When things go wrong, when plans fail and people let us down, how can we deal with disappointment? Here are biblical ways to stay positive in a negative world.
It’s easy to smile when everything is going great. But, lamentably, life doesn’t always unfold the way we’d like. Disappointments and setbacks have always been par for the course.
Dealing with disappointment
Sometimes it’s a temporary upset, like failing at a work or school project, being let down by a friend, not getting the job we interviewed for, or even having our plans upended by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Other times, the blows are more serious and have long-term consequences, such as:
- An automobile accident leaves you with permanent disabilities.
- A family member is diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease.
- You and your spouse learn that you cannot have children.
- Your marriage isn’t the perpetual fairy tale you’d dreamed of.
- Your adult child cuts off ties with you.
When faced with the letdowns of life, we have two choices.
We can strive to have a positive outlook, staying confident that things will work out in the long run, even if there are some major bumps along the way.
Or we can let ourselves get into a negative mind-set, becoming preoccupied with everything that’s hurting us and imagining the worst possible outcomes.
Proverbs 17:22 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (English Standard Version). Positive emotions like joy, contentment and optimism can actually improve our health and lengthen our lives.
On the other hand, harboring negative emotions like pessimism, anxiety and despair can weaken our immune system, predisposing us to illness and premature aging. Obviously, we should learn to control our negative emotions and approach life positively.
But exactly how do we do that?
Beyond the self-help gurus
Many believe it’s simply a matter of “thinking happy thoughts” and “erasing negative perceptions.” Motivational speakers and self-help gurus make claims like, “If you stay positive, good things will be drawn to you,” and, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Our culture is saturated with the view that “positive thinking” is a key to success.
The trouble with this approach is it attributes mystical powers to our thoughts. This is something Barbara Ehrenreich addresses in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009).
She explains that a core concept in the positive-thinking movement is that “our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. … It requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and ‘negative’ thoughts” (p. 5).
The Bible does urge us to meditate on what’s uplifting (Philippians 4:8), and certainly what we allow into our minds can affect our behavior. But the human-centered positive-thinking movement is another thing altogether, with some very unbiblical teachings.
We can’t create pleasant circumstances just by wishful thinking, pumping up our mood or pretending things are better than they are.
A truly positive outlook is a state of inner peace and contentment that comes from a relationship with God and is not dependent on whether we’re facing good or bad times. We can approach trials positively because we understand God is using them to accomplish His work in and through us.
Thankfully, the Bible is filled with guidance for how to stay positive amid adversity.
Here are seven key biblically based strategies:
1. Look to God
Recently I was talking with a friend who had just returned home from cancer surgery. She knew the seriousness of her situation. Her medical bills were piling up, she couldn’t work, and her prognosis wasn’t exactly rosy. Yet she was cheerful and optimistic.
Her words couldn’t have been more true: “Ultimately, I know I’m in God’s hands. He’s my Father and watches over me. If I have to fight this disease, so be it. With God’s help, I will get through this.”
The starting point to a truly positive outlook is to learn how to live to please God, and then to rely on the help He promises. He is our provider and protector. He sustains us when we’re sinking in despair and props us up when we’re weak (Isaiah 41:10). God is our refuge, rock, fortress, deliverer, strength, shield, help and stronghold (see our “Encouraging Bible Verses” pages for more).
We must learn to be dependent on God and diligently seek Him through Bible study, prayer, meditation and fasting. James 4:8 tells us, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” Psalm 50:15 says if we call upon God in the day of trouble, He will deliver us.
Our human strengths, resources and abilities can only take us so far. God is our one sure foothold in life and the only source of help we can count on when times get tough. When we look to Him, we can rest assured He’ll take care of us. The more we trust Him, the more joy and optimism we’ll exude.
2. Think of setbacks as growth opportunities
During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, it struck me that the people who were able to stay upbeat through it all were the ones who saw potential good coming out of the situation. This was true whether individuals lost jobs or businesses, got sick from the virus, had to cancel big events they had planned, or were just having their normal lives put on hold.
Several friends told me how they had more time for prayer, Bible study and physical exercise, or that they were now able to have family meals together. Sheltering in place got them to realign their priorities and establish new, constructive routines.
When the stock market plunged, one person who lost most of his savings shared with me how it caused him to rethink where he was putting his trust.
To be truly positive, we need to stay focused on God’s “big picture.” God is working out a great purpose through the hardships we endure.Adversity can provide opportunities to become closer to God and grow spiritually. It can help us learn to trust God for everything, strengthen our dependence on Him and deepen our faith. We can build patience, perseverance and other godly character traits. (Learn more in our online article “Turning Adversities Into Blessings.”)
However, we have to be open to the lessons. If we’re oblivious to what God is trying to teach us, the problems we face will only be a source of anguish and frustration.
On the other hand, suffering with a purpose leads to true positivity.
3. Face the negatives
We won’t make our disappointments and problems disappear by refusing to acknowledge they exist.
In Positively Powerless (2015), L.L. Martin explains that negative emotions like pain and hurt can actually be constructive, motivating us to make important life changes and helping us identify what course of action needs to be taken.
He writes in his introduction: “Sometimes the truth hurts. It convicts. It may humble us and open our eyes. We need these humbling moments more often than we care to admit in order to grow into the likeness of our Savior.”
We need to see the negatives about ourselves and the circumstances we find ourselves in, so we can learn the lessons God wants us to learn.
To be truly positive means we address the negatives head-on, with God’s help. As we do, we’ll grow closer to God and have more of the confidence and joy that can only come from Him.
Of course, while we should be aware of the negatives, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to obsess over them (as that is bad for our physical, emotional and spiritual health). Philippians 4:8—thinking about what’s virtuous—should describe how we generally live our lives.
4. Surround yourself with uplifting people
The Bible warns us that “evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Corinthians 15:33). We can’t help but be influenced by the company we keep. If we spend a lot of time with people who are negative, we’ll likely become that way ourselves. We should choose friends who will have a positive effect on us.
This is especially important when we’re feeling down. We need spiritually mature people we can talk to, who will listen to our concerns and help steer us toward solutions. If we’re not thinking clearly, they’ll tell us, and they’ll also assure us they’ll pray for us. Whenever I’ve had one of these kinds of chats, I’ve always come away with a can-do attitude.
Those who have faced similar ordeals can be especially encouraging to talk with. They’ve lived through the pain and may have some valuable insights. To know that someone else has been in the same situation and come out of it okay can make us feel more hopeful. But timing is everything. We shouldn’t unload on someone who is currently in the same mess we are and is consumed by misery, as that might bring both parties down even further.
5. Practice gratitude
It can be hard to be thankful in the midst of a trial. Yet the Bible instructs us, “In everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We should continually remind ourselves of all God has done for us. This helps us build our trust in Him, put our troubles into perspective and stay positive.
Several years ago, a friend lost her home in a fire. Just about everything her family owned was destroyed. Yet she summed up the situation like this: “My family and I all got out safely, so I can’t get too upset about anything.”
She was grateful that she and her family weren’t harmed, which filled her with peace and contentment.
We should certainly express our thankfulness to God in our daily prayers. Some people also keep a gratitude journal, writing down several things they are grateful for each day. No matter how bleak our present circumstances, there’s always something to appreciate.
6. Be service-oriented
Something that kept me going during the COVID-19 lockdown was using the extra time I suddenly had to send cards and letters to friends, particularly those who lived alone or were sick, and to bake pies for our elderly neighbors. Focusing my energy on what might encourage others helped me stop obsessing over my own disappointments.
Serving is a sure way to boost our morale, because it involves doing something to build up others. This, in turn, gives us a sense of purpose and satisfaction and something good to dwell on. Serving should be an integral part of our lives.
When possible, we might serve by inviting guests to dinner, being a good listener to someone, doing some yardwork for a neighbor, tutoring a child, visiting nursing home residents, praying for those who are suffering, volunteering at a community service organization, and so on.
7. Remember God’s “big picture”
If we get into a negative mind-set, it’s not just a matter of being preoccupied with what’s unpleasant. It’s also a reflection of only thinking about the here and now—of giving all our attention to what has us disappointed, upset and worried right now, while our understanding of God’s plan, His coming Kingdom and His purpose for us lies buried.
To be truly positive, we need to stay focused on God’s “big picture.” God is working out a great purpose through the hardships we endure (see our online article “Through Many Tribulations”). He is our master potter, molding and shaping us to be like Him, and using our trials to build in us the experience, character and wisdom necessary to be in His Kingdom.
The pain we endure is real, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise, as the positive-thinking movement suggests. However, we do need to put our difficulties in proper perspective and try to view our circumstances from God’s standpoint.
The apostle Paul observed, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Truly, our problems are inconsequential when compared to the future that awaits us in God’s Kingdom.
It’s a given that we’re going to face hardships and disappointments from time to time. Life is not always enjoyable. Sometimes it can seem rather brutal.
But we can still be joyful, optimistic and positive if we’re looking to God, striving to live His way of life, and putting our ultimate hope in His coming Kingdom.