This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Three
“Sometimes I feel like something just isn’t sitting right with me, but I can’t identify what that is. I’ll sit down and think about it, and I still am unable to identify it. Do you have a set or series of questions that I can ask myself to get to the bottom of what’s bothering me? I suppose I’m just not the greatest when it comes to personal reflection.”
Highland Park, MI
I love this question 1000%. Recognizing that you have room to grow in personal reflection is a fantastic example of fruitful personal reflection! The ability to see your own need shows genuine humility. That posture of openness is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to experience real change.
Self-awareness is one of the most difficult virtues for a leader (or any human being) to master. Your question: “What’s bothering me?” is one of the best places to start. Becoming aware of what troubles us can lead to us to surprising insights about our own needs and desires. It’s even a question that shows up in the Bible: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:5a NRSV). Pondering our own disquiet can help reveal what the Spirit is doing in our lives.
Complicated and Beautiful
Being bothered, but not knowing quite why, is a result of how we’re put together as people. Just think about the phrase “catching up with myself.” We have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we don’t always have time in the moment to pay attention to. But they stick with us, trailing behind us, until we take time to let them catch up to us.
Sometimes it takes a while to catch up because there’s a long way to go. Even an animal as simple as a fly has some capacity to think. But I imagine the thought life of a fly is pretty boring! Human thoughts are not just more complex, they’re rich with life and beauty and dynamism and color. Same thing for feelings. You could fully express the pathos of a fly’s life with a kazoo. For human beings, the infinite diversity of musical style, genre, and sound still hasn’t given voice to all we can feel. Each aspect of our being has the potential for such fullness—not just our thoughts and feelings, but also our inner spirit, our bodies, and our power to relate to other people.
That’s why there’s lag time between your experiences and your conscious awareness sometimes; there’s so much to you that you need time to become present to it. Something significant can scurry away to a corner of your soul and hide out there for a while, and you have to go looking to find it. But even that frustrating experience can remind you of just how expansive you are. You’re not a camping tent where everything’s within arm’s reach; you’re a cathedral, built to echo to the rafters with the glory of God.
So how do you go looking for something hidden in your soul? How do you find out what’s bothering you? There’s no silver bullet here. Sometimes things take time to work their way to the surface. But there are a few practices that can help. Here are two different ways to try and feel things out.
Pondering Each Part of You
This is an analytic approach, which is helpful if you feel like you need to separate things out and look at them one at a time. Ask the question, “What part of me is feeling bothered?” Take a moment to get quiet, ask Jesus to be present to you and show you what is happening inside of you, and then see which of these feels like the right fit:
- Your Body
Is this trouble something that you’re carrying in your body some way? Can you feel it in your head, or in your chest? How physically tired are you? Patterns of sleep and exercise affect our emotions directly and dramatically. Even while attending to spiritual or relational dynamics that might be bothering you, it’s worth asking whether what you really need is a good night’s rest or a run in the park.
- Your Mind and Emotions
It’s possible you’re bothered by something more abstract than physical exhaustion. Is there a situation that made you sad or angry recently? Naming a feeling can help us connect to it more fully. Even using a list of emotions might help, to find the right word. Things can get stuck in our intellect, as well—Or was there some important idea that came up in a conversation or an article you read, but that you didn’t get a chance to think through?
- Your Spirit
Are you concerned about something that you did, and feeling the conviction of the Spirit? Or perhaps you are grieved by the injustice of the world, like the psalmist who asks, “How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?” (Psalm 94:3 NIV). Our spirit is the center of our person, closely associated with our will or capacity to choose. When we are struck by injustice or wrongdoing—our own or others’—it touches our spirit.
- Your Relationships
For me, I’m bothered by someone just as often as I’m bothered by something. Did you have an interaction with a family member or friend that went differently than you had hoped? Did your boss say something that rubbed you the wrong way? Bring to mind the people you most care about, or who most affect you, and something might come up.
Regardless of where the trouble is coming from, present what you’ve found to Jesus. You can grieve with him, ask him to make a change in difficult circumstances, confess to him, or ask him for help. Listen to see how he responds to you.
Reviewing the Day
This is a more integrated approach, which can help you make connections between different parts of your experience within a set period of time. (The traditional theological term for this practice is performing an examen.) It may be helpful to jot things down in a journal as you go.
At a particular time in the day—perhaps before bed—remember each significant moment of your day, asking Jesus to help you see and feel what matters. What first entered your mind when you woke up? What was breakfast like (if it happened)? Were there moments of success or stress in the morning at work or school, or with family? Later in the day, did anything catch you by surprise? What conversations stand out to you? Did you watch or read or listen to anything? It’s possible that whatever is bothering you is hidden in one of these moments. As you go, you’ll also notice things that don’t bother you at all, but instead are occasions for thanksgiving and delight.
Again, regardless of what stands out to you, respond with prayer. Invite Jesus to speak into the little things that matter. No moment that affects you is too small for his attention. Peter encourages us, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV).
The Fruits of Reflection
The steps here can help identify some specific trouble. In that sense, they’re tools for the toolbelt, which we can take out as needed. But they can also help us form a habit of reflection that goes beyond immediate problem-solving. Regularly catching up with ourselves is a kind of spiritual hygiene that keeps us from getting out of sync with what God is doing in our lives. If we’re not aware of our own experiences, how can we see what he is doing in us? But when we do become more aware, continually opening our hearts to his influence about the little things of each day, we find that there is a deeper sense of integration in our lives. Instead of being tossed from one disparate and scattered moment to the next, we can trace patterns of God’s redemptive action. Instead of being mentally distracted and harangued by unconscious needs and desires, we are able to be restfully present and focused on what—and who—is right in front of us. That capacity for personal presence will pay dividends for our life and our leadership in countless ways.