There are lessons in lingering in your discouragement.
From my journal: This morning a man I like very much informed me that he and his wife were going to leave our church for another one. His wife, he said, didn't feel accepted by our people and she'd found better in another congregation. So, he told me, they would soon be gone.
When the conversation ended and we'd parted ways, I felt a cloud of discouragement engulf me. A thick cloud, as a matter of fact. I felt badly for our church; I even felt badly for myself because I had really thought we (and I) had served him and his wife well. But I was mistaken. Thus the discouragement. Usually, I can shake such moments off, but this morning I decided to let the sensation of discouragement linger and feel it for a while.
I hope it doesn't sound arrogant to say that it's been a long time since I have felt deeply discouraged. That's not because everything has always gone right for me but because I have learned over the years how to manage life's low moments. I know how to set dark experiences in a larger, more optimistic context; I know how to draw upon past events that remind me that nothing is quite as bad as it might seem to be. But this morning I decided to let the discouragement wash over me and thus become reacquainted with what many others in spiritual leadership seem to go through every day.
Discouragement comes with the territory of leadership. A little of it humbles a person appropriately. An overdose paralyzes. It distorts perspective; creates fear; generates doubt; makes one feel a failure; erases the memory-bank of former blessings.
The bystander is often tempted to try to fix the discouraged person with cheery comments like "Get past it!" or "God has something better in mind." or "Go back and read about Elijah." Usually, none of this helps.
We deal with discouragement in many ways. Many simply surrender to the feeling and become immobilized for a while. That's one option.
Escape of a sort is another. Escape for me might be planning some trip (get me out of here), or buying something in an electronics store (make me feel good), or just kibitzing around in a way that appears to be productive but really isn't (there can be lots of mindless work in the ministry). How did I get here? I might wonder. Why am I not more appreciated? Where is God in all of this?
Escape for some might mean a delving into pornography, overeating, or wasting hours in front of the TV. Some cope with discouragement by finding someone to get mad at or by wallowing in a mood of complaining and whining. It's a great time to curse the evangelical movement.
Another option is just quitting—which I did in one discouraging moment many, many years ago when I was terribly immature.
Others had their own solutions. When Peter lost his courage on last-supper night he decided to go back to fishing. Elijah, of course, ran off to quieter places. Jeremiah just wept.
Barnabas will always be known as the champion of encouragement with his beautiful name which I envy (meaning offspring of encouragement). And I was reminded of him this morning when I admitted my melancholy on the phone to my wife, Gail. She immediately said, "Meet me at our favorite walking spot." I did, and soon we were stepping through the New Hampshire woods on a lovely spring day listening to the nearby Merrimack River crash its way among the rocks in the riverbed. By the time we finished our walk, I was lifted up. Gail had listened and then talked me into a better perspective and out of my blue mood. She did it not by preaching to me but by softly reminding me of God's nearness … even in the down-moment.
Discouragement is not supposed to be part of the high-adrenaline Christian life today. So there aren't many people with whom you would feel the freedom, should you need it, to acknowledge that your spirit is empty. I tasted the feeling this morning and was glad I did. Because for just an hour or two it re-sensitized me to all those wonderful men and women in various kinds of ministries who live with much too much discouragement day after day. I sure hope they have what I have: a spouse or friend, a place to walk, and a heart that's not so empty it can't be renewed.
Pastor and author Gordon MacDonald is chair of World Relief and editor at large of Leadership.
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April 3, 2006