Overcoming discouragement

Discouragement is both a frame of mind and an emotion.

The word “courage” is part of the word Discouragement. In this sense, we might say that discouragement is a “dis” on courage! It’s a loss of courage, hope, or confidence.

“Disheartened” is another word for explaining the same feeling. It’s a loss of heart. People say, “My heart isn’t in it.” “I just don’t have the heart for it.” Discouragement sucks the wind out of the sails! It deflates hope. 

Yet discouragement is more than a feeling. Discouragement always involves a loss of perspective. When we have courage, we tend to see things more positively. We are ready to tackle the work ahead of us. But discouragement feeds on a doubtful and dark view of life. 

“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.” (David A. Hubbard)

Discouragement can blind us to all the encouraging little things that matter in life.

Like unexpected waves

Discouragement visits us in degrees ranging from mild to extreme. Like feelings of encouragement, it also comes in waves.

Walking through our Church foyer one Sunday, 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 hard it was to get through all the people in our foyer!  There were only 7 people when we began ministry here!

But sometimes I have felt unexpected waves of discouragement. Sometimes I feel like I am in a dark tunnel trying to find my way out. Sunday afternoons are often most challenging because I am physically and spiritually depleted from speaking three times in the morning. When feeling down, I often ask myself, “Why do I feel this way?” But the answer isn’t always self-evident! Feelings of encouragement and discouragement can come over us like unexpected waves.

Common causes behind discouragement

  • Winter months: absence of sun and warmth
  • Holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas (Family issues)
  • Milestones: birthdays, anniversaries
  • Physical, emotional and spiritual depletion
  • Failure or after affects of some great accomplishment

What about depression?

Some people experience prolonged and more debilitating discouragement. This could be a condition of 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 dimension. Those who battle prolonged depression in a way that negatively affects their daily functions should seek counsel and be open to the possibility of medicinal aid. But please do not accept medicinal aid without reliable counseling.

Encouragement the primary New Testament word

The Greek word translated “encourage” is “parakaleo” and means to call alongside. In a military context, the word was used to call for reinforcements. Encouragement (like an encourager) functions as a reinforcement for life.  Encouragement strengthens others—giving them courage, hope and confidence. It’s usually in the form of verbal affirmation, comfort, and exhortation. When discouraged, we need encouragement as part of the cure. But sometimes our need is not just to hear words of positive reinforcement. Sometimes getting out of the fog of despondency requires a little loving admonishment. Caring friends will cross this line with us if they sense we need to regain better perspective.

Discourage the discouraged? Yes!

It is noteworthy that the word for “encourage” can also be translated “admonish.” Sometimes, although with sensitivity and love, discouraged people need gentle but firm admonishment about their loss of perspective. When taking this role, discouraged people will sometimes accuse you of causing them more discouragement. But we cannot truly encourage those who have lost perspective without discouraging them from a sinful frame of mind.

The truth is that sometimes we can’t shake our discouragement because we don’t feel God is caring for us as we believe He should—on our terms. When we feel down we often lock ourselves more deeply into our feelings with wrong ways of thinking. Part of the cure is to begin thinking differently based on truth and God’s hope filled promises.

Important connection between I Peter 5:6 & 7

It’s very significant to note the grammatical connection between I Peter 5:6 and 5:7-

Verse 6 is a command: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. Verse 7 flows out of the command: “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (ESV). The main verb and command, “humble yourselves” functions in direct relationship with the participle “casting” (all your anxieties on Him).

Some translations miss the dependent connection by treating verse 7 as an independent command: “Cast all you cares on him.” But “casting” is the better translation and places it as an act of humbling oneself under God’s mighty hand. In other words, when we pour pout our cares (distressing burdens) we do so worshipfully under God’s Lordship over us. “Humble yourselves under…. casting all….”

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). When we lose perspective about our trials and distressing burdens, the evil one sees an opportunity to use his age old accusations against God and to suggest that God doesn’t really care for you or love you.

A community of encouragement

Another important part of the cure for discouragement is to be a participating part of a community of encouragement. Do you realize that 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).

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 is wise to remember that we often gain encouragement most by giving it because in giving we’re obeying the Lord.

Learning from one man’s story

To further help with overcoming discouragement, I invite you to take a close look at a servant of God who reached a deep state of despondency. His name is Elijah. He was one of God’s prophets.

Like most prophets, Elijah was called to ministry during dark times. The King of Israel at this time was Ahab. He did more evil and more to provoke the Lord to anger than any King before him. Ahab also married an ungodly woman named Jezebel (a name synonymous with evil ever since she lived). She was the real power behind Ahab and she used her influence for evil purposes.

Elijah was God’s servant to confront this evil. 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.

  • Ravens brought Elijah food at the brook Kerith.
  • Food supplied through the poverty stricken widow of Zarephath
  • The resurrection of the widow’s son (whom tradition identifies as his servant in Chapter 19)

Elijah’s ministry then reached its zenith 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:  All the people responded declaring, “The Lord, He is God.  The Lord He is God…”

Perhaps Elijah expected this great conquest to lead to national repentance. He 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. Memo to self: Often discouraged frames of mind are attached to a cycle of expectation and disappointment. It is never wise to condition our expectations on the responses of others.

This much is certain: the man we meet in I Kings 19 is not the man of great faith we’ve known up to this point.  What happened?  Think about it. The conquest of Mount Carmel was a very public defeat of evil.  

After times like these, it is not uncommon for one to experience a kind of battle fatigue—a profound level of spiritual, physical, and emotional depletion.  And, in this condition, loss of faith and courage can make us vulnerable in ways that we would not expect.  A death threat from Jezebel and the great prophet, Elijah, runs for his life!  After all he had witnessed of God’s power, this seems unimaginable. The extremes of life often come with ironic twists.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Elijah had reached a dangerous level of despondency.  He was really discouraged! How could God help him with this great enemy of the soul—discouragement? Again, if anyone had witnessed God’s power, provision, protection, and intervention, Elijah did.  But he got his eyes off the God who had led him and providentially—even miraculously cared for him. He shifted his focus toward himself and his discouraged frame of mind.  Notice how he demonstrated 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 Ki. 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.”

Sounds like he’s a little discouraged. “I am through!” “I’ve failed!” “I can’t go on!”

God’s restoration: (I Kings 19:5-9 ).

Let’s shift our 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 (finest shrub of the Arabian Desert). Elijah is exhausted in every sense. He was probably unaware of just how depleted hehad become. Don’t quit! Rest!
    • Food (verses 5b-8 )- physical nourishment  (Elijah had witnessed this provision before. Sometimes are initial need is physical refreshment and renewal; sleep and food. We must respect the interconnection between body, soul, and spirit.
    • Talk (verses 9 ). God invites Elijah to pour out his heart—to verbally express his condition to God (I Peter 5:7, Psalm 62:8). Given the opportunity to share his condition with God, Elijah reveals 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 ).

A more humble frame of mind 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”

Instead, Elijah rehearses 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 deep into 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 tat says, “I am the only one living for God!” He seems frustrated, pessimistic, angry, disappointed and discouraged.

But wait!  What about the confession of the crowd on Mount Carmel? What about Obadiah and the 100 prophets? What about Elisha and the 7,000 faithful? Listen. “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.”

Several other means of restoration: (from I Kings 19)

  1. Spend time with God. (v. 11) in His presence
  2. Take on a new assignment  (v. 15)
  3. Accept help for the work  (verses 16-17)
  4. Remember that you’re not alone  (v. 18  )

Summary list:

  1. Don’t quit! Rest and be refreshed. (See: In Need of a Good Night’s Sleep?)
  2. Guard expectations. Don’t base them on responses of others.
  3. Pour out your heart to God (Psalm 62:8 ).
  4. Do the next thing.
  5. Accept help.
  6. You’re not alone.

Prayerfully,

Steve Cornell


4 comments on “Overcoming discouragement

  1. [...] “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58). See Overcoming Discouragement [...]

  2. bill krill says:

    Hi Steve. I just Googled ‘waves of discouragement’ and got to this page. Reading your wisdom helped take the edge off my discouragement, a bit. A good friend of mine and I started a ministry effort about a year back, and the progress has been bleak. One side of my brain tells me to be persistent and have faith and hope, while the other side is questioning if God has really ordained this. I have that terrible feeling of being deeply and clearly called, then….no success.

    • T. Litz says:

      Bill, I’m just reading your comment August 2013……whatever happened?? We’re you encouraged? Did you take a different path??

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