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Biff was having a good day. He just came from an extended weekend at the beach with his family. Life is good. “Time well spent” is how Biff put it on Monday morning while chatting up his friends at work. He was alive, refreshed, and ready to battle the week’s business. By Tuesday, our old friend Biff was slumping back into his all too familiar patterns. The weekend energy bump dissipated in proportion to each disappointment that came his way, and they came too quickly for him to manage. He was ready for the weekend by Wednesday. Rather than being feisty and hope-filled, he sounded more like Elijah squatting under a dead Juniper tree, longing for the day when the good Lord would take him out of this miserable world.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).
Do you recognize yourself in Elijah? I see myself in our faithful servant (James 5:17). One minute, I am kicking Baal-booty all over Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:27), and the next moment I am bemoaning my very existence. Whenever our circumstances control us so much, we must reevaluate how we think about our circumstances and our reactions to God, who is in our situations. Our trouble is one of the prime diagnostics moments to discern the exact condition of our souls. Being in difficulty is bad enough, but missing the sovereign point of our difficulties is disappointedly myopic. Part of the problem here is having an elevated view of ourselves. There is a temptation to think we are better than we are. Then the trouble comes, and we learn the actual truth about ourselves, particularly our spiritual condition. Biff is a problem-centered person, orbiting around a constellation of thoughts and attitudes that vie for control of his soul. Let me share a few antagonists seeking to captivate his troubled mind.
Decreasing contentment, growing unrest, lack of gratitude, cloudy judgment, gnawing negativity, temptation to retreat, hope deprivation, impoverished motivation, controlling fear, relational distance, and weakened faith.
Perhaps it would serve you to list these items, identify what applies to you, and work through any areas of change you can make. These characteristics operate at a busy intersection in the heart, with more symptoms piling on by the hour, contributing to ever-increasing soul noise in the problem-centered individual. Once a person goes down this one-way street, there is only one outcome unless they make a substantial course correction. The most dangerous characteristic of all is the last one—weakened faith. Each symptom functions like a stepping stone, leading to the ultimate goal: “Will you curse God and die?” When troubles hover over us like a dark cloud, and those things begin to control, shape, and define us, we will take a severe spiritual hit, as Biff did, and our lives will begin to deny the gospel’s transformative power.
Paul also went through a lot of hardship (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Sometimes he dipped so far down into the difficulties (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), to the point of despair (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Unlike Biff, his trouble did not characterize him. There is a difference between episodic disappointment when trouble comes versus living in a continual cloud of being overwhelmed by our difficulties until it reshapes how we think about and react to God, life, and others. Either we are maturing through our problems by becoming stronger each day, or our souls regress as a new wave of trials rolls over us. Biff was like this. He mounted up like an eagle during the weekend, and as each disappointment came, he plummeted to the ground by Tuesday. Losing heart through the steady drip of unwanted daily challenges or being renewed because we’re operating in the strength of another: these are our two choices.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).
How about it? Are you problem-centered like Biff or God-centered like Paul? The God-centered, faith-filled person will not only believe there is no temptation greater than God’s empowering grace, but their attitudes, words, and actions will affirm this truth (1 Corinthians 10:13). God’s faithfulness to the God-centered person will be the wave he rides through the trials of life (Psalm 42:7). Even in the darkest of nights, he will be able to reorient his mind while regaining a gospel-centered equilibrium. We should be able to successfully live within the antithetical tension of good and evil (Genesis 50:20). Though we are regularly cast down, we can respond in faith toward God while mustering praise to Him (Psalm 42:11). We do this because our hearts and minds are shaped and controlled by this powerful truth: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Perhaps you know these truths to be true, but maybe you say, “Yes, Rick, I know I should not be controlled by my problems, but for me, the things I know (intellectual theology) do not represent my day-to-day functional theology.” There is always a space between what we know—orthodoxy—and how we live—orthopraxy. It’s easier to learn stuff than to apply what we have learned, which is why we need a practical plan to help us make what we know practical. We must know how to think, act, and respond to our troubles, so I want to lay out a simple way to think about our situational challenges. It is a seven-step process that can transform anyone who is serious, desperate, and willing to change. To gain the most benefit from this template for change, I recommend you work through it in the context of trusted friends who care for you and are competent to help you. Be honest with them, and permit them to ask you the hard questions.
Step One: Discern the Purpose
There can be many reasons a problem enters your life (Deuteronomy 29:29). Perhaps it was because of you, or like Job, it has nothing to do with you. You will never fully understand the complete mind of God on why He allows trouble to come your way (Job 1:6-12). Even so, you will find assurance in this: God allows problems to come into your life to help you transform into His Son. There is always this sovereign purpose behind the madness. The intent of suffering is transformation. Think about some of the bad things that have happened to you. How did you mature through those situations? Typically, when a problem comes into people’s lives, they think about the other person who might have been the cause or an early exit from the problem. I understand. Neither of those reactions has to be wrong.
However, when trouble comes, the first order of business should be to have a personal conversation with God: what does He have in mind for you? I would go so far as to say if you miss this essential step, you will not be able to process the problem at hand successfully. Let me illustrate: Biff’s problems are not just his struggles at work. He and Mable have ongoing rough spots in their marriage, too. Shortly after arriving home on Monday, Biff learns that Mable overspent money on clothes. This incident is not the first time she has done this. Rather than seeking the Lord first—trying to discern how Biff could learn, grow, and mature through this problem—Biff chose to go off on Mable. Rather than adjusting his heart before the Lord, he tried to fix Mable, making things worse.
Diagnostic Questions: When trouble comes your way, are you quick to judge your heart before you address others who may be part of the problem? Talk about how you have done it both ways, assuming you are like me. How did you benefit from addressing your heart first? What went wrong when you focused first on the other person?
Step Two: Discern Your Heart
It would have been better for Biff to discern how the Lord wanted to change his heart. God operates with purpose, including when He permits problems in your life. It does not matter at this point who is most at fault. Weighing guilt and innocence is essential but not of first importance when working through relational conflict. If your first call to action is not to place the spiritual stethoscope over your heart so you can carefully judge yourself, your judgments of others will more than likely be tainted (Matthew 7:3-5). A more mature believer would have discerned how God was in his trouble. He might not know why, but his God-centered instincts will kick in when the problem happens. Rather than being an accuser of his spouse, he would have been an expectant seeker, knowing God was up to something good (Romans 8:28).
Diagnostic Questions: How do things turn out when you address your heart and adjust yourself accordingly? As you talk with your friend, draw them out about how they typically respond during relational conflicts. What can you learn from them; how can you help them?
Step Three: Discern Hardness
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts (Hebrews 4:7).
By not addressing what God sought to do in Biff’s heart first, he began laying down a thin veneer over his conscience. The conscience operates as an internal moral thermostat. It reveals the temperature of our hearts, signaling any needed changes. If we ignore our moral thermostats, they will “go on the blink” by shutting down. This effect will ultimately blind Biff to his weaknesses and proclivities (1 Timothy 4:2). I have done this too many times in my relationship with Lucia. She may do something I do not like; perhaps she was wrong. But I immediately respond in a careless and non-sanctifying way. Rather than adjusting my heart first and benefiting from the Lord’s sanctifying work in me, I try to change her. When I do this, I miss some of the underlying sins in my heart that drive my responses toward her, and thus, I botch up our relationship even further.
Diagnostic Question: When you think about your conflict, what are some of the more common underlying sins in your heart—things the Spirit of God has provided illumination for you to see regarding yourself? What do you think will happen to your conscience if you ignore the work of the Spirit in your heart? Do you know someone who continues to resist God? How has the hardening effect of the conscience impacted their lives and relationships?
Step Four: Identify and Isolate
We all have the ability to choose good or evil. One of the most dangerous places a person can be is unable to perceive the Spirit’s illuminations and, thus, not discern the trickery of the heart. This spot is no man’s land—where you can easily exchange the truth of God for a lie because of a desire to press God’s truth out of our lives (Romans 1:18, 25). Flying blind through life, not able to discern the evil machinations of the heart, is a dance with the devil. Sometimes a person will wonder why such and such evil happened; “how could he do that?” The evil that occurred stands at the end of a long trail for the person who continued to ignore the hidden morality of his heart.
Diagnostic Questions: What did you write down in response to the previous diagnostic question about underlying sin issues in your heart? Can you identify and isolate the sin(s) that seek to capture your heart when trouble comes into your life? Would you be willing to discuss these things with a trusted friend? You must do more than discern them; it’s vital you isolate and identify them.
Step Five: See What You Can’t See
If you move too soon toward the person on the other end of your problem while missing how your heart is deceiving you, you will miss out on the critical work of God in your life. It is a mercy from the Lord to bring thorns into our lives (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Aren’t we so easily tempted to react to the problem or the person before we respond to our hearts? We gloss over or, worse, we miss entirely how our hearts are becoming entangled by sin. Rather than being first responders to these crimes in our hearts, we ignore them and begin correcting others. Let me share a few of the entangling sins of the heart, most of which come from our mouths, making them easy to identify: anger, frustration, fear, dread, angst, complaining, grumbling, demanding, disappointment, regret, self-pity, and discouragement.
Diagnostic Questions: Do any of these apply to you? Will you write a prayer of praise to the Lord, thanking Him for revealing specific deceptions of your heart. Will you share what you wrote with a friend—perhaps your spouse if you are married? How is this process beginning to change your thinking about you and any conflict in your life?
Step Six: Wrestle with the Lord
Your first call to action is to bring your heart to the Lord, asking the Spirit to dissect you so you can see the duplicity within you, and then appeal to Him to appropriate the transformative work of the gospel that Jesus has provided for you. These six steps must be how you begin working through conflict if your aim is a God-glorifying and mutually satisfying result. Though you will not eradicate all of your Spirit-illuminated sins, you will have them on the run. Patterns will become episodes, and your episodic moments will grow farther apart. Also, remember that you are not looking for the perfection of God’s sanctifying grace in your life, but you must have the presence of it, which you can measure by the growing time between sinful events. God’s grace must work actively in your life to the point where your response to trouble is filled with hope, not dread. Gratitude, not grumbling. Faith, not frustration. Only then will you become God-centered enough to be able to biblically problem solve sin problems and relational conflict. Let us review how you can make this practical.
Diagnostic Question: How has this process changed your thoughts about others? Hopefully, your attitude toward anyone who might be part of the conflict has softened as the Lord addressed your imperfections and provided grace for necessary heart recalibrations. A properly adjusted heart positions you to address them with humility, leading to personal and relational transformation.
Step Seven: Begin Thinking About Others
The first six steps dealt with your heart. I am sure you have discerned by now how the most challenging part of problem-solving and the bulk of the work needed to accomplish relational success is with you rather than others. Does this strike you as odd, different, or wrongheaded? When trouble comes into your life, are you quicker to speak or listen (James 1:19)? Are you more willing to address the other person first, or do you choose to take your soul to task rigorously? I wonder how different problem-solving would be if we were more in tune with our hearts before we responded to others. I have observed that I make problems more complicated when I act like a knucklehead by not addressing what the Lord is trying to teach me.
Joy, contentment, rest, confidence, assurance, gratitude, wisdom, discernment, hope, belief, expectation, progress, moldable, eschatological, comfortable, encouraged, motivated, obedient, proactive, stable, encourager, cheerful, optimistic, determined, submitted, endurance, awareness, illumination, experience, God-reliance, responsive, and peace.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).