What are the signs of a truly spiritual person?

Living in a world of such a variety of religious beliefs and persuasions it can be incredibly difficult to discern what it means to live a life that is in the most positive sense truly spiritual. Add to that the pressure to be productive, busy and active  and it becomes harder and harder to define. Is spirituality defined by what we do are by who we are of a combination of both? We also live in a world where centuries old values of right and wrong in such fundamental areas as lifestyle and sexuality are being questioned and systematically dismantled. Under the guise of secularism (which really is another form of religious belief that lacks the self-awareness to recognise a higher value) another set of values is confidently espoused.

In many ways this is nothing new. Here is how the apostle Paul writing in the first century described an unspiritual and empty life. The English translation is from a paraphrase called The Message:

"It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on."

That was written 2000 years ago, but it could not be more up to date!

That is a pretty depressing description of human nature and yet in may ways it does illustrate some of the characteristics of modern life presented through much of the media and culture around us.

So what does a truly spiritual person look like?

The best explanation I have come across again is that from the apostle Paul. He talks about this in terms of 'the fruit of the Spirit'. In Galatians 5:22-23 of his letter , the New International Version of the original Greek, states:

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control."

Here is how the Message translation paraphrases each of these different qualities:

NIV                           The Message

Love                           Affection for others

Joy                              Exuberance about life

Peace                          Serenity

Patience                     A willingness to stick with things

Kindness                    A sense of compassion in the heart

Goodness                   A conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people

Faithfulness              Involved in loyal commitments

Gentleness                 Not needing to force our way in life

Self-control                Able to marshall and direct our   energies wisely.

And here is the context within which that is presented through the Message translation of those verses:

"But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely."

So true spirituality is much more than a subjective inner sense of peace or calm. It is reflected in specific qualities of character.

For more on this also see:

Podcast #018: Spiritual Maturity

Podcast #007: Religion

How would you describe spiritual maturity in the most positive sense?

What fills you up and what drains you down?

The concept is so simple and obvious, yet it is so easy to overlook. All of us have  a certain finite emotional capacity or reserve. How do I know when I am reaching my limits? Life is full of so much coming at us in different directions. How do I know when I am getting overwhelmed and over-extending myself? How do I ensure I am in a healthy place to deal with all the demands on my time and energy?

This 8 minute video by Wayne Codeiro gives some helpful insights from when he went through his own personal burnout and emotional exhaustion. (by the way please don't be distracted by his shirt - the content is too important!). I first came across this video almost 10 years ago, and since then it has profoundly influenced the way I live my life:

According to Wayne Codeiro we all have a certain emotional capacity, or tank if you like.  There are certain activities that will drain and fill that tank. Generally speaking those things we enjoy fill our tank and those things that bring us stress and tension tend to drain our emotional tank. Its as simple as that.

If you occupy your life with just those activities that drain your tank then you will notice a series of predictable effects on your overall emotional health and wellbeing. While the effects presented are somewhat simplistic they are still a helpful framework within which to monitor yourself.

These symptoms become like those canaries mine workers use to take down into the mines in the 19th century to warn them of the dangers of a lack of oxygen. As the oxygen levels in the mines depleted, then the loss of consciousness of the canaries with them served as a warning that the conditions were becoming dangerous and they needed to act quickly to get out. So what are the symptoms to watch out for?

The first set of symptoms of an increasing negative drain on your emotional reserves is increasing anxiety. Maybe those things you could relatively easily handle begin to unnecessarily worry and preoccupy you. You find your mind racing between different negative or even catastrophic scenarios.

The second set of symptoms of an increasing negative drain are increasingly emotional reactions. You start finding yourself magnifying your emotional reactions to unhealthy levels. Everything becomes a big deal. Small things become a major source of stress in your life.

Finally left unchecked you have the hallmarks of what is commonly called the 'nervous breakdown' or burnout. You become physically and emotionally exhausted, cynical and detached from others as ell as having to an overall reduction in performance and levels of effectiveness.

The key to dealing with this is recognising what are the things that fill your tank and what is it that drains your tank. Wayne gives his personal examples on the video. In my own life in no particular order:

The fillers:

1. Feeling understood
2. Regular exercise
3. Regular quiet times of prayer and meditation.
4. Sharing and teaching at a deep level.
5. Deep friendship
6. Bright sunny warm mornings in areas of natural beauty

And for draining me:
1. Technical details.
2. Negative critical people.
3. Sensual material distractions (including shopping!)
4. Empty conversation.
5. Feeling rushed.

The big insight Wayne brings out in the video is that during periods of intense activity and stress the key is to ensure you are doing as much as possible to fill your tank. This is somewhat counterintuitive in our busy and hectic lives. We tell ourselves we do not have time for such things. The reality is it is rather like the person driving around in a frenetic state saying they have no time to stop to fill up with fuel!

What are some examples of activities that fill or drain your emotional reserve?

Podcast #034: Life work balance?

Getting it right

We hear a lot about balancing life and work in our day and age. Wherever you look and whoever you talk to, getting the right balance in life is something many people are hungry for. With so many priorities and responsibilities in our lives this is becoming for many of us increasingly important and relevant.

But what do we actually mean when we say we want balance in our lives?

Do come and join my co-host Andrew Horton and I as we unpack this important subject. In particular we discuss:

  • How balance is grossly over-rated as a concept.
  • Why balance is more of a tension to be managed than a problem to be solved.
  • How work-life integration can be more helpful than balance.
  • The power of looking at my life as symphony 
  • The relevance of seasons to life.
  • Counter-intutitive reflections and examples from my favourite hero and book when it comes to balance.

You may also find of interest:

Work-life balance. Is it possible?

It it work-life balance or integration?

Are you in the right season?

Podcast #030: Do you need more sleep?

Podcast #010: Stephen R. Covey

What questions and thoughts on life-work balance does this topic and podcast raise for you?

How to grow through your imagination

Meaningful growth and development does not come automatically. To grow means to create a future that is greater and in some way better than your past. Growth is a sign of health. It is a sign of life. All living things grow.

Creating a future that is greater than your past is essentially an act of your imagination. You have to be willing to go there. That for most people is easier said than done. If growth is about creating a future greater than your past, then the first step is having the faith to believe a greater future is possible. You don't need to see the whole path, but you can have faith to take the next step. And the next step. And the one after that again and again. (Also see The Law of Process).

 

Creating that vision of the future is an act of faith, drawing on your imagination.

In other words then it is in the quality not the quantity of our thinking in our information saturated world that all future potential lies.

As Einstein put it, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." So to create a better future we have through our imagination to change the quality of our thinking.

I've been struck how the opening verses of Genesis in the Old Testament imply this with the story of creation. God spoke - or, put it another way, He expressed a thought - and it was so from light to the heavens to dry land to the celestial bodies to the fish of the sea and animals. While you and I are certainly not God, we are God-like in that we are created in His image. Even with all our weaknesses and failings, it is staggering what we are capable of through the quality of our thinking.

Everything is created twice - first in the mind and then in the physical world. As human beings made in the image of God we see the outworking of that everywhere around us. Just look around the room you are sitting in right now. Everything, apart from the people and plants in your room was once a thought in the mind of another human being - from the chair you are sitting on to the paper clip on your desk to the computer you are reading this from.

On one level so obvious, but on another level quite amazing. Changing the quality of our thinking can have astounding results in our lives and in the world around us. The quality of our lives is intimately woven into the quality of our thinking.

Here is how the writer C. S. Lewis puts it:........

Are you growing, stagnating or decaying inside?

It would appear that change in some form or other is inevitable. Nothing stays the same. Whatever you focus on is either  growing, stagnating or decaying. All healthy organisms and organisations grow. The same can be said about us as human beings.

We see growth most obviously in the physical world when we observe healthy babies physically grow into children, adolescents and eventually adults. However, other forms of growth are no where near as predictable. Intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual growth are much harder to predict. To put it  bluntly it would seem many people do not grow much in their lives. Yes they grow physically, but they stay at a juvenile emotional, psychological or spiritual level. Even so, there are notable exceptions. It is those exceptions who provide inspiration and a vision to the rest of us for what is possible. (For examples see the life of Nick Vujicic or Lessons on Happiness From a 108 year old).

Its for this reason I have always been curious about personal growth, and why it is that some individuals and teams can dramatically excel in their performance and well being, while others in broadly similar circumstances will stagnate, plateau or even decline. The same opportunities and the same environment yet two people can go in radically different directions.

A helpful definition of growth I have come across is from Dan Sullivan when he says, "growth is about making your future bigger than your past." In many ways the desire to grow is a manifestation of the love of existence, or just being. In other words growth is a passion for existing in this world and a deep desire to fully explore life. It is about letting go of one's fears, insecurities, perfectionism and what other's think to live towards the God given potential we have all been given. Stepping out into the unknown is always an uphill and at times painful process - but it is also more fulfilling than the status quo.

The Greek writer Plutarch said, "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.".........

Lessons on giving from Bill and Melinda Gates

They are the richest couple in the world with a fortune currently estimated at $90 billion. Since 1994 they have donated $35 billion to charity. The Gates Foundation that was launched in 2000 is the world's largest charity with over $40 billion in funds.  But the following 25 minute TED talk by Bill and Melinda Gates is a fascinating insight into what it personally means to develop a healthy attitude to giving.

Granted that none of us has access to the resources and expertise that the Gates have, but what is particularly interesting  to learn from them is how they have deliberately and intentionally thought through how they should use what they have been given. It has now become for them a life time's work of service to the world. Rather than retiring and living a life of luxury they have chosen to focus on some of the world's greatest and most deeply entrenched problems, particularly global poverty and inequality.

The primary aims of their foundation are, globally, to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in the United States, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology. But it started with a trip to Africa when they were an engaged couple which opened their eyes to extreme poverty and their responsibility to make a difference. They could have chosen to ignore what they saw, but instead they have deliberately gone after some of the hardest practical problems in the world......

Podcast #033: Practical ways to find joy through disappointment

Disappointment. We all experience it. We all know what if feels like. We have all at some time or other said and done things when disappointed with our circumstances or other people that we have later regretted. But what are healthy ways to handle disappointment in our lives?

On this podcast I continue my conversation with the author John Hindley on his book, "Dealing With Disappointment: How To Know Joy When Life Doesn't Feel Great". (Our earlier conversation at Podcast #032 is here).

Disappointment can so easily come to dominate life - the nagging thought in the back of our minds and the constant "yes, but..." colouring all our pleasures.

Do join us as we discuss practical ways to find joy through disappointment. In particular we discuss:

  • Disappointment with my circumstances.
    The power of a different perspective rather than relying on the stoicism that we tend to default to.
    Or, in other words, how to defeat those painful things that are true by looking at things that are more true.
    Finding a balance between working too much or too little.
  • Disappointment with people.
    How do I decide if it is something I should forgive and move on from or something I should forgive and then talk with the person concerned about?
    For more on this also see: Podcast #025 Is There A Difficult Person In Your Life?
  • Disappointment with my success.
    John and I confess personal examples of how easy it is to tie up our meaning and identity with things that are actually quite trivial.
    How the good things of life are a signpost to a far greater work and person we should be enamoured by.
    How "the fuel for living a truly successful life is to know that you will one day live it perfectly, and with perfect satisfaction."
    For more on this also see Podcast #002 Success.
  • Disappointment with myself.
    How facing up to the painful reality that I am not the person I wish was can be not the last word in our lives, but part of our story to greater wholeness.
    The freedom that comes from understanding, as John writes, "Your purpose in life is not to be perfect. Your purpose in life is to showcase God's grace to the imperfect."
    Balancing in my life God's gift of forgiveness with the gift of integrity.
  • Disappointment with God.
    For people of faith, this is probably the hardest disappointment to face up to. As John says, "If God is in control - and He is- then behind all your disappointments with your relationships, your circumstances, your ministry and yourself must lie disappointment with God......God could have, should have, might have....and didn't. So often, in so many small and serious ways, it feels as if God doesn't come through."
    For more on this also see Podcast #028 The God I Don't Understand.

 

If your life isn't perfect..... you need to listen to this podcast!

How a higher perspective empowers you to handle disappointment

One important way to get a handle on disappointment in our lives is to be able to take a higher perspective. Somebody who understood this well was the author C. S. Lewis. In 1942 he wrote the book The Screwtape Letters that has since then been continuously in print. It has been adapted into plays, made into a comic book, and recorded as an audio drama by the actor John Cleese. The Hollywood Film company Fox owns the film rights, and Ralph Winter, best known for blockbusters like “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four,” has said he will produce it.

The novel is a fictional account of a series of imaginary letters from a senior demon called Screwtape to a junior demon, Wormwood. It is a powerful perspective on the real life challenges of faith in God and handling disappointment. In the novel, God is the enemy. We eavesdrop on the schemes and strategy of  two devils in the mind of a human being, described as 'the patient'. While being fiction, it provides piercing insight into the challenges we face in day-to-day life while pointing us to a higher spiritual perspective.

Modern 21st century secular thinking tends to have no place for the realm of a higher order of evil let alone for the existence of God. However, it is worth reflecting on that most of mankind has believed in the supernatural power of evil for much of history. There is also little else available to explain the power and rise of evil regimes and forces during the course of human history from the rise of Nazi Germany to the current horrors of North Korea.

The following short excerpt provides a powerful insight into disappointment:

Understanding the 3 dangers of disappointment

Taking the bitter medicine

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Disappointment is an experience we all go through at some time or other in our lives. While disappointment is a form of suffering, it is not the acute, dramatic, heart wrenching extreme painful form like sudden bereavement, or betrayal or torture or persecution. (For more on that type see here).

Instead disappointment is more subtle and insidious. But it is just as challenging. Like a hidden cancer under the surface it can eat away and destroy our sense of joy or wellbeing. It is linked to a general sense of frustration with life. Maybe there is a mild depression or even a root of anger, cynicism or bitterness.

Disappointment can be seen as a product of affluence and having an abundance of choices and opportunities (If you are reading this on a computer or smartphone, then that includes you!). The truth is we have privileges and possibilities that are beyond the wildest imaginations of people of previous generations. But it doesn't feel like that. We have a tendency to say something along the lines of, 'Yes I know I should be thankful, but....' It's what you say to yourself or others after that 'but' is the disappointment we are talking about.

John Hindley in his book 'Dealing With Disappointment: How To Find Joy When Life Doesn't Feel Great,' defines disappointment as "What we experience when we expect satisfaction and this satisfaction is denied." John goes on to give the almost banal example of coming home from a long day's work expecting his family to welcome him and finding that they are out somewhere. So he feels disappointed - he expected a certain satisfaction and it was denied. There is certainly nothing earth shattering about that.

Disappointment is that sense my life is ok, my marriage is ok, family life is ok..... even worse I have achieved my dreams and I am still empty and unsatisfied.

I remember in my own life how I acutely felt that in the summer of 2001. I had just been confirmed in my job as a consultant psychiatrist. I had reached the top of the career ladder after a six year medical degree and 11 years of work and study. I was happily married with the joyful arrival of our third child. I was actively involved in church leadership and ministry. On the surface everything looked so good. If you had asked me I would have said yes there is a lot to be thankful for. But (there was a but) yet the biggest thing I remember feeling at that time was a profound sense of emptiness, which was so disappointing.

Unchecked there are three main dangers of disappointment:

How do I make sense of my ego?

All of us struggle with the problem of ego.
In the right amount ego is inherently positive and provides a healthy level of confidence and ambition. When ego works well it drives out insecurity, fear and apathy. But left unchecked, and this is where it is most obvious, it can get out of control. Ego can easily then become arrogance. When that happens it attacks our talents and abilities. This is either through overconfidence and giving the false illusion that we’re better than we actually are, or by robbing us of confidence so that we lose trust in our ability to use those talents to capacity.

So at one extreme ego is the tendency to think too little of oneself and so fall into the trap of not valuing who I am and the contribution I can make. At the other extreme is the more obvious problem of thinking of oneself more highly than is appropriate and running insensitively over the feelings, plans or ideas of others.

The football manager Jose Murhino is often disarmingly honest and illustrates this danger with his comments to a Spanish radio station in 2011 when asked what he felt God thought of him:

"He must really think I'm a great guy. He must think that, because otherwise He would not have given me so much. I have a great family. I work in a place where I've always dreamt of working. He has helped me out so much that He must have a very high opinion of me."

When things go well in life it is very easy to fall into this kind of thinking.

Somewhere in the middle between thinking too highly and too little of oneself is humility that keeps our ego balanced and between these two extremes.

John Newton (1725 -1807) was a slave trader who lived a life of profanity, gambling and drinking. He experienced a spiritual awakening which led to a radical change in the direction of his life. He wrote the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. A favourite saying of his captures what it means to live with humility while keeping one's ego in check: