Facing Chaos is a series of nine articles about what I have learned over the years about dealing with the chaos, pain, and darkness that at times seems to overtake our lives.
After more than a decade in full-time ministry, not to mention all my years of simply living in this world, I am no stranger to the fact that most people face some pretty significant problems. Some face serious medical problems, others have had to deal with situations of abuse, others struggle financially and don’t always know how their bills are going to get paid. Often there are many problems taking place all at once, and sometimes those problems reinforce one another, creating situations that seem hopeless from any human way of looking at things.
In my book, Faithful in Small Things, I talk about some constellations of difficulty as “spirals of negative reinforcement.” Each problem amplifies and reinforces the next, and leads to other problems, making it feel like an undercurrent, sucking us down into the darkened depths of the sea. While everything is interconnected, it is hard to see where complexity ends and chaos begins.
At times when facing issues of such magnitude, I have had a kind of paralyzing shock at what is happening in the world. It has happened to me at times when I try to understand and solve problems like poverty, racism, or human trafficking—or any number of other really big issues that involve countless other matters outside of anyone’s control.
So what do we do when our problems seem too big?
While this might seem like a meaningless platitude, prayer is our communication with the only being who truly understands the inconceivable complexity of the situation, and who gives us strength, wisdom, and guidance in our work.
Bringing the concerns of our heart to the Lord, furthermore, is not just a last resort but is where we should start all of our work for God’s kingdom.
- Do what you know is right
One wise old man I used to know would sometimes say, “While I have a lot of questions about a lot of different things, if I got to work doing the things that I do know I should be doing—and changing the things in my life that I already know need changing—I would have more than enough work to last me for the rest of my life.”
When we get overwhelmed by the complexity of situations, we may not have all the answers but often we may know a few things, or even just the next thing.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the church where my wife’s grandfather used to minister. After the service I had a long chat with the pastor, and we talked a lot about my wife’s Grandfather Victor, who I never had the pleasure of meeting before he passed away. He said, “Victor was really great at helping us walk through difficult times. When we all got overwhelmed by the challenges we faced, he would say, ’We don’t know everything, but let’s figure out just the next thing, and then do that.’”
When you just don’t know everything, slow things down, figure things out just one thing at a time, and then take those steps one day at a time.
- Build relationships with others
My greatest strength, I believe, is not something that has much to do with me, but rather is the amazing people that I have had the pleasure of getting to know throughout my life.
Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success.”
Something that has amazed me over the years is how no matter which Christian community I have been a part of, there are a whole host of people ready and able and willing to impart wise counsel to me whenever I faced a situation where I felt like a fish out of water.
These relationships have been such a source of strength over the years that I would shudder to think of where I’d be at without them. When you don’t know what to do, begin forming relationships with folks who might be just a little wiser than you are. Ask questions, and listen—truly listen. Don’t just listen to reply, but listen to learn.
- Take things one day, one action, and one person at a time
I am old enough to have learned to drive before everyone used a GPS to navigate. Back in those days, we would have to memorize every part of our journey, and I would bring a map along just in case I got confused along the way and needed to stop and get my bearings.
Now that most people carry a GPS in their pocket on their smartphone, we have become accustomed to getting our directions only one section of our journey at a time. This, I have found, is a very wise approach when our problems are too big. Instead of getting overwhelmed at all that there is to do, simply work at one thing at a time. Instead of focusing on the thousand miles you have to go, focus on the next step.
I think this might be why Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and why he reminded us, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” While it helps to be wise in our actions today, as they will impact tomorrow, we would do well to take our lives simply one day at a time.