Spoke today to a group of pastors about encouragement and discouragement in their ministries and lives. Generally speaking, our levels of either fluctuate with our expectations crashing into reality. When things go as we hoped, we feel encouraged. When they don’t for periods of time, we get discouraged.
What discourages pastors? Many struggle with knowing just how to evaluate their work. Since the work is never done and there is always more to do (another complaining friend, another couple to counsel, another program to oversee, another small group to visit), the temptation is to fall back on some unhelpful measuring sticks and either try to do more than one should or give up and withdraw.
My view is that while our circumstances give ample opportunity to deflate us, discouragement is much less the result of our circumstances and much more the result of unmet desires and expectations. Haven’t you have had the experience where something went badly but since you had no significant expectations for anything better, you weren’t all that discouraged by it? Our problem is that we look to the wrong things to encourage us. We look to successes in ministry, in work, in marriage, in parenting, in whatever we do. And the absence deflates us and tempts us to either get angry or quit.
Among the passages we looked at were:
1. Phil. 2: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, then…” Many are familiar with this passage because of Paul’s exhortation to set aside our own agenda and to follow the example of Christ–sacrificially serving others. And many admonish us to take to heart what it is this passage calls us to do. But, what is the engine that drives us? Encouragement. Where does that come from? See v. 21 of the previous passage: “It has been granted you to believe….” Encouragement comes from remembering the work of Christ NOT from our success in ministry.
2. Heb. 12:5. This passage starts out with a “therefore” as well. Remembering all the saints before us and their faithfulness, we are called to “run the race” and “throw off everything that hinders us.” We are to leave sinfulness behind. But such a task wearies us. Verse 3 tells us that spiritual weariness is not fixed by numbing ourselves with food, sex, TV, etc, but by “considering Christ” and his endurance. The the author knows that to kill the flesh we have to fight to the point of what feels like bloodletting. But in verse 5 he tells us to take courage because God is disciplining us. Huh? Did you ever take courage when your father or mother disciplined you? I didn’t. But Hebrews is telling us that one of our sources of encouragement is that God is treating us as family and so he lovingly disciplines and refines us.
Bottom line, our encouragement comes from remembering that God is at work in our lives even if we cannot see it. Now, encouragement may come in the form of being able to quote Ps 88 which communicates much faithful despair.
One more point. We ought to differentiate between discouragement and grief or sadness, or frustration, or confusion. These are not the same. It is possible to be dismal about the outcome but having courage to keep going. Courage and action are more likely signs of encouragement than anything else.