By: Brian Harris
We sometimes think everything would change if we managed to get a major breakthrough in some troubling area of our life.
We long for a slam dunk moment after which success is assured and all will be well. Perhaps its an investment that turns out to be a goldmine, or a new breathing technique that assures us we will be able to say goodbye to anxiety, or a magical combination of foods that mean calories no longer count. We long for that single step which will solve all. And the simple truth is that we are unlikely to find it. Progress in life is most often found through little victories. Though they aren’t especially glamorous, it is their cumulative impact that makes the difference.
Here are some of the little victories I am trying to achieve.
When I am getting angry because of what someone is saying, I am trying to pivot away from my instinctive sarcastic and biting retort, and giving myself the cue, “Breathe, and listen.”
I’ve now mastered the art of breathing in to the count of four, holding to the count of four, and then exhaling to the count of four, all in a non-obvious way (well, I think it’s non-obvious). Most often I also lean slightly towards the person (rather than distancing myself by leaning away), rest my chin in my hand (I think that reminds me to say nothing) and put on what I think is a gentle smile (in an effort to convey, “whatever words are spoken, I view you as friend, not enemy.”)
After a few breaths, I internally ask myself, “Of all these difficult things that are being said, which are mine to carry, which are theirs to carry and which are God’s to carry?” Often I have realised that while their rant was making me defensive and angry, it had very little to do with me – and was more a statement of how difficult their life is. If I spot that, it transforms the way I listen. I stop listening to defend and correct, but try to hear in a way that enables the hurt and pain to be shared, and to help the other feel a little less alone – even though what they are saying is really theirs to carry.
Sometimes of course I am the problem, and realise that what I have done (or have neglected to do) has caused hurt. Counter-intuitively I am learning not to rush to an immediate apology but to listen a little longer. Sometimes I have apologised too quickly, before realising the full impact of what I have done. I’m trying to sit with it a little longer, so that when I apologise it is meaningful and addresses the whole.
Why am I spelling out these small steps I am trying?
I guess I am tired of noble sounding ideas that aren’t worked out in practice.
Take Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:18 “If it is possible, as far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” It’s not enough to nod sagely at the wisdom of this advice, if we don’t think of a possible plan of implementation. For me the little victory has been in taking Paul seriously enough to ask, “And how might this work out in my day to day life?” I’m making a little bit of progress here – progress of the two steps forward, one step back variety.
Another little victory I’m aiming for is to frequently pause and pray. Because I start my day with Bible and prayer, I have sometimes reduced my prayer life to this early morning block. And to be clear, I find my daily rhythm to be life serving and rich. But sometimes it can be a little like, “Well, Bible reading and prayer is done, now on with my day. Speak some more tomorrow God.”
Now there are worse things than that, but it can mean I neither hear the whispers of God through the day, nor see the fingerprints of God that emerge more clearly when I pause and pray. If I don’t stand up for an hour, my watch alerts me to do so. I appreciate its generous concern for my health. I’m trying to do the same for my spiritual life. No. I am not talking about lengthy interruptions into the flow of the day – just regular check ins.
Again, I’m trying to take a noble sounding idea and putting it to the “what this looks like in practice” test. This time it is Jesus I am trying to take seriously. In Matthew 28:20 he promises, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” I’m taking this at face value. In my pause and pray moments I am asking, “In what way are you here Jesus? Am I working with you, or against what you are doing?”
Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful book Subversive Spirituality, writes of the impact Matthew 28:7 had on his ministry:
“I have acquired the habit of quoting this silently, previous to any visit or any encounter. ‘He is risen… he is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him as he told you.’ Every time I show up I have been anticipated; the risen Christ got there ahead of me. What is he doing? What is he saying? What is going on? I enter a room now not wondering what I am going to do or say, but what the risen Christ has already done, already said.”
While I can’t express it as beautifully as Peterson does, this for me is the pause and pray principle, and each time I remember it, it’s another little victory.
I could carry on, but this is not meant to be a blog post about me and my practices, but rather an invitation to you to think about some little victories you could aim at. No, I’m not talking about legalistically trying to earn our way to heaven, but rather about allowing grateful and full hearts to overflow into a lifestyle which takes Jesus following seriously. Of course we can’t do it alone or in our strength (one of the reasons Jesus promised to always be with us), but we can take modest steps that move us from lovely ideas, to real actions in the actual world we live in.
This week, why not ask, “what little victory is within my reach?”
Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.
About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.