Bouncing Back From Difficulties: Maintaining Hope

This is number two in our “Bouncing Back” series, where we’re dealing with being spiritually anchored so that we can weather any storm. Last time we talked about refusing to see obstacles as unbeatable. Today we’re talking about maintaining hope.

Hope is a funny thing. We’re willing to pay good money for hope. We probably don’t think of it like that, but we do. That’s the power behind the infomercial. These infomercials blast us day in and day out (and in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no regular programming on t.v.). These “as seen on tv” products are trying to sell hope – hope that buying a particular product will be the miracle to cure whatever troubles us. Like the Snuggie.

C’mon, people!

It’s. A. Backwards. Robe.

But it calls out to us and gives us hope that life would be better if we just had…. This is the power of the infomercial – it plays off of hope. My wife and I used to be in the habit of having cable news playing in the background during the day. I realized that we needed to stop when my then-5 year old got to me after work one day and said, “Daddy, we need to get a sunsetter!”

No, baby girl, we don’t NEED one. Not at all.

But humanity believes that these little doses of hope will make life better. But the emotion of hope is something that comes and goes. These temporary things cannot be enough to sustain long-term hope. Lasting hope has to be rooted in something much deeper. Lasting hope must be rooted in something bigger than ourselves or the stuff we fill our lives with.

Lasting hope is spiritually anchored.

The Bible talks a lot about hope, and the people who need it.

For the oppressed will not always be forgotten;
the hope of the afflicted will not perish forever. (Psalm 9:18)

I say: The Lord is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. (Lamentations 3:24-25)

You see, when we talk about bouncing back from life’s troubles, it is hope that gives us the bounce! And while we sometimes think that troubles kill hope, hope and affliction can co-exist.

Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. (Romans 12:11-12)

The Apostle tells us to rejoice in hope WHILE TELLING US TO BE PATIENT IN AFFLICTION! They’re happening simultaneously. In a nutshell, then, hope is about holding on to that better tomorrow in spite of the difficulties of today. But how do we develop hope?

  • Build a future focus.

We get so caught up in today’s troubles we lose sight of tomorrow. But we know that everything in this life is temporary. Life itself is temporary! We’re all headed towards that same destination – the grave. But the Christian has hope beyond the grave, for we know the day is coming when we stand in the presence and perfection of God. This hope has sustained Christians through the worst time and persecutions imaginable.

Don’t be so caught in the “here & now” that you lose hold of the “there & then.”

  • Work on a path to tomorrow.

We know that life will get tough. Obstacles are going to hit. Instead of letting them stop us, we need to plan our path towards tomorrow. Asses your life like it’s a number line.

numberline_0-30

If the obstacle has your life stuck at 5, don’t try to jump to 30. Ask what it’s going to take to get to 6. Then, when you find your life is at 6, ask what you can do to move up to a 7. The point is you keep at it little by little.

I have a friend who was convinced that God had a certain destination for his life. The problem was that obstacle after obstacle kept being thrown at him. It was discouraging. A mutual mentor of ours told him, “If you believe this is where God wants you to be, you CANNOT stop trying. Do EVERYTHING to keep moving in that direction.” It took years but it finally happened!

  • Finally, recognize God’s plan in your life regardless of personal circumstances.

Sorrow doesn’t have to diminish hope. God can work through your suffering. God and work in spite of your suffering. Hope remains, because it’s grounded in God’s activity, not our changing circumstances. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul who prayed earnestly that God would remove a personal obstacle, his “thorn in his flesh.”

Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)

Your obstacle may never be resolved the way you want it. It doesn’t stop God’s grace from being present in your life. Hope stays, no matter what happens today.

Let’s hold on to a better tomorrow.

I won’t quit.
I have impact.
Pain isn’t permanent.
I will not break.

hope-hero

Bouncing Back From Unbeatable Obstacles

Sometimes life throws some horrible stuff our way and we face all sorts of obstacles. Too often those obstacles, those life crises, have a way of driving us to our breaking point. When we break we reach a point where ending our lives seems like most viable option. As of a couple years ago, the suicide rate in America is about 13 per 100,000. So how do we avoid getting to the point where we break? Since we can’t avoid crises for an entire lifetime, the issue is not about getting away from obstacles but rather learning how to bounce rather than break.

glassThink about a glass that’s slammed on the floor. It’s going to shatter. But replace the glass with a super-ball, one of those rubber balls that kids love to play with (no matter how many times you say, “DON’T BOUNCE THAT IN THE HOUSE!). No matter how hard you slam that ball down, it won’t break.

It simply bounces.

This is the perspective we need to get to when we think about the crises and difficulties in our lives. And the first step in becoming people who bounce instead of break is this:

Stop seeing obstacles as unbeatable problems.

Little EngineThink about The Little Engine That Could. This poor little engine was tasked with trying to get all the toys to the remote town. His only problem was that there was a great big mountain standing in the way. But he doesn’t let the obstacle sit in his mind as an unbeatable problem. Instead, he begins attacking the mountain and tells himself, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” Eventually he does!

Yeah, yeah, I hear you. That’s a kid’s story! Fair enough. How about an adult example from the Bible? I’m talking about the 12 Spies of Israel? As God was bringing the Israelite nation out of slavery and to the land of promise, Moses sent scouts ahead to check out the land and look for potential pitfalls. While the land was perfect for the people and produced excellent crops, the scouts encountered a crisis.

They reported to Moses: “We went into the land where you sent us. Indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and here is some of its fruit. However, the people living in the land are strong, and the cities are large and fortified. We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are!” 

So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. 33 We even saw the Nephilim there—the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.” (Numbers 13)

Only 2 of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, thought it could be done. Everyone else thought the obstacle was unbeatable – and that was with the promise of God on their side! Because of their lack of faith and trust, only Caleb and Joshua ended up getting into the promised land. The rest never made it out of the wilderness. While we’re not dealing with God’s promised land, there’s a principle that rings true about the crises that we face:

Believing something to be unbeatable defeats you before you even get started.

Can you imagine a boxer who gets into the ring thinking, “There’s no way I can beat this guy.” He won’t. Likewise, when we face crises we must start with an understanding that nothing is insurmountable.

Just because an obstacle is in your way doesn’t mean you stop moving! – when there’s a mountain in your way you figure out a way past it. You go around it. You climb over it. You dig under it. If you have to, build a fricking airplane. My point is that you have to exhaust EVERY avenue – every option – to overcoming the problem. You never.stop.moving!

The Bible talks a whole bunch about overcoming trials and/or troubles. Just a couple, for example:

  • Jeremiah 1:19 ~ They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

  • John 16:32-33 ~ “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 I recognize that we don’t get to claim someone else’s promise for ourselves. I’m not an ancient Israelite worried about invading armies, so God’s promise to deliver from people fighting against is not aimed at me. There is a general principle in the Bible, though, that affirms that God IS present with the faithful and will aid in helping us persevere and overcome difficulties and trials in life.

Heck, Jesus PROMISES that we’ll have troubles in life. Anyone who tells you life will be a piece of cake is either lying to you or trying to sell you something. But in spite of the troubles, we have the promise of a present God to be with us.

So in a nutshell, how do we work on getting over the insurmountable?

  • Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope is what allows us to bounce instead of break. Rather than fixating on the problem of today, maintain a future-oriented outlook. You are a person who has value and worth – this world is impacted JUST because of your presence in it. So anticipate a better tomorrow.
  • Memorialize your problems and your victories. When God was leading Israel under Joshua, they came to the Jordan river and didn’t have a great outlook for crossing. But God stopped the waters so the people could cross. Afterward, they decided to memorialize God’s work:

So Joshua summoned the 12 men he had selected from the Israelites, one man for each tribe, and said to them, “Go across to the ark of the Lord your God in the middle of the Jordan. Each of you lift a stone onto his shoulder, one for each of the Israelite tribes, so that this will be a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ you should tell them, ‘The waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the Lord’s covenant. When it crossed the Jordan, the Jordan’s waters were cut off.’ Therefore these stones will always be a memorial for the Israelites.” (Joshua 4)

Remembering what God did in the past helps us as we go through crises today. We know that God HAS acted and we have reasonable hope that He WILL act again!

  • Take it in bite-sized chunks. It’s like that age-old joke: How do you eat an elephant? ONE BITE AT A TIME! Lame joke, I know, but you get the idea. Overcoming your crises may not be an instant thing. It could take time. Some days you’ll feel like you have the strength and speed of a gazelle. Other days it will be all you can do to take baby steps. Just.Keep.Moving.
  • Finally, talk to yourself. Pump yourself up. Motivate yourself. When I face difficult things I actually talk out loud (when no one else is around!). I say things like: I got this! I can do this! This, too, shall pass!

There are numerous examples of people who faced difficulties before finally overcoming and succeeding.

  • Thomas Edison was told as a kid, “You’re too stupid to learn anything.”
  • Dr. Seuss was rejected by 27 publishers for his first book because they thought it was no good.
  • The story goes that Elvis was fired after his first performance at the Grand Ole Opry and was told to go back to driving a truck.

No obstacle is worth breaking over. We don’t have to break.

Live your life by the mantra:

I won’t quit.
I have impact.
Pain isn’t permanent.
I will not break.

Be someone who can bounce.

Boiling Water

Burn, Baby, Burn – Christianity and Suicide

This past weekend Brittany Maynard, a young woman with a terminal illness, ended her life. Her story has caused quite a stir in Christian circles, and discussing life and death is a worthwhile conversation to have.

It’s easy to function in a black and white world. When our options are limited to black and white, right and wrong, the choosing process becomes simplified. It is when we add the many-varied shades and colors of reality that life gets exponentially more difficult. As children we are taught things in black and white because that’s the way a child’s brain operates. If I tried to teach my kids how to use discernment between varied shades I think their heads might explode – or mine would. They’re too young for that right now. We all teach our kids in black and white. Sadly, sometimes we forget to help them move beyond that into the world of grown-up discernment.

When I was a kid I remember learning the black and white of suicide. I was always told that it was one way – suicide is a sin (therefore wrong) and that those who commit suicide are eternally doomed to remain outside the presence of God. In fact, many parts of the worldwide Church still teach people that black and white truth. Too many of us in Christianity have not moved beyond into adult discernment.

As an Evangelical pastor, I believe that the Bible ought to be our primary guide for action, thought, and behavior. But too often we look to man-made traditions to shape our beliefs rather than what God has revealed through the Bible. So the really tricky question about suicide is: What does the Bible actually say about taking your own life?

Surprisingly little.

I only say “surprisingly” because, as strongly as the church preaches against suicide, you would think that the Bible would say quite a bit. Nope. No “Thou shalt not’s” or “You’re gonna be soooorrrry!” about suicide. There are a few stories about suicide, but those stories simply relate the tale – there is no judgment, guilt, or moral derived against suicide.

Judas, the infamous (which, according to the Three Amigos, means MORE than famous) disciple of Jesus, was so filled with sorrow and regret for his behavior that he committed suicide. But one of my favorite stories in the New Testament is actually a suicide prevention story.

The Apostle Paul and his colleague Silas were imprisoned for sharing their beliefs about Jesus. Late at night there was a massive earthquake and the jail cells and prisoners’ chains broke free. The guard who had been sleeping (hey, it was late) woke up, saw the busted cells, and decided that the only way to regain any sense of honor for his family after the prisoners escaped on his watch was to kill himself. As he was about to plunge his sword into his body, Paul calls out, “Hey, don’t do it. We’re all still here!” Paul was able to share about Jesus with this jailer. Even still, there is not any condemnation of the guard’s intent. Just a story of how Paul introduced him to faith in Jesus.

So why do we tell people that those who commit suicide are Hell-bound for eternity? The human logic behind it is this: suicide is murder and, since that grievous sin is the last thing you do before eternity, there is no chance to confess and repent. Thus you are doomed to Hell.

I don’t buy it.

The Bible only says that there is one unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Spirit of God.

That’s it. Everything else is forgivable. The only permanent, unforgivable sin is to credit God’s work to Satan, to accuse the spirit of God of evil. I don’t see that with suicide. Which means that even suicide is a forgivable sin.

But what about the lack of confession and repentance? It’s a common human misunderstanding of how grace and divine forgiveness works. It’s not a quid pro quo kind of deal. We don’t offer one confession for one act of forgiveness. Grace is freely given to us. When we become believers in Jesus and surrender to God then his grace covers us. We ought to be sorrowful for sin in our lives, but I do not think that individual acts of sin will prevent us from an eternity in his presence. Otherwise everyone who dies unexpectedly without confessing and repenting is gonna be spending a long, hot eternity away from God.

My theology says that God is bigger than that. My theology says that God’s grace covers us and that God understands that we are still broken people trying to do our best to live righteous lives in a broken world. But I don’t have to worry about dying without being able to confess and repent. His grace covers us.

Thus I believe an honest understanding of the Bible admits that people can have “committed” sins and still be covered by grace. I believe that a Christian who commits suicide will still spend eternity with God. Frankly, I believe a lot of people who are in heaven will surprise us (and a lot of people who DON’T make the list will also surprise us)!

But let’s look at the other side of the same coin:

Though suicide is not an unforgivable sin, I do not believe that Christians ought to commit suicide. Suicide tends to be about seeing no other alternative to terminating suffering in this life. Suicide is the human attempt to exercise ultimate sovereignty over life. This is the wrong attitude. God is sovereign, not us. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. Or next week. Or next year. There’s no way to know that your life situation will stay on the setting “SUCK” for your entire life. It could change at any moment.

Perhaps God is trying to use your misery and suffering to refine you – to help you become a better you. Perhaps he’s prepping you through your suffering to minister to and help others. Bottom line – don’t try to take control away from God. Let God be God, even through the junky times where we’d rather just give up.

If you’re reading this and you’ve ever thought, “It would just be easier if I weren’t even here” I’d like you to know that you’re not alone. Those kinds of thoughts are normal things for us to think when we’re suffering. Welcome to normalcy. But let God be God. The tougher the situation, the more we should lean on him and lean on a good, caring spiritual family.

If you’re reading this and you’ve had loved ones take their own lives – know that suicide is not a one-way ticket to Hell. God’s love and grace are bigger than you can imagine.

In the end I don’t know all of the specific reasons for suffering. Some of it is because stupid people do stupid things and those things have consequences. Sometimes suffering is redemptive and makes us better. Sometimes suffering is punitive and we pay the price for our own wrongdoings and behavior. Through it all let God be God. Trust him. Lean on him.

And, in the words of the illustrious Captain Jason Nesmith:

NEVER GIVE UP. NEVER SURRENDER!

** If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts there are some resources available. Check out Emerge and NSPL to start…