Who hasn’t? I’d argue that even Jesus had his doldrum days (e.g. Gethsemane) and he was God on earth so if he can fall into an emotional rut where you just don’t feel excited about life as it is or life as you see it coming, that’s normal.
So, if this is a normal part of life (and it is), let’s take a stab at trying to better understand just what a rut really is, why they come along, ways we typically respond when we’re in a rut and ways to get out and avoid so many “rut” experiences in the future.
What is a “Rut?”
Everything starts with a definition right? So, just what is a rut?
Well, the dictionary defines it as: “1. A sunken track or groove made by the passage of vehicles. 2. A fixed, usually boring routine.”
In my experience, the kind of rut I most often fall into is a type of despondency marked by a lack of energy for the things that you have to do. It’s an inner frustration that builds after a desire for a change of pace has been unsatisfied.
The action and inaction symptomatic of a rut may include a lack of drive for doing menial but necessary tasks like shaving or answering your phone or responding to email. For others, a rut may trigger mindless eating or vegging out in front of the TV when you know you have “real” stuff you need to take care of. In a phrase, most rut responses are self-destructive.
Why do “Ruts” come along?
Ultimately, sin is to blame for every evil since God is only and always good. Therefore, if I had to pin down an answer for a rut, I would say it relates to sin somehow—either sin in my life, or sin that someone has committed against me, or the effects of sin in the world that discourage us and make life hard.
Narrowing in a bit, I’d also point to failed expectations as a source of a rut.
“I never thought this would happen.”
“I didn’t think I would be in this hard place this long.”
“I thought that he would be there for me in this way and he isn’t.”
“I thought that she would be more understanding but she isn’t.”
“I thought that I would enjoy this but I don’t.”
“I thought I’d make more progress on this by now, but I haven’t.”
“I’ve tried but I keep making this same mistake.”
“I don’t know how to fix this.”
“I don’t know how this ends.”
Have you been there? What “rut” statement would you add to this list?
How to Respond to a Rut?
As we said, most responses to a rut are self-destructive—personally and/or professionally.
Personal self-destructive behaviors are those that tear down your own spiritual, emotional or physical self. For example, you stop talking with God or reading your Bible (spiritual degradation). Emotional self-destruction may be that you keep repeating doomsday scenarios in your mind and your mental conversation with yourself moves to self-hate (“You just can’t do this.” “Nobody wants to be around you.”) Physical self-destruction can range from neglecting your body’s need for exercise to actively tearing down the temple with the things you put in your body ranging from alcohol and ice cream to prescription pills and smoking.
We can all agree that these types of behaviors don’t make matters any better but sometimes, if we are not self-aware, we can get into these behaviors without even noticing it. What are your personal self-destructive behaviors that you default to in tough times?
The other form of self-destruction I see alot is professional. It feels like this—you are dissatisfied. Your patience has not only been exercised but exhausted. You are angry at your boss and/or co-workers. You wanted to change things for the better but some conversation or decision has caused you to think the chances of positive change are infinitesimally small so you give in to your frustrations and fall into your rut. That’s how it feels; this is how it looks: low/no drive for getting up and going in to work, late to work, late to meetings, not alot to say in meetings, find mindless busy tasks to avoid doing your “real” work, you stop measuring progress because the metrics seem to mock you, you don’t respond to voicemails or emails, you just don’t want to be there.
Again, we would all agree that these activities don’t help but, if we’re honest, we’ve all had seasons where we fall into them, so let’s now move to healthy responses to your rut.
Get Out & Stay Out of the Rut
If you think about a physical rut, it is a sunken place, a groove without traction that deepens the longer it is used. Our rut is the same, the longer we stay in it the further down we go and the harder it is to get out of. We also have our “favorite” or “pet” ruts—those destructive activities that we kind-of enjoy and frequent when things are going our way. Those paths are deeply engrained and jumping back into those paths once you’ve come out can be like diving into a deep canal with no scuba gear—deadly.
If you want to get out of a rut, you’ve got to get some traction. Here are a few tips on gaining traction:
1. Gain Perspective – Do you see what you’re doing to yourself and those around you? Can you see that you’re on a downward trajectory ? Do you accept that things are not “ok”? The first step is to stop lying to yourself—what you’re doing is not working! It hasn’t been working. It’s not going to work. The pain you feel is a symptom that something needs to change and the first thing to change is you!
This first step does not happen apart from the grace of God. Ask Him to help you. Do it right now! Stop reading and start talking to God. Seriously.
2. Ask for Help – You may have wandered into your rut on your own but you’ll need help to get out of it. First, continue to ask God to help you out of your rut. Delight yourself in Him. Make it your business to sit before Him in worship and to study His Word. In it are wonderful declarations about His steadfast love and faithfulness to His children.
Second, talk to a trusted friend who is spiritually anchored in Christ. If you are married, I hope you can talk with your spouse. Let this person know that you have been feeling down and ask them to pray for you and check in on you. If there is a specific thing that has you down, talk through the options with someone who can help you make a sound decision.
3. Take Action – Don’t go into information overload and don’t delay. Prayerfully take action with the information you’ve been given. You may be afraid but as a mentor told me, “I’ve done alot of things scared.” The point is, your fear must not be allowed to paralyze you—instead, you have to acknowledge your fears but still choose to move forward with what you know is right.
4. Stay in Community – Men in particular go “off the radar” when tough times hit. We go into the cave, only coming out to eat and watch the game :-). Life becomes a predictable routine of unfulfilling moments and superficial conversations. Life becomes drudgery instead of delight. Days are survived rather than savored. And this can go on for weeks, months or years.
I believe that being in a genuine community of close relationships helps to keep “rut” seasons at bay and when they do come, they don’t last as long because there is someone who knows you and has your permission to lovingly provoke and pry you out of the rut back onto the road to your destiny.
Do you have a group of friends that you meet with regularly with whom you can discuss the joys and sorrows of your life? Is there intentionality to your times together or do you just get together every now and then with no particular agenda besides enjoying one another’s company?
I’ve found that if we don’t direct our relationships, they will drift and become less relevant. This has been a painful lesson that I hope to have learned from and not have to repeat.
If you have a “small group” ministry at your church, try that? If you have family members or close friends in your city, invite them over to talk. Share with them that you’ve been thinking about getting together on a regular basis to talk through what’s going on in one another’s lives and to look together to God’s Word for direction. Ask them if they’d be interested in being a part of something like that.
Almost without exception, they will be so relieved that you took the initiative to meet a need that we all have.