Archive for November, 2012

“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”

― Blaise PascalPensees

This time of year as Americans have just celebrated Thanksgiving and as we prepare for the Advent season I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject of gratitude.

I’ve been hearing a good deal lately about what people are grateful for. What I hear them saying reveals a lot about them.

This famous quote from Pascal is worth some reflection in this season of the year. In our most grateful moments, we who  have grown up and lived in an environment of relative affluence must admit that our possessions and comfortable lifestyles tend to capture our hearts and drive our ambitions, probably much more than we realize.

I have heard Pascal’s observation quoted most often in reference to those without a personal faith in God, or more specifically a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It makes perfect sense that those without an awareness of God’s personal activity in their lives will feel a sense of emptiness in life and will feverishly seek to “fill the void” with whatever seems to satisfy – even if it is only temporary. This would explain the proliferation of various addictions which plague so many of us in today’s world.

In my own naive way of thinking, I have generally felt that people of faith have an advantage over those who don’t because of their acknowledgment of the “God shaped vacuum” and of necessity desire a personal relationship with God throughout life. I’m now realizing that it’s not quite so simple.

I have just finished reading two books on the subject of addiction and recovery. One is a classic work by Gerald May entitled  “Addiction and Grace.”  May’s work  almost reads like a devotional book in that he demonstrates in compelling ways that most people who overcome addictions do so by having some kind of personal encounter with God. In short, he explains that all addictions are simply various forms of “attachment.” Objects of addiction become idols and substitute “gods” in our lives and are always destructive. God Himself, May explains, never allows Himself to be used as an object of attachment as He is constantly seeking to be known in relationship.

When we “give thanks” for our possessions and the trappings of our creature-comforts we often expose the very things that have become attachments and objects of worship in our own lives. I am not saying that we should not be grateful for these things. I am saying that we need to be more focused on The Giver of all good things.

In my own personal journey with God, I would have to say that I am coming through a season in which God has been exposing idols in my own life. This is why May’s book made such an impression on me.

Back as a young man of sixteen I remember the day in Sunday School that I “gave my heart to Jesus.”  Later after hearing about the “God shaped vacuum” I began to think, “Great! Now my problems are solved! I had this vacuum inside and now it’s completely filled. I’ll be satisfied in life from now on!”

What I neglected to realize is that God continues to fill the void only if I allow Him to do so on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment arrangement. I’m not talking here about my eternal destiny – that is a completed transaction. I’m talking about a heart response to what God offers me of Himself every moment of every day.

When we get focused on all the “stuff” that our Heavenly Father provides for us, we can miss the reality that every moment He provides us with His presence and life in its fullness apart from possessions and earthly pleasures.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a long, long way from defeating all the idols and attachments in my own life that challenge my devotion to Jesus Christ. But I think this is one of the first Thanksgivings in a long time that I’m leaning toward being more grateful for God Himself and His activity in my life rather than just starting and stopping with a shopping list of all He’s provided for me.

Obviously all the people and possessions that our Father gives to us should draw us back to Him in gratitude. But I’m finding that God is always in the business of revealing the emptiness that is and would be part of my life if not for His continuing, abiding presence.

At this very “full” time of the year may you allow God into whatever circumstance you are facing just now and find Him filling the empty spaces of your heart. For His abiding presence and personal touch in our lives we can all be truly grateful.

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“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” Luke 12:25-26 (NIV)

“Almost everyone who comes into our office seems to be experiencing high levels of stress,” commented the nurse who was drawing my blood. My local doctor sent me to her recently for a routine blood test. As we were conversing we somehow came to the subject of stress and anxiety.

It’s not very difficult to see why people are under a cloud of so much worry in these times. We are under constant pressure from many sources nowadays. A case in point would be the US presidential race which ended this past week.

Even though I am not currently residing in the USA many people where I live in Ireland were watching the election with interest and I along with them. From my viewpoint, I was aware that  many of my Stateside family and friends were profoundly anxious about the outcome of the election – one way or the other.

I’m obviously not the first to discover this, but anxiety is most often fueled by a sense of helplessness in the face of situations beyond our control. The outcome of an event or the fear of “what might happen next?” is reflective of anxiety’s dominance on the stage of our minds.

In recent years I’ve come to realize that worry and stress have had a much firmer grip on my soul than they should have had. Our tendency to worry about the real-life issues we face doesn’t usually have any influence over the situations themselves and in fact makes living in the present much more difficult in the process. Maybe it’s that we have the compulsion to “do something” about what troubles us, even when we realistically have little control in the situation.

It’s a negative cycle that’s not easily broken. Anxiety creates an ever growing snowball that keeps negative thinking  growing. The effects of anxiety rob us of happiness that could be ours and influences the lives of those around us. It’s not very fun to be around people who don’t have a positive outlook on life. Anxiety is a toxin that takes away good things and gives nothing in return.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, I think one decision we can make today to start relieving the burden of anxiety on our souls is to examine our own thoughts in light of what they produce in our inner lives.

As reflected in the verse above, Jesus spoke to us very directly about our thought processes, particularly about the things we tend to stress over the most – our basic needs of food, clothing and housing. He spoke about God’s Kingdom, seeking it first, above all things, and trusting God to take care of all of our needs.

Over the past while I made some deliberate decisions about being much more intentional about my own thought life.  As a result, I obtained a small notebook as a complement to my own personal journal.  It’s specifically for recording positive things I’m seeing God doing in and around me – the signs of His Kingdom, so to speak. Answers to prayer, unexpected surprises, people who are special to me and reasons for celebrating what God is doing all find their way into the notebook.

As you might imagine, my “positive notebook” is progressing, but it doesn’t have nearly enough in it. I’m sure that I am only capturing a fraction of what God is actually doing around me and what could be recorded.

Whenever I’m tempted to let anxiety take root, or allow negative thoughts to dominate, my positive notebook is never far away. Taking time to reflect on the positives gives me a fresh perspective on my current problems and renews a spirit of gratitude within me.

I don’t expect to solve everyone’s problems with anxiety with one essay such as this. Just the exercise of sharing these insights gives me hope that whatever the future may hold for us, stress and anxiety need not have a dominating power in our lives. This is especially true for all who are seeking God’s Kingdom. We can intentionally yield to Him, longing to have His rule dominate our thoughts and  hearts.

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