Didn't See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That Nobody Expects and Everyone Faces
:An influential pastor, podcaster, and thought leader believes it's not only possible to predict life's hardest moments, but also to alter outcomes, overcome challenges, and defeat your fiercest adversaries. Founding Pastor of one of North America's most influential...
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:An influential pastor, podcaster, and thought leader believes it's not only possible to predict life's hardest moments, but also to alter outcomes, overcome challenges, and defeat your fiercest adversaries.
Founding Pastor of one of North America's most influential churches, Carey Nieuwhof wants to help you avoid and overcome life's seven hardest and most crippling challenges: cynicism, compromise, disconnectedness, irrelevance, pride, burnout, and emptiness. These are challenges that few of us expect but that we all experience at some point. If you have yet to confront these obstacles, Carey provides clear tools and guidelines for anticipation and avoidance. On the other hand, if you already feel stuck in a painful experience or are wrestling with one of these challenges, he provides the steps you need to find a way out and a way forward into a more powerful and vibrant future.
CAREY NIEUWHOF is a former lawyer and the founding pastor of Connexus Church in Barrie, Ontario, one of the most influential churches in North America. He is a much sought after speaker, podcaster, and thought leader, regularly appearing at major US conferences and events such as Orange, Exponential, and Lifeway's Pipeline Leadership Conference. With millions of listeners regularly tuning in, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.
Find Me a Happy Lawyer
How Cynicism Snuffs Out Hope
You never thought you’d be a cynic, did you? It’s not like in your sophomore year of high school beside your yearbook photo you wrote, “I hope to grow cynical and distrustful of humanity by the time I hit forty. I’m also hoping my cynicism will damage my family and make me impossible to work with. Go Ravens!”
Had you written that in high school, somebody would have insisted you go to counseling…immediately. But that wasn’t your headspace. You were optimistic, even hopeful. And by the time you hit your early twenties and shed the yoke of your parents, you were downright idealistic. You knew how to make the world a better place, and you were intent on doing it.
That’s my story too. As a young law student working in downtown Toronto, I oozed optimism about setting the world right. I wanted to practice constitutional law and argue my first case before the Supreme Court of Canada prior to my thirtieth birthday. I even discovered that someone with a positive attitude and a healthy work ethic could make a difference in a downtown firm. I was a newlywed, and halfway through my first year at the law firm, I became a new dad. I wanted to be successful yet not work the slavishly long hours young lawyers were famous for, working every night and most weekends. Some firms in the downtown core even had cots in the office and hired in-house chefs so their employees didn’t have to go home or leave the office. I didn’t want that to be me.
So I hustled hard. I arrived at the office at seven o’clock, worked through lunch, and by five o’clock managed to sneak out of the office when no one was looking so I could get home to my wife, Toni, and our newborn son. Throughout the day, I focused on being massively productive and getting outcomes our clients (and my bosses) would love.
Strangely enough, I managed to succeed. My idealism smashed through some barriers quickly. Not only did I avoid working the impossible hours lawyers typically put in, but I also actually earned the firm money—something students weren’t expected to do. The partners even offered me a job after my year of apprenticeship was over.
But I found my idealism as a budding lawyer challenged by something I noticed all around me: I was surrounded by lawyers who weren’t happy. In fact, many who hadn’t even hit age forty had become downright miserable. I remember one particular Friday when a lawyer in his thirties came into the firm waving a lottery ticket. “See this ticket?” he said. “If I win this thing, you’ll never see my face again.”
The strange part is that he owned the firm (and made a big income every year, may I add). It’s never a good sign when the owner of a thriving firm buys a lottery ticket, hoping to cash out and leave it all behind.
I used to tell my fellow law school graduates, “If you can find a happy lawyer in this city, I’ll pay you a million dollars.” I knew it was a safe bet since none of us could find a happy lawyer.
A Gnawing Negativity
How do people who seemingly have everything end up jaded and disillusioned so quickly? The juxtaposition of sleek office towers, luxury cars, tailored suits, and expensive lunches coupled with chronic dissatisfaction still surprises me. But it shouldn’t.
Jesus told us it was very possible, even probable, that we could gain the world and lose our soul. I get that. But in the trenches of success, I saw more than a happiness deficit in the people around me. I saw a much deeper and more pervasive condition: cynicism. I often wondered, How do you go from idealistic to cynical in just a few short years?
It’s a troubling question, and over the years I’ve asked it again and again. Chances are you’ve seen it happen around you too…
~  Your friend who has had her heart broken many times now thinks no man can be trusted.
~  Your optimistic college roommate who went into investment banking is convinced all his colleagues are simply in it for themselves, which is exactly why he is now too.
~  Your brother-in-law cop has seen too much too many times to believe the best about anybody anymore.
~  Even your teammate at work shoots down every idea you bring to the table, instantly listing the many reasons your strategy is doomed to fail.
The people around you can be depressing. But almost as disturbing as what we see around us is what we feel within us. Cynicism isn’t just something other people experience; it’s something you sense growing within you. While the time line may vary given your life experience, here’s what many people discover: the optimism of your teens and twenties gives way to the realism of your thirties. By the time you hit thirty, many of your once-in-love friends have split up, many of your once-enthusiastic coworkers hate their jobs, and many once-solid friendships have dissolved.
So where does the realism of your thirties lead? That depends. Unchecked, it could lead you into the sinkhole of cynicism.
I remember the first time I saw cynicism begin to grow within me. I was in my early thirties. Paradoxically, it was in pastoral ministry and not the practice of law that I felt cynicism begin to take root in my heart. Halfway through law school, I sensed God calling me into full-time ministry of some kind. I had grown up in a Christian home, and after drifting in my late teen years, I recommitted my life to Christ in my early twenties. Despite my renewed Christianity, though, law was my main focus. I never imagined leaving law to pursue preaching or congregational ministry. But that’s the amazing thing about feeling called to something: we’re taken in a new direction on an unexpected adventure.
After sensing God calling me into ministry, I took a few years to figure out exactly what that meant. In the meantime, I finished law school and completed the grueling bar admissions course. After passing the bar exam and earning my license to practice law, I shocked everyone (including myself) by heading off to seminary, purely out of obedience.
Confused about what to do next, I decided to dip my toe into congregational ministry for the first time when I was halfway through seminary. I moved with my wife and young son an hour north of Toronto to a rural community, Oro-Medonte, to begin ministry in the community in which I still live today. My assignment was to serve three small churches that hadn’t hired a full-time pastor or grown at all in more than forty years. They called me their “student pastor.” That didn’t mean I served students; it meant I served the churches as the senior pastor while still a student. It also meant the pay was half what they would pay a “real” minister. But it sounded like a call to me.
The churches were tiny. One had an average attendance of six on Sunday mornings. That included slow-moving vehicles and low-flying aircraft. When my wife, son, and I arrived, we grew the church by 50 percent overnight. It was sensational. The second of the three churches had fourteen people in church most Sundays. And the “megachurch” among the three congregations had an average attendance of twenty-three.
Naturally, when you’re in congregations that small, ministry is inherently relational. You visit people and invest in them, all the while trying to unite them around a bigger vision and better strategy that will move the mission forward. Even as our churches grew into the hundreds, I did my best to stay relationally connected. In the first decade of ministry, I was in people’s homes almost every day. It was tremendously exciting as more and more new people began to show up. I still remember the first time a couple I’ll call Roger and Mary walked in the door one Sunday morning.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Roger and Mary had very real needs. They didn’t have much money. Their subcompact car constantly broke down. They seemed to go from crisis to crisis in every area of their lives: financial, relational, emotional, and spiritual.
Despite being busy now leading hundreds of people, I decided I would help in every way I could. Even though the church they attended had a small budget, we managed to buy Roger and Mary groceries and gift cards. We gave them gas money and made sure their car stayed on the road. I went to their apartment in the south end of town (a twenty-minute drive each way) to regularly pray with them, encourage them, and help them as much as I could.
Roger and Mary kept asking for more assistance. Their phone calls became more frequent, and I often headed over in the evenings to help them navigate whatever crisis they were facing. I poured my heart and soul into praying for their family and trying to assist them in any way possible. It’s not an exaggeration to say I spent more time with their family than I spent with any other family in my first ten years of leadership.
Meanwhile, the little churches grew quickly. More and more people began showing up, and that meant I couldn’t visit people as often as I had previously. There were just too many people. Even as the churches grew, Roger and Mary demanded my personal attention. They were poor, and I knew of God’s particular emphasis on caring for the poor. In the midst of it all, I noticed a growing ingratitude and increasing neediness from this couple. At times, helping them felt like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, but I was determined to serve and demonstrate God’s grace.
Before long, Roger and Mary started to bring their two-year-old niece to church with them. She was a great kid, but discipline wasn’t a strong skill in the family. Their niece spent time one Sunday running up and down the aisles during church, angering some older members.
The issue came up at one of our elder board meetings. Some members insisted we had to do something about this child who was disrupting the service. I stood up for Roger and Mary’s family, telling the board I’d rather have a church full of unruly kids than a church full of well-behaved senior citizens. Fortunately for everyone, that settled the matter. And I told Roger and Mary that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Even with that controversy put to rest, this couple seemed to become less and less comfortable as the church continued to grow. Finally one Sunday morning, Roger grabbed his niece and ran out of the church, announcing, “This place isn’t for us anymore. You don’t care about us! We’re leaving!”
I was stunned. Naturally, I followed up with him and asked what on earth had happened.
“You haven’t done enough for us,” he said.
I had no idea what to say. Seriously? We haven’t done enough? Are you kidding me?
His comments cut directly and deeply into my small but growing pastoral heart.
“Roger,” I mustered, “that breaks my heart. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in my time in leadership, I have never spent more one-on-one time with anyone than you and your family. And it’s not just me. This community has sacrificed to be here for you again and again.”
My words made zero difference. He kept insisting our efforts weren’t enough and that we didn’t—that I didn’t—really care about them. He said our church had let him down, that we’d abandoned his family at their lowest point.
I didn’t know how to make the situation better. They didn’t want to make it better. Then they left the church for good.
The Slide into Cynicism Begins
I was shocked. And angry. And heartbroken. I honestly didn’t have a category for what happened.
It was in that moment that I felt cynicism welling up inside me. It’s like a voice inside me was saying, Useless. Everything you invested was a total waste of time and energy. And you know what? If he did that to you, others will too. So don’t care like you used to. Don’t invest in people like you used to. Don’t give of yourself like you used to. People will just use you and reject you in the end anyway. There’s no point.
At the time, I hadn’t even heard of writers like John Townsend or Henry Cloud, who have helped scores of people understand what boundaries are. Nor was I good at spotting potential mental health issues. I genuinely tried to help, and in the end I got genuinely burned.
That’s how cynicism starts.
Cynicism begins not because you don’t care but because you do care.
It starts because you poured your heart into something and got little in return. Or maybe you got something in return, but it was the opposite of what you desired. You fell in love, only to have that relationship dissolve. You threw your heart into your job, only to be told you were being let go. You were completely there for your mom, only to have her tell you you’re such a disappointment.
And you can’t help but think to yourself, What gives?
Most cynics are former optimists. You’d never know it now, but there was a time when they were hopeful, enthusiastic, and even cheerful. There’s something inside the human spirit that wants to hope, wants to think things will get better. Nearly everyone starts life with a positive outlook.
So what happens? How do you go from being so positive to so negative? At least three things happen to the human heart as it grows cynical.
1. You Know Too Much
You would think knowledge is always a good thing. But strangely, knowledge will often sadden you. Solomon, whom we’ll meet again later, was world renowned for his wisdom. He put it this way: “The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow.” Not exactly the most inspirational thing you’ve ever read. It’s like Eeyore wrote that part of the Bible. While that verse may make for a terrible social media post, the insight itself is quite helpful.
In some ways, ignorance is bliss. Had I never known that some people, like Roger and Mary, would end up being disappointed even after a massive investment by a community of people, it would have been easy—even automatic—to keep investing in people. But having been burned, I found that over the months and years that followed, I began to view needy people more suspiciously. Would they treat me the same way?