First Response: Cry out to God. “Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their reproach on their own heads, and give them as plunder to a land of captivity! Do not cover their iniquity, and do not let their sin be blotted out from before You; for they have provoked You to anger before the builders … Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God …” (Nehemiah 4:4–5, 9).
I’m going to make a radical suggestion to you. Next time you encounter some major setback in your life, reverse your usual procedure—that is, cry out to God first instead of last. Most of us wait until we’ve exhausted all other alternatives before appealing to God as a last resort. I don’t know about you, but I grit my teeth when I hear someone say, “We’ve tried everything; now all we can do is pray.”
Don’t wait until last to look up. When discouragement comes, start at the top! Go to the Lord and ask Him to help you sort through all the issues. May I tell you what works for me in times of discouragement? I sit down with my computer and my journal and I begin to talk to God. I say, “Lord, I need to talk with You right now. Some things are going on in my life that I can’t understand, and I’m having a hard time with it. I need to tell You about it.”
For me, it helps to begin setting the issues down in writing as I verbalize my feelings to God. As I do this, something begins to change in my spirit.
First of all, I bring everything out of that dark “anxiety closet” into the light. Writing it down and reading it out loud brings clarity. I discover that things weren’t quite the way I thought when they were smoldering within me. I’ve imposed order on them, examined them in the light.
Second, I’ve done as Nehemiah did—I’ve cried out to God. This is the most important thing. Sometimes we just need to let go, be a child, and cry out to Daddy. That brings the innocence and dependence that are the beginning of wisdom. It cuts through our discouragement. If you don’t think this is a very spiritual approach, read through the psalms. When David was beset by worries (and he was beset by a multitude of them), he did exactly what I’ve prescribed above. He wrote them down and cried them out. He was brutally honest about his discouragement, and you can be, too.
Second Response: Continue the Work God Has Given You to Do.
“So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6).
Why is it that our immediate reaction to adversity is to quit? Like the angry little boy on the playground, we take our ball and go home. People leave churches; they quit jobs; they walk away from marriages—all because they’ve encountered the predictable season of discouragement. And of course, that’s the worst thing we can do. We always come to regret our emotional walkouts. Satan knows that if he can play on our emotions and get us to quit, he can keep the problem from being resolved. He can keep God’s work from moving forward. But take a look at Nehemiah. He felt all the discouragement of his people, but he never set down the trowel, never missed a beat in laying the next brick. He knew he had to keep on keeping on. Yes, there were problems to deal with—but he wasn’t going to set aside the mandate God had given him. “The people had a mind to work,” the Scriptures tell us. Nehemiah helped them see that productive labor is just what the doctor ordered sometimes. It’s healthy and therapeutic to work off our frustration.
Needless to say, it’s also a great way to bring a little discouragement to the enemy. Later on, Sanballat and Geshem tried one more stunt to make Nehemiah slow down on his work. They invited him to a conference. Anyone in the business world will tell you that conferences and committees are great ways to slow down productivity! And I’ve always loved Nehemiah’s comeback. “So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?’ ” (Nehemiah 6:3).
Modern translation: “Please accept my regrets, but God’s agenda outweighs yours right now.” The main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing. We need to have a firm grasp on what God called us to do, put on the blinders, and keep plugging away. As we’ve seen, clear goals are the best preventive maintenance for burnout.
No matter how devastated you may feel, no matter how down in the dumps your spirit may be, keep up the good work. Experience leads me to believe that the times we least feel like working are the times we most certainly should. Emotions are treacherous advisers. We need to be disciplined and stay on task. Nehemiah knew his people didn’t need to bail; they needed to build. They didn’t need to walk; they needed to work. And our discouragement will have a way of sorting itself out.
Third Response: Concentrate on the Big Picture.
Therefore I positioned men behind the lower parts of the wall, at the openings; and I set the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked, and arose and said to the nobles, to the leaders, and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.” (Nehemiah 4:13–14)
Nehemiah’s men were fanned out across the perimeter, working on little sections of the wall—and that was part of the problem. They were so separated that they couldn’t communicate and encourage each other. They could only see their own little hole in the wall, their own little pile of rubbish. It was very difficult to maintain any perspective.
We, too, tend to reduce the world to the cubicles we work in. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” said John le Carré. Your cubicle may not have a window, but you can always keep one wide open in your spirit. Open it to God. Open it to others. Hold on to the Big Picture. Nehemiah’s workers were down and out. The muddy bricks and old debris made a discouraging picture, but only a few steps back and a little imagination upward revealed a portrait of the New Jerusalem. You may see nothing but drudgery in your life; you need to see what He is doing in you, with you, and for you. You need to hold on to that hope. It will help you prevail in the darkest of times.
Nehemiah 4 shows how Nehemiah handled the problem. He positioned the people along the wall in rows. Suddenly they could see the unity of their work force, the proud line standing firm along the walls. Can you see a mental picture of that? Now the workers could see that every man meant one more section of the wall under repair. Add it all up, and the total is a new city.
Once I saw a cartoon filled with a crowd of hundreds of little characters packed together, all looking perplexed, all with identical thought bubbles above their heads, countless thought bubbles, all reading, “What can one man do?” From our side of the cartoon panel we can see how ludicrous that is. Each little man is in his own private torment, and yet they’re not only an “each,” they’re an army, if only they could see it. Don’t let the enemy isolate you.
Erma Bombeck is sorely missed. For thirty years she wrote a popular syndicated newspaper column, published fifteen books, received numerous awards, appeared regularly on Good Morning America, and gave a great voice to millions of little people. I miss that voice, for it brought laughter and hope to all of us. But few of her admirers were aware of the sufferings she experienced. She had breast cancer, a mastectomy, and kidney failure. She worked through her trials, one by one, and maintained her grasp of the Big Picture. She once wrote,
I speak at college commencements, and I tell everyone I’m up there and they’re down there—not because of my successes but my failures. Then I proceed to spin all of them off—a comedy record album that sold two copies in Beirut … a sitcom that lasted about as long as a doughnut in our house … a Broadway play that never saw Broadway … book signings where I attracted two people: one who wanted directions to the restroom and the other who wanted to buy the desk. What you have to tell yourself is this: “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something.” There’s a big difference … Personally and career-wise, it’s been a corduroy road. I’ve buried babies, lost parents, had cancer and worried over kids. The trick is to put it all in perspective … and that’s what I do for a living.
She did it very well; that’s why we loved her so deeply. She made us laugh at ourselves and think about life in perspective. She made us look up for a moment from the little holes in the walls that define our piece of geography. She helped us remember we’re all a part of something bigger.
Pastor and futurist Leith Anderson, a good friend of mine, writes the following in his book Leadership That Works:
In the heat of a tough leadership battle it is easy to lose hope, become pessimistic, and convince ourselves of defeat … But as Christians we must open our eyes to see the view from where Jesus sits … When I am discouraged and my hope runs thin, I remember that I am part of something much bigger than I am, and much more important than the local church of which I am a part. I belong to the church of Jesus Christ, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it (Matthew 16:18). Seeing the worldwide kingdom of God, not just my little corner of it, is enormously encouraging to me. It builds my faith and strengthens my hope.
From there, Anderson details example after example of good things coming to pass in the world because of Christ and His church. He takes us on a quick journey across the globe, and we see the many countries where souls are coming to salvation at phenomenal rates. Then Anderson brings us home again. There are now 102 million people attending church each week, he tells us. To make that number meaningful, we look at that other weekend pursuit, professional sports. It turns out that baseball, basketball, and football games in the United States drew a combined ninety-four million fans during the same year. In other words, more people attend church in one week than professional baseball, basketball, and football games in one year. In fact, when all the numbers are crunched, attendance at sporting events works out to about 2 percent of church attendance. So the next time somebody says, “Oh, if only people were as passionate about their church as they are about their teams,” you need to remind them that pews are fifty times more popular than stadium seats, week after week. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I also like what Anderson tells us about our young people. For every 100 worshipers in their seventies on a typical weekend, there are 160 to 200 who are in their twenties! Does that surprise you? Most of us have bought into the myth that young people are staying away from our churches in droves. It’s simply not true on a statistical basis, looking at the Big Picture.
The world is filled with voices of discouragement, but there is one place where we can always go to be uplifted.
Fourth Response: Claim the Encouragement of God’s Promises. “ ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (Nehemiah 4:14).
In times of discouragement, run—don’t walk—to the Word of God. You may hear yourself say something like, “I’m too low for Bible-reading today. My heart wouldn’t be in it.” My friend, that’s the point! When your heart is ailing, it needs a transfusion of hope and power. I tell people to learn the principle of force-feeding: Get the book out, open it up, sit yourself down, tune your mind in, and read the Word aloud. These are practical things you can do; don’t wait for your feelings, for you can act your way into feeling easier than you can “feel” your way into acting.
I know how hard it can be. I have those mornings when my spirits are at low ebb as I approach my appointment with God. I speak to Him very frankly: “Lord, I need something special from You today. I’m going through a rough place here. I want more than words on a page; more than ideas and spiritual concepts. I need You. I need Your voice. And so I’m asking You to meet me in Your Word today, Lord.”
There are also times when I’ve said, “I refuse to put this Book down until I hear from You, Lord.” Don’t you think He’s pleased by our yearning to know Him? He’s going to answer you if you approach with a determined heart. He’s going to help you see just what you need to see in His Word, and He’s going to give you the grace that will help you prevail through the bumps in the rocky road of life. This is no ordinary book. God’s Spirit dwells in its pages, and He yearns for you to find Him in passages like this one:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. (Psalm 46:1–3)
We can run to the New Testament, too. In 2 Thessalonians 3:13, we discover that it’s possible to become discouraged even while doing all the right things: “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good.” Those words grow weary carry the meaning of discouragement. This is a remarkable idea and one I find very helpful. You may be out visiting the sick, engaging in prison ministry, teaching Sunday school, working with needy people, or any other good deed. You may be serving Christ with all your heart and still become discouraged. The Bible says don’t grow weary in your service.
And why? Look to Galatians 6:9 for the answer. “And let us not grow weary while doing good,” that verse repeats, then adds, “for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart,” that is, become discouraged. You see, we find ourselves feeling low because we’ve lost perspective about Whom we’re serving, why we’re doing it, and how God plans to reward us. We need to remember the reaping.
Don’t lose sight of those things. Run to God’s Word, keep your nose in the Book, and draw the strength you need to keep your spirit strong.
Fifth Response: Carry Someone Else’s Burden. Let’s come back to Nehemiah and his massive renovation project. If we read a bit farther into the fourth chapter, we’ll find something very moving. We’ll find a pattern of people helping one another.
Nehemiah’s band of stragglers, the remnant of fallen Israel, had bonded together to become a team. They were unified in commitment. Some were carrying, some were guarding, some were building, and all of them were wearing swords. The final word of this passage is that they stayed up all night; they were too caught up in their work to go home for the evening. Nehemiah tells us they didn’t even change clothes except for washing. United we stand. They understood that if they were to prevail, they’d need to watch one another’s backs. They’d need to help the weaker ones carry, and help the shorter ones reach. They’d need to fill in for those who were older and more weary. They carried one another’s burdens.
Discouragement tends to cut us off from doing this. It sends us inward, where pity parties are common and perspective is rare. How often I’ve forgotten my own little worries when I’ve been busy calling on someone who was sick, or making my rounds at the hospital. Going in, I’ve told God that I had nothing to give these people; coming out, I’ve felt abundantly blessed. Our own burdens become lighter when we’ve been carrying the burdens of others. That’s the way God planned things. He doesn’t want you to bear your own load. He wants you to join a burden-bearing community. He wants you to be entrenched in a network of encouragement.
Do you need encouragement right now? My best advice to you is to go encourage someone else. Are you caught up in your own needs? Go fill the needs of others. You’ll reap what you sow, and the love you give will return to you.
But some people have actually told me, “I don’t know anyone who needs encouragement.” Would you like to know the very best place to find them? In your church. Fred Smith, a businessman, asked a church usher about his responsibilities. The man said, “Nothing more than being there, shaking hands, finding my place in the aisle, taking the offering, and showing up for an occasional ushers meeting.” Smith thought this didn’t sound very biblical, but he observed in the conversation that this man had a passion about the ministry of hospitality. So many people come to church filled with cares and anxiety, the usher had noticed, and they need a warm handshake, a listening ear, perhaps a hug. The man had found his place to serve God quietly but profoundly. This weekend, make it a project to go to church as a pure encourager. Ask God to direct your steps to someone who needs a dose of love.
Look for burdens to bear. You’ll find your heart lifted. Pull your eyes away from the discouragement you feel, and place them on the courage others have shown—others like Carolyn, whose story opened this chapter. She had once played the piano, typed expertly, and enjoyed so many gifts. But a terrible stroke devastated her. Still, she set her mind and heart on learning to speak, read, and write all over again. “God didn’t want me to give up,” she told me. She believed in Him, and she knew He believed in her. She also had a godly husband and a loving son. Their love got her through the dark night of despair and the long road to recovery. She now plays the piano and types on the keyboard with one hand, and she’s grateful for it. She’s grateful just to be alive.
And I draw strength from Doretha, whose husband shot her son in a drunken accident. There were many black months before she came to the end of her despair. One evening at midnight it all came crashing in on her. She fell to her knees in her bedroom and called out, “Lord, help me! I’m tired of living this miserable life.” It seemed as if the weight of the world had been on her shoulders. But having called out to God, she felt a certain dizziness. There was something different inside her; she knew she could sleep, and that’s what she did—deeply, restfully. She began the next day as a new creature. She felt so much lighter that she actually looked in the mirror to see if she’d lost weight. Her shape was the same as always; it was the face that was new. It glowed.
Doretha couldn’t comprehend the newness of things. She wanted to understand the change that had come across her, but she was a bit embarrassed to ask. In a little secondhand bookshop she found a book entitled Here’s Hope: Jesus Cares for You—The New Testament. That word hope seemed to leap out at her. That’s what was different about today. She took the book home with her and began to read hungrily. It wasn’t long before she came across these words: “ ‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ ” (Matthew 11:28).
“God changed my whole life,” Doretha told me, “mended my broken heart, saved my husband in jail, brought me and my husband closer together, showed us how to love and be loved—and not to take life for granted. Jesus is the hope of the world. God still answers prayer.”
God brought Doretha and her husband into blessed light from the deepest of holes, and I have no doubt He can do the same for you. The depth of the hole can never compare to the depth of His love, the reach of His arms, and the height of His glory.
Let’s come into those arms, all of us who are heavy laden, and feel the lightness of casting our burdens down, until our faces shine with the brightness of Doretha’s.
David Jeremiah, Slaying the Giants in Your Life (Nashville, TN: W Pub., 2001), 12–14.
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