The Confidence Conundrum

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“Be confident!”  

Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.

Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall.  A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident.  Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.

People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful.  No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real.  A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.

That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.  

Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it.  When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.

Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience.  Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them.  Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.

Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive.  But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.

When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt.  And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence.  Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.

So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?

If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.

What people need is T.IM.E.

Help must be practical.  Encouraging words don’t cut it.  Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure.  What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.

Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse.  There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.

Here are three simple steps…

1) Take time to listen.  Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first.  Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need.  This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need.  It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation.  Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care.  So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally.  Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.

2) IMagine a solution.  Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies.  A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision.  The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success.  After that comes execution of the plan.

3) Empower them.  This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism.  Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment.  No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it.  Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.

Anyhow, some final notes…

This is not a method or formula.  Each person and every situation is different.  Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call.  While other times a lifelong commitment may be required.  It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.  

The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction.  It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.

Nobody is self-made.  If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities.  We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck.  We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life.  This is reason to be humble and helpful.

If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do.  Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…


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There Is No Such Thing As Selfless Love

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I had an idea of a supernatural love.  It was a love that would overcome differences in ambition, personality, experience, etc.  I had imagined a spiritual bonding of two people united only in their faith, going against their natural preferences and depending fully on God.

My pursuit of this greater love came as a result of what I had considered a spiritual experience and my desire to do God’s will.  I had a comfortable life and no real desire to disrupt my secure existence, but I sought to be uncomfortable and decided to step out in faith to pursue what was impossibility to me.

After a journey of a few years (and going against the flow of advice of people who claim to have faith yet live as if agnostic) I’ve realized something about love.  First, love is not supernatural, there is nothing inexplicable about love, and my chasing after more was a waste of time.  Second, we only love when we gain from it.

Not even Jesus loved selflessly…

Altruism, or selfless love, is an idea that doesn’t work in the real world and is not even a Christian ideal.

Jesus didn’t love altrustically.  Jesus loved as an investment, in a hope that he could gain followers, and with the intent to build a kingdom where he would be Lord.  He encouraged others to love as he did as a means of gaining his favor and inheriting eternal life.  Eternal life is a really big incentive.

All sustainable love is either a repayment for something already done or delayed gratification in hopes of future gain.  We love because we owe a debt or in anticipation of receiving a return on investment.  Yes, in some love relationships there is no balance sheet kept (because it would be cumbersome and ruin the mood) and yet all love is, at some level, about self-gratification.

We cannot live separate from our own desires.  Not even Jesus had an endless supply of unconditional love for those who went against his teachings, we see that expressed in his words of condemnation in Matthew 23, and his abiding love was only shown to those who continually submitted to his will.

Now, it can be argued that this demand of submissive love is only for our own good, as in a parent’s chastisement of their child in order to get the best from them, and yet ultimately the proposition was to love me or else you die.  That isn’t altruism nor is it extraordinary or inexplicable.

What love is and is not…

Love is a feeling of pleasure we get.  This feeling is a product of brain chemistry—the result of natural chemical substances, such as oxycotin, that underlie our emotional experiences and all human behavior.  Love is something involuntary, a natural attachment we get towards something or someone attractive to us.  Love requires no special spiritual explanation.

When a Mennonite woman told me she couldn’t love me as I wished to be loved it was true.  What I was hoping for was a supernatural love, the kind that is impossible by human standards, and only possible with faith in God.  I figured that two faithful people, equally in pursuit of God’s will, would be able to overcome their own differences and ambitions.

However, what I didn’t realize, despite my sincere feelings and delusion of faith, is that my love for her was nothing special or supernatural.  Sure, I believed it was something of God and was deeply offended when people would suggest I was driven by sexual desire.  Yet, at some subconscious level, it was all completely natural and my confirmations from God all hallucination.

What made it seem bigger was what it represented as far as acceptance in my birth culture.  There are first and second tier Mennonites.  The father and family that this young woman belonged to was squarely in the first tier.  They are popular, connected and sought after because of the pleasant feelings they produce in other Mennonites.

In reality, other than my being a second tier Mennonite and therefore not as pleasurable to her senses, I’m no different from the young man who did finally meet her criteria.  The only real difference is that he will be able to continue on in his delusion.  He can go on seeing her love as something supernatural and proof of God’s​ perfect plan.

Perhaps some day he will be oblivious (like her dad) and share, to a crowd of those craving love, that his dear wife made him who he is?

Love and conservative Mennonite idealism…

All that sounds pretty negative and depressing considering the high ideals that I had for love.

I believe we prefer to frame our love as a divine mystery because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Who really wants to think of themselves as governed by their biological impulses and base desires?

And still, when we divorce ourselves from the reality of who and what we are, we do more harm than good.  The religious culture I was born into created many unrealistic expectations in me and this idealism has played a large part in my recent disappointments.

It was actually the father (of the girl that rejected my love) who had advised me against a relationship with a faithful woman outside the Mennonite denomination citing our cultural differences.  And, truth be told, it was advice that resonated only because I shared his ideals and was seeking after a perfect little Mennonite world like his.

Unfortunately that is the bad advice many Mennonite young people have taken and, in their uncompromising​ impractical pursuit of some kind of supernatural experience, they miss out on the best opportunities for love they may ever have.

One example is the attractive single woman who asked me to blog about how to fend off unwanted suitors.  This same girl later publically expressed her deep longing for children, as if she had no opportunity to make that happen, and yet she will go on rejecting the possibilities that exist because she is unwilling to compromise her own ideals for love.

It is sad that unrealistic ideals prevent so many Mennonite young people from taking those first steps that allow love to grow and why so many are choosing singleness over sacrifice—which is a trend will continue so long as we reject what is suitable to chase after our own grandiose delusions.

We can’t develop feelings because we are too carefully “guarding our hearts” to truly love people who don’t meet our own personal standards.  That is probably why we will never be very effective as missionaries.

The love I have found…

Over the past couple years, while in pursuit of a Mennonite ideal, I had opportunity to lower my barriers and be friends with people who didn’t meet Mennonite standards.

I have found true love in the crowd of misfits on the edge and outside of the Mennonite denomination.  I loved those who, like me, were lonely and in need of a friend.  As a result I feel I’ve gained more than I have in all my years amongst my spoiled and self-congratualtory religious peers.

The family of misfits I’ve gained might not know the right things to say and do to appear righteous, but they have a heart similar to my own.  My new friends, unlike my pretty-on-the-outside religious peers, are like me in the ways that really matter and that is why I love them.

Most Mennonites, like other religious fundamentalists, will not make a lifetime commitment to those whom they consider less than themselves and are not at all like the Jesus they claim to follow after.  They can’t love me because I am not like them and I’ve given up wasting my time with them because there are many others who do appreciate what I have to offer.

The irony is that I probably have more and deeper connections formed through social media than many who have had their face on a prayer card and spend thousands to fly around the world.  In fact, I pick up the pieces for the fly-by missionaries who seem motivated by passion for adventure more than compassion for people.  We could do more staying home using social media and MoneyGram.

We really only love ourselves. We love only the people who we can identify with and can only patronize those who we do not. This is why Mennonites are bad missionaries, their love (beyond their own clique) is often disingenuous or out of religious duty rather than true humility and real identity with the downtrodden, their love for the outsider is a fly-in-fly-out superficial kind.

I have found my twin, a special person who doesn’t meet a Mennonite standard and yet mirrors me in her simple devotion to love.  It is not supernatural or mysterious, nor is it adorned with the typical triumphalism of those who always get everything they want, but it is genuine.

Faith: I Believe, So Help Me To Believe!

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The Pharisees were content because they were successful and could afford to believe they were righteous.  They were people who studied the law carefully and followed it diligently.  They had no lack of missionary zeal and devotion, they had titles, love of families and other wealth.

But these religious people with all the answers lacked one thing and it seems something that is still missing in religious traditions.  Everything they did they had accomplished on their own strength.  There was no room in their life for radical faith that believes the impossible.  No, they were content with only what they could understand and rejected anything more.

As I look around the Christian religious landscape today I could ask the same question Jesus did at the end of this story in Luke 18:1-8:

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think,  yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

I am certain Jesus would find many religiously devoted today.  I sure he would find those confident in their theology, their ‘Biblical’ standards and dogmas.  There are plenty of self-proclaimed experts with all of the right answers who pound pulpits and fill pews.  But would Jesus find faith real and unadulterated?

What is faith?

I believe this account in Mark 9:14-29 describes it:

“When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.  “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.  A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”   “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”  So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”   “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”    Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”  The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.  After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

I am not certain if the ailment of the boy would be considered a medical condition today.  But Jesus does seem to indicate that it was an incurable condition by any means other than prayer (or prayer and fasting) and therefore the healing was a miracle.

This is not a case for “faith healing” as a prescription for all illness.  It was a special circumstance where there was a condition that was impossible to cure by any other means.  So to turn this story into a reason to shun modern medicine is to vastly miss the point. 

If the light bulb burns out at church it only requires a budget or funds to replace it and not necessarily faith.  Faith is not about forcing God to do what is clearly within our own power to do.  Faith is doing all we can, investing our everything in something unseen, and having the outcome uncertain.

Faith is More than Reasonably Committed

There was the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17: 7-24) who used the last of her supplies to make bread for the prophet Elijah and had her needs supplied miraculously for her faithfulness.  The poor woman mentioned in Mark 12:41-44 is also an example of radical faith in action:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It requires very little faith for a wealthy business person to give of his millions when their needs are already supplied abundantly.  But faith, radical faith, is when a person is able to commit their all to an unbelievable promise.  Most would only contribute their all to a sure thing and not gamble it all on something unseen.

However, faith, according to Hebrews 11:5-6, is an essentially component, even the backbone of the message of the Gospel:

“By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

A religiously devoted person could go their entire life without need of faith.  If they only ever ask or achieve what is readily within their reach they have proven their dedication.  For some they put in their duty, but they don’t truly believe in a God of the impossible and live solely in their own understanding.

I am not content with religious devotion.  There is no sensible middle ground of belief without faith or it is falsehood.  For me, and according to the Bible, true faith is all or nothing proposition: It is radical faith or none at all. 

And yet, because we can never have enough faith to save our own selves, faith is a paradoxical product of grace.

Do you have faith?

Do you believe, I mean do you truly?

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Say we happened upon a rickety looking bridge over a deep canyon.  If I were to claim that the bridge was structurally sound, then urged you to test my claim and yet would not set foot on it, would you?

Many people claim to believe in God and say they believe what the Bible says is absolutely true, but few seem to live it.  It is one thing say faith makes all things possible (Mark 9:23) and quite another to live that as a reality.

I have heard all the excuses for those who claim faith while living a life that requires none.  Some accuse those who ask of making demands of God, they justify their own practical agnosticism as modesty and then hide behind God’s will as an excuse to live faithlessly.

Faith Means Investment and Action

When you do not believe that something can happen you will not act to make it a reality. Unbelief wears many disguises and one of them is a fear of God that results in inaction. It was not faith that condemned the man who did not invest his abilities and then blamed the harshness of his master:

“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”  (Matthew 25:24-25 NIV)

It is not faith that causes a person to bury their abilities to intervene, but it is slothfulness, a distorted idea about God and fear. Not asking for anything from God is not humility, it is an excuse to sit on our hands rather than be a fulfillment of God’s will and a lack of belief in the power of God.

In the Bible commitment is a first step towards an answer to prayer or need. Our commitment is often nothing more than a symbolic act like dipping in a river, touching a hem or giving what little we have, nevertheless it is necessary:

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”  (John 6:9 NIV)

It did not take a rocket scientist to understand a few small loaves and a couple fish could not feed thousands of people.  The disciples, if they had calculators, would probably have whipped them out and tried to explain to Jesus why his plan was an impossibility. They were incredulous.

But, had the disciples refused to participate in the distribution of fishes and loaves, had they demanded a sign from heaven before starting, would they have seen a miracle that day? 

No. Probably not.

It does not require faith in God to participate in things we can completely understand.  It takes faith to invest fully in something that we do not understand and seems impossible from our own perspective.  Faith is believing and investing fully despite not understanding how our own contribution will help.

Faith Is Asking Boldly Without Fear

It is not faith that keeps us from asking boldly, it is fear.  It is not humility either, but is pride in our own ability to sustain ourselves and doubt of God’s ability to do the impossible.  We do not ask because we do not believe in a God who loves us enough to intervene on our behalf or we do not believe in God at all.  It is fear that the promises and assurances of Jesus are lies:

“Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Matthew 21:21-22 NIV)

Promise #1 — God can do the impossible by our own logic or reasoning and will do the impossible for those who have faith.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”  (Matthew 7:7-11 NIV)

Promise #2 — God gives to those who show persistence and trust in His goodness rather relying on their own understanding.

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think,  yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  (Luke 18:1-8 NIV)

Will Jesus find the faith of that widow woman who refused to quit in you?

We can rationalize our lack of faith and even claim it is virtue.  We can claim that we do not believe God would want to be bothered and accept what is as faithless fatalists.  Or we can believe the words of Jesus are true, we can believe all things are truly possible with God and live with the confidence that God will bless our persistence:

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  (Hebrews 4:16 NIV)

Love Truly, Invest Big and Pray Bigger

With faith we invest.  When we invest fully, we love fully and act in love rather than hold back in doubt or fear.  There are many things that would not require a miracle to be possible if we were actually committed to a love that invests. Many more things that would be made possible if we loved as we ought.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  (1 John 4:18 NIV)

A faithful life is an active and bold life.  A person who believes is not passive or ashamed to ask for what they need. Love is not fearful, love is faithful and bold.  Faith is not tentative, faith is tenacious and proactive.  We cannot expect God to answer if we aren’t willing to act ourselves and be an answer to prayer for those around us.

If you believe Scripture is trustworthy then live it.  If you believe God is big, then pray big, invest big and put your money where your mouth is. Do not hide behind a false notion of God’s sovereignty as a way to avoid having to invest and persist. God is not honored in our rationalizations or excuses.

Faith is taking the first step over the canyon and trusting the bridge to hold.