I remember having a power struggle with one of my children that centered on whether or not she was going to make her bed. I won’t go into the details, but I assure you it wasn’t pretty. I can’t remember whether I won. The only thing I remember is how awful I felt afterward. I didn’t want to give in because I thought more than a neat bedroom was at stake. It seemed to me that if my daughter failed to obey me in this one instance, she would find it easy to do so in others. While that may have been true, I think I could have used other techniques that would have done less damage to our relationship and that wouldn’t have ended in the dreaded power struggle.
It takes wisdom to know where to invest our emotional resources. My guess is that most of us err on the wrong side of the equation, becoming emotional about things we should either ignore or learn to handle more calmly.
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology, reminds us of the physiological toll that chronic stress takes, promising that “if you experience every day as an emergency, you will pay the price.”
Sapolsky goes on to explain,
“If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy. You will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will even increase. The consequences of chronically activating your cardiovascular system are similarly damaging: if your blood pressure rises to 180/100 every time you see the mess in your teenager’s bedroom, you could be heading for a cardiovascular disaster. . . . If you are constantly under stress, a variety of reproductive disorders may ensue. In females, menstrual cycles can become irregular or cease entirely."1
Body and soul, mind and emotions—we are complex interweavings, fearfully and wonderfully made but sometimes all-too-easily damaged. Today, let us ask God for wisdom in preserving the health he has given us.
- Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 13.
A friend of mine was assailed by sexual temptation whenever he walked across the University of Michigan Diag, a large open space in the center of campus. Why? Because in warm weather, hoards of scantily clad female students would pass through on their way to class. His solution? He simply took off his glasses, which transformed his Diag experience into a complete blur. Though he didn’t know it, he was practicing what classic spiritual writers have called “custody of the eyes.”
This discipline of monitoring what we allow ourselves to focus on can be useful for dealing with a variety of situations—at the beach, for instance, or when reading or watching television or movies. Though it may sound quaint in our sex-saturated society, it’s a discipline based on the practical recognition that visual cues can introduce powerful temptations. The same is true of listening to gossip or to certain kinds of music. Instead of maintaining complete openness to every kind of stimuli, we guard ourselves against whatever might negatively impact our spiritual health.
That means we also need to guard against extreme violence or obscene materialism. The former can lead to heightened anxiety or tolerance of violence, while the latter can lead to a lust for more. That’s why I refuse to watch horror movies and why I canceled my subscription to "Architectural Digest." The triggers may be different for you than they are for me, but the point is we need to identify them and limit our exposure. Contrary to what we might think, visual and auditory stimuli are not necessarily neutral. They can shape our thoughts and actions in surprisingly powerful ways.
My friend Christine was surprised by her daughter’s tears.
“Emma, what’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to go to college,” she sobbed.
“But, honey, your grades are great. What are you worried about?”
“You and Dad say college is getting so expensive and the economy is terrible,” Emma said. “I’m afraid there won’t be enough money.”
It took time, but Christine was able to address her daughter’s fears, assuring her that they had been saving for her education and that there would likely be financial aid as well.
This incident reminds me of something in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus urges his disciples to ask for many lofty things. He begins by teaching them to address God as their Father in heaven and urges them to make his name holy, or hallowed. He teaches them to pray for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done. Then, in the middle of the prayer, he veers in a far more practical direction, teaching them to pray for daily bread. By using the term bread, he is referring to food in general.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey points out the uncertainty about the translation “daily” because it is based on the Greek word epiousios, a word that appears nowhere else in recorded Greek writings. Basing his interpretation on a very early translation of Scripture, he makes a persuasive case that this phrase is best translated not as “Give us this day our daily bread” but as “Give us today the bread that does not run out.” While the first form of prayer asks for enough for today, the second asks God to relieve us of the ongoing anxiety that we will not have what we need. Yes, we may get bread today, but what about tomorrow and the day after that?
The next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer, remember that you are asking your heavenly Father to deliver you from the fear of not having what you need. By alleviating that fear, God helps us enjoy a sense of peace and well- being, not only about today, but also about tomorrow and the day after that.
Have you ever tried shining a small laser beam to see if your dog will play with it as it bounces across the floor? This little prank inspires gales of laughter from my oldest daughter, who delights in finding dogs that are compulsive enough to take the bait. It is amusing to watch them pounce—first this way, then that—in their quest to capture the elusive red light. The only problem is that playing with dogs in this way seems to increase their compulsiveness.
Human beings can act as compulsively as puppies at times, becoming fixated on things we think will make us happy. You see it in the lives of celebrities who wreck their lives and relationships in pursuit of success. Or business executives who, despite their wealth, are consumed with greed. And what about ordinary people like us? Some of us suffer from small compulsions—feeding an addiction to shopping, for instance—because it yields a burst of positive feelings. Others among us may fixate on finding the right man, bouncing from relationship to relationship or refusing happiness as a result of this obsession.
Fixations are like targets attached to a brick wall. No matter how many times we aim at the bull’s-eye, even the sharpest arrows fall to the ground.
I must confess that I have my own fixations. Their names are Katie and Luci. I want my daughters to be happy, good, successful, prosperous. The trouble is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make their lives conform to my ideal, regardless of how much I pray for them, plead with them, or try to help them. Perhaps it’s time to take the target off the wall, lay down my bow, and ask God to dismantle the brick wall. Doing so doesn’t mean I stop working and praying on behalf of my children; it simply means I am choosing not to fixate on a goal I’m not capable of achieving.
What about you? What targets are you aiming for? Have they kept you from knowing more of God’s peace? If so, tell God you want him to tear down those targets so you can instead take aim at things like seeking first his Kingdom and doing his will.