July 1, 2003
 Seeing Your Life
Dynamically

 Moving Beyond Your
Fears of Change 
    
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No words can describe my sense of embarrassment and panic. I’m at the end of a college semester. I’ve suddenly discovered that there are several courses I’ve simply forgotten to attend. Finals begin in a few days, and term papers are due. It’s too late to withdraw with a passing grade. Should I make a heroic effort to get through, or just give up?

It’s a recurring dream that haunts my night from time to time. When I wake up, I remind myself that everything is all right. I made it through college long ago, and then went on to earn two graduate degrees. I never forgot to attend class for a week, let alone a semester.

Never mind. As much as I remind myself, the dream still recurs more often than I like to admit.

I have another recurring dream that is similar. One of the bands with which I used to play has come back together for a reunion concert. We’re getting ready to go on stage and face a large audience. But we realize that we haven’t rehearsed and are totally unprepared to perform.

Again, my experiences with musical groups have all been positive ones. Still, the dream suggests that part of me has never moved beyond early fears of failure.

Lasting Impressions

Most people have difficultly letting go of old impressions of themselves. Psychologists term this factor the “self-consistency motive.” While we have an enormous drive to do things to improve our self-image, we also have a surprisingly strong drive to maintain a consistent self-image. Change of any sort in our self-concept can be unsettling to us--even if it’s in a positive direction.

The result may be that we actually resist taking a step that would improve our life, because we’re more comfortable living with our present set of feelings. Or, if we do accomplish a cherished goal, we may continue to think of ourselves in terms of how we were before we reached it.

Recurring dreams such as mine can indicate that part of us is still clinging to an old self-perception. I entered college with a low image of myself as a student, for instance, having done poorly in high school. Even though I’ve subsequently reached my major academic goals, something of the old self-impression remains.

As I’ve shared about this dream in talks and seminars, many have admitted to me that they experience a similar one. It points to a very common problem with revising the self-image.

Slow Growing

This inertia in the way we view ourselves helps explain why spiritual growth is often such a slow and painful process. Growth in the way I think about God usually involves a change in the way I think about myself.

Developing a deeper trust in Christ’s power, for instance, means growing in my conviction that I am important to Christ, that he loves me enough to meet my needs, and that he wants to express his power through me to meet the needs of others. If my self-image is poor, I may find it hard to believe that God could love me this extraordinarily. And the yen for self-consistency can provide powerful resistance to such a change in perspective.

We see this problem often illustrated by Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels. Time and again Jesus put them through experiences that taught them lessons not only about God but about themselves--that God’s power wasn’t just an abstract force, but something they were chosen to receive.

They were slow to catch on. In Mark 8:1-8 they face the immense problem of feeding themselves and a crowd of over four thousand people. Jesus responds by giving them a few loaves and fishes, and with these meager provisions they miraculously feed themselves and the hungry multitude. At the time, the disciples must have been awestruck by Jesus’ uncanny power. And they must have been profoundly convinced of his desire to use his power to meet their needs and the needs of others through them.

A few hours later that conviction is already lost. They are out in a boat with Jesus, desperately concerned about where their next meal is coming from! Jesus, referring to the miracle they have just experienced, asks them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? . . . And do you not remember?” (Mk 8:17-18 RSV).

Respecting the Process

We should recognize self-consistency for the incredible force that it is. Appreciating it will help us be more patient with ourselves and others in the whole process of spiritual and emotional growth.

But we must not forget that God’s Spirit at work in us is a greater power still. Gradually Jesus’ disciples did develop a much healthier view of God and of themselves. It took time. As it was for them, it’s a process for each of us.

What I find most encouraging is that Jesus didn’t give up on his disciples when they continued to miss the points he was trying to impress on them. Rather, he patiently prodded them to recall their past experiences, and to apply the lessons they had learned to the new challenges they were facing. He continued to query them in the boat, “‘When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ And they said to him ‘Seven.’ And he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’” (Mk 8:19-21 RSV)

In the same way, Christ bears with us, continuing to remind us of the things we’ve learned but too quickly forgotten. It’s in this sense that he promised the Holy Spirit will “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” and will “guide you into all the truth” (Jn 14:26, 16:13 RSV). By declaring that the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth, he implied that it will be a process, not something that happens all at once.

Patience and Progress

We must simply be committed to doing those things that will keep the process in motion. Maintaining a regular devotional time is so important. Our need for worship is also unceasing, as is our need for Christian fellowship--especially with affirming Christian friends who desire God’s best for us.

It is just as important to keep momentum in our life and to be willing to take on new challenges. Understanding our self-consistency helps us appreciate why we may experience mixed emotions about even golden opportunities. We may have a good opportunity for a career change, or for using our gifts in our church, or to develop a serious relationship or to marry; it may even be an option God wants us to accept. Yet while we long for it on one level, we resist it on another. The desire for success is mixed with the fear of change.

The point may come for each of us when realizing God’s best means taking a major step with our life, even though some fears and doubts remain. This is precisely what walking in faith so often involves--going ahead with a decision, even though all the facts are not in and our emotions are not fully settled. The critical matter for each of us is to understand just how great an influence self-consistency is in our life, and then to take appropriate steps to counteract it. If we’ve approached a choice carefully, prayed about it seriously, and are substantially convinced it’s the best course to take, it can make good sense to go ahead, even though our emotional sense of peace is something less than perfect.

Self-consistency is one of the least appreciated factors of human nature. Yet it can be one of the strongest influences on how we view our possibilities in life. The best deterrent to the problems caused by self-consistency is to do whatever we can to stay in a growth mode--developing a vibrant relationship with Christ, and taking new and challenging steps of faith with our life. Christ wants us to view him dynamically--and our own life as well.
    

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