What Your Feelings Aren’t Telling You

If my emotions could be summed up in a tangible image they would be a wind tunnel; my feelings are fiercely strong and fickle, changing direction quickly and often, and, if unchecked, ravaging everything in their path. I come by it honestly; both my mother and my father are two of the most compassionate, tenderhearted people you could meet. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the overwhelming intensity of my feelings began to make themselves known while I was still very young. My mom, in her amazing wisdom, set out to teach me a truth that she had only learned as an adult—that my feelings, though valid, are not necessarily indicators of truth.

This was one of the greatest gifts she has ever given me.

It started before I was fully able to reason. I am, after all, the kid who, at age three, got to the scene in the movie Dumbo where the title character is taken away from his mama and sobbed inconsolably for three days. Three days. I couldn’t finish the movie until I was twelve.

Obviously, my mom had a big job ahead of her. When I was very young and acting out because of my feelings she would look me in the eyes and gently but firmly say, “Natalie, your feelings are lying to you.” As I grew older, she switched tactics and began to ask, “Natalie, are your feelings telling you the truth?” and then patiently waited through my sniveling until I was able to give the correct answer: no, my feelings were lying to me.

In some ways I haven’t aged much beyond that passionately emotional three-year-old. I still have times of intense discouragement, the kind where the world appears unendingly bleak; I still find it so easy to slip into a blinding rage; and I still have moments when I doubt everything about myself. On the flip side, there are days when I am so overwhelmed by the love I feel for God or for my husband or (on a really happy day) humanity in general, that I feel like my body is too small to possibly contain it all.

But thanks to my mom, I know that my feelings may not tell me the truth, so I lay them out side-by-side to compare with the Truth—the Word of God.

Feelings can lie, but that doesn’t make them wrong.

God experiences emotion, and when He created each of us in His image and likeness, He gave us feelings too. Our feelings are really useful tools, enabling us to identify a variety of situations in life.

I like to think of our emotions as the nervous system of our soul. Our nerves are designed to help us sort the good activities from the harmful—warm sunlight on the skin: good; scalding water on the skin: bad. Without our nerves working properly we can unknowingly become seriously injured.

Similarly, our feelings show us how our hearts are being affected by daily life, enabling us to sort out the good from the bad, the safe from the unsafe, the comfortable from the uncomfortable. If we allow ourselves to be too ruled by our feelings we can risk making poor decisions and hurting ourselves or others. If we distrust our feelings entirely and shove them away so we cannot be hurt again, we risk our hearts remaining unhealed.

Emotions are not sin; its what we do with them that can become a problem. The Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin.”[1] It does not say “don’t be angry.” Throughout the Bible there are references to both God the Father and God the Son experiencing anger. When we realize that God feels the same intense emotions that we do and yet does not sin, we can no longer justify our lack of self-control in response to our own feelings.

Instead we can choose to be obedient to God’s Word, because obedience is not a feeling, it’s a choice. It’s nice when our emotions align with our obedience, but it’s not necessary. I am convinced that God is never prouder than when I choose to walk in His truth, even though every fiber of my being feels like running the opposite direction.

If you feel worthless, choose to believe that you are worth dying for.[2]

If you feel despair, choose joy.[3]

If you feel bitter, choose to forgive.[4]

If you feel worried, choose to trust Him.[5]

I struggle to make these decisions every single day of my life. Some days are easier than others, but I have found them to be easiest of all when I have someone I trust to help reign me in. I know there are people out there who don’t feel things as extremely as I do—I happen to be married to the most even-tempered man alive. If you are struggling with the enormity of your emotions, find someone who can be a cool head and wise counsel for you. Find someone who will ask you the hard question, “Are your feelings telling you the truth?” and then patiently walk through the answer with you.


[1] Psalm 4:4 NKJV

[2] 1 Peter 1:18-19

[3] Romans 15:13

[4] Ephesians 4:31-32

[5] Matthew 6:25-34

Posted in Adversity, Relationships | 1 Comment

Brokenness

I hate fasting. And when I say I hate fasting, I don’t mean it in the same sense that you might describe a discipline like running, where you know that it might be painful and the motivation hard to muster, but the endorphins and the self esteem booster will be worth it in the end. No, fasting is not like that for me. Which is why I was somewhat unfortunate to find myself taking part in a required, full, three-day fast: no food, no communicating with other people, and just my Bible, notebook, a pen, a water bottle to keep me company . . . and the ever-present desire to go to sleep. But it was in this, to be perfectly honest, miserable state, sitting in a cold stairwell, that I actually began to take this physical experience and learn something more spiritually transcendent.

I learned about brokenness.

Hmmm. That word can evoke many different meanings for us. It can almost be a sense of comfort for those who have experienced its beauty. It can mean dread or bitterness for others who have heard it said one too many times at women’s conferences or have never encountered it in a redemptive way. For me, this brokenness experience didn’t come from bearing my soul at an altar or weeping over deep, dark sin. I was fasting after all, and emotions took a little bit too much energy to muster for this introverted girl. Instead, I found meaning in it through the life of someone else, in the Biblical account of blind Bartimaeus, and have since learned to incorporate it in my own life.

For those of you not readily able to recall this story, Mark 10:45-52 describes a scene in which Jesus and his disciples enter Jericho and are greeted by “a great multitude.” Amongst the crowd sits a blind man by the name of Bartimaeus, who cries out to Jesus despite the people’s attempts to silence him. Jesus responds in true Jesus fashion and heals him. And instead of going on his merry way, Bartimaeus proceeds to follow Jesus.

Let’s dive in a little bit more.

Here we have Bartimaeus, who was blind since birth, begging on the side of the road. Imagine the way we view modern day beggars. They are poor, ragged, often considered “beneath” the middle and upper classes. His existence seems to fully epitomize what we might call desperate. So along comes this man Jesus, and when Bartimaeus hears who it is, he cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is not a meager prayer hesitantly offered to a distant God. It is a plea for help. It is his recognition of his own pitiful and helpless state and the need for physical salvation.

And what astounds me is that the crowd attempted to quiet him. I may be a bit cowardly, but if an entire mob attempted to shut me up, I would not be inclined to argue. But instead of shrinking back in fear and humiliation, it actually causes him to cry out even more. And when his attempts finally prevail and Jesus responds, he does not casually saunter over to Jesus, but instead he “throw[s] aside his garment,” and receives healing.

I don’t think I could conjure up a more desperate and broken situation. Bartimaeus knew his condition, and he probably knew what his future would bring. He knew the power of Jesus. He had heard the testimonies, and nothing – not popular opinion, nor the overwhelming attempts of the masses – could keep him from crying out all the louder for the one person who could, and who just might be willing to, save him.

I am struck by this posture Bartimaeus had before Jesus. It is that of humility and brokenness, and the same posture that we ought to have daily before God. Our lives might not usually consist of such tragic circumstances, but that does not mean they don’t necessitate the same dependence, healing and restoration that are only brought by brokenness before the Lord. It is dwelling in this state that causes us to forsake all, to cry out, defy our distractions, to throw off all that hinders, if you will, and chase the one and only thing that can truly bring redemption and salvation.

Brokenness places us in our rightful state of humility and puts on the throne who truly belongs there: the One with the power, the grace, the mercy, the love and the willingness to restore all things, the small and the big, to Himself.

Brokenness is not merely tears. It is not just grief, or giving up. Nor is it merely standing in church with outstretched hands during worship. It is not a word to describe the “spiritual” or emotional Christian. And it doesn’t mean that we are crippled, forever walking in a mournful or weakened state. Rather, it is the very key to strength and healing, the kind that comes from an almighty God working on our behalf as we surrender our own feeble attempts.

What followed Bartimaeus’ miraculous healing was gratitude. He recognized the power and love of his healer and did not desire to be away from his savior. He continued to follow him on the road.

This state of brokenness doesn’t have to be a show; no long journal entries need to be written as a result. It should be a daily positioning of our lives before God, of recognizing His power, His might, and our desperate need for His continuous grace and mercy. His example might be extreme, but the plight and response of Bartimaeus serves to demonstrate the beauty and power of a broken spirit before a good God.

It was in a place of physical deprivation that I discovered the value of emptying myself, and found rest and comfort in the process of doing so.

He is the potter, we are the clay. We are broken vessels poured out as a fragrant offering.

Posted in Theology & Philosophy, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Here is Our God: Reflections on the Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference

Two weekends ago I was blessed to be able to attend The Gospel Coalition National Women’s Conference in Orlando. I must confess that I initially approached the conference with a bit of East Coast intellectual skepticism, wondering if such a large, commercial, Christian event in the Bible Belt would actually be relevant to me.

Who was I kidding? The truth is relevant to me and to those of us trying to understand and respond appropriately to the gospel and to God’s grace. That weekend, 3,000+ of us heard the beautiful, convicting, magnificent truth of God. And anyway, who wouldn’t look forward to three days at an event with names like Keller, Piper and Carson?

There were so many heart-piercing “aha” moments and lessons, it’s hard to truly reflect on all of them in one post. Carrie Sandom pushed us to take a deeper look at the Lord’s unchanging character and his promise of deliverance in Psalm 40. John Piper helped us to get a clearer glimpse of the God of Isaiah 6 who is Alive. Authoritative. Omnipotent. Resplendent. Revered. Holy. And Glorious. Paige Benton Brown took us through a journey of God’s temple from the tabernacle to Solomon’s temple to its current place within us. We must ask ourselves what we are doing to preserve our “templeness.” Nancy Leigh DeMoss challenged us to build up our spiritual fortress through daily devotions in order to weather the storms of our life. My fellow Citylife Church attendees are keeping each other accountable in our 30-day devotional challenge. Kathleen Nielsen took us through the consummation of the Biblical story in Revelation 4-5. The worship of our redeemer is what this life is all about, and it’s happening now despite our self-important goings-on. We either join or we don’t. I want to join. And Don Carson painted for us a picture of the new Jerusalem and reminded us of the importance of valuing our destiny in heaven (Revelation 21-22). Choosing heaven as our treasure as Jesus commands in Mark 6 will help turn our hearts toward him in this life.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway was the most simple – the upside down gospel of grace – which is rooted in God’s love and sacrifice, and completely unexpected and undeserved by a sinner like me. I really appreciate the way Tim Keller articulates the order of the gospel: we are saved by grace, which then motivates our obedience to God, which results in blessing. Or put another way, “I am accepted, therefore I obey”, as opposed to “I obey, and then I’m accepted.” The first is a response of gratitude while the latter is conditional and self-centered.

Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson reminded us that the same unexpected gospel story should be preached to our children. Too often in modern Christianity our children are taught “be good so you can feel good about yourself and so God will give you good stuff and not mess with you too much.” The real message is that it’s hard to be good, but Christ makes us good. Young or old, we need a savior who saved us before we even knew we needed it.

And finally, the upside down gospel should extend deep into our hearts. Jenny Salt pointed out that while the world tells us to boast in ourselves and tell everyone how great we are, we are to do the opposite in the gospel. According to 2 Corinthians 12, the gospel keeps us from boasting in things that make us look good and causes us to boast in our weaknesses. As God promised in Isaiah 43, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul says in 2 Cor. 12:9, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” As Charles Spurgeon captured it so poetically: “I’ve learned to kiss the wave that pushes me against the rock of ages.”

So what does this all mean for me?

In short, I want to approach the God of Isaiah 6 with newness and awe. I want to look to heaven in all its reality with anticipation and excitement. I want to be more grateful for the one who bore the punishment I deserved before I even existed. I want to take comfort in the fact that I don’t have to be good in order to be accepted. I am already accepted and made good. I want to pursue the goodness that was imparted in me not for my own boasting, but to demonstrate the power of a God who can transform a sinner like me.

Click here to access free audio and video of all conference sessions

Photo Credit: The Gospel Coalition

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

UNLESS

I am a bleeding heart idealist. I believe in the power of love, justice, and compassion. I believe that we are ALL supposed to roll up our sleeves and try to save the world, to tackle the BIG PROBLEMS like poverty, injustice, disease, violence, and environmental destruction. I believe that, even if we won’t ever be able to turn the world into a completely peaceful kingdom by our own efforts, to have anything less as our goal is to pull the shades and wait for the end. I believe that God put us here to try to love each other (even though we’d mess it up). And I KNOW that nothing threatens this idealism more than living with a development economist.

I’m talking about my husband.

Erick entered his field based on a certain amount of idealism, too. In fact, the deciding factor behind his pursuit of a PhD in economics was the time we spent helping coordinate a school and house build in Tanzania. Largely because of that experience, he focused his research on how economic factors affect the spread of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But spend enough time working hard in any field, and a certain amount of cynicism seems inevitable. Lately, Erick has become cynical about everything from NGOs, to short-term missions trips, to “humanitarian tourism,” to even . . . Bono. When well-meaning, idealistic outsiders try to “help” in difficult and complex situations, he tells me it’s often no help at all and sometimes even makes things worse. For instance, a team of westerners who go to a third world country in order to build houses or schools is often taking over jobs that locals can — and should — be doing; I believe the official economic term is “unintended consequences.” Now he comes home after a full day of researching how to make the world better, and tells me that no interventions really effect meaningful change — unless maybe you pay people enormous amounts of money as a reward for feeding their own children. So Erick and I have a lot of discussions around this topic, often beginning when I say, “Guess what amazing things so-and-so or such-and-such is doing!” and he puts on his professor face and goes, “Hmmmm . . .”

The title of this post is taken from Dr. Seuss’s book The Lorax. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, the Lorax is a creature who “speaks for the trees” that are being cut down by the greedy Once-ler. After the last tree is chopped down, the Lorax flies away, leaving behind a pile of stones with the word “UNLESS” engraved upon them. The Once-ler, trapped in the barren wasteland he’s created, stews over the meaning of UNLESS, until finally he gets it:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

I’ve stewed, too, over whether that catchy little rhyme is true. And I’ve decided that I think it is true. A development economist might disagree that one person’s caring can make anything measurably, objectively better. But I’m still an idealist.

And yes, I am disagreeing with my own husband. I’m disagreeing with gratitude, though — gratitude that I have a husband who engages with me around hard topics and forces me to defend my idealism. (And despite the cynicism, we’re still talking about a pretty tenderhearted guy, who successfully navigates a house filled with four noisy and dramatic females.)

Here’s why I think that NGOs, short-term missions trips, humanitarian tourism — and Bono — are important:

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, there will be needs and injustices in the world that are ignored. Of course, there will always be needs and injustices that go unaddressed, and your ability as one person to make a significant dent in these issues is miniscule. But by making a choice to care, you are still sending an important message that you’re not going to ignore the things that are wrong with our world. You’re sending that message to the people you’re choosing to serve, to the people who know you, and even to the marketplace. That just might have a powerful ripple effect across time. You’re not as powerful as you think you are, but you’re not as powerless as you think you are, either.

It’s like taking a meal to someone who’s grieving. That action may seem pretty insignificant; one meal can’t take away their loss, or heal their pain. It could even be a silly gesture: maybe they’re too sad to even eat, or yours is the twentieth lasagne they’ve received in a week. So, should you even bother to take them a meal? Of course you should! More important than the food itself is the gesture of caring, and the message that sends to your grieving friend that their heartache isn’t being ignored.

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, we’ll never figure out the best ways to solve these problems. The history of humanitarian aid is riddled with stories of unintended consequences: well-meaning outsiders who took jobs from locals, built things that were ultimately useless or couldn’t be maintained, and imposed their own ideas without fully understanding the needs of those they were “helping.” So, is it best to just bow out, to let the marketplace and the local population hash out the solutions to their own problems?

I don’t think so. Deep needs or injustices usually arise from complex imbalances that render the marketplace or the local population unable to address these issues quickly or thoroughly; they don’t have the social or economic power. In these cases, it can be extremely effective when people who DO have more social or economic power lend a helping hand. Not that the local population couldn’t resolve things eventually, not that they need rescuing like frail damsels in distress; it’s more like giving the problem solving process a shot of adrenalin, in the form of additional brains, muscles, and money.

And here’s the really, really important thing: I think it’s just as patronizing to imply that those we try to help are somehow powerless against our misguided good intentions, as it is to imply that they need rescuing in the first place. In my experience, the most effective and long lasting programs aimed at addressing BIG PROBLEMS are the ones that are the most collaborative. They’re the programs that invite everyone to the table — the helpers AND the help-ees — and create a climate of respectful listening and discussion. They’re also the programs that place a great deal of the power and responsibility directly into the hands of those being helped.

We don’t have a shot at ever solving the world’s biggest problems unless we TRY. And trying will naturally involve some misfires, but that’s no different than the rest of life: even with the very best intentions, people are still people, the world is still the world. But just because some programs are misguided, and just because the big problems are a tangled mess, doesn’t mean that we should abandon any attempt to help; you throw out the bad, and keep working together to do better.

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, you’ll probably never care a little. One critique of things like short-term missions trips, humanitarian tourism, and writing checks to popular NGOs is that these activities are fairly glamorous, relatively easy to do, and short-lived. You can drop in to a third world country or an inner city for a week or so, do your helping, and then leave feeling great about yourself and looking noble to everyone else.

I say: you have to start somewhere.

Every once in a while, these experiences change people so much that they can’t go back to their old lives; they pull up their stakes and move to that third world country or inner city with a long-term commitment to live, learn, and help. Or they change jobs. Or they go on more trips. I know that the world would be short one development economist (and what a tragedy that would be!) if not for a two-week trip to Tanzania in 2005.

But more often, these experiences change us little by little, priming our hearts for what just might be a lifetime of steady, non-dramatic caring.

I have come to believe that the most important thing is caring for people in my own small town. In fact, the reason we need most of the nonprofits out there is because we don’t tend to take good care of each other.  You know all those stories about how you can make the biggest difference in your own backyard, and the janitor who touched lives just by doing his job excellently, etc? Well, it’s TRUE; I can assure you as someone who spent half a decade working for nonprofits, and even my development economist agrees with me on this point. Just as one drop of food coloring has much more impact if you add it to a teaspoon of water instead of a gallon, you can most effectively make the world better simply by helping the people directly around you.

If this sounds like an easy cop-out, a wimpy vision, I assure you it’s not; it’s usually harder to help the people right around you than to support organized global relief efforts. It takes more time and intimacy — two things that are scarce and/or scary for most of us. But what does it say about my ideals if I’m sending money to international nonprofits, or going off on humanitarian vacations, but ignoring the needs of my neighbors? (And yes, I know we’re all neighbors, but I’m talking about my actual neighbors.)

The funny thing is, I think sometimes we’re better able to carry out these small, local acts of service if we’ve first taken that big, glamorous humanitarian trip. We may not uproot our lives to become career humanitarians, but we may have our eyes opened to the daily needs all around us, to the power of love and caring, and to the feeling that when we help just a little, we’re somehow getting closer to who we’re meant to be.

Here’s a little story for you, in closing:

My husband has a former student who arrived in Vermont from his native Kenya following a journey of amazing determination. Shortly before graduating from Middlebury College this spring, he founded an NGO called the Ungana Scholars Project, which provides scholarships for Kenyan students to attend secondary school and college.

He says that it was my cynical husband’s “Seminar in Economic Development” that helped inspire him to found this NGO.

So I guess you can be cynical and idealistic at the same time: a cynical idealist. That’s probably not a bad thing to be.

What do YOU think?

Posted in Social Justice, Theology & Philosophy, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why it’s so Great to be in Boston on the 4th!

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” – John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1777

What a prophecy! So, yeah . . . we actually celebrate on the 4th (the date stamped on the Declaration of Independence), but we do celebrate what the 2nd stands for: the day the thirteen colonies were given their independence from England! I don’t claim to be a history buff, but I’m a history lover! So, I get goosies easily when I read things like this from our Founding Fathers, and when I visit all of the historical sites in Boston!

So, why is it so great to be in Boston on the 4th!? Because it all happened here! Here are some fun things to see and do if you’re ever here in Boston on the 4th!

1) Explore the Freedom Trail! The Freedom Trail goes throughout the city of Boston and lands at many historical sites, such as:

  • The USS Constitution, also known as The Old Ironsides. To this day, she still sails! The original and beautiful piece of history lives at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Once a year, on the 4th, she is sailed out into the ocean (just for a little spin to Castle Island and back). When The Old Ironsides returns, she is parked the opposite direction for the remainder of the year to ensure even wear. It really is a beautiful sight!
  • The Paul Revere house. He played a significant part in fighting for our freedom! His home is located in Boston’s North End (the bricky part of the buildings show in the above picture). While you’re in the North End, you must also see the Old North Church, where Paul Revere hung the lanterns (“one if by land, two if by sea”).
  • While you’re on the Freedom Trail visit the Old State House! Bostonians first heard the reading of the Declaration of Independence from its balcony! Not only is it a beautifully preserved landmark, but it is a fantastic museum as well.
  • There are too many amazing places to visit on the Freedom Trail!

2) Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. After an unfortunate fire, this museum burned down years ago and finally reopened about a week ago! So, I haven’t even had a chance to visit yet. But how could you go wrong!?

3) Museum of Fine Arts, Art of the Americas (new wing). The MFA plans to keep this wing until 2016, so you have plenty of time to come see it! Read more about it here.

4) If you haven’t noticed, I’m a John Adams fan! He played such an important part in our gaining independence. He was a man of great integrity and a man of faith in God. Recently, I visited John Adams’ homes in Qunicy, MA and my expectations were exceeded greatly! Here is a link to the Adams National Historical Park. The museums contained original presidential artwork, John Adams library, his infamous letters to his wife, the list goes on! (His home, Peacefield, is pictured to the right. And I “stole” this picture from Lyndsay’s review on the John Adams mini-series).

5) See Fireworks!! As an adult, I was never impressed with fireworks until I moved to Boston! The Boston Pops (summer program for the Boston Symphony Orchestra) sets up a massive production in the Hatch Shell (outdoor amphitheater) on the Charles River. Fireworks are shot off from a barge floating in the river. It’s actually a very beautiful show. But keep in mind . . . the crowds are thick! Also, be aware that most restaurants close before dinner. But I happen to know from experience that Cheers is open for dinner!

Happy Independence Day!!

Photo Credit 1, Photo Credit 2, Photo Credit 3, Picture 4 by OTW editor, Lyndsay Wilkin.

Posted in Art, Family, History, Politics, Travel | Leave a comment