By Brad Hambrick
Let’s start by being honest. During a season of extended quarantine, it’s hard not to grow irritable, anxious, discouraged, and weary. There’s a bit of relief in just admitting, “I’m struggling,” and realizing you’re not alone. When you feel pressure to do as well as you imagine everyone else is doing, that only compounds the intensity of whatever unpleasant emotion(s) you’re prone to feel during quarantine.
Here’s the thing about a sour disposition: it’s contagious and it gathers momentum. If you have others in your home or apartment, your negative attitude is likely to spread. Also, as you feed your negative attitude with more “cognitive airtime,” it only gets heavier. So, while it’s natural to be struggling with our attitude right now, it’s not healthy. We can be honest about it (authentic) and make efforts to change (grow) at the same time.
So, let’s ask the question, “What section of Scripture captures the emotional experience we’re having right now?” I’ll propose that one excellent place to look is the exodus account. You may say, “This feels more like being a captive in Egypt.” I get your point and feel your pain. But I’m focusing on the emotional experience more than the physical experience.
What was the defining attribute of the emotional experience of God’s people during the exodus? Grumbling. If you read the books of Exodus and Numbers, you’ll notice that God’s people grumbled frequently. This seems to be one of the chief concerns God had about His people during this time.
Why is that? Was God the irritable parent who had been cooped up with His children too long and started sniping back, “Stop complaining! If I hear one more negative word, you don’t want to know what I’ll do!”? While that’s humorous to consider, I don’t think its accurate.
Let’s think about what grumbling does. Grumbling does three things:
- Grumbling fixates on something bad (cognitive focus).
- Grumbling believes that this bad thing is the most important thing about life (emotional impact).
- Grumbling talks about the bad thing frequently (interpersonal effect).
Let’s look at one example of what God’s people grumbled about during their exodus journey.
“Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’” Numbers 11:4-6
Do you miss getting to go out to eat? Me too.
God’s people had better food options in Egypt. Food was easier to come by. Their spice cabinet allowed them to make the food tastier. On their journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land they grew weary of eating manna three meals a day.
Now we begin to see the problem with grumbling. Grumbling reduces life to a sound bite and focuses that soundbite on the worst parts of life. So, what is the alternative to grumbling? I would suggest it is encouragement. Let’s contrast the three things that encouragement does with grumbling.
- Encouragement focuses on good things within the hard.
- Encouragement believes that the good things God has done and is doing are most important.
- Encouragement talks about the good things frequently.
On their exodus journey the cognitive airtime God’s people gave to grumbling consumed their opportunity to consider, “Well, the menu may be monotonous, but we’re free and going to better place. The journey is hard, but I trust the God who freed us from Egypt to get us to the destination.”
Notice that healthy encouragement is not all positive. Fake-happy is just pretending and people who relate that way are annoying (maybe, I’m getting grumpy as I type). Encouragement can acknowledge a monotonous menu and the difficultly of the journey. It just doesn’t declare them most important. Don’t pretend that hard things aren’t hard. Just don’t let hard things be the defining thing about your day.
Now we can see that encouragement is both healthier and holier than grumbling. The health benefits of a positive attitude which focuses on the blessings of life are bountiful. According to WebMD they include better physical health, greater resistance to illness (seems important right now), lower blood pressure, better stress management, better pain tolerance, more creativity, greater problem-solving skill, clearer thinking, better mood, better coping skills, and less depression. Sign me up!
But healthiness and holiness are not the same thing. Healthiness is doing what is best for us (actions) because we want a better life (motive). Because God loves us, His ways are healthy; in the same way that a loving parent’s expectations for their child will result in a flourishing life. But there were plenty of good things our parents wanted us to do that we just got tired of and chose to do our own thing.
Holiness is doing what honors God (actions) because we love him (motive). A desire for holiness is what sustains our morale when we’d rather just quit or don’t care anymore. Think of the parents who get up at all hours of the night to care for a crying infant. Do they feel like it? No. But love compels them. Love calls them beyond their self-centeredness (i.e., “I just want some sleep”). Without a desire for holiness, pursuing healthiness – focusing on encouragement over grumbling – in hard times is just good intentions.
So, I ask an important question: do you have the kind of relationship with God that compels you to pursue following God’s teaching because you love Him, not just because it works? Here are some questions, with key passages of Scripture, to help you make this assessment.
- Do you recognize that we live in a broken world where things like pandemics happen (Romans 8:22-23)? During a global crisis, we can shout “Amen!” to verses like these.
- Have you seen that the brokenness of the world is present in you (Romans 3:23)? The problem isn’t just “out there.” Doubtless you’ve gotten to know your own sinfulness more acutely in recent weeks. Quarantine didn’t create our sinfulness. It only reveals it.
- Have you recognized that sin is not something we can will away (Romans 5:6)? Sin is not a problem we can just “try harder” and make it go away. We were born with a self-centered nature.
- Have you accepted that God sent Jesus to live the life we should have lived and pay the price our sin deserved(Romans 10:9-10)? Accurate ideas about God don’t save you. A restored relationship with God by placing your faith in what Christ did on your behalf saves you. It is one thing to know that God is available. It is another thing to embrace God’s offer.
- Does this forgiveness and hope change how you respond to temporal difficulties (Romans 8:38-39)? After we place our faith in Christ, hard things don’t cease to exist. They just become incapable of separating us from what is most important.
The gospel is the only foundation for ultimate encouragement. If you don’t have ultimate encouragement, then any attempt to remedy the unpleasant emotions you feel come across as “going to your happy place” or “counting to 10.” Admit it, that’s what you thought this article would say and were ready to dismiss as trite and cliché.
But what about temporal encouragement? Ultimate encouragement without temporal encouragement feels like “just wait for heaven” kind of advice. That’s like saving all your money for retirement and being miserable until you get there. It doesn’t seem very satisfying. God cares about you here and now.
For growing in temporal encouragement, consider Philippians 4:8-9.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
This was Paul’s instruction to an early church on how to endure hard times. He wrote those words from prison and was well-acquainted with hard times (II Corinthians 11:23-28), so he was applying these words as he penned them. My suggestion is that you use it as a scavenger hunt during your day. Paul says, “Think about these things.” Well, when your day is monotonous, that means you must, “Look for these things,” because your mind isn’t going to drift in an encouraging direction.
- Just – Where do you see people going out of their way to make wrong things right and hard things better? Search for examples. Share them via social media. Cultivate encouraging conversations around them. You don’t just encourage yourself when you do this, you spark creativity about how we can be salt and light during a dark time (Matthew 5:13-16).
- Pure – Where do you see honesty, integrity, or vulnerability? It may be in a friend who confides their emotional struggles. Affirm their courage to not “taint” the truth to try to appear more together than they feel.
- Lovely – Where do you see people using their talent to make uplifting music, writing, or art to encourage others? Share that. Beauty reminds us the best things in life and pulls out of dark thoughts. Watch a sunset. Walk in a forest and marvel at nature.
- Commendable – What are simple acts of virtue and maturity you see in the people in your home? Affirm those things as evidence of God’s grace in their life. Seize every opportunity to encourage them. Go out of your way to catch people doing something right.
- Excellent – Who is using this extra time of quarantine to make a good thing great? Affirm the quality of their work. Consider what you can take from good to great during this time and enjoy the process. This is a way to give meaning to monotony.
- Worthy of Praise – Find ways to encourage any healthcare workers and workers in businesses (i.e., groceries, pharmacies, etc.) you know for the sacrifices they are currently making. Invite others to participate in these efforts in appropriate ways.
Notice what Paul tied these things to – the readers’ observations and experience with him. Paul lived his life to be an example of encouragement during hard times for others. He probably picked the habit up from his good friend Barnabas who mentored him in the early years after he became a Christian (Acts 4:36).
Remember, that these temporal encouragements are merely “thought diversions” without the ultimate hope of Christ. With Christ, however, we don’t have to feel like the orchestra playing beautiful music on the sinking Titanic. With the foundation of ultimate hope, encouragement mirrors grumbling in another way: it’s contagious and it gathers momentum. During this hard season of quarantine be an agent of spreading both ultimate and temporal encouragement to counter the negative momentum that is so pervasive in times like these.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC.