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; Rt. 45, River Road, and so on.

Wisconsin apparently has a different system, which is based largely on letters rather than numbers. I don’t know why. I suspect there’s a good reason for it; I just don’t know what it is. In any case, I want to make some observations of what I call Highway D.

In the past half-year, virtually all of us on the planet have encountered shock, bewilderment, confusion, and emotional strain. Perhaps we can acknowledge having been on a journey with the following waypoints: Disappointment—Discouragement—Depletion—Depression—Despair. I can. I confess that due to high expectations for myself, (“Hi, I’m Craig. I’m a recovering Perfectionist.”), I’m vulnerable to disappointment. Every now and then that disappointment leads to discouragement; which every few years or so can lead to depletion.

Certainly, all of us can relate to that sequence on some level, perhaps more recently than ever before. Those in the therapy and counseling field report very significant increases in levels of depression and anxiety since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Some of you also know that depression can eventually lead to despair. These are the waypoints on Highway D.

In these exceptional times, how do we avoid this highway, or at the very least, how do we recognize the waypoints 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.

As we have choices, we must protect ourselves from physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual factors that are depleting us. We can draw boundaries against stressful or unhealthy behavior, in ourselves or in others close to us, when we run into it. In those cases, we must change our circumstances to remain healthy and avoid a downward spiral of emotions.

But more commonly, the issues we wrestle with most deeply are not simply external, they are our own inner struggles with the difficulties of everyday 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 common denominator we carry into all the “Change our circumstances” options is our backpack. We bring it with us wherever we go. When we show up, our backpack shows up.

So, men, rather than automatically assuming that the best solution to trials or disappointment in our lives is to 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.

2. A 2nd option for getting out of the downward spiral of Hwy. D is to Change our expectations. Often our disappointments with life are based on unrealistic expectations of how we think life ought to go. For example, we Americans, in particular, have a built-in expectation (we might even say demand) for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That might sound familiar.

The truth is, the world doesn’t always offer those options. Not only do many Christians in other nations rarely experience these values, there are millions of Americans who would say their existence does not feel like the life they long for, or the freedom to live without fear, let alone the pursuit of genuine happiness. For many of our brothers and sisters those familiar values of American life are far from realistic expectations.

We need to ask: Do we sometimes need to change our expectations of how life ought to go for us? While life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness might be fine aspirations 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 as expectations for the early Church.

His list might have been more along the lines of self-sacrifice, humility, and the pursuit of Christ-likeness. I know, that list doesn’t sound like as much fun. But in fact, in Phil. 2:1-11 this is his list:

  • “…in humility value others above yourselves…”
  • “…have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”
  • “…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

These are expectations Paul gave the Church, and gives us, as Christ-followers.

If our expectations, let alone demands, are for life to be a non-stop run of the American dream, free from illness, loss, hardship or sorrow, we are setting ourselves up for great disappointment. Perhaps even depression.

Some Christians think our lives should be defined by unending provision, health, riches, and acts from God that serve our wants. In my opinion, this expectation is more reflective of our cultural values than of biblical values. If that describes us, we may well need to revise those expectations.

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 Christ-followers should expect difficulty.

  • Acts 14:22 “…we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God…”
  • Heb. 12:7 “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.”
  • I Peter 1:6 “…now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

Our expectation should be that we will have hardship in life. This might be especially true for those of us Christians who no longer feel at home in the World.

3. Changing circumstances may help us when we struggle emotionally or spiritually, as many of us have been. But that doesn’t work very well when the struggle is global. Changing our expectations, and acknowledging we will have struggles in life, is a very helpful 2nd option. But there is a 3rd approach that goes even deeper: Change our beliefs.

When “bad things” happen to us, our beliefs and assumptions about life automatically rise to the surface:

  • I lose my job; I believe my boss has no clue what he’s doing. That’s a belief revealing itself.
  • My friend is dying; I believe God must be teaching him a severe lesson. That’s what some fellow Christians believe.
  • My child is pulling away from the church; I believe it’s the church’s fault. And specifically, that lame youth pastor’s.
  • Everything that was going so well in January, has now turned to chaos. I’m not sure God is paying attention, or that he plans to do anything about it.

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

How might we change our beliefs? By embracing the fact that God redeems trials and hardships for our benefit:

  • II Cor. 1:4 “…[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble…”
  • II Cor. 12:10 “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.”
  •  James 1:2-4Consider 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.”
  • Romans 5:4 “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Scripture reminds us, over and over, that our foundational belief should be that God uses our hardships for our good, and for the good of others.

10 years ago, I had an occasion when this happened to me. I had traveled down the waypoints of Highway D. Due to what felt like a non-stop series of financial, ministry, relational, and health pileups, I was running on empty. I was way past Disappointment; I blew by Discouragement, and had landed well into Depletion. I was about burnt to a crisp.

A mentor urged me to use his condo in Florida to rest and start to recover by myself. What a gift! And God met me there and began to restore my thirsty heart and soul. One of the biggest things that happened to me in those days was a change in my beliefs.

If you ask 100 counselors what one of the most important factors in overcoming Depression or Despair, it’s likely that somewhere around 99 will say, Hope. There needs to be Hope in order for healing to begin. A light at the end of the tunnel. Some assurance this downward spiral will come to an end

When I say Hope, I don’t mean crossed-fingers, wishful thinking, the way the world uses the word hope. I mean a heartfelt, rock-solid confidence in the nature and character of God. That’s Hope.

And here is the verse that changed my beliefs about life and God:

Rom. 15:13 “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Several truths stood out to me about every phrase in that sentence:

  • “May the God of Hope”— God has authority over Hope. He created it, controls it, and grants it. And God is defined by Hope. The power to bring about what is unseen is a central part of God’s nature.
  • “Fill you with all Joy and Peace”— We get huge quantities of Joy and Peace from the hand of God. They are by-products of Hope
  • “So that you may overflow with Hope”—As if filling us wasn’t enough, God pours in so much Hope it spills over the brim. He is not stingy with Hope. Men, what if he were to use that overflow of Hope so that it sloshes over from us onto others?! Our Hope overflows onto others. We become Hope-bringers to others.
  • “As you trust in him…By the power of the Holy Spirit.” None of this is from us, or through our effort, our piety, or our creative attempts to concoct it. It’s evident that the source of this influence is not us; it’s the power of the Holy Spirit at work through us.

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.  

We can Change our circumstances; Change our expectations or Change our beliefs. The first option can be helpful, but is often superficial. The third one changes us to the core.

It’s a refreshed route that prevents a return trip to the dead-end destinations of Depletion, Depression and Despair. It leads instead to deeper peace and joy and hope despite our circumstances.

Men, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” God bless you.