Most of the time… I hate crisis! Usually a crisis is crushing and physically if not emotionally exhausting! The Scriptures are clear that, while I may desire to run from a crisis like a six-year-old runs from broccoli, as a servant of Christ crises in my life and ministry often cannot be avoided! The good news is that, when responding rightly to crises, they can actually be spiritually, emotionally and even physically good for me. Nevertheless… I still don't like crisis! In my flesh, I'd rather be comfortable. Here's a newsflash you probably already know: all of us will face crises on a regular basis. We face them in finances, occupation, family, marriage, church life and health. In the oldest book of the Bible, Job notes that man is born to trouble and given to adversity, pointing out that the reality of trouble is as common and dependable as sparks flying upward from a campfire (Job 5:7). Ephesians 1:11 explains that God has planned out the details of our lives and that He uses those details consistent with His providential plan in making us more like His Son. Included in His plan is… crisis! An implication here is that, as hard as you and I might try to avoid it, these times of personal chaos and threat are simply unavoidable! So if we can't avoid it (and surely we can't!) it is important to consider how God would have us face it.
Instead of facing the issue, we sometimes try to manipulate it by working “this end” or “that end.” In football this is called an “end run.” Many times we actually make the situation worse by doing that. On occasion, these situations hit us because frankly we did something sinful or stupid. In other scenarios, these “emergencies of life” hit us because of no particular fault of our own; it's actually the result of something someone else said or did and, for reasons known only to heaven, the fallout hits us! Some would say, “You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time!” On other occasions because we are worried about aggravating a situation we try to just be invisible. We do nothing, we say nothing, we are… nothing. Especially hard are those times when, because we said nothing, the situation becomes worse. This kind of thing can be very frustrating for us, making it seem as if we just can't win.
We often hear the famous line from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities… “it was the best of times....it was the worst of times.” The frustrating reality is that in life we will face a never-ending series of crises. Especially for ministry leaders, dealing with crisis is simply “par for the course.” Often it feels like we get “the worst of times,” while our friends or neighbors get to enjoy, “the best of times!” It's important for us as ministry leaders to understand that one of the reasons we are in leadership is to help others as they go through crises. That simply cannot happen unless we know what it is to face crisis and experience God's grace by personally coming out of the “lion's den” with faith and sanity intact! It is evident that the strongest and most effective leaders in the Scriptures (and in contemporary life as well) have had to endure much. All of my friends in ministry leadership have had to face hard times of personal pain of one form or another. Chuck Swindol once said that when God calls a man for ministry He typically crushes him and rebuilds him so he is able to accomplish what God has called him to do. While that is true for God's servants headed for ministry leadership I also believe that is true for all of God's children.
As we study the Scriptures we encounter two important realities. First, we learn that some crises actually can be avoided by being biblical, righteous and circumspect. Second, we learn that no matter what you do or how you live, some crises are just simply going to hit you. It's not a question of if, it is simply a question of when and how. Some of this reality has to do with the fact that we live in a sin-cursed world. Also it often has to do with an enemy of our soul who hates us and wants to do all he can to discourage our walk. So we ask the question, “How shall we then live?” There are foolish religious leaders who teach that by “faith” one can avoid crises. That's just goofy! Did Jesus have faith in His Father? Did that give our Lord a get-out-of-crisis-free card for earthly troubles? Yes, it is true that a Hebrews 11 kind of faith will carry us through a crisis, but it is not true that by faith we can somehow spiritually float over the various dangers of life! Let's consider how then to handle crisis.
1. It’s not as bad as you think it is
Sometimes it is as bad as you think. In really difficult seasons, it's even worse than you think it is. However, most often over the course of our lives we discover that our so-called crises evaporate of their own accord over time. On some happy occasions they are completely washed off the face the planet. In Matthew we read what is often referred to as “The Beatitudes.” The Sermon on the Mount is something of an address to Jesus' followers as to a variety of spiritual life principles that grow out of the Kingdom of God. As we come to the end of Matthew 7, Jesus explains that as believers we don't need to worry. Of immense comfort for all of us are the reminders that if the Father feeds birds, how much more will he feed his kids (v. 26)! Jesus is clear: our Father knows what we need and so we can rest in His care (v. 32). Jesus speaks comfort to our hearts in verse 34 when He looks at us and encourages us not to worry about tomorrow. By way of explanation Jesus notes an interesting reality of life: “Tomorrow will have its own troubles.” This implies that, in most cases, the issues you believe are waiting for you in tomorrow won't even be a point of memory: tomorrow will give you an entirely different set of circumstances!
2. Remain calm!
David had to do this on multiple occasions. In Psalm 131:2 we read, “Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul...” In the New Testament we are told to let the “peace of God” rule our hearts (Colossians 3:15). Whether the crisis is completely out of our hands or some portion is marginally under our control, we need to remember that ultimately we must trust God to show up! Typically we are limited in the amount of force we can exert to personally overcome the challenges of life. That being the case we need to ask the Lord to help us remain calm when faced with a crisis. As I write this article it is early July and I am in the White Mountain region of eastern Arizona, at Grand View Camp, just east of Show Low and a tad south of Eagar. I brought our teens to camp as I do most years. The new camp facilities are beautiful and the views are breathtaking. I'm staying in a comfortable “sponsor trailer” and will enjoy cooler weather and quieter days than what is available in Phoenix, providing me some restful time for study, prayer, and writing. Tonight I was all set to go over to the main building for our preaching service with my buddy Brent Sivnksty. It's been raining and everything is muddy. I needed to travel around the camp and so, to avoid getting my sandals dirty, I jumped into the church van… only to make it about fifteen yards before getting stuck in the mud. Like the brilliant city-boy I am, I stepped on it! (“Oh yeah Vern – that helped!”) All that accomplished was rotating my nice fifteen passenger church van forty degrees, converting it into a very effective roadblock for anyone needing to get down the camp road. So I stopped before I slid the van down the hill! Tomorrow the camp hands, with access to tractors and four-wheeled vehicles, will hopefully help Pastor “City-Boy” Tetreau get his van unstuck! This embarrassing little story illustrates well this second principle and introduces a third. By over-reacting, often out of a sense of panic, we actually make a frustrating situation more complex. Instead of running off to implement the first solution that pops into our heads (“Step on it Vern!”) a short moment for pause and prayer can go a long way towards helpful clarity! In addition, God often gives us other resources to help deal with the muddy challenges of life! If we pause for a moment we can often draw upon those other sources of assistance. Even the strongest of us will be overwhelmed at times; on those occasions it is right for us to share our fears with those around us who can help us think clearly and calmly.
3. God has given you practical help
As a general rule, most of us struggle with pride. When facing a situation where we are confused, stumped or overwhelmed, too many of us manifest pride by ignoring the help that God has given us. Strength without balance can become a weakness. To have a “no-quit” attitude is a great character trait. However, without a spirit of humility it can cause us to hesitate utilizing the help that God has given us in the gifts and wisdom of others. The trouble is that many of us don't want to admit that we need help. We have a twisted perspective, thinking that if we admit we are weak in an area it will negatively impact the way others view us. It is true that we should bear our own moral or situational burdens (Galatians 6:4) but we also need to recognize that we are part of the Body of Christ and God intends for others to minister to us when we face seasons of trial (Galatians 6:1). In James 5 the writer asks the question “Is anyone suffering?” He continues, “Let him pray.” James also instructs believers when overwhelmed with suffering to, “Call for the elders of the church and let them pray over them...” The point to notice here is that some of the aid God gives us in a crisis is the leaders who shepherd us in local church ministry. Sometimes the immediate help in front of us might be from non-believers. Remember Esther's appeal to the Persian King Xerxes? Consider Nehemiah's appeal to the son and successor of Xerxes, namely Artaxerxes. In the New Testament consider Paul's appeal to Roman soldiers, to Felix and to Caesar himself, all based on Paul's Roman citizenship. Again, God often provides help from others, even non-believers on occasion.
4. Crises move us toward Christ-likeness and mission-focus
Eventually all of us die! The older I get, the clearer I see the brevity of life. God created each of us in His image and with a life-mission. Sometimes crisis comes in the form of a relational challenge. There are times when a working or personal relationship has to transition from a deeper friendship into a more distant cordiality. This is often hard. There are a whole host of principles that apply when navigating through hurt relationships with friends or colleagues. In some cases, Matthew 18 is applicable. On other occasions the two of you simply have grown apart because of differences of perspective or conviction. The parting of ways between Barnabas and Paul as recorded in the book of Acts comes to mind. While understanding Paul's thinking, I have always sided with Barnabas on the issue of John Mark. It's my view that eventually Paul comes to a right appreciation of Barnabas later in his ministry. It had to be hard for their friends to see Paul and Barnabas part ways. God used it for good. Instead of one team, now two highly trained and effective leadership teams could help the ongoing development of the early church. In these kinds of instances we move on as friendly and graciously as we can. Once in a while the other person simply adopts an antagonistic bent toward you and there is nothing you can do about it. Instead of fighting back with a similar use of gossip and slander, we bring honor to Christ by moving forward, loving the other person in spite of their angst toward you. Let God deal with them – especially if they become increasingly foolish. One final point: as a general rule, when our mission is over, our physical life on this planet comes to an end. It's a frustrating fact but when God wants to make me more holy and conform me to the image of His Son, He usually has to send some kind of challenge into my life, at times in the form of affliction. A great passage that helps us with this is found in John 15. Jesus explains that in order for us to “bear more fruit” all of us go through periodic “purging” or “pruning” (John 15:2). Here Jesus explains that this pruning is accomplished to push us toward closer fellowship with our Lord and a greater effectiveness through God's cleansing Word (John 15:3; Romans 12:2). By continually bringing us through seasons of crisis God aids the believer in experiencing a real faith dependence on the presence and empowerment of Jesus.
5. Crises drive us closer in fellowship and worship with our God
I have a good friend who lost his first wife several decades ago when he was in his mid-twenties. He and I were chatting over lunch a few weeks ago and I asked him, “If you could help a fellow believer make it through the kind of crisis you faced those years ago, what would you say?” With tears in his eyes he noted two things. First, don't be afraid to admit to friends you are struggling (see my third point above). Second, spend time reading God's Word and in prayer. My friend was noting for me that God's Word and work are supernatural! There is a supernatural ministry that the Holy Spirit brings to the heart of God's child in a time of crisis; and this ministry is manifested as we turn to Scripture and prayer. The Holy Spirit is called, “The Comforter.” There is a real, supernatural ministry of encouragement that the third person of the Trinity gives to the New Testament believer that “surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Perhaps the most difficult crisis is dealing with what the Scripture loosely refers to as “affliction.” Some of the most intense affliction is when God brings a challenge into our life and Satan uses that as an opportunity to bring discouragement and doubt. He is forever the enemy of our soul and never fights fair. Everyone of us will have some kind of affliction we will need to face; many of us will have to live with a specific “thorn in the flesh.” Paul asked God to remove his. God said “No.” Paul's conclusion, “His grace is sufficient for me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It's not wrong to ask God to remove the pains of affliction. We see Job crying out to God especially in the fear and anguish of night (Job 7:4). The rest of the book reveals that Job was able to say and demonstrate, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him!” (Job 13:15).
6. God responds in mercy and deliverance
As we noted earlier, more than likely the crises you look at with dread and fear will soon be behind you. It is true that sometimes God does not heal. Sometimes He doesn't take away the source of our agony. However, as a general rule, God does show up in mercy. He often lessens the pain, encourages the heart, touches the body, and relieves the troubled mind. 1 Peter 5:7 reads, “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” Here Peter reminds us to deposit those distractions into God's hands because the God of the universe has a personal compassion for each one of us. Colossians 1 reminds us that Jesus is preeminent and that He created us and He redeemed us. Since God created us and saved us, He will also sustain us! The most direct way to deposit our cares into God's hands is through prayer. Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:6-7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be known to God; and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” A powerful exchange is seen in this verse. We give God those “distractions” Peter mentioned and God gives us that “peace” that Paul mentions. One more observation: it is interesting to consider how often Jesus healed those who asked Him during His earthly ministry. As already noted, a large percentage of my dearest friends in the ministry have had to deal with unbelievable pain and difficulty. For some of us it's an emotional or physical challenge we live with. In some cases we carry deep hurt from some tragedy that God allowed. For others it's a family health situation such as an ill spouse or disabled child. Because God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Matthew 9:12), He often answers the prayer of the overwhelmed. For those of us who are still living with hurts and burdens, remember that God still strengthens. And when God doesn't take the pain away, we have to trust that He knows what is best for us. This is part of what I call the “acid test:” when life feels unfair. When God doesn't deliver as I've asked, do I still praise Him, love Him, trust Him and serve Him? This is what it means to live “by faith.”
7. Be willing to change
When a crisis is centered on something we have said or done, we need to understand that oftentimes God has allowed this crisis to come into our life to change us. So we need to be willing to change. This is very much connected to the Biblical concept of repentance. Repentance is far more than just saying, “Yep – I'm bad, I'm guilty!” Repentance takes a further step: “By God's grace and through the strength I have in Jesus, I will change.” The author of Hebrews speaks to this when he challenges us to, “Lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2). Because salvation involves a volitional recognition of (and submission to) the Lordship of Jesus, our lifestyle of repentance begins with our salvation. However, it doesn't end there. It continues throughout our earthly existence. The more God reveals about Himself, the more we realize aspects of our life that need to be subjected to our Lord's leadership. A crisis then is often the fire of heaven that is specifically directed at our lives for the real purpose of burning off the dross of sin and self-sufficiency.
8. Learn to look and laugh!
We read in Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” Our afflictions and crises sometimes take up more of our time and energy than they should. I'm not saying we should ignore them; I am suggesting that God has given us a full life. When we are hurting in one area of our life, I believe God wants us to enjoy the gifts in other parts of our life. Too many times we are so focused on the one challenging aspect of our lives that we sadly miss the daily pleasures and blessings God wants us to enjoy! Learn to laugh! Even while you’re going through a hard time, look for ways to enjoy the gifts of God that are clearly given for our pleasure. Those are gifts from God’s good hand (James 1:17) and He wants us to enjoy them!
As we close out these thoughts on how to deal with crises, here are a few thoughts on what to do when it's not you who is facing a crisis. How do we help those who are near and dear to us as they face a time of difficulty? For the past twenty-plus years of pastoral ministry in three different congregations, I have had the responsibility and privilege to shepherd nearly two hundred people at any given time. Thankfully I've always had the help of other leaders in shepherding. However, when you have that many people who call you “pastor” there is never a time when someone does not need your help as they experience the choppy waters of crisis. Also, I now serve as the Coordinator of IBL West. In that capacity I find myself often on the other end of the phone helping my brothers leading ministries and who face any number of crises. Frankly there is never a time that I am not in crisis or someone near to me is not in crisis.
I will admit that there are times I just have to turn off the cell phone and get away from bombardment of other people's problems (which you have to do from time to time). But here are a few suggestions (some Biblical and some practical) for we who serve as spiritual or emotional caregivers of loved-ones stuck in the “spin-cycle” of some tragedy, trial or tribulation.
- Remember you work for God, but you are not God! You really can't solve their problem(s).
- God does not want you to consider yourself as the “Lone Ranger” who alone will rescue!
- Be quick to say, “You know, I don't think I'm really equipped to help you with this one....you should call 'so-n-so,' they are godly and have dealt with this kind of thing before and they can help you.”
- Don't be super-spiritual, believing that it is sinful or weak for folks to mourn over a loss, whether it be real or (from your perspective) imagined. Remember Paul's instruction in Romans, “We mourn with they who mourn.” Part of this process of mourning with those who mourn is giving a loving and understanding ear. Listen to what they are saying. Job says it this way, “To him who is afflicted, kindness should be shown by his friend...” (Job 6:14 and following).
- After they've mourned over the loss, help them understand that God wants them to, bit-by-bit, get up and move on in life. If they refuse to move on they need to understand they are missing the other gifts of life that God has specifically prepared for them.
- Many of us are motivated by compassion. I struggle “big time” when someone is in pain. There is something in me that wants to relieve that pain at all costs. God has had to help me remember as a counselor that there is something far worse than this loved one's suffering. The thing that would be worse than the delayed rescue from the immediate crisis would be for the individual to fail to learn what God is trying to teach them. We need to be careful not to undermine what God is doing just because we have a heart of compassion.