It’s Not What Happens, But How You React That Matters
Written by Tom Clark
Trials and challenges have a way of bringing out some of the best and worst in a person. What can we learn about ourselves from challenges we have faced?
The Greek philosopher Epictetus is credited with saying, “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
While I don’t agree with everything the ancient Greek philosophers said, this gives us something valuable to think about—something that is quite scriptural!
Our world is full of very sad and frustrated people who believe they must behave one way or another because of something in their past. There is no doubt that our past can and does impact us greatly. Our experiences help shape our worldview and ideas about ourselves. Both the good and the bad experiences form part of the framework that defines who and what we are. Sadly, sometimes they may leave deep mental, emotional and even physical wounds from which we must recover.
But it’s important to remember that as difficult as parts of our past may have been, the past cannot and does not take away our present freedom of choice—to choose how we will react and live!
Do we just react?
In Matthew 5:39-41 Jesus instructed us to turn the other cheek (if someone hits us) and go the extra mile (if we are compelled to carry something). He was describing a strength of character that allows us to choose how we will respond to circumstances that are beyond our control.
The natural human reaction to an offense is usually the law of “tit for tat”—you hurt me, so I’ll hurt you.
With this approach, there is little thought, planning or character involved. There is simply a reaction, most often motivated by anger or revenge. To the human mind, justice is served when we “give as good as we get.”
This approach is demonstrated time and again with children. They respond in a hurtful manner toward a child who hurt them. We see this as the immaturity of a child, but have we as adults outgrown that base reaction?
A reasoned response yields different results
There are many contemporary examples of siblings who grew up in the same household and under the same circumstances, but made very different choices in life. Perhaps a parent was addicted to drugs or alcohol or was neglectful or abusive. Maybe a parent was absent, or maybe the children never even met one of their parents. All these are very sad situations and far too common.
However, it is not uncommon to find children from the same family, who experienced the same difficulties in life, but who have had their lives turn out very differently. Take, for example, a family with two sons, in which the father was an extreme alcoholic. Both sons experienced all the problems of having an alcoholic parent (including financial and emotional instability, lack of parental guidance and a very poor example of how to live).
But when the boys are both grown, we may find that one son grew up to be a drunk, who struggles with all the same problems as his father, while the other is sober and a successful businessman, husband and father.
We might ask each son why he grew up to be the way he is, and both could answer truthfully:
“Because my father was a drunk.”
They responded to the exact same circumstances—but very differently.
The lesson for Christians is that it’s important we react in a godly manner to whatever happens. The apostle Peter wrote: “For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20).
This is the example set by our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ. Peter continued: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (verses 21-22).
Jesus Christ experienced hatred, abuse, injustice, attacks of every sort, even severe beating and death—yet He never allowed Himself to just react. He was careful to always have a reasoned and righteous response. He always remembered the job He came to do. He always made decisions that honored the will of the Father and fulfilled His purpose (John 6:38).
So what should we do?
The past months have been stressful in many ways, and we likely won’t be returning to life as normal anytime soon. We see people around us who are worried, scared, angry, confused, irrational or frustrated—or maybe all of the above at the same time! We may feel some of those same things ourselves!
So what should we do? How can we learn to respond more positively to trials and challenges?
Here are a couple of thoughts:
First, remember God has given us the ability to determine how we will react. We are not preprogrammed robots that can only respond one way to input or force. God told ancient Israel: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19, emphasis added). We, like Israel, have the power to choose!
Second, we should never forget that the great Creator of the universe is with us and stands ready to help, defend and guide us no matter the challenges we may face!
The author of Hebrews wrote: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have [a choice we can make]. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6).
When we take a moment to think before we respond to anything, we can quickly ask for the help and guidance of our God. He will never leave us alone and adrift in life. He is always there to provide what we need.
Our experiences help shape us for both good and bad. But always remember:
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
To learn more about making right decisions, read “7 Steps for Making Wise Decisions.”