I am someone who is easily and heavily influenced by emotion, and discouragement is very much an emotional issue. Like depression, it often comes as the convergence of various issues which are small, which you could handle on their own, if they weren't all hitting you at the same time; the combined weight of which knocks you down. You lie limp and passive under the heavy cloud of discouragement, without strength to move, without motivation to try and get up, without hope that you could escape even if you tried; and wonder why you had ever been excited about life at all, and thought you could ever do anything.
As such, I've often struggled with discouragement--recently, to be honest; reminding me it's a lifelong battle which no amount of spiritual maturity can immunize you against--something I should expect as long as I'm human, and by correlation, emotional. Spiritual maturity helps in dealing with discouragement, but it cannot completely prevent it.
I was clearing my storage space recently. That means boxes of old diaries, letters, schedules, notebooks of stories, sermon notes, travel journals. It was sobering and yet uplifting as I flipped through the little stack of well-worn, rather shabby, but very precious spiritual journals. Reading what I'd written over all those years made me realize that the discouragement and despair I had experienced--so often the reason for an entry (if only it was natural to document happy times as it is, ironically, to document sad ones; not because I actually want to remember them, but as a coping mechanism, a therapy of sorts)--could be categorized as discouragement with my own failures, and discouragement with the failures of others.
Forgive me for falling into sin so easily, so often, the same sin. I thought I could be wiser, stronger, but I'm seeing just how pitiable and helpless I am in the grip of sin and my own weak nature...a little beast, that's what I am. O God, forgive me even when my heart is numb and cold and I don't feel as sorry as I should--when I wilfully decide to do it, when I come crawling back again in shame asking for forgiveness. Break me out of this vicious cycle of my own making and set me free.
I feel so helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well or as much as I wanted to....God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Self-pity. Despair. Loss of faith in grace (forgetting its very definition.) It alienates you from others--alienates you, most of all, from God. You draw away because you feel like you don't want them to know how unworthy you are, because they all seem so much better than you.
I feel disappointed and angry and hurt. I knew this is part of growing up but I never expected it to happen so traumatically. It makes me feel almost scared to think that everyone is as messed up and mistake-prone as myself, that perhaps being an adult doesn't so much mean you're mature now, but rather realizing that others aren't so much more mature than you as you'd always assumed...I feel so emotionally crippled by all this, unable to interact with people without feeling wary or speculating on their motives or imagining what they've heard or what they think.
Alternatively, people-oriented discouragement works the other way. Cynicism, resentment, frustration, even bitterness. Feeling disillusioned or disappointed in people. Feeling betrayed, let down, when you gave so much effort and time and invested yourself emotionally in someone. It embitters your relationships with others, alienating you from others as well if in a different way. You draw away because--to say it bluntly--you feel that they are not worth your interaction, whether specific people or just the whole of humanity in general.
I'm not sure which type of discouragement is more poisonous. Pulling yourself out of these ruts can seem almost impossible when you're lying at the bottom. How to trust grace? How to try again without feeling like a hypocrite? How to trust people, or avoid becoming cynical and defensive when a similar situation arises? How to rescue a relationship you feel disillusioned with?
I found an old post-it in my Bible, scribbled carelessly and tucked away so it obviously had been written at a time when it didn't mean as much to me as it eventually would. "What must we do if we find ourselves spiritually empty? Firstly, confess and put away any sin in our lives. Then we need to seek God's face in prayer and through His word" (this was taken from Desma Lewis' Fellowship Bible Study on 1st Samuel.)
In discouragement--regardless of what type--we must first confess and put away the sin in our lives. In discouragement with yourself, it's easy to confess. You see everything you've failed and done wrong already like a neon billboard. What's more challenging is to put it away. That means not only resolving not to continue in them--whether in sins of selfishness, idolatry, but even lack of faith--but also to move on. When we put away something we stop turning it about in our hands and staring at it from different angles.
On the other hand, discouragement with others requires a commitment to confront and confess our own sins with relentless honesty even as the sins of others loom big in our eyes--something, I think we would all know, is not easy. In bitterness, in pride, in being unloving and judgmental. I have sinned. When we acknowledge our own failures in God's eyes we stop pointing out the failures of others to God.
Why the Word? After the humbling process of confessing and putting away our sin, hopefully we've been recalibrated, so to speak, for a more balanced perspective--whether with which to see ourselves or to see others. In the first case, one which isn't so devastatingly self-centered; in the latter, one which (equally devastatingly) doesn't include ourselves. Hopefully we're able to let go of the very human prejudice of emotions and accept the objective truth of the Bible. Which means that no matter how big our sin--or the sin of others--Christ's death is bigger. Which means no matter how empty or incapable of trust we feel, God's power to enable and empower remains the same.
It's not easy. Discouragement is such an intensely personal and predominantly emotional trial that objective truth sometimes seems the last thing, in all its dryness, that can help us. But ironically, the very cold impersonality of objective truth is what we need when we're attacked by blinding, overwhelming, and often irrational or imbalanced emotion.
Looking through my journals, I was reminded of another phrase which had once been very important to me, at the time when all the uncertainties, fears, and doubts of college applications were the biggest thing in my life. That was the metaphor of driving on an unlit road at night--I experienced that once, as a passenger of course, during a violent tropical rainstorm in Malaysia; and it really was a tense, unreal experience. You couldn't see any further than the five feet in front of your headlights, in the dark and the thickness of the rain. But you had to press on, in faith, as long as those five feet were clear. The temptation to stay where you were was an illusion of safety--to stop would very well be fatal, even if moving forward posed a risk. The only way to get through was to keep going--slowly, perhaps, but ahead, as long as the five feet of road in front of you was clear.
Sometimes it was as simple--or more accurately, as hard--as that in discouragement. I might not know much but what little I knew was the right thing to do lay in front of me like that lighted space of five feet in the dark and storm. To do my best to resist bitterness and resentment. To fight for joy. To love others as well as I could with Christ as my example. Perhaps that meant the simple things I'd already been doing. Perhaps it meant something as unexciting as going back to the Bible, persevering in prayer even though it felt dry and meaningless, or simply just controlling myself.
'Show me in the way in which I should walk' (Psalm 143:8) has been a prayer of mine increasingly, in uncertainties but especially in discouragement.
Sometimes this 'way' isn't a significant choice or crossroads but simply the five feet in front of our headlights. To confess and put away our sin. To find guidance and comfort in the Word. No matter how alienated we feel from others or from God, to continue in what is right, until we hear the storm dying away, or see the dawn break through the rain.
It is God who arms me with strength, and makes my way perfect.
He makes my feet like the feet of deer, and sets me on my high places.
He teaches my hands to make war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great, so my feet did not slip.
I found an old entry in a prayer journal on this section of Psalm 18. yes, I had scribbled, and the (extra) spidery appearance of my handwriting indicated that it was a very heart-felt yes--I need the impossible. I need help to do the impossible.
I want to do so much more than I am doing now, though I'm already engrossed just keeping up with everything.
I want to love people and serve and care for them even though I struggle with bitterness or burn-out from serving.
I feel like I'm at my limits. Because I'm at my limits, because I can't see myself being able to fulfil that, I need God to 'enlarge the path under me'--I can't walk better or keep from tripping.
This may sound hard to understand, but it ties in to another verse in this psalm, a phrase that I never understood until I had my first experience of great grief: Your gentleness has made me great.
I am learning, growing, in so many painfully precious, staggeringly significant ways, because of pain and trouble. I see so many huge mistakes and blindspots and cesspits in my maze of a heart, which I couldn't have seen otherwise. A whole new aspect of God's goodness and love; learning to value both so much more, in the war ground of crisis.
because I am weak--
I cannot take much pain.
I'm lousy at suffering. If I was pushed into the heat of the fighting I probably wouldn't survive. Just struggling along the fringes of it is bad enough--one flesh wound, and I feel like I'm dying.
I know that what I struggle with now is nothing compared to what I see others having to deal with. I see how, even as I feel burdened down, how much worse it could have been, or become. A lesson which comes in the shape of an open, smarting wound, but which could have likewise come in the form of an amputation
--which, at this point in my immaturity, I likely wouldn't be tough enough to survive for long.
He is gentle with me. He knows just how shallow my thresholds for pain and suffering are. He gives me what He knows I can bear, and with these relatively small, easy lessons, moves me forward in guided baby steps towards greatness.
Greatness of mind, and soul, and heart.
Greatness of faith.
But it's a balance too. Earlier on it says that He 'makes me feet like the feet of deer'. He gives me skills and ability that aren't even within my species, that are so far from my natural ability, to put it another way. To bend a bow of bronze--besides the lovely imagery and cadence of this phrase, I never actually realized the impact of the metaphor until I read Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow and discovered that actually the very idea of a bow made of bronze was in itself a symbol of impossibility.
Sometimes, He helps us by enlarging the path for our dragging feet, catering to our individual limits with the gentleness that one would hardly dare to expect from One who is God.
Other times, He helps us by gifting us with the skills and abilities and wisdom that seem so unnatural now, enabling us to do what would previously have been the impossible, to bend the bow of bronze with hands suddenly deft and powerful.
He gives grace in both ways, according to our needs and His will.
Psalm 119: 71 --- 'It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.'
There will be times when you read this verse, and wonder what it means.
At other times it will be too painful.
Sadness is a fairly common part of everyday life, as Inside Out might have taught you. Grief, however, is different. It is not simply, like sadness, the 'opposite of happiness'. It is a complicated and extended process of emotional suffering which has a permanent effect on you. It's like an earthquake hitting a city, making your tallest skyscrapers and biggest buildings--everything that made you complacent, assured, everything that seemed so immovable and permanent to you--collapse. It negates roadmaps and street signs--what previously made perfect sense to you--and drastically changes your needs. Having faulty traffic lights fixed is suddenly not important anymore. Food, medical attention, a roof over your head--you just need the basic necessities to survive.
The process of healing, too, is like having to rebuild your demolished city--without being able to dispose of all the rubble. It remains as a foundation for the new buildings, always there as a humbling reminder of fragility, pain, and weakness--in the past, and present.
I've observed such humbling in certain people who experienced this sort of suffering. They have less assumptions. Are simpler. Kinder. Gentler. More empathetic. Less judgemental. It has truly brought them closer to Christ--closer to understanding Him--closer to being like Him. This is what Jesus is like; humble in His obedience, in His love, and in serving. He suffered too, in His time here, which is why we know He understands, and why He is so patient and gentle with us in our weaknesses. Such gentleness and empathy is only possible through humility. We can only care for others when we stop caring so much for ourselves. We can best appreciate their strengths when we have no delusions or pretensions on our own, when we aren't instinctively comparing ourselves. We can only help them discern their weaknesses when we're not busy trying to deny our own.
Watching them has taught me to have more hope and faith in suffering and in God's ability to let changes that may feel so painful to work such wonders, even in me. Perhaps the pain will never quite go away, just as earthquake prone zones experience recurring tremors. The rebuilding will take time, may be slow and constantly being set back. Sometimes that site was so badly devastated, you can never quite build something as momentous there again. But the rubble that looks so ugly, that is such a sobering reminder to you of how fragile all these buildings are, how much wreckage there once was here, is also hope in its own way. If another earthquake--and you flinch at the thought--should come and devastate this new city, you have the comfort of knowing that though you still can't withstand it, still can't predict when it will hit, you have hope of surviving and recovering again. That your first experience has equipped you to be a little--even if just a little--more able to deal with a second.
In other words, this city may not be earthquake proof, but it is proof that earthquakes are not the end.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are