We all know what it feels like to battle discouragement. If you’re feeling down, one thing you can be sure of is that you’re not alone.
But what is discouragement and what are some of its cures?
Discouragement is a frame of mind and an emotional experience characterized by loss of courage, hope, or confidence. “Disheartened” is a similar word. Obviously there are degrees of discouragement ranging from mild to extreme. But because life is difficult, (did you get the memo?)— because life is difficult, we all experience discouragement. And this means that we all need to be encouraged.
A community of encouragement
Scripture calls every member of the Church to be an encourager. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25; w/ Hebrews 3:13; cf. Colossians 3:21). “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
Clearly (from these examples) the church is meant to be a community of encouragement. One of our purposes in gathering is to encourage one another. Sometimes we come to Church more focused on receiving encouragement than giving it. It’s wise to remember that we gain encouragement by giving it because in giving we are obeying our Lord.
The primary New Testament word for encourage
The Greek word translated “encourage” is “parakaleo” –to call alongside. In a military context, the word was used to call for reinforcements. (Encouragement functions as reinforcement for life). It implies contact with others for the purpose of strengthening them—giving courage and hope and confidence. It is usually in the form of verbal affirmation, comfort, and exhortation.
Feelings of encouragement and discouragement can come over us like waves—even unexpectedly. Walking through our Church foyer a few weeks ago, I felt a wave of encouragement as I reflected on how my wife and I moved to Millersville Pennsylvania for the sole reason of starting a Church. I felt a surge of encouragement to see how full our foyer was between services. It’s hard to get through all the people! There were only 7 people when we began ministry here!
But sometimes I have felt unexpected waves of discouragement. “Why do I feel this way?” I’ve asked myself. The answer isn’t always self-evident!
- Winter months: absence of sun and warmth
- Holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas (Family issues)
- Milestones: birthdays, anniversaries
(It helps to know that these are common experiences)
What about depression?
Some people experience prolonged and more debilitating discouragement, which we call depression or a state of despondency. Sometimes this has a biological/neurological source.
Depression is always an emotional reality; sometimes a biological one and, always has a spiritual component. Those who battle prolonged depression that negatively affects their daily functions should seek counsel and consider the possibility of medicinal aid. But please do not ever accept medical aid without good counseling.
One man’s story:
We can learn a lot about discouragement and how to find our way out of it by looking closely at a great servant of God who reached a deep state of despondency. His name is Elijah and he became so despondent that he sat down under a tree and prayed to die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life” (I Kings 19:1-4).
Elijah was called to ministry during dark days. The king of Israel at the time was Ahab and he did more evil and more to provoke the Lord to anger than any king before him. Ahab was also married to a wicked and ungodly woman whose name (Jezebel) has been synonymous with evil ever since she lived. She was the real power behind Ahab and she used her influence for evil. Elijah was God’s servant to confront this evil king.
Elijah was a great man of faith who boldly went where few would dare to go. He confronted King Ahab and declared a divine judgment in the form of a prolonged drought. The drought lasted for more than three years, and during that time Elijah witnessed God’s miraculous provisions in three amazing scenes.
- The ravens at the brook Kerith brought Elijah food.
- The supply of food through a poverty stricken widow from Zarephath
- The resurrection of the widow’s son (whom tradition identifies as Elijah’s servant in Chapter 19)
Elijah’s ministry reached its high point in the confrontation with the false prophets on Mount Carmel. In an amazing display of divine power and intervention, Elijah defeated hundreds of false prophets as the fire of God fell from heaven (demonstrating the reality and superiority of God). After this great conquest and victory, perhaps Elijah had great expectations for spiritual change that set him up for discouragement. When all the people responded declaring, “The Lord, He is God. The Lord He is God…” Elijah perhaps expected a revival of national repentance and faith in God.
Elijah was on a roll and God was moving powerfully. It all seemed so obvious! But if this is Elijah’s frame of mind, he underestimated the determination of evil people to commit to their evil deeds. Discouraged frames of mind are often associated with cycles of expectation and disappointment. It’s never wise to condition our expectations on the responses of others.
The Elijah we meet in I Kings 19 is clearly not the man of great faith we’ve known up to this point. So what happened? Think about it. The conquest of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel was a very public defeat of evil. It’s not uncommon after times like these for one to experience a kind of battle fatigue — a profound level of spiritual, physical, and emotional depletion. In this kind of condition, loss of faith and courage can make us vulnerable in ways that we would not expect. When Elijah heard about a death threat from Jezebel, the great prophet ran for his life! This seems unimaginable after all he had witnessed of God’s power. The extremes of life often come with ironic twists.
As the story unfolds, Elijah had reached a dangerous level of despondency. He became deeply discouraged! How did God help Elijah defeat this great enemy of the soul? Few people have witnessed God’s power, provision, protection, and intervention as Elijah. But he got his eyes off the God who providentially —even miraculously cared for him. He shifted his focus toward himself and his discouraged frame of mind. Notice his discouragement:
Elijah’s condition: (I Kings 19:1-4) Common characteristics of discouraged people.
“Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (I Kings 19:1-4).
- He wanted to be alone. Discouraged people often isolate themselves.
- He prayed to die (evidently he was not afraid to die, but unwilling to commit suicide he recognized God’s authority over life and death.
- He felt he couldn’t go on: “I have had enough.” How much can one man take?
- He felt like a failure–-that he had reached the end of his usefulness: “I am not better than my ancestors.”
Does he sound a little discouraged? “I’m through!” “I’ve failed!” “I can’t go on!”
God’s restoration: (I Kings 19:5-9 ). Shift focus from Elijah’s condition to God’s restoration.
“Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:5-9).
Physical and spiritual needs:
- Sleep (v. 5) - under the broom/juniper tree (the finest shrub of the Arabian Desert). Elijah was exhausted in every sense. As is often the case, he was probably unaware of just how depleted he had become. God’s remedy: Don’t quit! Rest!
- Food (verses 5b-8 ) - physical nourishment (Elijah had witnessed this provision before. Sometimes physical refreshment and renewal; sleep and food are the first needs for recovering from despair. We must respect the connection between body, soul, and spirit.
- Talk (verses 9 ) - God invites Elijah to pour out his heart—to express his condition to God (see: Psalm 62:8; I Peter 5:7; Hebrews 4:16). Given the opportunity to share his burden with God, Elijah revealed even more about the condition of his heart.
Elijah’s frame of mind:
Notice Elijah’s loss of perspective: “He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (I Kings 19:10 ).
If he had been in a more humble frame of mind, he would have expressed something like this:
“I am really discouraged, Lord. I’ve been serving you and you have done great things. I guess I expected more to happen and I lost perspective. Then Jezebel sent word that she would hunt me and kill me. I ran for my life. I was afraid. I feel tired and down. Now I am here looking for help”
Elijah instead rehearsed how faithful he had been compared with everyone else. A martyr’s complex? Perhaps. A little angry? Maybe. You get the sense that Elijah is in a deep state of self-pity. ‘I’ve worked so hard only to find myself in these miserable circumstances. I expected so much more.’ Elijah expresses a definite feeling of being alone. “I am the only one left.”
This is the attitude that says, “I am the only one living for God!” He was frustrated, pessimistic, angry, disappointed and discouraged.
But wait! What about the collective confession of the crowd on Mount Carmel? What about Obadiah and the 100 prophets? What about Elisha and the 7,000 faithful? As one has said, “Despondency has a way of selectively focusing on certain aspects of life and conveniently overlooking others. Despair is always colorblind; it can only see the dark tints.” (Dick Hubard)
Discourage the discouraged?
The word for “encourage” can also be translated “admonish.” Sometimes discouraged people need gentle but firm admonishment about their loss of perspective. If you take this role with a discouraged person, sometimes he will accuse you of causing more discouragement. But we cannot truly encourage those who have lost perspective without discouraging them from a sinful frame of mind. We often find that we cannot shake our discouragement because we don’t feel God is caring for us as we believe He should — on our terms.
In this regard. it’s significant to note the grammatical connection between I Peter 5:6 and 5:7 – “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (ESV).
The main verb, “humble yourselves” functions in direct relationship with the participle “casting” (all your anxieties…). This means that part of the act of humbling oneself before God is “casting your cares on him.” Refusal to trust God with our cares is refusal to humble ourselves under His mighty hand.
Some translations miss this dependant connection by giving imperatival (command) force to verse 7 – “Cast all you cares on him.” It’s also significant to connect the warning of verse 8– “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (ESV).
Notice several other means of restoration: (I Kings 19)
- Spend time with God. (v. 11)- in His presence
- Take on a new assignment (v. 15)
- Accept help for the work (verses 16-17)
- Remember that you’re not alone (v. 18 )
Summary of action points for discouraged people
- Don’t quit! Rest, refresh yourself and be refortified. Bodily depletion has spiritual and emotional consequences.
- Guard your expectations. Don’t build them on the responses of others. Spend time with God.
- Pour out your heart to Him (Psalm 62:8 ). Listen for His voice.
- Do the next thing!
- Welcome help!
- Remember this —You’re not alone!