|Archive | Subscribe to Nehemiah Notes | Blaine Smith's Books | Support NM | Home|
|Genuine faith, which keeps our heart encouraged
in Christ and hopeful about God's plan for our future, is
hard to come by when setbacks occur. Here are some
thoughts on how to maintain it.
Bad days. We all have them. On one memorable Monday last fall, I felt like the bottom was falling out of my life. In the afternoon, a policeman stopped by our home to inform us that Nate had smashed his car into a tree. Fortunately my sixteen-year old son was not injured. His car, though, was totalled. The incident cost me a lot of time and frustration, plus the anticipation of significant expense. It left me feeling I deserved a break from hard experiences for a while.
My respite lasted about an hour. That evening, as I was typing a letter on my office computer, the screen suddenly filled with tiny blinking colored squares. The hard disk had crashed. My life flashed before me, as I thought of important files I hadnt backed up, and the aggravation it would be to install and reconfigure a new hard drive. I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out how to boot the computer from the floppy drive with all the functions intact.
Finally, around midnight, I was able to get online and check my e-mail. One message was waiting, from a friend who usually sends me humorous posts. Finally some comic relief, I thought. But instead, his note told me about another friend who was going through a difficult period and was very depressed. I felt a surge of guilt, as I realized that I hadnt been as supportive to this person as I could have. I worried that I might have contributed to his problem.
I went to bed exhausted and feeling beat-up by the day. When I woke the next morning, I felt like a dark cloud was hanging over my life. Three major blows the previous day had left me shell-shocked, and wondering if God was punishing me for something. I worried that the pattern would continue and spread to other areas of my life.
Only as the morning wore on did I begin to realize that I had lost the perspective of faith. The events of the previous day were not related to each other in any way. Nor was there any obvious link between them and some sin in my life for which God might be punishing me. To imagine such connections was to view God as capricious. And to assume that things would continue to deteriorate in my life was to write history before it happened. It was to put myself in the place of God and to assume that I knew my future--a twisted a way of boasting about tomorrow, which Scripture warns us so strongly against doing.
I decided to put a stop to my ruminating before the train got any further down the tracks. This was a new day, and Id do my best to have positive expectations about it. Though it took a while for my optimism to return, it helped simply to decide not to obsess about what had happened the day before, and to keep reminding myself that God desires the very best for me.
But the whole episode reminded me how easily we can fall into a pessimistic mentality about our life. When bad things happen to us, we can be quick to reason outward from them and to conclude that our life itself must be on a negative course. Its a small step from that conclusion to thinking that God has turned against us.
Not Jumping to Conclusions
The greatest danger we face in the Christian life, Im certain, is losing our conviction that God is for us. Yet it takes so little for this to happen.
One bad day like I went through can do it for most of us. Or a series of minor frustrations: you get stuck in traffic, the boss scowls at you when you arrive late to work, then you spill coffee on an important manuscript. By the time you clean up the coffee spill, youre wondering, "Is God trying to teach me a lesson through all of this?"
A single episode of rejection can do it for many of as well. Rejections in romance, friendship and job-seeking are among the most difficult experiences we go through in life. Even one rebuff can be so demoralizing that we wonder if God is forever nixing our dreams in that area.
At such points of frustration, its natural to think that God has allowed us to fail because hes offended with us. Weve blown it one too many times, and now hes given up on us.
Yet in most cases we simply have no way of knowing why God has allowed a hard experience to occur in our life. The situation were assuming is punishment or rebuke from him may have a very different interpretation in his mind. In time, we so often find it has a positive side--preventing a greater misfortune from occurring, or even opening the door for unexpected blessings.
Its been long enough since that horrible day last fall that Im now seeing serendipities where I first saw only adversity. Nate has been taking driving more seriously since his calamity and hasnt had another accident. And the hard disk failure led me to purchase a more powerful computer, which is proving invaluable in our Internet ministry.
Im not blandly suggesting that God
never chastises us through unwelcome events or never
wants us to look for lessons to be learned from them. But
God is not the author of confusion
In many cases, the connection between undesired events in our life and our behavior is not so obvious. Its when we try to make abstract connections between these incidents and our personal sin or failure that were in danger of losing the outlook of faith.
In his Learned Optimism, psychologist Martin Seligman considers why we fall into pessimism about our lives and lose the optimistic spirit needed to pursue our personal dreams. The greatest threat to our optimism, Seligman observes, is the negative speculation we engage in when we experience disappointment or frustration. When unwanted events occur in our lives, were prone to reach three unjustified conclusions:
That the pattern is pervasive. A setback in one area means that things surely are not going well for us in other areas either.
That the pattern will be perpetual. Well continue to be defeated at this point where weve had a setback, and in other areas as well.
That the reason for this adversity is personal. Its our incompetence or sin that has caused the setback weve experienced and that will continue to plague our life with failure in the future.
Healthy optimism, Seligman explains, involves breaking with our tendency to assume that bad experiences imply something ominous for our life. We need to learn to see them as isolated events--as abberations, rather than the norm for us.
Seligman notes, too, that while optimism involves having positive expectations for our life, the essence of optimism is avoiding negative habits of thinking. When an unwelcome incident broadsides our life, we should put a stop to runaway ruminating before it starts. It helps to consider each of the three points where we tend to "catastrophize," and remind ourselves:
Re: pervasive--This event is unrelated to most other situations in our life and doesnt indicate that things are falling apart for us in other areas.
Re: perpetual--The fact that we have been disappointed in this one area doesnt mean that the pattern has to keep repeating itself. We may be able to learn lessons from the experience, in fact, which will make failure less likely in the future.
Re: personal--If we are obviously at fault for what happened, we should learn what we can from the experience and move on. We should be careful not to browbeat ourselves unreasonably for what happened, and we shouldnt blame ourselves at all if there is no clear reason for doing so.
Expectations That Strengthen Our Faith
This process of thinking about personal setbacks that Seligman recommends can help us as Christians to maintain a healthy attitude of faith. In Scripture, of course, faith involves more than just optimistic thinking. The most critical aspect of biblical faith is belief in the salvation of Christ and personal commitment to him as Lord.
Yet Scripture also calls us to an attitude of faith--a supremely optimistic conviction that God desires the very best for us and is working in countless ways to bring about a matchless plan for our life. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jer 29:11 NIV).
Scripture is clear that this outlook of faith is essential to our realizing our full potential for Christ, and to drawing on his grace at many points.
The greatest challenge to maintaining this faith, Im convinced, is the negative ruminating we engage in when things seem to be going against us. When we experience a setback, it can help us greatly to stop and consider whether were giving the incident more significance than it deserves. Seligmans three points can provide an excellent reality check: Is there any reason to think that this event--
represents a pattern that is pervasive in my life?
will be a perpetual experience for me?
is my personal fault?
In most cases, our answer to the first two questions is clearly no. In many cases, we find that we arent to blame for what happened either. If were certain that our own failure or sin is to blame, then we need to face our responsibility clearly. If we have failed the Lord, we need to repent to him sincerely. It is equally important, though, that we accept his forgiveness fully, along with the abundant assurances of Scripture that he forgets our sin when he forgives it, and gives us the grace to start again on a clean slate (Jer 31:34, Is 1:18, Ps 103:12).
Clearing our thinking at each of these three points can help us move beyond ruminating, to the point where we are able to believe from the heart that God desires the best for our future.
Bad days. We all have them. The key is not to think that they mean bad tidings for our life.
Swallow hard. Pray hard. Get through the
bad day. Do whatever you possibly can to keep your hope
in Christ strong. Then move forward. Give God the
opportunity to bring fresh encouragement into your life.
|* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *|
Do you have comments about Nehemiah Notes, or would you like to receive it monthly by ground mail? E-mail us or use the comments box on our guestbook page.
Copyright 1997 M. Blaine Smith.
|Back to Top | Nehemiah Notes Archive | About Nehemiah Notes | Home|
|Books by Blaine Smith | About Nehemiah Ministries and Blaine Smith|
1997 Nehemiah Ministries, Inc.
PO Box 448, Damascus, MD 20872
E-mail Blaine Smith or Nehemiah Ministries