Life is filled with many difficulties, tragedies, roadblocks, and traumas. This is just a fact of life. When Jesus “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6.34), he is recognizing the very nature of life as it is fill with many things that can bring stress, fear, and grief. Similarly, Jesus said in John 16.33b: “You will have affliction in this world.” Yet, in both case, this recognition of the difficulties of life are paired with a reason to hope. Jesus said “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6.32) and “Take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16.33c) A critical part of Jesus’ ministry was to provide people a tangible hope that would allow them to cope with the problems of life. The first three of Jesus’ beatitudes suggests that the blessing of God is coming to those whose lives have been beaten, broken, and struggle with the realities of life.
Yet, not all coping is the same. In the psychological literature, there is a studied difference between two types of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.1 The difference between the two can ultimately be explained by the primary purpose or goal for the coping. In emotion-focused coping, a person is attempting to try to address one’s own emotional response to the stress in one’s life. Meanwhile, problem-focused coping focuses on addressing the perceived stressor so as to be able to create change. Put differently, emotion-focused coping is about adjusting ourselves to the stresses of our circumstances, whereas problem-focused coping is about adjusting our circumstances and environment.
We need both coping styles in our life. In the short-run, it is often, though not always, best to focus on addressing one’s own emotions and feelings in the face of difficulties, especially as our own immediate responses to stresses have a tendency to provoke stronger, more powerful reactions. In the long-run, however, problem-focused coping allows us to bring about better circumstances for ourselves, and hopefully others, that would then reduce the need for coping.
We may mix these coping patterns in rather dysfunctional patterns. For instance, an addict may employ a combination of emotion-focused coping in the use of substances while at the same time they may try problem-focused coping to try to stop using, to little available. While healthy people employ both styles of coping, their usage of these styles is more in harmony with their own values in conjunction with the responses they get from other people and their environment that regulates how they will cope from one circumstance to the next. Dysfunctional coping doesn’t tend to lead to the realization of one’s values and it tends to simply be based upon immediate reactions to stressors.
However, people usually tend to get caught in particular styles of coping, which can have negative impacts. Over-reliance upon emotion-focused coping can lead to long-term problems, whether it be through the (over)consumption of food and substances, perpetual avoidance of the stressor, as it fails to address the problems that beset a person. Unfortunately, some Christian teaching can unwittingly reinforce this form of coping when they focus on telling people that they are not in control, using language about “surrender,” etc. These styles tend to emphasize a passive approach to faith and life such that they actively encourage people to just accept things as they are. This can then reinforce the cycles of addiction and avoidance.
On the other hand, over-reliance on problem-focused coping to address the causes of stress in one’s life can lead to becoming a rather controlling person who seeks to change everything to fit within their understanding of peace, while at the same time being relatively emotionally brittle. This form of coping is reinforced by segments of Christian faith that emphasize some form of change, progress, and social transformation. Yet, the more people are trying to change circumstances, the more likely people are to disagree, leading to more conflicts that then cycle into more attempts to control.
The issue with the way religion can intersect with coping in dysfunctional ways is that the tendency to give flat, almost law-like construal of what it means to have faith, be a Christian, etc. Emphasize one’s lack of control and surrender, people will associate being Christian with just accepting things as they are. Emphasize change and progress, people will associate faith with attempts to modify the world. As these ways of thinking become more deeply entrenched, it leads to an overly passive or overly active style of coping. A presentation of the Gospel and faith that promotes greater integration of passive and active coping styles can produce much healthier outcomes that lead to shalom.
To take a look at one example of the integration of the two styles, take a look at Alcoholics Anonymous. Part of the (unintentional?) genius of Alcoholics Anonymous is how their 12 steps integrate both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping styles. At one level, they encourage people to recognize they are powerless over their addiction and to instead recognize and draw close to a higher power, God. Yet, they also encourage people to take inventory of their own lives and seek to make amends for the harms that they have caused and then conclude with calling members to actively take this message to other people with the same struggle. Looking as an outsider, both styles of coping are weaved together in powerful ways, allowing the person to take the steps of progress towards a healthy lifestyle and relationships, which stands at the center of shalom.
We see a similar pattern within the Beatitudes. The first three beatitudes emphasize the desolate state of people that Jesus’ preaching comes to give hope. Being poor in spirit, being meek, being in a state of mourning, Jesus’ message of hope provides a basis for emotion-focused coping, where people can begin to move from feeling brought low and cursed in the world to become exalted and blessed in the kingdom of heaven. Yet, the Beatitudes pivot when Jesus speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the injustice and deprivation that the people have been subjected to provides the seed of a new imagination for something better. Then the next three Beatitudes transition to a more active style of coping, where people become merciful, they set their purposes and intentions become wholly focused, and become active agents in bringing about shalom. While Jesus is not giving advice about how to cope, the message of the Beatitudes cast forth a vision of spiritual transformation that integrates both styles of coping. This transformation doesn’t mean one will then become insulated and immune from troubles, as Jesus’ final beatitudes make clear the state of persecution that may face, but it provides people a whole new way of life.
At the center of this integration of coping is this value for right relationships, with God and the world. When Jesus encourages people to not worry about tomorrow, he directs them to focus on God’s kingdom and righteousness. This vision can orient how we cope, as it informs us as to what we should seek and how we should go about seeking it. This vision as increasingly nurtured within us by the Holy Spirit simultaneously gives us permission to act and guides us to wait and pray.
Here is the thing: as we give ourselves to the goal of God’s Kingdom, allowing ourselves to face the stresses and pain without just accepting it as the way it is nor entrenched in trying to control and fight against it, we begin to move from the pains of life to the joy of life. Jesus said:
Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16.20-22)
Jesus’ language here is most likely not intended in the most literal sense of seeing the disciples in the same way that he was seeing them in this moment. Rather, perhaps as an intensification of God’s knowledge of believers spoken in Psalm 139, Galatians 4.8, and 1 Corinthians 10.3, Jesus’s metaphorical language suggests a more intimate recognition of his disciples. In a similar manner, Jesus speaks of the blessing of the pure in heart as coming to see God. There is a point in the Christian journey of discipleship where the reciprocal recognition from and perception of God is reached, at which places a transition takes place as the pains of life go in the background and joy begins to overtake us. As we learn to cope with the stress of life in a way that seeks God’s kingdom, we are ushered on a journey where our pain turns to joy in a way that endures even in the face of trials while at the same time leaving us blameless. At this point, we have then become fitted and prepared to be the brokers of hope, the makers of shalom, the ambassadors of righteousness, the agents of love.