Category Archives: Coping Better with Unwanted Change

Coping Better with Unwanted Change: Four Steps to Greater Peace and Joy (Step 4)

We’ve been talking about a four-step restorative process to help you cope better with unwanted change or loss in your life. Once you can see and accept what you’ve lost or cannot change (Steps 1-2) and have started to appreciate your remaining blessings and opportunities (Step 3), you will experience more peace and joy. But there’s still another step.

Hiking through the Swiss Alps

Step 4: “Delight”

Trust in the LORD and do good;

dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

Take delight in the LORD,

and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:3-4 (NIV)

What do you take delight in? What are the desires of your heart?

For me, I love my birthday, which I just celebrated last week. As usual, I took the day off from work to do whatever I felt like doing, all day long. I went out for breakfast, spent hours interacting with well-wishers on Facebook, reflected on my life and future, read something I was very interested in, celebrated with my family, and, of course, ate ice cream!

But birthday delights, holidays, Friday night dates, lazy Sunday afternoons, and other special times are the spice of life for me, not the main course. In the right measure, the little (or big) treats in life bring me a lot of joy. Too much of them, and they lose their specialness. If I try to take too much from them, they can become like idols—alluring and wonderfully distracting from weights and responsibilities, but lacking sufficient nutrition for my psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If my delights become addictions, they become my masters and can even slowly destroy my life or the lives of others.

From Scripture, we learn that God gave us many wonderful things in nature, in our beloved relationships, in our vocations, and in many other aspects of our lives. They are God’s gifts to us, and key ingredients to living fully and joyfully. God wants us to delight in them, providing that our greatest love is for our Creator God. If we keep this relationship first in our hearts, then then rest of our desires, delights, and loves will fall into their proper places, in the right proportions.

When I was teenager, I thought that these verses in Psalm 37 meant that if you put God first in your life (“delight in the LORD”), then God would give you whatever you most want (“the desires of your heart”)—perhaps a lovely spouse, riches, property, good friends, fun experiences, etc. etc. But one day it dawned on me that there may be a more profound way to view this promise. Instead of interpreting these verses as describing something transactional (if you do this, then God will do that), the process may actually be transformational (if you do this, then your heart and mind will be changed, leading to an entirely new set of desired outcomes).

When the Psalmist says, “delight in the LORD,” he is not talking about saying or doing something just to try to win God’s favor to get something from God. Rather, he’s saying, genuinely take pleasure in your relationship with God, just as Jesus taught us to do when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Then, the more your heart’s desire is genuinely to know, love, and serve God with all your being, the more you will want what God wants for you, i.e., to live righteously (or justly) and to do good, or in Jesus’ words, to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:38). Delighting in your Creator God leads to delighting in fulfilling God’s good purposes for your life. And when you think and feel this way, the greatest joy and privilege God could ever give you would be to enable you to know, love, and serve God even better, and to receive more opportunities to let God love others through you.

For me, delighting in God includes taking time to appreciate all that God has done in creation and in my life. As a minister and professor, it also translates to spending most days happily teaching, researching, writing, coaching, praying for or with others, mentoring, and trying to help or encourage those who cross my path. As a married man with children, delighting in God and God’s calling on my life also means loving my wife and family as best I can.

I’m deeply grateful for the life that God has given me and for the ways Christ has inspired and called me to worship, serve, and love. Even with all the suffering, loss, and difficulties I and my family have had to endure over the years, putting God and Christ at the center of my heart and priorities has given me great meaning, purpose, peace, and joy, which I could not have found in the same way otherwise.

For you, delighting in God first may look different than it does for me, because you have your own relationship with God and Christ, and unique calling. But the spiritual principle is true for all those who can accept it, and the result of ordering your life in this way (greater peace and joy) will be the same: When you choose to delight in God and let God transform your heart’s desires to match God’s desires, God will surely give you the desires of your heart.

In Practice

By now, you should be experiencing the fruit of working through the first three steps: See, Accept, and Appreciate. But don’t stop there. Make a conscious decision to move toward finding and doing more things that delight you. And start with God.

If you’re ready to take the fourth step, reflect on the following questions.

  • Where are you looking for pleasure, peace, and joy from day to day?
  • How well does what you delight in line up with what God wants you to delight in?
  • What would it look like for you if you delighted more in God and God’s good purposes for your life?
  • If your heart’s desire matched God’s desire for you more closely, how would you order your life differently? What would you be praying for?

Bottom line: You can make a lot of progress toward greater peace and joy in your life by seeing, accepting, and appreciating. But the most important step of them all is Step 4: “Delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Suggested prayer: “Loving God, I want what you want for me and my life. Please teach me to delight in you, and transform the desires of my heart to match yours.”

Next week: The conclusion to this series of articles with more practical suggestions for how to move through the four steps to greater peace and joy in your life

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Coping Better with Unwanted Change: Four Steps to Greater Peace and Joy (Step 3)

By now, if you’ve been working through Steps 1 and 2, you know how hard it can be sometimes to face the truth about something you don’t want to be true. Even when you think you’ve accepted whatever you’ve lost or the burden you must carry, sometimes the old feelings of resentment, anger, or sadness can come surging back without notice. At such times, you may wonder if you’re ever going to heal or be able to let it go. This kind of regression is fairly common in my experience, but over time, the pain will diminish, and new life will begin to bud and then blossom once again.

Taking Step 3 can help.

Swiss Alps

Step 3: “Appreciate”

Then Jesus said to [Bartimaeus], “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again. Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:51-52, NRSV

The story of Bartimaeus is about seeing one’s need, reaching out to Jesus for help, experiencing healing and transformation, and setting out on a new path. It’s not a formula for how to experience a miracle, but a testimony about someone who lived in blindness and despair whose faith led to regaining his sight and infusing his life with new meaning and purpose. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.”

As I struggled with accepting that the doors had slammed shut for me to return to Myanmar, I didn’t want to get over it, at first. I felt sorry for myself, and I didn’t want to imagine a new life or start a new ministry. I wanted the old one back. Yet, over time, as I began to accept reality more and more, I became less willing to stay stuck in my misery and more ready to notice and appreciate what I had gained in place of what I had lost.

For example, I began to see that not being able to travel abroad due to safety concerns was giving me more time with my family, and I loved it. Since I was now stationed in Minneapolis, I was now free to regularly conduct webinars on multiple continents, in Asia, Africa, and North America, sometimes all in the same week. Meanwhile, the crises brought a demand for me to write articles and a book, which were eventually translated into several languages for distribution in several countries. My point is, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been forced to stop traveling abroad, and if I hadn’t been willing to look for, notice, and appreciate the silver linings, blessings, and new opportunities that were coming my way.

I am not suggesting that acceptance implies being thankful for every loss or unwanted change. Some things in life are so painful or downright evil that you can only grieve them. What I’m saying is that the restorative process requires not only opening your eyes to see the truth about your situation (Step 1). It also entails accepting what you can’t change (Step 2) while simultaneously opening your eyes to see beyond what you’ve lost to appreciate how God is still at work in your life for good (Step 3).

In Practice

According to the dictionary, the word “appreciate” means “recognizing the full worth of” something or someone. When you allow yourself to stay consumed with your negative emotional reactions to your circumstances or to annoying or burdensome people, there won’t be much room for peace and joy in your life. If instead, you open your eyes to appreciate (“recognize the full worth of) all the love, resources, opportunities, and gifts that are also part of your life, then you will experience a positive shift in your attitude and feelings.

However, to move from acceptance to appreciation, sometimes we need help. Bartimaeus asked Jesus to open his eyes, because he knew he was blind and that he couldn’t restore his sight on his own. Likewise, you may have reached the point where you want to believe there is hope for your future, but you just can’t see any. Here’s where good friends, pastors, counselors, and prayer can be immensely helpful. You don’t have to heal yourself on your own. You need to want to move forward and to be willing to get the help you need. You need to keep believing that God has not abandoned you and keep asking the Holy Spirit to help you to see what you cannot see (or appreciate) on your own.

Since experiencing your loss or unwanted change…

  • Who has come into your life or is contributing to your life in a new way?
  • How have you changed (in your heart, attitude, values, or priorities), for the better, because of how you have suffered?
  • What new clarity has emerged or is emerging?
  • What doors have opened to you (new opportunities)?
  • How do you sense God leading or calling you to something you highly value?

Bottom line: Self-pity or endless grief will only increase your sense of isolation, loss, or burden, while simultaneously blinding you to the very people and resources that you most need and value. Focus, instead, on what God is doing in your life for good and see where that takes you.

Suggested prayer: “Loving God, open my eyes that I may see all the good that you’re doing in me, and want to do through me.”

“Open My Eyes that I May See”

(Hymn by Clara Scott)

Open my eyes that I may see

Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.

Place in my hands the wonderful key

That shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for thee,

Ready, my God, thy will to see.

Open my eyes, illumine me,

Spirit divine!

Next week, Step 4: “Delight.” Peace and joy are real possibilities for those who learn to delight in God’s blessings once again.

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Coping Better with Unwanted Change: Four Steps to Greater Peace and Joy (Step 2)

To help you cope better with unwanted loss, change, or burden in your life, the four steps in this restorative process provide a road map to greater peace and joy. The timetable can range from minutes, days, months, to even years in some cases. Don’t try to rush the process. If your head and heart can move in concert with one other, the process will work better.   

In Step 1, we looked at the importance of fully seeing the truth about whatever you’re going through. Feel your feelings. Assess and name what is real about your circumstances. Let yourself grieve, as ancient Israel did when forced into exile to Babylon. Then it’s time for acceptance.

Descending a treacherous path in the Swiss Alps

Step 2: “Accept”

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles

whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

Take wives and have sons and daughters;

…multiply there, and do not decrease.

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,

and pray to the LORD on its behalf,

for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7, NRSV

In these verses, Jeremiah is telling the exiles to accept that they were not going to go back to their homeland any time soon, and to start acting accordingly. They should build houses, have children, plant gardens, and even pray for the well-being of their new city (no doubt on the theory that if their new city prospered, so would they). It was time to move on, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and to start rebuilding their lives in their new location. This is what true acceptance looks like in practice. We let go of the emotional weight we’ve been carrying and controlled by, and start acting in ways that enable us to create a better future for ourselves.

As I was grappling with the shock and trauma from what was happening in Myanmar, I had to accept that there was nothing I could do to protect my students, colleagues, and friends there. I had to accept that frustrating, substandard, online courses (due to terrible internet issues) was the new normal for education there, at least for now, and that something was better than nothing for the young people feeling hopeless about their future. I also needed to let go of many of the relationships that had been important to me when I lived in country. It just hasn’t been possible to keep them going, long distance. And then my church, where I often preached twice a month, closed permanently. I will never preach, teach, or serve that congregation again. In fact, I might never be able to return to Myanmar in person, ever.

All this loss was hard to see, let alone accept, at first. Yet, accepting what I could not change was critical to my ability to preserving my sanity and redirecting my attention to something more constructive. I focused my attention and channeled my energy into my writing and online webinars. I consciously let go of my irrational belief that I had to stay in emotional turmoil to be supportive, and accepted my new circumstances. While I did not choose to be in this place of trying to serve Myanmar from thousands of miles away, the more I accepted the change as something outside my control and focused on what I could realistically accomplish, the more peace I felt. It was freeing and energizing at the same time.

In practice

What truth have you known for a while, but now need to accept? What might open to you, if you let go of your preoccupation with what you’ve lost and cannot recover?  

Acceptance doesn’t mean denying, minimizing, or rushing past your pain and distress. Whatever anger, resentment, bitterness, frustration, self-pity, or any other emotional reaction that has been consuming you takes time to work through. But the more you see these reactions as holding you back rather than helping you cope, the sooner you may be ready to let them go. Somewhere in the process, acceptance also means admitting to yourself that sometimes you cannot undo or fix something that is lost or broken. It’s not necessarily a weakness or failure on your part to accept your limitations. It’s actually a strength. When you find the courage to face and accept whatever truth you need to face, you will naturally shift your focus to what you can do, as opposed to what you cannot. You will start to see the opportunities that are present for you, and your motivation to pursue them will start to rise.

This week’s questions for reflection are these:

  • What troublesome turn of events, inconvenient truth, or unwanted change do you need to accept as a fact?
  • What would acceptance look like for you, in action? That is, if you really said goodbye to what was lost, what would you do differently? How would you invest your thinking, energy, and time?
  • How could you move toward building your home, developing new relationships, planting a garden, and blessing your new circumstances, as Jeremiah instructed the ancient Israelites to do?

Bottom line: Acceptance means letting go of your emotional turmoil related to your unwanted circumstances and looking forward once again.

Suggested Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Next week, Step 3: “Appreciate.” Accepting what you cannot change sets the stage for moving to the next step, where you will discover many possibilities for experiencing greater joy and satisfaction.

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Coping Better with Unwanted Change: Four Steps to Greater Peace and Joy (Step 1)

What unwanted change is wreaking havoc in your life right now? Maybe it’s a significant loss—you were fired, someone you loved died or left you, or you’re grappling with an unexpected financial setback or liability. Maybe you received a frightening diagnosis, or you are struggling with an ongoing illness or disability. Maybe it’s an upsetting situation (or person) that you can’t avoid, such as an unreasonable boss, a troublesome neighbor, or a forced move and undesirable change of location. Whatever it may be, how are you handling it?

I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of person. I believe in the power of positive thinking. Yet, how can you be upbeat when your life suddenly changes dramatically for the worse? How can you get past all the inner turmoil when you’ve lost so much or continually have to deal with a person or situation that you hate but can’t get away from?   

In this multi-part series, I’m going to share four steps that have been very helpful to me when I have felt heart-broken, frustrated, disappointed, sorry for myself, or any number of other negative emotions due to some unwanted change, circumstance, or person in my life. These insights first came to me many years ago when wrestling with painful relational issues when my family and I walked across northern Spain on the Camino in 2006. Over time, I’ve come to see that the same “4 Steps to Loving A Hard to Love Person” (See, Accept, Appreciate, and Delight) also provide a pathway to coping better with any unwanted change in my life. These steps may take a great deal of time to work through, but when taken thoughtfully and prayerfully, they have proven very helpful in getting unstuck mentally and emotionally in a wide variety of difficult situations. In this post, we’ll look at just the first step in this process.

Step 1: “See”

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137:1 (NRSV)

When ancient Israel suddenly found themselves as captives in Babylon in 586 BC, they had to grapple with incredible losses—the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Zion), their forced exile from their home country, and the collapse of their lives as they knew them. We can’t go back to reconstruct all the ways they handled this tragedy, but can infer from the text that, instead of putting their heads in the sand (e.g., by believing false prophets who tried to give them false hope of returning to Judah), the exiles saw the situation for what it was, faced the awful truth, and let themselves feel the emotional weight of their losses. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept….” Such grief was bitter, but it was also an important step toward moving forward.

However, for many of us, when we experience great loss or are suddenly forced to cope with frightening or overwhelming burdens, instead of facing the truth as the Israelites did, we get stuck in nonproductive, emotional turmoil. We may walk around in a daze or even in denial of what’s happened, or our fight-flight-freeze instincts may trigger an intense emotional response that either ties us up in knots on the inside or pushes us to act in unhelpful or even hurtful ways.

That’s what was happening to me for much of 2021. After 13 years of (in-person) teaching in Myanmar, the doors suddenly slammed shut in my face, when the military seized power in a coup-d’état on February 1. My school suspended all classes, the country began its ongoing slide into disarray, and it became no longer safe for me to return. Then there was the daily trauma from continual reports of imprisonment, beatings, or killing of protestors, doctors, journalists, political opponents of the regime, and even some of my students. Houses were burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands fled to the jungles to survive.

All this felt overwhelming and too difficult to fully face. For months, I felt almost panicky about my powerlessness to help them. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more, yet I could never identify what I could do differently. And so, instead of coming to grips with reality, I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety on their behalf, as if sharing their distress and desperation would somehow prove that I wasn’t abandoning them in their hour of need. The truth was, I was so caught up in my unexamined, emotional reaction that I couldn’t realistically assess the situation. I was stuck in my emotional turmoil, carrying a burden that wasn’t helpful to me or anyone else.

In practice

How about you? Where are you being held prisoner by your emotional reactions? What do you need to see more clearly about whatever you’re grappling with?

  • What did you lose or what burden has been placed on your shoulders that you did not choose and do not want?
  • What is the clearest, most accurate, description of what happened or is happening?
  • If you could name it, in a word or two, what would you call what happened to you?
  • How is this [unwanted situation] affecting you emotionally, physically, relationally, and spiritually?
  • What is your best realistic assessment of the implications of this change for your future?

Even if it takes more time than you’d like to be able to answer these questions clearly, don’t give up until you get enough emotional distance to accurately assess your situation. Be patient with yourself, but don’t give up. The goal is to be able to make good decisions about your future based on the truth instead of being held prisoner to your emotional reactions or a distorted picture of reality.

Here is one short prayer that I created many years ago continues to be helpful to me whenever I’m in emotional turmoil and can’t seem to see clearly. Perhaps it will help you, too.

“Loving God, please help me to see whatever I need to see. Give me courage to face the truth, and wisdom and strength to act on whatever you reveal.”

Next week, Step 2: “Accept,” the next critical step toward recovering your inner peace and joy.

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