April 1, 2001
 Handling Life's Interruptions
Expecting the Best
From the Unexpected
    
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When I was in the early stage of writing Overcoming Shyness, my computer crashed. It was an unforgiving hard disk failure, and all data on it was lost. Because I hadn't backed up or printed out what I was writing for over a week, I lost about two chapters that I had carefully crafted for the book.

I probably don't need to tell you that nothing is more devastating to a writer than losing material you've written. You feel like you'd rather be mugged on a subway.

There's one thing, though, that's almost as hard as losing what you've written--and that's purposely deciding to discard it and start over. We writers just don't like to do it; yet sometimes it's exactly what we should do to get the best results. In this case, I had no choice. The decision was made for me.

Because I had to start on a clean slate when I began writing again a few days later, I decided to try a different approach to the book. I was pleased to find that this new direction seemed to work better, and I wasn't struggling for ideas as greatly. In the end, I never did rewrite those chapters I lost that morning. I'm now convinced that material would have bogged the book down and that the book is stronger for leaving it out.

The incident is an interesting example of one way that an unwelcome interruption sometimes brings us a surprising benefit. We're headed fast down a track that we don't realize is less than the best for us, but the interruption allows us to pause and reconsider our options. Apart from the computer mishap, I'm certain I either would have left that material in the book or taken much longer than I did to decide not to use it.

A friend of mine received a similar benefit from an unwanted interruption in her life. She had carefully planned a major move, but then fell ill and had to cancel her plans. "I realize now that God simply stopped me," she says. "With hindsight, it's clear to me that this move wouldn't have been right for me."

Interruptions may work to our benefit in other ways as well. They may be God's way of bringing new opportunities into our life, or new relationships, or his means of providing us with information that we need. Interruptions also bring us some of our best opportunities for sharing our faith, and for giving help and encouragement to others.

Putting Interruptions in Perspective

I'm not blithely suggesting that every intrusion on our schedule is the gateway to an unexpected blessing, or that we're less than spiritual if we don't feel like singing the Hallelujah Chorus every time an interruption occurs. I scarcely need to describe my own feelings at that moment when I realized that my computer absolutely, positively wasn't going to boot any more.

Some interruptions are simply that--interruptions. They are diversions from what God wants us to do, and we need to treat them as such--to slough them off, or to deal with them as quickly and efficiently as possible. We can get too analytical about such interruptions, and try to read guidance into them that simply isn't there.

At the other extreme, we each experience from time to time setbacks that are major broadsides to our life--like the death of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or the loss of a job that we love. God never expects us to respond to such misfortunes like robots. It takes time to work through the pain of a major loss, and to come to the point where we are able to think more optimistically about our future. We need to be patient with ourselves at such times, and grief is often our most appropriate immediate response.

Yet we also experience many less severe but still aggravating interruptions that have the potential to frustrate us more than they should. Some people are natural optimists, to be sure, who see a hidden blessing in every curve ball life throws at them. Yet most of us instinctively are unsettled by the common interruptions of life. We view them as nettlesome at best, and at worst, as ominous signs that God has turned against us.

It's here that our faith usually needs to stretch a bit. Interruptions sometimes truly are serendipities in disguise. Most of us can benefit from developing greater optimism about them, and about the possibility that God will use them to our advantage. A higher expectation of God's extending help to us through interruptions not only will keep our blood pressure down when they occur, but make us more alert to the ways that he may be working for our benefit through the unexpected.

The Surprise of His Life

You can't read much Scripture without finding encouraging examples of God's giving someone a golden opportunity, or help they dearly welcomed, through what they initially perceived to be an unwanted interruption. One of the most fascinating of these incidents is the first story recorded about Saul, Israel's first king (1 Sam 9:1-10:13).

The donkeys belonging to Saul's father, Kish, escape, and Kish sends Saul and a servant to look for them. Saul spends some considerable time searching for the donkeys, wandering through the countryside and traveling a good distance from his home. Finally, his servant suggests they consult the prophet Samuel, who lives in a nearby town. As Saul and his servant are approaching the prophet, God reveals to Samuel that Saul is his choice to become king of Israel. Samuel then hosts Saul at a feast and, following the festivities, explains God's intentions to him.

What is most interesting about this incident is that, while God could have brought Samuel and Saul together, and revealed to Saul that he wanted him king, through any process that he wished, he chose to do so through a classic interruption of life. The story points profoundly to the fact that interruptions in our own life that seem annoying and purposeless may be the entrée to remarkable blessings from God. We're reminded that there may be more to a setback than meets our eye. We have reason to stay hopeful when the unexpected occurs.

Weighing Our Response to Interruptions

While it helps greatly to raise our expectations about interruptions' bringing us benefit, we are still left with the challenge of judging the importance of specific interruptions that occur. When should we assume that an interruption deserves our attention, and when is it best to disregard it?

In some cases the answer is obvious. We have an emergency on our hands, and ignoring it isn't an option. When my computer crashed, I had little choice but to put my writing on hold and spend the time needed to fix the problem. Saul probably faced a true emergency when his family's donkeys escaped, and had no choice but to drop everything and look for them.

Yet many interruptions present us with a choice--to respond, to say no, or, in some cases, to delegate the problem to others. The right response to an interruption isn't always obvious, and no one rule of thumb works for every situation. It is, in fact, the unpredictability of our lives that most throws us back to our critical need to live by faith and to depend upon God's guidance.

What Jesus' Example Teaches Us

The example of Jesus himself is especially helpful in this regard. During his three-year ministry, Jesus' daily life was riddled with interruptions. It is fair to say that his ministry was largely a response to interruptions. As a personality, Jesus seemed to thrive on them--much as a physician or high-energy leader might. Yet he also displayed uncanny wisdom in handling them.

In many cases Jesus did respond to them, and the Gospels give numerous examples. He put an especially high premium on healing physical and emotional wounds people experienced, and never turned down anyone's request for healing in the Gospels, regardless of the intrusion on his schedule. While he never taught that every Christian must have this same commitment to healing in their personal ministry, it was a high priority for him personally.

Yet he did turn down certain requests for help that were made to him. He refused to arbitrate a man's dispute with his brother over their inheritance (Lk 12:13-14), for instance, and denied a man's request for permission to travel with him (Lk 8:38-39).

Perhaps the most interesting example of Jesus' saying no to an interruption involved a request upon his time that a group of people made in the early days of his ministry, described in Mark 1:35-39. His disciples come to him and tell him that many people from Capernaum, the town they are visiting, are looking for him. In this case Jesus has a waiting audience--a significant opening to teach and heal. Yet he chooses to turn away from this opportunity and, instead, to travel to other towns. He replies to his disciples, "Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come" (v. 38).

How was Jesus able to reach this decision so quickly and confidently, particularly when it meant walking away from a wide open door for ministry? Mark gives us an important clue, in noting that Jesus was praying when his disciples approached him with this opportunity (v. 35). It was also early morning, so he was likely praying about the day before him and establishing his priorities. Quite possibly, he had already resolved in prayer that it was time to move on to new communities. If so, then the offer to stay and minister in Capernaum was a diversion from what he had determined God wanted him to do, and so he had to say no. Even if Jesus hadn't made up his mind yet to leave Capernaum, Mark obviously is implying that prayer helped him decide what to do.

Scripture records another incident when Jesus resolved his priorities through prayer, although in this case he decided to go along with an interruption and accept the agenda others had for him. Through an intensive period of prayer in Gethsemane, he determined to allow Herod's soldiers to capture him and take him away for crucifixion (Mt 26:36-46).

Taken together, these examples indicate that through prayer Jesus gained wisdom and courage to respond decisively to interruptions--sometimes to say yes, sometimes to say no.

The Daily Step That Makes a Difference

These examples from Jesus' life, and others like them throughout Scripture, suggest that prayer can play a vital role in helping each of us better manage and respond to interruptions in our own life. Most of us will benefit greatly from having a regular time--preferably early in the day or late the night before--when in prayer we establish our priorities for the day ahead of us.

A good approach is first to ask God to guide us, then to spend a few minutes thinking through a schedule for the day. Then we should commit this schedule to him, asking him to help us recognize if and when we should deviate from it to handle interruptions that occur. We should ask him to give us, as much as possible, clear reasons for making exceptions to our schedule. It is just as important to ask him to guide our instinct-to give us the right "sense" of what to do--at those moments when we have to make a quick decision about responding to an interruption and don't have the luxury of time to think things through carefully.

While praying in this fashion won't guarantee that we make no mistakes in managing our time, it will increase our confidence about the choices we make, our alertness to what God wants us to do, and the likelihood that we will make the right responses to interruptions. And over time, as we make praying in this manner a daily priority, we'll likely find that our judgment about interruptions improves--to the point that we're better able to recognize by instinct which ones truly deserve our attention, and which are simply part of "the tyranny of the urgent."

We should ask God, too, to increase our optimism about interruptions--especially about those that seem to be setbacks. We should also make a point of reflecting often on examples--from Scripture, the lives of others, and our own experience--of cases when an unwelcome interruption in the end brought about welcome results. These steps will go a long way toward helping us develop a more positive attitude toward interruptions, which in itself will contribute to our having better judgment about them.

This past week I received an e-mail from a woman with some comments about an article I had written on the challenge of waiting for God’s provision. She notes that for the first time she is realizing that "Godly anticipation is part of God's tapestry for building our faith." I like the way she puts it. Christ desires that each of us develop Godly anticipation--about daily life and about our future.

Changing the way we think about interruptions is a good place to start, for in them we sometimes encounter the unseen hand of God.

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