Whether we pay attention to people, pain, projects, or worry, there is always a return. What we invest in attention returns as experience. Read on to learn about the best and worst ROI for your attention.
In the first article of the attention management series, I talked about the important role that attention plays in our quality of life. With over 50,000 thoughts running around in your mind each day, attention is what allows you to chose which thoughts to entertain and which to let go. While thoughts are numerous, attention is finite, and it must be stewarded wisely. In part two of the series, I covered how to create a values-based attention budget, and stick to it with success.
In today’s post, the final installment of our attention management series, I’ll cover investing, and more specifically, the best and worst ROI (return on investment) for your precious attention currency. As Brad Stulberg writes “whatever we channel our attention towards receives a declaration of value, a reinforcing signal that our chosen pursuit is important.” So whether you blow it on Buzzfeed or channel it into a world-changing project, you’re always paying attention somewhere.
What you invest in attention, returns as experience. The attention market does not have to be volatile or complicated, but it does require intentionality. Let’s start with the poor investment choices and save the best for last.
The Worst ROI for Your Attention
Poor Investment #1 Worry
When we worry, we essentially siphon off the attention cash meant for today in order to fund the production of a worst-case scenario, mental dress rehearsal of tomorrow. This tunnel visioned disaster prep does not prepare us for the future. Instead, worry leaves us hollow, impoverished of attention for the present and too paralyzed to take action for the future. The ROI for worry is paralysis, and often, more worry.
Poor Investment #2 Resentment
As the saying goes, resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Sounds like common sense, but when it comes to attention, it’s not common practice. Consider the irony of how many people, after a painful relationship breakup, friendship betrayal, or toxic work situation firing, start paying double in attention donations —in the form of bitterness, anger, and situational rehashing—towards the person who hurt them.
Sure, you might feel justified and smug about these black market attention investments, but the longterm payoff is never in your favor. Sacrificing one of your rarest resources on behalf of the person who hurt you, leaves you attention broke and energy empty, not them. If you really want revenge that badly, just cut the attention funding and divert it to back to your real life.
Poor Investment #3 Regret
While worry is preoccupied with the future, regret dumps attention to the past, and neither is a wise thought investment strategy. To be fair, careful examination of the past can be helpful to spot patterns or apply wisdom. But after a situation has already been dissected, paying extra attention to an unchangeable time period has steep diminishing returns. It’s the mental equivalent of leaving a cash envelope on the doorstep of a dead landlord, years after your rental lease already expired.
Also worth noting, is that most regret investors aren’t actually interested in learning from their past—because that would require moving on from it. No, what regret investors secretly crave, is the illusion of control. The past is as well known as a stale re-run of an old TV show. Thus dwelling on it, offers a seemingly justifiable delay in stepping out into the exciting, but terrifying, wide open unknown.
If you want to be an intelligent attention investor, you must regard the past as a sunk cost. Grieve, heal, learn from your mistakes, and refinance your attention ASAP.
Part II The Best ROI for Your Attention
Now that you’re well aware of the attention market dangers, you might be wondering “Are there any good investment options for my attention?” Indeed, there are four ways to invest your attention that will yield significant positive returns.
Wise Investment #1 Planning
A couple of summers ago, my sister, Marie and I took a trip to Desolation Wilderness, on a whim. It all seemed like spontaneous Summer fun until hives erupted all over Marie’s arms and legs just 3 miles into our hike. Ill-prepared with neither campsite reservation, nor first aid kit, we were forced to turn back early. That night, instead of roasting sausages over a campfire, surrounded by the sound of crickets and the smell of pine trees, we ate a makeshift dinner in front of a concrete mall fountain, surrounded by suburban teenagers, in the first town off the freeway where could locate antihistamines.
The following year, however, Marie and I took a trip to the Trinity Alps and invested our attention in preparation the week before. We researched lodging, mapped out hiking trails known for late May wildflowers and waterfalls, curated playlists and podcasts, filled the car with gas, and packed a first aid kit with antihistamines. By the time Marie picked me up in Sacramento, our attention pre-payments had already untangled the logistical snags, leaving us free to blast the backstreet boys, talk about our real boys, eat snacks, and marvel at the mountain sunset as we drove due north to the tiny town of Weaverville.
If it feels difficult to pay attention to preventative details beforehand, remember that attention tax of an emergency is far more expensive. Ironically, even though preparation is for the future, the act of focused strategizing requires your attention to be a laser beam shining smack dab in the middle of the present. So, whether it’s meal prep, oceanic shark defense class, or dental hygiene school, investing attention in preparation on the front end of an endeavor, can reap tremendous benefits on the back end.
Wise Investment #2 Pain
If you’re someone who is vigilant about focusing only on positive thoughts, this one probably caught you off guard: but I’ll explain. Without the tenderness that allows us to feel pain, our hearts would calcify, our spirits would stagnate and our eyes would go blind to suffering around us. If you have chosen to live a life that is awake to the human experience—in its full blast, full color, vivid spectrum of emotion—then you will inevitably experience pain. There’s no getting around it.
In the face of pain, it can be tempting to go numb, deflect it, or become a victim, but none of these options lead to real healing. Author CS Lewis writes “pain insists upon being attended to.” Pain is just as worthy of our attention as joy. A broken heart deserves just as much attention as a broken leg. If you allow it, pain can be a powerful teacher pointing us to healing, and clarity on what’s truly important.
Wise Investment #3 Projects
This is a fancy way of saying work. All of us are called to work. Whether you sell software, brew tea, raise children, drive uber cars, or help people do their taxes, pay attention to the work you do so that you may do it with excellence.
Wise Investment #4 People
Attention is inextricably connected to love; it’s the magnifying glass we use to really see someone—to know them. Each person we encounter hold within them an entire world of dreams, fears, quirks, secrets, and stories. If we choose to, we can open up this world with attention in the form of curiosity, observation, listening, conversing, hugs, or the simply being… both physically and emotionally present at the same time.
Out of all the places to assign your attention in, love is the perhaps the riskiest investment on the entire market. Not all the people you love will offer you love in return. Projects are undeniably easier, more predictable, and less vulnerable. But yet, even still, connection is why we’re here and without love, we have nothing. The potential payoff to living with a tender and open heart is incalculable. A French philosopher once wrote, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” So as you prepare to invest, remember to be generous and intentional with your attention and pay a premium to the people who matter most.
Does your attention reflect your values? In a world full of distractions learn ways to tweak your environment and train your “attention muscle” to pay attention to what’s truly important.
Expense Tracking vs Budgeting
In part one of the attention management series, I talked about the importance of tracking your attention. The reason being, by taking inventory of one of your most precious resources, you gain a potentially life-changing insight. With over 50,000 thoughts running through your mind on an average day, attention is the energy that allows us to choose one thought over another, and ultimately one experience over another. But looking at the expense report, ie a history of where your attention went, is only the first part of the puzzle. It’s budgeting forward and telling your attention where to go, that’s the true game changer.
Most of us don’t think about our attention budget because we assume that smart attention spending habits will just develop naturally as we grow up. That’s far from the truth. In today’s world, leaving your attention up for grabs is akin to letting a child roam a candy store, and assuming self-control comes naturally.
Why is Budgeting So Important?
I have never met anyone who woke up on the first of the month, threw off the covers, opened the blinds, stared into the distance and declared, “This month I plan to allocate 40% of my attention to reality TV, 20% to youtube cat videos, 20% to stalking my ex’s ex’s on social media, and the split whatever’s leftover between friends, family, fitness, and my big dream!”
But at the end of the month, if audited for attention, plenty of people would face this breakdown. The reality is,attention without direction is cash is on the table. If you don’t take ownership of your attention, the world will snatch it away, leaving you scattered and frazzled, wondering where your peace of mind went. To steward your attention wisely, you must protect it and direct it.
Smart attention budgeting starts with clarity of values. As the oft-quoted phrase goes, no matter what someone says, their calendar and their checkbook tell their true values. While time and money are indeed revealing, your attention tells the story of where you truly show up. You value what you agree to attend to.
The question is when you hold your attention spending report up next to a list of your most deeply held values, does it match?
If the answer is yes, your life will have a sense of congruence to it, and you can go ahead and throw yourself an attention alignment party. But if the answer is no, and you don’t put your attention where your mouth is, sooner or later the disconnect will catch up. For example, if you say you value hard work and health, but pay your attention allowance to gossip, video games, and twinkie taste testing, something will feel off. You will either feel torn in your heart, or live in a bubble of self disillusionment to soothe your stressed out conscience.
Just as in the financial world, a values-based attention budget is meant, not to be restrictive, but to help you spend and invest your thoughts in a way that aligns with what matters most to you.
Tips for Sticking to Your Attention Budget
Unless you are a complete attention ninja, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to control your mind all of the time. That said, there are a couple habits and practices that help you stick to your budget: no hidden fees or attention tax required.
Set up Your Environment and Monitor Your Stimuli
Your mind works hard enough as it is; making your attention play defense against excessive and counterproductive stimuli all day, will burn a hole in the budget before the end of the day. The goal, here, is to make your environment work for your values, not against. You may be relieved to know that you don’t have to uproot yourself and move to a certified geographical blue zone in Nicoya, Costa Rica to make your environment conducive to your attention budget — you can make a couple tweaks right where you are.
Here are a few practical examples:
If you value learning, set up a bookshelf of great books in a place you can see it every day.
If you’re trying to make budget cuts on boy bands, don’t plaster your dorm room walls with One Direction posters. Put up post-it notes of the quadratic formula, or Bible verses, or whatever you’re studying, instead.
If you value high-quality conversation, skip the bars that force you to shout, and take a walk in a calming place that makes your souls relax and hearts open up.
If you value sleep, don’t share a bed with your phone. The screen is just too tempting, and something always happens.
Train Your Attention “Muscle”
Sometimes, paying attention to the right things is less about changing your environment and more about noticing what is already going on around you. Our brains are wired to pay attention to emergencies and threatening situations. This “negativity bias” used to help humans survive, but nowadays it’s not the mental pathway you want to invest in paving. Instead, practice noticing the good, and fund the forging of a thought superhighway of beauty, love, and gratitude.
If a friend calls to check in on you, make a mental sticky note that says “I am loved and supported.”
If you tackle a task that you’ve long been avoiding, celebrate the end of sloth and the beginning proactivity.
If you’re hiking out in nature, narrate the ideal situation out loud by saying “here I am with a great friend, having a conversation among the sugar pines, and I am so grateful.”
By intentionally sprinkling attention on these pockets of joy you adjust the lenses with which you see the world. Over time you will become an agile attention ninja who can swiftly leap over distraction, avoid downward spirals, and take deep dives into present moments.
Alas, when your values are clear, your environment favorable, your mental sticky notes ready, and your attention compass pointed, your budget is good. Whether you have 40 thousand thoughts left to go, or merely 40, budget wisely and enjoy the payoff.
Thoughts on multitasking, attention vampires, and quality of thought. Practical ways to manage your attention in a world full of distractions.
The average person has over 50,000 conscious thoughts every single day. While we may not be able to control every thought that passes through our minds, we can control the attention we feed them. Attention is what determines whether a thought will create a well-traveled, paved, mental pathway, or simply go in and out the back door of our minds. As the underestimated key player in our life experience, attention is powerful enough to turn the mundane into the magical, bring chaos into patterns—and, it’s inextricably connected to love.
Unfortunately, attention management takes a back seat in our culture, to the management of the more popular resources–time, money and energy. While these resources are undeniably important, they fall flat without attention. We don’t simply want more time, see, we want more meaningful time, with richer experiences, deeper connections, and more vivid memories—each of which requires attention applied to time. Attention steers reality so how we manage it is vital.
How does one go about attention budgeting? This is not a post about using a Pomodoro productivity hack or willing yourself to sit up a little straighter during a lecture. This is a post meant for anyone interested in having a better quality of life by having a better quality of thought; it’s meant for anyone who wants to take ownership of one of their most precious resources.
ATTENTION BUDGETING BASICS
Tracking Your Expenses
In the words of Peter Drucker, “what gets measured, gets managed.” Meaning, if you want to improve your attention spending patterns, you first have to know where you’re paying dues. While there’s no Wellsfargo or Mint app to keep tabs on your attention, there are a couple of ways to at least increase your awareness.
Tip # 1 Thought Journal
Personally, I like to keep a (top secret) running note tab in my phone to wrangle all the ping pong ball ideas and stray monkey thoughts, responsible for monkey mind. But whether you opt for the traditional brain dump or the daily thought catcher, is of lesser importance compared to your transparency and consistency of the activity. If you write your thoughts often enough, and unfiltered enough, eventually you will see recurring patterns and themes.
Tip # 2 Screen Time Report
A lesser known way of tracking attention is by taking a look at your screen time report. Let’s face it, your attention and your body are not always in the same place. For example, even if your calendar says you “attended” a meeting Monday afternoon, your screen report might reveal that your thoughts attended the Warrior game highlights. The mobile screen time breakdown will tell the truth even when your calendar lies.
Note, daydreaming in small doses is normal, but physical presence without attention makes for hollow company. Thus, if your body and your attention are constantly in two different locations, it could be a sign that you stopped showing up to your own life, and this, in itself, needs attention.
Tip # 3 Beware of Hidden Fees and Subscriptions
Your attention is a finite currency, in a world of distraction, wrought with hidden fees.
There is no such thing as toll-free multitasking. If you decided to drive back and forth between San Francisco and Oakland 10 times in a day, the bridge toll fees would amount to 100 dollars—costly enough to deter any sensible person from making the said trek. Regard your attention in the same way. Every time you switch tasks or get distracted, you cross a bridge, and there is always a toll on your attention.
A subscription, on the other hand, is anything, or anyone, that charges your attention on a recurring basis. Many of us have grown accustomed to tolerating toxic automatic subscriptions, that drain our attention accounts every day. For example, if your daily routine is to check email first thing, drive to work irritated about the traffic, worry about office drama, have a fight with your significant other about the distribution of dishes, and bop around in a scattered scroll on your phone—a solid chunk of your attention change is on auto withdrawal, investing towards things you probably don’t want to compound in interest.
Blowing your attention allowance on petty things prevents you from being able to pay attention to meaningful things. That said, not all automatic subscriptions are bad. For example, attention habits such as an insightful podcast on your commute, a morning gratitude journal, a good night kiss, or a weekly book discussion—can be quite life-giving. The key is to be aware of which subscriptions match your values and let go of the rest.
*Stay tuned! Next up is attention budgeting, and how to tell your attention where to go ahead of time.
Four things you need in order to deal with disappointment well. Thoughts on expectation management, emotional courage, and unshakeable hope.
No matter who you are, or how well you prepare, disappointment is an inevitable part of life. If you want to live a life of significance, though, you must heal from past disappointments. By definition, disappointment is “the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the non-fulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.” It can happen in an instant. One moment the sun is shining, your family is healthy, you’re dominating the workplace, and you feel like Princess Jasmine on a magic carpet ride flying on cloud nine. And the next moment, the carpet is pulled out from under you, you get fired, your family gets strep throat, and you receive a rejection letter from your favorite school—all in the same month.
My first officially documented disappointment happened when I was 8 years old, on a field trip to Gold Country. During the daily diary time, it took me about twice as long as everyone else to finish my entries because rather than just jotting down what happened, I wrote out a detailed description of what I thought would happen. My expectations did not always match reality. “I was expecting to eat dinner at circle tables, where you can hear all of your friends,” I wrote. “But we ate at rectangle tables, and it was too loud to hear. Also, I expected to catch gold nuggets the sides of sour patch kids, but instead I caught gold flakes the size of sand grains.” The list continued.
As I grew up, my disappointments evolved along with my expectations and hopes, but they never went away altogether. I have learned that so long as we still care about life, and people, we will never completely escape disappointment. But I have also learned, that with the right frame of mind, and the right tools in your belt, you can heal from disappointments with your heart and hopes intact. Disappointment is like fire. It can burn down your dreams and your dignity, or it can light the rocket that launches you forward. The difference depends, on how you deal with it.
Here are the4 tools you need in your belt to deal with disappointment well.
# 1 An Expectation X-ray
Distilled down to its basic ingredients, disappointment is made of unmet expectation. Thus to handle disappointment, we also have to be aware of our expectations. Many of us carry around hidden, unspoken expectations that sit like ticking time bombs waiting to explode.
As a practical expectation awareness technique, picture yourself as an airplane traveler and your expectations as your luggage. Before taking off on any meaningful life venture or transition, you have to send your expectations through various security checkpoints.
Frequent flyer tip one, travel lightly. No one needs to go through life with more than 50 pounds of expectations. And sometimes, even three ounces of the wrong kind of expectation can be dangerous. Tip number two, don’t hide anything in your coat pocket or shoes and be transparent with your co-pilots and co-passengers about what you plan to bring onboard. Start by making a list of every existing expectation you can think of. Write down what you expect from yourself, your friends, your coworkers, your Christmas vacation agenda… anything goes.
Then, scrutinize your list with as much intensity as a TSA official examining a carry-on baggage screen. Slow it down, put it in reverse, invert the colors. What do you see? Are your expectations the healthy and reasonable type that you want in your overhead compartment? Or are they unrealistic and based on things outside of your control?
Expecting your significant other to listen to you, is healthy. Expecting them to text you every five minutes, on the minute, is not.
Expecting yourself to prepare for a podcast is within your control, but expecting it to go viral on day one, is not.
Expecting the “yes RSVPs” to show up at your holiday party, is reasonable, but expecting your estranged, extended family members to link arms in a rousing chorus of Kumbaya, is beyond your control.
X-raying your expectations is not about lowering your life standards or renouncing your optimism for good things to come. Rather, checking your expectations is about taking an honest inventory of your assumptions so that you can communicate accordingly and prepare for take off!
#2 Emotional Courage (aka the willingness to feel anything)
Technically, disappointment is just a feeling. But it’s prickly and painful enough, that many of us do anything we can to avoid it altogether. Ironically, the attempted avoidance of discomfort in the short term only leads to more pain and disappointment in the long term—for two reasons.
First: When you deny the pain of a present disappointment, then you stunt the necessary healing and growth process which helps you move into your next chapter. In other words, denial keeps you stuck.
Second: If you try to protect yourself from feeling disappointment in the future, you have no other option than to shrink your life and dreams down to the size of your disappointment tolerance—which is probably not very high, if can’t stomach the feeling. In such cases, the very feeling that you flee from ends up owning you, by causing you to live small, and disappointed by default.
Surgery or Scar Tissue?
Here’s an example to illustrate the concept. It’s the championship soccer game, and the star players on opposing teams, Mario and Luigi, collide while sliding for a ball during the 89th minute. Each of them breaks a leg on impact and the crowd holds their breath watching for the response. When Mario feels the sharp pain shooting through his body, he signals the medical tent, right away because he knows he needs help. After initial first aid, the medics whisk him off to the hospital for an x-ray, and later, surgery. Undeniably, it’s a disappointing way to end the season and a painful process of healing. However, within a couple of months—after active recovery, and hard work in Physical Therapy—Mario is back in the game, stronger than ever, and full of injury prevention tactics.
Luigi, on the other hand, feels the pain for a brief moment, and panics at the thought of getting sidelined by injury. Instead of calling for a sub, he pops some painkillers, hoists himself to his feet, and insists that he is fine. For the next few months, Luigi hobbles around with a lingering injury, thickening scar tissue and a stride that worsens every day. Even though he opts out of surgery, his process, of chosen non-recovery, is also painful. So much so, that when the next season rolls around, Luigi is so afraid to get back out on the field that he quits soccer and remains bitter towards Mario for years.
Disappointment is meant to be a transient feeling, not a permanent lifestyle. When you experience disappointment, acknowledge the pain, and do triage right away. The sting of antiseptic is far better than the festering infection of a wound unattended to. If you cultivate the emotional courage and allow yourself wade through discomfort, you will experience a richer hue of joy on the other side of your pain.
# 3 Adaptability
The two most common phrases I have uttered in times of my own disappointment are “this is not how it was supposed to turn out,” and “this is way different than what I imagined.” Often, the anguish of disappointment comes not from irreversible tragedy, or devastation (while those things do exist) but rather from our despair about the discrepancy, between what is, and what we thought would be. It’s as though we hold our own ideas and predictions as the gold standard for what should come to pass. But to navigate disappointment, we need a high level of adaptability.
Road trip analogy.
A big group of friends divided into two cars, one Forester and one Audi, caravans northbound for an Oregon coast getaway. Trunks are stacked with surfboards and spikeballs. Glove compartments are stuffed with clam chowder menus and coastal coffee cards. It looks a dream road trip is about to unfold. That is, until, they hit road closure. Highway 101 is under construction and blocked off from Eureka all the way to the Tillamook Forest. That’s unexpected. What will they do?
The fixed mindset Forester crewis sorely disappointed and begins to complain about what a waste of precious time off work this is. Instead of accepting responsibility for not doing the research on the roads, they blame the road service. In protest, they set up a camp at the junction for several nights, before finally canceling the trip altogether and driving home in angry silence.
The adaptable Audi crew, on the other hand, also feels disappointed, but only for a short time. They forgive themselves and the members of the other car, for the oversight. And then, they re-calibrate their GPS systems, change course, and enjoy a mountainous adventure through Highway 5 and Lake Shasta, instead.
Life disappointment can look a lot like road trip disaster. You will plan to go to a certain destination, via a certain route, with a certain person. And then, a bridge will collapse, your main companion will need to go under personal construction, or there will be a forest fire at your chosen destination. It happens.
The important thing is that you have the adaptability to see your options, rather than fixate on your limitations. Adaptability will enable you to live with wonder rather than apprehension. If your life doesn’t look like how you imagined, that does not always mean you are on the wrong path. After all, we worship a God who is far beyond our imagination.
# 4 Unshakeable Hope.
Out of all the disappointment tools in your belt, perhaps the most important is an unshakeable hope. In everyday conversation, hope is typically surrounded by words that indicate fragility such as ‘shattered,’ or ‘crushed.’ Hope, as described in Bible, however, does not disappoint, and renews our strength.
Whether hope makes your heart sick or makes your is heart soar depends on where you place it. One time, I was devastated by a relationship that didn’t work out. Every Sunday, for months following, I visited the prayer team, and requested them to pray for “my hope to be restored.” Clearly, I had hope misplacement problems. See, hope does not run away with a person, plummet with the stocks, or set with the sun, unless you install it in insecure places.
Living life with insecure hope is akin to sailing out on the open sea, in a boat made of rotting driftwood. While it may stay float just fine on a sunny day, it will get shipwrecked, and raided by pirates at the first storm of the season.
Living with your hope in God, however, is more like sailing on a Cruise Liner. It doesn’t matter if there are fifty mile per hour winds outside, you can still feast on tiramisu and take a nap anyway. You trust that you’re secure.
As Christians, we are called to be a people of Hope. While we might hope FOR things on earth, we place our hope IN things of Heaven. When our hope is in who God is, disappointment is a temporary, perplexing sting, but not a crushing crisis of faith. Don’t let the enemy steal your joy because of your circumstances. Rather, let your disappointment come face to face with unshakeable hope and unwavering belief of God’s goodness. Keep your eyes fixed not in what is seen, but in what is unseen. Finally, trust that no matter what happens, the best is yet to come.
Transform your prayer life by eliminating these 4 types of problematic prayers.
15-minute Audio. 12-minute Read.
For every Christian, prayer is a vital ingredient to a robust faith and relationship with God. If you want to transform your faith, you can start by taking a look at your prayers. Prayer is both our starting battleground and our place of worship. With prayer, we contend for one another; we rally for the Kingdom, and we deepen our intimacy with Christ.
Our prayers also act as a mirror, reflecting what we believe about God, and ourselves. We can pray from a position of doubt and lack, or we can pray from a place of Truth and authority. Prayer is meant to be powerful enough to move mountains, but sadly, many of the prayers echoing through our church walls today are laced with lies and uncertainties.
Below are four things to stop doing in prayer, and ways to pray powerful prayers instead
#1 Petitioning for Proximity and Permanence (ie God be near me, God stay with me)
In popular culture, it’s not uncommon for relationships to exist somewhere on a sliding continuum of together and separate, creating enough sparks of uncertainty to fuel entire albums of musical expression. Just listen to pop radio for a few minutes, and your ears will be flooded with lyrical stories about the whole spectrum of proximity.For example, we have titles such as…
“Closer” by the Chainsmokers and “Far Away” by Nickelback
“Next to You” by Justin Bieber and “Without You” Avicii
“Contigo” by Enrique Iglesias and “Donde Estas Corazon?” Shakira
In addition to the desire for close proximity, the longing for relational permanence, is so universal, that there’s a particular one-word wish that Sam Smith, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Zedd, and Alessia Cara have each dropped an individual title about. And that word is…“STAY.”
Despite the romantic sounding melodies, the hidden commonality across all these songs is an undeniable fear of loss. You wouldn’t sing your heart out asking for someone to stay unless there was also a possibility they might leave.
Thankfully, our relationship with God isn’t like that because we’re inseparable for eternity. But unfortunately, some of our prayers sound just as insecure as a top 40 pop song, and we pray from a place of spiritual separation anxiety.
Perhaps you ask God to stay with you as you drive Tioga Pass in the icy conditions, or maybe you ask God to be near you when your significant other is as far away as a Nickelback song. Or maybe, you feel so distant from God, that you just sent out the official smoke signal prayer crying “God, where are you?”
We hear prayers like this so often that they almost sound normal, but asking for God’s close proximity or his presence forever, perpetuate two core lies about Him.
The first is that God exists separate from you.
The second is that he could leave you at any time.
The Truth is that God lives IN you, and you are united with Him in spirit. (1st Corinthians 3).
His word says He will never leave you or forsake you and that nothing can separate you from his love. Internalizing these truths will radically transform the way you pray and live. Declare them, and know that you are never alone.
# 2 Asking for What You Already Have
Now that you’re fully aware of God living inside of you, it’s important to know what that entails. You have been given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and everything pertaining to life and godliness. And yet, it’s possible, to live spiritually asleep and starve while sitting at a feast. Consider the refrigerator analogy.
You and your spouse just moved into your new mid-town apartment. After surviving off of delivery pizza for several weeks, you decide to surprise them one day by stocking the fridge with all of their random favorite foods during your lunch break. You fill the shelves with chocolate covered acai power-berries, sugar snap peas, and triple strength cold brew coffee. Then you write a detailed love note about what’s inside, tape it to the fridge, and drive back to work giddy with anticipation for their reaction. But several hours later, much to your dismay, your phone lights up with a discouraged, hangry, text message.
“Spouse, I feel so weak. I just ask that you go to the grocery store. Get me power berries. Give me peas. I need triple strength cold brew. If you are willing, please provide for me. xoxo”
How heartbreaking. You are willing to provide, but your spouse is either unaware of the food — because they haven’t read the note — or they have read it, but they refuse to eat, or they simply don’t know how to open containers and use utensils.
As ridiculous as that text message may seem, many of us pray in a similar manner. Our spiritual fridge, so to speak, is stuffed with blessings and fruits of the spirit, but if we don’t open it, our prayers will originate from a place of emptiness, as though these blessings exist somewhere outside of us far beyond our reach. For example, you might pray:
“Give me patience when there is horrendous traffic outside Golden One Center.”
“Give me peace when the pedestrians are unruly”
“Give me the strength to obey the speed limit when it is as slow as the pedestrians.”
It turns out, you already have peace, patience, and strength. Before asking God for something you think you lack, take inventory of what you have. In Christ, you are fully equipped, complete and lacking in nothing. You have been given every spiritual blessing—including love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control, and yes, even patience, during Golden One Center traffic chaos.
Start from a foundation of gratitude, declaring His promises before sprinting to your complaints and requests. For example, instead of asking God for more power, thank God that the same power which rose Jesus from the dead lives in you, and ask Him to show you how to use it.
#3 Asking for Forgiveness…Over and Over
Asking God for forgiveness is not a sin, but the belief that we have unforgiven sins is. God calls us to trust Him, and our trust is revealed in the way we pray. We can pray in thanksgiving that He is faithful and just to forgive, or we can beg for forgiveness for the same sin, over and over, out of worry that we’re not covered by the blood of Jesus. Let’s take a look at the student debt analogy.
Angie, a freshman at a prestigious and pricey liberal arts college, takes out sixty thousand dollars in loans, to pay her tuition bill that year. Angie has angst. Drowning in debt, 20 units of coursework, and her on-campus job, she strives and struggles just to keep her head above water. But one day, she gets a call from the financial office announcing that a donor would like to pay off her current debt and fund the rest of her degree in full. Unlike most grants, this gift isn’t even merit-based.
You would guess Angie would feel ecstatic and walk around with a buoyancy in her step, just in knowing that she’s saved by the crushing weight of student debt and higher education inflation. But Angie still has angst and walks around campus with a weight of guilt as heavy as her 20 unit class load backpack. She can’t quite wrap her mind around the gift —she has to process it —and she doesn’t believe she deserves to go to school debt free. Thus, instead of accepting the generosity, she calls the financial office after every class to apologize for the cost of her education, the burden she is on the institution, and to triple check about whether her next semester is still covered. The administration office is kind, but Angie’s calls get old after a while because her debts have been deleted from the records. Whats the College/Cross connection?
When Jesus died on the cross, He forgave us our sins, past, present, and future. Yet many Christians, like angsty Angie, have trouble accepting His radical grace and thus ask for forgiveness over and over. In prayer, they sit glued to mental movies of their top ten sins of the week, making sure to replay the worst parts in slow motion for God — as though this is more honoring to Him. It’s not.
When we sin, the book of acts instructs us to “repent and turn to God, so our sins may be wiped out.”So the next time you catch yourself sinning, turn off the slow-mo sin jumbotron, and turn towards the God instead. Then remember, He will remember your sins no more.
# 4 Constantly Using the Word “JUST”
The word just is used so often in prayer, these days, that it has become somewhat of the spiritual version of ‘um.’ It can be used with fine intent or as mere filler, but prayers peppered with “just” should serve as a warning light on the dashboard of your beliefs. And it’s more than just a grammar issue. Consider the following reasons we use just in everyday speech.
To make an apologetic introduction “Sorry to bother you but, just wanted to check in. I’m just wondering when will you respond to my email.”
To depreciate yourself: “There’s nothing special about me. I’m just a mom, who’s just a sinner saved by grace.”
To minimize a request: Can you just edit all the slides for next week’s presentation? And then just tie up all the loose ends?
To downplay a situation: It’s not a big deal, I’m just sad. And I’m not sick, I just have mononucleosis.
Keeping that list in mind, take a look at the following prayer.
“God we just come before you now and just lift up Caroline. We just ask you just heal her fractured femurs. God, we just need you to just show up during her operation, and justgive divine hand-eye coordination to the surgeons. We just love you. Amen.”
This prayer might fly under the radar at Sunday small group, but it sounds nothing like how Jesus prayed. In the gospels when Jesus calmed the storm, he did not say “Umm, just settle down just a bit.” No, he prayed with a bold and direct command, saying, “Quiet! Be still.”
If you feel the need to downplay your situation or diminish the difficulty of your requests when talking to God, you may need a reminder about who you are, and WHOSE you are. The Bible calls you a child of God, a friend of God, and a co-heir with Christ seated in Heavenly realms. As to how we should approach God, then, Hebrews 4:16 says “Let us approach the throne with confidence.”
It’s important that we pray with confidence, because faithis confidence in what we hope for, and assurance in what we cannot see. Just, is rarely a confident word. The stingy and vague nature of just-filled prayers insinuate the lies that we are a burden to God and that he can’t handle our requests.
The truth, however, is that nothing is impossible for Christ. He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. Don’t hold back. Cast your heaviest burdens on Him. Make your prayers specific, outrageous, and bold. And when it comes to just, just stop.
Action Plan Summary
Instead of asking God to be near you or stay with you, declare that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and forever united with God.
Instead of asking for what you already have, pray in thanksgiving for the blessings He has given, and ask God to teach you how to use them.
Instead of repeatedly asking for forgiveness, repent, turn, and praise Jesus that His death on the cross was sufficient for ALL sins.
Finally, instead of praying timidly, using just as every other word, pray with confidence. Thank God for what is already done in Heaven, and declare His will to be done on earth.
4 signs you might be bringing a legalistic spirit to the table. Thoughts on food, faith, unity, angst, and guilt-free guacamole.
11 Minute Audio
Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday. Which means, depending on the endurance of your New Year’s resolutions, you either watched the game cradling a bowl of fresh fruit salad or a bowl of chips con queso. If you’re the average American, healthy habits began backsliding in the fall as you traded protein shakes for peppermint patties and kale chips for candy canes. But on January 1 you kicked off a blitz bodily detox, and resolved to reset.
One of the most popular January resets, endorsed by both crossfitters and average and Joe’s alike, is the WHOLE30: The elimination diet where you strip your plate of sugars, grains, dairy, legumes, and alcohol for 30 consecutive days. If you sign up and adhere to the program protocol perfectly, then an official completion certificate will arrive in your inbox for your personal satisfaction or public social media posting purposes.
For some people, the Whole30 brings freedom from food addictions, relief from undiscovered allergies, and an increase in energy. Plus, it can even be fun with all the kitchen creativity and camaraderie. On the other hand, if a diet is approached poorly, and the spirit of the program is lost in the technicality of the rules, the result is something called “food legalism.” Interestingly, there are several similarities between legalism in food and legalism in faith.
Legalism and Definitions
In the health realm, I define a “food legalist” as someone who follows their diet perfectly, but not for the motive of things like proper nourishment, or sharing meals with good company. Following the food rules has become an end in itself.
In Christianity, Steve Cole defines legalism as “an attempt to gain favor with God or to impress our fellow man by doing certain things (or avoiding other things), without regard to the condition of our hearts before God.” Having dabbled in both types of legalism at some point or another, I’ve made a few observations about the connection.
Below, are 4 signs of a legalistic spirit at the table.
#1 Your vocabulary is sin centric
Look around any grocery store, and notice that foods, today are often described with words of moral judgment rather than flavor. If I peruse the aisles of Sprouts market, on one side, devil’s food cake tempts my taste buds with the seductive tag-line, “sinfully delicious” and hovering just over my other shoulder, the angel food cake and sinless whipped cream make a plea to my health righteousness ego. By the time I reach the chips and dips section, I face a moral dilemma of whether I prefer my bowl game guacamole guilt-free or guilt reduced. I never felt particularly guilty about guacamole before, but apparently, some foods must undergo a guilt reduction process prior to our consumption.
Food Faith Connection
Both legalists of faith and food have passion about what they’re against, although sometimes at the expense of what they’re for. Imagine asking a friend about her budding new love interest, and hearing a response like, “Oh Benjamin? He’s great! Our relationship is even cheating-free. It’s manipulation-less, and reduced-deception. Lots of work, of course, but totally worth it.” Most likely, you were more interested in what they loved and treasured about each other, not about what they had agreed to avoid together.
A sin centric nutritional vocabulary can have a negative impact on our relationship with food, and even lead to behavioral backfiring. Operating with a legalistic spirit, you reason that if you already sinned one cookie, you might as well go all the way and sin the whole box. Along similar lines, a sin-centric faith vocabulary, as commonly seen in legalism, can affect the way we view and approach God in relationship with him. Our behavior becomes motivated more by fear and avoidance, than love and abundance. But God is not just after us for our sin-free report cards. He’s after our hearts, and for our joy. He came to give us life and life abundantly. (John 10:10).
#2 You’re confused. A lot.
The big picture of the whole 30 is truly easy enough for a child to understand. In a nutshell, eat food you could hunt, gather, or catch. Drink black coffee instead of orange mocha frappuccino’s, and avoid processed stuff. Yet despite the inherent simplicity of the Whole30, some people approach meal planning like its Calculus BC.
They ask questions like this:
Have you checked the Greek translation of the Whole30 rules? I’m pretty sure the outlaw of honey was culturally specific to the ancient Greeks and doesn’t apply to me.
If I get drunk with good people is my debauchery deleted?
What time, exactly, do I have to stop eating, at night? Am I allowed to eat bananas after 10 pm?
Since quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain, if I sacrifice the first of every 10 quinoa seeds to the garbage disposal does that make it a legal?
Do I have to come to the table every Sunday for family dinner? Or could I just go through the drive-through, alone if I still get fed?
Food Faith Connection
A healthy dosage of curiosity can be a very good thing. In honesty, I throw questions at my nutrition science friends, and church leader friends all the time! When asking these questions, though, we must also check in with our motives behind the inquiries. For example:
Am I listening to my body, and aiming to thrive? Or am I trying to get away with satisfying my sweet tooth cravings, while still staying skinny and impressing my friends with my whole30 compliance?
Am listening to the Holy Spirit and seeking more understanding about God? Or am I rallying on behalf of the flesh, to prevent my conscience from feeling uncomfortable?
With skewed food motives, we can weave ourselves into webs of confusion about what’s permissible, beneficial, or Paleo approved. But the body will not be mocked. At the end of the day, a box of donuts made of organic sugar and locally sifted rice flour will spike your blood sugar off the charts. Spiritually speaking, when motives go awry, or when stop listening to God, we make tangled mysteries out of the simplest of matters.
Thankfully, we worship a God of clarity and order, not confusion. When lacking wisdom, we don’t have to resign ourselves to setting up camp in the dense fog of spiritual wilderness. Instead, we can ask for understanding. (2 Timothy 2:7)
# 3 You believe your specific diet is the only way to health
A food legalist, by default, ascribes to a very specific nutritional school of thought. Identifying yourself “paleo,” for instance, is not specific enough. Instead, you must specify whether you call yourself primal-paleo, veggie-paleo, or whole30 compliant-paleo. Not surprisingly, then, dietary division often lead to quarreling. Gather a group of firmly opinionated health nuts at a super bowl party, and the discussion might sound something like this:
Vegan Veronica: So, are you going on that primal-con retreat this year with your Paleo carnivore crew?
Ketosis-Kurt: No, my wife and I actually switched over to the keto diet a couple months ago. They’re a lot more scientifically sound. You should come check out our BBQ.
Vegan Veronica: But there’s no fruit in the keto diet. Literally. Ever since I went vegan all the cells in my body came alive. Why don’t you guys come over to watch Forks Over Knives, sometime? I’ll serve up some activated sprouted popcorn.
Ketosis-Kurt: Nah I just wouldn’t feel fed on that kind of diet. You guys cherry pick your snacks and water down your juice. My muscles need meat roasted by fire, not blueberries sprinkled in water. It’s a core value.
Average Party Paige: Uhh, I’m not a diet person. I’m just nutritional, so I do what feels right for my body. I believe in love and everything in moderation.
Food Faith Connection
Realistically, hundreds of different dietary regimens have led people down a path towards health, fitness, and even community garden potlucks. The food legalist, however, believes their dietary denomination is the one and only way to be healthy. Likewise, in the Christian faith while doctrinal differences do exist, and matter, many different denominations have led people to Christ and community. The Holy Spirit is alive and does multi-denominational heart transformation. Seek truth, but don’t forget to seek unity as well. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
# 4 You’re in Constant Angst
One time, a friend of mine confessed that he struggled when grocery shopping for eggs. Somewhere between the cage-free chicken option, the Canadian ducks, and the omega 3 supplemented ostriches, he would get stressed out and opt not to buy any eggs at all. See, for the food legalist, it’s imperative not just to make a good choice, but to make the right choice. After all, that program completion certificate is on the line, just one corn kernel away from costing you the entire diet season.
Food Faith Connection
In the kitchen, even when we try our very best to eat right, we will still miss the mark, on occasion. For example, it’s possible a Canadian duck suffered a bout of hypothermic malnourishment, throwing off your micro-nutrient count for a whole day. Sorry about that. But opting for starvation, because you can’t decide what to eat, does more harm than good. In this case, you’re better off making a choice to the best of your knowledge and savoring the omelet during a Wednesday breakfast with your spouse.
Also, just as a food legalist worries about stepping out of line, and losing their program certificate, a Christian legalist constantly questions their own salvation. They tiptoe through life as though God’s will is a tightrope, and one wrong move could result in irreparable soul damage. In reality, we will all make mistakes, here but we don’t have to live in angst about it; redemption and the restoration of the broken are central parts of the gospel. Jesus promises us a peace beyond our understanding, and beyond our earning. (Phil 4:7)
So alas, come to the table just as you are. Let your cup overflow, and be salt and light.
28 things I learned about life in the first decade of adulthood. Written on my 28th birthday as advice to my 18-year-old self.
Life is not a multiple-choice test with a secret answer key; it’s a chapter book of choose your own adventure essays. Write often, and edit as you go.
Living in Truth is always better than living in desired perception. But truth seekers, take note. When you pray for God to “wake you up,” buckle up for a wild ride, because reality is truly a thrill.
Good things come to those who ask. Ask God for wisdom. Ask for the sale, the scholarship, the secret recipe, the side story, and for sermon clarification. Do live curiously. But don’t ask Google your most haunting questions at 2 am.
Remember the big picture always wins the fight, after all, it is bigger. That said, the best way to steward the big picture is by showing up—consistently, and often awkwardly—to the small picture, also known as, the present.
Learn to enjoy the paradox of living fully content where you are, while simultaneously longing, and pushing forward to where you want to go.
Coed companions can create a fun and healthy balance to your social life, but when in doubt, define the relationship. Instead of complaining about being led on, take responsibility for your heart, and ask where the ship—friend, relation, or otherwise—is headed.
Satisfying relationship closure is an inside job. Don’t put your well-being on hold as you wait for a grand Olympic style closing ceremony: those only happen every two to 4 years, anyway. Instead, redirect your energy to repairing, recuperating, and returning to the field when ready.
Willpower is important, but annoyingly, and scientifically, finite. Sometimes the best thing to do is muster up just enough internal motivation to reach out to the right external structure. Tackle fitness challenges with friends. See a therapist to get unstuck. Or do as I am with this very post, and set a deadline with monetary consequences.
If you feel lost, follow your stomach. Start by devouring some curiosity crunch for breakfast, and next, pay attention to your upset stomach. Which injustice makes you want to puke? What testimony makes you slightly queasy to share? Who is the person that gives you butterflies? Walk boldly in the direction of your nausea, although try not to literally hurl.
Asking for what you need is not dramatic. On the contrary, ignoring your needs, or holding others accountable to unspoken expectations, can lead to a full-fledged dramatic emergency down the road.
Learn to differentiate between physical, social, and spiritual needs. For example, if you suddenly feel like you have no friends and need to attend a raging party, check to verify that you’re not suffering from a bout of hangry thoughts–completely curable by bowl of cereal. Or, if you devour large bowls of rice whenever you feel empty inside, try filling yourself with scripture and prayer first. Finally, if you instinctively head to the prayer team after every tough week, consider that sometimes you need friends more than prayer, and go play at the sand volleyball courts instead.
Friends and family are more important than chores. But since everyone has to cover their survival basics, bond over mundane activities whenever possible. Crank up the beach boys while washing dishes with siblings, wheel around the grocery with your classmates on a study break, or discuss difficult debacles while folding laundry adjacent to a roommate.
Once you leave home, try to separate love and logistics when you go back to visit. For example, set aside some time to talk about your health insurance, and then put the paperwork away and enjoy a leisurely Sunday breakfast together.
Abandon the search for permission. It turns out, you already have it.
Failure, heartbreak, and disappointment are undeniably painful experiences. However, when weathered well, these storms serve as rocket fuel for growth. Keep your heart tender, and trust that you will come out on the other side with more compassion and wisdom than you imagined.
Regard attention and focus as precious forms of love and generosity. Pay the highest dividends to who and what matter most. It helps to turn off notifications every once in a while.
Whether homework, or professional projects, the majority of multistep wiki-how productivity hacks are accurately summarized by the titles alone of Steven Pressfield’s, and Jon Acuff’s respective books, “Do the Work” and “Finish.”
Quality coffee is good for the mind, body, and soul. It also has a point of diminishing returns. Manage your energy by drinking responsibly, and sleeping when you’re alive.
Don’t allow jealousy and comparison to distract you from your own hero’s journey. Harry Potter conquered evil at age 17, but Frodo Baggins didn’t defeat evil until he was 33. In other words, everyone has a unique timeline.
Scrolling—through everyone else’s Facebook posts and Instagram stories—is not a legitimate evening past time.
Feedback from trusted sources can take you a long way. To be powerful later, you must be willing to expose weakness, today.
The parking police are real, not merciful towards small town folk. Unless you want to allocate a budget for parking tickets each year, ask Siri for regular reminders.
Fashion fouls. a) It’s illegal to wear socks with sandals. b) Leggings are, supposedly, not pants. c) Despite the advertisements, Lash Boss mascara does not actually result in triple voluminous self-esteem levels. However, crying with a friend while dressed in leggings and fuzzy socks, can be quite healing. In which case, a good waterproof mascara can help you feel better about looking more human than racoon.
You are good enough, and pretty enough. Case closed. These are not interesting ongoing mental debates. Now, go spend your energy on more important life questions.
While revelation might feel like a bright beam of knowledge and euphoria shining straight to your heart, the actual breakthrough part, is not nearly as glamorous. Typically, a breakthrough happens when you face a familiar fork in the road, and make a simple connection with God. Aha! you realize, the last 4 times I turned left here, and it wasn’t good. So today, even though everything in me still feels like turning left, I’ll choose right. In that moment, an old pattern breaks and a new one begins.
Between ideation and creation, there is a gap of hesitation. Shorten it. Perfectionism never delivers on its promises. Better to drive one idea all the way home to the imperfect finish line, than ponder in paralysis about 99 others.
Stay playful. Not every aspect of your life has to function in service of saving the world, or meeting a personal development goal. Go ahead, and race across the swimming pool, sing, stargaze, bike through crunchy leaves, and take a taco Tuesday.
Don’t chase after comfort and happiness. Instead eat a main course of connection, truth, beauty, courage, healing, humor, metaphors, and understanding. And then, quite often, happiness comes as a delicious side dish.