October 15, 1999
The Nature
Of Setbacks

Do They Mean God Has
Turned Against Us? Or is
Is Success Just Around
The Corner?
    
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Jack Canfield is editor of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. Although just published in 1993, it has already inspired numerous spin-off books, with total sales of 32 million copies, making it one of the top-selling series of the twentieth century.

Yet Canfield was turned down by 133 publishers before finding one willing to take a chance with his idea.

Jack Canfield is one of those astounding souls who persevered with a dream well beyond the point when most of us would have given up. His example challenges us to look at our own attitude toward setbacks, and whether we let them deter us too easily from reaching our goals.

During our lifetime, as we pursue various dreams and goals, we each suffer numerous setbacks, ranging from minor disappointments to major defeats and losses. Whether we realize it or not, we each have a predisposition to interpret setbacks in a particular way--a bias toward what they mean for us. For most people, the default interpretation is pessimistic. They may regard a small number of setbacks as an ominous sign that God disapproves of their dream. Even a single defeat may discourage them from trying again.

Others, like Canfield, are slow to regard any disappointment as a signal that their dream is unworthy. A publisher's rejection--the end of the journey for many aspiring writers--for Canfield was merely a speed bump in the road of life.

If we are to realize the potential God has given us, and discover his best for us in any area, it is critical that we develop an optimistic bias toward setbacks. I'm not suggesting we should become bullheaded and never assume that God is using a setback to express his disapproval of our plans. Every defeat we experience is unique, and each deserves some scrutiny for its possible significance. On occasion God will use a setback to show that a dream isn't right for us, or that we should change our approach to it in some way.

Yet often we simply have no way of immediately knowing what the significance of a setback is, if there is any. If we have had good reason to believe that a dream is valid in the first place, then we ought to regard such a setback as a temporary deterrent rather than ultimate defeat--and even assume it may have hidden benefit in helping us reach our goal. This optimistic bias is vital for several reasons:

For one thing, we are loss-averse as human creatures. We detest losing. Countless studies have shown that we attach greater value to losses than we do to successes of equal measure. The pain we suffer in losing $1,000 is greater than the joy we experience in gaining $1,000, for instance.

Consider the anguish of the shepherd in Jesus' parable over losing just one sheep from his fold, even though 99 still remained (Lk 15:4-7). Or the distress of the woman who lost one gold coin, even though she still had nine (Lk 15:7-10).

One result of loss aversion is that setbacks can discourage us so profoundly that we lose the heart to try again, even when our prospects for success continue to be good. Severe losses can shell-shock us. Psychologist Martin Seligman describes the problem as "learned helplessness." Several failures may numb us into thinking that we simply can't succeed at a certain endeavor, and we feel powerless to break the inertia of defeat.

While some disappointment in the face of defeat is normal, an optimistic outlook protects us from caving into excessive discouragement which immobilizes us.

On the positive side, an optimistic perspective toward setbacks energizes us, fuels our creativity and helps us recognize new alternatives for reaching our dream.

An optimistic outlook is also honoring to God. Scripture stresses that God, far from being capricious, loves us infinitely and desires the very best for us. He is endlessly creative in providing for us. He often takes what to us appears to be a circuitous route in moving us to a new horizon.

Prevailing pessimism about setbacks in our life always means we're assuming God has less than our best interests in mind in what we've experiencing. Optimism helps us to think more clearly about God's broader intentions, and to recognize creative alternatives he may be presenting to us. It enables us to reverence him and love him, and opens us more fully to his guidance.

Optimism, in short, helps us to love God in the far-reaching manner Jesus spoke of when he said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Lk 10:27).

Learning Optimism

How, then, do we gain such an outlook? It helps us to begin by gaining a clear understanding of the different ways we can perceive personal defeat and loss. There are actually nine possibilities. Recognizing them, and understanding their dynamics, helps us to pinpoint what our own reaction to setbacks typically is. It also broadens our awareness of optimistic options, giving us greater potential for viewing a difficult situation positively.

Ranging from most pessimistic to most optimistic, we might perceive a setback as--

1. God's punishment for our sin

2. An indication from God that he disapproves of our succeeding

3. The result of our own failure, destroying our chance of ever succeeding in this area

4. The result of our own failure, but providing a beneficial lesson that will help us succeed in the future

5. A random occurrence

6. God's "closing a door to open a window"

7. A "teaser" from life, when in fact we are on the brink of succeeding

8. A gateway to success (if we respond to this defeat properly, it will help us reach our goal)

9. A success which merely appears to be a setback

The most encouraging part about making this list is to note how many positive options there are for interpreting setbacks. Six of the possibilities are optimistic--ranging from moderately to outlandishly so. In spite of this, many people regard most defeats they experience as one of the first three purely pessimistic options. Not a few interpret all setbacks as options 1 or 2: God is either punishing them or showing his disapproval of their effort to succeed--or both.

Yet Scripture could not be clearer that God is vastly more creative and loving than this in directing our lives. We find so many examples of options 4-9 as we observe his role in people's lives in the Bible, that these should slant our assumptions optimistically about setbacks we personally experience.

Worst-Case Scenarios (Options 1 and 2)

This isn't to say we should close our eyes to the possibility that God might be chastening us through a setback. Yet if this is the case, then we may assume he will make the point unmistakably clear. At the very least, the connection between the sin I've committed and the event indicating God's judgment will be obvious. The man put in prison for forgery may rightly assume that God has punished him through his imprisonment.

Yet I am stretching things to think that my computer crashing today is God's punishment for lustful thoughts I fantasized yesterday. So often the cause-effect associations we make in assuming God's judgment are every bit as hazy as this. When the connection is this vague, we may rest assured that God is not chastening us through the unwelcome event, and open ourselves to more optimistic possibilities.

We should feel even greater freedom to dismiss any thought that God is showing us through a setback that he doesn't want us to succeed. While it's possible he's indicating that a specific goal isn't right for us (more on that in a moment), he is, emphatically, not demonstrating that he's against our succeeding in general.

Many Christians assume that God doesn't want them to enjoy significant success. To succeed in reaching some cherished goal would make them more like God, more competitive with God, too subject to pride.

Yet Scripture teaches that God has made us in his image. It first presents this astonishing insight in Genesis 1:26-27, immediately following its detailed description of God's creating the universe, the inhabited world and humankind. In the same breath it tells us that God commanded people to take control of the created world, to "sudue the earth," to bring order to life in beneficial ways (Gen 1:26-30, 2:19-20). To be in God's image, then--and to live reverently in light of that image--is to be creative and productive. We glorify God by setting ambitious goals and doing constructive things with our lives! Where we err is in not seeking his guidance about the goals we set, and in not praising him for what we are able to accomplish. But we are co-operating with God, not fighting him, by making a reasonable effort to succeed.

Whatever else we conclude about a setback, we may take heart that it's not showing God is against our being successful.

Worst-Case Scenarios (Option 3)

Even if we conclude that God isn't expressing his judgment against us through a setback, we may still be too hard on ourselves about what happened. Indeed, the unwelcome outcome may be our fault entirely. Yet we need to be patient and forgiving, not only with others, but with ourselves. We will make many mistakes as we pursue any goal, and God graciously gives us many second chances.

The most tragic assumption we can make is that some mistake we've made is the ultimate failure, a foul-up that will forever condemn us to a less meaningful life than we would have otherwise enjoyed. "I'm washed up," we may be tempted to say.

The most effective antidote against losing heart over our own failure is to develop an earnest desire to learn and grow through our life experiences. Our mistakes provide the best possible means for learning first-hand how not to do something, and thus how to be more successful in the future.

I learned this lesson in eighth grade--of course, the hard way. A band I had formed, "The Galaxies," was scheduled to perform for an in-school talent assembly. We fully expected to give a top performance and to be counted as class heroes for the rest of the year.

We walked on stage to tremendous applause, our heads swelling with pride. But shortly after we began our first number, sound stopped coming out of my guitar amplifier. The wires connecting the guitar cord to the amp jack had pulled loose. An electric guitar without amplification is about as useful as a TV set not turned on, and since I was the only melody instrument in the group, we had no choice but to stop the song. I bent down and for several anxious minutes struggled to reattach the wires, but in my franticness only succeeded in snapping them off the cord. As I fumbled with the cord, the students became noisy and unruly. Finally the principal stepped up to the microphone. He proceeded to chastise the students for their rowdiness and ordered them back to class.

Far from being heroes, our classmates looked on us as stooges who kept them from having a good time. The shame and humiliation we felt was immense.

In time, however, I came to count this experience as one of the most beneficial of my life. Through it I discovered in an unforgettable way the need for preparation. When a cord would break again in a future performance, there was an extra one handy to replace it. The experience touched my life in many other ways and gave me the incentive to go the extra mile in getting ready for what I do. No text book could have taught me the lesson as well.

Regardless of our age or position in life, every mistake we make has the potential to teach us critical lessons. To think that any has no redemptive benefits is wrong. We should strike option 3 from our list of possibilities, and consider every personal failure as option 4.

Even the most devastating sort of personal failure--one which curtails our health, for instance--still gives us a basis for teaching others about how to avoid the same pitfall. Most of our mistakes, of course, are not nearly this catastrophic. Being eager to learn from them, and to help others through our life-lessons, will protect us from caving into regret over our failures. It will help us find the heart to leave the past behind us and move on.

Best-Case Scenarios

In so many cases, we simply cannot relate a setback in any obvious way to God's judgment or to some mistake we've made. In most of these situations we have no immediate way of knowing why God allowed the setback to occur, and may never know. What is thrilling about these occasions is that we're left with complete freedom of conscience to entertain the most optimistic possibilities about the unwelcome event. Often, too, we have considerable freedom to affect its consequences--even to change a defeat into a success.

Even if the setback has clearly resulted from our own failure or the judgment of God, it is still possible that God, who is endlessly creative in dealing with us, will use it in one of the positive ways we're considering.

We should develop the habit with every significant setback we experience of considering all the possible explanations, beginning with the most optimistic. Here we need to let our mind function like a computer chip--scanning all the possibilities, with a bias that one of the most optimistic options explains it. If we are not able to quickly determine that it fits one of them, we should cherish hope that it will prove to do so in time.

We ought to strive as well to understand these different options as thoroughly as possible. Such awareness helps us to be open to them, to recognize them when they occur, and to respond to them in the most beneficial ways.

Let's look briefly at some dynamics of options 4-9. We will start at the top and work down, since this is how our mind should work in scanning the possibilities.

A success that we've misperceived as a setback. We should always begin by considering carefully whether the event we're assuming is a setback really is so. In a discouraged frame of mind we can easily miss certain details which would give us a different interpretation.

In The Optimism Factor I describe an occasion when I misread a health insurance invoice, thinking it was a bill for $1,500. In fact, I missed the letters "CR" following the dollar amount. The misperception was significant, for I had petitioned the company to reduce our ministry's quarterly payment and to reimburse us for past overpayments. I thought the invoice indicated I had failed in my effort, when it fact it showed I had succeeded.

With every apparent setback we ought first to take a deep breath, then look closer at the details. Am I really perceiving this situation correctly? Sometimes we're pleasantly surprised with what a closer look reveals.

A gateway to success. In a similar way, many situations that we initially perceive as defeats actually offer us special opportunities to do something beneficial to move toward our goal. If we're alert to this possibility, we can turn such setbacks into successes.

I learned this lesson some years ago when Evie and I placed our former home on sale. Our agent advised us that prospective buyers who visited our home and merely commented how nice everything looked, would probably not end up making us an offer. The one who would buy it at first would seem dissatisfied with it and ask some hard questions.

His prediction proved prophetic. Four or five friendly people visited, making pleasant comments about the house but not phoning back with an offer. Then a stern-faced man walked through it, criticizing small imperfections and asking questions the others hadn't raised. The next day he tendered an offer, which was exactly the price we were willing to accept.

His behavior demonstrates a principle that every good salesperson understands well. A customer's initial negative reaction doesn't necessarily mean she is against making the purchase. It may indicate she is warming to the possibility, but working through the issues and emotions involved (Prov 20:14). By patiently addressing her concerns, she may be won over.

The more general lesson for each of us is that someone else's negative response to us on any matter isn't necessarily their final word. It may actually indicate they are open to further input from us. "Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone" (Prov 25:15).

Situations that we perceive as setbacks may offer us opportunities to move toward our goals in other ways. Here we should keep in mind a fascinating principle of physics--that it is possible to sail against the wind. The same wind that pushes a boat backward can draw it forward, if the sail is fashioned and tilted correctly. In the same way, a circumstance that has the potential to push us away from a goal may also provide an opportunity to move toward it, if we respond to it properly. We should always be alert for opportunities life offers us to sail against the wind.

A teaser from life, when in fact we are on the brink of succeeding. The notion that setbacks are often a prelude to success is a favorite theme of writers on positive-thinking, who may overdo the point. Yet consider this observation of human-potential researcher Napoleon Hill, in one of this century's most popular success books: "More than five hundred of the most successful men this country has ever known told the author their greatest success came just one step beyond the point at which defeat had overtaken them. Failure is a trickster with a keen sense of irony and cunning. It takes great delight in tripping one when success is almost within reach."*

Hill's claim is intriguing to consider, for most of us, I suspect, at least occasionally have had experiences which parallel it. We've earnestly pursued a goal, only to suffer a crippling setback that we feared spelled the end of our dream. Yet a short time later, we enjoyed an unexpected breakthrough, which allowed us to accomplish our goal. Hill's reflection brings to mind that Satan is alive and well, and will do anything possible to divert us from ends God wants us to achieve. It is well within his nature to bring defeat across our path just as we are on the verge of victory.

The other side of this dynamic is that God uses certain unwelcome events to test us and prepare us to handle success. One reason he works in this way is to build into us healthy humility. He does so also to help us grow in faith and in our ability to stay hopeful in the face of discouragement.

If we don't have clear reason to think a setback signals that God wants us to abandon a dream, then the possibility remains that it's a teaser--a diversion from Satan, or a testing experience from God. It's healthy for us to maintain some hope that this will prove to be true. It will keep us alert to opportunities God may provide us to regain our footing.

God's closing a door to open a window. With hindsight we often realize that God did us a considerable favor by terminating certain situations that we now recognize were not good for us. In other cases we realize that he brought something good to a close in order to bring something better into our life. Most people I know who are happily married will admit they are now grateful to God that certain past relationships didn't work out. As painful as the breakups were, they cleared the way for God to bring someone more suitable across their path.

In still other cases, we may wince at thinking it was God who brought about a difficult loss. Still, we now see that he has worked in stunning ways to fill the void it left. A friend of mine who a year ago endured an excruciating marriage breakup recently told me he is now filled with eager anticipation to see how God will provide for him.

My friend's attitude is what ours ideally should be once we've spent some time grieving a major loss. We should eagerly expect that he will "open a window" to compensate for the door that has been shut.

This isn't to underestimate the challenge sometimes involved in determining if a door is truly closed. How can we recognize when a defeat is final, and when it's right to continue trying again?

Here the critical question is how broad vs. specific a goal is. We should be slow ever to think God has permanently closed the door on long-term dreams that are based on a good understanding of how he has gifted and motivated us. But specific goals we set within these dreams are a different matter. If we've made a reasonable effort to reach them without success, we should conclude that the door is shut and try a different alternative.

If the evidence suggests that God has built me to be married, for instance, I should hold fast to the dream of finding someone suitable for as long as it takes. But I shouldn't hold on indefinitely to the hope of marrying a specific person who fails to show interest. After making a reasonable effort to win his or her affection, I need to accept that this specific door is shut, and open myself to new opportunities.

The Book of Ruth is one of Scripture's most inspiring descriptions of God's providing for people who have experienced devastating losses. Ruth and Naomi, both bereft of their husbands, find new outlets for their affection--Ruth in a new marriage, and Naomi in a grandchild born to Ruth. The Book of Ruth shows that it's God's nature to bring fresh provision into our lives when we've suffered defeat. Like my friend who experienced the broken marriage, we have every reason to expect special provision from God at such a time.

A random occurrence. In his Learned Optimism Martin Seligman stresses that one of the most important steps we can take toward thinking optimistically is to recognize when personal setbacks are merely random events.* We may panic at an unwelcome occurrence, for we assume it means the bottom is falling out at every other point in our life. In reality, the fact that a stock I own drops drastically in value this morning doesn't mean my boss is going to fire me this afternoon, or that my girlfriend is going to break up with me this evening. The areas in our lives where we fear calamity so often are largely unrelated.

While it may be argued that no event is truly random in God's sight, it's right to regard many as such from our human standpoint. When we assume connections between areas of our life that are not naturally there, we make ourselves vulnerable to catastrophizing when we experience defeat in even just one area. Invariably, when we begin thinking in such a gloomy, global way about our life, we're imagining God as our enemy, not our friend. We're assuming he's showing us through one setback that he's going to work against in other ways also.

Yet defeat in one area may just as well indicate that we're in store for a victory in another as anything. Regarding setbacks as random events allows us to turn the tables on catastrophizing, and to imagine instead that success may be around the corner.

When this perspective is added to the others we're considering, we have a profoundly optimistic basis for expecting the best from God when life deals us a curve ball. This positive outlook doesn't come naturally for most of us. It's an art to be learned. We may have to work hard at it. But the effort is always worth it, for such optimism is essential to faith, and to an attitude which honors God.

The most encouraging part is that such thinking benefits us in remarkable ways. Let us determine to expect the best of ourselves as we strive to expect the best of God. May our faith reach new heights as we make this effort.
  

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