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Overcoming Discouragement

Face your problems relying on God.

Life is hard. Life is a battle. Saint Paul says we struggle in life, not just against the world and the flesh, but against invisible powers that struggle against us to keep us from becoming all that God wants us to become. It is very important that we face the hardness of life straightforwardly. So today I want to talk to you about the overcoming life in regard to the Christian and discouragement.

It was advertised that the Devil was putting up for sale all of his tools. On that date the tools were laid out. They had prices marked on them for public inspection, and there were a lot of treacherous instruments: hatred, envy, jealousy, deceit, pride, lying, and so on. Laid apart from the rest of the Devil's tools was a tool, but it was worn more than any of the others and was priced very high. "What's the name of this tool?" asked one of the customers.

"That," the Devil replied, "is discouragement."

"Why have you priced it so high?"

"Because discouragement is more useful to me than all the others. I can pry open and get inside a man's heart with that when I cannot get near him with any other tools. It's badly worn because I use it on almost everyone, since so few people know it belongs to me."

Discouragement is still the Devil's tool. Not many people realize he's using it on us, and he's using it on some of us today. Life is full of discouraging circumstances. Even the most blessed people, the most successful, the most spiritually mature, face constant disappointment and discouragement. The aim of my sharing this with you today is that you would honestly face the problems served up to you in life without fooling yourself, without giving up, but rather by acknowledging the problems and discouragement, by acknowledging our need for help, by getting help from others, and by trusting and obeying God in the midst of problems.

Life is hard.

I want to thank our junior choir for sharing the wonderful story of Joseph because it puts in perspective how hard life is. No one knew this better than Joseph. When he was a baby, his mother died. His father was a pretty old fellow, and even though he was famous in the Bible, he was something of a scoundrel, not an easy father to live with. Joseph's brothers hated him. They mistreated him, and finally they betrayed him and sold him into slavery. He was torn from his home and he became a slave. He had no rights. Then he was falsely accused. He wasn't given a fair trial. He was thrown into prison, and there he was forgotten. If anybody ever knew how hard life is, it was Joseph.

The life of Joseph reminds me of the life of another person. When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home on a legal technicality. He, as a , had to go to work to help support his family. At the age of nine his mother died. At 22 he lost his job as a store clerk. He wanted to go to law school, but his education wasn't good enough. At 23 he went into debt to become a partner in the small store. At 26 his business partner died, leaving him a huge debt that took years to repay. At 28 after courting a girl for four years, he asked her to marry him. She said no. At 37, on his third try, he was elected to Congress, but two years later he failed to be . At 41 his boy died. At 45 he ran for the Senate and lost. At 47 he failed as a candidate for vice president. At 49 he ran for the Senate again and lost. At 51 he was elected president of the United States. His name was Abraham Lincolna person many people consider to be the finest leader we've ever had. Some people have all the luck.

Life is hard for most people. Life's discouragements vary from stage to stage in life. When you're a little child, there are certain things that are difficult. When you're a teenager there are others. A teenager is discouraged when she looks in the mirror or looks at her figure, or when he doesn't have many friends, or doesn't make good grades, or doesn't make the team, or doesn't get a part in a play. There are certain things that are real and discouraging when we're young.

As we get older, our problems change. I'm wondering how life is hard for you today. I'm wondering what discouraging events you are encountering. Perhaps you don't have enough money. Everybody has that problem. Maybe your business or your job hasn't worked out to your expectations. Maybe you're facing the problem of alcoholism or the problem of barrenness. Maybe you're facing a divorce. Maybe you've lost someone through death. Maybe your marriage is bad. Maybe you don't have a marriage to be bad or good. Maybe you're lonely. Maybe you don't have many friends. Maybe you can't seem to locate your niche in life. Maybe there's a problem of physical or emotional abuse in your home. I don't know what your problem is, and you may not have any problems. I say "Hallelujah!" with you if you don't.

But you will, because life is hard.

Whatever your problem is, there are more people in this church who have that same problem than you would ever guess. You know, when we're really honest, when we get right down to it, in this church and every church are a lot of tired, discouraged people. Life, as some people said, is like a school of hard knocks, and the colors of the school are black and blue. Life is hardthat's the point.

You can choose unacceptable ways of dealing with your problems.

Now, there are three ways of dealing with life's discouragements. First, is give in to them. Let them overwhelm you. Let them eat you up from the inside. Focus on them until you become a negatively oriented person. Many people choose this option.

This week in Bangor, Maine, a teenager committed suicide, and before the week was over, 33 other teenagers had tried to take their lives. They gave in to it, gave in to the discouragement and the hardship. Five thousand teenagers every year commit suicide in America. Children are realizing earlier and earlier that life is hard. And there's a great temptation to give in, to accept the fear and discouragement. Sometimes just when it seems things are getting better, they get worse. You're going through life, and it's like a dark tunnel. All of a sudden you see a light at the end of the tunnel and you think, "At last it's coming to an end!"only to find it's a train coming toward you.

Now Elijah, the greatest prophet in the Old Testament, had this very experience of life's problems, and he chose the option to give in and to give up. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is alone. He has just had what you would call a great mountaintop experience in which he's experienced the power and reality of God in a way none of us has ever experienced. He was God's man for his generationnobody like him.

Then, because he angered the queen and she threatened to kill him within 24 hours, he became afraid and ran for his life. He came to Beersheba and left his servant there. He went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, Lord," he said. "Take my life. I'm no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.

There were two voices whispering in Elijah's ear, and there are two voices that whisper in our ear in the face of difficulty. One is the voice of Satan, and it says, "Give up." The other is the voice of God, which says, "I'm the Lord your God. Nothing is impossible with me."

Perhaps in no area of life over the last few years have I observed the difficulties people encounter any more than in the area of marriage. Some of you are in trouble in your marriages, and you're the only ones who know it. Some of you are hurting, discouraged, angry in your marriages. One voice is whispering in your ear, "Give up. Forget it. Go your own way." Or the voice may be saying, "Well, don't turn away, but give up. Forget about ever having any kind of meaningful relationship in marriage and just tough it out, because your partner can't change." That's the voice Elijah listened to, and that's the first option, the first way of dealing with discouragement. That option is not acceptable to God, and it's not acceptable to us, either.

Second option: deny the problem. "My husband doesn't really have a drinking problem." "This sickness is really not anything serious." "I know my daughter says she's lonely, but I don't think it's really anything to be concerned about."

You can magnify a problem and make it worse than it is. I'm not talking about that this morning. I'm talking about serious problems. Some people tend to minimize the problems they're encountering:

"I know we're in debt, but oh, it's going to work out sometime, sooner or later." "I know I've lost my job. Every time I've had a job, I've lost it, but it'syou know, I just haven't found an employer who can understand me." That's denying the problem within.

This second option is the option Saint Peter chose in the face of difficulty. Saint Peter had this problem. Jesus said, "Peter, you are weak. You are a coward. You're too influenced by other people, and you know what? You're going to deny me."

Peter said, "Oh no, Lord. Glory to GodI'll never deny you!" He denied the problem.

I'm sincerely worried about any in this church who may be facing severe problems and are denying those problems or minimizing the seriousness of them. Some of you have experienced anger and hurt, and in your marriage you haven't been talking to your mate. You haven't been sleeping with your mate. There's a coldness, a desperation, that's settled in. But you won't acknowledge it. Or if you do acknowledge it, you minimize it. You're on dangerous ground.

Jesus was ruthlessly realistic. He said to Peter, "Peter, grow up, man. Be real. You've got a problem. You're going to deny me. Face the facts."

Some Christians feel guilty and ashamed for having problems in their livesas though Christians should be immune? And some Christians are too proud to admit they're having problems. This past week, I have been deeply hurt by a revelation about a dear, friend who has had a serious, persistent problem, but hasn't been open about it, hasn't apparently been able to deal with the fact that even strong Christian leaders can have problems. And so it's been covered up. It's been denied. It's been minimized. Or it's been spiritualized. And I have been sick all week because of the agony I feel for this friend. I feel that way for you when I learn you are having a difficult situation that you're not acknowledging.

The second option, Peter's option, is deny it. Minimize it. But that's not an acceptable option, either.

Or you can face your problems like Josephrealistically and faithfully.

The third and last option is the option of Joseph. Joseph's response to life's hard knocks was to face them realistically and faithfully. The tragedies in Joseph's life were basically out of his control. He accepted those tragedies and made the best that he could out of them. As I reread the story, I noticed five little observations about Joseph that enabled him to face his troubles with honesty and faithfulness.

First, he maintained his relationship with God no matter how hard his life was. Over and over again the story says, "And the Lord was with Joseph." He never lost sight of his relationship with the Lord. He prayed. He meditated on the truths of God. He didn't have any church to go to, but he didn't turn his back on God. He was faithful in his relationship to God, and God was with him. Maintain your relationship with God, first of all.

Second, he refused to give in to temptation. Whenever we encounter a difficulty, almost always there is a way of dealing with it that is absolutely pleasing to God. You see this in the life of Joseph in the incident with Potiphar's wife. She presented to him a ticket to freedom and security, not to mention all sorts of delights. But he refused to disobey God.

Third, he refused to focus on himself. Joseph always gave himself tirelessly to any work that was to be done, even when he was in prison. He always took an active interest in other people. You see this even in jail, as he got involved in the life of the cupbearer and baker from the royal palace.

Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, once gave a lecture on mental health and was answering questions from the audience. Someone said, "What would you advise a person to do if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?" Most people thought he would say, "Go see a psychiatrist immediately," but he didn't. To their astonishment. Dr. Menninger replied, "Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find somebody in need, and help that person." Don't focus on yourself. Get involved in the lives of other people.

The fourth observation: Joseph took whatever steps he could to solve his problems. He didn't just sit back and say, "Oh, que sera sera." He did anything he could to deal with the problems he was facing. As an example, when he was in prison, he begged the cupbearer to the king, when he was reinstated, to put in a good word with Pharaoh for him. The fellow didn't do it, but Joseph was always seeking to get out of his difficult situation. There was no paralysis of action. You've got to initiate whatever action you can if you're dealing with life's hard knocks. Sometimes it just means getting honest and sitting and talking with someone else.

The last observation is this: apparently Joseph didn't lose sightat least not for longof the fact that God was still in control of his life, that God is sovereign. He trusted that God was in control. We see this in two wonderful statements Joseph made. This is when he has been reunited with his brothers, and he's looking back. This is his comment on what happened: "Joseph said to his brothers, 'Do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve you and to save your lives. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.'"

Again in Genesis 50 he makes a similar statement to his brothers: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

So life is hard. Did God topple off his throne in heaven? No. You are not the victim of life's hard knocks. When you entrust yourself into the hands of God, God is at work bringing you through, bringing about his special purposesif we will maintain our relationship with God, refuse to disobey, refuse to focus on ourselves, take whatever steps we can to get help, and finally, trust in the sovereignty of God.

Yes, life is hard. The Christian life is a battle. Life will serve up discouragements. There are three options: we can give in and let them defeat us and lead us to personal ruin; we can deny our problems, which leads ultimately to frustration and a kind of sick schizophrenia; or, with Joseph, we can face our problems , with honesty and with faith in God, knowing that nothing is impossible with God.

Let me share a letter with youa letter from a missionary who had gone into the jungles of New Guinea and was writing to his friends at homebecause his letter catches the spirit of Joseph in adversity. "Man," he said, "it's great to be in the thick of the fight, to draw the old Devil's heaviest guns, to have him at you with depression and discouragement, slander, disease! He doesn't waste time. He hits good and hard when a fellow is hitting him. You can always measure the weight of your blow by the one you get back. When you're on your back with fever and at your last ounce of strength, when some of your converts backslide, when you learn that your most promising inquirers are only fooling, when your mail gets held up, and some don't bother to answer your letters, is that the time to put on your mourning suit? No sir! That's the time to pull out the stops and shout, 'Hallelujah!' The old fellow's getting it in the neck and he's giving it back. And all of heaven is watching over the battlements: 'Will he stick it out?' And as they see who is with us, as they see around us the unlimited reserves, the boundless resources, as they see the impossibility of failure with God, how disgusted and sad they must be when we run away. Glory to God! We're not going to run away. We're going to stand."

Now that's not some pietistic . That's the way God desires us to face our problems. Don't give in. Don't ignore. Face it with faith. But don't try to overcome it alone.

Some of you, I fear, may be in danger of forgetting this, that aside from our relationship with God, there's nothing else, no other relationship in life, as important as it is to be crucially linked up with a few Christian friends. A few brief moments of utter honesty with a friendmaybe it's with the men in your Bible study group or the women in your home church group, or with your minister, or with a counselora few brief minutes of utter honesty may be the first step of turning everything around.

You don't have to be a casualty in the battles of life. Christ has already won this war. He has his people and he is present to help you win your battle with discouragement. We can be overcomers if we will face the battle honestly without giving up on the powerful help of God.

John W. Yates II is rector of Falls Church Episcopal, in Falls Church, Virginia, where he has served since 1979. He is author of For the Life of the Family Seven Crucial Moments, and What Makes a Man.

John W. Yates II

Preaching Today Tape # 42


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Life is hard

II. You can choose unacceptable ways of dealing with your problems

III. Or you can face your problems like Joseph—realistically and faithfully