June 29, 2016

Decisions, Choices, and Expectations

I slept like a rock last night. This is the second night in a row where I went to bed and didn't wake up all night long. I got up around 7 a.m. to use the bathroom, but afterward, I retreated to my warm and snuggly bed for another hour and a half. In all, I slept about 10 hours. I guess my body and mind needs the rest. I have been mentally and emotionally stressed for a while, so sleeping well always seems to happen once I unload, so to speak, all the stress I have been carrying around for a while. It is like when I was young and I couldn't sleep through the night due to traumatic events. I would often crash hard and then sleep for days just to recover. Thankfully, I don't do that anymore, but I do find that my need for sleep cycles like this, after traumatic events and difficult and prolonged stress.

My comprehensive exams took more out of me that I thought previously. Plus, my work/life balance, while in check, didn't really alleviate my stress much. My work schedule was chosen in order to give me the best chance for success last spring. I worked three days a week only, and in doing so, I was able to use my time off for studying and prepping for my exams. Now, I am at the end of that process, and I am working on my dissertation. I hope to have everything finished by December so I can graduate in January. This timeline is doable, but only if I focus 100% on my research. It means I have to have days off this fall, and I have to be able to complete my research and writing before the end of the year.

My plans for this week are to continue resting. The Lord has placed this command in my mind, and I know that when I listen and heed His word, I do well. If I push it and go against His word, I will falter and suffer the consequences (typically, physical consequences). This leads me to the topic of today's post. I am struggling today with expectations, and yes, with decision-making and the all-encompassing issue of making wise choices.

Decisions, Choices, and Expectations

These past two weeks have been troubling for me. I have been in the midst of making some important life choices, and while I felt sure about my decision a couple weeks ago, I am feeling less sure of my decision to change paths today. Really, this has been a progressive feeling, a deepening concern over the past couple days (since Sunday), and now I am feeling less positive that I am doing the right thing in applying for and interviewing with UHC for a position as an analyst. I woke up today, and while I feel good, really, really good, and I have this sense that I am right where I am supposed to be -- right where I am supposed to remain -- I still am uncertain of my future. In some ways it is almost as if previously, I was in the midst of a wide and expansive beach, sitting pretty, feeling good and enjoying the bright and warm sunshine. It was good. I was in good shape. But, then I moved. I walked further down the beach, and all of a sudden, the tide has turned, and it is now rushing in on me. I am standing in knee deep water, and I am watching the waves build out a sea, and I know they will soon crash down and bring that water up higher and higher. I feel like running, but I cannot. I am stuck in the sand, my feet deeply embedded and unable to move. Yet, the water is coming toward me, and I see it. I need to flee. The Lord says to me, "I AM," and He reminds me that He controls the sea. He calms the waves, and He brings them gently to the shore. I am safe; I feel it. I am good; I know it. Still, the waves are there, the tide is rising, and I am standing in a precarious place with no way to move or to go. I must wait. I must stand. I must trust Him to rescue me.

Making Wise Choices

I started to think about my choice to leave teaching last night as I was getting ready for bed. I started to wonder how I would complete everything I need to do AND work full-time. As I analyzed my decision to leave, I remember how strongly I felt when I thought about working part-time into the fall. I mean, I hate the thought, the idea, of working part-time for another one-two semesters. I hate the idea of having less income. It pulls at me. It literally causes me stress and strain. I bend with the weight of worry, of doubt, and of fear as to what will come next. But then I remember that my goal, my task, is to complete my PhD, and that means I have to push everything else aside and focus on this one big THING. I am an adjunct instructor IN ORDER TO facilitate my studies, to complete my program. This I know well. And, what is more, I know that the Lord will cover me. I know the Lord has a plan for my life, and it is good. But, I also know that I cannot lose my focus now. If I were to give in, to not focus on the end, my enemy would more than likely win. He would gain the upper hand, and I would find myself struggling to finish this work. Instead, I know I must not let that happen, so I have to remain fixed on this path, remain steady, and walk straight on toward the completion of my PhD. Thus, today, I am second-guessing whether it was in my best interest to apply for a business position at this time. I am not saying that it wasn't a good choice (the job, I mean) because I know that working as an analyst is a good fit for my skills and abilities. I am concerned about the timing. Did I walk too soon into the surf when I should have simply stayed safely on the beach?

1. Summers - A Love/Hate Relationship. It seems like I have floundered each summer since I started to teach college classes. I love my summers off, and I have greatly enjoyed my courses and my trips to Regent each June. My life has been moving steadily forward, checking off requirements and accumulating the required credits so I could graduate on time. Now, I am at this point where I am in good shape. I have passed my exams, and I am in the midst of my big project (as my professor calls it). My end is clearly in sight, and there is a strong temptation to start other things. You know how that goes...when you are almost finished with one task and you begin to think about all the other things you might do next. It is easy to get sidetracked and to lose the focus to finish what you started. I know this is the case right now. I have been bored while I was waiting for my professor to give me feedback. Now that I have his notes, I need to finish this work. I can do it, of course. I can complete what needs to be done, but I started to feel "ready" to do more work, so I looked around and took some time to apply for positions that would (1) pay me well and (2) align with my skills and abilities. I got called for a screening interview, which I completed on video and in person. I am now waiting to hear back on the next steps. Will I be called for a second interview or will I be rejected and passed over? I don't know, I just don't know.

2. My Priority is School. My task is before me, however, and it remains unfinished. Yet, I look to my circumstances and I see so many needs (BIG NEEDS). What should I do? How do I remain where I am and maintain my lifestyle? It is a difficult place to be in, and I don't like the feeling of being hard pressed to make ends meet. Still, I must hang on. I must not lose my focus. I am struggling to make the "right" decision today. I have had the idea that if I get the call (or email) to proceed to this job, then I can know for sure that this is the Lord's plan for me. If I get the call (or email) saying "Thanks, but no thanks," then I will know this is not the Lord's plan. Part of me sees this approach as a lack of faith. I mean, it is more of a test -- testing to see if God's word is true or not. I don't want to do this, to take this approach. No, I want to be 100% faithful, to believe His word to me is truth. Thus, I sit here and I wonder. I stew a bit, and I ask the Lord for clarification, for His help, so I can know the truth. What is the truth, Lord? Am I just having second-thoughts, doubts? Or, is this feeling simply to let me know that since my primary choice (or first-time choice) is known (as in non-negotiable) my secondary choice (second-time choice) is what is causing me trouble. My second-time choice is not clear. I have options, I have variables, but I have no clear direction at this point in time. I do know that my second-time choice must never be in conflict, must never cause or lead me to a place that is not supportive or dependent on my first-time choice.

It is weird, really, to think about choices this way. I never really understood the process of making good choices, and frankly, I struggle with making decisions today. Last night, while I was trying to fall asleep, I decided to pray about my situation. I wanted clarification. I wanted help in knowing whether I was just imagining the turmoil or if the Holy Spirit was helping me come to a decision once and for all. After I prayed, I googled "making good choices" on my iPhone. I landed on a page that described Ignation Spirituality. If you are not familiar, Ignatian Spirituality is the rule (like the rule of St. Benedict, for example) put forth by St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius was Spanish priest who is considered the Father of the spiritual order, the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. St. Ignatius and his order of monks and monasteries founded schools, colleges, and universities all over Europe during the 1500s. He is also known for his spiritual exercises that consist of contemplative prayers and meditation designed to bring the follower closer to Jesus. The Ignatian motto is "for the greater glory of God," and those that follow his directives seek to develop a closer relationship to Jesus Christ, and to live a life predicated on labor for God.

I was familiar with Ignatian Spirituality and had read the spiritual exercises before, but while I was browsing their website in order to gain some insight when it comes to about making choices, I found a page that explained Ignatius' example of how to make an analytical choice to solve some real-world problem. Although I don't agree with everything he suggested, I did find some of what he described as being practical and good common sense. In particular, I read his discussion on how to differentiate between first-time choices and second-time choices.

Ignatius described common choices as either first-time choices or second-time choices. A first-time choices is a "decision that is unmistakably clear" and typically is when "we know what is right." These choices are what I call non-negotiables. These are choices where there little discussion is needed because the answer is obvious. You either turn left or right; you either stop or go. There is little confusion about which way to go so the choice is easy. For example, my calling (my vocation and ministry) given to me by God is a first-time choice. I believed that the Lord personally communicated His desire for me to return to graduate school to pursue study in Communication. I followed the Lord when I made the decision to obey His word to me. My first-time choice led me to the path that I am on today as a teacher and to the place where I am about to graduate with my PhD. I know that this choice, this decision, was predicated on one thing and that one thing was an inner desire to know God, to serve Him and to serve others in order to bring praise, honor, and glory to His majestic name. I am convinced of my calling, convinced and unwilling, to be swayed by any other idea, thought or notion on the contrary. I am pursuing my first-time choice with ardent fervor because I believe it is the Lord's will for my life.

Ignatius describes a second-time choice or decision as "situations where the preferred choice is not entirely clear." According to Fleming (2016), in second-time choices, we are "presented with alternative courses of action that all seem attractive to some degree, and we are not blessed with the gift of a clear certainty about what to do." According to St. Ignatius, "we can discern the right choice by attending to the inner movements of our spirit," which in Ignatian terms means to discern the difference between consolation and desolation. These terms are not familiar to most Christians, so it is easy to misunderstand what he is suggesting. Ignatius believed,
Spiritual consolation is an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can. Spiritual consolation encourages and facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, mercy, and companionship in our life. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others.
Spiritual desolation, in contrast, is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’s words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love.”
In short, the idea of consolation is a feeling that leads the individual into a closer relationship with God, whereas desolation is a feeling that causes more confusion or an unwelcome feeling of disillusion or restlessness. Ignatius is clear that not all desolation is bad. Sometimes feelings of disillusion or restlessness can signal a necessary change of course or a development that may be leading the individual to a new way. However, the over-arching goal of discernment is to bring the individual to the point of decision, and that decision should always deepen one's relationship to God, and develop a stronger sense of necessity when it comes to serving God and serving others.

I like this idea a lot because it places the focus on "laboring for God." It also clearly addresses internal motivations that may serve to cause distance or dissatisfaction in the heart and mind of the believer. For example, the word clearly instructs us that we cannot love God and love the world (the things of the world). Yet, often we try to maintain both -- a love relationship with the Lord -- and a love relationship with the world. In sum, we attempt to do both equally well -- living in the same manner and style of our neighbors -- yet professing deep faith to God. Jesus says that it is impossible to do this (Matt. 6:24). John says the same thing in 1 John 2:15-17. How can we love God and love others and yet seek worldly comforts and a lifestyle that is so similar to everyone else around us? Is it wrong to seek these things, to seek comfort above a deeper love for God?

3. Second-time Choices. I think in my case, I struggle most with these types of decisions. They are value-based decisions, often good, but not presenting as clear favorites. There is no clear answer, just options or alternatives to consider. Ignatius teaches the importance of using rational thinking, analytically summing up pros and cons, for example, in order to clearly identify underly motivations that may cloud your ability to judge rightly. He also strongly asserts the necessity of emotional reaction or discerning "feelings" as part of this process. In Ignatian ideals, feelings are good things, and not seen as negative or directed solely to selfish pursuits. Similarly, the modern adage, "trust your heart" is something that Ignatius would say is a good thing, but only if your heart has been "schooled" by Jesus Christ. The heart motivations of the believer should always point toward God and not toward self. If the motivation is clearly focused on serving God, the likelihood that selfish feelings will predominate the process is less of an issue. As I consider my motivations, I have to admit that some of my recent decisions have been predicated on what Ignatius would consider as desolation. I won't go into a lot of detail, but suffice it to say that whenever you are actively seeking and serving God, a spirit of confusion can come upon you and attempt to lead you away from God. The goal is to cause you to stop doing what you are doing (good work for His glory) and get you to focus on doing what is better for you (your glory). Ignatius says that we must always test the spirits in order to know whether we are discerning them correctly. 

John says in 1 John 4:1 NIV, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." He is speaking of false prophets, but the command is valid. We must test what we hear, think and feel to ensure that it aligns with the truth, the Word of God. In doing so, we will be better able to understand what is true and good, and consequently, make good choices. Likewise, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:12 NIV, "What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us."

4. Discerning God's Call. In all of this discussion, I believe what is at the root is the struggle I have discerning God's call on my life. What I know to be true, I do not doubt. What I struggle with most, is knowing how my calling is to influence and impact the rest of my life. Is my calling distinctive and unique, only to form one part of my life? Or is my calling comprehensive and complete to the point of transforming my life from the inside out?

Chris Lowney, in his article entitled, "The Voice in Here," discerning God's voice and His call on our life begins inside our heart. He quotes Quaker minister Parker Palmer who said, "Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God." 

As I consider my life today, and after reading Lowney's uplifting article, I cannot help but rethink my decision to leave teaching for a more stable, lucrative, and positively rational decision in corporate business. Yes, I am poor (hopelessly poor). Yes, I am overworked at times, pushed to the brink of exhaustion, and often unable to stand up. Yet, there is part of me that relishes that experience, that derives such delight from it. I think to myself that my work as a teacher pleases God greatly because I am using one of the many gifts He has given to me. This doesn't mean that I do not or would not please God when using my brain, my analytical skill or my leadership ability in the same way. No, rather it simply means that when I stop and think of how I can "find God in all things," I cannot help but know that God is present in my teaching just as certainly as He would be in my business pursuits. He is with me, and whether I go this way or that way, He never leaves me. But, when I am doing work that honors Him, directly ministers to others, and places my wants and needs as secondary, well that I believe brings a smile to His face. Yes, when we submit and yield to others, and when we do so voluntarily, then we are seeking to do His work in all places.

When we are using our gifts and talents for God's kingdom, then we are doing something special and wonderful. We are fulfilling our purpose and we are working in alignment to His plan for our life.  Not every person is called to full-time religious life (as in a pastor or minister). Many people receive callings that include actively using their gifts and talents in multiple ways. In this way, when we are actively embracing and using the gifts God has given to us, then we are spending our time here on Earth doing quality work, good work, good things. Lowney says it this way, 
“What fuels one to perform with excellence has a spiritual quality that inspires, nurtures, and sustains one’s work. . . . I find when I experience extraordinary talent in someone—whether it is playing tennis, singing, preaching, caring for the sick—it reminds me of God’s grace and seems to be a very wonderful way for that person to use his or her time and energy.”
5. Choosing Based on God's Desires. This discussion leads me to believe that my decision to leave teaching was motivated by selfish desires and a need to satisfy my own sense of fear. I believe now that my decision to look for work in business was prompted by what Ignatius would consider a spirit of desolation. According to Ignatian Spirituality, the key to understanding good and bad "spirits" results when motivations are brought to light. Heart motivations can either serve to bring the individual closer to God or move them further away from Him. Ignatian Spirituality writes, "For people who are trying to live a life pleasing to God, the good spirit strengthens, encourages, consoles, removes obstacles, and gives peace. The evil spirit tries to derail them by stirring up anxiety, false sadness, needless confusion, frustration, and other obstacles."

I see this thinking bear itself out constantly in my own life. I know that when I am confused, confounded as to what to do or how to proceed, I often will note a sense of desolation overcome me. I will become more anxious, more confused, more frustrated. In time, I will begin to experience greater obstacles, and if left unchecked, I will often find my path completely blocked. I will be unable to move forward. Barry (2016) writes that often when we experience a sense of desolation it is because our enemy is seeking to push us away from God. He says, "it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul.” Likewise, when we are doing what pleases God most, then we experience blessing. Paul writes about the fruit of the Holy Spirit as evidence of a life that is doing what God desires. In Galatians 5:22-23 we read, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These characteristics are demonstrations that we are walking in behavior that is pleasing to God. My experience bears testimony because if I am doing what God has asked me, no required of me to do, (say, my studies), then I am overcome with peace, filled with joy, and I experience patience and self-control to do what I must. Moreover, I am filled with a deeper sense of love for God,and with a sense of goodwill toward others. In short, I feel good about what I am doing, and I feel hopeful that my time is not being misused or wasted.

In Closing

Ignatius describes contemplation as a process of spiritual discernment. In his spiritual exercises, the believer is to spend time in prayer thoughtfully reflecting on any heart motivations that would run contrary to pleasing God. The idea is to allow the Holy Spirit to direct the believer to consider behaviors, thoughts that lead to actions that cause a move away from God to percolate to the surface so that they can be confessed. This process asks the penitent to carefully consider anything that might be standing in the way of a deepening relationship with God. In this manner, as the penitent reflects on these heart motivations, they are able to clarify issues (emotional, spiritual, mental or physical) that are keeping them from making good choices. I realized in my own time of reflection that I struggle with several issues that need to be addressed. For me, I suffer from a lust of the eyes, as John says, whereby I focus on things more so than on doing what is pleasing to God. Yes, my heart desires to please God above all else, but the world and the things of the world tempt me. I know this is the case because I have struggled with this my entire life. I have kept my desires in check or I should say, the Lord has kept them in check through situations and circumstances that have made it impossible for me to produce the kind of income I desires. More so, I have struggled also with pride, and the desire to be in positions over others so much so that I think about this often. The key thing in both of these two areas of disobedience is that I think upon them too much, which places these at odds with God's design for me. If the Lord chooses to place me in a position of leadership, then that is His business. If He chooses to provide abundantly to me, then again, it is up to Him to do so. I must not seek either at this time, and this means that I must choose a servants position in order to learn humility.

My heart's desire is to love God and to love others. I must be motivated toward this end, and I must not become confused by any other desire. My work, the work I do day in and day out must also be aligned this way, and that means that I must forsake any path that will not produce this particular result. I must not seek worldly contentment when the motivation of my heart is set upon spiritual contentment. I must choose willingly to be led away from this path, and I must surrender myself to His best, His choice for my life and my life's work. I understand this now, and I see how easily I was tempted to find a "better way, an easier way" than the way the Lord set before me. It is not that working in business is a bad decision or a wrong choice. It is simply that for me, and for this time in my life, I cannot entertain any thoughts that will place me in a position of spiritual weakness. These are my achilles heel, so to speak, and I must defend against them. I must work in humble circumstances, and trust the Lord for His provision so that I can do His work with the right heart motivation.

Thanks to Ignatius and his spiritual discernment practice, I came to see not the wrong path, but rather the wrong way to go. I must go His way, only His way. The path is immaterial to me so long as I am seeking Him and His kingdom first (Matt. 6:33).

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