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Stephen W. Brown on Overcoming Discouragement

23 Sep

“The Demon of Discouragement”

Charles Spurgeon often dealt with the problem of discouragement. He told his students:

“One crushing stroke has sometimes laid the minister very low. The brother most relied upon becomes a traitor. Judas lifts up his heel against the man who trusted him, and the preacher’s heart for the moment fails him. . . . Strife, also, and division, and slander, and foolish censures, have often laid holy men prostrate, and made them go ‘as with a sword in their bones.’ Hard words wound some delicate minds very keenly…. By experience the soul is hardened to the rough blows which are inevitable in our warfare; but at first these things utterly stagger us, and send us to our homes wrapped in a horror of great darkness….

“When troubles multiply, and discouragements follow each other in long succession, like Job’s messengers, then, too, amid the perturbation of soul occasioned by evil tidings, despondency despoils the heart of all its peace. Constant dropping wears away stones, and the bravest minds feel the fret of repeated afflictions. If a scanty cupboard is rendered a severer trial by the sickness of a wife or the loss of a child, and if ungenerous remarks of hearers are followed by the opposition of deacons and the coolness of members, then, like Jacob, we are apt to cry, ‘All these things are against me’… Accumulated distresses increase each other’s weight; they play into each other’s hands, and like bands of robbers, ruthlessly destroy our comfort. Wave upon wave is severe work for the strongest swimmer. The place where two seas meet strains the most seaworthy keel. If there were regulated pause between the buffetings of adversity, the spirit would stand prepared; but when they come suddenly and heavily, like the battering of great hailstones, the pilgrim may well be amazed. The last ounce is laid upon us, what wonder if we for awhile are ready to give up the ghost!” (Charles H. Spurgeon. Lectures to My Students. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1969, 161-162).

Spurgeon, of course, was talking to ministers, but everyone can identify with his comments. One of the great problems with broken ropes is the inevitable discouragement which follows. How does one deal with the demon of discouragement? Let’s talk about it.

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

One of the keys to dealing with discouragement is found in Hebrews 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

The writer of Hebrews first suggests that we are surrounded by witnesses. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews lists a number of Old Testament characters who endured great suffering and who persevered through faith. Talk about broken ropes! The writer ends that chapter talking about people of God who were mocked and beaten, who were stoned, imprisoned, sawn in half, and who had no homes (see Heb. 11:36-39).

The twelfth chapter of Hebrews opens by saying that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses; that is, “You are not by yourself. If your rope has broken, look at the broken ropes of others who have gone on to successfully complete their race. Be encouraged by them.”

The apostle Paul wrote the Christians in Corinth about the trials he and his friends had experienced-trials so great that they “despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8). I wouldn’t wish that kind of hurt on anyone, but I’m glad Paul went through it. It makes me feel better about my own discouragement.

Discouragement, you see, is almost always marked by a feeling of aloneness. You feel that no one could possibly understand, no one could possibly have had the kind of troubles you have, no one could possibly be as discouraged as you are at the moment. It helps sometimes to remember that others have indeed shared the occasion of suffering.

An old spiritual says, “When I’ve done the best I can and my friends misunderstand, / Thou Who know-est all about me, stand by me.” But, you see, all of your friends don’t misunderstand. You just think they do. Discouragement is a part of living.

In the early part of the sixteenth century a man by the name of Thomas Bilney became convinced of the need for the Bible in the lives of believers. Because he was vocal about those convictions, he was burned at the stake in Norwich, England, in 1531. His story is not uncommon. Many people have burned at the stake because of their convictions.

Standing in the crowd on the day Bilney was executed was a young man named Hugh Latimer. A graduate of Cambridge, Latimer was so influenced by the life and death of Bilney that he committed his life to the propagation of Bilney’s faith. Later, Latimer became a bishop of the church. When “Bloody” Mary came to the throne, Hugh Latimer was among those who were tortured and killed. While he was burning at the stake, he turned to a fellow bishop and friend being executed with him and said, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as, I trust, shall never be put out.”

I think of Bilney and Latimer when I get discouraged. They are a few of the witnesses who minister to me when my rope has broken. I have also asked God to give me enough grace to “keep on trucking” so that I may be a witness to others whose rope has broken.

The Demon of Guilt

The passage quoted from Hebrews 12 not only suggests that we have company, but also reminds us that we have been forgiven. The writer says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m discouraged, the first thing I do is evaluate my sin-and I find a whole lot. Guilt, you see, is part of the demonic element in discouragement. How do you lay aside the weight and sin? You do it with confession, resting in the promise that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Discouragement hardly ever grows in the soil of forgiveness.

When I was in high school, a group of my friends and I had an all-night party. About three in the morning someone suggested that we go swimming in the pool of an exclusive club and hotel in town. It was very dark when we climbed the fence and approached the pool. We were having a good time until one of my friends jumped off the high diving board, sitting on an inner tube. When he hit the water, it sounded like a shotgun blast. Before we knew what was happening the lights started going on in the hotel, and the night watchman came out of his office with his gun and a flashlight. We ran.

As I was climbing over the fence and running to the car, I looked back over my shoulder to see my friend-the one who had jumped off the high diving board-trying to climb the fence holding on to the inner tube. “Bill,” I yelled back, “drop the inner tube or the sucker’s going to get you!”

Guilt is like that inner tube. If your rope has broken, you already have enough trouble without adding guilt to the pile. You’ve already seen that there is no absolute correlation between your sin and your broken ropes. So, don’t forget to throw away the inner tube. Examine your life, accept your forgiveness, and don’t keep carrying around the inner tube of guilt.

Power to Endure

The author of Hebrews says that we are empowered to endure our broken ropes by “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb.12:2). Hopelessness is the twin sister of discouragement. No Christian need ever feel hopeless, because we have the choice of looking to

Jesus rather than at our circumstances. Do you remember when Jesus told Peter to walk on the waves? At first the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, but Jesus quickly told them who He was and settled their fears. Peter, evidently, still had some doubt that Jesus was who He said He was, so he made a simple request:

“Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. – Matthew 14:28-32

Peter’s problem was that he began to look at the waves instead of at Jesus. I don’t know about you, but if the waves had been big, I would have looked at them too. When waves are big, the danger is real, and we think about them to the exclusion of anything else. Some broken ropes are so devastating, it’s hard to look at anything except the broken rope. When you’re going through a divorce, when you have cancer, when you’re losing your children, others may easily say look at Jesus, but it’s very hard to do.

All of that granted, there is still a difference when Jesus is with us. Looking to Jesus may not be easy, and we can’t ignore the waves altogether. However, the point of Peter’s experience was not to show that waves exist or how big they get but to show that Jesus was there. He was there for Peter, and He is there for us.

One of the many nice things about my wife, Anna, is that she always puts little notes in and around the clothes I pack when I leave home for a speaking engagement. Anna knows that I get nervous in academic settings (I ran away from kindergarten, and I struggled through the next twenty years of education) and that I have a great desire to do well and to have people like me and a great fear of failure. As I was dressing before a lecture I was to give at Denver Seminary, I found a note in my shoe: “Just remember that nothing is going to happen today that Jesus can’t handle. ” That note reminded me about the One who owns me and for whom I speak. Because Anna helped me to focus on Jesus instead of myself and the situation, I felt a lot better.

“But  you don’t understand,” you are saying. “My broken rope is a lot more than a little fear about speaking in a seminary. I am really going through a very difficult time. I’m so discouraged that I don’t think I can go on.”

Let me tell you something: The principle is the same
no matter what the circumstances. Either Jesus is there or He isn’t. Either Jesus does have something to do with your situation or He doesn’t. If He doesn’t, you have a whole lot bigger problem than discouragement. But the Scripture is clear about His involvement: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Focus on Him. It can make a big difference.

I want to remind you of four important items we often forget when we’re discouraged.

(1) Remember the Past

First, don’t forget the past. The past is the informer of the present. Not everything said by Job’s friends was wrong. A case in point is Bildad’s first speech to job:

“For inquire, please, of the former age, And consider the things discovered by their fathers; For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, Because our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you, And utter words from their heart?” (Job 8:8-10)

When you look at the history of God’s people, you see God’s faithfulness and love. When you look to your own past, you can also see God’s faithfulness and love.

God has been building memorials in your life from the time you were born. What’s a memorial? It’s a memory of times when God has been faithful. If He was faithful in the past, He won’t stop being faithful now or in the future.

If I had been standing on the side of the boat, watching Peter go under the waves, I would have shouted to him, “Hey Peter! You were walking. You were really walking on the water before you got so overwhelmed by the waves. You aren’t going to drown. Jesus won’t let you.” If I could have gotten Peter’s attention, maybe he would have climbed back up on the wave and ridden it to Jesus. Of course, he didn’t. That’s why Jesus reached down and pulled him out.

I’ll bet Peter recorded in his memory those waves and Jesus’ faithfulness on that day. I’ll bet Peter thought about it the rest of his life.

I keep a diary. I must admit that I don’t write in it very often. In fact, I don’t write in it unless one of my ropes has broken. The diary records not my life but those places in my life when I was hurt and discouraged. When I think I’ve finally gotten into a hole from which I will never escape, I get out the diary and read about the other times when I thought I was in the same place. Then, I remember that I got out of the hole. It may have hurt, but by God’s grace I got out of the hole. God always says to me on those occasions of diary reading, “Child, if I was faithful then, I will be faithful now.”

(2) Remember the Facts

Second, when you are discouraged, don’t forget the facts. Paul instructed the people at Ephesus how to stand in the midst of a

spiritual battle: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth” (Eph. 6:13-14). Please note that Paul said we need to depend on truth for support; facts are the reality, not our feelings about the facts. One of the marks of discouragement is the “feeling” that God has gone away-that you aren’t important and that you’ve been kidding yourself about your relationship with Him. I heard the story of a man whose wife left him, children disowned him, and business failed. As he was walking down the street, he was hit by an automobile and left bruised and battered, a number of bones broken. In his agony he called out to God, “Why me? What have I done to deserve all of this?” He thought he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Sam, you haven’t done anything wrong. There is just something about you that ticks me off.” Discouragement can make you believe that you’ve offended God. Is that true? Of course not. God doesn’t act in that kind of capricious manner. How do I know that? Because the Bible is clear on the subject. When you were a teenager did you go to one of those Christian camps where there was a closing campfire? If you did, you’ll remember how you took a pine cone or a stick, which represented your sin, and you threw it in the fire. If you were like me, you then told God that from that point on you were going to be obedient and different. You were going to be God’s person. Those are good experiences, and I don’t want to say anything against them. But you can easily make promises of obedience sitting by a campfire in the mountains, with all your friends singing hymns about Jesus. When you come back home and your mother wants you to carry out the garbage, though, the promises aren’t so easy to keep. It took me a long time to recognize that feelings are changeable and a decision made on the basis of feelings, even a good one, probably would change. There is, of course, nothing wrong with decisions based on feelings except that those kinds of decisions hardly ever last unless they are reinforced with facts. If you are encouraged by certain feelings, you will be discouraged by others. If you are encouraged by facts, no matter how discouraged you become, the facts won’t change.

Someone has said, “Never doubt in the dark what God has taught you in the light.” That’s good advice. Some of my friends find great comfort in prayer and studying the Scriptures when they are going through a difficult time, but that isn’t the way it works for me. When my rope breaks, the Scriptures seem as dry as dust and my prayers never seem to get any further than my front teeth. I study the Scriptures and pray when
things are going reasonably well. Then, when the darkness comes, I remember the truth I discovered in the light, and I hang on to that with everything I’ve got.

In your dealing with discouragement, knowing Bible doctrine is essential because it gives you eternal truths, facts that are constant in spite of what your feelings are at any particular moment. Sometimes I don’t feel like a Christian; sometimes I feel that God could not possibly be a God of love; sometimes I feel that there could not possibly be any meaning in my broken rope; sometimes I feel that God has cast me aside and that my life has been wasted. But, you see, feelings are just that—feelings. They have no reality of their own. That is why I remember in the dark the truth that I learned in the light.

(3) Remember the Process

Third, when your rope is broken and you are discouraged, don’t forget that God works out His purpose in the process. The psalmist wrote: The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the LORD upholds him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23-24).

Let me tell you a secret. When you’re up, you think you’ll never be down, and when you’re down, you think you’ll never be up. But in the process of living you will go through times of success and joy and times of failure and discouragement.

In New England folks have a saying about the weather: If you don’t like it, just wait a couple of minutes and it will change. Discouragement is like that. It comes and it goes, so you need not assume that a state of discouragement, or encouragement for that matter, is permanent. When God decides that your broken rope has accomplished its purpose, He will fix the rope, and the discouragement will be fixed too.

My brother, Ron, spent a summer with us on Cape Cod to make some money to pay for his college education. He started out as a waiter because someone had told him that, with the big tips, he would make as much as two or three thousand dollars. That job lasted about two days. After numerous botched orders, broken plates, and angry customers, both Ron and his employer decided that Ron was not cut out to be a waiter. He then got a construction job. The construction contract ran out and he was laid off.

He came into my study one day and said, “Brother, this whole summer was a mistake. I should have stayed at home” I tried to encourage him, but in fact, I agreed with him. The summer hadn’t turned out the way either one of us had expected. But when I got home for dinner that evening, Ron was in a much better mood. I figured that he had found another job, but that wasn’t the case.

“Steve,” he told me, “I got to thinking this afternoon and decided that my life could change in the next five minutes. Why get discouraged?” He was right. The next day he got a job as a ranger on a golf course, and it was one of the best summer jobs he ever had.

Ron understood something we all ought to remember: the only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that change happens. Remember, every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it.

Let me repeat one of my favorite axioms: You can stand almost anything if you know it isn’t permanent. As a pastor, I am constantly amazed at the resilience of God’s people. The worst tragedy bringing the most terrible depression eventually dissipates
through the power of God’s grace. It doesn’t always fade quickly or easily, but it does fade away. Just accept your discouragement now as a part of God’s purpose, and be still until the light of understanding and grace shines.

(4) Look to the Future

Finally, when your rope has broken and you are discouraged, don’t forget the future. Paul wrote about what we can look forward to as believers:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed-in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality …. then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:51-54).

Richard Wurmbrand, who has dealt often with broken ropes, is a voice of hope in the midst of discouragement. He spent some fourteen years in communist prisons and is an example of a follower of Christ who, with hope and love, survived the worst that one man could do to another.

Wurmbrand, discussing the atheism of communism, spoke of the hope we have for the future. He suggested that if someone were to speak to an embryo, he or she might say that there was a wonderful life beyond the womb. If the embryo should answer the way an atheist would, it would say, “Don’t bother me with this kind of religious superstition. This is my world, and it’s the only one I know. I cannot see beyond it, and it is pure opiate to suggest that there is anything beyond.”

“But suppose,” Wurmbrand wrote,

this embryo could think with greater discernment than our academicians. It would say to itself: “Eyes develop in my head. To what purpose? There is nothing to see. Legs grow. I do not even have room to stretch them. Why should they grow? And why do arms and hands grow? I have to keep them folded over my breast. They embarrass me and my mother. My whole development in the womb is senseless unless there follows a life with light and color and many objects for my eyes to see. The place in which I’ll spend this other life must be large and varied. I will have to run in it. Therefore my legs grow. It will be a life of work and struggle. Therefore I grow arms and fists, which are of no use here”  (Richard Wurmbrand. My Answer to Moscow Atheists. New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1975, 156-157).

Broken ropes and the accompanying discouragement remind us that this life isn’t the way it ought to be. Thirst may not prove there is water, and hunger may not prove there is food. But thirst and hunger are very good indicators that there is something somewhere to fulfill those needs, something for resolution and completion, pointing to the future and to a promise.

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-2). When your rope is broken and you are discouraged, remember the memorials God has given you in the past and look to the future with the confidence that He has prepared a place for you.

About the Author:

Dr. Steve Brown is one of the most sought after preachers and conference speakers in the country. Having had extensive radio experience before entering the ministry, he is now heard weekdays on the national radio program, Key Life, and one minute feature, “Think Spots”. Steve also hosts a weekly radio talk show, “Steve Brown, Etc.”. He served as the senior pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church for 17 years before joining the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) faculty as Professor of Preaching. After teaching full time for almost two decades at RTS, Dr. Brown retired and is Emeritus Professor of Preaching but remains an Adjunct Professor of Preaching teaching occasional classes each year.

Dr. Brown is the author of many (16 and counting) books and also serves on the Board of the National Religious Broadcasters and Harvest USA (He earned his B.A. from High Point College; an S.T.B. from Boston University School of Theology; and an Litt.D. from King College). Steve is one of my favorite writers and speakers because he is authentic, a great story-teller, is a theologian in disguise, and really knows how to address the realities of how sinful humans can experience the amazing grace of God. The article above was adapted from Chapter 8 in his excellent book on surviving and thriving in a tough world: When Your Rope Breaks: Christ-centered advice on how to go on living—when making it through another day is the hardest thing in the world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

He Has Authored These Outstanding Books:

Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2012.

A Scandalous Freedom. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2009.

What Was I Thinking? Things I’ve learned Since I Knew It All. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2006.

Follow the Wind: Our Lord, the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Approaching God: How to Pray. New York: Howard, 1996.

Living Free: How to Live a Life of Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Born Free: How to Find Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy in an Authentic Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

How To Talk So People Will Listen. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

If Jesus Has Come: Thoughts on the Incarnation for Skeptics, Christians and Skeptical Christians by a Former Skeptic. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Jumping Hurdles, Hitting Glitches, Overcoming Setbacks. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.

No More Mr. Nice Guy! Saying Goodbye to “Doormat” Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.

Welcome to the Family: A Handbook for Living the Christian Life. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1990.

When Your Rope Breaks: Christ-centered advice on how to go on living—when making it through another day is the hardest thing in the world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Heirs with the Prince. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.

If God is in Charge: Thoughts On The Nature of God For Skeptics, Christians, and Skeptical Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker 1983.

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