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” (Eccl. 3:3–4). Sometimes God calls us to be part of an institution when it’s passing through a season of extraordinary difficulty, decline, or dysfunction. This could be a family with young kids trying to make ends meet with both parents working; or a church growing so rapidly that its infrastructure can’t keep up with its numbers, leaving everyone overworked and stretched thin; or a work environment in which a dysfunctional transition is causing anger, suspicion, and mistrust among employees; or a business rapidly downsizing because of the economy.
It’s difficult to overstate how hard it can be to stay positive when we’re 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. As C. S. Lewis observed in The Horse and His Boy, “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 it’s both true and profound. All other factors being equal, betterment tends to beget betterment; decline tends to produce decline.
What do we do when we’re in a negative season or environment? How do we keep from getting sucked into the stress and dysfunction? How do we stop the momentum of decline—in relationships, effectiveness, size, and so on? How do we retain the fruits of the Spirit when their opposites swirl all around us?
If the problem is severe, you probably need to extract yourself from the environment. But when God calls you to endure in difficult environments, here are five strategies I’ve learned to abide by.
1. Give everyone, including yourself, extra grace.
Paradoxically, grace is most difficult to extend to others during times it’s most needed. When everyone is pushed amd stressed, our normal patterns of overlooking an insult (Prov. 12:16) or forgiving from the heart (Matt. 18:35) are probably reduced without us even knowing it. Let’s say my normal capacity to absorb a negative remark without letting it bother 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 it’s plummeted to a 2 or even a 1. We get so focused on the negativity around us we don’t notice what’s happening to our own spiritual and emotional state.
When in a negative environment, 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. “Why not rather be wronged?” Paul asked (1 Cor. 4:7). If I enter the day expecting problems and seeing them as an opportunity to extend grace, they don’t throw me off when they come. “Lord, give me opportunities to extend grace today” is a good morning prayer.
Of course, this isn’t easy. Being gracious in ungracious settings can feel mildly like getting crucified. Doing so requires feasting our hearts on Jesus’s love. As a general rule, we have about as much grace to extend outward to others as we are drinking in from Christ ourselves. And we’re free to be vulnerable about our own shortcomings only to the degree we’re 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. Take a Sabbath rest. Disconnect from the negativity and engage with the Lord, and bring your stress level back down so that your 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 thing I’ve learned, though, is that there’s often nothing we’ve done to bring about negative behavior. People around us often hurt in far deeper ways than we realize, and their negative behavior often flows from that suffering. Of course, it’s always true some criticism is warranted and other criticism isn’t—but in a stressful, negative season, the percentage of unwarranted, unhelpful criticism increases significantly. It’s helpful, then, to adjust our expectations. We must remind ourselves, There may be extra negativity floating around today. But it’s not about me. There’s a bigger picture here.
When we remember that, it liberates us from self-defense mode to look for the hurts/needs/problems underneath whatever criticism or negativity we’re expecting. That opens up doors for ministry to the person offering the criticism or expressing the negativity. Amazingly, I’ve discovered some of the ripest ministry opportunities arrive when we respond graciously to negativity.
3. Simplify your goals and productivity.
One of the most powerful mechanisms for fighting against the momentum of negativity is to focus on what you love about your job. Eliminate and concentrate wherever possible. A negative environment isn’t the time to take on new, amorphous projects outside your gifting; it’s time to refocus on the basics—your passion and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Set attainable goals. Define what success looks like in your circumstances, and aim for that goal. If you have subordinates working under you, cast your vision of what success looks like in your circumstances for them, and try to encourage them in it.
4. Take care to seek God’s perspective.
We often forget to consider what God is doing in a negative environment. It’s helpful to ask, “What does God think about this?” Focusing on his perspective bulwarks us against others’ misinterpretations and unhelpful analyses. While we always need to discern between what’s helpful and unhelpful in what others say, this is especially vital in a negative environment. People often want to find something to blame, so they say things that are just flat-out wrong, and perhaps make the situation worse.
Tune out what others say if it’s inconsistent with what God says. Discern the voice of the Holy Spirit by its effects and character; it comes with “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). Even his confrontation won’t 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 replace it.
5. Ask God to make you an agent of good in the situation.
It may seem impossible to succeed in your environment. But seeing a situation as hopeless isn’t consistent with the character of the gospel. God has given us everything we need 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 special doors for us to do good to others amid 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” (2 Cor. 9:8).
And a final thought: remember that it won’t last forever. In God’s goodness, winter’s freezes eventually melt away, and the sun comes out again.