One of my favorite poems is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. The poem ends with these words:
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep; but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
These words come to mind whenever ministry in particular or the Christian life in general gets difficult or discouraging. Which means they come to mind more often than I care for them to. Yet, they are a poignant reminder that the struggle for faithfulness is not over and the Lord has yet work to do in me and through me. In other words, even in moments of discouragement, it is not time to sleep.
Recently, a dear sister called me to express her concern about another brother whom she discerned was discouraged in his service and ministry in the church. She believed that others were not treating him fairly, and were not appreciating his service. I deeply appreciated the call and listened intently as she shared her care for another in the church. However, I couldn’t help but think to myself that no one has ever been promised a discouragement-free calling from God. In fact, as long as we are in this body seeking to serve the Lord. moments of discouragement will be a part of life.
For many of us discouragement is a constant nemesis. For all of us it is a familiar foe. Auburn has Alabama. Michigan has Ohio State. Harvard has Yale. The ministry has discouragement.
Discouragement is like rain. No matter how sunny it is today, or promises to be tomorrow, we all know sooner or later the rains will come. If you are not aware of this, either you have your head in the sand, or someone has convinced you falsely of a pollyannaish forecast for ministry in this present world. Like rain, you can bet some discouragement is on the way. The only question is what will you do with it.
If you search the Scriptures you will find that every man of God called to serve him for any significant length of time was brought face to face with discouragement. Abraham, Moses, and Joseph each faced it. Joshua, Gideon, and David were not immune to it. Elijah, Jeremiah, and the prophets testify to their fare share. John the Baptist, Paul, and even Jesus were all too familiar with it as well. Consequently, why should I count it strange when I experience it; or why should my calling prove to be any different? If Jesus was called a devil, why should I expect anything less (Mt. 10:25)?
The question I should ask in times of discouragement is not “why?” The question I should ask in times of discouragement is “what?” What am I to do about it?
Do I get afraid of the work and run home and shut the door like the people of Judah (Ezra 4:4)? Do I wish I were dead like Elijah (1 Kings 19:4)? Do I get angry with God and sit down and pout like Jonah (Jonah 4:1)? Do I wish I had never been born and spend my days in spiritual paralyzes like Job (Job 3:1)? Do I play the childish athlete and take my ball and go home? Or do I seek God through the discouragement knowing that somehow someway God has ordained this trial in my life for his glory and my good (2 Cor. 12:7-10)? In other words, do I look to Jesus?
Jesus in his direst moment of trial and discouragement, where the Bible says, “he being in agony prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:44), did not allow the moment to over come him, but through it all prayed “not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). Similarly, Peter said those in times of discouragement should “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Pet. 4:19).
Discouragement comes at us in a variety of ways, and can invoke in us a variety of responses. Unfortunately, most of us convince ourselves that our greatest source of discouragement comes from outside of us—difficult people and trying circumstances. Yet, if I would be truthful, my greatest discouragement comes from within. My sin provides more discouragement in my life than does anyone or anything else. If truth be told, I am far too pleased with myself and am too easily convinced that I am right and don’t deserve the rain—especially not on my birthday.
There is an old African proverb that says, “If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do me no harm.” If I were less impressed with myself, and more impressed with Christ, I would no doubt find discouragement, though inevitable, less and less debilitating. If I would look within and identify the sin that still struggles against me, like the Apostle Paul, I would find the strength to say in my weakest moments: “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Rom. 7:24-25) Discouragement tends to wane in the presence of thanksgiving to Christ.
My prayer is that God would be pleased for me to see less of what others do to discourage me and more of what I do to discourage myself. At those times, may I find the comfort and mercy of Christ sufficient, and remember, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
Photo by ZS via Flickr Creative Commons.