Dealing with Discouragement

The story is told that one day Satan put his tools up for sale.  They were many and varied.  Tools of similar type were grouped together.  On one table were displayed sins like pride, selfishness, addiction, and hatred.  On another were displayed tools of a different variety—things not sinful in and of themselves, but which the tempter can skillfully manipulate for his own purposes:  pleasure, friendship, talent, anger.  And then set apart from these collections, on a third table, was another tool, one without a price tag.  A curious shopper asked Satan about the tool, to which he responded, “That one’s not for sale.  It’s too valuable to me.  With that tool I can pry into almost any a human heart, and once in, begin to work my will.”  Impressed by such a description, the shopper inquired, “What’s it called?”  Picking it up, and weighing it in his hands appreciatively, Satan replied, “Discouragement.”

Discouragement is a loss of hope.  It is a loss of expectation (the Bible’s meaning for “hope”) that a desired end can or will ever be achieved.  It can be prompted by circumstances arising from without or within, can vary in severity, but is always characterized by the same basic condition—lost (diminished or destroyed) hope.  Loss of hope that my spouse will ever change.  Loss of hope that I will ever be able to break a sinful habit.  Loss of hope that members of my congregation will ever truly seek first the kingdom of God.  Loss of hope that I will ever make it through a trying time.  

But losing hope—at least, in matters related to our walk with God—is dangerous.  It is so, because when we lose hope (if we lose it entirely), we lose the will to act.  And when we lose the will to act, we cannot but lose to the evil one.  “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).  And so, discouragement is something to be avoided.  And when it does come, it needs to be overcome.  But how?  God gives us answers in 1 Kings 19.

Elijah had just had what one could call a mountaintop experience.  Atop Mount Carmel, before an assembly of double-minded Israelites, he had called upon Yahweh to demonstrate His power, and God had responded with fire from heaven!  The people had fallen on their faces, had declared, “The LORD, He is God!” and then obeyed Elijah’s command to execute the state-funded prophets of Baal.  A resounding victory!  But then events took a drastic turn for the worse.  Elijah was informed by the queen’s messenger that the victory was going to cost him his life.  Jezebel had not been moved to repentance, but to revenge.  And so, in very short order, Elijah was transported from the mountaintop to the valley of the shadow of death.  He ran for his life, heading south to safety, and on the way, began to brood.  And he came to some conclusions: “I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4).  I’m a failure.  “I alone am left” (1 Kings 19:10).  No one is serving God but me.  “It is enough!  Now, LORD, take my life” (1 Kings 19:4).  Kill me and put me out of my misery.

Elijah was a deeply discouraged man.  He had lost hope and had lost heart.  Life was no longer worth living.  His was a wasted existence.  There was no use in even trying anymore.  What could be said or done to help this man overcome his discouragement?  God shows us the way.  

God took care of Elijah’s flesh.  

First, He let Elijah get some rest, and then He made sure Elijah got something to eat (1 Kings 19:5-6).  He did this twice (1 Kings 19:6-7).  Sometimes, the best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.  Sometimes, just getting a little something in our stomach can do wonders for our mental outlook.  The flesh is weak.  Lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, lack of exercise—these are all well-known, potential contributors to discouragement and depression.  Sometimes, though it may not solve our problems completely, we can help ourselves just by taking care of the flesh.

God helped Elijah with his thought life.  

God told Elijah, “I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18).  Elijah’s dismal outlook was based, in part, on bogus information—namely, that he was all alone.  Correcting that misunderstanding helped bring about a revolution in how he felt.  The same holds true for us.  Sometimes, we need to tweak what we’re telling ourselves…about ourselves, about others, about our circumstances, about God.  Are we telling ourselves the truth?  David asked, “LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle?”  The answer?  “He who…speaks the truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:1-2).  Truth is important, even when we’re talking to no one but ourselves.  And it’s powerful.  It changes how we think, which changes how we feel, even when there may be no change in our circumstances.  “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).      

God gave Elijah meaningful work to do.  

Work is therapeutic.  It gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment (integral to joy) which can, in turn, cast people and experiences in a different light.  It also helps us get our minds off ourselves and the things that discourage us.  Sometimes our low times come simply because we’re spending too much time thinking about ourselves and how things aren’t going our way.  Meaningful, engrossing work can really help crash a pity party!  God gave Elijah a trifecta of tasks, three new jobs—anoint Hazael as king over Syria, anoint Jehu as king over Israel, and anoint Elisha as prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:15-17)—plenty of work to keep him busy, and also, significantly, not busy work.  It was meaningful work, God’s work.  Always, there is more work to be done in the kingdom than there are workers to accomplish it.  When discouraged, it may, sometimes, serve us well to just get our minds on, and our hands busy in, God’s work.  It worked for Elijah.

God gave Elijah a godly friend.  

The man who believed he was all alone was given a companion to work with for the rest of his life.  “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), and Elisha would stick with Elijah to the very end.  No man is an island.  Everybody needs somebody.  But that somebody (or somebodies) can be hard to find, at times.  Elijah had to travel from Horeb back to Israel to find Elisha, a journey of over a month.  We may need put forth some extra effort, as well.  We may need to drive to other congregations, attend some meetings, cross generational gaps, or get outside our comfort zone in some other way.  “A man who has friends must himself be friendly” (Proverbs 18:24).  But the blessing of a good, godly friend will make it worth all the inconvenience.  Such a friend can make all the difference when discouragement comes calling.