Institutions, like the weather, have different seasons. There are springtime harvests, summer droughts, autumn wanings, and winter freezes. They have “a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:3-4). Sometimes God calls us to be a part of an institution when it is passing through a season of extraordinary difficulty, decline, or dysfunction. It could be, for example, a family with several young children trying to make ends meet when both parents are working; or a church that is growing so rapidly that its infrastructure can’t keep up with its numbers, so everyone is overworked and stretched thin; or a work environment where a dysfunctional transition is causing anger, suspicion and mistrust among the employees; or a business that is rapidly downsizing because of the economy.
Its difficult to overstate how hard it can be to stay positive when we are put in a negative or stressful environment. In such an atmosphere, unhappiness and even distrust can tend to spread exponentially; they gain the force of momentum. C.S. Lewis said at one point in the Narnia books, “when things go wrong, you’ll find they usually go on getting worse for some time; but when things once start going right they often go on getting better and better.” It might seem like a simple statement, but I think its both true and profound: all other factors being equal, betterment tends beget more betterment; decline tends to produce further decline.
What do we do when we are in a negative environment or season? How do we not get sucked into the stress and dysfunction? How do we stop the momentum of decline (in relationships, effectiveness, size, etc.)? How do we stay within the fruits of the Spirit when their opposites are swirling all around us?
If the problem is severe, its probably worth considering whether it may be necessary to extract yourself from the environment. But sometimes God calls us to remain in bad circumstances, just as He sent Hagar back to abusive Sarai in Genesis 16. When God calls to endure in negative environments, here are a couple of strategies I’ve learned. I’m sure we could add on a lot more, but these are a start.
1) Give everyone, including yourself, extra grace. Paradoxically, grace is most difficult to extend to others during seasons in which it is most highly needed. When everyone is pushed, when everyone is stressed, our normal patterns of overlooking an insult (Proverbs 12:16) or forgiving our brother/sister from the heart (Matthew 18:35) are probably reduced without us even being aware of it. So lets say my normal capacity to absorb a negative remark without letting it get to me is, on a scale of 1 to 10, an 8. Push my stress level up, and it drops to a 5; add on fatigue, discouragement, and conflict, and its probably plummeted to a 2 or even a 1. And all of that can happen, I think, without us even being fully aware of it. We get so focused on the negativity around us that we don’t notice what its doing to our own spiritual and emotional state.
When in a negative environment, we have to counteract this momentum by extending more grace than ordinarily would be necessary. I find it helps if I go into my day looking for specific, practical ways to extend grace to others. Paul said, “why not rather be wronged?” (I Corinthians 4:7). If I go into my day expecting problems, and seeing them as an opportunity to extend grace, then they don’t throw me off when they come. A good prayer to start off the day with is, “Lord, give me opportunities to extend grace today.”
Of course, that isn’t easy. Being gracious in an ungracious setting can feel mildly like getting crucified. Doing so requires feasting our hearts on Jesus’ love each day. As a general rule, we have about as much grace to extend outwards to others as we are drinking in from Christ ourselves. And we free to be vulnerable about our own shortcomings only to the degree that we are walking in the reality of our justification.
If you’re in a negative environment, take extra time to prepare your heart before walking into the war zone. A huge piece of this often taking taking Sabbath rest, during which we can disconnect from the negativity and engage with the Lord, and bring our stress level back down so that our forgiveness capacity goes back up to normal.
2) Make extra effort not to take things personally. My tendency is to take things personally. If someone criticizes me, my instinctive reaction is often: “what did I do that brought this criticism?” One of the things I’ve learned, however, is that sometimes there is absolutely nothing we have done to bring about negative behavior towards us. People around us are often hurting in far deeper ways than we realize, and their negative behavior towards others often flows from that. Of course, its always true that some criticism is warranted and other criticism is not—but in a stressful, negative season, the percentage of unwarranted, unhelpful criticism increases significantly. Its helpful, therefore, to adjust our expectations. We have to remind ourselves, “there may be extra negativity floating around today. But its not about me. There is a bigger picture here.”
When we remember that, it frees us from being in self-defense mode to look for the hurts/needs/problems that are underneath whatever criticism or negativity we are expecting. And that opens up doors for ministry to the person offering the criticism, or expressing the negativity. Amazingly, I have discovered that some of the ripest ministry opportunities come up when we respond graciously to negativity.
3) Simplify your goals and productivity. One of the most powerful mechanisms of fighting against the momentum of negativity is to focus on what you love about your job. Eliminate and concentrate wherever your can. A negative environment is not the time to take on new, amorphous projects that are outside of your gifting; its time to refocus on the basics, on your passion, on what gets you out of bed in the morning. Set attainable goals. Define what success looks like in your circumstances, and aim for that. If you have subordinates working under you, cast your vision to them of what success looks like in your circumstances, and try to encourage them.
4) Take special care to seek God’s perspective. We often forget to consider what God is doing in the midst of a negative environment. Its always helpful to ask, “what does God think about this?” Focusing on God’s perspective bulwarks us against the misinterpretations and unhelpful analyses of people. While we always need to discern between what is helpful and unhelpful in what others say, this is especially important in a negative environment. In such an environment, people often want to find something to blame, and therefore they often say things that are just flat out wrong, or can even make the situation worse. Tune out what others say if its inconsistent with what the Lord is saying. The voice of the Holy Spirit can be discerned by its effects and its character. It comes with “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (I Corinthians 14:3). Even His confrontation does not lead to condemnation, but to conviction, and ultimately to peace and restoration. Get God’s perspective on your situation, dig yourself into it, and don’t let any human perspectives to replace it.
5) Ask the Lord to make you an agent of good in the situation. It may seem impossible to succeed in your environment. But seeing a situation as completely hopeless is not consistent with the character of the gospel. God has given us the resources we need, in His Son and His Spirit, to fulfill Romans 12:21: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The problem is never ultimately with our circumstances, but with our responsiveness to the Lord in those circumstances. If we ask for God’s blessing, He will open up special doors for us to do good to others in the midst of our situation. In fact, the negativity may be precisely the opportunity we need to show the love of Christ to those around us. “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (II Corinthians 9:8).
And a final thought: remember that it won’t last forever. In God’s goodness, winter freezes eventually melt away, and the sun comes out again.