Ending Loneliness: The Power of Relational Connection

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There’s an academic peer review journal called, The Journal of Happiness Studies. Researchers for the journal are trying to figure what is it that makes a human life flourish. What produces joy? What makes a life content? 

When looking at what distinguishes very happy people from less happy people, they find that there is the one factor, one difference, that consistently separates those two groups.

What’s the one difference that distinguishes more happy from less happy people?

It’s not income.
It’s not the size of the home one lives in.
It is not health.
It’s not what kind of shape one’s body is in. 
It’s not attractiveness.
It is not IQ.
It is not career success.

What distinguishes consistently happier people from less happy people is the ongoing presence of rich, deep, meaningful relationships with other human beings.

If you look at the mission of the church, we want to connect people to Jesus, and we want to connect them to other Christians and we want to connect them to the community. At her basic core, the church’s mission is to make sure no one around us is lonely. 

The neighborhoods we live in should be a places where the word lonely doesn’t exist. Yet, loneliness is an epidemic. It’s a growing concern. 

There’s a book entitled, “Bowling Alone”. It’s written by Robert Putnam, a professor at the Harvard Business School, so we assume he knows what he’s talking about. The book is about the decline of relationships and close friendships, and the increasing rate of loneliness in the United States, over the past 25 years.

Where we all were 25 years ago is a different world today.
Some stats in this book are this:  

Family dinners are down 33%. 

Active families tend to eat without dad because he’s working a lot, or they eat food cooked by a 16 year old after ordering it through a drive-thru window and then it’s off to practice for the kids. Instead of being intentional with our evenings, we watch television while eating. We could be catching up on how our loved one’s day went. 

Having the neighbors over for dinner or dessert or coffee or for a game or for a walk, it’s down 33% than what it was 25 years ago. 

How many of us know our neighbors? Not just their name or what kind of dog they have. Not just a friendly wave. Do you know them closely? Or are they lonely because you haven’t invited them over yet? 

I was convicted a few years ago and my wife and I put our home up for sale. We had an open house that we weren’t present for but our realtor told us that the neighbors on our street came to the open house. They weren’t interested in buying our home, they were just curious to see what it looked like on the inside.

Because we had never had them over for dinner. 

Having friends over to the home just to be with one another is down 45%. 

I hope we as Christians are people who practice hospitality and enjoy the company of one another to the point that weekly we have people we love and care about over to our home just to hang out. No agenda but to check in.

Playing cards together is down 25%. 

Playing cards is not about winning, it’s about catching up and laughing and catching up with one another.

The readiness to make friends by the average American is down 33%.  

Our children are young in age, but a simple principle I am encouraging to engrave in their thoughts and habits is if they see someone at school alone – at lunch, on the playground, on the bus – that they are the ones who should initiate a conversation and befriend that child who’s alone. I want them to be includers.

People want closeness, they want friends, they want to be social, but because they’re afraid or not as confident, they become isolated and lonely from the world. 

Everyone craves to have a friend but no one wants to take the first step. Everyone deep down wants to be honest and loved for who they really are but no one wants to be vulnerable. 

In 1995 Americans had 3 close friends. Now, today, they have 2. In a matter of time they’ll have one and then it will just be them. Alone. By themselves. 

25% of Americans have no one to confide in. 

When life is hard and the stress is high and the pain is overwhelming, what happens when a person with all of that weight feels unloved and believes they have no one to go to?

If people are lonely and they’re created for relationships and they feel like they have no one to confide in, who are they going to turn to? 

All it takes for a girl to trust a guy is the fact that he listens to her, because she’s got no one to confide in. He’ll listen to her, and then take advantage of her. 

If people have no one to trust, they turn to just anyone around them and that gets them onto a dangerous path. 

Or, the lonely person with no one to share their struggle with will turn to drinking, or pornography, or binge on Netflix or take sleeping pills. 

Go to a coffee house and observe the increase of isolation in our community. Count the amount of people by themselves verses people enjoying one another’s company. More and more, coffee houses are places where you buy mediocre coffee, open up your laptop, listen to some music on your headphones and ignore the people sitting close to you. 

That’s not why coffee houses were started. They were supposed to be a place of community.

It’s also not why the church started. The church is supposed to be a place of community. 

What I’m pointing through statistics is that people are more lonely than ever. 

Some of you are lonely. You’re married, but you feel lonely. You have beautiful kids, but you’re lonely. You have a job that provides, but you’re lonely. You’re retired, and lonely. You’re broken-hearted and lonely.

And if not you, the people around you are lonely. They are close to you in proximity but they are far away from others relationally.

What is the answer to our loneliness and the loneliness of the people around us? 

It’s the power of connection.

A friend of mine was telling me about their dog and cat. The dog and the cat didn’t like each other. They seemed to fight for 10 years. Then, one year, the cat died and afterwards the dog didn’t want to eat. For 6 weeks the dog wouldn’t eat. 6 weeks after the cat died, the dog died. 

That’s the power of relational connection.

Earlier this month a couple in Michigan who were married for 70 years to each other died minutes apart.

That’s the power of relational connection.

People who are socially disconnected are between 2 and 5 times more likely to die earlier than those who have close ties to family and friend relationships. 

That’s the power of relational connection. 

People who have bad health habits like cigarette smoking, overeating, elevated blood pressure, physical inactivity, these people live longer when connected to others.  

People with bad health habits but that are connected, live longer than people who have great health habits but are disconnected and isolated.

The poster boy for this is Winston Churchill. 

Churchill was deeply connected with friends and family. He had a wonderful marriage with his wife, connected to his extended family, connected to his friends and his nation and those at his work. 

His health habits were terrible. 

His diet was awful. He smoked cigars all the time. He drank too much, had erratic sleeping habits and was completely sedentary but he lived to be ninety-one years old. 

Somebody asked him one time, “Winston Churchill, do you ever exercise? 

His response, “The only exercise I get is serving as a pallbearer for my friends who died while they were exercising. 

Now, I’m not advocating that if you have close relationships then you can smoke and eat and drink as much as you want. I am advocating that the best way to take care of yourself above eating right and sleeping right and exercising is to have close relationships.

Community takes a “don’t give up” spirit because it isn’t easy or natural. God will help us but still it is not easy. If you’re not in a little community of one anothers, for whatever reason, there are Christians around you who would love to help you move towards that connectedness. 

Putnam writes further, “As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but you decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.”

It’s’ the power of relational connection.

So, for a husband and wife, each side of the marriage needs to be vulnerable. They need to share what is stressing them out. They need to share what’s disappointing them. They need to pray together. 

For a parent-child dynamic, mom and dad need to be daily checking in with their child’s thoughts. What are they afraid of? Did something happen in the day that hurt them? How do their friendships look? Are they deep or shallow? 

For our friendships, it’s so much more than having a girls night out or playing poker with the guys. It’s one-on-one conversations where we visit with a friend and ask them questions like, Is there anything you need prayer for? Is there anything on your mind that you’d like to share? Is there something keeping you up at night? 

For our neighbors, (as Christians, we do not believe in coincidence, we live in the place we live on purpose, meaning, we live by the people we do for a reason) we need to invite these people over. 

Have them over for dinner. Have them over for a game night. Invite them to come with you to a community event. As you grow closer, ask them if you can help take care of their pet if they’ve traveling or babysit their child if they need a night away. See if there’s a talent you have that they don’t that you can help them out with (finances, yard work, cooking). Buy new neighbors a house-warming gift with a card of encouragement. Don’t let anyone in church sit alone. 

Anything little to start a loving relationship so that they don’t feel alone and you don’t either. 

Every life needs to be a part of another life. It starts with you. Overcome the fear of being rejected when you invite someone into your life or when you courageously decide to ask for help. Overcome the busyness of your schedule and the lackadaisical approach you have allowed your evenings and weekends to be, and invite people into your home. 

Your life and their life might depend on an act of kindness just to grow closer. 

Let us not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. (Hebrews 10:25)

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

How You Can and Can’t Help Someone Who is Struggling.

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Charles Schulz’s famed character, Charlie Brown, tells his friend Linus this: 

I think there must be something wrong with me. Christmas is coming, but i’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. – Charlie Brown

The chances are very good and providential that at some point this Christmas season, you will be around someone who is struggling. You’ll notice it because Christmas has a way of making people vulnerable. These people struggling might be immediate or extended family, friends, co-workers, classmates or neighbors. 

Their struggle could be an addiction they keep succumbing to. It could be a sin they have been blind to. It could be a trial that weighs heavy on them. It could be the loss of something like a job or a marriage or a loved one. It could be loneliness. It could be they are struggling with how difficult this year has been and how little hope there is for the new year. 

But, you notice them and their struggle. And in your heart you have compassion and want to help them experience love and joy and peace. How can you help them? 

In the first century, in Jerusalem, there was a pool named Bethesda. In fact, the pool is still available to see today and has received an A+ grade for what it actually looked like 2,000 years ago. 

Anyone in the first century who was sick or lame or blind, they would lay near the porches of this pool because there was a mythical assumption that if you could just touch the water, it would heal them. 

Just like today, people in need of some kind of hope just about believe anything will help them. 

In the biblical book of John, chapter 5, there is a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. And just as you might find yourself around someone who is struggling, Jesus happens to cross paths with this crippled man. 

When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?” (John 5:6)  

That’s what Jesus asks this man? Would you like to get well?

Jesus does goes on to miraculously heal this man, because that’s what Jesus does, but I used to think this was such an unnecessary question.

Would you like to get well?

This guy has been crippled for four decades. He lays by a pool hoping one person on one day would pick him up and put him in the water because he thinks that will heal him, and no one has. He’s been ostracize from the marketplace. He’s been rejected by loved ones and strangers. If only he could be healed he could begin to build a life that gives him purpose and dignity and legacy. 

Of course he wants to get well. It feels like an unnecessary question by Jesus. 

But, let’s not forget Jesus never wasted one word He spoke. Nothing He did was unnecessary. The longer I am around broken people the more I see this is not a dumb question by Jesus. 

Wanting to get well is important. Some people don’t want to get better. 

When you have a loved one with an issue they are struggling with, you need to ask them this question, Do you want to get better? Human nature is that we will not change until the fear of the damage the issue is causing us is greater than the fear of changing our habits.

What’s also counter to human nature is humility. We have to admit we need help and we have to admit we are the ones that cannot change ourselves.

We were really crushed and overwhelmed, and feared we would never live through it. We felt we were doomed to die and saw how powerless we were to help ourselves; but that was good, for then we put everything into the hands of God, who alone could save us. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)

There is power in powerlessness.

That’s Christmas. How dependent Jesus was on Joseph and Mary that night in Bethlehem as he was laid in an animal feeding trough? Jesus had no power to display as an infant and yet what results in Jesus conquering over death.

When you and I admit our weakness and admit we can’t do it on our own, that’s when God’s strength has the permission to flow through us. 

This Christmas and next year your loved ones might continue to be great an image-management. They appear put together and great and that nothing is wrong. But if they’re ever going to be healed, if they’re ever going to change or be free or have joy, they have to admit they can’t do it and that God can. 

They have to believe there is power in powerlessness. 

The day after Christmas a few years ago I got a call from friends who were married to each other and they needed to meet with me right away. On December 26th we met at my office.

It came out that the wife had found pictures of her husband and a female co-worker of his in a hotel room, and you can fill in the blanks. The wife found these scandalous pictures on the family iPad. And she found these pictures on Christmas Day.

With me probing a bit for further context, it also came out that the wife had cheated on her husband a couple years earlier in their marriage. 

These were church-going people. They had worshipped God their entire lives.

The reason there was pain in their marriage was because they were masters of image-management. Neither one wanted to admit they were powerless to change and that they were going to be fine. 

I didn’t berate them. That’s not what friends do, it’s not what leaders do. I told them that God’s power could change them and heal them if they were willing to let Him. I simply wanted to see if they wanted to get well. 

Then I told them there is one thing in this world greater than the power of God.

There is one thing greater than the power of God. It’s the love of God.

If they wanted their marriage to heal, if they wanted to forgive each other, if they wanted to change, God’s power could do that. But until they saw God’s love for them in their mess, whether they wanted to change or not, they wouldn’t want to change. 

It’s why Jesus asks, Do you want to get well? 

It’s the double-edged sword of free will. If we choose to seek after God He will heal us but if we choose to not seek after God, He can’t heal us. He still loves us and He still will pursue us, but for change or healing becomes a reality – surrender needs to happen. There is power in powerlessness.

There’s a book called, Generation Me, written by Jean Twenge. Dr. Twenge has a PhD, does a lot of research, and her book is all about the ever-increasing growing epidemic of narcissism in our culture. She writes,

Our growing tendency to put the self first leads to unparalleled freedom, but it also creates an enormous amount of pressure on us to stand alone. This is the downside of the focus on the self. When we are fiercely independent and self-sufficient, our disappointments loom large because we have nothing else to focus on.” – Dr. Jean Twenge

This is how people without Jesus think. They either focus on themselves and how great they are or they focus on their problems and how bad things are.

The answer to being humble in our success and to be transformed in our trial is to focus our life on Jesus. It’s so easy to veer our thoughts to ourselves and to our problems.

Y’all know the movies that Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell did? Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty? – If not watched, I can think of myself as, Zach Almighty. I love talking about Zach. My theme song can be Toby Keith’s,  I wanna talk about me, I wanna talk about I, I want to talk about number one, me, my, oh-my. 

I can tend to sound like the annoying seagulls in the movie Finding Nemo: Mine. Mine. Mine Mine. 

I love the idea of Santa and how excited children get because as adults we lose some of that wonder and imagination, but, why are kids excited about Santa? 

He brings them gifts. They get presents.
Are we excited about Santa if he doesn’t brings us gifts?

This is why my family reads the entire chapter of Luke 2 on Christmas morning before anything else is done. Before stockings or presents. before coffee for mom or candy for myself, we read the Christmas account in Luke chapter 2 as a family tradition to remind our children that every day, even this Christmas Day, our focus in on Jesus. 

As a parent, if I permit my children to focus on themselves unchecked, they will, and then if/when they will fail, they will then focus on their problems. Their life will be a constant seesaw with a lot of pride,  look how great I am, and depression, look how bad I am.

For a couple years on Monday mornings I taught male inmates at the county prison. The curriculum I taught from was all about preparing the male prisoners to leave their life of bad desires and choices and pursue wise and life-giving desires and choices. 

You could tell a difference between the guys who wanted to be there, who wanted to change, and the guys who didn’t, but they had to be there because it looked good on their parole record if they attended the class.

I would start each class of about 20 prisoners reciting this equation,

Self-deception + Self-reliance = Self-Destruction

This equation runs true every single time. The common denominator is self – and I would tell the guys in prison that they have there choices.

  1. They can sit and think about how they are going to change themselves once they get out.  
  2. They can think how about how they blew it and how much of a loser they are.
  3. They can admit they were powerless and rely on God’s Spirit to bring love and power if they wanted permanent change. 

Your loved ones need to hear this. They are focused on themselves or their problems.

Christmas blows away the misperceptions of God that people have. 

He is a God who comes near to us.
He is a humble God.
He is a God who cares.
He’s not just loving – He is love.

I have seen what they do, but I will heal them anyway! I will lead them. I will comfort those who mourn, bringing words of praise to their lips. May they have abundant peace, both near and far,” says the Lord, who heals them. Isaiah 57:18-19

God knows all about what I’ve done, what I struggle with, what harsh times I’ve gone through and He still wants to heal me and lead me to the way that is free as He comforts me when I am broken. He longs to bring peace into my soul.

If I let Him. If I invite Him to do so.

If I feel guilty, He wants to forgive me.
I I feel lost, He wants to lead me.
If I am overwhelmed or anxious or stress out, He wants to comfort me.
If I can’t sleep – He wants to bring me rest and a peace that transcends rational explanation. 

If I let Him. If I invite Him to do so.

You might not need recovery from addition abuse or need AA or a 12 step program but the principle is the same if you or your loved ones want healing. They have one of three options.

  1. They can focus on themselves: I can do it! 
  2. They can focus on their problems: I can’t do it! 
  3. They can focus on Jesus. He can do it. And will. And does every day. 

We are used to making your own choices. We decide what time to wake up, what to wear, what to eat, what to do at work or at school, what to do at night, where to travel to, what hobbies interest us, what to spend money on. We rule our world. We’re so used to making choices on our own constantly. 

We’ve forgotten how to be dependent on God. As an infant is fully dependent on their mother we need to be fully dependent on God. That’s the ironic message of Jesus’ birth. As dependent and humble God became on two people He created, Joseph and Mary, we need to be that dependent on God daily.

The message of Christmas is this (and what you should tell all of your relationships): 

There is a God who has an unfailing love for you, and He wants to get really close to you. 

If they let Him. If they invite Him to do so.

Open your eyes and your ears and your heart to someone near you who is struggling. 

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

The Secret to Happiness (Part 1 of 2)

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Every single day we are inundated  with images and marketing and videos telling us how to attain happiness. 

Marketers are throwing ads at us through our phone, on Facebook, on billboards, on banners, on TV, at the bottom of every article we read – and what all of these ads are telling is in an underling message is that your life is miserable unless you have this product or this experience that they are promoting.

We fall for this all of the time. 

Some people buy a car thinking it will make us happy and it doesn’t anymore. 

Some people get a boat hoping it will make them happy and it’s too much work. 

Some people get a pool hoping it brings fulfillment and it has brought fun times but there’s still searching for what could satisfy. 

Some of you bought an ab roller back in the day, or a shake weight to improve your life and that didn’t make you happy, it made you feel less-than. 

We buy new clothes, new equipment, new technology.

Many think the next job change will satisfy.

All of us have fallen prey to the brilliant, shrewd marketing that is thrown at us saying that we need what they offer to be happy and we get it and it’s happy for a moment and then shortly after we’re not happy anymore. 

Instead of trying to buy our contentment, let’s go with this principle: 

Happiness Is More About a Who Than a What.

Happiness is found more in people than it is found in possessions.

We learn this at a young age. We come down the stairs as a child and we’re headed outside and mom asks us, Where are you going? What are you doing? – and we said, I don’t know, I’m just going to be with my friends. Because it didn’t matter what you were doing as long as you were with the people you wanted to be around. 

We took our youngest child to her pre-school open house one evening and she didn’t care about her new teachers, about the schedule, about the classroom. None of it mattered to her. She wanted to know if some of her friends from last year’s class were in her new class. 

She wanted to know if she had any friends who were going to walk this tour of duty she’s got to put in for the next 9 months. To her it’s about who is with her, not what are they going to do.

And it doesn’t really leave us as we get older – every junior higher, high schooler, college student, new career worker, new home owner, new family and on up – we want to know who is going to do life with us, not what about we going to do. 

If happiness were a what, we would’ve found it by now and would’ve bought 10 of them to be happy forever. 

When happiness becomes a what in our mind,
happy what turns into happy what’s next.

Happy what easily turns into happy what else is there that I can try?

Many of us and our friends are investing in what I’ll call Caffeine Happiness – happiness just for a while and then it’s on to the next thing we can grab to get us through the day.

At the end of our lives if God gives us a long life on this side of heaven – when we are old and tired – the regrets that we will have will have nothing to do with possessions. The only regret someone has when they are near death are relational regrets. 

I’m going to regret the people I didn’t spend enough intentional time with. I’m going to regret the relationships that were separated by sin that I didn’t try to restore but instead gave up on.

I was talking with a husband who was thinking about calling a divorce lawyer. He’s a father two two kids, both preteens, and I go, What’s going on? Why do you want out of this marriage? 

His response was: She just doesn’t “get”me. 

He went on to say, She doesn’t understand that I like my hobbies. I like spending time the way I like. I like my golf buddies, I like my cars, I like my business. She just doesn’t get it. 

And I went there, I said, Okay, let’s say you’re dying a slow death and you’re bedridden. Who is going to be there, your wife, or your cars?

I really have never met someone who, when about to die, ask, Can someone please bring me my golf clubs? I just want to hold my Scotty Cameron putter one more time.

What makes us happy – NO-THING (nothing).
There’s not a possession that can make you happy.
Happiness is a who. It’s not a thing, not a what.

The truly happy people in your life have this one thing (and I don’t mean happy people who are paid to be happy like those who work at Chick-Fit-A or any other guest services), but genuinely satisfied and encouraging and kind people all have this one quality: 

P E A C E

The happiest people I know have peace. They have peace in multiple areas of they relationships. 

And in the second of two blogs on this subject, we’ll discuss the three people we need to have peace with in order to have permanent happiness in our daily lives. 

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

Understanding Depression

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If you’ve never had a season of depressive illness or you haven’t battled clinical depression yourself, then it’s difficult to know the depths of despair one goes into. It’s difficult to empathize with they feel, how they think, how they view life. 

Maybe you’ve thought when thinking of someone who is depressed, Why can’t they just snap out of it?

350 million people in the world battle depression.
Women are 70% more likely to be depressed.
11% of teenagers will have a depression disorder by the time they leave home.
16 million Americans battle depression.
30% of college students report feeling depressed.
10% of people over 65 years old in our country are depressed.

The United States loses 80 BILLION dollars a year due to those who are depressed and don’t want to work on the productive level they could. 

50% of those who are diagnosed as depressed do not seek professional help and many battling a depressive illness believe the lie that God is against them, or doesn’t love them, or that He doesn’t exist.

Proverbs 18:14 says, A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?

Meaning, illness in the physical body comes and goes, but depression sticks around and can feel like an unbearable weight.

The medical world does not view depression as a psychological illness or even a mental or emotional illness. Medicine views depression as a physical issue (in the same category as a broken arm, they speak of a broken spirit). Doctors are able to check the fluid in someone’s spinal system and recognize deficiencies they have that affect the rest of the body and this is based out of the limbic system.

The limbic system is the center part of our brain that controls our emotions and our sleep patterns. It’s where our beliefs are cemented and it’s where we store our memories, so think of the movie INSIDE OUT if you’ve seen it, he entire movie was out of Riley’s limbic system. It affects the entire brain. 

If your favorite sports team wins the championship or you succeed at work or you book a vacation, there will be euphoria in your household and in your life, but after a day or two, your limbic system will get things down to normal when it comes to your mood. 

If you go through a tragedy, some kind of loss, and your makeup is healthy and solid, during and after that tragedy you’ll feel sad. You’ll cry. Eventually your limbic system will get your mood back to normal again. 

It’s when your limbic system is broken that can turn someone into a person their loved ones don’t recognize or remember, when the limbic system is broken, here are some symptoms: 

Erratic sleep patterns/Insomnia
Loss of appetite
Dizziness

Apathy
Heart palpitations

Breathing problems
Loss of affection
Anxiety
Irritability
Permanent sadness

Lethargy

Another verse in the book of Proverbs speaks to what these symptoms do to us: 

Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down (Proverbs 12:25).

If someone is always worrying or cemented in sadness, and that’s all they do is worry and feel down, it’s like a lead blanket on their body when they wake up in the morning. They can’t move. 

If someone sad and lethargic and pessimistic, the medical world says it’s probably that their limbic system is broken. 

Someone pumped with drugs can have their limbic system broken. Hormones can break it. Viruses in the body can break it down. 

The medical world says that BY FAR the most lethal attack on our limbic system, which controls our moods, our memories and outlook on life, by far the most danger happens when someone is stressed.

It’s in the incorrect handling of stress that breaks us. 

Here are two things I have seen bring peace in my life and they properly handle the stress thrusted upon me and my family:

Being grateful and applying Scripture in our daily lives gives us peace. 

If you continue to be grateful, not just this month of thankfulness, but every day, it’s a healthy step. 

You get to wake up in this wonderful world, you get to be with your loved ones, you get to work, you get to be generous, you get to live in this country, you get to be a part of church, AND EVEN, you get to go through trials because God is molding you into someone more like Jesus – you are grateful, it will distance you from depressive thinking and those around you who battle depression will notice your positive, joy-filled manner and want what you have. 

AND if you are applying Scripture to your daily life, that means you’re reading the Bible, thinking about what you’ve read, talking with others about God’s Word, memorizing parts of it, and letting it affect your words and actions.

In the Christian worldview, we either walk toward Jesus and have wisdom or we walk toward anything else and have ruin.

When we shift our thinking to thanking God, praying to God, asking God to heal and strengthen us and when we apply His Word to our lives, which includes serving and forgiving others, there is peace that He gives as a gift.

I still get sad. I’m exhausted. I can feel beaten down. I get frustrated. I’ve experienced loss. But I know that when I continue to be grateful and read and apply truth I find in the Bible to my days, depression cannot root into my life. 

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Zach 

5 Questions to Ask in the Midst of Suffering

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What can help  during times of stress and confusion, anger and anxiety, is trying to walk in the path of pain others are going through.

One man who has the credibility to speak to all of us on suffering, is the apostle Paul, a Christ-follower who lived during the first century.

One area Paul dearly loved was the city of Philippi. Philippi was a regional city where Paul preached the gospel to people, primarily to women, who became Christians and were part of the core group that planted the first church there. Paul cared for the Philippian church and they cared for him.

Later on in his life Paul is in prison for being a Christian. He writes a letter to the church in Philippi. At this point she is 11 years of age. It’s been four years since he’s physically been to Philippi. The church in Philippi heard that Paul was suffering in prison. They were concerned about his health, so they generously took up an offering, gave money, and sent it to Paul with a man they trusted named Epaphroditus, a deacon in the church. On his way to be with Paul, Epahphrodites becomes ill, close to death. Not only is Philippi’s founding pastor close to death, now their deacon is, and they church is waiting to see how their leaders will respond to the suffering they are going through.

In his dirty jail cell, Paul responds. He sits down and writes to the Philippians to ease their anxieties. What a privilege that God would preserve this letter centuries later of a man who writes of joy in his suffering. He writes:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)

We don’t know exactly what has happened to Paul here. Is he hungry? Is he looking for bugs to eat? Is he freezing? Does he have a blanket or does he shiver all night long? Does he have broken bones? Are his wounds infected? Is he alone?

He goes on to say:

It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.(Philippians 1:13-14)

Paul is suffering. More impactful is that he is showing us that there is a way to suffer in a way that is purposeful, not purposeless.

The old school word for this is: sanctification. Sanctification is: Through suffering/pain/mourning/loss/confusion/silence/strife, the opportunity is there to become more and more fashioned into the character of Jesus Christ.

Like the Philippian church watching Paul, those around you are waiting to see how you will respond to your suffering. Here are five questions to reflect on to see if you allow your suffering to become more like Jesus or not:

#1: Does your suffering compel you to love Jesus more? 

Some of you know what I’m talking about. In your suffering you’ve lost everyone and everything but Jesus and He is the true treasure in your life. Some have learned to love Jesus more because they realize that our God didn’t stay distant, but chose suffering and you love Him so much more because you and I would never choose to suffer for someone else in the way He did. Suffering for the Christian should never compel them to love Jesus less.

#2 Will your suffering purify your motives? 

If we are Christians, we are commanded to do all things for the glory of God. I would confess that everything I do is not for God’s glory, and it’s because my motives are mixed up a lot of the time. Even with the knowledge of Scripture, even with encouraging Christian friends, even with the Holy Spirit’s moral compass inside me, my motives can become selfish, lazy, prideful, idolatrous. In a word: impure.

Paul, beaten and alone in prison has no health, no wealth, no freedom. HE HAS NOTHING TO GAIN, and yet his motives are pure. He suffers for Jesus without complaining to God, doubting Him or accusing Him of being unreasonable.

#3 Will your suffering refocus your priority to follow Jesus daily? 

When suffering comes we can become so easily sidetracked from the mission of God and the message of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. All of the sudden we find ourselves not primarily focusing our lives on Jesus and His will for our life (to obey Him) and His mission for our existence (to share Him with others around us in word and action).

Instead of pursuing Jesus we can pursue people, and experiences and possessions and pleasure, sin, instead of Christ. It’s easy to lose sight that in every situation there is an opportunity for Jesus to do a work inside you and for Jesus to do good work through you.

In every circumstance, ESPECIALLY in times of struggle, there is an opportunity for you to know Jesus better, for you to be drawn closer to Jesus, for you to recommit your life back to Jesus and His mission of spreading the Gospel to those around you.

It would be an ideal day that when suffering comes to all of us, when the world and the church sees each one of us suffer, they would also see Jesus in our words and actions and either be drawn to Him in faith for the first time, or be matured in the faith. I want you to show people in suffering a lifestyle that would not be possible a part from Jesus being with you.

The faithful who have gone before are begging us not to waste your times and seasons of suffering. Your tears should not be in vain. Your struggle should not be in vain. It should not be wasted. It should not be neglected or abandoned or ignored. It has purpose. Your suffering should be embraced as a divine opportunity for God to grow us and use us.

#4 Will your example of suffering become an opportunity to speak of Jesus’ suffering? 

If we suffer as an example of how Jesus suffered for us and the world, we suffer well. Paul is an example to this. He is chained, literally, to another person, a soldier, who has to keep watch over Paul. He has no freedom. And in this circumstance, Paul, being focused on the gospel, assumes that it is God’s divine plan that this particular soldier is chained to him for a reason: to be saved. Paul’s mindset is, God wouldn’t chain someone to me unless they were intended to meet Jesus. He praises God for the opportunity to witness to the soldiers that come into his cell and become chained to him.

Some of you feel metaphorically chained to your desk at work, maybe a stay-at-home mom feels chained to the house. Some of you will find yourselves stuck in a hospital bed, chained to chemotherapy or treatment of a sickness. Some of you are chained to living a single life, wanting companionship. Some are chained to a relationship that God will not let you break for a reason, and in any instance of suffering we ask, God, why am I still chained here? 

Paul would say on behalf of God, You aren’t chained to these situations. They are all opportunities for God to bring people into our experiences of suffering and to speak of Him in joy, and to suffer like Him in courage and honesty to make a difference in the world. 

#5 Will people grow closer to Jesus as a result of your suffering? 

We cannot be so simple-minded to think that our suffering has nothing to do with our witness.

My wife and I are unable to conceive a child together. I have a firm faith that the heartache of being in a marriage that is infertile will lead someone else closer to Christ.

Right now for a young girl, who isn’t even close to meeting the love of her life, but she will, eventually. And in time they will get married and enjoy life together and the thrill of being best friends and growing together. And they will have friends who have babies and that will instill a desire in them to start a family one day and when that day comes, and when frustration and confusion and anger surrounds their marriage, when they receive news that they are barren – AT THAT MOMENT, God will usher them into my life, into my wife’s life, and we will lead them to closer to Christ through the suffering we are enduring right now.

Paul says, Not only are the soldiers chained to me experiencing the gospel, they’re telling everyone in his imperial guard (some Bible translations in verse 13 say Praetorium), over 9,000 soldiers. Paul’s suffering has 9,000 skilled, trained, very important men talking about Jesus. Paul is praising God in suffering because God is doing something great in his suffering, and something amazing through his suffering, leading others to Him.

The question is not, Will I suffer? You will suffer.
The question is, Will I suffer faithfully? 

Will your suffering grow you in goodness and faith, or will it kill your spirit and turn you bitter? Will your suffering be heard as complaints and selfish to those around you, or will it be used to inspire your friends and those watching to get closer to Christ?

Thanks for reading. You are loved.

Z