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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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