Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

Dealing With Discouragement

You can overcome discouragement.

As you review the great names and personalities of the Scriptures, you become aware very quickly of the fact that almost all of them knew, at one time or another, great discouragement. Job is described as the noblest man living in his time, but after the troubles that were his, he cried out, "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and are spent without hope."

Moses is described as the meekest (that is, the most disciplined) and the greatest of all of the Old Testament personalities. And Moses, as he leads the children of Israel out of Egypt, finds in them truculence and frustration. They want to return to the sweet cucumbers of the slavery they'd known before, and this becomes so discouraging to Moses that at last he cries out, "O Lord, why have you afflicted me? I am not able to bear these people. They are too heavy for me."

We find similar expressions of discouragement in Ezekiel and Daniel and Nehemiah and Jeremiah and Elijah, and yes, even in our Lord himself, for at the conclusion of his incarnate ministry, when he came to Jerusalem, the city he loved most on the face of the earth, and looked out upon it, he was filled with profound discouragement. Weeping, he said, "O Jerusalem, would that even today you knew the things that make for peace. But now they are hid from your eyes."

The company of the discouraged is a very noble company. Not too long ago, the Hayden Planetarium in New York City issued an invitation to all those who were interested in applying to be a part of the crew on the first journey to another planet. Eighteen thousand people applied. They gave the applications to a panel of psychologists, who examined them thoroughly and came to the conclusion that in the vast majority of incidents, those who applied did so because they were discouraged with their lives here and hoped they could find a new life somewhere else.

All of our lips have spoken the words of discouragement. All of our hearts have felt it. Every one of us has known at one time or another the slap of setback. So to be a part of the company of the discouraged is not to be a part of an exclusive group, but it is a costly fellowship. What I would like to share with you in our brief time this morning is four steps you can use in dealing with discouragement.

Take a short look at the problem.

The first step is to take a short look at the problem. Notice I say a short look. That is, you recognize that you are discouraged, but you don't focus upon that. The birds of discouragement may crow and fly about you, but you don't let them build nests in your hair, if you have any.

You perhaps have heard of the old sales managers' device of holding up a large piece of paper with a small orange spot down in one comer. He says to his salesmen, "What do you see?" They all report that they see that orange spot, and he says, "That's your weakness as a salesman. You see the spot and don't see all of the open opportunity before you."

We don't want to focus on our discouragements, because as one thinks in one's heart, so one is. To major in discouragement soon makes all of life discouraging. Yet, we must at least take a short look at it for two reasons. First, to acknowledge that it's true. There are some individuals who think somehow it's Christian to be discouraged. They need to acknowledge it and to recognize that our Lord Jesus himself knew how discouragement feels. So we need to admit that for our souls' sake.

But we need also in that quick look at discouragement to discover whether or not we're the ones who have caused the situation to be discouraging. Many times we are not the cause of our own discouragement. If that is the case, in a moment of discouragement it's important that we know that, so we don't add to the weight of the discouragement the burden of blame.

You remember how they came to Jesus and said, "Those Galileans who died—was it because of their sin?" Jesus said no.

"Those on whom the tower fell in Siloam, was it because of their sin?" Jesus said no.

They brought a blind man to him. "Is he blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents?" And Jesus said no. Many times we are not the cause of our own discouragement, and a quick look will ascertain that.

I have in my notes that I am supposed to tell a joke at this point, and my secretary says this joke is no good. But I'm going to try it anyway.

There was a farmer who had a barn, and it burned down. And so he built a new barn, and it blew down. So he decided he would build a third barn better than the other two, and the third barn he built entirely of brick—brick floor, brick walls, brick roof, thousands and tens of thousands of bricks. When he was finished, he had one brick left over. He stood there contemplating that one brick. What do you think he did with that one brick? He just threw it over his shoulder and walked away. [No response.]

My secretary was right. I'll take that out next time.

The point is, you just take a short look at those kinds of things. You don't have to focus on them. When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he wept over it, but he didn't sit there all day sobbing. He got up and went down into the city, and that brings us to the second step.

Remind yourself what you have going for you.

You take a narrow look at yourself, that is, you remind yourself of your capacities and assets—the things that are going for you. Edison said that the body exists to carry the mind around. That's not altogether true and altogether wise, but there is a great deal to be said for the fact that we remember in the discouraging moment the things that we still have going for us.

There's an interesting story in 1 Samuel where David, because of a military blunder, leaves some cities unprotected. They are attacked by the Philistines, and some of the relatives of David's soldiers are slain. David, it says, is discouraged. But in 1 Samuel 30, it goes on to say that David went off and "encouraged himself in the Lord his God." He encouraged himself by reminding himself of all of those things that were still his.

Just because you miss one train doesn't mean you have to cancel the whole vacation.

Here's a man sitting on his porch in Kentucky. He's only recently retired from the post office, and he's sitting there when his first Social Security check is delivered. He's very, very discouraged. He thinks to himself, Is this what life is going to be from now on—sitting on the porch waiting for my check to arrive?

He decided he wouldn't settle for that, and so he made a list of all of the things he had going for him, all the blessings and the capacities, the unique things that were in him. The list was long because he listed everything he could think of, and in the list was the fact that he was the only person on earth who knew his mother's recipe for fried chicken. It used eleven different herbs and spices.

So he went to a nearby restaurant and asked if he could cook the chicken, and they said yes. It soon became the most popular item on the menu. So he opened his own restaurant, and then others, and a string of restaurants. Eventually Harland Sanders sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise across all of America. He finally retired a second time (all this happened, you remember, after he had retired from the postal service), and he continued in the service of the company as a public relations representative for a quarter of a million dollars a year till his death. Now here was a man who did not allow himself to be defeated by discouragement. He took a look at it, recognized it was there, but then went on to look at what he had with which to deal with it and used that.

Jesus wept over the city, but he knew there were certain things to be done in that city that only he could do. There was a temple to be cleansed. There were teachings to be offered. There was a Last Supper to be known. And there was a cross to be climbed. Only he could do these things, and so he set about the doing of them.

Remind yourself you are loved by God.

The third step is to take a long look at God, to remember that we are loved of God. My dear friend Benjamin Weir was held captive by terrorists in Lebanon for 18 months. Fifteen of those months he was in solitary confinement. In talking with him about those days, I was thrilled to discover how he endured in the face of it.

They took him into a room, a small room, and in the room there was a mattress on the floor and a radiator beside it. That was the mattress on which he slept and on which he sat, because one arm was always handcuffed to the radiator. The window had Venetian blinds. There was no other furniture. Interestingly enough, there was an old stuffed bird sitting over in one corner, a poor example of the taxidermy art. There were some cracks in the walls, and where there had been a chandelier in the ceiling, it had been taken away and there were three loose wires sticking down. This was all there was in the room.

Ben said, "I began to use what was there to remind myself of the love of God. Those three wires coming down—well, they reminded me of the way God's hand comes down and touches the hand of Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. You remember how the gift of life is given in such a way? This meant God's gift of life."

He counted the various slats in the Venetian blinds, and he used the Venetian blind to remind himself that he was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. The bird, though it was very old and dirty, he used to represent the Holy Spirit, sometimes symbolized in Scripture, as you know, by the dove. The cracks in the walls, the places in the plaster that were marred—each and every one of them he identified with some promise in Scripture. He would repeat to himself each day passages which he had long ago hidden in his heart: "May the peace of God which transcends all understanding guide your heart and your mind into Christ Jesus;" "Call upon me and I will do great and wondrous things that you know not of."

He remembered all of these things, and out of this he kept hold of himself for 15 months alone—a long look, a remembering, a focusing upon the love of God.

Notice that when Jesus went down into that city for that week, he went in the power of his Father's love. John, writing about the foot washing scene says, "And Jesus, knowing wither he came and wither he was going, girded himself with a towel." Or Jesus says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." Or there is that magnificent word at the end of the experience on the cross when Jesus says, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." Remembering the love of God.

Take a wide look at the possibilities.

The fourth step is to take a wide look at the possibilities. There was a woman riding on a train, and she had a dog she liked very much. She had purchased a seat right beside her for the dog to ride in. The man in front was smoking a very cigar, and the smoke was drifting back into the face of the dog. So she tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Would you mind extinguishing your cigar?"

He said, "Madame, there are nonsmoking cars on this train and there are smoking cars. This is a smoking car. If you didn't want me to smoke, you should have been seated in another car. I will continue to enjoy my cigar."

By this time the little dog was coughing and panting, so she tapped him on the shoulder again and said, "You can see it's really troubling my dog. Won't you please put it out?"

And he said, "Madame, I consider my pleasure to be of much more importance than the happiness of your animal. I will not put it out."

By this time the little dog was down on his side. He was white when he got on the train, but he was turning blue. So she reached over and opened the window, and then reached around, yanked the cigar out of the man's mouth, and threw it out the window. He got up, grabbed the dog, and threw it out the window. And she went into hysterics and began to scream, pounding on his back.

At this point, the train is slowing down as it comes into the city, and the conductor is running, of course. He hears all this screaming. The man starts down the steps and she's walking behind him. When they get to the foot of the steps on the platform, here comes the little dog running up. And guess what he had in his mouth? He had that brick the farmer threw over his shoulder!

Now the reason you didn't laugh at that the first time is because you hadn't heard all of it, and that's what you need to do with discouragement. You need to see the whole thing.

There was a story in the paper in Chicago this last weekend about a man who was being pursued by his wife. To escape her he jumped over a wall. He never knew he could do that before. That's what you call the stimulation of unrecognized resources. As he looked back on that discouraging moment, he suddenly learned something he hadn't known before.

See the possibilities. Here's a fellow who sold insurance, and he went after a particularly difficult customer, a man that no one had been able to sell. Eventually he sold him a policy. Back in 1883 when this occurred, that was a very large policy. He took out his pen and handed it to the man to sign the contract. When the man tried to write, the pen wouldn't write. He tried several times without success and finally handed the pen back with the contract and said, "I'd better think this over a little while longer." The man lost the sale.

He went home disappointed and discouraged because he had lost the sale, and he determined right then and there that he would never lose another sale because of a fountain pen that didn't work. So he sat down and invented his own fountain pen. His name was Louis Waterman, and the Waterman Fountain Pen became the premier writing instrument of America for the next 50 years. Out of discouragement, great possibility.

Here's a man working in St. Mary's hospital in London. He's growing some cultures, and a careless laboratory assistant leaves a window open, and some material blows in, settles in the cultures, and ruins them. The doctor is very discouraged. His name is Fleming. As he decides which of the cultures to throw out and which he might be able to save for some other use, he begins to notice mold growing there. Out of that Fleming developed penicillin—a possibility out of a discouragement.

The Franciscans were the first ones to systematically grow grapes in California. They grew the muscat grapes to make muscatel wine. One year they had a terrible drought, and the grapes withered on the vine. They thought they were going to lose them all, but they took those grapes down into the towns and sold them as what they called "Peruvian delicacies." That was the beginning of the Sun Maid Raisin Company.

Out of what was discouraging came—well, Jesus, when he went down into that town in the midst of discouragement, brought out of it Easter.

I know that in talking about discouragement this morning I've told some jokes and perhaps some of you think I've been too simplistic or too flippant. I know what discouragement is. I know of the discouragement of fighting my excess weight for 50 years. I know the discouragement of surgery that was not as successful, though every bit as painful, as it was supposed to be. I've stood beside my father's casket, knowing the discouragement of saying for a while to the man I loved most on the face of the earth. I've known the discouragement of being betrayed by a very close friend. I've known the discouragement of having a congregation, to which I gave everything I had, turn against me and reject my ministry. I've learned the discouragement, and know it still, of loneliness, for I am a bachelor. I have no wife. I have no children.

Believe me, I know what discouragement is. But I've discovered in my own experience that if you'll take a short look at the problem; admit it exists and discover where the blame lies; take a narrow look at yourself, that is, be prejudiced in behalf of the things God has given to you; take a long look at God, remembering his love, hiding Scripture in your heart that testifies to it; and if you take a wide look at the possibilities, the dividends that you can find in discouragement—if you do those things—you can be like that little old lady I was sitting beside flying to Europe. She was very nervous. I said, "Is this your first flight?"

She said, "No, I'm always nervous when I fly. But it won't be bad this trip."

I said, "Why?"

She said, "We're flying toward the morning. We're flying toward the dawn."

That's the thing to hold onto, sisters and brothers. As the disciples of Jesus Christ, we're flying into the sun, always and forever into the sun.

The late Bruce Thielemann was pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a frequent speaker on college, university, and seminary campuses.

Bruce Thielemann

Preaching Today Tape # 48


A resource of Christianity Today International

Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

Related sermons

Where's the "Gift Return" Receipt?

How to appreciate the gift of suffering

All I Really Need to Know I Learned by Suffering Triumphantly Until I Died

To know Christ, we must share in his sufferings.
Sermon Outline:


I. Take a short look at the problem

II. Remind yourself what you have going for you

III. Remind yourself you are loved by God

IV. Take a wide look at the possibilities