A good place to begin when we think about helping the discouraged would be answering the question, “What is discouragement?” Let me try to address that from three different definitions.
What is discouragement? The word means to deprive of confidence or hope or spirit. It means to disheartened or to daunt. The Latin root means a lack of courage. You can see that if you just think about the word “discouragement.” The prefix “dis” negates the word that follows, so discouragement is a lack of courage. Another way of putting it—the way it was described by Howard Dial in a very helpful article in the Journal of Biblical Counseling some years ago—is that “discouragement is sin because it is a failure to live by faith.”
We’re all familiar with Romans 14:23, which teaches whatever is not from faith is sin. Dial declared discouragement is sin because it is a failure to live by faith. He went on to say, “It is an unwillingness to view one’s circumstances from the divine perspective. Basically then, discouragement is a sinful state of mind which fails to biblically adjust to disappointment. Its symptoms are those of depression, downness, and a tendency to retreat and become occupied with inconsequential things.” J. Dwight Pentecost cut right to the heart of it when he wrote, “Discouragement is principally self-occupation.”
Now as a person who has wrestled with a discouragement on a somewhat regular basis over the years—and that was part of the motivation for doing in this study—those definitions are very convicting. If you agree with those definitions, then those of us who struggle with discouragement are going to have to repent.
Examples of Discouragement in the Bible
It is interesting that while these definitions point to discouragement being a sin, the Bible does identify several notable characters who seem to struggle with discouragement. One of those was Moses. It seems that Moses’ struggle with discouragement was particularly due to grumbling people. In the job I had before I started working with ACBC, I was the state representative for our fellowship of churches in Indiana. Basically I was a pastor to pastors and a consultant to churches. We had about 123 churches in our fellowship. I somewhat regularly had pastors coming to talk with me who were discouraged. I found that a common theme among those people in vocational ministry and their discouragement was grumbling people.
That’s why Numbers 11:1-15 is particularly meaningful. It says,
Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord and the fire died out. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them.
The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.”
Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it.
Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.”
From the standpoint of Old Testament characters when we get to heaven, I want to meet Moses. We remember how God used this great man with organizational abilities and leadership abilities, and now we see him so discouraged that he asks the Lord to take his life. And what was it that got him? It was the whining, griping, and bellyaching of people he was serving.
One of the most frequent causes of discouragement among people in vocational Christian ministry are the people to whom they’re ministering. People not in vocational Christian ministry can struggle with this too—sometimes it’s grumbling kids, a grumbling spouse, or co-workers. The people that are grumbling and griping can be very wearisome and can take the courage out of you.
Another Bible character that’s notable is Elijah. The Scripture seems to indicate that what discouraged Elijah was personal threats or fear. First Kings 19:3 says, “he was afraid.” Of all the leaders in the Old Testament, I’m most eager to meet Moses, but if we can get to heaven and watch a replay of things that happened on earth on the heavenly IMAX, the one I want to see is Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Wouldn’t that be a deal to watch that one happening on the big screen in heaven?
As someone has observed, every mountaintop has a valley on the other side of it and the valleys are usually as deep as the mountain was high. We see Elijah as a champion for Christ, we read the events of him daring those prophets of Baal—one man standing against 400 people mocking him and and going up against him. The courage, the spiritual conviction, and the faith that filled him to do that are evident.
Then a couple of days after that, he’s running, hiding, asking God to take his life, which is an indicator I think to us that when we have the joy of wonderful events, we need to remember that a mountaintop stands out as a high point because on either side of it is a valley. Part of learning how to handle discouragement is preparation. We acknowledge that we’re going to rejoice in the wonderful things that happen, but there’s going to be some downers on either side of it—even with a guy like Elijah.
Jonah became discouraged with unpleasant physical conditions. We’re all aware of Jonah rebelling against God’s call on his life. He was in the belly of the fish for three days and then vomited up on shore alive, and he goes to Nineveh to preach what was probably the world’s greatest series of revival meetings, and all those people repented. It was unbelievable how God used this reluctant prophet for His honor and glory. Then later the Scripture tells us that Jonah went and God provided shade for him. Jonah 4:8 says, “When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint,” and he ends up asking God to kill him. Life was hard at that point physically, and there are times when we (or people were ministering to) are in a tough spot. Life is hard.
It may be due to physical conditions, financial pressures, unrest in our ministries, uncertainty about the future. Physically, life is hard. That can that can wear you down. At least in my own life when I am worn down physically, I’m much more susceptible to discouragement. Sometimes we’re just tired, worn out.
What seemed to discourage Asaph was the prosperity of others. In Psalm 73:3 he says, “For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” What led to his discouragement was his current physical—particularly his financial—setting as he compared himself to others.
If I can draw on a perspective that I learned when I was serving as the state representative in our fellowship of churches, I found that one of the things that sets the stage for discouragement among many pastors and people on church staff is the tendency to compare where you are and how you’re being compensated for how hard you’re working with the prosperity of the people you’re serving.
In fact, during the 12 years I was the state representative for our fellowship, I was on a one-man campaign across Indiana to try to get pastors and church staff salaries to become far more honorable than they were. We were in a group of churches that prided ourselves on being committed to the Scriptures and a good high view of the Bible, God, and so forth, but there was a problem with the amount of money these churches were paying their pastors and staff.
If we compare where we’re at in life financially—the size house we have, the kind of car we’re driving, or just how we’re doing financially—you can always find somebody who has your attention that has more than you do. If you focus on that, you end up like Asaph. You can work yourself into a real low, by thinking, “I got it so rough. They got it so good,” without knowing anything about the details of their circumstances.
Those are just four notable Bible characters that struggled with discouragement, and we notice that there are four different causes. The interesting thing to me is that God uses discouragement in the lives of His children. I think God uses discouragement in our lives in many ways. I’m going to talk about just four ways that God uses discouragement in the lives of His children.
How God Uses Discouragement in the Lives of His Children
One way that God uses discouragement is to manifest His strength in the midst of our weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is talking about his thorn in the flesh and he had prayed intensely in three separate occasions asking God to remove it from him, and he says in verse 10, “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Discouragement to Display His Strength
Sometimes God uses discouragement in our lives as an opportunity for Him to manifest His greatness and His power. There’s been times when I’ve been in the slough of despond. There’s no wind in my spiritual sails. I am without courage and I’ve gone to a counseling session out of duty and because I had enough responsibility about me to keep appointments. I go to the session having nothing to give, and later those people come back and talk about what a wonderful session it was. That counseling session becomes the turnaround session in working with those people. You look back on that and think, “Well, that one was all God, right?” God showed up at that one, because it wasn’t me. I had nothing. I was running on empty going into that.
Can you identify with that? That’s one of the ways that God uses discouragement in our lives. At times just like with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, God chooses in His sovereignty and His grace to show Himself strong when we are very much aware of our weakness. He manifests His strength in the midst of our weakness.
Discouragement to Help Us Reevaluate
Here’s another way that God uses discouragement the lives of his children. God uses discouragement to help us reevaluate our own lives and our ministries. A verse that has been helpful to me when I have been grappling with discouragement at times is Psalm 90:12, which says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” In my experience, it’s when I’m discouraged, when I’m struggling with life and ministry, when things aren’t going the way I want them, and when I feel so unfulfilled that’s an easy time to be asking yourself, “Do I want to keep living like this? Is this the way I want to keep spending my life?” This becomes a good time to evaluate.
And you say, “Okay, God. Do I need to make a change here? A mid-course correction? Do I need to make a right turn? What do I need to do here?”
Times of discouragement are great to re-evaluate our life and ministry. You’ve seen that as counselors: Oftentimes what will prompt people to make an appointment, to ask us out for lunch, have coffee with us, or come for formal counseling is because people are down. They’re in a fog and they’re discouraged.
They’re asking for somebody to help them evaluate their days so that in the future they can apply their heart to wisdom. That sets the stage for a lot of us to do counseling. God uses discouragement to motivate us to re-evaluate our lives and our ministries.
Discouragement to Alert Us to God’s Word
God uses discouragement to make us alert to particular Scriptures. Here’s a couple verses to think on. Psalm 119:67 says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your Word.” In other words, sometimes when we’re off the path, God deals with us in such a way that motivates us to get back on the path. Psalm 119:71 says, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.”
My experience has been that there’s been times when I feel down, like there’s no gas in my tank. Discouragement has a way of driving us to the Scriptures and driving us to God. You pick up your Bible and you start reading, and my experience is I’ll be reading along and all of a sudden I’ll come across some verse and it’s almost like that verse jumps off the page and grabs my attention. And you think, “When did they put that verse in there? I never saw that one before.”
“It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn your statues.” In fact, for most of us who mark our Bibles, if we could remember, many of the verses that are underlined in our Bibles were underlined at a time when that verse ministered to us in a special way. That’s one of the ways God uses discouragement: It drives us to the Scriptures and we read differently when we’re discouraged. We read differently when we’re in the valley, then when we’re on the mountaintop.
Discouragement to Reveal our Hearts
Here’s a fourth way. I’ve learned God uses discouragement oftentimes to reveal the idols of our hearts. Ezekiel 14:1-10, and particularly verse 3 is where we get that terminology the idols of the heart. In Ezekiel 14:3, the prophet says to the nation of Israel, “these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity.”
An idol is something you bow down to and worship. But an idol in the heart that means it’s something inside that can’t be seen. But in Ezekiel 14:3, he says you set your idols right before your face. Ezekiel was saying to the nation of Israel—to the leaders particularly—you set up idols in your heart and you’ve put them right in front of your face so you cannot see clearly.
What I’ve discovered in my own life and the people that I’ve worked with who are discouraged is that sometimes when we are discouraged, we can’t see the idols that are right in front of us, but our discouragement makes it easier for other people to see them and help us with them.
They have a way of manifesting. Dr. Amy Baker, one of my friends from back in Lafayette, Indiana, makes the statement in her teaching that I have found so helpful. She says, “You do what you do and feel what you feel because you think what you think.”
Oftentimes what’s motivating our thinking, and the direction of our thinking, would be the idols of our heart. Hard times reveal our core character. One of the ways God uses discouragement the lives of His children is to reveal the idols of our heart.
I’ve talked about particular ways that I notice that God uses discouragement. Think about what we’ve just talked about in the last few minutes and connect that with the well-known passage Hebrews 11:6, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.”
Discouragement is a lack of faith. Even when we are not being pleasing to God, in His graciousness and kindness and mercy, He still uses our lack of faith to minister to us. Praise be to God, right? What a great God we serve. Without faith it’s impossible to please Him, and even when we don’t have faith and we’re not pleasing Him, He still uses that for good. That’s remarkable.
How to Conquer Discouragement
Let’s turn our attention now to some strategies on how to conquer discouragement. I’m going to suggest eight ideas that are not necessarily arranged in order of priority. You don’t have to follow this order. All of these grow out of my own experience personally and also my effort to help other people. If you’re discouraged today, I hope you’ll consider thinking about using one or more of these. Or if you are working with someone who is discouraged, I hope you’ll consider using these to help them.
1. Confess all known sin to God and appropriate people. Proverbs. 28:13 says, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” He that covers his sin shall not prosper, and there’s no parenthesis saying, “Unless you’re a biblical counselor,” or “Unless you’re in vocational ministry.” That verse, that principle, is true for us too. Guilt wears you out and wears you down.
When your wore out and wore down, that is the breeding ground for discouragement. Confess all known sin to God and appropriate people. Again, drawing on my experience when I was the state representative in Indiana, that’s one of the key areas to ask people that are in vocational Christian ministry: Is there unconfessed sin towards people or toward God that needs to be handled?
2. Renew your efforts to live a God-focused life rather than a self- or circumstance-focused life. I think Galatians 1:10 is particularly helpful here. Paul said, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.”
So many times our discouragement in life can be traced to a slippage in our God-focus to a man-focus. When we move away from living our lives to please Jesus Christ first and foremost, and we start living to please people, we are on a slippery territory and will probably lead to a fall and we’ll end up being discouraged.
3. Take up the shield of faith by verbally reading or quoting Scripture in response to Satan’s lies that have fed your discouragement. For example, if you find yourself being discouraged and thinking, “God has left me. God’s forgotten about me.” Then I would encourage you not just to read Hebrews 13:5, where God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” I would suggest you memorize Hebrews 13:5. Go through the day saying that verse. I would encourage you to say that over and over, emphasizing the different words.
I will never leave you nor forsake you.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
Drive that phrase into your thinking. We have to preach to ourselves sometimes, we have to counsel ourselves. I have found that there are times when it’s not just a matter of reading, I need to say it. My ears need to hear what my mouth is saying. Read or quote Scripture in response to Satan’s lies.
Here’s another one: If you find yourself in a mess and you’re thinking, “Man, this is a doozy. No good thing will come from this one.” You need to quote not just Romans 8:28, but verse 29 to yourself. My perspective is you should never quote Romans 8:28 by itself. You should always be quoting verse 29. If you quote Romans 8:28 by itself, your application of “all things work together for good” will be horizontal.
All together it reads, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” When you put them together and you quote that with emphasis, you’re reminding yourself that though this is a mess, God is still in charge. Though it’s a mess, somehow He is going to bring good from this—and the greatest good is that somehow I’ll take one more step toward becoming more like the Lord Jesus Christ.
And our time on earth is just our ramp up until we see Him and are going to be like Him. We need to quote and know that all things—including this mess—will work to help me grow to be more like Jesus Christ.
If you find yourself being discouraged because people are hurting you—maybe it’s family members or close associates or neighbors or people that you love who speak disrespectfully of your commitment to Christ—then I would encourage you to think about meditating on and quoting to yourself Ephesians 6:12. It says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” There’s another battle going on behind the scenes.
If you find yourself thinking that God is punishing you, I would encourage you to meditate on Hebrews 12:6-11. As a Christian, you cannot allow yourself to be thinking God is punishing you. God does not punish His children, He disciplines His children. There’s a difference. Hebrews 12:6-11 says, “whom the Lord loves He disciplines.”
Or if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t do this. I’m the wrong person. I’m a square guy in a round hole. I don’t fit. I’m too weak.” In that case, remind yourself of 2 Corinthians 12:9 where God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Think, “This is a great spot for God’s power could be demonstrated.”
There are times when we need to not just read the Bible, not just memorize, but there are times when it needs to be said over and over and with expression. When I talked to my counselees, I say, “I want you to massage these principles into your heart.” I mean over and over and over again. You’re pushing it into your mind.
4. Encourage your heart in the Lord by meditating on appropriate Scripture. Let me give you three categories to consider.
If you’re discouraged by failure and sin, then I would encourage you to meditate on Psalm 51 or Psalm 32. Psalm 51 is the repenter’s psalm. Psalm 32 talks about some of the price tags for unresolved guilt.
If you’re discouraged by a rejection by friends, my favorite passage on that is Psalm 55. For example, you may find yourself working with somebody who’s really discouraged. Maybe a wife who’s just discovered that her husband’s committing adultery with a co-worker, and now that she’s been found out, he’s moved out of the house and everything. She’s feeling very abandoned or rejected by the person she thought was her best friend. You want to think about a Scripture to help her. I would point her toward Psalm 55. We’ll look at a few verses, and as we do, think about that dear woman in that kind of a situation, or anybody who is struggling with rejection by friends. Think about how these verses might minister to them. Psalm 55 says,
“Give ear to my prayer, O God;
And do not hide Yourself from my supplication.
Give heed to me and answer me;
I am restless in my complaint and am surely distracted,
Because of the voice of the enemy,
Because of the pressure of the wicked;
For they bring down trouble upon me
And in anger they bear a grudge against me.
My heart is in anguish within me,
And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
And horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
“Behold, I would wander far away,
I would lodge in the wilderness. Selah.
“I would hasten to my place of refuge
From the stormy wind and tempest.”
For it is not an enemy who reproaches me,
Then I could bear it;
Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me,
Then I could hide myself from him.
But it is you, a man my equal,
My companion and my familiar friend;
We who had sweet fellowship together
Walked in the house of God in the throng.
As for me, I shall call upon God,
And the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur,
And He will hear my voice.
He will redeem my soul in peace from the battle which is against me,
For they are many who strive with me.
(Psalm 55:1-8, 12-14, 16-18)
Psalm 55 is a tremendous passage for anybody experiencing rejection by friends.
Some people may be dealing with slander against them. Encourage your heart in the Lord by meditating on appropriate Scripture when people are slandering you. Two passages that would be particularly helpful are Psalm 59 and Psalm 38.
5. Seek to resolve conflicts. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-26 Christ says, if you’re in the middle of a church service (in our culture and context that would be the application) when the offering’s being taken and you remember that someone has something against you, as important as the offering is, it’s even more important that you get up and go get issues settled.
I have discovered with people—particularly biblical counselors—that unresolved conflicts set the stage for discouragement because it makes us doubt the reality of what we’re preaching and teaching to others.
It’s been said, if it doesn’t work for you, don’t export it. As counselors, people used to helping people solve problems (and particularly interpersonal problems), if we have unresolved conflicts, that will really set the stage for discouragement. If it’s not working for you, why are you doing what you’re doing?
I have learned working with people in vocational ministry that oftentimes unresolved conflict is one of the most frequent causes of discouragement. They’re at odds with somebody—maybe leader in the church—and they haven’t gone talk to them because they fear what the consequences might be. You’ve got to decide, “Who am I living to please?”
6. Humble yourself and tell your authorities, your family, and friends that you are discouraged and need their prayers. Allow others to minister to you.
In Hebrews 10, God speaks to this matter of having a heart full of faith, but also the role of other people in our lives leading to that. Hebrews 10:19-25 says, “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
It’s interesting that the passage that talks about having a full assurance of faith is followed immediately by exhortation to get together with other followers of Christ. Of the eight suggestions that I’m giving you, I would say that this one is the hardest one for me personally.
I’ve had guys in the past—especially when I was a state representative—call and they said, “Randy, I’m really struggling with things. I’m discouraged, and there’s no wind in my sails. I just feel like I’m wiping out in every area of my pastoral ministry.” My heart would go out to that guy. I’d invite him to have lunch. I’d pay for lunch. I probably give him a book. I’d offer to meet with him regularly—sometimes Cindy and I had them in our house as overnight as guests. We used to do a thing called “Chattin’ with the Pattens” where people come as overnight guests and Cindy would fix meals and we would just give ourselves in intensive ministry to somebody for 24 hours. I would spend time with that person and I would not think ill of that person. In fact, my respect for them went up because they opened their heart to me and allowed me in to minister to them. I loved them, ministered to them, and many of them became even better friends after that. Then why is it so hard for me to let somebody do that for me?
It’s pride. For some of us who struggle with discouragement, part of what God may want us to do is get low enough that we’re willing to humble ourselves and tell somebody, “I need some help.” The guy that usually has answers for other people needs somebody to help answer some questions for him.
I want to encourage you personally to think about that, and also to think for some of the people that come to you, that may be part of what God is trying to do in their life. Particularly if you have the privilege of working with somebody that’s in a ministry position, give them your best effort because if you can help them, then your ministry is multiplied because they’re going to turn around and minister to others.
Sometimes a way to conquer discouragement is to admit, “My efforts at conquering discouragement haven’t worked. I need to humble myself and tell somebody I need help.”
7. Think about eternity. Heaven is going to change everything. The Bible says that our bodies are just a tent, or like the old gospel song says, “We’re just passing through.” If you want a book that will help you in your ministry, but also really help you think about eternity, get the book Sunsets: Reflections On Life’s Final Journey. The book is about dying and death, written by a hospice nurse. It is a tremendous read. I read that book at a time when I didn’t have anybody in my circle of contacts that was facing death. But I’ll tell you, I wept at times reading that book.
The clearest description of heaven and the clearest description of hell that I’ve read since I got out of seminary are from chapters in that book. It is a tremendous book. It’ll loosen your tent pegs to this world. Starting to think about the next world and what that’s going to be like is a powerful antidote to discouragement. So many times what discourages us is all stuff about this world. If you want something that will help you and give you insights for ministry (particularly to people that are facing terminal illness), it is a tremendous tremendous read.
8. Serve others in spiritual meaningful ways. Sometimes when we’re discouraged the best way to handle it is to go serve somebody.
Let me tell you about one time particularly where God really dealt with me about this when I was a pastor. There was a time when life was hard for a number of reasons, and I was not processing the difficulties of life in a way that I should have been as a Christian. I was in what some call the slough of despond or discouragement. I had some weeks like this, and one of our faithful members was in the hospital with a serious illness.
It’s coming up on Friday and I think, “Okay, I need to go see see her because I won’t be able to get back until Monday.” I was so self-absorbed about my own heartaches, the confusion of life and ministry, and the lack of faith I was having. I’m just operating like a robot, so I go park in the clergy parking lot. I go into the door preachers get to use and punch the elevator, going up to June’s room. I was just self-absorbed the entire time.
The elevator chimed and the door opened, so out of habit I got off and started walking down the hallway to her room like I had multiple times before. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I got off on the wrong floor. I got off on the Pediatric Ward. As I’m walking to June’s room, I hear a noise. It’s unusual and it kind of brings me to attention. I looked and I realized I was on the wrong floor. I looked in the rooms and I saw parents hovered over kids. What caught my attention was a child screaming in pain. I walked to the end of that hallway looking at every room, turned around and walked back, looking in every room. I got on the elevator a different man.
Luke 9:24 says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Sometimes when we’re discouraged we just need to go serve somebody. We need to go minister to somebody. In losing our lives for Jesus’ sake, we find ourselves at times.
Application to Fight Discouragement
Now we’ll head toward the finish line by offering some personal suggestions.
These are some things that I have found particularly meaningful to me, but also in my counseling ministry to people that are discouraged.
First of all, time alone to read, think, pray, and journal is absolutely critical in dealing with discouragement. When I’m working with a pastor who is discouraged, one of the things I’ve learned to do is I asked the question. “When was the last time you had two to three hours alone? Totally uninterrupted to read, think, pray, to do something that would feed your own soul?”
I can tell you after having interviewed dozens of Christian leaders struggling with discouragement, there is a consistent response. Discouraged leaders cannot tell you the last time they spent two to three hours alone reading anything that would feed their own soul. They may have spent two to three hours working on a sermon to help somebody else, but not two to three hours just to feed your own soul.
I grew up in a rural area in Southeastern Ohio in the foothills of Appalachia, right near where the Garden of Eden used to be. We had a hand-dug well, so one that wasn’t very deep. We had to have another water supply and when my parents built the house, they built a cistern. For those of you don’t know, a cistern collects the rainwater off of the roof, it’s channeled to this container. Growing up with a cistern and a hand-dug well, one of the phrases we kids learned at our house that we heard our mother say over and over again was, “Don’t take long showers. You’ll pump the well dry,” or “You’ll pump the cistern dry.” Because you can only get out of a cistern what has gone into it. You can pump a cistern dry.
In many ways as biblical counselors or as Christian workers, we’re like cisterns. We’re just giving, giving, giving, giving all the time. If you’re not careful, you can get pumped dry. When you’re pumped dry, you are candidate number one for discouragement. My agreement with pastors or people who come to me wanting help in this area is that I’ll work with you, but you have to arrange your schedule so that two times every week you have a minimum of two hours alone where you are totally unavailable. That means you leave your cell phone in the car.
I used to go to the public library—back when they used to have things they called typing rooms, which shows a bit of how old I am. You could go to a typing room and open the door and go in. They had a desk with your back to the door, and all that’s in front of you is a brick wall. I found that when I went to that place and had nothing to look at except a brick wall, but I could put out my books, my Bible, and I could have two hours where nobody’s pulling on me, I could have Revival in those two hours. I found that two hours alone where I knew nobody could get to me was far more productive than 4-6 hours at the office, where there’s a phone or where every time I look up everything I see is a distraction.
I will say to people, “I will work with you, but two times a week, you’ve got arrange your schedule this way. I don’t care what time it is, but you’ve got to have a minimum of two hours alone to just read whatever will feed your soul. Read the Bible, read books about the Bible, read books about ministry, read counseling books. Read whatever’s going to put something in the cistern.” In fact, let me just mention two of them that I have found very valuable. One is a book by Charles Spurgeon called Lectures to my Students. There’s a chapter in the book called The Minister’s Fainting Fits. That chapter has kept me in the ministry on more than one occasion. Another one is The Preacher, His Life and Work by J. H. Jowett. Chapter 2 is called The Perils of the Preacher, and that chapter also has kept me in the ministry.
Prayer walks. I have found that taking a long walk, sometimes in the woods or where I live right now I’m not near woods, so the next best thing for me is to walk at night. I love it particularly when you see the moon clearly, and I’m walking and think, “The guy that put that up there knows about me!” Meditating on that a little bit will put some faith back in you. That will strengthen you. Walking at night and being able to see the stars clearly, you can think, “He know those by name, and he knows me.” Meditating on the vastness and the power of God, I have found those to be just tremendous.
At least for people have personalities like mine, I have found that when I’m discouraged there’s times when I just need to do something where there will be immediate, visible progress. For those of you in ministry, so much of our work doesn’t involve quick progress. As pastors or counselors, you can preach, you can teach, you can disciple, have classes, and everything, and you can be faithful handling the Word, but think, “Is anybody around here changing? I mean, is anybody getting it?”
Many times you just need to see some immediate, visible progress. For me what that means is I like to mow the yard, because every time I make a swipe, I move over 18 inches. I can see it. Years ago I was in the pastorate and I came home early one afternoon. Cindy said, “I wasn’t expecting you home early.” I said, “I need to mow the yard.” She said, “Randy, you just mowed the yard two or three days ago.” I said, “I know, but I need to mow again.”
Once someone was interviewing a preacher and they asked him, “What’s your hobby? What do you like to do on your day off?” And he said, “I like to get a cup of coffee and go out and sit on a little hill where I can watch the trains.” They said, “Really? I’ve never heard about anybody having that kind of hobby. So on your day off, you get a cup of coffee and you go out and you watch trains?” He said, “Yeah, that’s really helpful to me.” They said, “Really? What about that is helpful?” And he said, “It’s just good for me to see something move that I don’t have to push.”
Another personal suggestion is rest. Vince Lombardi is famous for the saying, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” A coward is somebody without faith. There’s something to that. Sometimes when we’re discouraged, one of the best things we can do is go home and take a nap or get a good night’s rest. Rest can make a huge difference in our perspective on life.
Another personal suggestion is to play music that ministers to you spiritually. We’ve got all kinds of different tastes in music. Play what ministers to you. Cindy and I are convinced that the music of heaven is going to be Southern gospel music. We are attracted to that for a number of reasons. We like the fact that they’re always singing about Jesus. They’re always singing about the blood. They’re always singing about heaven.
Let me just mention some that are favorites of mine. I’m a big fan of the Gaithers. One of their first albums is called Hymn Classics, and if you are raised on the great hymns of the faith like I was, and you want to hear that great theology, but with some fresh orchestration and sung well, you get that one and you put that in your car and go on a trip and crank the volume and you’ll have a Revival service.
Another one the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir has done is a recording called Live with Friends. That’s the name of the album. Cindy and I have bought that and give that away as gifts to many people in vocational ministry.
One other one by the Cathedral’s is called Final Concert. That’s the name of the CD and it was their final concert. The theology in the songs and the enthusiasm with which it’s sung will lift you and fill your heart with faith and encourage you. Not everybody has my taste in music, but the point is there are times when listening to some music will help with discouragement.
In my work I get to travel good bit, and drive a good bit of the time. There are times when one of the best things for me when I’m discouraged is to go on a trip with my CDs where I’m alone, so I can control the volume the way I like it. I can put a CD in like these I’ve been talking about and I can crank it. Going down the road listening to people praising God and the theology of what they’re saying can fill my heart with faith again.