How Can I Handle Discouragement?
If you were asked to name the world’s deadliest disease, what would be your answer? Cancer? Polio? MS? AIDS? You probably wouldn’t say discouragement. You might not even think of discouragement as a deadly disease, but it is. And it is more common than any of those others.
Why is discouragement such a dreaded disease? First, because it’s universal. All of us get discouraged. I do, you do, we all do. Discouragement is common. Yes, even Christians get discouraged. Second, because it’s recurring. You can get discouraged a number of times. It’s not just a one time thing. Third, because it’s highly contagious. Other people can get discouraged because you’re discouraged.
Now the Good News
The good news is that discouragement is curable. A story from the life of Nehemiah illustrates four causes and three cures for discouragement. You may recall that the man Nehemiah was a leader of the Jewish group that had returned to Israel from Babylon to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. When they first started on the wall, they had a lot of fervor and zeal and were very excited about the project. But after working for a while, they became discouraged.
Chapter 4 of the book of Nehemiah has the people starting out on a high not. “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half it’s height, for the people worked with all their heart” (v. 60). But as the story continues, the mood changes: “Meanwhile, the people of Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’ Also our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.’ Then the Jews who live near them told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us’” (vs. 10-12).
We have probably had this mood more often than we want to remember. You may be discouraged right now. This story shows why people become discouraged and how they can overcome that discouragement. It tells us what to do when we feel like giving up.
Why We Become Discouraged
Just Plain Tired
Why do people get discouraged? The first reason is fatigue. The people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out.” In other words, they had worked themselves to exhaustion. They were just plain worn out – physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. Sometimes people feel discouraged and incorrectly think it is a spiritual problem. They say, “Maybe I just need to recommit my life to the Lord.” But their real problem is that they are just burned out. They need some rest, relaxation, and renewal. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is just go to bed and relax, or take an affordable two-week vacation.
When do fatigue and discouragement occur? Look at verse 6: “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height.” Do you know when you’re apt to get discouraged the most? When you’re halfway through a project. Everybody works hard at first. These people “worked with all their heart” (v. 6). Why? Because of the newness of the project. It was exciting and novel at first, but after a while the newness wore off and the work got boring. Life settled down into a rut, then a routine, then a ritual.
Have you ever painted a room? You get halfway through it and then look around and say, “Man, I’m getting tired, and I’m just half finished. Not only that, but after I’m finished, I’ve got to clean everything up.”
I did a fatiguing thing not long ago: I tried to reorganize my filing cabinets. Do you know what it means to clean out your filing cabinets? It means that you take all the things out of your file, then put them in different piles all over the floor; then you get discouraged and put everything back the way it was!
Have you ever started to hike up a mountain trail and thought, “It’ll only take me two hours to get to the top”? But when you are only halfway up the trail, you have already spent three hours hiking! So you think, “Shall I keep going? I’ve got to go that far back down again too!” Suddenly you start thinking, “Maybe it’s God’s will that I go back down.” But that can just be a cop-out, an excuse to give up. Fatigue is the number one cause of discouragement, and it often happens right about the midpoint. That is why so many people leave so many things unfinished and undone.
Trashed by Frustration
But there is a second factor in a person becoming discouraged. The Israelites said, “There is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall” (v. 10). That’s frustration. They were disheartened and frustrated over what seemed to be an impossible situation. What’s rubble? They were building a new wall, but old, broken rocks were everywhere, along with dirt and dried-out mortar. When they looked at the rubble and the debris, they became discouraged. They lost sight of their goal because there was so much junk in their lives that they didn’t know how to get to the real business of living.
Whenever you do a project, some waste is going to accumulate, and it can get to be pretty frustrating. Have you ever expanded a room or constructed a building? All of a sudden you notice piles of plaster all over the place. OR you paint a room, and there’s too much paint in places where it shouldn’t be – on the floor or on the window frames. The trash just seems to multiply. You cannot avoid rubbish in life, but you can learn to recognize it and you can learn what to do with it so you do not give up on your original plan.
What is the rubbish in your life? It is the trivial things that waste your time and consume your energy and keep you from becoming all you want to be. It is the things that keep you from doing what is really most important in life, such as nurturing your spouse and children, or being active in your areas of giftedness at church. The rubbish in your life is those things that get in your way, the interruptions that keep you from accomplishing your goals. These are the things we need to clean away in our lives. We need to take out the trash.
Stalled by Failure
A third reason why people become discouraged is also reflected in the Israelites’ complaint. They said, “We cannot rebuild the wall” (v. 10). Do you know what they were saying? “We’re too tired. It’s not possible. It’s foolish to try. We give up.” The problem here is failure. The people were unable to finish their task as quickly as they had originally planned, and as a result their confidence plummeted. They lost heart and got discouraged. They said, “We can’t do it, so we’re just going to give up.”
How do you handle failure in your life? Do you have a pity party? Do you say, “Oh, poor me! I can’t get this job done”? Do you start complaining? “It’s impossible. It can’t be done. I was a fool to even try. It’s stupid.” Do you blame other people? “Everybody else let me down. They didn’t do their part of the job.” There is a difference between winners and losers, and it is that the winners always see failure as being only a temporary setback.
Stopped by Fear
There is a fourth reason why people get discouraged. Nehemiah’s people put it this way: “Our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work’” (v. 11). There were people in the land of Israel who did not want the wall to be rebuilt; they were the enemies of the Jews. A wall around the city represented safety and defense, so these enemies did not want the wall to be finished. So first they criticized the Jews, then they ridiculed them, and finally they threatened them: “We’re going to kill you if you keep on rebuilding the wall.” So the wall-builders became discouraged. Why? Because of the fourth cause of discouragement: fear.
Notice who became discouraged. It was “the Jews who lived near” the enemy (v. 12). Then they discouraged others by saying, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” When you hang around a negative person long enough, you know what happens. You pick up his negativism too. If you hear someone repeatedly say, “It can’t be done,” you will start believing her.
Do you have fears that are making you discouraged right now – fears that are preventing you from developing and growing? Do you fear criticism or embarrassment? Are you afraid to take the big step and get the new job? Maybe it’s a fear that you are not capable for the task. Maybe it’s a fear that you can’t hold up under the pressure. Maybe it’s a fear that you have to be perfect. Fear always discourages you.
How can you tell if your discouragement is being caused by fear? You have a deep, intense desire to run. You have an intense desire to escape from life’s demands and pressures. The natural reaction of fear is always to run. In life there are only three ways you can move – against something in anger, away from it in fear, or with it in love.
How to Overcome Discouragement
What is the antidote to this terrible disease of discouragement? Notice what Nehemiah did as a wise leader and a man of God. He knew what it was that discouraged people, so he took the appropriate actions to correct the problem. There are three principles to help you when you feel like giving up, and they are recognize, remember, and resist.
Find a Better Way
Nehemiah used the recognize principle: “Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows” (v. 13). Nehemiah said in effect, “We’re going to get this thing really organized. We’re going to get a new system here. You people go over there, and you other people stand here, and we’ll get this problem solved.”
The first principle in conquering discouragement is this: Reorganize your life. When you get discouraged, don’t give up on your goals. Instead, devise a new approach. When you are disheartened, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing the wrong thing; you can be doing the right thing in the wrong way. Was it wrong for the Jews to be building the wall? Absolutely not; it was the right thing. But they were going about it in the wrong way, and as a result they became discouraged.
Do you have a problem? Reorganize your life. A problem in your marriage? Don’t give up on it. Try a new attitude. A problem in your business? Don’t give up on it. Try a new approach. A problem in your Christian living? Don’t give up on it. Try a new prayer. A problem with your health? Try a new doctor. Don’t give up. Keep on keeping on.
Some of you are discouraged because you are under tremendous pressure; your workload is unbelievable. God’s message to you is to reorganize. Reorganize your time, reorganize your schedule, and refocus on your goal. Clear out the clutter and rubble and trivia – the things that are wasting your time. Then reorganize so you work better, faster, more efficiently toward your main goal.
I was reminded at a seminar of the 80/20 principles: About 80 percent of our time is usually spent on the 20 percent of our activities that are not productive. As a result we are frustrated. What we need to do instead is spend 80 percent of our time on the 20 percent of our job that produces the most results. Business managers call this ROI time – “Return on Investment” time. In other words, use the maximum time on those few things that produce the greatest results or have the greatest consequences.
Notice that Nehemiah focused on priorities. When he reorganized, he posted the people by families. Why? Because he knew that anyone who is discouraged needs a support group. We need other people for support, and families are a natural group. When one person in a family gets discouraged, other members will lift him up. We need fellow Christians who support each other and encourage one another. When I get down, you lift me up, and when you get down, I lift you up. That’s a support group.
Solomon said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12). What is Solomon saying? That it is important to have other people in our lives to help us and encourage us.
Remember Your Leader
A second way to overcome discouragement is to remember the Lord. Notice what Nehemiah said: “After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome’” (Neh. 4:14). What does it mean to “remember the Lord”? It means to recommit yourself to him. It means to rededicate yourself to him. It means to draw on his spiritual power.
What specifically should you remember? Three things: first, remember God’s goodness to you in the past. When you start thinking about all the good things that God has already done in your life, your spirit will be lifted and your anxiety eased. Second, remember God’s closeness in the present. What is he doing in your life right now? He is with you whether or not you feel his nearness, because he said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). You may not be calling on God, but he is still there. Third, remember God’s power for the future. He will give you strength for your needs. When you get discouraged, get your mind off your circumstances and focus on the Lord, because circumstances depress and discourage.
Keep in mind that your thoughts determine your feelings. If you feel discouraged, it is because you are thinking discouraging thoughts. If you want to feel encouraged instead, start thinking encouraging thoughts. Choose some uplifting Bible verses to memorize:
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).
“Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:39)
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)
“Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23).
Fight the Gloomy Outlook
How else do you fight discouragement? By resisting it. Notice what Nehemiah says: “Fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes” (Neh. 4:14). What is Nehemiah saying? He is telling us not to yield to discouragement without a fight. Resist discouragement. Fight it. Don’t give in to it, but resist it.
The Bible teaches that Christians are in a spiritual warfare – a battle. We are in a supernatural conflict, a combat with negative forces. The Bible says that the devil is the accuser of Christians; he loves to get us down. That is his number one tool, because he knows that a discouraged Christian has limited potential. He knows that when we are down, our effectiveness is neutralized. So he does everything he can to discourage us. The book of James says, “Resist the devil” (4:7). Resist him and his negative thoughts – all the discouragement he tries to bring into your life.
You do not have to be discouraged in life. It is your choice. You may choose to give in, but great people simply refuse to be discouraged. They don’t know how to quit. They never give up even when they are fatigued and frustrated and have failed and are fearful. Great people are ordinary people with extraordinary amounts of persistence. They just hang in there and never give up.
Putting Thoughts Into Action
Which of the four causes of discouragement affects you most of the time? What do you like to “remember” most about God when you are discouraged, and how does that help you?