Having grown up in northern Illinois, I have a permanent memory of certain highway route numbers and the roads they pertain to: Rt. 68, Dundee Road; Rt. 83, Elmhurst Road; Rt. 21 Milwaukee Road, and so on.

In Wisconsin they seem to have a partially different system, which is based largely on letters rather than numbers. Perhaps a Wisconsinite can inform the rest of us if there’s a hidden reason for that.

Not long ago my brother-in-law, and I were chatting about how we respond to hardship and disappointment in our lives. I confess that, due to high expectations of myself, I’m vulnerable to disappointment. Every now and then that disappointment leads to discouragement; which every few years or so can lead to depletion. I want to change that.

Some of you reading this know that depletion can then lead to despair. I can honestly say, that while I haven’t been to despair, I’ve seen the off-ramp that leads there. I’m not interested in making a visit.

Disappointment-Discouragement-Depletion-Depression-Despair. I call them way-points on Highway D.

How do we avoid this highway, or at the very least, how do we recognize the way-points and turn away from the next one before we enter its territory?

There are 3 options for us to avoid getting stuck on this downward path:

1. Change our circumstances.

Where we have choices, we must flee physical, emotional, mental and spiritual abuse. We must flee immoral and unethical behavior when we run into it. In those cases we must change our circumstances to avoid a downward spiral of emotions.

But more commonly, the issues we wrestle with most deeply are our own inner struggles with the difficulties of every day life. Those conditions and our reactions to them follow us, no matter the marriage, church, business or state we are in. Like an imaginary backpack into which we stuff anger, resentment, shame, fear or isolation, those destructive emotions follow us around.

The one common denominator we carry into all the “Change our circumstances” options is our backpack. We bring it wherever we go. As a result, changing circumstances isn’t always the solution to our struggles.

2. Change our expectations.

Often our disappointments are based on our expectations of how life ought to go. Americans in particular have a built-in expectation (we might even say demand) for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The world doesn’t always offer those options. While they might be fine values on which to build a nation, they aren’t values on which to build Christian character.

The apostle Paul wouldn’t have come up with that list. His list might have been more along the lines of self-sacrifice, humility, and the pursuit of Christlikeness. (Phil. 2:1-11) If we expect a life free from illness, loss, limitations or sorrow, we are setting ourselves up for great disappointment.

Some Christians think our lives should be defined by unending provision, health, riches and acts from God that serve our wants. If that describes us, we may well need to revise those expectations.

3. Change our beliefs.

When bad things happen, our beliefs and assumptions about life rise to the surface:
• I lose my job; I believe my boss is a jerk.
• My wife is dying; I believe God must be teaching her a lesson.
• My child is pulling away from church; I believe God must not be paying attention.
• Everything I put my hand to is filled with futility; I believe there must be something defective about me.

Blame, shame, and anger at God, or others, all come from our deeply felt beliefs that we carry around with us, again, like a familiar backpack, regardless of our location or circumstances. The common denominator again, is us. Wherever we go, we show up. We may need to transform those beliefs.

The deep issues that surround the depression or despair many Christians experience must not be minimized; they are often influenced by personality and body-chemistry factors largely determined at birth. The road to restored health can be a long, difficult one. To minimize the more common road signs—like discouragement or depletion—that indicate we are heading in a downward direction is equally unwise.

Rather than automatically assuming that the best solution to trials or disappointment in our lives is to simply change circumstances— change our spouse, job, church or zip code— sometimes the better step for us is the deeper, inner transformation of changing our expectations and beliefs. Some of us may need to be open to a new awareness of what life is truly like, who we really are, and who God actually is.

How might we change our expectations? By revising our assumptions that life will always go well for us. The descriptions of the life of the early Church, as well as Paul’s letters of exhortation to us, make it clear that we should expect difficulty:
• “…we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God…” Acts 14:22
• “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.” Heb. 12:7
• “…though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” I Peter 1:6
Our expectation should be that we will have hardship in life.

How might we change our beliefs? By embracing the fact that God redeems trials and hardships for our benefit:
• “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:4
• “…[God] comforts us in all out troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble…” II Cor. 1:4
• “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” II Cor. 12:10
• “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4
Our belief should be that God uses our hardships for our good, and for the good of others. Knowing this, we can choose to be joyful in the midst of trial.

The journey down Highway D is a well-traveled one, but it leads nowhere anyone wants to go. The next time we find ourselves struggling with the disappointment and discouragement that life so often brings, let’s consider a re-route that plugs the above set of expectations and beliefs into our emotional GPS system.

They can serve as a refreshed route that prevents a return trip to the dead-end destinations of Depletion, Depression and Despair, and leads instead to deeper peace and joy despite our circumstances.