DEALING WITH DISCOURAGEMENT
Dealing with discouragement is a subject we need to know something about. It is a fairly common malady. And, in spite of the resources God makes available to us, Christians can become discouraged too. So it is worthwhile taking thought regarding some of its causes and cures. My article this month is a little longer than usual, and maybe what I have to say is not new to you. But we need these reminders–I know I do!
If we are looking for a basic definition, it is found in the word itself–dis- couraged, indicating the opposite of, or the absence of courage. The one who feels this way is: less confident, less hopeful, persuaded not to act, or prevented from action by objections or obstacles. We could say a person who is discouraged is one or all of the following:
¤ Disheartened by obstacles, failure, or criticism
¤ Distressed and fearful, lacking courage and confidence
¤ Disillusioned, losing hope for the future
¤ Disinterested, apathetic, lacking initiative
¤ Doubtful about the value of certain actions
¤ Down on himself/herself, with a poor sense of worth
Is that where you find yourself just now? Take heart. There are some practical things you can do to cope with, and even conquer, discouragement. But before we look at them, we need to think about some of the common causes of this condition.
Time is a key element. If a friend promises to visit, and delays for a day, there may be disappointment, but not likely discouragement–unless the promise has been made and broken on a number of occasions, over time. Discouragement only grows as day after day passes and the hoped-for circumstances do not unfold. Delay and deferment of a promise or an expected benefit is at the root of these dejected and dispirited feelings. Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred [postponed, dragged out] makes the heart sick, but when desire comes it is a tree of life." The time factor is expressed in the lament of Jeremiah: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved!" (Jer. 9:12).
So, was the Lord Jesus ever discouraged? In response, we must remember that as the God-Man, fully God and fully man, He is unique. As the Son of God, He knows the hearts of all men and what to expect of them (Jn. 2:24-25). Further, as deity, His sovereign purpose will be accomplished in the end (Isa. 9:6-7; Acts 15:18). Discouragement is a word that does not fit Christ precisely.
Nevertheless He experienced a sorrow on earth (Isa. 53:3), very much akin to discouragement, when "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him" (Jn. 1:11). He grieved over the unbelief of the Jews, saying, "How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (Matt. 23:37). Not only that, but those to whom He wanted to show mercy and compassion nailed Him to a cross!
The Bible says, "Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls" (Heb. 12:3). Realizing how much Jesus went through out of love for us helps to keep our own troubles in perspective. And we know that now, as our great High Priest in heaven, Christ is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, because on earth He was "in all points tempted as we are" (Heb. 4:14-15). Therefore we can come to Him for help in times of discouragement, just as at other times (vs. 16).
CAUSES OF DISCOURAGEMENT
What are some of the experiences and conditions in our lives that precipitate discouragement? Here are a number of problems that are common.
1. Fatigue from overwork and/or stress, and a depletion of emotional energy (I Kgs. 19:2-8; cf. 18:17-40)
2. Facing seemingly endless difficulties, or feeling frustration over too much to do (Num. 21:4-5; Neh. 4:10-11)
3. Loneliness–seeming to be neglected, feeling alone in the struggle, with others not doing to do their share (Num 32:6-7; II Tim. 4:10, 16)
4. Harsh (or inconsistent) supervision or discipline (Col. 3:21). This applies not only to children in the home, but to difficult relationships adults may have with employers or others in authority.
5. Past failure (perhaps repeated failures) in particular endeavours
6. Inexperience and unrealistic idealism (often seen in young people)
7. Fear of criticism or of failure
8. Unrealistic expectations of ourselves
9. Former supports suddenly taken away (health, wealth, friends, position, etc.)
10. Illness or injury, and the added weakness it brings. (Certain drugs taken at such times can affect our moods as well.)
11. The attacks of the devil (I Pet. 5:8). "Satan" means adversary, and "devil" means accuser or slanderer. Called the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:9-10), he hurls at us fiery darts of accusation and blame, hoping to discourage us (Eph. 6:16).
12. Lack of faith in God. It might be rather glib, and even uncaring, to simply say the accused person would be fine if he or she had more faith. Situations can be more complex than that. Nevertheless, this can be a significant factor (Deut. 1:21, 28).
REMEDIES FOR DISCOURAGEMENT
So much for some things that can nurture or contribute to discouragement. Now for some good news! There are remedies that can be applied. "Cure" may be too strong a word, as it suggests the malady will never return. But it is at least treatable when it does. Sometimes it is helpful to see a pastor or a doctor, but here are basic things we can do ourselves that can help.
1. Getting better organized.
Whether it concerns our time, or our living space, disorganization and clutter can produce confusion and stress, and ultimately discourage us from fulfilling our duties or tackling the work at hand. Better organization may be the answer. A practical way to ward off discouragement is to create a realistic schedule of work to be done, and also to see that the area around us is as free of chaotic clutter as possible.
An important corollary of this is to live one day at a time (sometimes it's necessary to live one moment at a time). While it is worthwhile to make some plans for the future (cf. Lk. 14:28-30), none of us knows exactly what the future may bring (Jas. 4:13-15). Focusing on today and trusting God for the grace to deal with what comes our way today is an important aspect of organizing our lives. Being troubled by regret over the failures of yesterday, or fretting anxiously over the unknowns of tomorrow, invariably robs us of the energy to deal with the present. Focus on today.
2. Rest and recreation for body and mind.
If health problems can be at the root of discouragement–and they can--we need to do our best to maintain good health. And if taxing fatigue can make us susceptible to such moods, we need to take time for refreshing breaks. One day, Jesus said to His disciples, "‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.' For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat" (Mk. 6:31).
Most of us can endure crisis situations that require long hours and extra energy for a short time. But that should not be the regular or constant thing. We all need a break. Even a "minute vacation" during a busy day can sometimes recharge our batteries. Another thing that is beneficial is laughter. Take time to read a wholesomely humorous book, or watch a funny movie. The Bible says, "A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones" (Prov. 17:22). DVD's are available of some of the old situation comedies--I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, and more. These are usually just wholesome fun, without the immoral overtones of so many of today's shows.
3. Seeking encouraging friends.
The old song says the prairies are a place "where seldom is heard a discouraging word, / And the skies are not cloudy all day." Whether or not that is the case, we need to make friends who will accept us as we are, gently pointing us to the Lord, and be a strength and encouragement to us and not bombard us with discouraging words. During the Boer War, a man was actually court-martialed for comments discouraging the soldiers defending a town. The tribunal judged it to be a crime to speak disheartening words at such a critical time.
When Israel camped on the borders of the Promised Land, they sent in spies to check out the territory. The twelve men returned with a mixed report. Two of them (Caleb and Joshua) encouraged the nation to trust in God, moving forward to conquer the land God was giving them. But the other ten saw only the obstacles and the dangers ahead. The Israelites listened to the majority. They said, "Where can we go up? Our brethren have discouraged our hearts, saying, ‘The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven" (Deut. 1:28).
Who needs "friends" with a message like that! The result of this faithless discouragement was that Israel spent another forty years in the wilderness. And none of the men except Caleb and Joshua ever saw the Promised Land. When we are going through difficulties, when we are facing challenges in our lives, we need those who will lift us up, and help us to find new hope. We need friends we can turn to for help and support.
4. Nurturing a positive attitude.
Resisting discouragement is not always easy. In part, it involves a realistic appreciation for our limitations. We must seek to do what we can do, and not anguish over what we cannot. The more positive our attitude, the more we will be willing to try, and try again, even when we fail. Florence Shinn wrote, "Every great work, every big accomplishment, has been brought into manifestation through holding to the vision, and often just before the big achievement, comes apparent failure and discouragement" But we are not omnipotent, as God is. And we need to make a distinction between perfection and excellence. We can aim to do our best (excellence), but if we insist on perfection (which is only possible for God), we will be discouraged every time.
Sometimes it is helpful, when we feel discouragement threatening, to set aside what we are doing and take up a job we know, from past experience, that we are good at and comfortable with. When we do some small task that has been rewarding in the past, success will promote positive feelings that can make other challenges easier to face later on.
Another element in having a positive attitude is to discipline our minds to focus on the Lord, and not on our problems. Or to see our problems through God's eyes, as we meditate on Him and His Word. The words of the prophet Habakkuk reflect this outlook. He says, "Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no fruit; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls [all things that could discourage one!]– Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation, The Lord God is my strength..." (Hab. 3:17-19).
5. Promoting a wholesome thought life.
Related to the previous point, distressing or depressing reading can have its affect on our moods. So can the nightly News, which at times seems a constant litany of gloom. (We may have to weigh the value of being informed over against the detriment of that constant stream of negativity.) The Bible speaks to this very clearly: "Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things" (Phil. 4:8).
One thing that fits this description (besides the Bible itself, of course) is Christian biographies. We need to be exposed regularly to accounts of courage and determination that conquered obstacles through faith in God, and accomplished great things for Him.
Sometimes achievements come in spite of great handicaps. Many years ago, a young lawyer suffered from such deep depression that he would not even carry a pocket knife, fearful of using it to harm himself. He said, "I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I awfully forebode I shall not." But he was wrong about that. He not only learned to cope with his bouts of discouragement, he went on to become one of the most lauded presidents of the United States. His name is Abraham Lincoln.
6. Taking the long-range view.
Discouragement tends to focus on the now. But there may be a great deal to be thankful for and be encouraged by in the longer range. Prophesying about the work of the coming Messiah, Isaiah said, "He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth" (Isa. 42:4). "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross" (Heb. 12:2). The sufferings Christ underwent during His time on earth were great, but what encouraged Him was the end result up ahead. That is the principle behind Romans 8:28 too (and see II Cor. 5:1-5).
The Word of God exhorts, "Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Gal. 6:9). "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (I Cor. 15:58). That is the long range view!
7. Recognizing God's power revealed in our weakness glorifies Him.
At the heart of man's first sin in the garden of Eden was a desire to be independent of God. "You will be like God" (Gen. 3:5) was the temptation with which Satan enticed our first parents. But we are not God. And we can only fulfil our potential as we walk in faith and obedience toward our Creator. The trials and difficulties that come our way are important reminders of this. Paul's paradoxical statement, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (II Cor. 12:10), means that God's power came to fullest flower in his weakness. For this he rejoiced, because the Lord's work in and through him brought honour and glory not to Paul, but to God (II Cor. 12:9).
This basic principle is taught in other passages. The hunger experienced by the children of Israel in the wilderness had a purpose. It was to remind them of how weak and vulnerable they were without God. "So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna...that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord" (Deut. 8:3). As John the Baptist put it, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3:30). Trusting God in our weakness will become a witness to His greater glory.
8. A commitment to trust in the Lord.
With the prophet we declare, "Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid" (Isa. 12:2). "Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). The Lord Jesus reassured His disciples, "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me" (Jn. 14:1). The Christian can declare with confidence that nothing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39).
Our faith may be feeble at best, but as we commit ourselves to trusting God, the Spirit of God indwelling each believer will strengthen our souls to go on with more confidence. John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim's Progress, wrote a hymn that says, "He who would valiant be / ‘Gainst all disaster; / Let him in constancy / Follow the Master. / There's no discouragement / Shall make him once relent; / His first avowed intent / To be a pilgrim."
A practical aid to promoting faith in God is meditation on His promises. The Bible contains many of them–too many to list here. But as you come across them in your daily reading of God's Word, write them out, perhaps on small cards that you can carry with you, or post in a conspicuous place at home. Read them over, meditate on them, and memorize them. They will feed your soul. (To get started, see: Ps. 42:11; 55:22; Isa. 41:10; Jer. 29:11; Matt. 10:29-31; Rom. 8:28; Gal. 6:9; Heb. 13:5-6)
9. A consistent prayer life.
As the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" reminds us, "Have we trials and temptations? / Is there trouble anywhere? / We should never be discouraged, / Take it to the Lord in prayer." The Bible frequently calls upon the people of God to bring their problems and concerns to Him in prayer. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7). "Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord! (Ps. 27:14).
"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isa. 40:28-31). Prayer is where to start (Heb. 4:14-16). Pray, and keep on praying!
10. Realizing the limits of our responsibility.
Finally, it is important to recognize that God has not called us to be "successful," but to be faithful. If we are discouraged about the "results" of our labours, it could be that we are taking on more responsibility that the Lord intends for us. Certainly the Bible makes it clear that in Christian ministry it is God Himself who produces results that will have eternal worth (I Cor. 3:6). As for us, "It is required in stewards that one be found faithful" (I Cor. 4:2). Let us keep on keeping on for the Lord, and leave the outcome to Him.
For some further help on this subject, see