Living a Life of Significance Offline

I got to know Chris Bowler through the internet. True story. My first introduciton to Chris was through his newsletter The Weekly Review. I was blown away by his writing. Not just his appreciation of fine journals, pens, and technology useage, but also in talking about spiritual life. Merely sharing what he's learned in his own journey with Christ.

As time went on, we corresponded over newsletter topics, work related projects, and a shared enjoyment for running. At every turn, I was impressed with Chris' desire to live a life of depth in friendship with God. It's been a privliege to not only get to know Chris as a friend, but hear is perspective as one a little further down the road. Like the rest of us, Chris is trying to figure out how to walk out a life of depth amidst the barrage of distractions and pulls we face on a daily basis. I think you'll find his thoughts on the topic provoking.

Isaac: I’d like to start this conversation at the intersection of our spiritual life and the internet. We’ll circle around these variables throughout the interview, but I'm hoping some clarity will emerge as it relates to our walk with God and our addiction (as a society) to living life, online.

I think it would be helpful to share a few assumptions I have leading in to this conversation, 1) the demand for our attention is now the highest currency in our economy, 2) our ability to focus and be present in day to day life is suffering as a result of the commercialization of our attention, and 3) our walk with God and living a life of significance offline is also in the crosshairs of the digital age we live in.

So with that in mind, how do we pursue growing in relationship with Christ amidst an anxiety inducing age of social media?

Chris: Well, this is quite the way to start a conversation 😀

This really is the question of our age, isn’t it? I don’t believe that social media is only to blame. The various services are problematic and designed to be addictive, for sure. But most of our digital tools are conducive to a scatterbrained approach. I’ve used social media far less over the past couple of years. But my work habits still show a lack of depth and ability to focus.

I believe tools like RescueTime and Screen Time on iOS will shift from focusing only on time spent on various activities to how often we switch between apps. Even if I’m spending all my time using tools for my work, how do I use them? It’s not only social media that’s a problem: our brains have been re-wired to seek new input, and that results in this freakish habit of constantly switching between my tools.

For those of us who believe in a creator and our need for salvation, the biggest issue we face is not whether we think spending time with our savior is valuable, but whether or not we can focus on him for long enough to benefit from the relationship. From what I’ve experienced in my own life and from the people I’ve talked to in our industry, we know that communion with God is valuable … but we’re just so distracted.

A couple years back I made my way through The Focus Course while also reading Deep Work and What’s Best Next. I came away from that exercise with a life goal to focus my years, quarters, months, and weeks. That goal?

To disciple Christians by encouraging depth & focus in the digital age.

That focus happens in my home, my church, but most frequently is a focus in my personal newsletter. And two years later, it feels like it’s more of a need than ever. And again, that comes from my own life as well as what I hear from others.

There are many weeks where I struggle with what to write about in my newsletter. Almost every time that happens, someone reaches out to mention an article or newsletter than impacted them. And each time I’m reminded this issue is still the issue of our time. Abortion, how we define marriage, oppression, and slavery — these are all huge issues that God’s people have faced over the years.

But we’ll never be able to make a difference — a real difference — with those issues if we cannot focus our hearts and minds on him.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, ESV)

So all that to set the context for how I’d answer your question: how do we abide in and pursue Christ when we’re so distracted?

I wish I had a really great answer. But I’m struggling with this myself. However, I do have a couple of suggestions.

First, we have to view our relationship with Christ as a need. If depth and focus are essential for our work, surely it’s even more vital for our communion with God. It can’t be viewed as a “nice-to-have,” but must be thought of as all-encompassing. Our identity in Christ is central to anything we do.

Second, we have to change what we treasure. Because our hearts are attuned to the things we value the most; we seek them out naturally. When Christ becomes our treasure, we have no problem finding time for him in our busy schedule. Devotions no longer require discipline.

Again, I do not live this way every day. But I desire to make it so.

Isaac: Oh man, you hit on a few really big points here. The constant switching between modes and not allowing ourselves to focus on one thing for a prolonged period of time. Viewing our relationship and identity in Christ as essential to daily life. And finally, changing what we treasure. Each of those could be a book title.

All that to say, I love the context you’ve set for this dialog, “how do we abide in and pursue Christ when we’re so distracted?”

So, what are some of the ways you practice staying focused in daily life and how does that translate to your walk with God?

Chris: Well, I’ll start by repeating that I’m not where I’d like to be in all of this. I’ve made some progress over the years, but have so much to improve on. But I’m happy to share some of the habits I’ve adopted that help.

As I started listing out what came to mind, I realized they fell into two categories. I’ll discuss each under these two headings.

Use tools that help

Shiny new apps are another source of distraction, so I share this tip with some hesitation. However, the tools below truly can be beneficial for those of us whose lives revolve around screens (i.e., those of us who make our living on one, while they also provide our entertainment … and everything else)

  1. I use several tools that help me understand my habits better. Primarily, RescueTime, Focus, and HazeOver on macOS (the last two are included in the excellent Setapp). The first records how I spend my time and gives me reports. Focus is an app that shuts off access to certain apps and websites for a set time each day (7:30am to noon). And HazeOver puts an overlay across all apps that do not currently have focus on my MacBook.
  2. On iOS, Screen Time has been a huge change. One thing we’ve already done is review our stats each Sunday as a family (my wife and I, plus our 14 and 12-year-olds, both who have their own device). It’s been insightful so far to see the overall time and pick ups, the number of notifications we receive, and what apps we spend our time on. So far we’re mostly just reviewing: time will tell if we need to make (or enforce) changes.
  3. I have almost no notifications on my devices. Slack is allowed, as does Messages and the Phone app. And PagerDuty for when I’m on call. Related to the last point, this is one area I’ve really pushed our kids to adopt better habits. The best intentions and desires will not help at all if you allow yourself to see these updates.
  4. Another helpful asset for me is to use pen and paper. My weekly reviews, my brainstorming, and planning, it all happens on paper. This helps me think more clearly and get the focus that is elusive in front of a screen. And there is something powerful about working with your hands.
  5. Create habit fields. This is an idea from Jack Cheng way back in 2010. His premise was to make certain devices more conducive to certain kinds of activities. Or certain locations. So you may configure your laptop to have no distracting tools, but your iPad is for consuming news and content. Or your desk is all work, but your couch is for fun. For me, it has been beneficial to set my phone up for creating and thinking (as best possible). This means I have no social media on it. Reading is the one consumption activity I allow myself, but I also keep my books by our bed.

So there are tools that can help us when we know we struggle with have self-control at all times. Increasing the friction to perform these distracting activities is a good first step.

But if our greatest treasure is always seeking the newest thing, these tools will not help in the long run. We need changed hearts.

Exercise the classic disciplines

That’s where spiritual discipline comes in. I know that my heart has been changed by God. I now have union with Christ — and I can never add to his work. However, my communion with him is dependent on my actions.

This is where we can learn from those who have gone before us.

  1. Read your Bible, regularly. Nothing has impacted my life more than developing the habit of daily Bible study. Even when that study has led to more of an intellectual knowledge than an intimate connection with my heavenly father, I’m far better equipped for the spiritual war we’re apart of and far more likely to experience intimacy with him when I’m in his word. Kent Hughes puts it so well when he says, “You can never have a Christian mind without reading the Scriptures regularly because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.” Read the word so you can be profoundly influenced!
  2. From there, I try my best to spend time just meditating on the word. And that usually involves memorizing more Scripture. I love to lay down at night and run over a verse in my mind as I drift off.
  3. Pray earnestly. This has been the biggest struggle in my life with Christ. I hesitate even to say much here because it’s something I want to improve on so much. The one thing I can say is that praying Scripture itself has been a real blessing. When I struggle with the desire to pray, or to find words of praise, or to know what to say, it’s been a huge comfort just to pray the words I already know. How the Psalms came to life for me when I started to echo them with my heart and mouth.
  4. Fast. I don’t often fast or do so for very long. But when I do, it has helped remind me how much I depend on material things for my sense of joy and happiness.
  5. Enjoy fellowship. Nothing is better than being inspired by seeing God at work in other lives. It’s easy sometimes to slip into the habit of skipping church or Bible study or prayer night. But we do so at our own peril: meeting with other believers is vital.
  6. Suffer. I know, this sounds terrible and none of us want to go through hard times. But I’ve found nothing brings us closer to God than when we remember how much we depend on him. My children really struggle with this concept, but it’s so true. And in this world, we all will suffer in some way — it’s only a matter of time and degree.

So, the tools help me focus, period. But the exercising of my spirit is what helps me to focus on Christ throughout my day.

And to be honest, that focus happens far more easily for me in the early mornings and evenings. I can still be consumed by work, chores, and other things through the middle of the day. I’m working to get to the point where I’m kingdom focused all day long.

Isaac: Some really helpful stuff in there. So good. The tools are helpful to an extent, and as you said so well, “We need changed hearts.” Which is where I’d like to head next.

In my own, life I’ve taken intermittent breaks from different social platforms due to where I feel my heart going. Endless scrolling, observing other peoples lives wishing it were my own. I’m not anti-social media. There are things I appreciate about these platforms, but like anything, an over indulgence doesn’t feel helpful to my christian walk. This especially hits home related to my identity; the image I project and the ways I try to satisfy my heart outside of God.

Depression and varying levels of anxiety have become commonplace. And while there are a number of contributing factors, I have to believe the addiction of living a artificial life online plays a huge role.

Can you speak to this topic of identity and how it’s related to social consumption?

Chris: Sure. Our identity stems from our desires. If we want praise from others, we’ll attempt to portray ourselves in a way we perceive the people in our tribe to admire. If we love to shock people, we create a portrayal that prompts a response. The tricky part is that we most often do this unconsciously.

But at the heart of it, our identity (online or IRL) is the sum of our relationships. The issue with social media and online relationships is that they are shallow: there’s less depth than with the people we see face to face. Oh sure, we can be false in person — but it’s not as easy to hide things.

But with social media and our various online representations of self, it is far too easy to hide aspects of our life from others.

And that hiding is easiest when a person is lacking in self-awareness. The famous Greek proverb, “Know thyself” well sums up what we need today. And this is precisely what is necessary for the Christian life.

A vital requirement for coming to God with repentance is to come to the end of yourself; to recognize your lack, your sin, and your bad characteristics. People who do not (or cannot) look within and face the reality of their brokenness feel no need for a Savior.

I don’t point fingers here. While I sense that God was always in the background during my adolescent years, it wasn’t until I experienced a failed marriage and dead-end career that I took a long look at myself. Once I stopped blaming others or circumstances and confessed my mistakes (to myself and to God), I was finally able to turn to God, repent, and seek his ways for my life.

This is why a life of depth is so important to me. I always want to be growing in both my awareness of where I lack and where God can sustain me in that lack. I won’t achieve the depth required for that if I’m chasing an idolized version of myself. I need to pursue my identity in Christ!

Isaac: You dropped a subtle bomb in there “chasing an idolized version of myself.” Ouch. So if that’s the unhealthy way to pursue depth and true identity, what’s the right way?

Chris: Just to be clear, I’m not saying there’s a wrong way to seek depth. The false vision of ourselves is by its nature shallow.

Our identity as Christians is not complicated: it’s in Christ.

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

To understand my identity as a child of God, I need to pursue a better understanding of two things: who God is and who I am in relation to him. Thankfully, we don’t have to guess who God is because he revealed himself to humanity in his word. So I spend time seeking him there so I can better understand what he’s like.

From there, I learn more about myself (who I am now and who I will be when Christ returns).

That all can sound like repetitive Christian-ese, I know. So let’s consider a couple of practical examples.

  • I’ve been blessed to be involved in a business partnership that was successful. It can be easy to become prideful about this (I know what it takes!). But when I read about and meditate on the sovereignty of God, I am better able to see that he was at work bringing the right people together and creating the opportunities that led to our business being successful.
  • I’ve also experienced turbulent times in owning my own business where the future was unclear. But when I read about and meditate on my Father’s love and his desire to bless and provide for his children, I can rest and let go of the things that were never in my control anyway.
  • When I look back and consider my failed marriage and the children who were affected by that, I can experience afresh the guilt of causing others to suffer because of my actions. But when I recall how that experience led to today, I remember how God redeemed that situation. He called me from darkness to light, so although suffering is never fun, it can be beneficial (and my two adult children turned out to be beautiful, lovely people as well).

So, that’s it. The main reason I spend time seeking solitude and silence is to reflect on these truths and remind myself of my reality. Not the idolized version that I can come to believe in when neglect his word.
Isaac: So our identity in Christ is simply knowing who He is, through the Word, and who we are, through intentional reflection and self awareness.

You kicked this conversation off with two substantial points, viewing our relationship with Christ as a need, and changing what we treasure. You’ve covered quite a bit of ground related to both of those things. And frankly, these are christian living 101.

As a way of closing this out, the current age we live in provides unique challenges, but at the core, living a life devoted to Christ and treasuring Him above all is nothing new. Any final thoughts on how we walk this out, keeping in mind a host of brothers and sisters have gone before us.

Chris: Nicely said! You bring up a good point: not only can we benefit from the word of God, but we also have access to the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us in the last two thousand years. We do well to draw on that wisdom. Just as getting together with others on a Sunday to join in giving praise to God and studying his word blesses us, so too does reading the works of so many saints (recent or long before out time).

We may have new distractions, but that doesn’t mean we need to re-invent the wheel.

So I’m hesitant to say more — I’m struggling to improve in all this, like so many others. I just try to focus on the promises I see in Scripture. Mainly, that seeking God is the best use of my time and energy.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

We woke before the sun and threw our stuff in the back of my buddy’s Dodge pickup. It was October, and the temperatures in Georgia were just starting to dip down into the 40s and 50s at night.

I came down to spend a week with my best friend and we had decided to get out for an impromptu three day backpack trip on the Appalachian Trail. The trees were turning bright orange, yellow, and red, what could be better than living on the trail and sitting around the fire for a few nights?

We planned our route to be a three day out and back hike. We didn’t have the logistics ability to do a through hike, and we weren’t familiar enough with the trail system to try to do a loop.

Mark had been in the military for four and a half years. Served as an army ranger with the 3rd battalion. While he was trained as an infantry soldier and sniper, he hadn’t done much backpacking. But it all translates. And while I had grown up camping multiple times a year with my family, I was used to throwing everything you could ever want in the van and camping with luxuries like bacon and eggs cooked over an open fire.

How hard could it be?

If we were going to make it three days on the trail we would need basic shelter, food, and water. Outside of that, a lighter for fire, sleeping bags for staying warm at night, and maybe a dry bag in case it decided to rain.

Besides our packs we had pretty much nothing. We decided we could make due with a 8’ x 10’ tarp for shelter. Confident we could rig up a shelter of some sort with a bit of cord. I picked up a cheap sleeping bag because there were some things you couldn’t do without.

For water, we could either spend the money on a water filter, use water purifying tablets and deal with the bad taste, or buy a case of water and haul it. Well, the case of water was $5.95, and it would get lighter as time went on. So we made the obvious choice.

For food, we’d get by without a stove and stick to a staple diet of tuna (in a pouch) cliff bars, and apples with peanut butter. We were backpacking after all, can’t expect to eat like kings on the trail.

As you can probably tell, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. I’m sure the park ranger we asked for directions was a bit concerned as he saw us plunge off down the trail. Hoping he wouldn’t need to I.D. us later that week concluding a search and rescue party.

Regardless, with our bags packed full of water and a small bit of gear, we set out for our first day. My pack was slightly larger, so somehow Mark talked me in to carrying most of the water. I think I was pushing 60 pounds. The first segment of our hike was up springer mountain. For those concluding the Appalachian Trail through hike from the north, Springer Mountain marked the end of the line. For us, it was the beginning.


Being a mountain, it consisted of a lot of uphill sections of trail. Which normally wouldn’t have been too bad, but considering the load I was carrying, it was quite taxing. After a few hours of hiking, we made it to the top, where we would spend our first night. We had planned on staying in the temporary shelter that was set up by the national forest service, but upon arriving we discovered it was already full.

But, due to our resourcefulness, we had a tarp we could use as shelter. Only, it turned out that our 8’ x 10’ tarp was really only a 5’ x 7’. And I wish I was kidding. We were slightly confused and dismayed at our mistake. Somehow we had managed to grab the wrong tarp size.

Not to be discouraged by our lack of fortune, we still managed to rig something up. As you can see. Clearly a sufficient shelter. Notice the rocks holding down the bottom, very high speed.


We heard someone walk up, and as we turned to see who it was, we saw a small-framed-lady wielding a stick as a sword. “Oh, I thought you were a bear!” Tightly gripping her stick as if ready to strike. Mark and I looked at each other wondering, what were you going to do if we were?

In her defense, there were bear postings everywhere. This didn’t make us feel great about our poor excuse of a tent we had rigged up. And thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure we slept with the tuna packets tucked away inside our packs, right next to our heads. Not exactly the smartest backpackers you ever met.

We attempted to make a fire that night, which didn’t last long as everything was pretty damp. Eventually we gave up and decided to turn in. As I slipped into my sleeping bag for the first time, I discovered I had made another mistake. I’m about 6’1”. The sleeping bag was intended for someone about 5’8”. I stuck out of the sleeping bag from my shoulders up.

Early in the night it began to rain. All things considered our shelter held up pretty well. Until at 3am that is. My half of the tarp had come loose (i.e. the wind blew off the rock) and left me lying on the ground getting poured on. Turning on my headlamp, I discovered we were caught in the middle of a cloud, visibility was about 5 feet. I managed to secure my half of the tarp and dive back into my sleeping bag. If we didn’t get eaten by bears, we’d probably die of hypothermia.

When morning came, we were feeling pretty deflated. It wasn’t raining anymore, but the fog continued to hang in the air. We weren’t even 24 hours into our hike but we were miserable. Neither of us wanted to say what we were both thinking. It felt too lame to give up this early in our trip.

Finding solace in the fact that it had stopped raining, we broke camp and decided to stick it out.

Since we were doing an out and back hike, we would pass our camping spot early in the day. Like the original plan for the first night, we planned to stay at a constructed shelter the second night. An hour in to our hike we passed the shelter, it was a little sign of hope of what we had to look forward to that night. At least a dry place to sleep! *(I have no idea why we didn’t drop some of our gear since we’d be coming back, maybe we were concerned about someone stealing our water?)

Shortly after passing our campsite for the night it started to sprinkle. Nothing much, but just enough to know that it was raining. An hour or so passed and the rain steadily increased. We were getting close to our turnaround and we were anxious to get out of the rain. As we kept going we felt that we had for sure been hiking too long to have not hit our turnaround point. Coming to an unexpected shelter we consulted our map discovering we had overshot our turnaround by a couple of miles.

Now it was raining hard. Like, soak you to the bone kind of rain. Neither of us had rain gear, even if we did, I’m not sure it would have been much help. We were soaked, our packs were soaked, our feet were wet and squishy. We had been hiking in pants because of the cooler temps, but we decided to go down to shorts because we were so wet it didn’t matter.

I don’t have much memory of the hike back to our camp that night. Other than, if you’ve ever hiked with a x-army ranger you know they have two speeds. Standing and basically running. We didn’t just hike back to camp, we marched double time.

What was supposed to have been a 16 mile day, turned out to be a 20 mile march in the pouring rain. Pulling in to camp we were cold, soaked, and pretty miserable. And there would be no fire tonight and no hot food. The only solace I was able to maintain was the fact that I had for some strange reason packed a dry bag, in it I had put my camera, a set of clothes and wools socks, and my sleeping bag. So no matter how wet we were, I knew that I would at least sleep warm and dry that night.

As we rolled out our sleeping bags, a few other weary hikers trickled in. They fired up their camping stoves and cooked up some warm dinner. We picked away at our cold, bagged, tuna. And licked the peanut butter container clean.

But, we were dry, and we didn’t have to pull out our sorry tarp again. So that was good. Only, neither of us thought we would need sleeping pads. Ya know, the ground is soft, there’s giant beds of moss that will make a perfect spot to lie down. Unlucky for us, the temporary shelter didn’t get the memo about stretching out the moss futon. It was a nice elevated platform of 2 x 6’s.

Have you ever tried sleeping on a wooden floor? Before this trip, I had never given thought to it. And since this trip, I’ve never cared to try again. It was terrible. I lay awake in 15 minute increments. Laying on one side then rotating to another position for the whole night, every 15 minutes. I don’t remember sleeping. At one point I looked over and Mark had propped himself against the wall hoping to sleep sitting up because he was so miserable. I don’t think he had any luck.

As bad as our sorry-little-lean-to was the first night, at least we slept. Even while getting rained on we slept. Nature was slapping us around and getting a kick out of it.

Around a quarter to six, neither of us could stand it any longer. It wasn’t quite light out yet, but we didn’t care. We packed up our soaking gear, put on our wet boots, and hiked the hell outta there.


Nothing could be further from the vision of backpacking we had in our mind and what we experienced the last two days. We almost couldn’t believe how miserable we were.


Clearly we had no idea what we were doing which only added insult to injury. You could say our friendship was tested, but it ultimately was a shared experience that we’ve often laughed about. From carrying 20 pounds of water to buying the wrong size tarp. Sleeping on solid wood and hiking in torrential rain, it was a trip of a lifetime. Just not one we’d ever plan to repeat.

When we finally got off the trail, we drove straight to chick-fil-a and feasted. From there, we drove to lifetime fitness and sat in the hot tub for hours. It was the best part of our three day backpack.

Photo Journal: III

You should know, the first 9 images are from my good friend Josh Ginter. He was kind enough to collaborate on this issue and let me feature some of his work from a recent trip to Banff National Park. He wanted to showcase the landscape through a different color and decided to go with a black and white theme. This rubbed off on the rest of the photo journal and I mostly followed his lead. But on a few occasions I couldn’t help myself.

Fall is my absolute favorite time of year. Growing up in Michigan, the fall colors were breathtaking. There was nothing better than the crisp cool weather, hiking through the woods with crunchy leaves under foot.

In my mind I envisioned a photo journal of fall foliage. Majestic views that you sit down with a cup of coffee to take in. But then reality set in, I now live in the middle of the US, where the fall colors are not nearly as vibrant as what I grew up with. They are still there, just not what I was spoiled with growing up. Then the other reality sets in, I’m a husband and father of two young children. Going caravanning through the woods for long hikes is not a spontaneous event. It’s a logistical miracle that must be executed with precision. Boys must be fed, nap schedules must be synchronized, then if you’re lucky, throw everyone in the car and drive like hell for the trailhead hoping your hard work pays off. Once we’ve de-cared (like deplaning, when you have kids getting in and out of the car is a ordeal) the meltdown sequence timer has begun. It is not advisable to be aware from food and shelter once the sequence as started.

All that to say, I’m really proud of the images for this issues photo journal. These are usually never what I originally thought, but they are what the constraints of my life allow. Which is enough. I think these are some of my best images to date.

Contentment as a Skill

I always thought I would one day find myself more content.

In my mind there was never a specific context, age, or season of life, when I reach this euphoric state. It’s something I would just come into. Like spring after winter.

Over the last year we’ve doubled down on managing our finances as we prepare to buy our first home. There is nothing like tightening the belt to make you consider what is truly essential.

Through the process I’ve realized my addiction to spending. For me, spending surfaces as a broken attempt to experience joy. As if joy were something I could buy. It may satisfy for a moment, but it returns telling me I need and deserve more.

A passing moment of joy can be found in a purchase. But neither does it truly satisfy or last.

Lasting joy comes through choosing contentment in my present condition.

Ultimately, my joy is rooted in my faith in Jesus. A deep sense of unmovable peace. Reflecting on my debt of sin being forgiven is a sure way to bring joy.

I have begun to think of joy as a skill that can be learned, cultivated. Not a fleeting emotion that is reserved for select moments of life. I can actually choose joy throughout my day. So I’ve been practicing.

There is a element of inconvenience related to having only one car for our family. How is it that being a two-car-family became the standard?

Is it my desire to never be inconvenienced? Or is it just more practical to have two cars?

Can I learn to be content with what we have and see those limitations as a blessing?

This verse has been top of mind through this internal wrestle.

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
— Psalm 16:5–6

This is a prayer of contentment if I’ve ever heard one. Oh Lord, help.

Making my own coffee instead of purchasing a cup from a local shop can also be a joyful experience. As I write, I’m currently sitting in the shade at a rose garden here in Kansas City on a particularly cool summer afternoon.

My options for writing was, a) go to a local coffee shop, spend money, and sit in the air conditioning and write. Or b) make my own coffee, go for a little drive, and adventure outdoors to find a spot to sit and write in nature. A small difference in decision, a large difference in the type of experience I’ve chosen.

Can I be content to not need the stimulation of a coffee shop experience? Can I instead find contentment in sitting outdoors taking in the sights and smells of my environment? Do I need internet? No. Is coffee the prerequisite for writing? No. Do I need air conditioning? On this particular afternoon, no.

Contentment spills over in to all of areas of life. Can I be content to drive the car we have? Which, doesn’t have a payment, drives well enough, but may not have all the bells and whistles I prefer.

Can I be content not to eat out? The inconvenience of preparing my own food vs. paying to instantly be satisfied.

There are plenty of opportunities in my day to work the muscle of contentment. But I have noticed I must choose to engage contentment. When I feel the desire for more rise, can I recognize it, and ask myself why?

Why do I want a new car? Is it because the one I have is not suitable? Does it not do the job I require adequately? Is it limiting my family? Is the limitation costing me in such a way that is causing me to comprise my values?

Why do I desire the latest tech device? Is my current phone no longer adequate? Does it no longer fulfill the function I require? Does it not perform the tasks I need?

Asking why has been a helpful first step in identifying areas I feel a lack of contentment. And in seeking to understand my motivation for things in general.

Gratitude instead of Contempt

When I view contentment as a choice or a skill, I’m suddenly faced with a split in the road. Where as I usually experience the choice of contentment in a negative form.

I feel a general dissatisfaction toward an object in my life. This kettle isn’t good enough, this car stinks, I need a new computer, I wish we had X, and on and on the list goes. Is it there some truth to that internal dialog? Maybe. Or, do I have a case of shiny object syndrome and have grown tired of looking at the same hot water kettle every morning? The car works fine, it is just that I’m over driving a Prius. The computer does every task I require adequately, it’s just a few years old.

Contentment is learning how to choose gratitude over contempt.

It’s to say like David in Psalm 16, the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places. To be grateful for the limitations I’ve come up against in life. To thank God for the endless blessings in my life.

I would venture, 99% of the things I feel contempt over are unique to my privilege of living in America. It would be difficult to explain to someone from a war-torn nation my need for two cars instead of one. Or my dislike of my crab-grass lawn. I have much to be grateful for.

Because I won’t magically show up one day down the road generally content with everything in life. I want to learn contentment now, so that I don’t live under the illusion that one day I will be. In the small, un-anointed small of everyday life, I can choose contentment.

Embracing Process

It would seem that I have an aversion to doing hard things.

And when I say hard, I mean, harder than unlocking my phone. Or, anything that can’t be done from the comfort of my couch. I mean, what’s harder than the flicking motion of mindlessly scrolling through other peoples lives? Pretty hard stuff right there.

I hope the sarcasm is leaking through. But truly, I’ve gone soft.

A life of communion with God. Hard. Building a thriving relationship with my wife. Hard. Exercising patience with my toddler. Not easy.

I’ve been turning a working theory in my mind, it fits with almost every area of life I can think of.

Why is it the best things in life require the most effort?

Want to eat healthy? Prepare to increase your grocery budget, meal plan for days, food prep for days, and if you use the microwave all nutritional value goes out the window.

Want a significant, satisfying, and deep relationship with your spouse? It only comes through understanding one another’s heart, exercising humility, and choosing to serve before your own desires are met. It’s not going to happen accidentally and it sure isn’t going to be easy.

In general, we want the end result with none of the work. We want to achieve our goals without submitting to a process.

But here’s the thing, every time we avoid process and take the easy road, it becomes that much harder to make the change. The easy road leads to nothing. You get nothing at the end of it and you are left dissatisfied.

I’m not saying that we should all become organic farmers and only drink milk from the goats we raised. I am saying that we could all stand to engage process in our daily lives.

What do I mean by that?

Process in Goals

Process is actually a safety net. It’s hard to envision what the end result is because you haven’t actually taken the first step. As Ryan Holiday says in his book The Obstacle is the Way,

“The process is about finishing. Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions. Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you and finishing it well.”

It’s about taking the first step, and then the next, and the one after that.

If you need help painting a picture of process, just imagine a mess. That’s what process usually feels like. It doesn’t feel glamorous. It just feels like a mess. And yet, if you string together a series of messes, something starts to emerge.

Moving toward your goals looks like taking the first step despite your imperfections. Of course you are not where you want to be, that is why you have a goal. And that is also why you have to be ok with where you are right now. Process is a good thing.

Process as a Teacher

Not only does embracing process help move us toward our goals, it also provides an opportunity to learn invaluable character traits. That I would argue, cannot be learned outside of process.

I’m an avid runner, do you know the way you train for a marathon? You guessed it. By running. A lot. More than you probably care to know.

No matter how many times I’ve been through the training process for a race, if I take a 3 or 4 month break from running, I have to start over. To train for the same race I may have run the year prior, I need to show up 4-5 times a week, for 12 weeks, before I’m ready to race.

My training process is not just keeping my physical body in shape. It’s teaching me consistency (finishing the workouts, putting in the time), self-control (the days I want to run faster than I should), self-discipline (the days I’d rather sit on the couch and eat ice cream than run), perseverance (when dealing with nagging injuries or a variable schedule), and to not take myself too seriously. Just get out there and run for goodness sake Isaac, forget about all the pace mumbo jumbo.

This translates to many areas of life. For most of us (none navy seals) our natural default is not to do the hard things in life. We want the easy way. The convenient way.

“Don’t make me practice long hours for years on end, I want to be a seasoned artist now.”

“I shouldn’t have to sacrifice to build a thriving marriage, it should just happen automatically.”

When we engage process, it provides us a context to produce lasting qualities. Related to our natural/physical qualities as well as our inner development.

And conversely, when we avoid process, we miss opportunities to develop our natural/physical qualities as well as our inner character.

Doing hard things in moderation contributes to your long term success.

This has endless opportunities for application.

  • The mom stuck at home with two kids that hasn’t had a break all day. Choosing to engage the messy, un-instagramable, mundane nature of motherhood and allow it to shape her.
  • The employee that feels overlooked, undervalued, and underpaid. Engaging your job with excellence and allowing it to fuel your drive for success.
  • The process of changing your diet to fuel a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Start small, and embrace the process of slowly replacing default food habits with healthier ones.
  • The commute that you loathe taking everyday. Find a way to make the most of it. There are a thousand things you could use that time for.

I’m in this camp too. Engaging in process is hard and it rarely feels good. But it’s the showing up again, and again, and again, and again, that transformation begins to take root.

…any movement toward freedom and life, any movement toward God or others, will be opposed. Marriage, friendship, beauty, rest—the thief wants it all.
— John Eldredge

If it’s of significant worth, it’s going to be opposed. It’s a battle to pursue things of lasting meaning or change.

But choosing to engage right where it feels hardest is actually where the most fruit will come.

Process in Trials

This verse used to bother me a great deal. You read it and think, “What is that even supposed to mean?"

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. — James 1:2–4

Process may come in the form of trials. Recovering from addiction. Walking with loved ones through cancer treatment. Pursuing a season of emotional and spiritual healing. The car breaks down. These can all be an invitation to transformation amidst the challenge of doing the hard thing.

As my trials in life have escalated from running out of ramen in college, being brave enough to ask my then girlfriend to marry me, and eventually to walking with my family as my mom battled for her life with leukemia. Facing challenges in life have provided a whole new opportunity to engage my world.

It would seem that in trials there is a unique opportunity to hear the voice of God and learn about His character and nature. But you only become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing…” if you choose to engage with it.

…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3–5

I’m not sure I’ve yet graduated to a level of rejoicing in suffering or counting it all joy, but I want to move in that direction. Doing the hard things of life, is hard. There’s no way around it. But if I can plant the seed deep within that engaging in the process of the hard things is ultimately moving me toward the things that I ultimately aspire too, then maybe I can begin to learn how to rejoice in the process.