Biblical Strategies Blog

How do I change my mind about my anger problem

The New Testament word for anger describes a person who is taking a long time to think about how he will respond.  While he’s taking time, he isn’t seeking a spiritual replacement or patiently waiting for God. Instead, he is hunkering down in his hurt, judgment, and indignation. Bible commentator William Barclay refers to this as,

A long-lived anger … the anger of the man who nurses his wrath to keep it warm; it is the anger over which a person broods, and which he will not allow to die.

This is the anger of the person who has become fully convinced he has a right to be angry. When we dwell upon how we believe we were wronged, we develop a sense of entitlement. This is the kind of entitlement the prophet Jonah had as he sat on a hillside outside of Nineveh and longed for that city’s destruction. In the end, God asked Jonah the question, “Do you do well to be angry?” He responded with, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” This is orge anger. There is conviction in it. This person will not be easily persuaded that they are wrong. They are too deeply invested in the conclusion to surrender it easily. Like Jonah, when we choose to dwell upon how we were wronged we will find anger to be a trap—a warm and inviting one, perhaps, but a trap nonetheless. That is why Paul warns fellow believers to “put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander…” James offers the same insistence when he says,

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

Most people think of anger as only an emotion, so they strive to control it only at the emotional level. Interestingly, the popular culture describes love in much the same way, as more emotion than volition.  But while anger and love do touch our emotional side, they are not exclusively feelings. The Bible defines responses like anger and love more as choices than emotions.  William Barclay’s definition of the word orge makes this clear. The angry person is brooding, meditating and dwelling upon the things that make him angry. He is choosing to think thoughts that stir up angry responses. Imagine it this way: your thoughts are the fuel for your emotions, and your emotions become the basis for your conviction. As you brood and dwell upon your hurt, you are fueling those emotions. As you fuel the emotions, they seem to burn hotter. It feels like they are happening to you, as if you are a passive recipient in the process, not an active one.  It’s easy to forget—albeit temporarily—that you are the one stoking the fire of your emotions with your thoughts.

The growing fire of our emotions bring about another result. Because our emotions feel so genuine, we are more likely to believe that they are based on truth. In reality, they are only based upon our thoughts. In our arrogance, we presume that our thoughts are based upon truth.  This is why Jonah expressed such conviction that he had a right to be angry, even when he didn’t. He had dwelt upon what he perceived to be wrong for so long that he was convinced it was true. Ironically, he had experienced firsthand the mercy of God, and he affirmed that truth about God’s character. Yet, in his anger, he stubbornly refused to allow the truth about God’s mercy to be granted to the Ninevites. Jonah, the preacher of the greatest revival in the history of mankind, rejected the chance to rejoice in the sparing of a people and insisted upon their destruction. Jonah was unwilling to let his thoughts be brought into line with those of a gracious, merciful God. Had he done so, he would have stopped fueling the fire of his emotions and weakened his mistaken conviction. Sadly, he did not. As long as we are of sound mind, our thought processes are always choices, even if they don’t feel that way.

Because this type of anger is a choice, we can choose to replace it with thoughts and actions that make way for real transformation. Though our culture perceives anger and love to be more about what we feel than what we choose, the Bible tells us that both are primarily choices—love naturally replaces anger. When we believe we’ve been wronged, it’s easy to feel unloved. Our thoughts swirl around our hurt and pain. But what if there was message that was so bold, so strong, so efficacious that it overwhelmed your sense of entitlement? A message that reminded you, without a doubt, you were loved. Such is the gospel message: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Dwelling upon God’s love is a powerful replacement to dwelling upon your angry, indignant thoughts. The life Jesus lived testifies of this. He was abandoned by his closest friends in his hour of need. Betrayed by a close confidant after years of his investment. Rejected by the religious leaders for their political gain. Turned upon by the fickle crowd that five days earlier had heralded his arrival as king. Any one of these challenges would have stirred up in us an unrighteous anger. Yet, notice where Jesus had directed his thoughts. In his final recorded prayer in John 17 we read, “because you have loved me before the foundation of the world.” By dwelling on the Father’s love, Jesus was able to respond graciously to the most violent of rejections. The one who had created and sustained all things did not take upon himself the mantle of entitlement, but rather the form of a servant.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

As he meditated on the Father’s love, he was able to love others well, and avoid the temptation to be sinfully angry. Can you imagine the possibilities if we would consistently follow Christ’s example?

The joy of overcoming a bitter spirit

A bitter person is consciously, willfully angry. He refuses to let a hurt go. He insists on making the other person pay. Whereas, the Bible instructs us to set our mind on the Spirit of God, the bitter person refuses to let go of his pain. As he dwells upon how he was wronged, he convinces himself that his anger is justified. Being fully convinced of his interpretation of the facts in his own mind, he secretly continues to accuse his offender. As he does this, the bitterness grows. Soon it effects other areas of his life as well.

On the human front, the biblical strategy for overcoming bitterness is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is making a commitment to release the offender from the punishment you believe they deserve for the hurt they’ve caused. Often the bitter person will insist that the offender doesn’t deserve forgiveness. This places the angry person in the judge’s seat and only further fuels his bitterness. The Bible, however, doesn’t teach that you forgive your offender because they deserve it. Instead, it teaches that you forgive someone because you were yourself forgiven by God when you deserved it least. In the verse immediately following our passage of study we read,

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Once when I was teaching on forgiveness, a woman sought my counsel afterwards. She had a cynical response to my teaching. She insisted that there were some hurts that were so deep that they couldn’t be forgiven. Later that week we met, and she shared her sad story.  Her brother was serving a prison sentence for a crime he’d committed against their family. In her bitterness, she had never visited him during his incarceration, and now he was about to be released.  As I listened to her resentment, it struck me that her brother wasn’t the only one imprisoned.  I told her so, and she wept. After some time, she lifted her head, looked me in the eyes and said, “How do I get out?” I took a deep breath, knowing we were in painful territory. “Have you ever confronted him for his wrongdoing, shared your pain, and told him he should ask your forgiveness?” She shook her head. “Do you know why you haven’t done that?” She shook her head again.  “Perhaps you’re afraid that he might actually ask; then you’d have a choice to make.” The statement hung in the air until her voice interrupted the silence: “Well, I think we’re done here.” I walked her to the door, and thanked her for the courage to share such a painful experience. Two weeks later following a service, I saw her across the sanctuary. She was walking briskly towards me, her dour frown replaced with a broad smile. “I did it,” she said. “I visited my brother in prison, and I released him from the hurt he had caused.” “He’s free,” then thoughtfully she added, “And so am I.”

Five years later I was speaking at another church when I looked into the audience and saw the same woman. She still wore the same smile she had for our last meeting. After the service she thanked me again for encouraging her to restore the relationship with her brother. “He died two years after he was released from prison,” she said. “I’m so thankful I was able to restore my relationship with him after all those years.” As she introduced me to her other brother who was with her, he said, “Thank you for setting my sister free. For years she was trapped in her pain.” As they turned to walk away, it occurred to me:

bitterness is a prison cell of our own making, and forgiveness is the only key that opens the prison door.

Taken from Fighting the Fire: biblical strategies for overcoming anger

The Will of God and Self Pity

When man was created, he was placed in a garden. That garden was perfect in every way, and only one tree was off-limits. Adam and Eve were asked to submit their wills to their Creator by not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. All was well until their desires were awakened. Then, for the first time, they felt the tension between their will and God’s will. Maybe they’d never considered their choices before. Maybe, just for a moment, they felt pity for themselves because God had denied them the fruit from the one tree. We may never know, but what we do know is this: God wanted something for them, but they wanted something else for themselves. They chose what they wanted and stepped outside of God’s will for the first time. The consequences for their choice were disastrous.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus returned to a garden. He was no stranger to the garden of Gethsemane, having frequented it with his disciples. But this time was different. In the Garden of Eden, the will of man had been tempted, and man had chosen independence over surrender. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the will of man would be tempted again, but this time the desire for God’s will would overpower personal desires. Jesus expressed this in prayer with the words:

Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.

He had progressed in his understanding of, and obedience to, his Father’s will. In the midst of intensely difficult circumstances that would cause even the strongest of men or women to pity themselves, Jesus held such feelings at bay by focusing on the will of God and pursuing it with abandon. Jesus submitted to the will of God because he trusted the character of God. Three aspects of God’s character will increase our confidence to seek his will over our own: his wisdom, his love, and his power.

God’s Wisdom

Living with suffering is hard work. It’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented, it becomes difficult to avoid self-pity. Suffering can come in many forms, not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger, and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of a loving God. When the apostle Peter heard of the suffering that Jesus would have to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man.”

Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic, but God’s wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God—not the wisdom of man—is a quality that Jesus developed, and he exercised it most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.

God’s Love

As the suffering of the cross drew near, Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way:

And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’

Abba is a family term. It might best be rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart, this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me.” Jesus is clinging to the character of his Father’s love. He finds resolve for submitting to his Father’s will by reflecting upon his Father’s love. Believing that God is all-wise means that God knows what is best for us; believing that he is all-loving means that he wants what is best for us. With gut-wrenching suffering on the horizon, Jesus didn’t question his Father’s love.

God’s Power

Immediately following Jesus’ affirmation of his Father’s love, he affirms his Father’s power. He says, “all things are possible for you.” This is not the first time Jesus has used those words. He had acknowledged God’s power on other occasions with the very same phrase. But in the Garden of Gethsemane, his belief is tested at the highest level. Does he really believe that the Father has the power to act if he should choose? Yes, he does. This is expressed in his final words from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Having breathed his last, he reveals a complete dependence. Jesus believes his all-powerful Father will bring about his resurrection. Jesus embraces the will of God by focusing on the character of God. He does not question his Father’s wisdom, love, or power. This enables him to surrender his will to his Father’s.

One of my seminary professors who made a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side of the continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class I was teaching, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own, and immediately recognized the similarity. It almost looked like I had plagiarized. Having not intended to do so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly, then asked how I could pray for him. There was a long pause and then the words: “pray that I would be faithful to the end.” A remarkable request considering the amount of pain and suffering he was enduring. I prayed that way. Within a month Fred Barshaw died, faithful to the end.

Our response to suffering can take one of two roads. Either we can seek to do God’s will by dwelling upon his character, or we can focus on the difficulty of our circumstances. If we choose the latter, self-pity won’t be far behind. Fred Barshaw did what Jesus did. To the very end he sought the will of God, and that’s what we should do too.

Taken from Dead-End Desire: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity

The Love of God and Self Pity

When we feel we aren’t loved, particularly by those closest to us, we are susceptible to self-pity. Perhaps others may have treated you harshly, spoken unkindly, or judged you unfairly. It’s easy to feel unloved in these situations. When it comes to defining love, our culture clearly puts the emphasis on what we feel. Statements like: I feel like I’m falling in love, and I don’t feel like I love you anymore reflect this error. Our inclination to interpret love by how we feel affects both how we think about others and how we think they think about us. This is one of the reasons that, in spite of all the biblical evidence that God loves us, some still choose to believe that he does not. They do not feel that he loves them.

When feelings become your foundation, you are in a catch-22; you don’t like the way you feel, but you have chosen to let your feelings lead the way. Something will need to change if you are to break this endless cycle. The cycle is broken once you give love a biblical definition, not simply an emotional one. The Bible sees love as more of an action than an emotion. Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

The Greeks had five separate words to describe our one English word for love, so we should expect some ambiguity when we try to describe the word with our limited vocabulary. Of the five possible words, the one the New Testament writers most often chose was the Greek word agape. This word communicates a love of choice, commitment, and promise as opposed to an emotionally charged decision. The Bible teaches that we are to love one another in spite of how we feel. God doesn’t ask us to do what he himself has not done. The apostle Paul reminded the first-century Romans that while they were still God’s enemies, he showed his love to them through the death of his Son. True love will make similar sacrifices, regardless of how one feels. Because self-pity is driven by our feelings, a feelings-based love will be unable to defeat it. To overcome self-pity, you will need to focus on a commitment-based love.

This is precisely what the Father provided for Jesus in the darkest hour of his life. Jesus struggled emotionally in that final week of his life, but there is no record that he doubted his Father’s love.  Rather, he seems to have interpreted everything through his unshakable confidence in his Father’s commitment. Six words reflect his security: as the Father has loved me. The historical context of those words should not be overlooked. Nearly a third of John’s gospel is devoted to the final hours of Jesus’ life before he is crucified. Humanity’s hatred and cruelty is directed at Jesus in those moments. His disciples are selfish; he is betrayed by a close friend; his trial is a travesty of justice; he is mocked, beaten, and spit upon. One might expect self-pity to run rampant given those circumstances. If we were in Jesus’ place, we might choose six different words: why is this happening to me or this is how you treat me? Not so with Jesus. In the middle of it all he states: as the Father has loved me. Jesus remembers the Father’s commitment to love him and his unchanging character that backs it up. Self-pity can’t bring its discontentment to the heart that is secure in the Father’s love.

Jesus’ six words of security are followed by five words of sacrifice:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.

When we dwell upon the way that God loves us, we find inspiration to love others in spite of their treatment of us. Later in the conversation Jesus would qualify it further: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” By looking to God’s love, we take our eyes off our self long enough to give our attention to others. In fact, this was Jesus’ final charge to his disciples just hours before he was nailed to the cross: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus had a commitment-based love just like his Father, and he encouraged his followers do the same.

Have you ever wondered how Jonah’s story might have ended differently if he had focused on God’s love and not followed his feelings of self-pity? Perhaps there would have been a 5th chapter – one that spoke of Jonah rejoicing in his enemies’ repentance and giving praise for God’s gracious dealings with mankind. How might your life be different if you began to focus on the love of God? What if each time you began to feel sorry for yourself you reflected upon the love of God instead? When self-pity settles in, only a strong dose of God’s love will drive it out.

Taken from Dead-End Desire: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity


The Glory of God and Self Pity

In self-pity we take our eyes off of God and focus them on ourselves—our circumstances, our difficulties, our weaknesses. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that we aren’t making decisions with the glory of God in view. The final week of Jesus’ life is instructive. Ultimately it would be his commitment to the glory of God that guided his thoughts away from the trap of self-pity.

When You’re Frightened, Live for His Glory.

In the final week of his life, Jesus spoke with great transparency of his soul’s emotional condition. On Tuesday of the Passion Week, one of his disciples brought to him a group of non-believers. The teaching moment prompted Jesus to speak about his death. In so doing, he opened up a window onto his soul. Jesus spoke of a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies that it might bring forth much fruit. The conversation reminded him of his own impending death. He responded with the phrase, “Now is my soul troubled.” There is a sense of violence to the word “troubled” that eludes our English language. The Greek root word tarasso is used elsewhere in the Bible to reveal one’s condition at the loss of a loved one.

As a pastor, I have been, on more than one occasion, the bearer of the news that a loved one has died. I have heard uncontrollable wailing. I have seen sheer terror in the eyes of a young boy at the news of his father’s death. I have seen the body shake uncontrollably as emotions reject restraint. When a parent loses a child, sometimes the soul refuses to be comforted. I have heard of people that responded to this kind of news with vomiting or by losing consciousness. This is the very word that Jesus chose to describe how his soul felt with only a few days between himself and the cross. The fear moved him to prayer—even though a crowd had gathered—and that prayer reveals his focus. He says, “Now is my soul troubled (tarasso). And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

With overwhelming fear rising in his soul, Jesus riveted his attention on the glory of God. It was his greatest desire even if it would mean his death.

When You’re Disappointed, Live for His Glory.

Occasionally in my ministry I’ve known the disappointment of someone who walked away from what I’d taught them. Perhaps in your life you’ve experienced a similar event. Consider the disappointment that Jesus faced in the final week of his life. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered the disciples for a final evening of fellowship and instruction. Luke recorded that Jesus actually looked forward to their final hours together. Over dinner, a debate broke out among the disciples over who was to be the greatest. They were in the mood to bicker, but in no mood to serve.

Imagine the situation from Jesus’ perspective: three years of selfless ministry, his sacrificial death less than twenty-four hours away, and still they’re arguing. That’s enough to push anyone into the self-pity chasm. But look at his response: “Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

Remarkable. Where we would see an opportunity for self-pity, Jesus saw an opportunity for service. Jesus did this without fanfare or attention; he took no credit for his actions when the last foot was washed. He was as much a servant as he was a host. There was no sense of entitlement; he chose a spirit of humility instead. With that humility came the desire to pursue his Father’s glory and not his own. The apostle Paul captured it this way,”Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

When we don’t feel the need to get the glory, we are more prone to serve. And when we give the glory to God, we are most like Jesus.

Taken from Dead End Desire: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity

Self-Pity has an Aversion to Grace

Jonah winced under the noonday heat…As if to accentuate the silence of heaven, the only movement in the noon sky was a vulture rising effortlessly higher. Jonah shook his head in disgust and slumped down against a rock. His chin hit his chest, and he dozed. When he awoke, he noticed the beginnings of small plant behind him. A few days later the ground was covered in shadow, the vine’s branches reached over the rock. Finally! Jonah said to himself. Some shade for the faithful prophet. He turned his gaze back towards heaven and picked up the one-way conversation. That’s what I’m talking about, God. Giving people what they deserve. When I did wrong, you put me in the belly of a whale. But when I did what you asked, you paid with shade. He permitted himself a smile. Not the wages I was hoping for, but it’s a start. The shade temporarily cooled his internal resentment.

The next morning he awakened to beads of perspiration gathering on his forehead. He turned to look at the plant that had provided comfort the day before. Its leaves were shriveled, its branches sagging. What happened to you? Jonah spoke to the plant. His eyes caught a movement at the base of the vine. A worm quickly retreated into the hole it had made. Are you kidding me! Jonah was talking to the sky again. What kind of games are you playing God? I want my plant back, and I want it back now. You owe me.

As if in direct response to Jonah’s anger, an eastern wind stirred the desert sand, quickly whipping it into a frenzy. Jonah shielded his eyes, unwilling to turn back to the west as the sand beat against his face. Like a child forced to lift his chin and look into his parent’s eyes, the desert sand turned Jonah’s head. The blowing sand allowed only one place to fill his field of vision: Nineveh. He stared at the city whose destruction he desired. The east wind with its swirling sand insisted his gaze remain upon God’s gracious redemption of a city once condemned. Jonah glowered, unwilling to let his anger subside. God’s grace poured out on the people he despised.

The rushing wind subsided, and the sound of voices singing rose from the valley below. It was a song of grace coming from the city that understood the meaning of the word. Jonah knew the song, but he refused to join in. Still, he couldn’t keep the lyrics from running through this head: The Lord is good, his mercy endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations. 

Jonah introduces us to the most dangerous element of self-pity: its aversion to grace. The Bible uses the word often. The Greek word for grace (charis) occurs over 155 times in the New Testament. Its Hebrew equivalent (hen) occurs 70 times in the Old Testament. Both Testaments carry the same warning: you will not see your need for grace unless you come in humility.

On the surface, self-pity and humility appear to be similar, so it’s easy to miss self-pity’s rejection of grace. For instance, the individual struggling with self-pity and the one practicing humility both lack confidence for a given task, but only the humble of spirit will actually seek help. The one encumbered with self-pity will choose to feel sorry for himself rather than humbly asking for guidance.

Because humility is unconcerned with receiving glory, it will naturally seek a source of strength outside of itself.  Self-pity, on the other hand, is overly concerned with the approval of others. Rather than reveal its sense of inadequacy, it will simply not try. Our fear of failure often stems from a fear of what others will think of us if we fail. Self-pity is a deceptive comforter, encouraging us not to pursue our true potential instead of simply admitting we need help. This explains why most men that surrender to self-pity will rarely ask for help regardless of the type of struggle they are facing. It isn’t humility that insists on going it alone, it’s pride. While self-pity can be mistaken for humility, it is actually motivated by the prideful protection of one’s self-interest. It is the natural response of a prideful spirit, not a humble one. This is also why self-pity has an aversion to grace: you cannot see your need for grace unless you come in humility. This is even clearer when you consider Jonah’s response to God’s actions.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand Jonah. God saved his life when he was thrown overboard, gave him a second chance, and even provided for his comfort. It seemed absurd that he was willing to receive grace for himself but unwilling to extend it to others. Then one day it occurred to me that Jonah didn’t see these events in his life as expressions of grace, but rather, because of his pride, things he deserved from God. Part of the reason Jonah found joy in the plant was because he believed he deserved its shade. He didn’t see it as a gift from God, which would explain his anger when the plant died. It was his right, he reasoned, and it had been unfairly taken from him.

Contrast Jonah’s response to his loss of comfort with that of Job, who not only lost his comfort but his family and wealth, too. When Job was tried, he replied: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job understood the grace of God, and saw himself as an undeserving recipient. Jonah would never have said that; he believed you got what you deserved. Thus, he was angry when Nineveh was not destroyed. He believed the Ninevites should have gotten what they deserved, but God, in his grace, stayed his judgment because the city humbly repented.

Self-pity says: I am angry. I deserve to have my desires met.

Jonah’s unrestrained desires appear throughout the story. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh, so he boarded a ship going the opposite direction. He was asleep in the hold when he should have been helping save the ship. The destruction of Nineveh was his ultimate desire, which is why he was exceedingly angry when God withheld judgment. But Jonah’s problem was greater than a few unrestrained desires. He actually believed that the things he desired were things that he deserved. Self-pity says I believe that something I desire and deserve is being unfairly kept from me. We struggle with self-pity for the same reason that Jonah did. We have unmet desires, and we believe we deserve to have them realized. Your unmet desires might include things like love from your spouse, respect from your teenagers, or gratitude from a fellow worker. These are not necessarily bad desires, but when you begin to believe you deserve them, pride is leading you down self-pity’s road. When those desires go unmet, just like Jonah, you will become angry. This is why self-pity has an aversion to grace. It doesn’t want a gift. It pouts, believing it has not yet received what it has earned. Perhaps you’re sensing the freedom of this truth. I encourage you to embrace it. Stop waiting for what you think you deserve. Learn to be thankful for what God, in his grace, has given.

Humility says: I am grateful. I didn’t receive what I justly deserved.

This is most clearly communicated in the gospel message. We deserved death for sinful offenses before a holy God. But God, in his grace, gave his own Son to die in our place that we might receive the free gift of eternal life. We cannot earn it, and we do not deserve it. It can only be received as a gift of grace. Pride will reject this offer of help, but humility will accept it. Humility says, I believe that something I deserved, but didn’t desire, was graciously kept from me. In contrast to Jonah’s self-pity, note the apostle Paul’s humility. He believed that what he deserved was the judgment of God for his past actions; nonetheless, God graciously forgave him. His humility allowed him to transparently acknowledge his past failures, regardless of the social status of the listener. Before King Agrippa he states,

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

In his letter to the Corinthians he states the same:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

Grace is the word Paul chose to describe the fact that God kept from him the judgment that he rightly deserved. Whereas Jonah in his pride believed he deserved the things he desired, Paul in his humility expressed gratitude that he did not receive what he rightly deserved. Humility prepares us to receive grace; self-pity cannot. Perhaps this is why Jonah’s story ends so abruptly. It is intended to remind the reader that, unless we humble ourselves, there is no hope of change. Self-pity will hold you captive.

Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity


The importance of self control to overcome procrastination

Exercise self-control. While analyzing, prioritizing and biblicizing are all necessary steps, exercising self-control with your daily decisions will be essential to overcome procrastination. This is the purpose of the phrase in the Ephesians 5:17 passage—“do not be foolish.” The fool in the Bible describes the one who should have known better, but did not. Despite being entrusted with the necessary knowledge to change, he stubbornly refused to live differently. He repeatedly did the same thing the same way, but for some reason expected a different result. This is a perfect description of the chronic procrastinator. In the past, he or she may have run out of time to give his or her best effort to the task or relationship, and though they should learn from such history, they sadly repeat the same error and run out of time again. The memory word to help the procrastinator make these necessary changes is the word exercise. In order to break his foolish habits, he will need to exercise three elements of self-control.

While self-control may conjure up a self-help kind of mentality, it is actually given by the Holy Spirit, being a part of the fruit of the Spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires

The Old Testament book of Proverbs adds these warnings: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls,” and “A wise man keeps himself under control.” Self-control is the mark of the wise, not the foolish. Once the procrastinator has worked through all the steps of discovery mentioned earlier, he will still need to do the hard work of exercising self-control regarding legitimately pursued pleasures. If he doesn’t learn to control what he enjoys, he will tend to put off his important priorities and fall back into the habit of procrastination.

Exercise self-control by doing the hardest task first.

Years ago I discovered that, if the first task I chose to do was the one I didn’t want to do, I usually had time left over to do the things that I enjoyed. But, if I started with the things that I enjoyed, I never seemed to have the time to do the difficult tasks that I was avoiding. The procrastinator will often choose to do the things he enjoys first and put off the more difficult task for another day. The struggling student plays video games before he studies for tomorrow’s test. The stressed out dad races home from work to fit in nine holes at the golf course instead of spending time with his demanding 3-year old son. We tend to do the task we enjoy the most first, and—because we enjoy it—we find that we haven’t left sufficient time for the task least preferred. Self-control is needed to take on the hardest task first. I have friends who told their teenage kids, “Always eat the frog first.” Spirit-empowered self-control is needed to consistently develop that pattern. A simple way to do this is to make a list of your unfinished tasks, and then, after you have prioritized them, take the one you are least fond of, and move it to the head of the list. Once you have completed the least pleasant task, move on to the others. You will find greater fulfillment in the pleasures you genuinely enjoy when you know that the difficult challenges are behind you, not waiting for you on tomorrow’s calendar.

Exercise self-control by doing what you do in moderation.

In his book Respectable Sins, author Jerry Bridges describes self-control as follows:

[Self-control is] control of one’s desires, cravings, impulses, emotions and passions. It is saying no when we should say no. It is moderation in legitimate desires and activities, and absolute restraint in areas that are clearly sinful [emphasis added].

Time is a limited resource. The wise person understands this truth and practices moderation with those things he legitimately enjoys. The fool does not see the need for moderation. He will binge on the movies he enjoys and push back those unfinished tasks and troubling relationships until tomorrow. The fool believes that time is his own to do with as he pleases. He recoils at the thought of  accountability. This is why the Bible teaches that the fool has said in his heart, “there is no God.” Sadly, the procrastinator makes the mistake of thinking of himself as sovereign. Until this is corrected, he will never see the need to exercise the activities he enjoys in moderation, and he will push back his responsibilities for another day. To break this habit, you must “learn to say no when you should say no.” You must remember that God alone is sovereign. You are a steward of time he has entrusted to you, not the owner. By the Spirit’s power, exercise your pleasures in moderation so that you can make the best use of your time to fulfill your God-given responsibilities.

Exercise self-control to persevere when you are discouraged.

Mason Cooley was an American aphorist known for his brief, witty statements. He is reported to have said, “The time I kill is killing me.” One of my favorite statements attributed to him was:

Procrastination makes easy things hard and hard things harder.

When we procrastinate, it feels as if things just got easier, because we don’t have to do the work right now. But in truth we just made a decision that will make tomorrow more difficult than it  would have been. When tomorrow arrives, you not only have that day’s work, but yesterday’s as well. As you push two days of unfinished work into the future, the mountain grows and becomes more difficult to scale. It’s easy to see how discouragement can creep in.

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New Jersey Coast, our church participated in the cleanup effort. We partnered with Samaritan’s Purse in helping people restore homes to their previous condition. Atlantic City, New Jersey is built on a barrier island just off the mainland. The storm surge pushed four to six feet of water across the breadth of the island, damaging everything beneath the high-water mark. Marge was an elderly woman on the west side of the island. Our supervisor, having visited the location, warned us that Marge was a hoarder; care would need to be taken to not offend her in the clean up. Marge lived on the second floor of her home because you could not walk through the first floor. Every room was filled with her effects: years’ worth of newspapers, clothes, bedding, stuffed animals, and various other possessions sat soaked in Sandy’s aftermath. A crew of 25 volunteers worked the entire day, pulling those waterlogged belongings to the curb. I can still remember how hard it was for Marge to make a decision about what to do with her things, even though they were damaged beyond repair. Early on, the decisions were laborious, but her spirits lifted as the day progressed. She seemed younger, more talkative. She smiled as we pulled twenty years of hoarding to the curb for disposal. The local news station interviewed her, and she expressed gratitude to her “new-found friends” who had “done for her what she could not do for herself.” Her relief was palpable. Decades of indecision had paralyzed her ability to make a decision.

When the procrastinator keeps pushing back decisions that need to be made, his life becomes overwhelming—like the first floor of Marge’s apartment. It’s easy to grow discouraged when our failure to make decisions renders our lives a soggy living space overflowing with trash. This is where self-control needs to step in. Don’t succumb to your desires, cravings and impulses, no matter how insistent they are about being obeyed. Self-control walks by faith, not by feeling. By taking small steps, it perseveres in the face of discouragement. So don’t succumb to that overwhelming feeling. Just get started. Take your first step today.

Taken from Taking Back Time: biblical strategies for overcoming procrastination


Biblicize It! Defining your roles and responsibilities from the Bible

To overcome procrastination you will need to analyze what you’re doing wrong with your time, and you will need to make a list of priorities. But ultimately, you must always remember that you are a steward of time, not its owner. When you begin to see that you are a steward of time, you will treat it differently. Remember, it is God’s will we are after, not our own. This is why the apostle warns “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Note the second phrase in our time passage: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time.”.

The Bible speaks a lot about wisdom, and Psalm 90:12 reveals an important step in attaining it: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The ESV Study Bible comments:

This refers especially to the ability to make the most of one’s days, since they are so few. The heart of wisdom would enable the faithful to live by the right priorities.

The procrastinator doesn’t number his days, he presumes upon them. He isn’t counting down the time, he assumes he has more of it. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once said,

It is only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

This is why the wise person in Psalm 90 is likened to a meticulous accountant. He sees time as a limited resource and will be selective in his investment of his time.

A practical way to “number your days” is to list out your roles of responsibility. These roles require different times and commitments. As an example, these are some of the responsibilities that God has entrusted to me:

  • I am a Christian
  • I am a husband
  • I am a father
  • I am an employee (a pastor)
  • I am a student
  • I am a mentor

These roles are relational; they involve my interaction with others in real time. If you are lazy, you will let others determine the use of your time based upon their perceived needs. When you let others define your roles, you will move from the important and into the realm of the urgent. For instance, the culture (or your church) will tell you what you should do as a Christian. Your boss will tell you what you should do as an employee (which usually means more work with less help). Your spouse will attempt to hold you to their expectations of your weekend, and your kids will make demands on your time morning, noon, and night.

Pop culture counters that with all those demands by others, you need to spend more time on yourself. But this position forgets the truth that time was never yours or theirs. It was a gift from God and should have been used accordingly. This is why simply listing your responsibilities is not sufficient to overcome procrastination. You need to clarify how you are to spend your time in those roles. I have found the Scriptures to be a tremendous help when it comes to defining our roles and responsibilities. Occasionally, you just have to make up a word to get your point across. Biblicize is that kind of word. I analyze, I prioritize, and then I biblicize. If I am really serious about doing the will of God, then I will need to get serious about understanding the Word of God. If I don’t let the Scriptures inform my specific responsibilities, I will give my time to what others want, and I will revert to procrastinating on the important things that God has called me to do. Notice how even just a handful of Biblical passages help clarify these roles:

  • As a Christian I am to love God and love the people around me (Mat. 22:36-40)
  • As a husband, I am to love my wife sacrificially (Eph. 5:25) and live with her in an understanding way (1 Pet. 3:7).
  • As a father, I am to instruct my kids in their relationship with the Lord (Deut. 6:4-7), discipline them as necessary (Eph. 6:4), and avoid provoking them to anger (Eph. 6:4).
  • As an employee (pastor), I am to spend time in the Word, in prayer (Acts 6:4; 2 Tim. 4:1-5) and in community with those in our church (1 Cor. 12:14-20).
  • As a student, I am to discover and apply God’s truths to my life (Ezra 7:10; Jam. 1:22).
  • As a mentor, I am to seek out, instruct, and encourage the next generation (1 Tim. 4:13-16; 2 Tim. 2:2).

You are a steward of time, not the owner. As a steward, you first check with the master to see how he wants you to spend your time. This is why we biblicize our roles and responsibilities.

The Importance of Setting Priorities to Overcome Procrastination

The apostle Paul offers helpful advice for the procrastinator in Ephesians 4:16 when he says “make the best use of the time.” Paul’s not comparing good and bad, implying a moral decision. He’s speaking of better and best, underscoring a priority-based decision. Some translations render this with the phrase, “redeeming the time.” Redeem is a biblical word with a rich heritage. It literally means “buy for the purpose of setting free.” Purchasing time for the sake of freedom. Now that’s good news for the procrastinator who is shackled by his many unfinished tasks. He needs to make better use of his time, and this is possible when he begins to make decisions in light of chosen priorities. The Bible often speaks of priorities.

Consider these two familiar passages:

  • But seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.
  • And this is the first commandment, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

One of the areas where laziness slips in for the procrastinator is in the setting of priorities. When we don’t establish our priorities and make choices in light of them we will find that, often, decisions are made for us. Then, out of necessity, we will put off what is really important because the less important task has risen to the level of urgency. Jesus makes the same observation when he addresses Martha. She was doing the urgent task while neglecting the important.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.

R.H Stein comments,

Martha also wanted to hear Jesus, but the tyranny of the urgent prevented her from doing this. Martha was too easily distracted by less important things. […] There is a need to focus on what is most important, for although serving is good, sitting at Jesus’ feet is best.

Dwight D. Eisenhower served as the General of Armed forces as well as President of the United States for two terms. Making the case for what is truly important, he is reported to have said,

Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.

There is a thought-provoking matrix that bears Eisenhower’s name. The matrix has the support of numerous biblical passages, and is helpful for evaluating our priorities in light of how we spend our time. The Eisenhower matrix comprises four quadrants. It is important to remember these boxes are never static. Picture the four boxes together as composing a 24-hour period. Then imagine that the individual boxes enlarge or contract based upon how you spend your time. In order for one to increase in size an accompanying box will need to decrease. As you attempt to determine priorities, the events of your day fall into one of these categories.

Quadrant 1 is the important and urgent. When the good Samaritan came upon the man who had been robbed and left for dead it was both important (this is how we love our neighbor) and urgent (something needed to be done immediately).

Quadrant 2 is the important but not urgent. This is where preparation is done. The life of Jesus is an excellent example of this kind of activity. He prayed early in the morning on his busiest days, learned the Scripture well in advance of temptation, and always thoroughly prepared to teach and explain the Scriptures. Your spiritual disciplines fall into quadrant 2. This is where the procrastinator spends the least amount of time because putting off quadrant 2 activities has no immediate consequence. This quadrant lacks urgency. The world will not come to an end if, for instance, you miss a day of prayer, Scripture reading, or Scripture memory. But you will not be spiritually prepared when an opportunity presents itself in the future. This is the procrastinator’s trouble spot—he is always less prepared than he could have been. Quadrant 2 is where the procrastinator needs to spend more time. It is the quadrant of preparation.

Quadrant 3 is not important but urgent. While we must spend some time here, through adequate planning we can spend less. Jesus’ dinner with Mary and Martha provides a good example. Dirty dishes have a place, but not first place. Martha’s serving may have felt like it needed to be done right away, but when Jesus is seated at your table, the dishes can wait. Giving your undivided attention to the words of Jesus is of greater importance than your acts of service. The procrastinator lives in the urgent quadrants. Actually, if you put off anything long enough, it will eventually become urgent and you’ll have to do it. But such a pattern keeps you from doing what is really important. Goethe said,

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

Finally, there’s quadrant 4. These are the items that are neither important nor urgent. Because the procrastinator has not developed proper priorities, he is prone to spend an inordinate amount of time in this category. Mindlessly surfing the internet, excessive online gaming, entertainment, and social media fill this category. The average young person ages 8-18 spends 44.5 hours of screen time per week. More often than not, this is quadrant 4 activity. When you put off the important (because it isn’t urgent) you often replace it with the unimportant. Proverbs 12:11 warns us: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” The word worthless can mean empty, unprincipled, or vain. It is used to describe a cistern that is empty of water. It is also used to describe the pursuit of desires that are unfulfilled. It’s a good word to describe quadrant 4. Time spent here is a waste of time. Furthermore, worthless desires will always remain unfulfilled—wanting more of your time, no matter how much you give. Most procrastinators find they spend a significant amount of time in quadrant 4. This is why, when a procrastinator claims: I just didn’t have enough time, they are deceiving themselves. They did have time, they just spent too much of it in quadrant 4.

The procrastinator spends most of his time in quadrants 1, 3, and 4. He allows something or someone to set his priorities with the urgent marker (quadrants 1 and 3). Then, as he falls further behind with the important things that he didn’t get to, he will give himself to the unimportant (quadrant 4). As this pattern continues, the urgent list grows longer, and he pushes the important issues off until tomorrow. Jesus gave a powerful promise when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will added unto you.”Because God holds you responsible for what you seek to do first, you cannot allow the tyranny of the urgent to set your priorities. To overcome procrastination, you will need to reevaluate your priorities and invest your time in things of lasting value.

Taken from Taking Back Time: biblical strategies for overcoming procrastination, pp. 45-50

Next Week: Step 3-Biblicize

Biblical Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination

Step 1: Analyze

Most procrastinators operate without personal accountability for their time. While they may admit to having not planned properly, they usually are unaware of how they spent their time. They only know they didn’t seem to have enough of it. The phrase “look carefully then how you walk” (Eph. 5:15) challenges us to diligently evaluate our use of time. The word carefully is translated in other biblical passages as closely, exactly, accurately. It brings to mind an analytical evaluation, one that focuses on the details, not the generalities. This is helpful counsel for procrastinators. They typically do not think of time in small increments (minutes and hours). They think in terms of days, weeks, or years. The procrastinator lives like someone who is constantly going into debt, because he assumes he’ll make more money later. The compulsive shopper and procrastinator have a similar problem: they are frivolous with a God-given resource. For the spendthrift, it’s about dollars; for the procrastinator, it’s about minutes. The solution for both is to look carefully how they walk. They need to live by a budget. One needs to carefully plan how he’ll spend his money; the other needs to carefully plan how he’ll spend his time.

A few years ago, I found that I was growing increasingly discouraged with events in my life. Each week it felt like Friday came upon me too fast, leaving an ever-increasing mound of unfinished tasks. Those unfinished jobs cluttered my desk and my mind. I felt the emotional weariness that comes from falling further behind. I confessed my struggle to a friend and mentor. He challenged me to keep a journal of my daily activities in 15 minute increments for two weeks. I remember thinking: I don’t have the time to do this! I can’t complete my unfinished projects now and you want me to spend my time recording activities every 15 minutes? But, out of respect for his wisdom I began the process. It was both humbling and revealing. After two weeks I began to see patterns in my life. I discovered areas where I was both unproductive and inefficient. I could also see where some of my relationships were not getting the time they needed, while others—because I hadn’t planned properly—were getting an inordinate amount of time. Having not made priority-based decisions about my time, I was at the mercy of what others viewed as important. At the end of the journaling, I had to admit I was not making the best use of my time—a truth I would not have discovered if I had not taken the time to analyze. Heed the biblical warning: look carefully how you walk. It’s a simple process to get started. Just keep a record of your time.

Taken from Taking Back Time: biblical strategies for overcoming procrastination

Next Week–Step 2: Prioritize