10 Questions for the New Year

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The New Year is a great time to take inventory as you look back over the past year and do some “holy daydreaming” as you approach the new one. A primary tool for the most effective assessment and planning is asking good questions.

Questions have the power to change our lives. They move us from being spectators to participants. They cause us to stop and take stock of what we believe and how we behave. They push us to challenge our assumptions, assess our needs, clarify our thinking and confront our imposed limitations. They prod us to analyze, criticize and synthesize.

The Greek philosopher Socrates is best known for recognizing the power of leading students to discovery through questions.

In the course of writing my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, I was intrigued by the spiritual power of questions in the Bible. In the course of my research, I became acquainted with Bobb Biehl, President of Masterplanning Group International (Yes, there are two ‘b’s in his first name). In his booklet, Asking to Win: One Hundred Profound Questions, he writes,

As you master the art of asking profound questions you’ll be able to unlock information, insight and wisdom with a friend in any situation. You’ll be able to open doors to inner motivation and dreams which no one has ever been able to unlock. You’ll be able to solve problems, analyze risks and take leadership you’ve never before dreamed possible. For questions are like intricate brass keys which unlock the lock boxes of people’s minds and heart, their hopes and dreams.

I appreciate Bobb’s image of questions as keys. Another image I see is that the right question is like a jeweler’s chisel that breaks open an uncut, dull-looking stone into a precious treasure with gleaming facets of beauty and value.

While we could explore literally hundreds of stimulating questions, that would be overwhelming. My hope is that you will use this blog in the coming days for some intentional reflection and planning. The best way to make any progress is to focus on a narrow framework of simply looking back and looking forward.

Remember: Five questions for looking back to celebrate and learn.

The Bible places a great deal of emphasis on remembering what God has done (and also crying out to God to remember his covenant with his people). Memory awakens gratitude and also provides the context for learning from our lives.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (Psalm 77:11 English Standard Version).

  • Where and when did I see you, Lord, working this past year?
  • If I had to summarize my year in one word or phrase, what would it be? Why?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities came my way I never expected?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities did I miss?
  • What was my primary accomplishment this past year?

Anticipate: Five question for looking forward to maximize your time.

The Bible calls us to be intentional and make the most of the time God gives. There’s power when we focus on specific goals.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16 ESV).

  • What are two or three important goals I have for the coming year? (Think, for example, in terms of personal, relational, vocational and recreational—relaxation and renewal—areas).
  • What projects would energize me this year?
  • What do I need to stop?
  • What do I need to start?
  • What word or phrase can I use to keep my focus in this coming year?

These are my suggestions. I encourage you to ask and respond to additional questions that you feel will be most helpful. You’ll notice I haven’t asked any direct questions in the area of confession and repentance — though that is a rich area for prayer and reflection. Give yourself the gift of time– to make the most of the time God provides.

While wrong questions take us on senseless detours, the right questions take us to the very heart of life.

[Portions of this blog are adapted from my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, “Introduction,” xi-xii.]

Bucket Theory: What happens when you hit your limit?

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When my wife, Sarah, was working as a nurse in an allergist’s office, one of the common questions was about the “sudden” onset of an allergy in a person who had not previously been bothered. This physician said there was no definitive explanation, but that one theory seemed quite possible. It’s called the “bucket theory.” According to this theory, even as a bucket has the capacity to hold a certain volume of liquid, our bodies have a certain capacity to resist reacting to certain substances. Once that capacity is hit, however, like the bucket, it begins to “overflow” with various reactions. Our bodies can resist for a while, depending on the capacity of our “allergy-resisting bucket,” but then we start to react.

I see a message here. It seems to me this provides a framework for assessing the well-being and reactivity of our emotional and spiritual lives. Have you ever noticed that you “suddenly” have a problem with anger, impatience, or working on a project? Perhaps this is an indication that you’re hitting your limit in a certain area. The onset of “symptoms” is more about the condition of your heart, mind and soul than it is about the particular symptom.

Another analogy for this is “saturation.” Like dry ground soaking up water, we can absorb a great of activity and pressure—until we hit the saturation point. Then we become overwhelmed, resulting in reactions like shutting down, withdrawing, or stressing out.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson, M.D. writes,

Often we do not feel overload sneaking up on us. We instead feel energized by the rapidity of events and the challenge of our full days. Then one day we find it difficult to get out of bed. Life has become a weight… What happened to change our enthusiasm to pain, and why did the change come upon us so unexpectedly? Not all threshold limits are appreciated as we near them, and it is only in exceeding them that we suddenly feel the breakdown.

According to electronic systems expert Roberto Vacca [writing in The Coming Dark Age], the development of many modern systems exhibit “the character of continuous and exponential growth, and their variation obeys a well-known mathematical law, the law of the phenomenon of growth in the presence of limiting factors [my emphasis]. At first the effect of these limiting factors is hardly noticeable, but there comes a time when they begin to predominate and to produce the phenomenon known as ‘saturation’… Often the effect of the limiting factors is not felt gradually: it may be felt all of a sudden.”

We are all human, with inherent limiting factors. This is not an excuse, but a reality to which we must pay attention. Maybe this is what happened to Moses in Numbers 20, when, instead of speaking to rock to bring forth water in the wilderness, he struck the rock in anger.

Maybe this helps us understand (not excuse) David’s vulnerability to seeing Bathsheba bathing.

Maybe this is a clue to Paul’s impatience with John Mark in Acts 15.

I love to push life to the limit, experiencing all God has for me and giving my best in God’s service. But I have learned (often the hard way) I have capacity limits that cannot be ignored. Even good and great things can become too much. Again and again I come back to Paul’s wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV), “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

 

Not a Chore! Seven Guidelines for Journaling

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Many people resist journaling because it feels like a chore, like an essay test, or like a duty they “should do.” I can’t tell you how many times people respond to my own testimony about journaling by saying, “I know I should journal, but I just can’t get into it.” I suggest we re-frame journaling as a valuable tool for paying attention to our inner lives, our souls. A journal is not a classroom assignment or a duty; it’s a powerful way to pay attention to your heart and mind.

A journal is more like a letter to God,

a way to focus in prayer,

a way to clear your head and process your thoughts.

A journal is like a great friend who listens on paper instead of in person.

A journal is “holy daydreaming” in ink.

A journal is a way of paying attention. Most of us lack the mental discipline to maintain focus on a consistent train of thought for a significant amount of time. Our thoughts wander, and we have to pull ourselves back to the subject time and again. Journaling keeps us engaged on a topic to the point where we gain new clarity and insight.

It takes a bit of practice to get over the “classroom syndrome” of thinking your journal has to meet a certain standard of excellence. There’s no one grading you. God especially isn’t interested in grades, any more than a parent would grade the spelling or grammar of a note from her kindergarten-age child. It’s all about the connection.

Let me get one thing out of the way: Should you use a computer or keep a notebook? I have read (though I cannot find the research reference—sorry) that there is a significant link between hand writing and heart connection. That intrigues me. I personally find the pace of writing by hand better matches the process of SoulShaping (my own word) than typing on a keyboard. I am quick to acknowledge, however, that the choice is yours. If you use a notebook, shy away from fancy leather-bound journals because they tend to make us think we’ve got be “neat and tidy” in our writing. And it’s often difficult to write in them because they don’t lie flat. I prefer an inexpensive spiral notebook with lined paper.

In previous posts I have written about the benefits of keeping a journal. Now I’d like to share some guidelines for journaling. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal.  The basic principle is: Does it help you better understand the Lord, yourself, and others?  Here are seven principles that can set you on the road to developing your own style:

Begin with a simple prayer.

My starting point is that my journal is a spiritual conversation with the Lord. Prayer affirms this at the outset. I use a simple prayer whenever I prepare to journal or to study or to work on a sermon, a blog or any other project. I open my hands, holding them palms up, and say, “Lord, give me what you want to give me in this time.” Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. The Lord searches our hearts and directs us to the most important matters.

Work with feelings and perceptions.

The journal should not be a chronicle of dates and events.  The insights come from paying attention to how you felt and what you perceived about events and situations.

Trust your own insights.

If they are wrong, that will become apparent in the process of writing.  A proper sense of independence and personal authority is healthy.  After all, who, besides the Holy Spirit, is a better authority on yourself than you?

Anything goes.

Be completely free in your journal.  Write it for your eyes only, not to impress someone who may someday read it.  It is private; no one is looking over your shoulder.  You’re free to go with God over the landscape of your soul: to trudge along, to skip, to run, to roll. Draw, tell your story, write poetry, jot down phrases, record quotes, make charts, delve into memories… use whatever captures your mood and mind in that moment.

Be honest.

Don’t fool yourself with pious talk; if you feel lousy, say it.  We are free to be honest because as someone said, “The One who knows me best, loves me most.”  In honesty, we will see both the light and dark sides of our souls.  The point is to accept them and take God with us as we explore them.

There is a natural tendency to what I call “spiraling.”

This is my own term for going over the same ground again and again. The center of the spiral, the issue, may be the same, but our understanding of it is continually deepening and progressing like the widening loops of a spiral.

Discipline yourself to write positively.

The aim of the journal is to generate the energy to be an overcomer.  State the facts, record your negative feelings honestly, but then seek out the promise.

The Book of Proverbs says,

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23).

Your journal is one of the most effective ways to guard your heart, to listen to the Lord, to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit around you. Write on!

[Note that I have adapted these from an article I wrote called “Keeping A Personal Journal,” Leadership, Volume III, Number 1, Winter 1982, 156-57, and later published in my book SoulShaping: Taking Care of your spiritual life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, pages 72-76].