One of the most tragic things that can happen to a person is to let discouragement define and defeat him.
Yielding to Discouragement
There is a man who lives in my town who lost his business to eminent domain. The city wanted his property for a project and they forced him to sell. Rather than simply accept a situation he could not change to pursue other employment, he decided to protest by pitching his tent on public property. He has lived in this tent for years now through the hottest summer days and the coldest winter nights. I drive by him several times a week on my way to and from town. He has two tents now and a little solar panel for powering his laptop so he can maintain his Facebook page. A little sign that says, “He is risen” is perched beside his tent alongside another that says, “Resist.” This man was a perfectly normal businessman before tragedy struck.
I also know a woman who has been unable to get over a personal tragedy that happened many years ago. She has become a hoarder and her townhouse is so crammed with stuff that it is impossible to get in the front door. Her plumbing sprung a leak and she cannot afford to have the damage fixed, so she showers at the Park District. Her neighbors have complained to the condo association about the mess and the association has warned her to clean up the place and fix the plumbing or she will be forced to move. When my wife and I learned of her situation, we decided to try to help her. I took her to the bank to apply for a loan for the repairs, but she did not qualify. Every place she went, she rehearsed her woes before strangers who were powerless to help. None of these abnormal behaviors were characteristic of her before the tragedy.
Just this past weekend we attended the graduation party of a friend. She completed her masters degree in family counseling, quite an accomplishment for an immigrant from rural China who could not even speak English a few years ago. Her husband, born and raised in the United States, was unable to graduate from the same program. After she thanked the group for their support, he got up to speak of his own depression over his academic failures, throwing a wet blanket on her celebration. During that evening, I heard from other members of the group who shared their own personal discouragements, a practice that was encouraged by the leader, reinforcing their negative attitudes. These folks are headed down the same road as the businessman and the hoarder.
The Destructive Power of Negative Thinking
I have noticed a pattern among people who nurse their grievances. They are so consumed with their own hurts that they are of little good to anyone else. They become a drain on the sympathy and generosity of others. If they do not find a way out of their malaise, they will experience repeated defeat and discouragement as they come to expect the worst from life. This ultimately leads to serious psychological impairment.
For instance, the woman who became a hoarder constantly complained that her mind just wasn’t working right. She was often confused and unfocused. The man who took up residence in a tent posted his solution to abortion on his Facebook page. His idea is to harvest the embryos from pregnant women who don’t want a child and plant them in women who do. He thinks this will save the children and appease pro-choice advocates at the same time — truly a bizarre idea.
I myself harbored resentment for some personal tragedies for years. It eventually lead to manic depression. Only when I was willing to let the resentment go did the depression go away restoring my thought processes to normal.
We live a very privileged life compared to previous generations. Yet we complain much more. Life is filled with conveniences and comforts that our parents and grandparents could never imagine. Some of them watched comrades brutally slain in World Wars I and II. Others experienced hunger and privation in the Great Depression. Yet they were not preoccupied with their own suffering. They expected life to be tough because that is all they had ever known.
Even the queen of England recently had to admonish Prince William and Harry to stop their “soul baring” over their mother’s tragic death and take up their royal responsibilities like their ailing grandfather, who at age ninety-six has only recently decided to relinquish a very active role in the affairs of state. It seems not even the royal family is exempt from this kind of defeatist mentality.
Nursing grievances and harboring grudges certainly does not befit the child of God, given the blessings he or she enjoys in Jesus Christ. Paul breaks into a marvelous eulogy of praise as he enumerates these blessings in the first chapter of Ephesians. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” he says as he goes on to describe the blessings that belong to believers. These include adoption into God’s family (v 5), redemption through the blood of Christ (v 7), forgiveness of our sins (v 7), union with Christ (v 10), an eternal inheritance (v 11), and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (v 13). Then he goes on to pray that the Ephesians will lay hold of these blessings, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (v 16-19).
These blessings have been secured for us by Jesus Christ, though we will not realize them fully until we are with Christ in heaven. But that does not make them any less real. In the meantime, Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus promises us that life will be difficult because we are aliens in a hostile world. Yet the Apostle Paul can say, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). In his letter to the church at Rome he says, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:37). There are many examples in scripture of saints who have endured abandonment by their families (Joseph), multiple catastrophes (Job), torture (Samson), beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck (Paul), and betrayal (David). None of these wallowed in their misfortunes. All were commended for their faith.
God tells us to be strong in the face of adversity. He said to Joshua “be strong and of good courage” when he went up against the inhabitants of Canaan, a people far greater in number and much larger in size. Paul told Timothy, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:2). Hebrews describes the men of faith this way, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb 11:32-34). These men were not incapacitated by misfortune or undone by their hardships. They overcame adversity through faith in their service to God.
We must not let the past drag us down by continually rehearsing our failures. Paul called himself the least of the apostles because he persecuted the saints. But he did not let guilt disqualify him from serving God. He said, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).
How does God respond to those who wallow in their weakness? Ask Moses. When God called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses said, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” And how did the Lord react? “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” (Ex 4:10-14). God does not indulge our excuses the way our enabling brothers and sisters sometimes do in the name of compassion.
Isaiah says of our Savior, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Is 42:3). That is to say, he will nurture and strengthen the smallest faith and fan it into flame. For our part we must abandon the mindset that makes excuses and “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and… run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-2).
Philippians 4:8 gives us the antidote for the kind of negative thinking that can incapacitate us for Christ’s service, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). What are these things? They are the very things that Paul describes in Ephesians 1 – all the benefits that are ours in Jesus Christ. By consciously focusing on these things, we allow the Holy Spirit to renew our minds and transform us into vessels that are fit for Christ’s service (Rom 12:2). The alternative is to spiral down into the abyss of self pity where we are of use to no one, and to receive condemnation from a Master who expects us to produce a generous return on the price he has paid for us.