In a previous post I told how my daughter Jackie and I planned to take a month long painting road trip from San Diego to Seattle along Highway 101 as part of my three month sabbatical and how I chose to cancel my sabbatical and our road trip due to Covid-19. I shared a term that our family uses when are plans change, when hard things happen, when we are are falling apart: recover gracefully. I said that the first step in recovering gracefully is that when our plans change and our dreams are shattered, we should grieve, we should mourn. Our sadness is legitimate. Our pain is real.
This is not the path of stoicism which is having a bit of a revival due to well known coaches like Peter Carroll, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and players like CJ McCollum and Ryan Shazier espousing it, as it has been popularized in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way. Paul Kix writes about the influence of stoicism in sports in an article on ESPN , May 21, 2020:
“Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor, practiced a philosophy called Stoicism that argues individuals shape their destinies by controlling what they can and letting go of what they cannot. The Stoics believe the essence of life is how we choose to respond to the things that happen to us. ‘Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed,” Aurelius writes….’The impediment to action advances action.’ ‘What stands in the way becomes the way.”
The difference between the Christian approach and the stoic approach to an obstacle is that stoicism does not hold to a personal God who is in control of all things, while in contrast the Christian believes in a personal God who is sovereign the details of our lives. This means that when an obstacle stands in the Christian’s way, when a dream is shattered, when something goes wrong, when we are spiraling down in pain, we ought not just shut our heart down and move around it an on; rather we should process the pain, loss, frustration, confusion, sadness with God like David does in the Psalms.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1-2)
Step One of recovering gracefully is to grieve and mourn in prayer to God the loss, the sadness, the confusion, the pain, the frustration, even what seems like the absence.
Step Two: Preach the Gospel To Yourself
When you find things going wrong in your life – in big or small ways – you need to take yourself by the hand and talk back to yourself. This is what I mean by “preaching the gospel to yourself.” You don’t need a pastor to tell yourself the good news of Jesus. If you are a Christian you have the Holy Spirit in you. The Spirit loves to put the spotlight on Jesus, to show you how sufficient Christ is to help you and carry you through.
David does this in Psalm 42:5
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
You see, things are going wrong for David. Earlier in the Psalm he is remembering times in his life when God seemed close and near, when David would go with the throng of God’s people to the house of God to worship. But now he is troubled. God seems distance, far off. What does David do? He is sad, he is discouraged, he is confused, he is “cast down” BUT he doesn’t sink into depression. He doesn’t let himself lose heart and hope. No! He takes himself by the hand. He talks back to himself. He reminds himself that God is with Him, that God is his God and his salvation and he stirs up hope in his heart believing “I shall again praise him.”
What is the good news that we are to tell ourselves? In sum it is that God is with you and for you through Jesus Christ! The ways that he is with you and for you are as diverse as your many troubles. Through Scripture there is an incredible array of promises, names, and examples of how God is for you. Your job is to grasp those promises, names, stories and press them into your heart so that you not only intellectually believe God is with you and for you but feel it.
Take for example the lines from Psalm 22 that I quoted above. Those words were used by Christ Jesus on the cross. Talk about an obstacle. His life was coming to a violent end. He was being ground to death under the power of Rome and the hate of Jewish religious leaders. He was out of control of the situation: kicked, spit on, whipped, mocked, reviled, nailed to a cross. There was no way that he could get around that obstacle! And yet the greatest of all the pain and hurt and loss he felt was not physical. It was the abandonment of God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those were not empty, melodramatic words. On the cross Jesus actually became our sin. God the Father actually turned away from His son as he poured out on him the wrath, judgment and condemnation our sins deserved. Why? The Father did this, and the son endured this, so that we could be made legitimate sons and daughters of God, forgiven of our sins, covered by Christ’s beauty, adopted into God’s family. We now have the confidence that God will never leave us or forsake us, not matter what happens. Nothing can tear us from God’s loving arms. He holds us. We can have the confidence that all things work together for our good.
So when things go south, when your dreams shatter, when you are spiraling down in depression or sadness or anger or…whatever, take yourself by the hand and remind yourself the truth about Jesus, God’s love for you, God’s plan for your life. That’s what Jackie and I have had to do as our plans changed.
I’ve been so impressed with how Jackie has faced the sadness and loss Covid-19 has meant for her senior year of high school. She has lost out on her senior prom, graduation ceremony, and our epic painting trip. It’s been sad and hard. And there have been times with tears, grieving and mourning those losses. But Jackie has also faced into them with the truth of the Gospel, and even been able to enjoy and celebrate her senior year. That’s because her joy is not based on her circumstances but on Christ. Christ in her has given her a grace, calm and beauty in the midst of loss that is remarkable. She’s recovered gracefully.
Step Three: Adapt
When you run into an barrier, when your dreams are shattered, when you are spiraling down in despair, mourn (step one), preach the gospel to yourself (step two), then adapt (step three). If there is an obstacle that that stands in your way, adapt, change course. When your dreams are shattered, dream new dreams. When you are spiraling down in despair, lift up your head with hope and get back up and move forward.
All barriers are providential, part of God’s plan. Not some. All of them. In his wisdom, God allowed the exact barrier that now stands before you and blocks you. Nothing happens outside of God’s providence. Chapter Five of the Westminster Confession of Faith says:
“God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
God is sovereign King. He reigns over in the world, bending all things to his glory. He is the first cause. The Confession also affirms secondary causes. God permits secondary causes, like people, places, situations and systems, to have real effect, though not in such a way as to disrupt his plan. What should you do?
Take time to study the obstacle, situation, problem before you. Since barriers are part of God’s providence, listen to them to know God’s plan. The barrier might be allowed by God so that you open a path through it as part of your sanctification; or it may be put by God to change the course of your journey. It takes time to discern if it is a barrier that God wants you to push through or adjust around.
Wait patiently for God to open doors. Scripture says “wait on the LORD.” This waiting is not passivity. It is the very opposite. It is to be strong, to take heart and rest in the LORD. It recognizes God is in control, sovereign over all situations. It trusts in his timing and plan. It watches for God’s hand to open doors, repair relationships, tear down walls and build up broken places. It waits for God to overthrow the kingdom of darkness. Waiting and watching is done with expectant prayer, imploring prayer, askng for his deliverance. It prays, “not my will but your be done.” Waiting on God does not mean apathetic resignation. It involves watching for his timing, then moving when he directs.
After listening and waiting, you may be clear that God wants you to push through a barrier, dream a new dream, move forward with hope. Then adapt with intense exertion and firm resolve.
For Jackie and I, adapting means that this summer I’ll spend my month of vacation mainly at our Studio on Camano. We will take day trips and paint on Camano and in the other beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest. Jackie will finish up her tiny house, and will enjoy painting and lounging in it. We are also planning an epic trip, actually an epic 52 mile hike on the beaches of Camano Island which I write about in this post. We’re inviting cousins and friends from the youth group to join us and inviting the help of those who live along our beach route. I’m sure we’ll have many adventures along the way, and enjoy the beauty of our God who changed our plans but who is still for us and with us all the way till we are home with him.
Recovering Gracefully is a Habit
Recovering Gracefully is a habit that can be learned. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to take the steps, practice the steps, rehearse the steps, follow the steps. When you do you will find yourself catching yourself earlier, recovering quicker, enjoying life more because you are set free from being controlled by your circumstances.
I remember one situation where Jenny and I realized that we have matured in our ability to recover gracefully. We were living in Indianapolis at the time and driving in our van with our kids to have dinner with another family. As we were driving, Jenny and I got into a fight, an argument, though I can’t remember what it was over. At the time it felt big. I was mad. She was mad. I was hurt. She was hurt. Usually we would just be stuck in that bad place. But we had been practicing the steps of recovering gracefully, and we walked through them together. By the time we got to our friend’s home for dinner, we were in a good place. We didn’t have to put on a front. We had worked through our heart and recovered gracefully, in record time. You can learn to recover gracefully! Why not? Who wants to be ungraceful?