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What do you do when life doesn’t work out?

"How do you keep hope alive when nothing in your life turned out how you wanted it to?” This was a question I received recently on my Instagram Q & A from a dear friend. I thought about it again this morning while praying and I thought I’d expand on my original thoughts. Mostly because I don’t think my friend is the only one out there asking this question.

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Life is hard. Often, it’s hard in the ways we didn’t expect when we started out as adults. Most of us assume life is a challenge to be overcome through education, hard work, and a willingness to pursue the things we desire. While that works out for a maddeningly small percentage of us, in large part, that’s not most people’s story. I love how Ben Rector says it, “The hardest part of growing up ’s not getting old, it’s learning how the real world goes.”. The real world is hard, and it’s challenges we don’t see coming. It disrupts what we thought our life would be. Some of it is our own failure. Some of it is the failures of the people around us. Sometimes we just get dealt a terrible hand of cards.

No matter what the cause is, we can’t change what’s been up until now, but we can change how we move forward from here.

Let’s start here: Life isn’t about what you do, but who you become. The illusion we face is that life is like a mountain we climb. We think if we can just reach its summit, we’ll discover the long-alluded contentment we’ve been pursuing. That there is a point in this life when we arrive at the top. We imagine we’ll build our proverbial home there and enjoy our remaining years free from challenges and pain. However, life isn’t like a mountain, it’s more like a river. We are like the water that flows from bank to bank, unknowing of the bends, waterfalls, and dams that are ahead. All we can do is flow in the direction we intend and take each challenge as it comes until we are spilled out into eternity and added to the ocean of God’s family.

Point being life isn’t about where you arrive. It’s not about what you build or achieve; it’s about who you become. Everything we do. Everything from building a career, raising a family, building friendships, accumulating property, all of it is a mechanism meant to shape our hearts for eternity. We take nothing with us when we land on eternity’s shores. Nothing from this life but the heart that has been formed as we flowed from bank to bank, career to career, family to family, person to person. This should change the Christian’s expectations for what success looks like in this life.

It changes the questions we ask to evaluate our life. The questions now become: Did I love the people in my life well? Did I seek the face of God in every good and hard time, and reflect His character? Did I see pain as the opportunity it is to learn? These questions matter. They help us see where we’ve flowed with the water, and where we’ve let the sharp turns, unexpected obstacles, and failures beat the life out of our heart.

When reflecting on my life, I try not to evaluate it based on what I have done. But on who have I become in the process. That’s the only life evaluation that truly matters when I stand before God.

Next, we need to learn to mourn well.

One of my favorite preachers once said:

"Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that he's given you."

We don’t mourn enough as Americans. Mostly because I don’t think we know what mourning is. Mourning isn’t self-pity or taking time to feel sorry for yourself. Mourning is pausing to acknowledge truth. The truth of our pain, disappointment, failure, and loss. Not so that you can stay there, but so that you can carry on past it down the banks of life.

(Listen my sermon Blessed Are Those Who Mourn here: LINK)

In our current times a lack of mourning has led to a culture that does everything it can to push past the pain and loss of this life. We fill our lives with binge watching shows, sports and entertainment, alcohol and substances, porn, and meaningless sexual exploits. Our culture will do anything to not have to face the truth of our disappointment. The truth of the areas we have fallen short in life. The truth of our regret.

Mourning is our pausing to learn from the pain. Pausing to feel the loss. Weep over the failure and be truthful about the disappointment. Mourning is having a memorial for a relationship we lost, or the opportunity we squandered. It allows us to recognize endings, so we can start new beginnings.

Want hope in this season of disappointment, change, loss, or heartbreak? Take time to write down what you lost. Maybe it was the dream of a family you still don’t have. Maybe it was a career that you failed to achieve. Maybe it’s a relationship that seems irreparable. (If it’s the loss of a loved one, this process is a bit different, and maybe that’s a post for a different day). Write down what you lost, what you looked forward to, what you loved about whatever it was. Write it all down. Everything. Sit before it and pray. When I say pray, I don’t mean recite a hail mary, I mean talk to God about everything you’ve written. Cry, Ugly cry even, pour out to God the pain and the sadness over how these things didn’t happen. Maybe you do this multiple times. Repeat as often as you need until the splinter of it is out of your heart completely and no longer causing infection. Then take all the writings, everything you’ve written down. Pick it up, throw it away, and move on. Bury what could have been and find the comfort of moving forward.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matt 5:4

If it comes back up in a month or year from now, remind yourself that while it was sad, you’re moving forward from what wasn’t on to what still can be.

Finally, get a vision for your new life, and embrace it. You can’t change what has been, but you can change right now, today, this moment. There is gold still inside of you to be mined. There are still things for you to do. There is a whole life still to be lived and a heart still yet to be shaped inside of you.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is ask this question: What do I want people to say about me at my funeral? I think this question is everything. The answer reveals the basis of who you want to be as you move forward. What do you want to be the memory of your life on this planet? Take your answer to that question and turn it into a life statement that you put before you on a regular basis and use it to evaluate how you’re doing.

I have a statement like this, and I evaluate it every year on my birthday. My statement is three long sentences, but encapsulates everything I’m after:

“I will love God more each year than I did the year before. I will love people well and be loyal to them. I will be a catalyst for movements of God.”

When life takes crazy turns, when I lose my way, when the pain of disappointment finds me, I pull out the statement of who I want to be and remember what I’m after.

I encourage you to do them same. Life isn’t about what you do, it’s about who you become. Have an idea of who it is you want to become from this point, put it before yourself, and go after it.

This is how you keep hope alive when nothing in your life turned out how you wanted it to.

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