We're actually going to consider two different subjects here. First, we'll look at a person's individual response. Then, we'll look at how Churches should respond to certain situations.
Some people try to pretend it never happened (denial). Many become angry and resentful and lash out at everyone and everything (anger). Many become discouraged and depressed (grieving). Some think they can somehow manipulate the reality (bargaining) [This often involves a type of prayer]. Some turn to prayer. Some hope for some sort of spontaneous miracle. A thousand other responses exist. At some point, all of these reactions must change to acceptance for the person to get on with life.
Regarding depression, psychologists have known for many decades that depression and suicide is rampant during the Holidays. I've heard a bunch of opinions, but I doubt if anyone knows for absolutely sure just why that is. Yes, people who are alone, or separated from family or loved ones, are always prone to depression, and the "family" aspects of Christmas probably emphasize that, but each individual's case is probably actually unique.
Unfortunately, none of these traditional approaches seems to accomplish much. The people involved tend to remain in a state of depression for a long time, and they seldom see cause to see anything better on the horizon. Whatever the nature of the original adversity, with its horrible immediate effects, there is the additional lingering suffering in all the people involved. Often, this is even extended to questioning, doubting, wondering what could have been done to keep the disaster from happening. A deep, dark hole, to be sure.
Our belief includes the great likelihood that many such incidents of adversity, whether large or small, appear in our lives as potential opportunities for learning and growth. It's sort of a "what doesn't kill you makes you better" sort of idea.
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If you think about it, I think it is very likely that, after major adversities that have occurred in your life, you soon adopted some sort of new perspectives. It might have involved a new job, a new home, an uprooting move, stopping smoking or drugs or alcohol, or a variety of other life changes. More likely, it involved some refinement of your attitudes or perceptions, about yourself, about family or friends, or about any of many other important parts of life. I would find it amazing if there was ANY person where this was not true, at least a number of times. It could be minor learning opportunities. Several months ago, I was hammering nails up on the roof and I violently smashed my thumb while holding a nail. The injury was fairly severe and took about three months to heal. But, I learned to be somewhat more careful since then! Does this guarantee that I will never smash my thumb again? I doubt it! But hopefully, I will not take such a full swing while still holding the nail.
OK, I cannot confirm that God had any part of that incident. I sort of want to believe that He did not actually cause it! My stupidity provided most of the necessary preparation. I also cannot confirm that God has any direct involvement when a person or a loved one gets cancer, or some other major ailment, or automobile accident, or dies, or is fired, or has any of a variety of family disruptions. But our Church is convinced that nearly all of those incidents have learning opportunities associated with them. That doesn't mean that we should try to ignore the pain and suffering. Not at all! I'm just suggesting that there seem to be many examples of very intense but (relatively) short-term agony and suffering later seemed to be a stimulus for a later growth of some sort.
We look back at when OJ Simpson murdered his ex-wife Nicole. At the time, everyone said that it was such a terrible loss, a senseless murder, a meaningless end to a youthful life. That, it was. Yet, in the following year, there was enormous media publicity about spousal abuse subjects. It would appear that thousands of abused women built up enough courage to get themselves out of abusive relationships, as a direct result of Nicole's death. Was that worth it? Was the termination of a vibrant life necessary for the improvement of thousands of other lives? I'm just a mortal. I cannot answer such questions. But I could see how God might see it a necessary and "good" incident.
Given our Church's attitudes on all this, people sometimes ask if God actually causes the adversity in our lives or if He just allows the adversities to proceed rather than choosing to stop it. Another question I cannot answer, but I tend to favor the second approach. It is hard for me to imagine that the Loving Jesus we know would participate in intentionally introducing adversity and tragedy into our lives. I could possibly see how He might see cause to permit such things to happen because of some greater good, which we may or may not ever recognize or ever understand.
So, when you or others you know are going through hard times, that might not represent as dark a scene as it might seem. Well, it IS, because of your tragedy. But, we're just suggesting that God should not always immediately be blamed, and that there may even be some sort of eventual "silver lining" related to the loss. Actually, with our approach to all these matters, it would even be possible (but unlikely!) that such families might thank the Lord for providing them with opportunities for growth and learning! But it would be really tough to try to think or act thankful when some horrendous disaster or tragedy has just occurred. So, that's not very realistic.
In my personal life, when really huge adversities have occurred, I have not ever immediately felt thankful. However, eventually (sometimes after as much as two years), I have realized that I had developed improved insights or behaviors or attitudes as a direct result. I have also realized that I would never have attained those insights on my own, if the major adversity had not happened. So, at that later time, I have generally both thanked the Lord for giving me the opportunity to learn in that manner and simultaneously asked Him if we could avoid further "opportunities" of that sort! However, as a imperfect mortal, there remains much for me to learn, and there is no doubt whatever that I will again be faced with adversities, both great and small.
I have gotten pretty good about the "small" ones! When I get stuck in rush-hour traffic, or if my vehicle breaks down, or an important file disappears in the computer, I generally now honestly say "Thank you, Lord" and then I try to figure out what I might learn from the incident. Often it is related to some weakness in my patience, tolerance, or any of the dozens of other Christian characteristics that we all claim to have. Oops! Need to work on the patience thing! That sort of thing!
This whole approach can result in a relatively upbeat attitude toward adversity, tragedy, disaster and loss. It doesn't involve any guilt or punishment being meted out. It just seems to be a practical way for God to assist us in growing to be better people!
With this perspective, sometimes when I'm stuck in rush hour traffic, really wanting to get home or somewhere, other (angry) drivers see me smiling away! They probably think I'm delusional! But this perspective allows me to perceive a situation that is normally REALLY irritating as being one where I get a chance to carefully look at that particular environment, the highway, the sky, the fences, the nearby buildings, the nearby drivers. When else would I have ever REALLY had an extended opportunity to check that all out. Do I really learn anything profound at that time? I dunno! Occasionally, I see some feature of an interesting building that I might some day include on some future house. Or a cloud formation might trigger my mind in some productive direction. Or I might just spend 20 minutes enjoying the sunshine, or the rain, or whatever. I doubt if there is monumental importance in all such situations. I can just tell you that a "glass half full" attitude just seems a lot more enjoyable than a "glass half empty" attitude.
Words cannot change the reality of difficulty, but that glass can be perceived as being half full or half empty. Often, the perception of a situation is as important as the reality of it. Possibly, sometimes a different perspective on adversities being experienced might lighten the emotional load for the people having to try to deal with them. This is part of the point of this essay.
We think it is important for us all to remember that God is billions of times smarter than we are. It is probably true that He has an excellent Plan that includes all these kinds of things. We just are not nearly smart enough to understand any but little pieces of it. We are just suggesting that this "learning opportunities" possibility might be a part of that larger Plan that we are able to comprehend. There are certain to be many, many other parts of that Plan that do NOT include "learning opportunities". There are probably even some parts that could make sense of those many people who are killed in airplane crashes and earthquakes and hurricanes and wars. We just might not be smart enough (yet?) to understand them.
So, we are not claiming that we "know it all", that we have every answer to every adversity that occurs to every person. We are just suggesting that a person look for such a possibility. If one can be found, it might help a person deal better with a loss or tragedy, by seeing a possibility of something positive that might be associated with it.
For example, say a 15 year old girl tells a Minister that she is pregnant, and that she's afraid of her parents. I'm sure you can guess how many Churches would respond. Maybe fire and brimstone and threats of Hell. Maybe stern lectures on sin. A bunch of methods. All very Draconian. The girl was distraught to start with. After many Churches are done demeaning her, she may be suicidal.
How would the Loving, Patient, Compassionate Jesus have dealt with her? We guess that He would take her somewhere private, maybe out in the country, all alone. He'd say, please sit down and let's talk. And then He'd listen to her story, with no interruptions and no judgment. At some point, she would be bound to say "I know I did wrong" (after all, she's talking to Jesus!). After she would make that admission, He would see no reason to damage her further. We think He would calmly point out that the past is the past and cannot be changed, and we think He would comment on her recognition of sin.
His Love would just be spilling out all over the place! She would come to be calmed by His Gentleness and His Compassion! The two of them would eventually walk back toward town and see if they could do damage control. At no point would He ever rail on her, and He would have been infinitely Patient with her, and she would absolutely know she was Loved. And she would probably have Him near her when she confronted her parents, so she wouldn't have to fact that experience alone.
OK. So she comes out of almost any Church and is thinking about suicide, because of the Church's reaction (which she expected). And she still has to face her parents, and she will feel mighty alone there, too. Pretty different from a smiling, confident girl who was counseled by Jesus. Seems to me that many Churches currently do a pretty poor job of representing Him. (a personal opinion.)
A Church either can or cannot justify its thoughts and actions, such as the example above. Denominational Churches often have to explain to a hierarchy up above, and that is unfortunate. A member of the Clergy should rightfully only have to answer to the Lord for the decisions made if offering such counsel.
Of course, none of us are actually Jesus, so a Church could sometimes foul things up. Churches are collections of human beings, who are capable of errors. The centrally important part is that each Church strive to do as that Church believes Jesus would have done in a similar situation. That almost never involves quoting some generalized dogma. Sometimes, that period of introspection allows amazing clarity in murky situations, like with the pregnant girl. How would your Church have responded if a girl approached with that very traumatic situation? Certainly, a very tough question, as many personal situations are.
It is unfortunately very common for Churches to immediately respond in some legalistic, pre-programmed way. But that was a scared, hurting young person, in a life-changing crisis of a situation. Before jumping to any response, just consider the thoughtful way Jesus might have handled it. Then say and do what is appropriate for that unique situation.
We want to clarify something here. This whole scenario is considering a situation which has already occurred. BEFORE the fact, it is absolutely important to strongly emphasize the proper Christian behaviors and thoughts, in this example, the teaching of the usual abstinence positions of Christian Churches, and fairly aggressively. The young girl scenario discussed above would be a proper handling such situations AFTER the fact, and assuming the girl knew that it had been wrong, where nothing could change events that had already happened.
We believe that if Churches would generally adopt this humanistic approach, Christian Congregation members would benefit. And the Lord's Work would be done more effectively.
This page was first placed on the Internet in November 1999.
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Carl W. Johnson,
Pastor, A Christ Walk Church