Saturday, December 5, 2015

Fixated on a Plan

Yesterday a friend was talking to me about the debilitating frustration of having a plan thwarted; how it can feel impossible to move on to a different task when there's such a strong desire to carry out the original plan.

I first I thought, "Well, I can't relate to that".  Later though I laughed at myself while remembering that this exact thing had happened to me the night before:

It was Friday night and I was more exhausted than I'd been in a long time.  But it was ok, because I had a plan: I would borrow a DVD and then lie on the sofa to watch it as soon as I'd got the girls into bed. 

It all started off fine.  The children and I each found a DVD to borrow and (I thought) we took them all home.  However, just after reading the bedtime story I realised I couldn't find my DVD anywhere. 

My plan was thwarted!  I felt like there was no way I could now experience the restful, relaxing evening that I'd been looking forward to all week. 

I was not happy.  And everyone knew it.  Even the front door felt the effects of my frustration as I stomped in from checking the car one more time.

Eventually I did calm down, and spent the evening watching a TV programme.  I achieved my goal of having a quiet evening, but just not in the way I'd first planned.

There was nothing wrong with my desire to spend the evening watching the borrowed DVD.  In fact, my need to spend an evening horizontal, doing something restful, was very real (that was obvious to all!).  The problem came when my desire to achieve this time of rest through a particular DVD became a 'need'.

The quotes in italics are from 'Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands' by Paul David Tripp:

The source of (improper) need-driven expectation is the source of untold conflict in relationships...Eventually I will come to accept the logic of my neediness.  I will find it painful to live without the thing I desire.  I will think it is appropriate to do everything in my power to get it.  It becomes my right.

The following steps are helpful in showing how a healthy desire can start to turn sinister:

1. Desire: "I want."  Nothing went wrong here.

2. Demand: "I must." The desire is no longer an expression of love for God and man, but something I crave for myself.

3. Need: "I will." Something desirable is now seen as essential.  I am convinced I cannot live without it.

These can lead to

4. Expectation: "You should." 

5. Disappointment: "You didn't!"

6. Punishment: "Because you didn't, I will..."

I found this Bible quote from James 4:1 (NIV) very helpful in understanding what goes on in me:

What causes quarrels and fights among you?  Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?

Our desires fight for control of our hearts.  What controls our hearts will exercise inescapable influence over our lives and behaviour. 

Often our desires involve positive goals.  For instance, we might want to complete a project that would be helpful to many; we might desire to finish a task with 100% accurately; perhaps we want our time to be used efficiently.  But these desires can still get in the way of what God most wants for us if we let them become needs or demands.

There are some things that we know are always top priorities.  I know God wants me to be kind and patient towards others.  (I also know that I need to look after my own body and mind so that I'm as prepared as I can be for this task.)  When other felt needs become more important to me than my need to put God first and to love others, then something is wrong.  My other 'needs' have become idols. 

For those of us who live with family, it quickly becomes obvious (to our families, if not to us!) when we are allowing ourselves to be ruled by the less vital desires. 

As I've mentioned before, I have a big fear of communicating the wrong information.  Of course there's nothing wrong with re-reading an email once to check that it really says what I want it to and that there aren't any obvious errors.  However, when I'm refusing to attend to the needs of my children because I'm spending so long checking and re-checking what I wrote, then my need to 'get it right' has become an idol that is more important to me than loving my children.  By being too focussed on one area of responsibility, I actually become irresponsible.

It can be challenging to notice all the desires that are battling within us, and to work out what matters most.  It's especially hard when some of the less important desires feel so vital.  Perhaps we each have to figure out for ourselves which strategies will help us do what's right in the face of thwarted plans or tempting distractions.  Here is what's helpful for me:

*I might consciously remind myself I'm doing the right thing, even if it doesn't feel like it. 

*I can ask myself what action would be most honouring to God right now. 

*As someone whose mind tends to fixate on irrational obsessions, it helps to ask a trusted person whether the thing that feels so important to me really is something I need to be putting energy into. (edit: Clare's husband is amazingly awesome at this!--her husband)

* If I'm spending too long trying to get something 'just right', I know I need to hand over to God the responsibility for the outcome of my work, remembering that he is big enough even to turn my mess into something that will bring him glory. 

*In the case of my DVD-melt-down, especially as I was feeling so exhausted, it helped when I finally stopped my frantic activity and instead lay down and calmed down for a few minutes until I started to think more clearly.  If I'd had more energy, doing something different and enjoyable for a few minutes might have helped my distress levels to diminish enough that I could approach the situation more rationally.

It's hard.  It's painful.  We won't always get it right.  But being able to recognise that our strongest desires aren't always the ones that we need to be attending to, no matter how important they might feel, seems like a great first step.


  1. Hi Clare. I found this so useful that I wrote it down for further reflection! Thank you, Char

  2. Great! Thanks so much for letting me know it was useful to you. Clare