Motherhood & Family

Reclaiming My Brain & The Cost of Social Media

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This post is part 2 of a 3 part mini-series on being intentional about social media. Part one is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media

I have a friend who makes amazing homemade boba milk tea. It’s delicious and addicting, which is slightly problematic for me because I am highly sensitive to caffeine. Not too long ago, she graciously brought over a pitcher and I drank more than I should have too late in the day. By the last cup, my head pounded with each sip I took. I had trouble staying asleep that night, and laid awake for hours as my mind raced through scenes from the latest Avengers movie. It was completely preventable and totally my fault, but like I said, her recipe is delicious and addicting.

Minus that milk tea event, I’m usually pretty good at controlling my caffeine intake. I know I can’t have any after 3 pm and how much I can take before feelings of dread hit. I think I’ve titrated and found the optimal amount of caffeine I can use to maximize its benefits (better mood, not falling asleep) given its side effects (anxiety, acid reflux, headaches, problems sleeping).

The way I treat caffeine has been a useful reference point for me when thinking about social media. Both have a set of cost and benefits I ought to consider before choosing when, how much, and whether or not to use them, and if I’m not intentional about my usage, there are negative consequences.

The first post I wrote in this mini-series, I asked you to think about what draws you into social media. Having considered its pull, we turn now to face the costs.

It’s Costing You Something

One oft-repeating and popular bit of fake news claims Facebook plans on charging users. It’s not hard to see why people would be alarmed at the thought. It seems almost unethical to get us so heavily invested in the ecosystem of Facebook and suddenly impose a fee. Well, Facebook doesn’t need our money (it gets something else from us— more on that in the next post), but it has always cost us to use it.

I don’t have anything groundbreaking to add to the increasing amounts of research on the problematic effects of our technology. But since I often find others’ self-reflections helpful, I offer a few observations on what I’ve come to place on my social media “cost” column. As with caffeine, social media may affect you differently than it does me, but I hope I can spur you on to consider what your social media use is costing you personally.

The top three costs on my list are: attention, energy, and time.

Attention & Constant Noise

Attention is our ability to focus on a task. This can be a concrete action like doing the dishes or an abstract one like figuring out how to deal with a relational problem. Because we aren’t physically moving from one place to another when we’re on social media, we often think we’re doing two things at once.  But the perception that we are multitasking is an illusion.

Anyone who has said “Uh-huh, that’s great, sure” to their child only to think, “Wait, what did I just say yes to?” has experienced the limit of the human brain’s capacity to pay attention to more than one thing at once. Not only are our brains incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time, every time we switch from one task to another and back, there is a mental toll on our productivity. Whether at work, in conversations with our children, or in contemplation, there is a cost to constant interruptions.

Uncontrolled and haphazard use of social media shatters our attention to thousands of tiny pieces and effects our ability to meditate deeply on things that matter. Tony Reinke writes in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You,

“Perhaps the greatest threat we face is that of living with short attention-spans, caught now by one little explosion of surprise, now by another. Knowledge is never actually given to us in that form. It has to be searched for and pursued, as the marvelous poems on Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs tell us.” Without wisdom, we foolishly get lost in the aimless now, in the explosion of novelty. Without wisdom, we foolishly get unhitched from our past and from our future.

Someone else has written, “Addiction to social media will make you aware of everything and wise about nothing.”

Growing in wisdom, learning and thinking deeply on how to apply truth to our lives, and pursuing a relationship with God require sustained attention. This is what makes planned times of silence and solitude powerful— the removal of distractions. Considering the truth of God and how it comes to bear in our everyday lives takes focused attention.

Listening— to others, and to God— also requires sustained attention. That’s one reason why worship on Sundays, when we meet with God’s people and sit under the preaching of the Word, is so important (and why we ought to resist the pull of our phones during it!) We quiet ourselves and discipline our restless bodies and hearts to receive rich, meaty life-giving truths. Truths we easily lose sight of in the busyness of the day-to-day and can’t get in short Tweets or blogposts.

Creativity and deep reflection are tasks requiring sustained attention and I’ve found they flourish most when I’m not distracted by random tidbits of news, opinions, and entertainment every hour. It is easier to see the hand of God through my day and weeks when I’m not adding to the noise of my life via self-wrought social media interruptions.

As a mom, I may not be able to get regular alone time, but I can give space and time for truths to stew in my mind as I’m working in the kitchen or taking care of my children. When I’m not habitually distracted, I can meditate on the truth of God and reflect on whether my children are flourishing throughout the day. This way, truth can sink into my heart and flow out through the rest of my life. And I wonder whether much of what I blame on mommy brain may be a product not so much of 3 little people pulling on my legs as much as 300 people clamoring for attention on my newsfeed.

Energy & The Emotionally Draining Rollercoaster of The Feed

(Relational weight + Call for a response + Unpredictability) x Endless content = A lot of energy

Sometimes when I’m tired, I just want to plop down on a couch, pull out my phone, and be entertained. In those times, a 20 minute scroll down a social media feed is tempting, but the distractions there often leave me more tired than rested.

I find social media draining not just because there are sad, frightening, heavy things going on in the world. The distinction between social media and a newspaper is behind each article, statement, or share is someone we know. So we’re not just seeing information, we’re hearing a friend say, “You should read this,” or “This is important.”

The relational thrust behind every byte of information increases the weight of impact on us as readers. Not only so, but information is presented to me in a way that constantly calls for a response— whether anger, sadness, social action, or amusement— via Likes, LOL’s, double-taps, and shares. Add to this the randomness of content and the sheer number of posts, and I’m setting myself up for a emotional rollercoaster each time I log on.

The two major loop-de-loops for me here are anger and guilt. Anger is the fuel that drives the most viral and popular social media posts— whether it’s full-out social-media-shaming rage or getting-something-off-my-chest status updates. In life, there are good reasons to be angry, but the anger social media posts invokes is not always necessary. Pastor Jack Miller has wisely written, “Don’t let your emotional life be controlled by the sin you see in others.” Social media is a prime place to hear people’s anger over sin, see people sin in anger, and be controlled emotionally by sin we see in others. I’ve found it way too easy to be caught up anger which doesn’t end when I close my app, and it’s exhausting.

The other emotional cost for me of social media is guilt. Social media serves as a platform. Whether faith-based, humanitarian, environmental, or health causes, everyone has their thing. Over time, without knowing it, our consciences are shaped by the social network bubbles we breathe in, self-righteously thinking everyone should take on our causes and guilty we are not doing more. Those with tender consciences easily fall under what Kevin DeYoung describes as the “terror of total obligation”— the sense we are responsible for meeting every need we see. And with social media, every need, however local or global in scope, is proximate and looks urgent.

Using Facebook for our causes or Instagram to share our passions aren’t necessarily bad things. I use both for these reasons so I’m not advocating a self-centered refusal to care about what’s going on around us. But the emotional and mental drain of social media is a real cost rarely leading me to decisive, productive action. Keeping in mind the responsibilities I am already called to use my energy toward, it’s helpful for me to remember the distraction of social media rarely brings about the rest I need.

Time & Opportunity Costs

The first time I noticed the impact of social media on me was after a cruise with no internet access. Though pregnant and taking care of a toddler, I made significant headway in a book I’d wanted to read. It was a big realization for me as a young mom to see the blame for my lack of time wasn’t to be placed completely on my child, but the way I filled small gaps of free time I was afforded.

Every time we choose to spend time on social media, we are choosing not to do something else. We are choosing not to pay attention, invest emotionally and mentally, or spend our time on someone else. Whether it’s reading a book, spending face time with family, thinking deeply about important issues, meditating on God’s Word, exercising, or taking a nap, we give up opportunities each time we enter our virtual worlds.

Five minutes here and fifteen minutes there add up to a significant amount of time over a week. Each minute is time we don’t get to use again. Tony Reinke writes, “Compulsive social-media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.” When we use social media, precious time is spent looking at other people’s lives. Moreover, in our compulsion to share, we often spend our present moments trying to best capture and display our lives to others.

As Christians, we ask God to teach us to number our days and be faithful with our time (Ps. 90:10).  Our time is short and ultimately is not meant for us to spend however we fancy. This fact alone is enough to motivate us to be intentional about how we are using social media.

For Your Consideration

If our device’s pull-to-refresh function is analogous to a slot machine lever holding out the promise of affirmation, entertainment, knowledge, escape, and more, what are the quarters we’re inserting? What is the bill we’re racking up during our stay at Casino Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.?

Attention, energy, and time are the big three for me. What about you?

After having had some time to think about the pull of social media for you, consider Question 2: What is my use of social media costing me?*

 

 

 

Up Next: Who’s In Control & To What Ends?

*Note: Sometimes, we may not be able to tell what social media is costing us until we take active steps to scale down our use. Like an auto renewal policy, you may be so used to these costs that you don’t notice them. (This has often been the case for me.) If this is you, one challenge is to take a week or at least a few days off social media to see what changes when you unplug. This might even help you get more insight on that first question of what pulls you to social media in the first place.

Also, for those wondering, here’s the milk tea recipe my friend uses.

Motherhood & Family

Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media

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I had a Sherlock Holmes moment a few years ago that captures the foggy haze of the mind on momma hormones and sleep deprivation. I was standing in the kitchen, and as I swooped my arm downward, forgot what I was doing. Without stopping mid-motion, I looked at my hand, saw a mug, figured “Ah, I must have been getting a drink!” and proceeded to smoothly finish my task. Any onlooker would not have noticed my mental lapse and I impressed myself at my powers of deduction.

Mommy brain is a real thing, friends. A combination of lack of sleep, increased demands, and brain-altering hormones from past pregnancies, force my mind to run on low power mode all day. In other words, I can push through, but functionality is significantly decreased.

As a mom, I am constantly making assessments about the best use of resources: money, space, time, energy (physical, emotional, mental), and attention. So with a brain that often feels like mush, I’ve been learning that just as I get choosy about what apps I use when my battery is at 2%, I need to be strategic about how I use the limited resource that is my mind. I’ve discovered, for example, that I only have about a 2 hour window each day where I can think clearly enough to write, that at a certain point trying to read is futile, and that I think more rationally when I’ve had a good breakfast. And I’ve realized that I need to get serious about my use of social media.

Many people talk about social media use in terms of time, but as my family has grown, I have become increasingly convinced of my need to reassess how I use social media not primarily because of how I’m wasting my time (though that matters too), but how I use my mind and heart.

A Mini-Series

I know I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with social media– sometimes really wanting to delete my accounts and go off the (social media) grid, other times sucked again into the vortex that is Facebook. So I’m starting a three-post series for those who’ve also found themselves wondering about how to manage their relationships with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like.

I’ll walk through three questions I’ve been finding it helpful to think through regarding social media. I’ve chosen to write them in separate posts to keep them short and to make it easier for self-reflection. And whether you can relate to mommy brain or not, you’re invited to join me in considering your use social media. Maybe you’ve got it figured out and this would be an encouragement for you. If you’re like me and still working through this, I hope these posts would serve to challenge and help you in the right direction.

Coming along? Here goes! Question one for us today: What’s the pull?

The Why Behind The What

As people, there are always reasons behind our actions– a “why” behind the “what” we  do. We never do things “just because.” We make decisions out of our hearts and wills, and they always say something about our desires, hopes, wants, needs, beliefs, and anxieties.  Social media is no exception.

It is part of human nature to want to share things about our lives with others. God made us for communion with him and other people, so it makes sense we’d want to let people know about the things we’re happy, sad, excited, or angry about. Social media taps into that, giving us all a way to instantly broadcast our thoughts to our friends and networks. We get a chance to receive feedback on what we share in the forms of hearts, thumbs ups, comments and retweets. And we connect with others by reading and responding to what they share. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

There are plenty of ways social media can be used to enrich our lives, so I’ll say from the get-go I’m not yearning for pre-internet days. I myself have been helped by content shared via and the interactions I’ve had on social media. I’ve laughed at my share of fun videos and cried and prayed through heartbreaking status updates. I love that I can gush over my friends’ children and have them do the same over mine. I know one older woman who prays for people who show up on her Facebook feed.

But if we were only drawn to social media for the good it does for us and others, why is it so many of us spend more time on it than we’d want to admit? There has to be something else in the mix here.

Before getting a handle on our use of social media via self-imposed boundaries or time-limiting apps (apps to control our use of other apps!), we need to understand not only what is good about social media, but what in particular is drawing us to use it as often as we do.

The reasons are vast and vary for each person, so it’s important to know what it is in particular that is drawing me. For me, there can be good reasons I’m signing into social media, like wanting to share a resource I know will be helpful to others or staying connected to friends who are far from me. But more often than not, when I’m signing into Facebook, I’m being pulled by something else and I’m not even aware of it.

My Personal Slot Machine

One analogy that has shed light on the appeal of social media for me is social media as a slot machine. One former Google employee spoke about the pull of our apps as powerful psychological conditioning by variable rewards, and it makes so much sense. (Especially to me since I studied psychology and learned all about B.F. Skinner, variable ratio, and operant conditioning!)

Here’s an excerpt of the article:

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”

(Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia)

With social media, it’s the possibility (or promise) of reading something interesting, receiving comments and “likes” (described in the article as “’bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’ that can be as hollow as they are seductive”), or catching up on important relational news that draws us back again and again. Often (and probably more often than not), we don’t find anything– but it’s the varied, scattered times we do that keep us pulling on our personal slot machines. There’s a bit of hope mingled in here, and I think the varied results coupled with the furious pace of ever changing content causes many of us to carry an unverbalized fear that we’re missing out on something (a possible reward) if we’re not up-to-date with what’s happening on our social media networks.

So for me, I’d say, a bit of interest in what other people are posting plus the possibility of positive interactions (whether feedback about my shared posts, hearts on my photos, or responses to my comments) keeps me checking in.

For Your Consideration

For you, it could be something else. You may be on social media wanting to be kept in the loop (plus FOMO) or looking to connect with friends. Or the nature of your job might require you to be on social media. It may be your entertainment or your platform. Your social media use can be born out of love (staying connected), boredom (entertainment), anger (airing grievances), escapism (zoning out), or more.

If you’re like me, your social media use is driven by a host of desires with a few major ones leading the pack. These reasons are not necessarily all good or all bad, but identifying the pull and promise social media holds out for you is important.

Why do you find yourself on social media? What are you looking for when you tap that app? Are you lured in by the possibility of being liked, favorited, commented on? For the feeling of being in the know? Curiosity? Care? Pride? Fear? Homesickness? Discontent? Joy? Boredom? Habit?

We need to know why we’re doing what we’re doing before evaluating whether we need to tweak what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. We need to know the promised and actual rewards of social media before we go on to examine the costs.  So whatever your reasons, here’s the first question I offer for your reflection today on our road toward a wise, intentional use of social media: Why do I use social media as much as I do?

(Next up: What’s the cost?)

Taking Heart

Mourning

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Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

“Do bad people live on this continent?” my sweet girl asked as she lay in bed. “Yes, bad people live everywhere.” What about here, she wanted to know, in our neighborhood? She was afraid. Was the door locked? What if someone bad tried to come in? She wanted me to give her my word, tell her no one could ever come in and take her away.

“You know, God will always be with you, no matter what happens… Do you want to pray to him that no one will come take you away?” She did, so we prayed, and her little heart was comforted. And my heart started breaking in a new way that night– in the knowledge that though my girl would have believed whatever I said (and though we live in a safe neighborhood) I could not give her the absolute promise of safety she wanted because we live in a fallen world.

The painful reality of living in a broken world punctuates our lives in thousands of ways. Sometimes they are pinpricks to the heart, like realizing how we live in a legitimately scary world as we talk with our fearful child. At other times, this reality is a heavy shadow cast over our days and weeks, with fresh images from the devastation of war or natural disaster. Still other times, our pain is personal, so close and so deep it threatens to crush us completely.

I have wondered at times what it was like for Jesus to walk on this earth. How could he have lived here without being completely overtaken by sadness every moment of every day? He knew the world untouched by sin. He knew the beautiful intention of the Father in creation. And then he lived, breathed, and suffered in the devastation wrought by our rebellion. A witness to broken bodies, hardened hearts, warring nations, hateful unbelief, how could he have been joyful, which he must have been as one filled with the Spirit?

While he walked our soil, Christ declared one feature of Christian blessedness this way: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessedness, mourning, comfort, all three come together in our Savior, a man filled with the Spirit and yet familiar with sorrows. Jesus knew the resurrection that laid ahead and pressed on for the joy set before him. Still, he wept over death and destruction. Though not as one without hope.

Scripture speaks to us in our darkness and gives us many reasons we can grieve with hope. He has purposes we have yet to see and we trust him. In comparison to the glory ahead, our troubles are light and momentary. Still, we grieve. And far from carrying platitudes and quick fixes, we enter into dark places with Christ and weep. We who know how things were supposed to be have the most reason to grieve over and in the world we live in. We know that unlike what others may say, this isn’t how things always have been. We know from the depths of our souls this is not how it was meant to be.

And in these places, dear ones, he is near to us. He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. In the fire of our mourning, he is forging hope that because of his suffering, there is comfort awaiting us– a new day when our hearts will be healed and the world is restored.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,
for the former things have passed away.

We live in this strange in-between as believers in this age. In between Jesus’ two comings, he has resurrected, but we still have not. So we wait for the day he comes and everything sad is going to come untrue. And as we wait, we cling onto the truth that our Savior who is lifted on high is also a man familiar with sorrows, near to us even as we cry for him to come and make things all things right again.

Maranatha, come O Jesus.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

To Keep Me From Becoming Conceited: A Thought Experiment

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“Only by surrender to our proper human place can we glorify and enjoy God the way we say we want to and the way he requires.” – Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine

I was dreaming recently about what it would be like not to be beset with my particular set of social, physical, and emotional weaknesses. If I weren’t so prone to anxiety… If social situations didn’t make my stomach hurt… If my body were stronger and I had a bigger capacity… And it all seemed so ideal.

I didn’t realize though, that I was neglecting a key variable in this thought experiment. That is, until a wise friend said a few days later, “Maybe if you were able to do all you wanted to, you would come to the end of your life and say, ‘Look at how productive my life was.’ But because you can’t, now you’ll say, ‘Look at what God did.’”

Truth.

God has countless, hidden purposes in our weaknesses, and I would never claim that guarding us against pride is the only, or even main, reason why he assigns us our trials. But in the Scriptures and in my life, it is one of them.

The Apostle Paul had a thorn, a trial, that he pleaded three times for God to remove. But God said no, saying to Paul instead these well known words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). At times I have seen my weaknesses used this way, as the lightning rod for God to display his greatness and power. But lately, I have been camping out a few verses back to where Paul writes of his thorn and says, it was “to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7).

In the calculations I was making which resulted in a picture of my ideal self, I had not accounted for one weakness that isn’t merely human frailty, but an insidious, deadly, and corrupting sin in me— pride. With my friend’s words of truth factored in, I’ve been thinking again of what it would be like if God removed all the weaknesses I wanted him to. But this time I shudder.

You see, if it were up to me, I’d be super human.

I’d be fearless, confident, and competent. A force to be reckoned with, I’d be, for all intents and purposes, limitless in strength, wisdom, and capacity.

I wouldn’t need to eat or sleep or sit down or go to the bathroom because I’d be doing more “productive” things. (“Are you an ascetic?” my sister has asked, and with good reason.)

I wouldn’t be needy, and would ever be in the position of giver rather than in need of others.

And, come to think of it, I guess wouldn’t need God.

I am not unlike our first mother who listened to the voice of the serpent. You will be like God! — not in the sense of being his representative, but his replacement. Like the builders of Babel crying, “Let us make a name for ourselves!” my heart in it’s twisted depravity yearns to say, “Look at all I’ve accomplished (for God)!”

But this is not the way of our Lord. God does not take delight in the strength of men (Ps. 147:10). He is never the beneficent of our works, never in need of our productivity. He alone never slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121). He alone is always at work (Jn. 5:17). God destroys the wisdom of the wise and discernment of the discerning. He makes foolish the wise and does not choose the strong. And he does this so no human being might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1).

Just as Paul’s thorn was given to him by God’s grace for the sake of his own soul, sometimes God guards us from ourselves through our weaknesses. The very weaknesses we pray for God to remove may be God’s grace to us, for the sake of sparing our souls. God only knows who we would be not only apart from his saving grace, but for gracious trials from his Fatherly hand.

I know partially the danger I would be to myself and those around me if I were unencumbered by weaknesses. It is scary how much harsher I would be to others and how much credit I yearn to take. Through my weaknesses, God is in some ways keeping me from being tempted beyond what I can bear.

Even more importantly, God knows I would be blind to his grace, power, and lovingkindness if not for his work of bringing and keeping me low. Our Lord delights to show himself glorious as our powerful, kind, and gracious Giver and Sustainer. His righteousness is on display as he lifts up the powerless and defends the weak.

God wonderfully takes our work, bound in time and fraught with weakness, and accomplishes his eternal purposes through them. And when we come to him in humility, in recognition of the reality of our dependence, how kindly he supplies our needs and reveals his grace. All these things he does to the praise of his glory, giving us the most precious gift of all, true knowledge of him in a loving relationship.

As God is shedding the light of grace upon my weaknesses and limits, I am coming to a very different conclusion today in myIf I were/weren’t…  thought experiment. Could God be doing the same for you? Maybe he is, in unexpected ways, answering our prayers to spend and end our days proclaiming truly, Look at all God has done– through, in, and for us, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Truth & Orthodoxy

Learning How To Handle Abundance

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My life is filled with good things. As I write, my sweet boy is crawling around the room babbling to himself, every now and then coming to check in with me, snuggle, and play. My two girls are still asleep after a late night yesterday— one of them stayed up to help me clean while waiting for daddy to come home. So I sit in a now tidied-up room in a home I love. I write with a relatively clear mind and healthy body. The sun rose again this morning as it does every day, and I remember its glory I witnessed during Monday’s solar eclipse. I hear footsteps upstairs now. One little lady is up and calling for me.

My life is filled to overflowing with good and sometimes I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t merely mean sentimentally, though at times my heart does feel so full it could burst. And I don’t mean how to handle all the cuteness of my fuzzy haired boy or handle the messiness caused by my energetic, playful, artistic girls.

What I mean is that I often struggle with knowing what it means to respond to all this good, or as Paul writes in Philippians, how to “abound” and “have plenty,” in a Godward way. It may sound like I’m overthinking things, and maybe there’s a hint of truth in that, but stick with me for a moment here. I have a hunch that I’m not alone in this.

A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating NY Times magazine article, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age.” In it the writer shares an anecdote about how she decided to stop dieting only to realize she didn’t know how or what to eat. She writes about seeing a nutritional therapist and learning to eat in an intuitive-eating class. In it, they took small pieces of food, starting with a raisin, and learned to eat food as if they were “aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it.

Ever since Adam and Eve took of the fruit and ate it, our relationship with things of the Earth has been complicated to say the least. Because what God made is good, there is good in the world. The skies proclaim his glory, people reflect his worth. But with sin’s entrance came the distortion of good things.  Food is one example of this, but it is just one category among all created things has the potential to be confusing, twisted, or misused.

After the Fall of man, we have elevated created things to the place of God and misused what we have toward idolatrous ends. We are tempted to find satisfaction in people and things rather than God and to use them for our own glory.  Furthermore, with sin came an element of fearful anxiety cast over our days, the entrance of loss and risk in a world now inhabited by thorns. We make friendships, work, buy houses, and start families knowing we could lose everything we have in an instant. And even with all the good we have, in the back of our minds we are always aware of countless others who are presently suffering.

In a world East of Eden, filled with good things but also of temptation, uncertainty, and suffering, it is then a struggle to know how to handle the “good things” in life– the created things that God has declared good. Like someone learning to see a raisin in a healthy way, we often need to undo and relearn our relationship to created things.

Apart from God, we only see glimpses of the purposefulness behind the universe and all it contains. But as Christians, our relationship to created things is redefined by our knowledge of the Creator to whom, for whom, and through whom all things exist. And as we grow in the faith, God teaches us how to relate not only to trials in life, but to the good, the blessings he chooses to give.

For those who struggle with temptation, guilt, fear, or anxiety in dealing with good things from God, here are some ways to start rethinking and receiving God’s gifts.

Receive good from God as a gift. (Or, receive with thanksgiving.)

I’ve written about how when my son was born, I struggled with reconciling such enormous blessing from God with the suffering I witnessed around me. Why God, why such blessing? I wondered. And God’s answer to me was simply that he is a good God who gives good gifts (Ja. 1:17).

I cannot make sense of the good things I have because I don’t deserve any of it. But I don’t need to deserve it to receive them as gifts. I am called thus to turn to God in thanksgiving, to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. And when I meditate on the heart of the Giver, I am drawn to him not to his blessings as ultimate, but to see his grace and surrender to his wisdom.

Receive good from God as a sermon. (Or, turn to God in worship.)

God speaks through the goodness of created things. As a Creator, his nature is reflected in his works— his beauty in the skies, his abundance in supplying our physical needs, his wisdom in creating our bodies, his lovingkindness in the care of others.

Sometimes, in an effort to push back against the prosperity gospel, we neglect to see that though God speaks through suffering, he also speaks in his endless supply of good things. The sun rises and rain falls— that is a sign of his goodness to all creation, to both evil and good. The skies proclaim his handiwork, day to day pouring out speech, declaring his glory. We breathe in his air, we walk on his earth, we enjoy the company of others made by him in his image.

All the goodness in creation is a sermon meant to harken our ears to the Preacher and turn to him in worship. As one pastor said, we don’t honor the Preacher by ignoring the sermon (quoted here.) As we guard our hearts against thinking God only speaks in blessing us, we don’t need to ignore the ways he does speak to us in giving good gifts. Rather we can see his character in the things created and turn to him in worship.

Receive good from God as a postcard. (Or, long for home with hope.)

Because we live in a world where death and sin have yet to be swallowed up, our enjoyment of good is often tainted with sorrow. We are sorrowful over our inability to enjoy good gifts today with those who have passed on. We endure the uncertainty of knowing those we love aren’t guaranteed safety and longevity. We are aware that every vacation must come to an end, each peaceful stretch on life’s road will eventually come turn into a place of struggle. As another has written, the “prospect of pain threatens our pleasure.”

We live in the time in between Jesus’ resurrection and return, after the beginning of the restoration of all things, but not at home yet. And so, all of our enjoyment of created things, though real, is still a flicker. Our delight in God’s good gifts are in a sense still fleeting. The flickering and fleetingness, though meaningful and wonderful, point us to our lasting hope at the end of the road. Only at the return of Jesus will our joys never be followed with sorrow, our gains never threatened with loss.

The good gifts from God we enjoy today are “postcards from the lasting city that are meant to be handled, admired, passed around, stuck on the fridge.” They are truly good but they are still shadows of what is to come for those who believe in Christ. So we enjoy these postcards with great hope and anticipation of a place filled with only good and eternal joy.

Receive good from God as a stewardship. (Or, seek to be generous.)

Sometimes, when we consider our lack of merit in receiving good from God, we are tempted toward guilt and introspection. Who are we to receive such good? And while there is an appropriateness to feeling our unworthiness, we are not meant to stay there because all we’ve been given is not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of others.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to give generously so that their abundance may supply the needs of others. He references the Israelites gathering manna, saying “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Cor. 8:1-15).

Rather than merely feeling guilty about our lives being relatively struggle-free compared to others or even fearing that the trials of others will come upon us, we are called to willingly enter into the suffering of others to bring relief. Whether this means having the time and emotional capacity to intercede for the hurting or financial means to give to someone who lacks, all we have has been allotted by God to us to use for others. We are merely stewards of the created things we have however much and for however long God chooses to entrust them to us.

My life is filled to overflowing with good. Little things like a curbside find of a like-new infant push-walker we’d mentioned would be nice to have but weren’t going to buy or opening up the fridge for a late night snack to find fried chicken wings Jeff brought back from church last night. Important things like our wedding anniversary we just celebrated, three sweet little people in our home, and a cherished church family.

And I am learning to receive all this good and more from our gracious God— in thanksgiving, worship, hope, and generosity.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)