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The art of avoiding learned helplessness

The art of avoiding learned helplessness

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love it when their small group gets sucked into the vortex of discussing God’s sovereignty versus human responsibility, and those who will do anything they can to avoid it.

God is in control of all things. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without his say so. And yet I also make decisions, do stuff and get things happening. The Bible says both these statements are true, and we’re left to ponder how that possibly works, Scripture not being overly forthcoming with any explanation of the mechanics.

The acknowledgement of this dual-truth is important when it comes to leadership. We don’t want to fall into the trap of ministry Hyper-Calvinism. To talk of leadership or planning or systems or the fact that I do things and make things happen as a leader isn’t to say that God doesn’t. God uses means. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it was God who gave the growth.

One characteristic of leaders is that they make things happen. Maybe on their own at first and then everyone follows, or more commonly with or through a team. However it comes about, leaders make things happen.

Until they don’t. Or they can’t.

There comes a time in the life of a leader when they find themselves in a season where things aren’t working. Where no matter what they do, the tree bears no fruit. Where all plans fall apart. Where the tide of ministry success continues to evaporate and more and more of the dust of failure is exposed.

Seasons of drought are hard to weather. It doesn’t matter if that drought is in conversions, spiritual maturity, numerical growth, or simply the frustrations of thwarted plans. In those seasons of drought, where the stream has run dry, one of the many dangers to avoid is the danger of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon formally articulated back in the 60s and 70s but that has been around forever. The laboratory tests are cruel and distressing to hear about. Researchers put a dog in a cage that included a panel the dog could press with their nose. They then sent a low electrical current through the cage, low enough that it wasn’t lethal, but still uncomfortable. If the dog pressed the panel with its nose, the electricity would stop.

For some of the dogs, after a few repetitions of this the researchers disconnected the panel. These dogs couldn’t do anything to stop their discomfort. They would just lie down and wait for it to stop. The rest of the dogs could always change their circumstances and turn the electric shocks off.

They then put each of the dogs, one at a time, into a new cage separated into two sections by an easily-jumped partition. The researchers then electrified the cage again. The dogs who had been able to turn off the electricity in their previous cage figured out if they jumped the low wall they could avoid the electricity. Those who had previously been in the cage where the panel was disconnected didn’t even attempt to get over the wall. They had been conditioned to not even try. They had learned to be helpless.

Putting aside the mistreatment of animals in the name of research, this same phenomena has been observed and confirmed in many places and in many ways over the last five decades. It helps explain the sometimes odd and bewildering behavior of humans in a wide variety of circumstances. It can contribute to how hard it may be to overcome personal poverty, and can be a factor in why people stay in a job or career they hate for so long. But the point for us who lead is to be wary of what we learn in those seasons of drought and when we can’t seem to make a difference, because not all the lessons we could learn are the lessons we should learn. Not every lesson that gets experienced is true. Not every lesson is worth learning.

Learned helplessness is terrible thing for anyone to learn, but it’s a particularly terrible lesson for a leader to learn, since it affects not just that leader but everyone they have responsibility over.

In the drought, both sides of the sovereignty/responsibility coin need to be remembered to ward off learned helplessness in the Christian leader.

God is the God who answers prayer, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). You may be surrounded by active opposition or the often harder-to-accept general malaise to all things spiritual, but God is always at work doing something. He’s never doing nothing. So, as well as observing the losses, disappointments and defeats, look also for the growth, faith and successes. They’ll be there.

Our God is the infinite one who has plans for a kingdom of a countless multitude, but at the same time he has a stunning love for the small. And so while it’s good and right to long for, pray and preach about the big things, we also do well to heed Zechariah’s warning not to despise “the day of small things” (Zech 4:10).1 God isn’t afraid of the small, and neither should we be. God’s plans often start in the small. Yes, we shouldn’t be content with small things, but we shouldn’t despise them either. Zechariah’s call is for us to be faithful in them. And faithful means doing things.

We have work to do: Paul really planted and Apollos really watered (1 Cor 3:6). Our decisions matter; our actions have consequences. If our actions aren’t having the consequences we were hoping or intending, that means we can investigate. Why didn’t it turn out the way we anticipated? What can we learn from others? Often the magic is in the small details, so are there any small details we’re missing or overlooking? Could we try a different approach or think of a new idea? Is there a book we could read or a friend we could talk with to spark some of those new ideas and to sharpen our self-reflection?

Humans are still responsible, have agency, and can make things happen. And God is still sovereign and will make things happen.

Winter always turns into spring, and every night into morning. The wise fisherman down by the sea waits confidently for the tide to turn, which it always does in due time. Leaders make things happen. And over it all, our great God makes things grow.

Wisdom in Leadership Development

1. By the time of Zechariah’s prophecy the people had been back in Judah after exile for almost twenty years. They’d begun rebuilding the temple pretty much as soon as they got back to the land, but it hadn’t been going brilliantly. My view is this situation of “the temple has been started but hasn’t been finished yet” is the day of small things that Zechariah refers to. On the other hand, it might be referring to the fact that some viewed the construction of this post-exilic temple as the day of small things, since this version of the temple was so much smaller than Solomon’s temple. Either way, the point is that those people who despised the day of small things were wrong to do so. God had made grand sweeping promises, so even though things were starting small they weren’t going to stay that way.

Craig Hamilton

Craig became a Christian in junior high school and thinks Jesus is easily the most impressive person he has ever met. He’s passionate about serving alongside and equipping teams, and is the author of Wisdom in Leadership, Wisdom in Leadership Development and Made Man.