually talking to the person with whom you have a problem? If not, then it’s not advice.

A second question people ask is, what if people come to me seeking “advice” about other people? What should I do? I recommend being willing to listen and encourage and challenge that person. However, I think it is also good to say up front that you will most likely encourage them to talk to the person, and, if they do not, then you may do so. This will change the tenor of the conversation.

Think about it, should I keep just one side of a story in my head and not allow another person to give their side of the story? Even with the best of motivations, this often ends up in distortion and unjust view of another person. It’s better to give all sides their hearing. This is how we move the community forward.

A third question is, what if I find out people are gossiping about me? My advice is, don’t worry about it too much. There is a great little passage in the book of Ecclesiastes. It says, “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:21–22). That attitude will serve you well. Most people just don’t know how to actually deal with problems directly. We should be patient with others and ourselves.

Gossip is a part of life. We can’t avoid it. But we can be more deliberate about our involvement in it. If we can learn to talk less about people and more to people, we will make a great contribution to building up the communities in which we are involved in.

What are your thoughts on this? I would love to read them in the comments below. If you like what is written here and want to read more, subscribe below (mobile) or on the sidebar (laptop). Thank you for taking the time to read this article.


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The Intractability of Racism: Niebuhr on Race Problems and Solutions

When Reinhold Niebuhr considered the ordeals of school integration in the 1950s, he pointed to an important lesson: “This whole chapter in our national history is instructive because it reveals that the group pride of men is one of the most ineradicable of human weaknesses” (Christianity & Crisis XVI, October 1, 1956, p. 122). This intractability was all the more surprising because the Western tradition contained so many elements that would commend a universalist perspective on human nature. “Despite all traditions of human universalism inherited from Stoic, Prophetic, and Christian sources, Western man—in common with all men—remains an unregenerate tribalist” (Christianity & Crisis, XXIV, no. 12, July 6, 1964, p. 133). Niebuhr believed that events like Southern resistance to integration could demonstrate the “intractability” of race problems. However, Niebuhr also believed that an understanding of human nature, particularly as set forth in the Christian faith, could help illuminate why racial problems were so difficult and point toward real though imperfect solutions to the problems.

In Niebuhr’s thinking, there are four important aspects of human nature that can illuminate the intractability of the race problem: the created tendency to value those closest to us, the anxiety over their maintenance and survival, the excessive pride and overvaluing of our groups, and the aggravation of individual sinful tendencies in group dynamics.

Christian Faith and the Illumination of the Race Problem
The first element is a created tendency to value those closest to us. The Christian view of human beings is that they are not created evil but that they become evil by the misuse of created good. Thus, in all evils there is an element of good. Valuing our own countries and families is good. This is seen most obviously in the care that parents have for their children and their desire that they would live, survive, and thrive. Thus, the race problem is to some degree rooted in our nature as biological and ethnic beings.

What smacks up against our desire for the survival of our families or races is our tenuous and finite position. Other groups oppose ours. Disasters can overtake us. We are small, but we can to some degree see the whole. In other words, “man is a finite spirit, lacking identity with the whole, yet [he is] capable in some sense of envisaging the whole. . .” (The Nature & Destiny of Man [NDM 1], Vol. 1, p. 181). This includes potential pitfalls, struggles, and disasters. The gap between what we want to see happen and the many challenges to making it happen is anxiety. Continue reading “The Intractability of Racism: Niebuhr on Race Problems and Solutions”