Hope Builder #2: Choose Life

“Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying!”  (Andy Dusfresne)

Hope is always an active choice.

thIn the movie Shawshank Redemption, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is unjustly convicted for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Shawshank, a notoriously brutal state penitentiary. He befriends Red (Morgan Freeman) who helps him to learn the ropes of his new life in prison.

Strangely, Andy possesses an immunity to the dehumanizing process of prison life; a devolution the inmates call being “institutionalized”. Once fully institutionalized, a man surrenders his hope. Andy never becomes institutionalized.

Andy’s hope empowers him to overcome persistent and grievous injustices and then devote himself to improving the lives of his friends. He magically creates moments when the prison walls all but vanish in the eyes of his fellow inmates.  At one point, he gains unauthorized access to the prison’s loudspeakers and plays Mozart (Le nozze di Figaro) to the whole prison compound.

“I tell you those voices soared, higher and further than anyone in a great place dares to dream.”  Red proclaimed.  “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Andy’s punishment is two weeks in solitary confinement. When he returns to the general prison population, his friends ask him if his stunt was worth the cost. Andy replies that it was the easiest time he ever did because Mozart’s music helped him forget.

“Forget?” Red asks.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there is something inside that they can’t get to. That they can’t touch. It’s yours.” Andy says.

“What are you talking about?” Red asks.

“Hope.” Andy says.

“Hope? Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. Its got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.” Red says.

“Like Brooks did?” Andy quips.  (Brooks Hatlen, their friend, had become institutionalize and lost hope.  When Brooks was freed from prison, fear ruled him and he eventually hung himself.)

Everything came down to a simple choice for Andy. When suffering, we either choose life or choose death. Those are the only options.  Andy fought for hope with all his energy. In the end, hope won!

The same choice faces us all. We cannot control terrible things from happening. But we can control how we respond.  Each moment we can choose to “get busy living or get busy dying”.

What will you choose? Realizing there is no middle ground is the first step out of the solitary confinement of helplessness. If you keep stepping toward hope, your own prison walls will begin to disappear. Like Andy Dusfresne you may even give other people a glimpse of life beyond these stone walls.  But, the more depressed you are, the more likely you are to ignore Andy’s charge. Feeling helpless you’ll believe there is middle ground between “get busy living or get busy dying”.  You’ll think you don’t have to choose, or worse that you can’t chose.  But that is a lie, believable, but false.  And this lie will blind you to the hopeless choices you are already making.

The Bible says it this way.  “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off… I have set before you life and death… choose life.”  You might ask, “How do I choose life?”  The verse continues, “[By] loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:11,19-20

Some of you might be thinking, “I need more than a promise.  I need help.  I need someone to show the way.  If only I had my own Andy Dufresne!”  You have someone better!  Jesus Christ was the only innocent person to live in the prison of this fallen world and never give up hope.  He too devoted himself to improving the lives of his friends. He got busy living and giving life — even his own life on the cross!  As a result, Jesus has torn down the stone walls that blind us to the world beyond.  Knowing Him allows you to sense the beauty of the real world and feel like you are free.

Hold fast to Jesus and hope will find a way!

Are You Sick with Envy?

“A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Proverbs 14:30

8350807501_72d94a2300_zThis proverb contrasts contentment and envy.  Contentment is a heart at peace and it gives life.  Envy is a heart at war.  It rots a person to the bones like a malignant cancer.

Here are 5 symptoms that indicate you may be sick with envy:

Envy kills joy. I was in a good mood as our family left for a day trip to visit friends. When we arrived, I walked into their kitchen and gasped with admiration. But, as I gazed lustfully upon their stainless steel Bosch dishwasher my good mood died. Before that moment, I had been perfectly content with my raucous, energy hog of a dishwasher. As I drove home, I ruminated on spending money I didn’t have for a new machine I didn’t need. My wife noticed my grumpy attitude and asked, “Is everything okay?”

“I’m fine!” I lied.  But envy had murdered my good mood.

Envy wastes time.  Have you ever lost sleep comparing yourself to others? It’s good to admire another’s strengths and humbly learn from them. But, there’s no benefit to spending time entertaining resentful feelings toward people you otherwise appreciate and enjoy. The vigor you would otherwise use to pursue happiness is siphoned off by distracting thoughts of jealousy.

Envy wrecks community.  Envy is isolating.  It’s sad when we allows ourselves to grow distant from friends simply because they excel in areas we struggle. Envy is unloving. It keeps us from truly rejoicing with people, even though we desire them to rejoice with us. Envy is illogical — especially if we desire to be on a winning team and partner with people capable of great work. Envy whispers, “Just as long as their work is not too great!” Envy insists that our star shine the brightest. It undermines our ability to joyfully participate in something bigger than ourselves.

Envy alienates us from God. Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.” (Proverbs 23:17) This proverb warns us that bigger sinners will receive the blessings we covet but are denied. My wife, Marty, worked for years as a nurse in labor and delivery. We struggled with infertility, so my anger spiked whenever she recounted the behaviors of her patients and their boyfriends. Their denial of reality and indifference toward the gift of a new life was nauseating. I never envied their messy lives, but I envied their easy pregnancies. Why would God give healthy babies to people who didn’t want them, and withhold a baby from us? Since God seemed so unfair in his dealings, I questioned if he actually cared much about justice — about right and wrong. My conscience slowly hardened. Rather than fear what the Lord might say, I thought the Lord should fear what I might do. I avoided God and I started acting like a person I didn’t enjoy being around.

Envy causes exhaustion and prevents true rest. Shops and restaurants provide a good example. They rarely close because they’re all afraid to lose customers to the competition. Envy for bigger profits drives owners to bribe employees away from their families. Recently even Thanksgiving Day was sacrificed to the god of envy. We may pick on businesses, but the problem of envy runs deeper in the human heart. It can trap people anywhere and at any time. I see it on vacation when a family member yells, “Put that cell phone down” because someone is preoccupied with work emails. I also see it in the glazed eyes of those sitting in the pew on Sunday, worrying about their week ahead rather than beholding the God who holds them in His hand.


Are you sick with envy? What symptoms do you have? Jesus, the great physician, came to heal this deadly disease. His life, His death, and His resurrection guarantee He has the ability to cure all disappointment and restore all loss. Because of Him, we will experience blessings beyond our imagination. Heavenly creatures will stand in awe of us. As we rest in that coming reality, our hearts will stop warring and grow tranquil.  We’ll begin to sense a recovery from this debilitating disease. And one day, when we see Jesus, and He takes our hand in His, we will be fully and permanently cured.

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Negativity: Why not let it go?

Ask a negative person to let go of their pessimism and you’ll hear a string of excuses. As a recovering pessimist, I’ve used them all.  See if you recognize any of these.

Denial — The “Who? Me!” response:  The average pessimist doesn’t consider themselves overly negative at all.  They prefer to label themselves as realistic, misunderstood, and honest. But, people living in close proximity with pessimists disagree.  An exasperated friend of a pessimist recently confessed, “Ninety-five percent of things are swell, but you’d never know that listening to him.  He focuses on the 5% that’s uncertain and blows it out of proportion.  You’d think his life was a terrible mess.”  Pessimists stuck in denial are largely unaware that they are guilty of deflating people around them.

Justification The “I’m too smart to get my hopes up”  response:  Pessimism provides the apparent advantage of greater control over life.  Pessimists expect bad outcomes so the worst thing can’t happen — being surprised by bad news.  The pessimist obtains a false sense of control by predicting every possible bad outcome.  Of course, they forget how often they are wrong.  So, when things don’t turn out as bad as predicted, they are blind to the joy they needlessly surrendered (and robbed from others).  It requires great effort for a pessimist to remember the times they predicted bad outcomes and got it wrong.  But their memory is water tight when they’ve gotten it right.  Selective memory deceives the pessimist into feeling they have more control, and wisdom, when in reality they merely have less joy.

Blame Shifting — The “Other people keep me down” response:  To be sure, it’s much harder to maintain a positive attitude when you are surrounded by rage-aholics and grumblers.  However, if you know any real optimists you’ll eventually see through this excuse.  Optimists have an invisible force field that shields them from other people’s negativity.  They refuse to surrender their joy without a fight.  Tell an optimist they should expect the worst and they will grow even more determined to prove you wrong.  Optimists take seriously their responsibility to maintain their joy.  They refuse to believe the worst prematurely.  But even when the worst happens, they rebound faster because they find hope and meaning in their suffering.

Resolved Indifference The “That’s just the way I am” response:  Some babies are born with a happy disposition as noticeable as their long eyelashes.  Others seem ill tempered from the cradle.  In Gross National Happiness Arthur Brooks summarizes decades of research and says that half of a person’s happiness is the product of nature.  He says the other half is a product of nurture.  How should you respond to such research?  Will you focus on the 50% that seemingly justifies a resolved indifference or will you focus on the 50% that encourages you to improve your happiness?  If people jump at investments that can increase their money by 20%, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to increase happiness by 50%?

Which excuses have you used?  Are you ready to admit they are bad excuses, and let them go? Here’s my advice:

Consider if you are in denial.  Has more than one person reflected that you seem overly focused on negative things in your life?  Consider the possibility that you’re behaving like a pessimist, not a realist.  Focus on things that are good, right and lovely. Memorize Philippians 4:8.

Identify ways you justify a negative attitude.  Do you regularly seek ways to buffer yourself from potential bad outcomes.  Such behavior may protect you from being surprised by bad news, but have you considered the cost — joy often needlessly surrendered?  Only God can provide refuge sufficient to protect you from what you fear.  Investigate Jesus who lived, died and rose again to ensure no tragedy long endures.

Stop blaming others and take responsibility. Don’t give others the privilege or the power to steal your hope.  Only you can choose joy.  You must take responsibility for your attitude.  When St. Paul wrote his famous words, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”, he was referring to God’s enabling power for contentment and joy despite tragic situations (Philippians 4: 11-13).

Be resolved to get help.  Make friends with an optimist.  Read several good books.  I recommend Streams in the Desert (Christian Devotional) and Learned Optimism (Secular Scientific). You may start out behind the pack, but you can catch up, and surpass the hopefulness of even natural born optimists.

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Setting the Record Straight

In Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark looks at Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and asks, “Why was Europe able to pull ahead of the rest of the world by the end of the Middle Ages?”  He argues convincingly against the conventional wisdom that Western success depended on overcoming religious barriers.  Instead, he shows how “Christianity and its related institutions are directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium.”

My favorite two quotes:

  1. “Christianity created Western Civilization.  Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand copied scrolls.  Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.  A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos.  A world were most infants do no live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth — a world truly living in the ‘dark ages’.” (Conclusion: Globalization and Modernity, p233.)
  2. “There are many reasons people embrace Christianity, including its capacity to sustain a deeply emotional and existentially satisfying faith.  But another significant factor is its appeal to reason and the fact that it is so inseparably linked to the rise of Western Civilization.  For many non-Europeans, becoming a Christian is intrinsic to becoming modern.  Thus it is quite plausible that Christianity remains an essential element in the globalization of modernity.  Consider this recent statement from one of China’s leading scholars: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.  We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.  That is why the west is so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.  We don’t have any doubt about this.” (Conclusion: Globalization and Modernity, p.235)

51x+jp6romL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_You can purchase the book on Amazon for under $12.00.  It is well worth the investment.

Part 2: Recovering from Broken Dreams — Practical Steps

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.  Proverbs 13:12

Last week I outlined the meaning of this powerful proverb.  This week I lay out two practical steps you can take to recover from broken dreams.

Step One:  Be honest and embrace sadness.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”  Since you are not a robot and you have a heart; expect it to hurt when dreams are broken.  You are no different from anybody else.  Don’t equate bravery to denial of real pain. It requires courage to admit, even to yourself, your hurt.  Denial causes unnecessary damage — like running on a fractured bone, it aggravates the injury and prolongs the recovery. Healing requires admitting your hurt and then addressing the pain.

inside-out-joy-sadnessTears reflect an honest assessment of what has been lost.  We try to hold back tears because we believe they make us weak.  But the truth is tears have a power — they cleanse away false shame, release unresolved anger, and (when shed before God or in community) open us to outside support.  Inside Out, the Summer 2015 blockbusterillustrates the redeeming power of sadness very effectively.

Creating space to be honest about pain, and grieving broken dreams is necessary to a healthy recovery.  Journal, pray, talk it out with a friend/family member or consider meeting with a qualified counselor.  Real sadness (not self-pity nor self-loathing) can open a door for healing.

Step Two: Be courageous and embrace a new dream.

“A desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  When dreams come true it feels like we are back in the Garden of Eden, where the “tree of life” stood.  Life is as it should be — vibrant and full.

But, broken dreams make you feel like life will never be full again.  Heartsickness makes everything look dim and gray.  Feelings of alienation set in as everyone else goes about their normal business while your world falls apart.  Feeling lost, afraid and disoriented — it’s difficult to process even simple decisions.

Like someone lost at sea, you must keep your head about you.  Of course you thirst for relief.   But cynicism is salt water.  You must not partake.  Courage will require you to embrace a new dream — that somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, all things can be renewed.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the prime example that God works through broken dreams to establish new and better dreams.  As the promised Messiah, people expected Jesus to throw off the Roman yolk and restore Israel’s national sovereignty.  The disciples devoted years of their lives to see patriotic dreams fulfilled in their day.  Any reasonable person present at Calvary knew the disciples’ political ambitions were irreparably broken.  The Romans were experts at crushing the dreams of anyone who threatened them.  They’d done it thousands of times before.  None of the disciples, except John, had the fortitude to stay and watch Jesus die on the cross.  They all scattered — feeling lost, afraid, disoriented and disillusioned by a failed revolution.

But the revolution was not over, only transformed.  Unimaginable things were about to happen.  The disciples’ broken dream of political freedom was remade into a new and better dream of total freedom — not merely from a temporary enemy (Rome) but from eternal enemies (sin, death, and Satan).  For the new dream to be realized, the old dream had to be broken — it was simply too small.

When recovering from a broken dream, we doubt God’s goodness. It’s devastating when God allows our dreams, especially the really good ones, to be put to death.  However, God is not finished.  He is working, even now, to recover broken dreams.  He uses the broken pieces, to make something new and beautiful — just as He’s done through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Embracing new dreams takes courage.  Don’t give up like Judas did.  He failed to see Jesus’ better dream simply because he surrendered to cynicism and despair before the dream had a chance to become reality.  It doesn’t require great faith to see God’s better dream come to fruition.  It simply requires the courage to stick in there and wait for it… and then get on board!

Hope Builder #1 – Resolve Conflict

Relational conflict is a fact of life.  You either handle it well or poorly.  If you think you can opt out of conflict, then chances are you are handling it poorly.

When we handle conflict poorly we rob hope from everyone, including ourselves.  In a group context, the amount of hope stolen increases exponentially. When the boss refuses to address an employee’s irresponsible behavior the whole office pays the price.  When a coach berates one player with constant criticism the whole team develops a losing attitude.  When parents fight, children cower in fear and later mimic destructive behavior with friends.  Handling conflict foolishly bankrupts people of their hope for — enjoyable relationships, winning teams, vibrant community and improved productivity.

51aefLfnGUL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Conflict is like fire.  It’s not necessarily bad, but it is unavoidably powerful. Fire can burn down your house or keep you warm and cozy.  By harnessing the power of fire we’ve civilized our world and discovered technological breakthroughs that touch nearly every area of life.

In the same way, you can harness the power of conflict and use it for good.  There are untapped benefits found by addressing the issues that cause conflict.  Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High is an excellent book that will help you to face your fear of conflict.  It provides practical tools and real life examples.  It will help you tap into the hope building power found through resolving conflict.

After extensive research the authors confidently claim:

“The effects of conversations gone bad can be both devastating and far reaching.  Our research has shown that strong relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw from the same power source — the ability to talk openly about high stakes, emotional and controversial topics.  Master your crucial conversations and you’ll kick-start your career, strengthen your relationships and improve your health.  As you and others master high stakes discussions, you’ll also vitalize your organization and your community.”  (Chapter one – What is a crucial conversation?)

The book’s tools really work!  However, the authors aren’t the first to use these tools.  Jesus modeled them more than 2000 years ago.  However their empirical research reaffirms that Jesus’ methods are still the best model for conflict resolution.