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Biff was having a good day. He just came from an extended weekend at the beach with his family. Time well spent is how he put it on Monday morning. He was alive, refreshed, and ready to do battle with the business of the week.
By Tuesday, our old friend Biff was slumping back into his all too familiar patterns. Rather than being feisty and hope-filled, he sounded more like Elijah squatting under a dead Juniper tree.
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 too much, we need to reevaluate how we think about and respond to God who is in our situations. Your trouble is one of your prime moments to diagnose the exact condition of your soul.
Though there are times I want to think I am better than I am, it is when trouble comes that I know the real truth about my spiritual condition.
Typically, the problem-centered person orbits around a constellation of thoughts and attitudes that vie for control of his soul. Here are a few of the antagonists that seek to captivate the troubled mind.
Like a busy intersection, with more cars piling on by the hour, these are a few of the symptoms for the problem-centered soul. Once you begin down this one-way street, there is only one outcome unless you make a substantial course correction.
The most dangerous sign of all is the last one–weakened faith. When troubles hover over us like a dark cloud, and those things control, shape, and define us, we will take a hit, and our lives will begin to deny the transformative power of the gospel.
Paul went through a lot of stuff (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Sometimes he dipped way down into the difficulties (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), to the point of despair (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). But his problems did not characterize him.
There is a difference between episodic disappointment when trouble comes versus living in a continual cloud of being overwhelmed by your problems until it reshapes how you think about and react to life.
Either I am maturing through my difficulties by becoming stronger each day or my soul is regressing as a new wave of trials roll over me. Losing heart or being renewed day by day: 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 or God-centered? The God-centered or faith-filled person will not only believe there is no temptation greater than God’s empowering grace, but his 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 properly.
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 attitudes 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. Maybe you can 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 distance between what we know and how we live, which is true for all of us. Our intellectual theology is more than our functional theology. Knowing truth is one thing; living truth is a wholly other matter.
We need a practical plan that will help us process through our problems. We need to know how to think, act, and respond to our troubles.
What I want to lay out for you is a simple way to think about your situational challenges. It is a seven-step process that can transform you. To gain the most benefit, I recommend you work through this process in the context of trusted friends.
Even so, you will find assurance in this: God allows problems to come into your life to help you transform into His Son. Many times your transformation happens because of your suffering.
Typically, when a problem comes into people’s lives, the first thing they think about is the other person on the other end of the problem. That is a mistake, which will obscure what the Lord could teach them.
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. When trouble comes, the first order of business should be to have a personal conversation with God.
Let me illustrate: Biff and Mable have ongoing rough spots in their marriage. Shortly after arriving home one evening, 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 he 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, which made 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?
It would have been better for Biff to discern how the Lord wanted to change his heart. If your first call 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. 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: When you have addressed your heart first and adjusted yourself accordingly, how did things turn out for you? How about when you did not assess your heart first. How did it go?
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. – Hebrews 4:7
By not addressing what God was seeking to do in Biff first, he began laying down a thin veneer over his heart. This effect will ultimately blind him 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 that I do not like. I immediately respond in a careless and non-sanctifying way.
Rather than adjusting my heart first and benefiting from the Lord’s sanctifying work, 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 is providing illumination for you to see regarding yourself?
One of the most dangerous places a person can be is not able to hear the Spirit’s voice and, thus, not able to discern the trickery of his heart. This spot is no man’s land–a place where you can easily exchange the truth of God for a lie, because of a desire to press His truth out of your life (Romans 1:18, 25).
Flying blind through life, not able to discern the evil machinations of your heart, is a dance with the devil. In the dark.
Diagnostic Questions: What did you write down in response to the previous diagnostic question? Are you able to 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 trusted friends–maybe your small group?
If you jump to the person on the other end of your problem too quickly, while missing how your heart is deceiving you, then you will miss out on the work of God in your life. It is a mercy from the Lord to bring thorns into your life (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It allows you to see yourself more clearly.
Aren’t we so easily tempted to react to the problem before we respond to our hearts? We gloss over or, worse, we miss entirely how our hearts are becoming entangled by sin. Here are a few of the traps that ensnare us. Rather than being first responders to these crimes in our hearts, we ignore them and begin correcting others.
Diagnostic Questions: Write out 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? How is this process beginning to change how you are thinking about your problem?
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. Though you will not have all of your Spirit-illuminated sins eradicated, you will have them on the run. You are not looking for the perfection of God’s sanctifying grace in your life, but you must have the presence of it.
God’s grace must be actively working 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. Let us review:
Diagnostic Question: How has this process changed the way you think about the other person? Hopefully, your attitude toward them has softened as the Lord addressed your imperfections. You now see yourself on somewhat equal footing before His cross.
I am sure you have discerned by now how the hardest part of problem-solving and the bulk of the work needed to accomplish relational success is to you rather than the other person. The first six steps dealt with you and your heart. Does this strike you as odd, different, or wrongheaded?
When trouble comes into your life, are you quicker to speak or quicker to listen (James 1:19)? Are you more willing to address the other person first or do you choose to take your soul to a task rigorously?
I wonder how different problem solving would be if we were more rigorous with our hearts before we responded to others. I have observed when I act like a knucklehead by not addressing what the Lord is trying to teach me that I will make the original problem more complicated.
I gave you a list negative traits for the problem-centered person earlier. Did you see yourself on that list? Below is a list of attributes for the God-centered person. An excellent way to assess yourself is by comparing your heart, attitude, words, and actions to this list.
Reminder: you are not looking for the perfection of these things, but the presence of them. You will also note how all of these attributes and characteristics have something to do with your faith in God.
Let’s End Here: Are you problem-centered or God-centered?
This template for change focuses on how you should change when trouble comes to you. It is not about the other person(s) or even the problem. It is about how you relate to God and how He can work in your heart if you cooperate with Him.