May 1, 2002
Bad Days -- What
Do They Mean?

Should I Crawl Back
Into Bed, Or Fight
All the Harder?
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Youíre driving to work and pull into the company lot. There at the entrance your car grinds to a stop and wonít restart. You call for a tow truck, which hauls your lame vehicle to a repair shop across town. An hour later they phone with the diagnosis: a blown head gasket--a $2,000 repair. So much for that ski vacation youíve been planning.

Youíre not five minutes into mulling your misfortune when the phone rings again. Now itís the school nurse; your ten-year-old is feeling nauseous and needs to see a doctor.

Your supervisor, already annoyed at how much time youíve spent fussing with your car, scowls when you ask for leave to deal with Kerryís emergency.

You hail a cab, which takes a circuitous route to the repair shop. There, youíre told that the loaner car you were promised is in use and wonít be back for a while. Youíre left to sit and stew for an hour and worry that your daughter may have meningitis.

When you finally reach the school, Kerry informs you she feels fine now and doesnít want to leave. Besides, itís lunchtime and theyíre serving sausage pizza.

ďDonít even ask,Ē you announce as you make your office re-entry at 1:30 p.m. Only to find that an important file youíd forgotten to save in rushing to leave is no longer on your hard drive--lost in the great digital divide.

You feel obliged to work late to finish your assignments. When you finally arrive home at 8:30 p.m., a strange odor greets you and draws you immediately to the basement. You find the source all too quickly: muck in the shower stall. Your septic system has backed up.

You trudge back upstairs and collapse in a living room chair. Can anything else possibly go wrong? Of course it can. Muffy. Whereís Muffy?

A moment later Kerry runs in to announce sheíd forgotten to close the kitchen door, and your English Spaniel has escaped. Soon a neighbor phones with follow-up news: Muffy has been crafting craters in her beautifully landscaped front yard.

So it goes with certain days. Weíve all been through them. Those horrid occasions when everything hits the fan.

Sometimes it doesnít all happen in a single day, but in a close enough time period that we feel our life is uniquely cursed. In the past two weeks Rita has (a) lost her job through company downsizing; (b) suffered the break-up of a two-year relationship she had hoped would end in marriage; (c) learned that a graduate program she wanted to enter doesnít have room for her; (d) watched a stock on which she had pinned her investment hopes decline in value sixty-five percent.

Of course, it may not take events as dramatic as these nor as many to make us fear our life is in a downward spiral. Weíre fragile as humans. Two or three misfortunes in a row may leave us wondering.

There are two ways we may interpret the bad days or bad periods we inevitably experience. We may conclude itís simply too coincidental that several calamities have struck us in a row. Thereís obviously a message in this unfortunate sequence: the bottom is falling out of our life; God is against us; we better brace ourselves for further hard times ahead.

Or we may view these events as aberrations. They are exceptions to our normal experience--out-of-the-ordinary setbacks that by the law of averages occasionally occur in close succession in anyoneís life. There is no direct connection between them, and no message about Godís will or our destiny in them. The only message is that we have some work to do to solve some problems. These hardships wonít have a long-term negative effect on our life unless we allow them to.

A Message in Adverse Circumstances?

These two views reflect two outlooks in psychology. Some with a Jungian background see events in our lives that otherwise seem unrelated as linked in a mystical way. Synchronicity is the positive side of it. A series of welcome events, however unconnected they might appear, are lifeís means of helping us succeed. They indicate we are enjoying a fortuitous period and that the timing is good for us to press toward cherished goals.

Asynchrony is the other extreme, when everything is falling apart. Psychologist David Richo explains: ďAsynchrony is the opposite of synchronicity. We become aware, through a series of negating coincidences, that this is the wrong time for ventures. Nothing works; doors keep closing. We find ourselves involved in wars of attrition, obeying laws of diminishing returns. . . . Reading the handwriting on the wall is often a way of describing asynchrony, an indication that this is not the time for success but rather that our time is almost up in this area and we are ready for new options elsewhere.Ē*

Richo would likely say that a sequence of events such as the bad day weíve just imagined, or Ritaís bad period, indicates that life is not working well for us at this time. Itís giving us a message to slow down and hibernate a bit. We shouldnít press an important cause right now but should wait for more auspicious indications before we do. Life may be revealing where we need to grow and modify our behavior, too, even if we did nothing directly to cause our misfortunes. Going with the flow of life is critical, and reflecting on the lessons in the fallout is essential.

A strong challenge to such fatalistic thinking comes from another field of psychology. Martin Seligman, and the Positive Psychology movement he has founded, stress the importance of not reading undo significance into negative events. When bad things happen to us, Seligman explains, we instinctively reason outwardly from them in inappropriate ways. We assume the pattern is ďpervasiveĒ (things are going badly in all areas of my life), that it will be ďperpetualĒ (continuing indefinitely), and that the reason for it is ďpersonalĒ (we blame ourselves for problems we did nothing to bring about).*

If weíre to attain the optimism that leads to mental health and success, Seligman insists, we must break with our tendency to draw unwarranted conclusions from lifeís unhappy events. If we are obviously at fault for what has happened, we should learn what we can from our mistake and move on. We must be careful not to browbeat ourselves unreasonably or to blame ourselves when thereís no reason for doing so. Especially important, we shouldnít infer connections between unwelcome events that arenít plainly there nor expect that the pattern is fated to repeat. We ought to view such events as exceptions; if we regard them as the norm, our belief will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have considerable control over our destiny, if weíll not allow setbacks to discourage us from moving toward our goals.

Being alert to these differences in philosophy is important if we seek counseling, for different counselors, given the same information, may advise us in different ways, depending on their orientation.

Understanding these two points of view also helps us to clarify our own perspective on personal misfortune. Most of us respond to lifeís unwelcome events in an instinctive fashion we donít fully understand. We may despair after suffering a setback or two, yet not recognize why weíre so susceptible to discouragement. The underlying problem may be a philosophy of life more akin to Richoís than Seligmanís. Appreciating how weíre thinking underneath is invaluable, for it gives us the freedom to examine our outlook and, if itís working against us, to modify it.

Faith and Optimism

Where we come out on the matter as a Christian strongly affects our outlook of faith, and whether we believe God is allowing us control to remedy problems in our life and accomplish our goals and dreams. We tend as believers to tilt more toward a perspective like Richoís than Seligmanís. This inclination springs in part from our understanding of Godís providence--that nothing happens in our life outside of his control. That belief leads us to read meaning into events that affect us and to try to interpret them. When we experience several disappointments in a row, itís natural to conclude that God has a message for us in the pattern.

The message may be that he doesnít want us to succeed, and that we should stop kicking against the goad by trying. Or, worse, we may conclude that God is punishing us for our misdeeds. That conviction is often fed by Scriptural teaching that we are too quick to apply personally. The early chapters of the Old Testament are filled with warnings that God will repay serious disobedience by bringing wholesale calamity upon oneís life (Deut 28:15-68).

These warnings can pose a particular challenge for Christians who are at all sensitive or analytical by nature. We typically become more conscious of our sin and vulnerability as we grow in Christ--a consequence of coming closer to his light and being exposed by it. The result is that we can be more inclined to think the impending doom passages might apply to us as an older, more mature Christian than as a younger one. It doesnít take much in the way of misfortune to make us worry that the dam has finally broken: weíve pushed Godís patience beyond the limit, and now heís paying us back. And if thatís true, then the fallout is likely to continue--so we better knuckle under and accept it.

This was not the mentality of Christians in the New Testament. It was emphatically not the way Paul viewed hardships in his own life. He did experience them. In 2 Corinthians 11 he rehearses some examples:

"Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churchesĒ (vv 24-28 RSV).

It is striking that Paul, in reflecting on these and other calamities he suffered, never suggests that God brought any about in order to punish him. Paul would have had a profound basis for such a conclusion. He was an intensely analytical Christian, acutely aware of his own continuing inclination to sin, as he graphically explains in Romans 7. If he didnít regard his troubles as Godís judgment for sins of the present, he could easily have seen them as punishment for sins of the past. Yet Paul never leaned toward such an outlook.

Nor did he ever view setbacks as Godís effort to thwart his long-term aspirations. If one opportunity to evangelize failed to materialize, he simply looked for a new one and kept knocking on doors till one opened (Acts 16:6-10).

When Paul did reflect on Godís purpose behind his trials, he always reached optimistic conclusions. His hardships were Godís way of building empathy in him (2 Cor 2); the thorn in his side was Godís means of helping him rely more fully on his grace (2 Cor 12:8); his imprisonment was an opportunity to share about Christ with the palace guard and to strengthen the courage of other Christians through his example (Phil 1:12-14). In most cases, though, it seems that Paul didnít get finely analytical about his hardships, but he saw them as going with the territory in the life God had ordained him to live. And he wasnít thrown off course when they occurred rapid-fire one after another but was inclined to fight all the harder.

Perhaps most important, when Paul experienced setbacks, he didnít draw connections between them that werenít apparent nor jump to the conclusion that fallout was inevitable throughout his life. He remained remarkably optimistic that God would remedy his problems and open new doors where others had closed.

Reasons for Resilience

Paulís example, then, is extraordinarily encouraging to consider at times when unwelcome circumstances broadside our life. It suggests that, if Christ is our Lord, weíre not obliged to fatalistic thinking about them. Paul would say, Iím certain, that the effort to connect the dots between them that some encourage is inappropriate for the Christian whose heartís intent is to follow Christ. It discourages positive action and is more akin to superstition than to biblical faith. Seligman has it right in saying we shouldnít invent connections between events that arenít undeniably there.

I believe Paul would say to those of us who suffer a truly bad day, or a series of disappointments such as Rita experienced, that successive hardships are occasionally our lot as humans. But they donít force us to any gloomy conclusion about Godís hand in our life. In fact, by the law of averages, and by the always-surprising providence of God, we may just as well be in line for a breakthrough now as anything.

In addition to his robust example, Paul notes principles in his writings that help to clarify his outlook toward setbacks and provide us a further basis for viewing our own optimistically.

ďHe who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ JesusĒ (Phil 1:6 NIV). Overriding all of Paulís exhortations to believers is a supreme conviction that God takes extreme initiative to hold on to those whom he chooses to belong to Christ and to nurture and mature them. For me to imagine that as a follower of Christ I have sinned so badly that the Old Testamentís impending doom passages apply to me is to suggest that God is exercising less power to keep me on track than he has promised he would.

Thereís an irony to consider, too. If I had fallen to the point that God was bringing wholesale fallout to my life, Iíd not likely be concerned about my relationship with him at all. The fact that Iím worried I may have pushed his patience beyond the limit suggests that it hasnít happened.

ďGod is not the author of confusionĒ (1 Cor 14:33 RSV). Paul was the last one to claim that God never disciplines Christians for their disobedience. But Paul also understood God as being concerned that believers come to the clearest possible knowledge of his truth. This suggests his chastisement will not be so vague that weíre likely to misinterpret it.

Itís fair to assume that if God wants to teach me a lesson about certain misbehavior, the lesson will be plain. If he wishes to discipline me through bringing about certain consequences, these will be obviously related to what Iíve done wrong--so that Iím not left guessing about his intentions.

If I become intoxicated, then drive recklessly and total my car, the consequences in this case result directly from my behavior. Itís reasonable to assume they are Godís chastisement. But to think that my car engineís overheating this afternoon is Godís punishment for lustful thoughts I indulged in this morning is stretching things and a superstitious conclusion, since thereís no obvious way my fantasies caused this mechanical problem. I should assume that if God wants to discipline me for my thought life, heíll not use an event so purely random.

ďIn all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposeĒ (Rom 8:28 NIV). Paul speaks more exuberantly here than anywhere else about Godís providential role in the Christianís life. While he indicates that nothing escapes Godís notice, he stresses that God has infinitely positive intentions in all the events that touch our experience. Paul never suggests that this is a reason to repress our discouragement or to engage in insincere praise talk that betrays our feelings; he spoke at different times of feeling great frustration personally and on one occasion of despairing of life itself (2 Cor 1:8).

Still, the principle strongly steers us away from ominous speculation about Godís having turned against us when we suffer disappointment. Weíre encouraged to take a deep breath, to look for the silver linings and to keep a jury-is-out mentality about experiences that presently seem to have no redeeming value. The principle is liberating, for it frees us from any obligation to draw disheartening connections between unrelated hardships.

ďBy grace you have been saved through faithĒ (Eph 2:8 RSV). Paul speaks extensively throughout his writings of the importance of faith. While we are saved by grace, it is grace received through faith. There are no benefits provided by Christ that we are not expected to attain by faith. This faith, as Paul and Scripture understand it, is an attitude that expects the best of God and believes he has the most positive intentions conceivable for our life. It is demonstrated profoundly by individuals in the Gospels whom Jesus commended for their faith, who believed against the strongest odds that he would heal them and lift them out of the ruts into which they had fallen.

The most difficult problem with the notion of asynchrony is that it diminishes faith. There is a certain faith in the belief that negative events are giving us a message about our destiny, true. Yet it falls short of the vigorous faith of Scripture, which sees beyond immediate circumstances to Godís bigger picture. It focuses too greatly on these circumstances--making them idols, conveyers of guidance--when in fact we see only the faintest tip of the iceberg in terms of all that God is doing related to our life.

Martin Seligmanís outlook, by discouraging our making connections between unrelated setbacks, doesnít guarantee faith will develop. Yet it clears the way for it, by removing a habit of thinking that stands in the way. We may take heart in knowing that faith mandates us to fight against handwriting-on-the-wall type thinking and to strive for positive expectations about our future.

Riding Out the Storm

I had a day several years ago when everything went wrong. Sons of Thunder were scheduled to present a concert that evening in Columbia, Maryland. One of our key singers had laryngitis. Our keyboard player was delayed by an emergency at work and unable to make setup or practice; we bit our fingernails all afternoon wondering if he would arrive in time for the concert. The sound system gave us major problems that we couldnít resolve.

These were the small headaches. The big one: It was March 14, 1999, and the Washington region was in the grip of its first major late-winter snowstorm in decades. Driving was treacherous, and most churches were canceling their evening programs. So we had an easy out. No one would have criticized us if we had called off the concert.

We decided to go ahead with it, though, with a grim sense that the show must go on.

There was a magic present that evening that is difficult to describe but was apparent to all who attended. Our keyboardist showed up at the last minute, in time to perform. The singer with laryngitis found unexpected strength once on stage, and the audience rallied behind her. The technical problems with the sound system abated during the concert and didnít hinder us.

About one hundred people showed up--a small attendance for the auditorium but a gratifying one considering the weather. The blanket of snow outside lent an intimacy to the evening and a survivor spirit to those who had braved the storm. The result was an energized, appreciative audience, to whom the band responded, playing with a lot of heart.

When the concert was over, we were exceedingly glad we had proceeded with it and hadnít let the ominous circumstances deter us. That evening will remain forever on the short list of my most cherished Sons of Thunder memories.

That experience, similar to many Iíve had performing music, reflects what ours is in life so often. We think the bottom is about to fall out of our life, but we press on to find success just around the corner.

Iím not suggesting there arenít times when the force of circumstances should compel us to slow down, to change directions or to let go of a goal. Yet it should truly be the force of circumstances that prompts us to do so, not a spiritualized conclusion about them.

When in doubt, we should err on the side of continuing to pursue a goal or dream. Our potential to fall into despair is so substantial, that itís a good rule of thumb things arenít as bleak as weíre projecting. This point is especially important to keep in mind when bad days or difficult periods set in, for these are the times when circumstances are most likely to color our perception unfairly. We should remind ourselves constantly that God sees our life in infinitely more positive fashion than we do. And because we never know what he has around the next corner until we turn it, we do well to keep our life in motion and not let disappointment shut us down.

Bad days--what do they mean?

Itís much more up to us to decide than we realize.

What we decide affects our destiny far more greatly than we imagine.

Our constant challenge is to see beyond our immediate situation and to view our life with the eyes of faith. Much of the battle is won simply by avoiding pessimistic thinking. We should make it a habit to question the connections we naturally draw between frustrating events and to let go of any that arenít clearly justified.

Even more important, we should take whatever steps will best enable us to focus on Christ and to gain his outlook on our life. Spending time quietly in his presence, more than anything, helps us to gain a faith-centered perspective.

The next time you feel that your life is falling apart, devote some generous time to being still before him. Give him the fullest possible opportunity to influence your thinking.

Thatís making the right connection.

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