Keeping a Soft Heart

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new Spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

Ezekiel 11:19

This is one of my favorite Scriptures and one that the Lord has highlighted to me multiple times this year. I’m amazed at how often the Bible warns about the danger of a hardened heart. It’s clear that God cares deeply about the condition of our interior life.

However, the enemy loves to use pain and disappointment to harden us. And I think for many people, 2020 has been year of pain and disappointment. I believe that the enemy wants to use the challenging circumstances of this past year to make us cynical and critical, lonely and isolated, numb to our feelings and emotions, and stuck in bitterness and resentment. The honest truth is that I’ve felt all of these things at some point this past year.

However, God has been teaching me a lot about what it means to stay soft-hearted in the midst of difficult times. I want to share with you several tools He’s been teaching me for keeping a soft heart.

Guarding our hearts: One of my favorite Scriptures is Proverbs 4:23. It reads:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. “

-Proverbs 4:23

Now I don’t think this verse is suggesting that we shut ourselves off from everyone and everything. Rather we must be mindful of what we allow into hearts. The media, news, and content we take in actually does something to us. It shapes the people we become and that’s not something to be taken lightly.

Therefore, when I am watching a Netflix show, reading the news, or even scrolling on Facebook, I try to ask myself the following question: Is this content softening or hardening my heart? Is it drawing me closer to God and His love or am I feeling more disconnected from Him? It’s so easy to become desensitized to violence, impurity, lies, anxiety, and gossip— all of which the media capitalizes on. Therefore, if we want to stay sensitive and soft-hearted, we need to guard our hearts from destructive inputs.

Practicing vulnerability: One of my favorite quotes about vulnerability comes from Brene’ Brown. She writes:

“Staying vulnerable is the risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”

-Brene’ Brown

God has been teaching me a lot about vulnerability the past couple of years. As Brene’ Brown says, vulnerability is a risk. It carries no guarantees and I think that’s what make it so scary. But if we want to experience deep connection with others, we have to be vulnerable. We have to let people in and open our hearts to love and be loved by others.

This means being honest with people about our struggles and weaknesses. It means asking for help when we need it. And it means authentically sharing who we are with the people in our lives. In my opinion, a vulnerable heart is a soft heart.

Prioritizing beauty: I love how John Eldredge describes the softening power of beauty. He writes:

“Beauty is such a gentle grace. Like God, it rarely shouts, rarely intrudes. Rather it woos, soothes, invites… We often sign in the presence of beauty as it begins to minister to us— a good, deep soul sigh.”

-John Eldredge, Get Your Life Back

We all experience God’s beauty in different ways. This past year, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. My heart feels softest and most receptive to God’s love during a walk at the park, on a run at sunset, or out exploring the sights and sounds of a new hiking trail. Music has the same effect on me. It’s nearly impossible to listen to a beautiful song without experiencing music’s softening effect.

Learning from children: This might seems strange, but I think that spending time with children can also soften our hearts. It’s clear in the Gospels that children had a very special place in Jesus’ heart. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus even goes so far as to tells His disciples:

 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

-Matthew 18:3

Why is this? Well I wonder if it’s because children have such soft hearts. As a 3rd grade teacher who spends most of my time with children, I can attest to this! Children are some of the most trusting people I know. They don’t have the same walls and defense mechanisms that adults develop to protect themselves. Therefore, I think we have a lot to learn from children!

Embracing sadness: I think that many Christians feel a need to be joyful all the time and feel guilty for experiencing sadness and discouragement. However, as I read the Bible, I am struck by Godly men and women who embraced their honest feelings before God. Hannah cried in the temple because she was barren and without a son. Elijah expressed his despair to God as he was running from Ahab and Jezebel. Job grieved and mourned his losses. Even Jesus cried over the death of his friend Lazarus and in the garden of Gethsemane. There’s a reason God has given us tears. Sometimes what we really need is a good cry. And I know from personal experience the softening effect that tears can have on our hearts.

Additionally, embracing sadness enables us to fully embrace joy. As Brene’ Brown writes:

“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

-Brene Brown

Part of being human is allowing ourselves to experience the full range of emotions, including the difficult ones.

Confessing our sin: When my heart feels hard, sometimes the culprit is un-confessed sin. I love Psalm 32 which reads:

“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.”

-Psalm 32: 1 and 2.

Bringing our sins into the light softens our hearts. It’s important to regularly confess our sin to the Lord and to others. Confession keeps us sensitive to the Lord and to His gentle correction.

Forgiving others: Our hearts aren’t only hardened by our own sinfulness, but also by sins done to us. I think that bitterness has the greatest potential to harden our hearts. In her book about forgiveness (highly recommend) Lysa Terkeurst writes so beautifully about the importance of forgiveness. She writes:

“Your heart is much too beautiful a place for unhealed pain. And your soul is much too deserving of freedom to stay stuck”.

-Lysa Terkeurst, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget

In my experience, forgiveness is a healing balm for our hearts. It’s not something we muster up. Instead, it comes when we truly receive God’s forgiveness and then allow that same forgiveness to overflow to others. In my experience, forgiveness isn’t just a one-time action. It’s a continual process that gradually heals and restores our hearts.

In closing, I want to invite you to look back on this past year and notice any places in your heart that may have been hardened by 2020. As we step into the new year, I encourage you to invite Jesus into those places and ask Him to soften the soil of your heart.

May we go into 2021 with soft, open hearts able to fully give and receive God’s love.

The Healing Power of Calm

“Do we want to infect people with more anxiety, or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm?”

-Brene’ Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection 

I just love this quote by Brene’ Brown. Her analogy is so true. Anxiety is like an infectious disease that spreads so easily from person to person.

As a third grade teacher, I witness the power of anxiety in my classroom on a daily basis. It’s amazing to me how the anxiety of just one student can affect the whole classroom dynamic. And I’ve noticed that my own anxiety can also negatively affect my students. As humans, we tend to match the emotions of the people around us. Therefore, when I am stressed out and anxious, my students also feel stressed and on edge.

However, the opposite is also true. Although anxiety is a strong force, calm is equally powerful. As someone who wrestles with anxiety, I know from personal experience the healing power of calm.

I love spending time with calm people. There is something so healing about being around people who are at ease with themselves and others, who aren’t trying to prove anything, and who refuse to hurry and rush. These people seem to lower the heart rate of the room just by entering.

As I’ve observed calm people and tried to learn their secrets, I’ve noticed several strategies that I’m trying to practice.

Calm people breathe. This is a simple, but powerful observation. I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed out, I sometimes forget to breathe! Therefore, taking long, deep breaths is so helpful in the midst of anxiety. I do this a lot in my classroom. If something stressful happens, I’ll stop what we’re doing and lead the class in some deep breathing exercises. I’m always amazed at how much this calms my students (and myself!).

Calm people talk slowly. When I’m stressed out, I’ve noticed that I start talking faster and faster. It’s amazing how just slowing down my pace of speech calms down my body. I even find that my heart rate slows down when I slow down my speech.

Calm people speak quietly. This is a powerful strategy with my students. When a student is loud or upset, I try to match their level of agitation with an equal level of calm. It’s amazing how quieting my own voice helps them to stop yelling or shouting out.

Calm people do one thing at a time. There is so much danger in multi-tasking. I’ve read a lot of research that suggests that multi-tasking actually decreases our productivity. But even more importantly, multi-tasking makes it difficult to be fully present in the moment. Therefore, when I’m stressed out or anxious, I try to discipline myself to focus on one task or activity before completing the next.

Calm people stop. This is probably the most important strategy for embracing calm. In a frenetic culture of constant doing, it’s difficult to stop and just be still. However, moments of stillness are actually the birthplace of calm. This might be in the morning when I first get up, in the car on the way to or from work, or even during a couple of minutes on my lunch break. During these times I stop doing and simply sit with Jesus. I recognize His presence and invite His calm into the anxiety or stress of the day.

Calm people embrace imperfection. As a recovering perfectionist this is a challenging one for me. However, I have noticed that I’m so much calmer when I let go of the pressure to do things perfectly. There’s something freeing about occasionally leaving a basket of laundry unfolded or leaving work before every last email is checked. In these moments I let go of my need to control and prove myself as good enough.

I want to close by sharing this sermon by John Mark Comer of Bridgetown Church:

Jesus on Becoming a Non-Anxious Presence 

I hope this sermon speaks to you and encourages you like it did for me. I was deeply impacted by John Mark’s emphasis on becoming a “non-anxious presence”. I love how he points to Jesus as the ultimate example of what a non-anxious presence looks like. Jesus is our perfect model of a life free from anxiety, filled with calm and peace.

And oh how our world needs this! In our frenetic and chaotic society, our world desperately needs people committed to calm, who are learning to be a non-anxious presence.

The truth is that I’m so far from that.

But I now know who I want to be.

Rather than infecting the people around me with anxiety, I want to learn how to bring the healing power of calm.

Vulnerability and Courage

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

-Brene’ Brown, Rising Strong 

In an earlier post I wrote about vulnerability and how it has been an important tool in fighting my social anxiety.  However, the more I practice vulnerability, the more I realize how much courage it takes to be truly known by people. I’m learning that vulnerability is risky business and that practicing vulnerability carries no guarantees.

Vulnerability often begets deeper connection, empathy, and intimacy.

However, vulnerability can also result in rejection, disappointment, and pain.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with what to do when I risk vulnerability and it doesn’t work out.

I think that for people with social anxiety, experiences of rejection are especially painful. In moments of rejection, it’s so tempting to shut down the heart and vow not to risk vulnerability again.

However, I know that this isn’t the way God intends for us to live.

God intends for us to live in community with others— to know and be known. Although relationships can lead to hurt and disappointment, they are also one of the most powerful ways that God brings healing to our lives. Vulnerability is truly worth the risk.

It takes courage to get back up after a disappointment. 

But I’m determined to keep practicing vulnerability, even when it’s painful.

Social Anxiety and Vulnerability

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” 

-Brene’ Brown, Daring Greatly

I can honestly say that vulnerability has been one of the greatest keys to battling social anxiety in my life. However, when I initially identified social anxiety, my first instinct was to avoid vulnerability at all costs.

For people who struggle with social anxiety, vulnerability is especially terrifying. After all, social anxiety centers on a fear of being seen, known, and rejected by others.

Additionally, I know from personal experience that people who struggle with social anxiety tend to also battle shame. And shame likes to stay in the dark. However, the interesting thing about shame is that it loses its power when it is brought into the light. I’ve found this to be so true in my own life.

I remember feeling so overwhelmed by my social anxiety. I felt stuck and trapped. Honestly one of my greatest fears was that someone would find out about my anxiety. It made me feel defective and unworthy.

However, one day I mustered up the courage to talk about my anxiety with my counselor. Next, I talked with each of my family members. Not long after that, I let several of my closest friends and a dear older mentor in on my struggle.

Although this didn’t immediately fix my anxiety, I felt so much lighter. I now had people lifting me up in prayer. I also was touched by how each of these people responded to me. Rather than condemning or rejecting me, they expressed deep love, empathy, and compassion. Their gracious responses reflected to me the love of Jesus which was exactly what I needed to combat the shame that I felt.  That was such a gift.

Although I believe that vulnerability is an important step in battling social anxiety, I would like to give a word of caution. Vulnerability is a powerful force that must be used carefully. As research professor Brene’ Brown wisely suggests:

“Share with people who have earned the right to hear your story.” 

When I was in the midst of my struggle, it wasn’t wise for me to share about my social anxiety with anybody and everybody. I only shared with people whom I truly trusted and knew would respond with empathy and understanding.

Vulnerability can be so terrifying, but I have become convinced that it is such a powerful tool for healing. I have also discovered that it is such a powerful tool for connection. Over the past couple of years, I have been amazed at how God has used my vulnerability to give others a safe place to share their own vulnerability and pain.

Vulnerability begets connection and that is such a precious gift.

Social Anxiety and Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” 

-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

I’ve come to the realization that perfectionism is perhaps the greatest root of my social anxiety. Perfectionism has been an unwanted friend of mine for as long as I can remember.

As a child, perfectionism was apparent in my immaculately clean room. When I felt stressed or out of control, I found myself constantly reorganizing my room. Suddenly all of my books needed to be in alphabetical order or my closet needed to be organized by color.

Perfectionism stayed with me in my years as a student. I was so tied to getting a 4.0 GPA and did everything I could to maintain that. I remember my dad actually challenging me to purposely get a “B” in one of my college classes because he was concerned about my addiction to perfectionism!

Perfectionism also impacts how I approach social situations. I’ve realized that I tend to avoid social interactions if I don’t think that I can handle them perfectly. I’d rather simply not go to an event if I won’t know most of the people there or if awkward situations are likely to occur. Unfortunately, I realize that this has caused me to miss out many potentially beautiful and life-enriching opportunities over the years.

About a year ago, God challenged me that my “all or nothing” mentality was holding me back. He encouraged me to approach social situations with a 70 percent mindset, rather than the perfection-driven 100 percent mindset I naturally adopt. As a result, I’ve started to say yes to more opportunities and social situations while giving myself permission to handle them imperfectly. I’d rather move forward in my life and keep growing than stay stuck because I’m afraid of failing.

As God’s been stripping away this pattern of perfectionism from my mind, I’ve had some powerful realizations. First of all, I’ve noticed how much deeper and meaningful my relationships have become. I think that it’s actually harder to connect with people when I’m trying to perform perfectly. As human beings I think that we are more attracted to the imperfections and broken pieces of each other than the perfect facades that many of us try to keep up. As Brene Brown suggests in her book The Gifts of Imperfection (a book I highly recommend!), letting ourselves be seen in our vulnerability and imperfection is what actually connects us to one another.

I’ve also realized that when I fail, I’m going to be ok. My identity and value as a child of God are not centered in handling every social situation perfectly. God loves me simply because He loves me, not because of the way I perform. I have become intimately and personally acquainted with the extravagant grace of God.

That is why I chose the title of this blog: “grace to be imperfect”.

It’s true. There is grace to be imperfect.

And I’m starting to believe that truth more and more each day.