Life can be discouraging, even when most things are going well. Then a few things go off the tracks and we’re a wreck. Almost daily I talk to people feeling discouraged in one way or another, struggling to figure out what to do about it. I’m no stranger to discouragement either, and I thought I’d share what I do when I’m feeling discouraged. I hope it’s a help to you.
The next time you are feeling discouraged, try these 7 steps.
- First, acknowledge to yourself that you are struggling. I find that the longer I ignore what I am feeling, the longer I’ll be stuck. And what’s more? I end up hurting those I love because they start thinking (just the way I do) that they’ve done something to make me mad at them. When I’m feeling discouraged, I need to sit down and just call it what it is.
- Then, examine your heart for possible reasons. Once I’ve admitted that I am struggling, I can start asking why. And while other people may contribute to my discouragement, for sure, I try to be open to ways my own expectations, disappointments, entitlement, lies, sins, or over-activity have contributed to my emotional state. This is not about blame or shame–this is about discerning my heart condition so I can understand what is going on and either come to peace with it or make a hopeful change.
- But then, also, be aware of other contributing factors. While I don’t want to immediately assume the problem is “out there”, it can be. And after honest self-reflection, I try to discern other contributing factors. Some are quite “normal”, such as: Have I been getting proper rest and food? Do I need to get an adjustment on my meds? Am I under spiritual attack? Have I underestimated the impact of that event (whatever that is)? Am I upset about what he said to me? We are relational people, and those relationships impact us, often in unacknowledged ways.
- After some discernment, ask God for his peace and express gratitude for his goodness. In Philippians 4:6-7, we are told not to “worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” What a promise! Not that this comes easily, but I take confidence from these words–as I tell God what I need, honestly and openly, thankful for his grace, he will give me his peace, beyond my own understanding.
- Be transparent with your community. This can be hard, but I think it’s essential. Recently, when I was feeling discouraged, I simply disclosed it with a few people I trust. Not to get pity, but to elicit prayer. As a pastor, there is always that temptation to cover my struggles and save face, to make people think everything is “okay.” I’m sure you’ve struggled with that in your own context. Being transparent in community is crucial to becoming a community of honesty and grace. So let’s be honest with others, not spraying it all over but disclosing to trusted friends who can love us and pray for us.
- And then, let the Spirit minister to you in your place of need. I say this, not only because of the promise of peace from Philippians 4, but also because of how the Holy Spirit can encourage you through the body of Christ. And we need to let them. Sometimes I’ve been guilty of finally being open about a struggle, and then (perhaps feeling vulnerable) acting as though I don’t need any help after all. We need to let the Spirit love us, however he sees fit.
- And finally, focus your attention on the goodness and love of the Father for you. Following Philippians 4:6-7 is the famous “think on these things” challenge, calling us to focus on the true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praise worthy. I don’t know about you, but when I’m down, that is super difficult for me to do. I want to think about the false, the dishonoring, the wrong–things I feel are worthy of my scorn, not praise. Discouragement breeds disdain. And so it takes work, effort–focus–to intentionally think of the goodness and love of the Father for us, to cultivate our heart’s attention to the gifts we’ve received, the life we have been given, and the lovely way Jesus leads us.
We all have days when we feel at a loss. For some of us, those days are achingly long, stretching on for months. Others among us combine discouragement with a daily battle with mental illness or emotional trauma. And for yet others, long established patterns of negativity drag us down. Jesus wants to minister to us in our place of need. He wants to lift us up.
These 7 steps are not a cure-all, but a way of being in the midst of discouragement, living honestly and hopefully under the grace of God. I hope they are a help to you as they have been for me.
So let me ask you:
What has helped you battle discouragement?
Is there one thing you’d wished you’d known when you were struggling?