October 10, 2009
This time I am focusing on discouragement. This expands beyond what I shared on facebook. I know this is a bit long, for which I ask your forgiveness. However, I think it is instructive and encouraging.
Discouragement is a problem that needles many people, even Christian people. Every day one either personally struggles with discouragement or encounters someone who is struggling with discouragement. And this discouragement isn’t a recent phenomenon, for we find it all through history.
What did God have in mind when he said “Fear not, neither be discouraged (Deut 1:21)”; or “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33)”? Was he suggesting that discouragement was meant to be an ongoing part of the Christian life?
I doubt it. The Bible is full of promises and admonitions that speak otherwise
In the Old Testament God was continually trying to encourage His people:
When Joshua was being commissioned to lead the Hebrew armies, God said, “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:9).
Later, after the ignominious defeat at Ai, when there would have been many reasons to be discouraged, God said to Joshua, “Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land” ( Joshua 8:1).
David waxed eloquent regarding His God: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident (Ps. 27:1-3). God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
In the book of Isaiah there are continual encouragements to look away from the problems of daily life to God: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation” (Isa. 12:2). “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isa. 41:10). “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee” (Isa. 43:1,2)
Jeremiah had the same confidence: “But fear not thou, O my servant Jacob, and be not dismayed, O Israel: for, behold, I will save thee from afar off, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and be in rest and at ease, and none shall make him afraid” (Jer. 46:27).
When Paul was bound in the castle against his will, God stood by him saying, “Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome. (Acts 23:11)” Paul didn’t have lots of reasons to be encouraged but God was encouraging him just the same. When death seemed imminent, Paul encouraged his fellow passengers saying, “Be of good cheer, for there shall not be the loss of any man’s life (Acts 27:22). Paul had been encouraged, and now he was encouraging others. Later he asserted: “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Hebrews 13:6).
Writing on discouragement in her book, Living in the Sunshine, Hannah Whitall Smith suggests that discouragement is really faith in evil, and speaking against God. The causes she lists are many, and include our inadequacies, difficulties that seem insurmountable, an illegitimate fear of people, forgetting the way God works, and mistakes we have made in the past, for which she cites many Biblical examples of people who did not allow dispiriting trials to get them down. Moses was warned against feeling inadequate when he was commissioned by God to lead his people out of Egypt; Joshua was encouraged when facing the intimidating task of overcoming the apparently unassailable walls of Jericho; Paul was assured of God’s presence when he later faced daunting Roman inquisitors; Jeremiah was told not to be afraid of the people’s faces when he was delivering unpopular messages for God; and David certainly had plenty to mourn when considering his past, but he kept on praising God. All of these people were warned against discouragement—often the word “dismayed” is the actual word used.
Are you struggling?
Perhaps you are struggling with discouragement as you read this newsletter? Perhaps you are facing changes in your life that are most unwelcomed. Perhaps you are facing barriers that are as challenging as Jericho’s walls. Praise God that you are trying to hang on. Praise God that He is MORE THAN ABLE! But perhaps you are hanging on by a thread, feeling very vulnerable and wishing that God would help you. Perhaps you have been specifically praying for God’s help, and would give anything to know that God is with you. But nothing seems to be changing and God doesn’t seem that close either.
Don’t feel bad; you are not alone!
The apparent lack of response is not an indicator that God has forgotten you. Many of Job’s friends asserted that he had been abandoned by God, but we know better. John the Baptist was the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet he found himself languishing in a prison, seemingly forgotten as well. Both suffered, both sought communication, both were eventually responded to. But neither were given clear and simple answers. In effect both were told to recognize that God had a plan and knew what He was doing.
In Job’s case, God responded in asking a series of questions about variation in nature, inquiring whether Job could explain what was going on. Job couldn’t, and came to realize that God sometimes allows His children to endure tough times without explaining what is going on, and does so for a redemptive purpose which will hopefully eventually be made known. We know the outcome of the story in our day even though he didn’t at the time, for Job eventually received double of everything he had lost.
God responded to John’s “Are you the one” question, by pointing to the many miracles that had been going on. He didn’t really answer John specifically, but John knew enough to know that Jesus was the ONE.
Many of us have ideas of what life should be as Christians. In coming to Jesus, we somewhat expected that our obedience and striving for God would result in joy, material blessings—perhaps abundance, godly families, children who love and serve God, friends, an ability to witness, an ongoing closeness to Jesus, and many other legitimately good things that life has to offer. But sometimes things turn for the worse. Suddenly our ideas are challenged, and the skeptics around begin to point and taunt—at least we feel like they are, and we find ourselves struggling. Should we continue being as vocal for Jesus? Should we continue taking stands for Jesus? Should we continue being as single-minded for Jesus? Have we insufficiently counted the cost? Perhaps the costs are too high? What should we do?
All of us have had the moments I am referring to, and the question comes, how we will respond? How we get through the valley of despair?
Hannah Smith points out that among the responses to discouragement are complaining to other people and murmuring against God. She further states, complaining is highly contagious. I fear I have been guilty of the first at times, and certainly acknowledge that my complaining has undoubtedly encouraged other people to do likewise.
Another response that comes to mind is withdrawing: withdrawing from God and withdrawing from people—in practical terms spending less “closet” time with God and spending less time in relationship with other Christians studying the Bible, or less time speaking out for God, for example, on facebook or in our regular lives. I mean, it’s tough to be strong when we are feeling weak and vulnerable.
So how can you overcome discouragement? Hannah rightly points out that it is awfully hard to talk oneself out of discouragement. That doesn’t mean you should remain in a funk, but you need to CHOOSE to trust God regardless of how you feel, believe His promises, and then turn from the discouragement.
I will add a few other things.
First recognize that there is a close tie between your physical health and your spiritual health. Oswald Sanders points out in his book Problems in Christian Discipleship: "Going to bed early and a change of diet will settle many a case of depression" (I believe discouragement too), and pointed out that many a case of discouragement has been precipitated by, as he puts it, "an over-expenditure of physical and nervous capital." In the Bible more than one case of discouragement was first addressed by rest and a meal (Elijah for example).
There is also the danger of over activity. Moses was teetering on the edge and the people were not making much progress in getting their grievances settled, when Jethro came along. Jethro observed what was going on, counseled that Moses get more help, and seventy elders began meeting with the people. Everything worked better as a result. People speak of having "margins" in our lives. Do you have any margin for spiritual health?
It also helps to frequently acknowledge your gratitude to God for EVERYTHING that is going on, even the difficult things. I know that may seem hard, but it is very restorative. Madame Guyon overcame the discouraging circumstances in her life when she learned to place God at the head of ALL circumstances, and surrendered not only to God, but also to His providences. It helps to use the words “yes” and “thank you” frequently!
Some of you reading may be struggling with temptations. Remind yourself that some of God’s greatest champions had checkered pasts. Moses and David share the egregious distinction of being famous murderers. Peter repeatedly denied His Lord while he was learning. All of them tried hard in their own wisdom and power, and failed miserably. When they finally had lost all self-confidence, God powerfully came into their lives and began to work through them in great ways! Don’t look behind or around, only look up and feel the sunshine of God’s love. Satan uses the past to discourage you, but God treats you as if you had never made a mistake. Look on yourself in the same way. A precious thought coming from Hannah is her assertion that mistakes should not drive us FROM God, but TO God. She reminds that the condition of a soiled tablecloth doesn’t lead to it being thrown out, but to it being cleaned; and the joy and confidence a housewife can have if she knows there is a highly skilled laundress caring for her tablecloth. We of course know the one who is able to clean better than any other person, and we can have complete confidence in Him.
It also helps to remember the way God has worked in the past, for it suggests the way He will work in the future. For example, Moses spent 40 years on his own wilderness journey preparing to lead another group of people through the wilderness for 40 years. Joseph went through all kinds of difficult circumstances in preparing to be the prime minister of Egypt. Jesus spent 30 years preparing for his ministry. Though we live in a “fast food” society, God is a bit more deliberate when he is developing people, and He may banquet you with unusual blessings, though they may be delivered in humble packaging. It is His way. Instead of getting upset, praise Him for expending such attention on you. Remember, unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone. I know it is not fun being the seed in the ground, when other people seem to be achieving greater successes and are getting far more attention than you. God hasn’t forgotten you, you just need to realize you have been matriculated to a more advance, though humble, course in the school of heaven. And remember, as I read recently from H. W. Webb-Peploe, “It is not humiliation when we are humbled and brought to a condition of nothingness in the sight of God.”
It also helps to remember the tough times that other great Christians have endured in serving God. I know some of you have made great sacrifices for God in serving Him. Some have sacrificed funds and family time and many other things, for the sake of advancing His cause, or in the course of taking an unpopular stand for truth. But it doesn’t seem too appreciated and it is hard to feel much joy when criticisms are being directed your way. Welcome to the club. No one who did anything significant for God ever did so without criticism. One of my favorites is Philip Spener who was a German Pietist, who was trying to bring about a revival in the Lutheran Church. Initially his efforts were warmly embraced, but later they were resisted by pastors who feared the influence of his reforms would undermine their authority. While working in Berlin some 500 tracts were written against Spener, and his movement was charged with 284 heresies by the faculty of the University of Wittenberg. Like I said, all positive movements for God are strongly resisted! But, carry on!!!!! When you can, read Pia Desideria by Spener. Though written in the 1600s, the things he suggested to bring about revival back then, would bring about revival in our day as well. Need I make further mentions of individuals like Samuel Rutherford, the Puritan who was banished to Aberdeen by his enemies, and discovered daily love feasts with Christ in his straightened situation and eventually concluded that trials to the Christian are like wings to the bird, or sails to the ship; or John Bunyan who spent 14 years in jail separated from his family due to his insistence on preaching regardless of whether he was licensed or not, but in his confinement wrote books like Pilgrim’s Progress that became one of the most read books in Christendom. Lack of attention and criticism is no reason to give up; it may, in fact, be a strong indicator that you are doing the right thing. Carry on!
I know that reading of these examples is inspiring, but I am not sure they are sufficient to bring about a change when you may be hanging by a thread. May I then also suggest remembering Jesus and the cost He was willing to pay in coming to this earth: leaving the glory and perfection of heaven, taking up life in the home of a humble carpenter in much maligned Nazareth, enduring life on planet earth, being rejected by friend and foe alike, criticized by his family, accused by his foes, misunderstood by his followers, and ultimately crucified by the people he came to save. He had no assurances that a single person would understand and choose to follow a “crucified” savior. Yet, he carried on, bore the reproach, humbled himself, served others, and obeyed to the point of death—in fact a horrible death, the most humiliating death possible. He was willing to give all and pay an awful price in coming to that death. Do you think you ought to be willing to obey in the light, or in the shadows, as He did? Jesus could have become discouraged many times, but He didn’t. Why? He had made a commitment to His Father. He had taken up His Father’s yoke. He was going to give all so that perhaps one or two could be saved, regardless of how many apparent results there would be.
Remember, Satan specializes in discouragement, for he knows that discouragement causes us to look at our circumstances and our inadequacies more than at God, and so long as we are looking at ourselves, he knows he has the upper hand.
So what shall we do with discouragement? Shall we waste time feeling sorry for ourselves? Shall we feel that our personal circumstances are such that nothing will ever change? Shall we feel that the cost is too high? Of course not! In all things God is able to work for good—in fact in all things He IS working for good. Believe him and live accordingly. And regardless of your circumstances, believe that everything is part of God’s perfect plan that will perfectly prepare you for whatever task He has in mind on this earth and for the Kingdom to come.
Also, if you are finding it really hard to overcome discouragement, don't feel guilty about it. I know it isn't easy to overcome and sometimes the shadows linger far longer than we would like to remember. Never forget you are just as much God's child in the shadows as in the sunshine, and sometimes His sunshine shine's brighter in the shadows--at least for a time.
Father in heaven, we have considered the subject of discouragement this time around. Father you know how many people struggle with discouragement and why? Father, help us to look at our circumstances as being allowed AND BLESSED by You for our good, and to be embraced regardless of what commonsense might indicate otherwise, to say nothing of what people may be saying. Thank you for the many examples of people you give us in Your word who were prepared by difficulties, who were strengthened by difficulties, and were ultimately blessed in difficulties. Thank you that these very difficult things ended up being great blessings. Father help us to recognize Your love in EVERYTHING that goes on. Father you know [first name]‘s situation? You know the prayers that go up? You know the way Satan has been attacking. Father might you come into [first name]‘s life in a powerful way, and show that all this going on is the refining of pure gold. I ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
I promise to write shorter next time:)
God bless you!
God's will; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else!
My newsletter is sent out about 400 or so at a time to stay under the google mail limit. As a result I get feedback from many of you and can share with subsequent mailings. One person wrote about the discouragement that comes from feeling guilty when efforts to change are not working. Another person wrote of the frustration felt from praying for people's healing and not seeing results. What is one to think under such circumstances.
To the first person I responded stating that God sometimes allows us to remain in the shadows longer than we might desire but that during the entire time we ARE God's child. I also recommend the work of Neil Nedley for those who are seeking to overcome depression. I also acknowledge that sick comes to all people and is not an indicator of some kind of spiritual deficit. It can be such an indicator, but not necessarily so. Also, instead of allowing such things to drive us FROM Jesus we should allow them to drive us TO Jesus!
Regarding the latter, I responded with a fairly lengthy note on why the prayers of Christians are not always answered. I will share my note in the next newsletter, but for now let me just say that we often pray and mourn when God doesn't heal believers, the same way the sisters of Lazarus prayed and mourned when he died: because of OUR LOSS and OUR FRUSTRATION that God has not done anything. The believer is even safer in the hands of God than alive especially considering what this world is like. More on this next time.
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Here are more links on discouragement: