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.
My greatest joy in life is my family. I know, that sounds like the comment you’re supposed to make as a man and father. All I can say is I literally shake my head in wonder at the family I have: my wife Beryl; my daughter Barclay and son-in-law Vince, their four daughters, Bella, Brynn, Brooke and Blake; my son Alec, my son Conor and daughter-in-law Bonnie, their daughter Gemma and son Calvin. Every one of them is a genuine gift. Beyond that, I have a calling that I live out through Peregrine Ministries. It is to help men: Understand their identity in Christ, Embrace their role as men, and Live out their God-given calling in life. Bottom line is I’m convinced men matter and I want to help them live life on purpose.
In these days and times it is becoming harder in these United States to profess our faith in our God Father Son and Holy Spirit.
I personally want to thank you both Craig and Jim for this timely message. At this time I have only scanned it and hope to have time to digest it and report back with more comments. In the mean time my prayer is that we keep praying for each other to remain steadfast in the faith that our Lord has given us and not succumb to the onslaught of the enemy that wants us to give up.
Peace and Blessings to All
Thank you for your reply, Jason. I hope you benefit from these comments when you have more time to go deeper.
Wisconsin County KK ran right through our farm growing up. To some this might be ‘getting derailed’ on a back road, but to me it’s like being free in the country, invigorating. I also wrestle with high expectations and discouragement. A motorcycle ride on a quiet back road blacktop always brings me back. BTW, in Wisconsin we pave all our back roads so that even lowly County D is a nice ride!
I can picture that bike ride, Dean. Rolling hills; green fields; cheese; brats.
Candidly, this Biblically-based assessment does not encourage me. I agree that we live in a world were experiencing disappointment is a part of the deal. What I believe we need however, is to learn skills, and to live life in the search of truth. The least knowledgeable are subject to painful missteps. At the same time, where integrity is in question, a person’s healing cannot begin. (When the secrets end, the healing begins.) Seek truth, knowledge, and personal insight… that is my advice. And look for people who need you to engage them… with your care and humanness. These are the antidotes to Highway D, from my perspective.
Thanks for your comment, Chris. They are respectfully and gratefully received. I agree with your point that one way out of this spiral is to engage with the needs of others. It’s always fun chewing on life issues with you. Thanks for adding to the conversation.
Well said. This is a crazy, unpredictable, ultimately unsatisfying life. The trick is to learn how to be satisfied in the midst of eminent dissatisfaction. Your comment “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” implies dying to ourselves (which is our call as Christians, Gal 5:24-25). I suppose that is the ultimate daily, hourly, minute by minute battle and charge. However, there is truly much joy and peace when we let go and submit to his love, discipline, and authority (those three are redundant I suppose). Thanks for the good word/reminder!
Johnny, there is such paradox to our walk, isn’t there. Dying to self actually can bring joy and peace. Thanks.
Love it Craig!
Spot. On. Thank you. This is very encouraging and insightful.
Helpful reminders for this pastor living in a community of 2,300 seniors, all of whom are in decline. Thanks for putting your thoughts together in this manner which I find very helpful. I feel a sermon coming on.
Dave, what a huge flock you have as one who shepherds those folks through days and months of increasing loss. I’m reminded of a comment I once heard from Gordon MacDonald: “Our response to our losses in our 50’s and 60’s will determine our attitudes in our 70’s and 80’s.” At the time, 20 years ago, it sounded wise to me, but I couldn’t relate personally. Now, however…
We need to look more often to what we call the third world countries and the simple, often happier, lives they lead. In many of these places the gospel is running in the face of persecution and without the huge palaces we build and think we must have so that the church can grow and be comfortable and welcoming.
We forget that when we feel entitled to have it all the amount of work to manage it all requires so much time we can’t enjoy it at all. I am not married and have no children so my life is less stressful than many. That said I have downsized my home twice in the past 5 years and my lifestyle as well. I have more peace and in doing less I can be more invested and have time to pause and find satisfaction in my efforts. Not to mention more quiet time to listen for God’s leading.
A favorite phrase I heard many years ago says: Embrace the trials of faith. They lead to the rewards of faith.
Thanks for your insightful contribution, Scott.
A timely message for me as I look across the landscape of humanity, I needed to hear a word of counsel and encouragement to keep me as I walk the walk.
Chris your perspective is also well received.
Donnell, keep walking the walk, brother. So many people respect and admire you. I’m one of them.
Through many years as a believer, struggling with numerous health, kid, and business issues, my conclusion and practice is to thank God for whatever comes into my life, “immediately”. I have blamed myself, others, and sometimes God for troubles. But ultimately, the situiation is there as part of a santification process. Realizing, accepting, and thanking God for everything is the start of the perfect solution. Most of us try to figure it out by ourselves, but God is waiting for us to relinquish our selfish pride and “I can do it myself attitude”. Only when we truly give it over to Him can the healing process begin. I challenge all who read this comment to try it. God has never let me down! SCP 10-23-14
Sounds like you have some experience in hardship, Stephen. Thanks for your input.
Mike, thanks for your contribution to the conversation.
I heard Phil Hodges say that Satan’s formula for self-worth he wants us all to buy into is: My worth = My performance + The Opinions of Others. The world clearly judges us by our ability to perform flawlessly every day and are quick to point out our shortcomings. God, on the other hand, loves us UNCONDITIONALLY. We don’t have to earn it. We need to ask the Spirit to help us each day to abide in His unconditional love. When you know you are loved by God, you feel valued by the Creator and less concerned by the opinions of man.