The coming of Christmas

Advent is a period of anticipation of – of looking forward to – the coming of Christmas. Christmas in turn celebrates the birth of the Christ Child, Jesus.

‘Christ’ means christened as King, and this is why the Magi are depicted as kneeling before the Christ Child – literally, the King Child. They were kneeling before a new king, and this king had been anticipated in Jewish society for some time. Presumably, the Magi were from somewhere like Babylon, and so were familiar with Jewish prophecies regarding the coming of a new king. Yet, Jesus’ kingdom was spiritual, and so he is a spiritual king, as he made clear to Pontius Pilate (‘My kingdom is not of this world’, as in, not a kingdom regarding worldly things, but spiritual ones – we might say ‘metapolitical’).

Yet the celebration of Christmas can be thought of not only as historical, but present-tense. This is because Christians are all christened as spiritual kings. Jesus is the King of Kings, and the latter Kings are … us! We have both power and responsibility as spiritual kings or queens.

In this sense, Advent is not only anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also anticipating the spiritual birth of God within ourselves – perhaps most obviously with baptism, both water baptism but also with baptism by the Holy Spirit. In the latter case, God is in a sense born in us, and so we become ‘born again of the spirit’ – born again with a new identity as kings. Jesus was born the Christ, and we are born again as christs.

So just as Jesus the Christ was born in a manger, so we are born as christs through various spiritual experiences, most dramatically baptism by the Holy Spirit but really occurring whenever we turn towards God and let him into our hearts. In a sense, we are all kings to begin with, but separate ourselves from God, only to return as the prodigal son did.

So Advent is a period of anticipation of and focus on preparation for the spiritual breakthroughs in our own lives – of the coming of God in ourselves. Just as Jesus wasn’t born in the busy inn, but in a quiet manger – perhaps a converted shepherd’s cave – so God typically incarnates in us when we remove ourselves from the busy-ness of day to day life, quiet our minds, and turn our attention back to God.



How to transform anger into joy

Anger affects not only the object of the anger, but the person who holds the anger. And we do ‘hold’ on to it. So, how do we transform anger into an emotion like love or joy?

  1. Let go of the negative emotion. Just as we hold anger, we can let it go. This can be prompted by simply feeling the emotion being let go.
  2. Re-contextualize. Often, especially with more powerful emotions, it is difficult to simply let go of the emotion. So, it is useful to also re-contextualize the situation. The archetype for this is Jesus’ words as he was being crucified – an extremely dramatic way for him to make clear the point and importance of forgiving. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Here, Jesus re-contextualizes what is happening – it is a product of the people who are crucifying him not having spiritual truth.
  3. See harmony, joy, love, and so on, instead, in relation to the situation. Again, Jesus gives the keys here. “Bless those who persecute you.” So, see good things for the situation, and in particular, send love towards the person who is the object of your previous negative emotions.

Repeat these, switching from one to the other until the felt intensity of the negative emotion is gone, and there is a felt intensity of the positive emotion.

It might require a large number of repetition before the negative emotion is gone (“How many times should I forgive, 7 times?” “7 and 70 times.”)

It is very difficult for a negative emotion, such as anger, to exist simultaneously with a positive emotion, such as love. This process will typically benefit not just the object of the negative emotions (for example, you will be better able to respond to their behaviour, think clearly about the situation, take steps towards a better relationship where appropriate, and so on), but (often more importantly) it will benefit yourself, because you will no longer have the direct impact of those negative emotions on your physiology and the effect of them on how you interact with other people who may not have any involvement in the situation.

Doing this when you have quiet time and the ability to focus on and connect with God will help with appropriately responding to the emotions when they come up in the moment.

Repeatedly freeing yourself from the bondage of negative emotions leads to a kind of emotional freedom, and often this is characterized by a quiet joy in your day-to-day life. You are no longer controlled by these negative emotions (as much), and can choose a better way to respond and better things to focus on.

Fear not

Jesus repeatedly warns against fear (including worry). Why?

Part of this comes from the first commandment of the Old Testament. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ When someone fears something, it is easy for them to put that thing ahead of God. So, instead of doing what God leads us to do, we do what our fear leads us to do.

There are some cases where fear is warranted and useful. In these cases, it is a call for action – there is some action we should take (a plan to make, something to practice, and so on), and so the appropriate response it to take the action and then let go of the fear. Usually, however, it isn’t warranted and limits what we can do.

This is why trust is integral to Christian practice. If you don’t trust God, but instead fear every little thing when it comes to your vocation or what God is telling you to do, you’re not going to get very far. Trust is the antidote of fear.

We say that ‘fear has a hold on one’, but the truth is more the reverse – we hold onto emotions of fear. The way to let go of fear in many cases is to literally feel oneself letting go of the emotion.

  1. Quiet your mind and reach out to God.
  2. Think of the fear. Now feel yourself letting go of the emotion of fear. Repeat this until there is no more fear present.
  3. Now, replace that with a feeling of goodness, harmony, love, success, and so on (whatever is relevant), for the situation.

This is a simple pattern one can repeat whenever one senses a fear that doesn’t have a legitimate basis (again, where it does, take the relevant action and then let go of the fear). We are holding onto it, and in the process making an idol of what it refers to. By letting go of the fear, we can more easily put God back into first place.

Thou shalt not kill

The logic of ‘thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13) can be thought to run deeper in the context of Christianity. To ‘kill’ someone is to harbour negative emotions towards them (see Matthew 5:21, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”).

The better response is to let go of those negative emotions (‘forgive those who have trespassed against you’) and then to express goodwill or love towards the object of those emotions instead (‘love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you’).

One prayer format for this is fairly simple. The first thing is to find a moment in the day when you will have several minutes where you won’t be interrupted, and relax and quiet your mind. Reach out to God. Then, with a specific person or situation in mind,

  1. Let go of any negative emotions that come up with regard to a specific person or situation. This is literally to ‘forgive’, or let go. The important thing here is to feel this letting go.
  2. Replace that with goodwill or love towards that person. Again, it is important to actually feel this love or goodwill towards the person. See harmony, good, and so on, for this person.
  3. Now see harmony, good, love, and so on, for the situation in general.

In some cases, doing this once is sufficient. The negative emotions are released, and replaced with better ones. In some cases, however, it requires repetition. When Jesus was asked how many times one ought to forgive, he said ‘7 and 70’.

Travel light

“Jesus commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only.” Mark 6:8-9

The point here is to get going, and then rely upon God. Once you get clear direction from God, it’s easy to dawdle, thinking you need to prepare more, get this or that in order, and so on.

If the instruction is from God, the right thing to do is get going. Part of getting going is realizing you can ‘travel light’, not depending on yourself but on God. This applies not just to physical stuff, but to mental stuff. You might think you need to get a Ph.D. before you can start teaching, or study every book before you can utter a word.

But if God is calling you, just get going. Those sorts of steps might happen along the way, but it’s easy to lie to ourselves about what needs to happen next.

First cast the beam out of thine own eye

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3)

1. Before you criticize someone else, look to yourself. Scour your conscience, and see if you do what you are about to criticize them for.

2. If so, first ‘cast out the beam out of  thine own eye’. This means working to change your own behavior first.

3. Once you have changed your own behavior, return and help the other person through constructive criticism, or whatever is relevant.

So the habit is to reflexively look to oneself before criticizing, and honestly search to see if one does the thing one is about to criticize someone else for.

It is easy for us to have blindspots about our own behavior, so this has to be an honest search. Take at least 1 minute to search.

The basic pattern is “this person is wrong about x” -> “do I do x in some way, shape, or form?” -> put in the work to change one’s own actions -> use that experience to help the other person.

The human impulse to blame others is at the base of scapegoating, which in turn is responsible for much of the problems in our own lives, and in the world in general. So, first look to yourself! This not only decreases the negative emotions in one’s life, it is ultimately empowering, as the spark that used to lead to blame begins instead to lead to an inner transformation that helps you and, ultimately, can help the person you’re about to blame.

Go into the desert

Many things can distract from a relationship with God. An aspect of the walking with God habit is to set aside time during the day, but it helps if this time is free from distractions, so you can focus on God. The internet, phones, even other people, all can act as distractions.

Just before Jesus began his public life, he went into the wilderness or desert for an extended period, and fasted. This place is characterized by an absence of distractions.

So, the ‘go into the desert’ habit is to set aside time each day, and longer periods of time at intervals, and create an environment that is relatively free of distractions, in order to cultivate your relationship with God.

Walks, hikes, time spent on an island away from regular busy-ness – all these things can be ‘going into a desert’, and can catalyze your spiritual life.

So, write down one thing you can do on a daily basis to create time with fewer distractions (perhaps turn off your phone while out on a walk), weekly (perhaps go for an hour-long hike), and then perhaps seasonally (for example, rent a cottage without the usual distractions nearby), and where you can spend that time focusing on God, such as the ask-listen-act cycle or opening up your heart.

If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out

“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” – Matthew 18:9

This extremely important habit is the habit of avoiding negative influences. Jesus here uses hyperbole, as he does often, to make the point memorable.

In an age of unprecedented media influence, this habit is highly important. In many cases, it is literally images entering through the eye that offend (which here means to make one worse off). The habit is to routinely

  1. Identify sub-optimal influences.
  2. Take action to remove or reduce them.
  3. Notice if that action is working, and if not, modify your approach.
  4. Repeat until you have removed or significantly reduced the influences.

This applies to all sorts of things, such as television, internet, or people. Jesus’ point is not to hesitate to remove it completely (don’t just remove it but also cast it from you). It is easy to underestimate how difficult it is to remove such negative influences, and how much of a benefit accrues from filling your day with better influences.

You can ask yourself what are the top 3 negative influences in your life right now? Write them out. Then think up one action to remove or reduce each of them. Then take the first step to implement that action.

The point is to make actions 1.-4. into a habit – until it becomes a reflex to notice sub-optimal influences about you, and then remove them.

As you do this, you will begin to notice that the tenor of your days begins to change. You can then take it the next step, and search out influences that are good to replace the negative influences with.

 

Opening your heart and the dramatic homecoming of the prodigal son

A note on the opening your heart (intro and details) practice. If you have long been separated from God, then opening your heart to Him can be like the scene in the story of the prodigal son.

When the prodigal son, having been long absent from his father, comes home, the father runs out to greet him, and then orders a great feast and celebration.

So, if you have long been absent from God, opening your heart in a sincere and heart-felt way might have explosive results experientially! This is known in Christianity as ‘baptism by the Holy Spirit’.

Tangible benefits from the habits

Having covered the 3 arch-habits (ask-listen-act, open your heart, walk with God), we can now get to more specific habits that will lay the psychological foundation for a full way of living (‘I have come that you may have life, and have it fully’). But first, it’s important to get a bit more clear on what tangible benefits we can expect from this full way of living. We know Christian habits will lay the foundation of our ‘house’, but is there more than just this long-term goal?

The benefits of living fully in Christ are the ‘fruits of the Holy Spirit’. That is, significant changes in the tenor of our day-to-day living that come about from implementing the arch-habits and the other more detailed ones Jesus suggests. These benefits are

  1. Love
  2. Joy
  3. Peace
  4. Patience
  5. Kindness
  6. Goodness
  7. Faithfulness
  8. Gentleness
  9. Self-control

As you can see from this list, these benefits of living ‘in Christ’ are very important indeed. So, let’s get going! As we do, after some time you should notice these attributes, on average, increasing in abundance in your day to day.