How to Grow in Grace: Step Three

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

Step Three: Rightly Pay Attention to Your Circumstances

Step three in the process of change continues to look outward, but now challenges you to start considering your circumstances. Often times, to our peril, we make this the first step because it is what is most obvious to us in the moment. The tricky part is that there is a right way and wrong way to view our circumstances. Before we talk about that, let’s define what we mean by our circumstances or situation.

What Do We Mean by "Circumstances?"

Your circumstances encompass everything outside of your soul or inner person beginning with your physical body. The Bible uses the word “world” and “body” to capture the context in which we live. This includes blessings and sufferings. You don’t exist in a vacuum. You exist as a physical person in a specific historical context. This is completely unique. Here is a diagram listing a few components that make up your "situation:"

concentriccircles.jpeg
  • Brain: We all have brains that determine our personalities and predispose us to a host of strengths and weaknesses. All of us are constitutionally wired differently. Our brains are also impacted by the fall of humanity. We are all broken at some level and exhibit various mental strengths and frailties.
  • Body: We have bodies that have strengths and weaknesses. They too are broken in different ways and impact how we respond to difficulty.
  • Event and Relational History: We have good and bad things that have happened to us, along with people who have blessed us or hurt us.
  • Political/Cultural/Socio-economic Context: We exist in a context that impacts the degree to which we may struggle.
  • Gender: Our gender plays a role in how we struggle.
  • Religious Upbringing: The beliefs that shaped us growing up influence our struggle.
  • Age: The longer we live, the more grief and loss we experience. This can make us wiser or more prone to anxiety.
  • Race/Ethnicity: Whether we are the majority or minority culture in a given context will also shape the way we experience our circumstances.

This list is not exhaustive. You may be able to think of other external shaping influences. Each one can be nuanced to fit every person who has ever lived. No two people are alike.

Now that we have defined our circumstances, let’s take a look at the wrong and right ways to view them.

The Wrong Way to View Your Circumstances

Wrong Way #1: Maximizing our Circumstances

If John and Sally are arguing, what is the most immediate thing that they might focus on? The other person! My problem, says John, is Sally. And Sally would likely say the same: John is her problem. Or suppose Arthur has had a long day at work and now he has a headache. When he comes home, he finds that he is agitated with his children. He might likely say that he is irritable with his children because of his headache. He also might blame his children. Concluding that the reason you do what you do is completely due to things outside of you would be a wrong way to consider your circumstances.

Wrong Way #2: Minimizing our Circumstances

On the other hand, the other error runs in the opposite direction. You minimize yours or others circumstances and don’t factor them in at all. Suppose Joe struggles with anxiety. At first glance, you might think that his anxiety is irrational, and that if Joe simply changed his thinking about possible bad outcomes, his behavior would change. But what if you got to know Joe and you found out that he had recently returned from a second tour of duty in the Marine Corps and had narrowly escaped being killed? That knowledge about his past experience would significantly change the way you think about and treat Joe. If you fail to factor in circumstances, you may minimize patience and compassion with yourself and others.

The Right Way to View Your Circumstances: Acknowledging Your Circumstances

If we don’t want to maximize or minimize our circumstances, then what are we to do? We must see them in their proper perspective. You want to view your circumstances as the context of your current struggle. Doing this allows you to forge ahead in a proper direction as you depend upon God’s grace.

Blessing and Difficulties

It is important to see that in all of these areas, we experience blessing and suffering. Consider your relational history. All of us have had people who have loved and blessed us and some who have hurt us. For example, if you have suffered abuse as a child, it is imperative that you take that seriously as you seek to grow in grace. This can be applied in each of the categories listed above.

When you are seeking to grow in grace, there are two things to keep in mind. 1. Look for the blessings and be thankful to God, not prideful and self sufficient. 2. Look for the sufferings and be dependent on God, not bitter. James puts it this way in James 1:9-10:

9 Believers in humble (poverty) circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.

James is helping us consider our circumstances rightly. If you see suffering, remember that God is for you and loves you. If you see blessings, remain humble.

Application

Consider each of the above categories and write down the blessings and sufferings you have experienced or are currently experiencing. As you do this, give thanks for the strengths and blessings in each area. Also, pay attention to the areas where you are vulnerable. This will increase your patience as you grow in grace and it will increase your compassion as you consider others in the same way.

Copyright © 2017 Timothy S. Lane

How to Grow in Grace

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to add "steps" that are practical ways of thinking about the process of growth in grace. If you want to be alerted each time the next post goes live, you can sign up to receive e-news here:

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.