1 Peter 3:15 exhorts Christians to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.”
That is all well and good, but what if you have no hope? What if you have become so discouraged that you feel as if you have been swallowed alive by a black hole and nothing will ever change? Christian or not, discouragement happens to everyone at some point. It is not a sign of a weak character or of a faith that is lacking. It is an honest human reaction to human conditions.
Before proceeding, I need to point out that clinical depression is different from general discouragement and must be treated promptly and aggressively. It is no respecter of persons and the greatest among us can and have become severely depressed. If you recognize yourself in several of the following symptoms, it is possible you are clinically depressed. Speak to your doctor as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.
- Lethargy (everything seems just too much trouble to do)
- disturbed sleep (early waking, difficulty getting to sleep)
- waking up tired after a “normal” night of sleep
- lack of concentration
- lack of sexual drive
- sensation of utter despair
- sense of hopelessness or uselessness of everything
- fear of death
- obsessive behavior
- permanent sense of anxiety
- feelings of wanting to cry, but inability to do so
- thoughts of suicide, or fear of committing suicide
- change in appetite and weight
This type of depression is often due to a chemical imbalance in the brain and will affect most areas of your life. I suffered through several bouts of clinical depression from my teens until my mid-thirties, and the only thing that was ultimately effective was anti-depressant medication. I needed to get to that level of stability before I could even begin to hone strength from my faith.
Assuming you are not clinically depressed (or if you are that you have received treatment for it), what can you do when discouragement creeps in and takes the joy out of living? For it to have reached this point, discouragement needs to have an effect on more than just the emotions. Real discouragement gets right at your spirit, the very essence of who you are in Christ.
What Causes Discouragement?
One of the biggest causes of discouragement is disappointment that things did not turn out the way you had planned. You dreamed of a big family, only to have trouble conceiving at all; you wanted to be at a certain income level by a certain age, only to lose your life savings in an economic recession; you dreamed of living happily ever after, only to be served with divorce papers five years later when your spouse fell in love with someone else. You may begin to wonder what the point in having dreams at all is and blame God when yours fall apart. It is hard to see from this perspective, but when we place our faith in money or in another person for all of our security, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment because only God can deliver that.
Another cause of discouragement is events, or as is often the case, a series of events that happen that are out of our immediate control. The car breaks down the week your taxes are due, there is downsizing at work and you are worried about your job and your aging mother becomes seriously ill, all within the same week. This can create a feeling of helplessness over the circumstances of our lives that can eventually lead to serious discouragement.
When you are already feeling discouraged, it is easy to compare yourself unfavorably with people who you assume have an easier life than you do. If your finances are tight, you can’t seem to help noticing the neighbor who just had an addition built onto his house. If you have always struggled with being overweight, you may fixate on people who are naturally thin and be miserable with the unfairness of it all. This can quickly snowball from discouragement to all-out despair.
Dropping the Dis from Encouragement
How do you turn discouragement around and make it encouragement? The first step is to honestly admit how you are feeling and be ready to accept responsibility for making things better. The hard truth of the matter is life is unfair, and some people do encounter more hardship than others. That much is beyond your control, but your reactions to your circumstances are not. How you will respond is always a choice. You do not have to become crippled by despair, nor do you have to react the way you have always reacted.
Where do you find the strength to approach life in this manner? From God, of course. Admit your dependence on Him and you will begin to feel an immediate release of your discouragement. Tell Him you are tired and don’t know what to do. He will show you the way. It may not be today, or even tomorrow, but take to heart the words of Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
When discouragement comes your way, the worst thing you can do is isolate yourself from people who care about you. This is exactly what the enemy wants you to do, so he can convince you that you are alone and no one understands or really cares. Be honest with others about how you are feeling, but don’t put the expectation on anyone to be able to make things better for you. Although they can pray for you and offer support, God alone can bring you the strength and hope you will need.
Ask God to show you His purpose in your pain. We have a very limited scope and do not automatically think of our troubles in a spiritual realm, but God does. Ecclesiastes 3:1 states that “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” Believe it.
The trials of life may seem like pointless suffering when we are experiencing them, but that is yet another of the enemy’s lies. Here is the truth: Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” If you love and trust Him, even in the midst of great discouragement, Romans 8:28 will go from words on a page to the reality of your life over and over again.