Growing up, I was always playing sports. I loved to run around with my friends and play football or pickup basketball, and my true love as a kid was baseball. The mental side of baseball was always so enticing to me. Lots of people think baseball is boring, and let’s be honest; it can get a little slow at times. But when you start to focus on the mental battle going on during a baseball game, it’s like a whole new world of competition opens up. As I got older and continued playing baseball at a more competitive level, I started to hear the phrase, “you have to control your emotions,” especially referring to baseball players. This phrase is usually heard after a player messes up, gets really upset about messing up and then the anger leads to him or her messing up again. For a baseball example, Joe Smith strikes out, goes back to the dugout and slams his helmet, then goes to play defense and commits an error. The coach might yell, “You have to control your emotions! Move past it!”
As I continued playing baseball through high school and college, my fascination with the mental side of the game consumed me. I read books on sports psychology and studied techniques that professional athletes used to secure a mental edge. All of these books and techniques were an effort to learn how to improve at controlling my emotions. Despite reading, studying and working on the mental side of baseball, inevitably something negative would happen during a game, I would get really upset that I screwed up, then I would get mad at myself for getting mad and not being able to control my emotions (getting mad at yourself for getting mad at yourself is sometimes called the “feedback loop from Hell,” but that is a discussion is for another time).
I was so frustrated because I felt like controlling my emotions was impossible. When I struck out with the bases loaded after making two errors, of course I was going to be angry. If you lose your job or get a speeding ticket, of course you are going to feel upset or at the very least frustrated. How are we supposed to stop ourselves from feeling natural emotions!? Great question. The answer?
We’re not supposed to control our emotions, but we should make our best effort to not allow emotions to control us. I did not fully learn this lesson until my senior year of college when I found out that I had a torn labrum, a ligament in my shoulder. Long story short, I could either painfully play with the injury or have surgery and risk missing my last season of baseball. I decided to delay having surgery and play with the torn labrum. I would love to tell you that I fought through a painful senior year, didn’t let my emotions control me, had an amazing season and we won a conference championship… but that didn’t happen. I had a terrible season as an individual, and we had a terrible season as a team.
Where am I going with this?
As a senior-starter, I was a captain on the team. I was a vocal leader, and I was a leader through my actions. Whether I liked it or not, the young guys on the team would look at me – my reactions, my body language, my attitude – and they would learn the way a player should act and react to the peaks and valleys of a season, especially when faced with the frustrations that come along with an injury.
So I made a decision.
Despite having an injury riddled and miserable year individually and collectively, I decided that I was still going to lead my team in a way that showed resilience, work ethic and heart, regardless of how I felt. Now, to be clear, I FELT awful. There were times when I felt like I wanted to cry. There were times when I felt angry about how the season was going. I felt a ton of negative emotions, and who wouldn’t!? But regardless of what negative emotions I was feeling, I made the decision to not let those emotions control my actions. If I tried to control my emotions, I would have gotten upset with myself for constantly losing a battle that I had no way of winning.
I also want to be sure to point out that emotions are important. After all, God created emotions, so they are not useless but can be great indicators. It is important to understand why we are experiencing certain feelings. It is also important to lament or express your feelings. As a college baseball player that had essentially been taught that emotions are useless for the majority of my sports life, I understood my emotions about as well as a newborn that just learned that hungry and have-to-pee are both negative but not the same thing. I was much better at suppressing my emotions, rather than understanding them. Quick hint, emotional suppression is not healthy.
Anyway, it wasn’t until the last few years that I discovered the lesson of emotions I learned in college was directly applicable to my faith.
I didn’t really grow up in church. We went to the Catholic church sporadically when I was little, then the Methodist church more regularly when I got a little older, but faith never played a major role in my life when I was a kid. However, I did grow up in Tennessee, and in the Bible Belt, there is no shortage of religious people. I remember hearing the phrase “you just have to have faith” quite a bit. It seemed like a call to just remain hopeful with no reasoning in times of trouble and to not feel negative emotion; things would probably get worked out eventually. Before I was a Christian, it never bothered me that I felt anxious or troubled when I was going through tough times in life, because why wouldn’t you feel anxious when you face trials and tribulation?
After I became a Christian though, I started to get frustrated with myself when I felt anxious about life or tough decisions. As a Christian, I’m not supposed to get anxious, right? So many times, I would hear Christians quote Philippians 4:6 that says “Do not be anxious about anything,” or the book of Matthew where Jesus says to not worry about what you will eat or drink because “can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). And I mean, how can I argue with Jesus?
Enter the Feedback Loop from Hell – I would get restless about a tough situation or decision, then think of these verses which I thought told me to never get anxious, then get upset at myself for feeling anxious. So now, I wasn’t just stressed but I was angry and stressed!
Thankfully, a few years ago, I was freed from the shackles of this misguided approach when I heard a pastor speak very differently about faith. He used a phrase that has been incredibly influential in how I approach my faith and my life with Jesus.
The pastor said, “Faith is not a feeling. Faith is a decision.”
I wish I could tell you all the examples and the anecdotes the pastor used leading up to this phrase, but I can’t, because I don’t remember. I think I was so taken with this phrase “faith is a decision,” that it was all I could think about after I heard it. It’s like I had been sitting in the dark for so long then a light bulb turned on that I didn’t even know was there.
The concept of deciding to have faith can be a difficult one to grasp, but it is so liberating when you fully understand that it is our choice to be faithful. This concept is illustrated in the Gospels.
In the book of Luke, chapter five, Jesus is preaching by the Sea of Galilee in Israel. He gets into a fishing boat with Simon (who would later be known as Peter) and teaches the people from the boat. We’ll pick things up in verse four:
When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Simon (Peter) was a fisherman. That’s what he did. Fishing was what he was trained to do. He knew the time of day to go fishing, the right places to go to on the lake and the right techniques that would enable him to efficiently catch lots of fish. He may have not been the smartest or most eloquent, but he could catch fish. On this particular evening though, he had just labored all day and not caught anything. He was probably frustrated that despite his expertise, he wasn’t able to catch any fish. But right before he was ready to call it a night Jesus said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” I love Peter’s initial response, because it’s so real. Peter says, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”
Have you ever had that response? Have you ever felt like God is calling you somewhere and you just want to tell God, “Lord, I love you, but that doesn’t make one bit of sense!” Have you ever gotten upset with God because you think, “I’m really good at doing this thing (being a dad or mom or friend, leading a ministry, developing in your career, playing sports, etc.) and I should be able to succeed in my own strength!” I know I have had those thoughts.
Thankfully, even though Peter had his doubts and maybe even had a few of the thoughts I just mentioned, he didn’t let his uncertainty stop him from making the decision to act in faith. The very next sentence he says to Jesus, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
The story goes on and Peter catches so many fish that the nets start to break and the other fisherman have to come help him bring in all the fish, but the boats start to sink. Peter gets scared and that’s when Jesus says,
“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”
So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Peter didn’t understand why Jesus was asking him to throw down his nets. And from Peter’s perspective, it didn’t make any sense at all and it probably felt a little insulting. Clearly, Peter had some doubts as to whether this seemingly nonsensical action was going to bear any fruit, but despite his doubts, Peter made the decision to abide in Jesus.
The key take-away – Peter’s doubts didn’t mean that he needed more faith, rather, Peter’s decision to act amidst his doubts displayed an incredible amount of faith. And here exposes the myth about faith that burdened my soul for so long.
Faith is not a feeling, and doubts are not evidence of a lack of faith. Doubts are an opportunity to show your faith… Faith is a decision.
Hopefully, many of you have read Kailey’s recent story, I’m a Faithful Doubter, so you know we have received some frustrating and shocking news that her contract will not be extended beyond this September. For ten months we have lived apart. For ten months, we have struggled through frustration, anger, depression and the unknown, all while living apart. I worked my butt off at my first job, was told by my company that I would not be able to work remotely, so I quit, got another job and found a company that was going to let me work from Lexington starting in September. Stability was on the horizon. We were going to be together. And then the TV station in Lexington tells Kailey the news. No reason given other than we feel you’re “not a good fit.”
“Master, we’ve worked hard all night.” I don’t want to stay out in this boat. I don’t want to keep fishing. I want to come in. I’ve done everything in my own strength possible to succeed. I want to rest. God, why are you doing this? Why would you let us struggle through almost an entire year of being apart just to bring us back to an unstable place with an unknowable future? This doesn’t make any sense!
“But because you say so…”
I don’t know why this has happened. And to be honest, I am a little scared. The boat feels like it is sinking underneath us. We have leases that are expiring, furniture to move, decisions to make and not a clue where we are going to go next.
“But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” I know you love us God. Regardless of the doubts I feel, I choose to remain faithful. I choose to continue to abide in Him. Some days are harder than others. Some days, I don’t feel any righteous conviction at all. I don’t feel faithful. But I will fall at the knees of Jesus and remain faithful. I will continue to treat people with kindness and compassion, because that is what I have been called to do. I will continue to work towards bringing you the stories of people from coast to coast that will hopefully help us all walk towards reconciliation, because Kailey and I believe that is the path God has laid out for us.
One last story before I end this entry. On the night before Jesus was crucified, he was with the disciples in the Garden of Gesthemane. Jesus knew what was about to happen to him, but he wasn’t some stoic, emotionless God that stuck out his chest and “took it like a man” (whatever that means). He was fully God but he was also fully human. I don’t know exactly what that entails but I do know that means Jesus felt the same emotions that we do. He got hungry and anxious and happy and lonely and excited and on this night, he was scared. He told the disciples “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Later Jesus is praying and he says to God, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
The emotions, thoughts and concerns that Jesus felt in the Garden of Gesthemane had a similar dynamic to Peter on the boat. “I really don’t want to do this, but God, I love you, and if you tell me to do it, I will.”
When Peter showed his faith amidst doubts, Jesus changed him from a fisherman to one of the greatest Christian leaders this world has ever known. When Jesus continued to abide despite his anxiety and fear, he saved the world.
I don’t know what you are struggling with today. I don’t know if you are feeling doubtful or hopeful or a mixture of the two. If you are a Christian and feeling doubtful or anxious or scared, I hope you know that you are right in the middle of an opportunity to show your faith and bear fruit. Your doubts don’t make you a bad Christian. Your fear doesn’t mean you need to have more faith. Just keep moving towards Jesus, and he will lead you to a place you could never have imagined.
If you’re not a Christian (first of all, I’m honored that you would read these many of my thoughts) and you are struggling with anxiety or fear, I hope you know that there is a God who knows exactly how you feel. There is a God who loved you so much that he couldn’t stand to be apart from you. He decided to come down off a heavenly throne where there is no pain, sorrow, anxiety, fear or doubt. He came down from that throne and suffered an excruciating death, but amid that gruesome death something beautiful happened. Three days later he rose from the dead and everything changed. No longer does it take following rules and making ourselves more righteous in our own strength so we can get closer to God, but Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross made it so that God comes directly to us, right where we are. God died for you, not because he needs you but because he wants you, and he loves you, exactly the way you are. It was the most beautiful sacrificial display of love possible, and it calls people to show the same type of love to our neighbors.
And that is how Beauty Saves.