We have recently been impressed by the frequency with which God calls upon His people to "be strong and of a good courage" (Deu 31:6-7, 23; Jos 1:6, 9, 18). Time after time, we find the Lord, either actually or substantially, exhorting His people thus. The implications are clear: that they are prone to give way to discouragement, that such a condition is a mark of weakness, and that a dispirited saint is dishonoring to the Lord. In this and the companion article, we propose to examine:
the character or nature of discouragement,
its causes or the roots from which it proceeds,
its correctives or how it should be opposed,
and its cure or remedy.
Much light is thrown upon this subject by a careful pondering of the first passage in holy Writ wherein the term occurs, namely, when we read of the children of Israel in the wilderness that "the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way" (Num 21:4). Alas, how like unto them are many of the saints today! The Lord had wrought wondrously for Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and by destroying their foes at the Red Sea; and evidently, they expected a much quicker and easier journey into Canaan than what they actually experienced; and because their expectations were not realized—they became despondent!
The immediate context informs us that king Arad had opposed their progress and had taken some of them prisoners. Whereupon Israel vowed that if the Lord would deliver that nation into their hand, they would utterly destroy their cities. The Lord graciously did so, and they fulfilled their pledge. So far, so good. But then came a further testing: instead of their being led onward to the promised land—which involved their passing through the territory of another hostile people—they were conducted "from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass [that is 'go around'] the land of Edom," and that greatly disheartened them. It seemed a retrograde course which entailed a return to the desert, where water was scarce—and their reaction thereto was one of dejection and discouragement.
To become discouraged is natural, yet it is neither glorifying to God, useful to ourselves, nor helpful to our brethren. It was not so in the above instance. The immediate sequel is most solemn, for the very next thing recorded is "They spoke against God and against Moses, and said: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" (Num 21:5). And that, my reader, is written for our instruction and warning, for us to take heart and recognize the dangers attending a spirit of discouragement! It is but a very short step from discouragement to open murmuring against God! That one consideration should be sufficient to convince us that so far from a state of discouragement being an innocent infirmity which we may fairly excuse, it is an insidious sin of which we need to make conscience and against which we should pray earnestly. The Lord at once manifested His displeasure against Israel by sending fiery serpents among the people—so that many of them died.
It is not a weakness to be excused—but a fault to be confessed. While it is true on the one hand that circumstances alter cases, and therefore sweeping generalizations and condemnations are to be avoided; yet on the other hand, we must never condone anything which is wrong in the sight of God; and if we are guided by the light of His Word thereon, then it is clear that a state of discouragement is sinful.
When David was dejected, he did not resort to self-pity or regard it as something which was inevitable—but betook himself to task for the same: "Why are you cast down, O my soul?" (Psalm 42:5). Why this faithless fainting, this childish fretfulness? He chided himself for the same, and it is striking to note that twice more (Psalm 43:5; 42:5,11) he refused to yield to this spirit of gloom, and inquired into the cause of it. If at first he succeeded not in casting it off, he tried and tried again.
Some are likely to object, "It is natural to become discouraged: there are occasions when the strongest cannot prevent their hearts from being cast down. There is much in this world which has a depressing influence upon the Christian. There is not a little in his own experience which depresses him; while the response he meets with from others in return for his best-meant efforts often throws a dampener upon him." But the very fact that such a spirit is "natural" at once exposes its evil character—it is not spiritual! It is a thing of the flesh, and not a product of the workings of grace within us; and therefore, it is to be reprobated and not palliated. However melancholy may be our temperament, low our natural spirits, poor our health, or distressing our circumstances—it is wrong to yield to spirit of defeat, for the soul to become cast down, and unfitted for the cheerful discharge of our duties and the enjoyment of our privileges.
Of our sinless Savior, it was prophesied that, despite all the opposition and trials He would encounter, "He shall not fail nor be discouraged" (Isaiah 42:4). It is because we fail, that we become discouraged—a further proof that it is a sin to be mortified and not excused.
What are the more immediate CAUSES of faint-heartedness?
1. Distrust of God. Is not that plainly intimated by the words of David when he was chiding himself for his soul being cast down: "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God" (Psalm 42:11). It was because he had allowed the difficulties of the way to take his eyes off the Lord that he had become dispirited.
Was it not also the case with Israel in the above incident? When the Lord turned their course from a direct approach unto Canaan and led them back into the borders of the desert, they were "much discouraged." They doubted God's goodness unto them—and questioned the wisdom of His guidance. And do not the subtle operations of unbelief lie behind our discouragements? Are they not due to a lack of faith that the very objects which dismay us are among the "all things" God has promised He will work together for good! If we concentrate our attention on the seen things, rather than on the unseen—we soon weaken and pine.
2. Discontent with God's provision. When faith in God's goodness and wisdom ceases to operate, then dissatisfaction takes possession of the heart. Unbelief breeds fretfulness with our lot and circumstances, and prevents our enjoying the portion God has given us. Discouragement, when analyzed, is being displeased with the place or portion God has assigned us. It was so with Israel. They did not relish the fare which He had so graciously given them. "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water" was the language of peevishness. The real reason for their disaffection was expressed in "We detest this miserable food!" (Num 21:5). Sad condition of soul was that! They were "much discouraged because of the way," because the day and fare of the wilderness ministered not unto their carnal lusts.
3. Self-will. That is the root both of our distrust of God and our discontent with His provision. Discouragement is nothing less than a rebelling against the sovereign dispensations of God! It was so with Israel. They were chagrined because things were not going as they wanted. They desired to press forward in a direct course unto Canaan; and since the Lord determined otherwise, they were cast down—much like spoilt children who are allowed to have their own way, and murmur and sulk if they be denied anything.
And is it not thus, at times, with many of God's children? Most of our discouragements are due to the dashing of our hopes, disappointments in either things or persons from whom we looked for something better. But disappointment is really a quarreling with God's appointment. It is lack of submission unto God. Discouragements issue from our longings remaining unrealized—from our plans being thwarted, our wills being crossed: it is nothing but vexation of spirit and insubordination to the divine will.
4. Impatience. That also appears plainly in the above incident. Israel chafed at the delay. They wanted to reach their objective by the short-cut, and when a roundabout course was appointed them, their spirits fell, and they gave way to complaining. Unless we prayerfully heed that exhortation, "let patience have her perfect work" (Jam 1:4), we shall often become faint through discouragement.
The work which God has appointed patience to do—is to wait His time. Patience is a contented endurance of trials which enables a Christian to bear up under them; whereas impatience is an ill-humored resentment against anything which checks the attainment of our desires—and a sinking of spirit which saps our energies when the hindrance persists. Like Israel, only too often we are "discouraged because of the way." But we ought not to be so, for God has not promised us a smooth and easy passage through this world—but has told us that "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
We turn now to consider the CORRECTIVES of discouragement; and obviously, these must be a diligent and resolute opposition to those evils which work in us faint-heartedness. As we have previously intimated, most of our discouragements result from disappointments; and they, in turn, issue from unrealized expectations—the dashing of our hopes. Whether it be persons or things, when they yield not that which we look for—our souls are cast down. And the stronger our expectation, the keener our disappointment when it be not fulfilled.
1. Learn then, dear reader, to hold all temporal things with a light hand. Discipline yourself to do so. "Set your affections upon things above—and not on things on the earth" (Col 3:2). There is nothing whatever under the sun—which can satisfy the heart; and if we seek our gratification therein, then "vexation of spirit" (Ecc 1:14) will be our certain portion! God is a jealous God—and will brook no rival; and if we make an idol of any object—He will break it to pieces or give us to discover it is made of clay! Be careful then, not to make too much of the creature. The less we expect from others, even from fellow saints, the less shall we be disappointed and discouraged.
2. Cultivate a life of faith. A being unduly occupied with the creature—is an evidence that faith is not in operation, for faith is ever engaged with unseen things. Israel's despondency in the wilderness, was due to their eyes being removed from the Lord. When the disciples became so faint-hearted and affrighted in face of their storm-tossed boat, Christ put His finger upon the seat of their trouble by saying, "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?" (Mat 8:26).
And how is a life of faith to be cultivated? By daily meditating on God's Word, for that is its appointed food: "Nourished up in the words of faith" (1 Timothy 4:6). If that spiritual food is neglected, then faith will weaken and languish—more specifically, by laying hold of and making the divine promises your own. If you rest upon the promises of men—they will prove but a broken reed; but if we count upon God's fulfilling His covenant engagements—we shall not be disappointed, for "faithful is he who calls you, who also will do it" (1 Thessalonians 5:24). "You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you: because he trusts in you" (Isaiah 26:3).
3. Cultivate a spirit of contentment. That was where Israel failed: their discouragement sprang from dissatisfaction with the provision God made for them—lusting after the fleshpots of Egypt, they wearied of the manna. There can be no peace of mind or rest of soul, while we are displeased with the portion God has allotted us. But how is our proneness unto such sinful dissatisfaction to be overcome? By diligently and daily seeking grace to heed that precept, " Keep your lives free from the love of money—and be content with what you have, because God has said: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5).
It is the spirit of covetousness which makes real contentment impossible. They who are greedy, cannot enjoy what God has already given them. O how we punish ourselves by our inordinate desires!
It is not the possession of things which brings satisfaction—but the use we make of them and the pleasure we get out of them. Be thankful for God's present mercies, and trustfully leave the morrow with Him. Count your many blessings—and develop the habit of gratitude.
4. Let your surrender to God's sovereignty be more complete and constant. Israel were peeved and dejected because they could not have their own way; and much of our discouragement springs from the same evil root. The corrective lies in yielding ourselves to the good pleasure of God. He apportions His favors as He pleases; and it is not for us to murmur at the same—but rather to say from the heart, "May the will of the Lord be done" (Act 21:14).
Shall the creature quarrel with the Creator, because He has bestowed this and that upon his fellows—and withheld the same from him? To do so is horrible arrogance and presumption. But how am I to learn the holy art of meekly acquiescing unto divine providence? By living under an habitual sense of your own unworthiness in the sight of God; realizing daily that "It is of the LORD'S mercies—that we are not consumed" (Lam 3:22). Nothing will so much render us submissive to God's dispensations, than the remembrance that He is dealing far better with us—than we deserve!
5. "In your patience possess you your souls" (Luke 21:19). Israel's discouragement sprang from their failure at this very point. They became disheartened at the prospect of a circuitous course—rather than a direct approach unto Canaan. Much of our discouragement is really a chafing over God's delays. What is the corrective?
Self-discipline, the mortification of the spirit of restlessness and fretfulness. Cultivate "a meek and quiet spirit" (1 Peter 3:4). But how is that to be achieved? By faith's recognition that God has charge of our affairs, for that enables us to calmly endure whatever He appoints. "He who believes shall not make haste" (Isaiah 28:16). Israel failed, as we often do, because "they waited not for his counsel" (Psalm 106:13).
Daily beg the Lord to place his cooling hand upon your fevered flesh. Only by waiting on God and for Him—shall we maintain peace of mind, cheerfulness of heart, and steadfastness in the performance of duty.
The CURE of discouragement. "And David was greatly distressed…but David encouraged himself in the LORD his God" (1Sa 30:6). The context is very solemn, showing that the best of men—are but men at the best. Seeking help from the ungodly, David had placed himself under obligation to the king of Gath. He had pretended to be a friend of the Philistines, and the enemy of his own people. Accordingly, Achish determined to make use of David and his men, in the attack he had planned upon Israel. But the Lord turned the hearts of the other "lords of the Philistines" against David (1Sa 29:2-7), and Achish was obliged to dispense with their service, so that they were allowed to depart. Unconscious of the sad disappointment awaiting them, David and his men made for Ziklag, where he had left his wives and children.
Arriving there on the third day, "When David and his men came to Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep" (1Sa 30:3-4). That was an experience calculated to overwhelm the stoutest soul. Arriving at the place where he had left his family and possessions, the city was a mass of smoking ruins, and those whom he loved were not there to welcome him.
Broken-hearted over this calamity, further trouble now came upon David, for his men murmured and mutinied, "for the people spoke of stoning him!" (1Sa 30:6). They blamed their leader for having journeyed to Achish and leaving Ziklag defenseless, and for provoking the Amalekites (1Sa 27:8-9), who had thus avenged themselves. To add to his grief, David knew that his own folly had brought down upon him this sore chastisement of the Lord. "And David was greatly distressed." He had cause to be so! Never before had he been called upon to drink so bitter a cup.
What, then, was his reaction? Did he yield to his sorrow and sink into abject despair? No! He "encouraged himself in the LORD his God." That was where he found relief: that is the grand remedy for faint-heartedness! David had sinned grievously—but conviction and contrition were now wrought in him.
First, then, he took heart from the mercy of the Lord. God had promised His people that "if they shall confess their iniquity" and "be humbled" and "accept of the punishment of their iniquity," He would "remember" His covenant with their fathers (Lev 26:40-42). It was on that ground he now acted: "David encouraged himself in the LORD his God"—that is, his covenant God. "I acknowledge my sin unto you…I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and you forgave the iniquity of my sin" (Psalm 32:5). However low the saint may fall, if he humbles himself before God, and confesses his sins, he may encourage himself in the divine mercy, for "the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting" (Psalm 103:17).
Second, he encouraged himself in God's righteousness: "I know, O LORD, that your judgments are right, and that you in faithfulness have afflicted me" (Psalm 119:75)—and that took the sting out of it.
Third, David encouraged himself in God's goodness. He reviewed God's favors to him in the past, and recalled how often He had delivered him from trying situations.
Fourth, he encouraged himself in God's omnipotence, realizing that nothing is too hard for Him, no situation hopeless unto His almighty power, assured that He was able to overrule evil unto good, and to bring a clean thing out of an unclean.
Fifth, he encouraged himself in God's promises: he "hoped in God" (Psalm 119:74), counting upon Him to undertake for him. When we are at our wit's end—we should not be at faith's end—but trust in God's sufficiency. David had sadly departed from God—but now he turned unto Him in penitence and faith. Nor did the Lord fail him: read the sequel (1Sa 30:7-8) and behold how God enabled him to overtake the Amalekites and recover "all" (1Sa 30:18-19)! When discouraged, encourage yourself in the Lord your God!