The kids piled into the minivan, and as we pulled out onto the street, my fourth grade son suddenly remembered his one homework assignment: bring poster board to class. So I did what all good mothers do. After dropping three kids off at school, with a baby on my hip, I put my own plans aside, raced to the store, purchased some poster board, and brought it to his teacher. Feeling like a hero, I was surprised to be greeted with anything less than praise and gratitude for rescuing my son from the serious wound of humiliation directly caused by his not having poster board. Instead, in front of the class, I was greeted with, “Oh, I am sorry Mrs. Phelps. I can’t accept that from you. It was not your homework assignment. It was your son’s.”
You would think after being called out in front of 20 fourth-graders, I would have learned my lesson. But as a young mom who believed that saving my children from all discomfort was a reflection of my love, I continued to jump to the rescue, no matter the cost. Forgot your backpack? I am on my way! Left your lunch on the kitchen table? I’ll bring it right over! Math assignment on the your bedroom floor? Give me ten minutes...I can swing by the school!
It’s what we do. Convinced that without our help something tragic will happen to them, we love out of fear and we help to control; all the while thinking we are just doing our job.
But it is not our job.
It is God’s job.
And last time I checked, he wasn’t looking to retire.
In the secular world, we call this enabling. It is excusing, justifying, ignoring, denying, or smoothing over a behavior. Not because we support or condone it, but because we are so incredibly anxious and affected by it; not because we approve of our loved ones choices, but because we can not bear to see them walk through the consequences. I tell you this, sweet friend, with authority, as I am a recovering professional enabler. I tried so hard to keep my own child from having to deal with that one big crisis that I managed to prolong the problems by keeping him and my family living in a constant state of smaller crises. At best, a distorted attempt to solve problems, I never did succeed at removing his suffering, but sadly, only postponed it.
How many of us are wasting our time and energy trying to prevent our loved ones from suffering? And how many of us, if we are being honest, aren’t stepping in to clean up their mess because of their potential pain, but rather, because of our own? Let’s face it. It hurts to watch a loved one hurt. It is so much easier to just do for them what we know we can do so that unpleasant conflict is avoided, hard consequences are erased, and can we move on with life.
I have sat in enough circles to finally understand that the key to breaking the pattern of enabling is to return responsibility to the person it belongs to. As a firm believer in therapy that is rooted deeply in faith, I’d like to take this a step further and say that the key to breaking the pattern of enabling is to return responsibility to the God it belongs to.
This thought was confirmed yesterday as my Walking With Purpose small group discussed healthy boundaries and relationships in the Keeping In Balance study. Galatians 6:2 teaches that we ought to bear one another’s burdens. But verse 5 commands us to bear our own load. This is some game-changing truth to chew on. Lisa Brenninkmeyer further explains:
Loads are made up of things we’re all expected to do for ourselves. We are to help one another with burdens, but be responsible for our own loads. When do we get into trouble? When we find ourselves carrying others’ loads or refusing to compassionately help others carry their burdens.¹
Raise your hand right now if you are carrying someone else’s load, and ask yourself...why? What am I afraid will happen to my loved one if I hand this load back over to him/her? What am I afraid will happen to me if I do not carry if for him/her?
Handing over a load that we have been trying to carry and control, all in the name of love, is no small matter. It is painfully hard. But you know what’s even harder? Never letting it go. Not because it will exhaust the one who is doing the carrying, but because of the message it sends to the one who was meant to carry it in the first place. The message that, “You aren’t able to carry this. You are not strong enough. God might not show up, so I must step in.”
I shared my exhaustion in confession. I told the priest that I felt like I have been handed a giant clay cistern full of water and holes. Each hole is one of my children, and every time I get one hole covered up, another hole starts spouting. “I feel like it is my responsibility to keep every hole covered...like it is my job to spackle everything...keeping everything smooth...everything at peace.” And the priest, in love, corrected me: “You are not the spackler.”
Not only are we not the spacklers, but in attempting to be so, we add unnecessary stress to our lives. The fact is, no life is without suffering, our pain has purpose, and we gain nothing but an anxious heart when we believe otherwise. The love we have for others is not measured in how much our hands carry, but rather, in how much we place in the hands of God.
Your Sister in Christ,
¹ Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Keeping In Balance (Walking With Purpose, October 2018) p.66
This post is for all the people out there who are not eating popsicles or frolicking on the beach this summer.
To narrow it further…
It's for you, my friend, you who are in the middle of a storm of circumstances that make you want to run away.
It's for you, my friend, you who want to scream with frustration, but recognize you need to hold it together.
It's for you, my friend, you who are having a hard time reconciling who you know God to be and how He feels to you right now.
It's for you, my friend, you who feel so alone and so certain that no one understands what you are going through.
It's for you, my friend, you who feel it's all up to you, and think you just might go under if you don't get some relief.
God sees you. He sees that despite all that is weighing on you and overwhelming you, you are remaining faithful and are staying put. He doesn't look at this as a paltry effort. In fact, He, more than anyone, knows what this is costing you.
God is holding you. Your circumstances feel crushing. He is underneath you, holding you up. I know you can't see Him, but I promise you, He is there.
Two things in particular make suffering through a crisis especially hard. One is not knowing why we are having to go through this. If we had an answer to the question of why, there is very little we could not endure. But we usually don't know, which means trust and faith are required. They are needed most when they are the hardest to hold on to.
The second thing that makes a crisis especially miserable is the fact that we so often don't know what to do. If we just had clear instructions, even if we didn't want to do what was required, we could at least force ourselves to move forward. But so often, when our lives are in a free fall, we aren't sure what we can grab hold of. We desperately want someone to tell us exactly how to keep going, yet the uniqueness of our situations prevents that from happening.
I don't presume to know what your crisis entails, but I want to share a few truths that have been lifelines to me when my life feels chaotic and my circumstances are knocking the wind out of me. I pray they are of help to you. They don't answer the question of why, but perhaps they give you some steps to take when you aren't sure where to go and the waves keep crashing over you.
1. Do the next right thing.
You have not been given a strategic plan that addresses every possible obstacle. I get that. I know it would be helpful if you had one. God is keeping you very close at the moment, and only shining a light on the next step. So just do one thing at a time. Just keep asking yourself, “What's the next ‘right thing' to do?” No matter how small the task, if we do it for God, it infuses the day with purpose. When we are in the middle of a crisis, it's not a time to tackle big projects or challenges. But we can do small things and infuse them with tremendous love.
As the Blessed Mother said at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5). Do whatever Jesus tells you. The way he does this is by helping us to identify the next right thing that our duty in life requires. We ask the Lord, “What is the next right thing that you would like me to do?” It might be unloading the dishwasher or calling a friend to apologize. The next step is to do that next thing for God's glory, not our own. And this changes everything.
If the next right thing feels insignificant, say to the Lord, “I am going to fold this load of laundry for your glory. I entrust the results to you.” Suddenly, this simple activity has become an opportunity for you to encounter God. He is present there with you, delighting in the fact that you are doing the next right thing with a good attitude.
If the next right thing is something that feels overwhelming, say to the Lord, “I am going to step out and do what feels difficult for your glory. I entrust the results to you.” If it goes well, the glory goes to God. If it doesn't go well, the results of it rest with God. Neither the success nor the failure rests on you.
2. Make no changes.
When we are in a crisis, our desire for relief can cause us to question all sorts of previous decisions. We have thoughts like these:
“Why should I keep praying? It doesn't seem to be making much of a difference.”
“Why did I volunteer to help in that way? Forget it. All I can do is take care of myself.”
“Why am I working this wretched job? I can't take it anymore. I'm quitting.”
“Why did I marry this person? I have got to get out of this. I'm leaving.”
When these are our thoughts, we are playing right into the enemy's trap. He is literally jumping up and down with glee and whispering into our ears, “Do it. Get out of it. Quit. You've had enough.”
Here's my advice (which I actually got from St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Discernment of Spirits): DON'T MAKE ANY CHANGES. Stay steady at the wheel. Just get through this chaotic storm. When things calm down, that's when you can re-evaluate your decisions. But not right now.
3. Amp up your spiritual disciplines.
I know this is the last thing you want to hear, but this is critical. We have to fight back. If we lay down like we're already dead, the enemy will be emboldened and mess with us more. If you do more spiritually (just a little bit more- nothing crazy), he will flee. He is a coward. He is weak, and a defeated foe. Get up and fight back. If you previously prayed ten minutes a day, pray fifteen. If you normally go to Mass once a week, go an additional time. If you feel like frowning at everyone you meet, smile instead.
4. Practice gratitude.
Even if it's not what you are feeling, write down what you are grateful for. Do this every day of the crisis. Fill an entire page with gratitude each morning. Type it if your hand gets sore. If you run out of big stuff, thank God for the warm water in your shower. Thank Him for the fact that you don't have malaria. Unless you do. Then come up with something else. The point is, keep thinking until you find things you have that you would be sad if you did not.
God may feel cruel to you right now. I promise you- He is not cruel or capricious. He is a tender and kind Father. He is holding you, and what is crushing you is pressing you closer to His chest. This too shall pass. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. Consolation will come. This will not last forever. “The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are underneath you.” (Deuteronomy 33:27)
With you in the storm,
As long as I can remember, I've journaled my prayers. This is how I start my time with God each day. Some people consider journaling a form of naval-gazing. I've looked at it differently; it's the way I bring my feelings and emotions to the surface and ask God to heal and order them. I know He wants a relationship with my real self- not some artificial, cleaned up version of me. When He longs to see me walk in freedom, He knows that it's going to involve my heart, not just my behavior.
A good friend of mine shared the questions she was prayerfully journaling each day, and I decided to give them a try. Most of the questions were thought provoking and interesting to pray through. But one stopped me in my tracks, because I didn't know how to answer. The question: “What are you dreaming about right now?” I wracked my brain. What was I hoping for personally? What was I dreaming might be in the future for me? I couldn't think of anything, and that felt really weird and somehow wrong.
It wasn't that I wasn't praying and hoping for anything. But I was cautious when it came to praying big dreams. That didn't feel safe. That felt like I was setting myself up for disappointment. And wasn't it selfish to think about myself? It felt wiser to keep my eyes on reality and stay away from the land of possibilities. I felt too aware of all the things that could go wrong to trust that God might want to do something beyond my wildest imaginings.
This isn't the only area in my life where I've noticed my hope is running on fumes. There are people I have loved and prayed for years, asking God to break through the walls of their disbelief and to draw them to Himself. And nothing has changed. From what I can see, they are just as closed off and disinterested in Him today as they were the day I started praying. And my prayers for them are becoming less frequent. I'm starting to give up because they aren't progressing according to my timetable. I start to wonder why I am bothering. I've started to listen to the lie that things are never going to change.
The truth is, it can be hard to find hope. Some of you know what I'm talking about. You've prayed for something and believed with all your heart that God will come through for you. And then you wait. And all you hear is silence. And all you feel is discouragement. And the promise in John 14:14 (“Ask anything of me in my name, I will do it”) starts to feel like a cruel joke, a bait and switch. So our hearts grow a little bit cynical. We don't want to be naïve. We're smarter than that. We can see the obstacles. We're very good at assessing our reality, and adjusting our expectations accordingly.
There's nothing wrong with seeing things as they truly are, but when we lose the ability to see life through eyes of faith and limitless possibility, our hearts harden against God. Our trust in Him weakens. Bitterness can set in. We may continue to pray, but our prayers become mechanical. Our hearts aren't engaged. We're going through the motions.
So how can we learn it's not hard to find hope again?
The journey back to hope begins with taking a close look at the heart of the Father.
Is our Father's heart for us? Does He love us with the kind of attention that cares about every detail of our lives? Is He only concerned with us as an “end product of holiness” or does He care about our passion and purpose, too? Does He care how we feel in the midst of our struggle, or is He just waiting for us to learn the lessons that come from hard knocks?
Lean in close here and listen, because this is a truth we need to grasp deep… your Father loves to give. He waits to be asked. Perhaps He is whispering to you the words of James 4:2 (NIV), “You do not have because you do not ask God.” He wants you to come to Him like a little child. Think about the way that children ask. They ask for the moon. They don't stop to think about what is possible. And how do most parents respond to those requests? We want to give. We stop to make sure that what is asked for is for their good, and when it is, we want to move heaven and earth to give it.
“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:11)
The journey back to knowing it's not hard to find hope begins with taking a close look at the heart of the Father.
Your Father has already proven that He is for you. He has already proven that He will hold nothing back if it's for your good. You only need to look at the cross to see the proof of His love.
But keep looking. The cross isn't the only place you can see evidence of your Father's heart. Where have you seen evidence of Him taking care of you? What answers to prayer have you experienced today? Open your eyes.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude will help you to keep your eyes on the heart of the Father and His never-ending involvement in your life. It will break the hold of cynicism on your heart. It will open you up to the possibility of hoping again. It will give you the courage to dream. And in doing so, you'll come to know your Father's heart.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
Note: This is part one of a two-part series on turning our hearts to heaven when we feel it is hard to find hope. The second part can be found here.
*This post first appeared on the WWP website in November 2014.
Week after week, Mass after Mass, for way too many years, I thought I was doing God a favor.
In that quiet space that follows the pastor's weekly directive, We now pray for our own intentions, time and again, I intentionally gave God my silence and seriously thought I was helping him out.
For years I was certain this was the right thing to do. I was sure that millions on earth had intentions that were far more urgent than anything I could come up with, and wouldn't it be selfish of me to add my thoughts and requests to the mix?
How many millions need to pray every Sunday for their loved ones to beat cancer? How many need to pray for the most essential things, like enough food to feed the family, a big enough paycheck to cover the rent? Millions, no doubt, but not me.
My silence, my withholding prayer, was what God would appreciate. Less work for him, right? (That is how downright confused I was about how He worked.)
You, my blog-reading friends, are undoubtedly more spiritually mature than I, and you wouldn't make such an amateur mistake. However, tell me this: Has there ever been a time when you stopped praying? Maybe when the kids were young or the job was crazy you had trouble finding time for prayer. Or maybe your felt your prayers were going unanswered, so you stopped talking to God? Or perhaps there is a special person in your life -- a friend/neighbor/daughter -- who is hurting and who does not pray and you feel it deep in your bones that she would feel SO much better if she did talk to God?
Would you like to know what broke my silence -- what got me praying regularly, not only in church but in the car, in the kitchen (and yes, in the shower)?
It was what author Lisa Brenninkmeyer wrote in Lesson 4 of Opening Your Heart, the WWP foundational Bible Study. Lesson 4 is titled, “Why and How Should I Pray?” When I reviewed this lesson with my Opening Your Heart study group last fall, I highlighted two things, and for me to swipe yellow ink across a book page is a big deal, because I love books and I cringe a little when I have to deface one with a pen or pencil.
Here's what I highlighted:
“When children ask for what they need, they ask big. They ask with boldness. God wants our prayers to be filled with the faith that believes the impossible can happen, because when we tame them we are saying that God isn't all that powerful, or that He doesn't really care about our dreams and our needs...”
“Your prayers are evidence of your confidence in God.”1
That was it. For me, it was the green light to go ahead and start talking to Him. It was the affirmation to pray for anything, anytime; to trust it was someone else's job to guide me because I am really not the one in the driver's seat on my life's journey. And now I chat with Him all the time, and now I believe that He doesn't mind my chatter at all. And while I have yet to ask for or receive any sort of miracle, what I have received is something that I can only describe as an invisible blanket -- a blanket that is really thick and warm and even though you can't see it, it's always on my shoulders.
PS: I'm thinking many of you have also experienced the foundational WWP Bible study, Opening Your Heart, but what about that friend/neighbor/daughter who, like me, needs to know the basics? Who could benefit from a closer relationship with God? Feel free to share this blog post with her.
Blessings and Peace,
Learn more about Opening Your Heart here!
1 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (2010-2018), p. 45