But I Have Issues

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Following is the message I gave to my church, Canyon Lake Methodist, on July 13, 2021, while filling in for our excellent pastors and giving them a break. The sermon series, entitled “Your But’s Too Big,” focused on those things that keep us from finding our calling and living life to the fullest. My message was entitled, “But I Have Issues.” You can listen to the church service and message by following the link https://www.facebook.com/canyonlakeunitedmethodist/videos/126356636251833/

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 New International Version

But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Our pastors asked me to do the message on “But I Have Issues.” They said, “Chris, you have lots of issues, so this is a perfect topic for you.” Actually, they were too nice to say that so instead said, “You have a doctorate in psychology and psychology involves the study of people’s issues.” So, here I am.

What does it mean to have issues? Issues are emotional or psychological difficulties, and we all have those difficulties at some time or another, to varying degrees – from a personality quirk to a severe mental illness. When I taught psychology, I liked to assure students that, “We’re all a little crazy.” However, our issues don’t need to keep us from using our God-given gifts and talents, from following our dreams, from living fulfilling, purposeful lives.

Our scripture for today is about Paul, and it describes a time when Paul was having issues and he wanted God to do something about that. God had given him what Paul referred to as a thorn and Paul didn’t like it. I can certainly identify with his feelings.

Travis Heam, the author of “Your But’s Too Big” said “We want comfort. God wants character. We want freedom. God wants faith. We want easy. God wants everything. We want to feel good. God wants us to feel God.”  

In our society, issues are especially tough because we often feel like we have to pretend we don’t have issues, or we think we should be able to solve them by ourselves. We can tell people we’re on a diet or that we have high blood pressure, a bad back, or cancer, but it’s hard to admit we have mental issues, spiritual issues. We hide our true thoughts and feelings. And the horrible thing is that hiding our depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction or whatever issue we may be suffering from makes it worse. Pretending is poisonous.

So let’s not hide from our issues or let them keep us from our calling. Let’s look at the advice God gives to Paul, I’ll throw in a little psychology, and we’ll talk about three ways to keep from saying, “I would, but I have issues.”

First –God’s love is unconditional. “My grace is sufficient for you.”

My issues started early and I remember struggling as a teenager. I was fortunate to grow up in a Methodist church in Redfield, SD, that assured me God’s love was unconditional. God was merciful, not wrathful.  I was also fortunate that I loved to read. I still have the book I’m Okay, You’re Okay by Dr. Thomas Harris that helped get me through high school. It gave me hope that I was okay, even when I didn’t fit in or feel okay. Books can function as excellent therapists.

When Paul experienced his “thorn” – his issue – he needed assurance that even though what he was going through was hard, he was still okay. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Meaning it doesn’t matter how many issues you have, you are okay and I will love you through this.

Having faith and truly believing God’s assurance that “My grace is sufficient for you” is important because it helps us calm down and realize it’s okay to not feel okay. We are still okay even if our thoughts don’t feel okay. Because we are not our thoughts, we are not our crazy feelings. We are beloved children of a merciful God.

What we especially need when our issues are keeping us from sharing our gifts and causing us great pain is a firm foundation of love and acceptance. I’m okay. You’re okay. “My grace is sufficient for you.” If we don’t believe that – that grace is sufficient – we develop big buts full of shame and blame that keep us from delighting in life and living out our purpose; from finding the joy that forgiveness and compassion brings.

If our issues cause us to bury our heads in shame, we will miss out on new experiences that will help us grow closer to God and we’ll say, “I would, but . . .when asked to share our gifts with others, to experience new things. We’re worried we’ll mess up againand just create even more shame for ourselves. We’re stuck.

Blaming can be even worse because if we can’t face our issues, we may take our pain out on others and become people who spread hurt rather than healing. If we’re busy blaming others for our issues and judging them for their issues, we’re missing out on the peace that passes understanding and the joy that comes with accepting and giving grace. With realizing we’re all okay and doing the best we can. Which leads me to the second point. We’re born to learn, not perform.

Second – We’re Born to Learn, Not Perform

We’re born to learn, not perform, which means we will make mistakes and fail. That’s the human condition. We don’t know it all and we need Jesus to show us the way and other people to teach us. Even rugged individualists in South Dakota need help.

So our scripture goes on to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul had a very high opinion of himself, and the scripture informs us he was quite upset that he had to endure “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” He didn’t like having issues and at first, he tried to persuade God to get rid of them for him.

I understand, issues are no fun. We want comfort. God wants character. When I was much younger, I remember times when my issues were bothering me – and then I’d have an insight, a personal epiphany, and think, “I’ve got things figured out now. No more issues.”  And for a few hours, maybe even a couple days I did, but it wasn’t long before a new struggle would come along and I’d have issues again. I finally figured out this learning thing is lifelong. It’s not a one and done. God wants us to grow and learn all our lives. We’re to be lifelong learners.

Paul figured that out too. He wasn’t supposed to be too content with himself, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to boast about how smart and special he was. God told him to boast about his weaknesses, because his weaknesses, his issues, were going to lead him closer to God and keep him learning. It wouldn’t be as comfortable and self-esteem boosting as Paul would have liked, but struggles are when we have the opportunity to build character, to be transformed.

Like Paul, we probably need to do some complaining first because issues are tough. Then we can surrender and ask God, “What am I supposed to be learning? Why am I so depressed, so obsessive, so anxious, so angry, so unable to concentrate, so addicted, so tormented? And we ask God to be with us as we try to figure out our issues, as we grow and learn, ask for help, share what we’ve learned, and develop character. We change our focus, so our negative thoughts don’t spiral out of control.

Third – It’s Not All About Me.

Changing my focus and reminding myself, “It’s not all about me,” has been effective for me in a couple ways. First, I’ve quit telling God what to do – it wasn’t working anyway – and just ask the Holy Spirit to be with me as I stumble and struggle and do my best. Paul, too, realized it was not all about him and said, “When I am weak, I am strong.” What does that mean?

When we realize we’re weak, that we have a lot to learn, we can open our heart and mind to what the Spirit is telling us, what people around us and our experiences are trying to teach us, and that’s how we become strong. Open hearts, open minds, and open doors – our Methodist slogan – is what strengthens us. It’s what spiritual humility is all about.

Spiritual humility is realizing, “It’s not all about me” and that’s a delightful thing. Humility has been called the master virtue because it’s all about letting go of our ego and our fears and welcoming in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual humility isn’t about thinking less of ourselves, it’s about thinking of ourselves less. When I’m wasting time ruminating about my issues I can say, “Stop, it isn’t all about me,” remember that I am more than my negative thoughts and take a sanity break. I can think about the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and how I can develop those fruits and share them with others. I can think about how I can serve others, not how I can be served.

Mary Oliver, a poet who knew what it meant to struggle with issues, wrote “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She had found that shifting her focus to the beauty of the earth, nature, and God’s creation allowed light to shine in her darkness. Paying attention to that which heals – nature, music, service, kindness – takes the focus off that which hurts. It strengthens us.

Spiritual humility means we are strong enough to share our gifts even though we may fail and fall flat on our face; it means we are strong enough to admit we don’t know everything, that we have issues, and we need help. When we are honest about our issues, when we face them with courage and compassion, knowing we are unconditionally loved, forgiven, and always learning, we keep our issues from turning into big buts. Instead, our issues bring us closer to God, closer to those with whom we share our concerns, and closer to our true calling. As God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s ability to handle his thorn, his issues, had its foundation in the love of God and he wrote in Romans 8: 38-39 the passage I will close with:

38I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39.

I pray we will open our hearts, feel God’s love, and embrace grace.

Forgiveness and the Easter Story

Inspirational stories can help us forgive. The death and resurrection story of Jesus has provided many Christians with assurance that no matter what sins they have committed in the past or will commit in the future, they will be forgiven.  In brief, the Easter story relates that God sent his only son, Jesus, to earth because he loved his human creation dearly, but was often very mad at them because they were constantly sinning. During the first century, when Jesus was on earth, it was common for lambs to be sacrificed in atonement for sins. Jesus, the son of God, became the lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of humankind with the goal of bringing us humans a new relationship with God the Father.  Jesus was crucified by Roman oppressors and died a human death, but arose from the grave, showing his disciples he had been resurrected.

I personally receive comfort and inspiration from the Easter story

when I don’t try to analyze it scientifically or take it too literally.

During the days when the books of the Bible were written, it was common for people to explain difficult concepts through stories, as there was no science as we know it now. Human beings have always sought understanding, meaning, and explanations, but they have not always had universities full of books and laboratories or access to facts that could be scientifically verified. They often used symbolism, metaphors, and teaching stories (parables) to make sense of the world.

I imagine myself back in the days of Jesus. Back then, just as now, it was hard to be human. People struggled with the same questions.  How do we deal with guilt and shame? How can we keep going, knowing we have done wrong? Who could love us, wretches that we are? Who can save us from ourselves? We have always desperately needed hopeful, love-inspired answers to those questions, and the Easter story has provided many people with reassuring, encouraging answers over the centuries.

Jesus’s resurrection represents being forgiven and born again. It is okay that we are human and do things we regret. It’s all good. We can start anew. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” is a popular saying because we need reassurance that all is not lost when our shame and despair is trying to convince us to give up. We can summon up our courage and keep trying if we know there’s a loving spirit, a divine presence, guiding and supporting us.

I personally don’t have a lot of faith in sacrificial lambs and placating angry father gods, but I don’t think that’s what the Easter story is really about. I think it’s a story that was meant to illustrate the power of love and compassion, the happiness that comes with forgiving and being forgiven, and the transformation that is possible when we have the courage to create a new and better tomorrow.

The beauty of stories is that we can interpret them in different ways

based on what we have experienced and where we are at developmentally.

We can learn by listening to how different people understand the same story.  For example, in my younger years I didn’t like seeing the bloody images of Jesus on the cross with thorns on his head. I couldn’t figure out why people would like to see a disturbing image of suffering and pain. I liked the painting I’d grown up with in my church of a well-groomed Jesus in a beautiful field with cute little children and fluffy white lambs surrounding him.

Then I talked to people whose lives had been filled with bloodshed and thorns of some kind and became enlightened. The image of Jesus suffering on the cross was beautiful to them, not because they liked to see anyone suffer, but because it represented the empathy of a divine being who was willing to sacrifice himself for them. Jesus had been willing to feel their pain. He had been betrayed, unfairly judged, and crucified. He was part of a beleaguered population that was being oppressed by a powerful empire. He suffered and knew anguish and he genuinely realized how hard it is to be human. While enduring the excruciating pain of crucifixion, Jesus was still able to ask that his crucifiers be forgiven because, as he said from the cross, “They know not what they do.”

The people I talked to were comforted and reassured by the Easter story because it illustrated to them that God gets it. God realizes life on earth is hard and we need lots of love and support from the Divine along the way so we can become better people.

I have listened to people who have been transformed by the Easter story because the meaning it held for them was that Jesus, God, really loved them. It’s a wonderful thing to feel loved and some of the people I talked to had never felt anyone cared about them. It was good news that Jesus was willing to die a painful, humiliating death on the cross because he loved them so much.  It was life changing to learn Jesus didn’t care about what they’d done – whether it was good or bad. He didn’t care what other people thought of them or what shameful thoughts or deeds they may be hiding about themselves.

The love that transformed them had to do with compassion, mercy, and hope for a new and better tomorrow. It freed them from worries about judgment and abandonment and allowed them to forgive themselves and whoever and whatever else needed forgiving.

May your Easter be filled with the peace, hope, and joy that comes when we forgive and are forgiven.

This blog was taken from my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, pages 256-259.

Photo by Mitchell Maglio on Unsplash