At times we all want to quit. After sixteen years as a pastor I have faced discouragement more times than I care to remember. So why haven't I quit? Because the Lord has called me to this high and holy task. But I have also learned a few lessons about discouragement that have kept me going in those difficult days.
Discouragement affects all of us from time to time. For those in ministry, discouragement is very real and not uncommon. In fact, the Bible reveals that even such men as Elijah, Jeremiah, and David struggled with discouragement.
The causes of discouragement are numerous, but in my life most of the struggles have been related to one of the following areas.
Neglecting Personal Worship
I'll be the first to admit that my quiet time isn't always what it should be. Sometimes the days, even weeks, are so filled with meetings, fellowships, care-giving, and the preparation for that ever-constant Sunday deadline that I soon find myself weary of the treadmill. This is when discouragement can creep in. There is so much energy expended in the work of ministry that the fire can be extinguished. We must remember that preparation for "the job" is no substitute for personal refreshing and refueling. If we fail to spend time with the Lord on a personal level, rather than merely professional, we can lose sight of the ... prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
When neglecting our quiet time results in discouragement, the remedy is to return to our first love. God has promised to reveal Himself to those who seek Him. Whenever we get a fresh glimpse of God there is renewed sense of purpose and joy. But, maintaining this relationship requires self-discipline and accountability. Whether it is a spouse, a colleague, or a trusted friend, having someone to hold us accountable is invaluable for maintaining a consistent quiet time.
At times I have gotten discouraged because of unrealistic expectations. While Jesus is certainly ... able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think (Eph.3:20) the congregation is not! The pastor's concentrated focus on a clear vision may lay the trap of expecting too much of the people. Upon entering the ministry, many of us have idealized what Kingdom work will be like. There are dreams and visions of the multitudes coming to Christ, of complacent saints being re-vitalized for service, of growth, of blessings, of joy. Few have given any thought to the struggles or obstacles ahead. Whether it is the goal itself, or the speed at which it is attained, I have found myself expecting more than is possible at the time and have become discouraged. As Solomon wrote, Hope deferred makes the heart sick ... (Proverbs 13:12).
On the other hand, some churches place unrealistic expectations upon their ministers. They may expect their pastor to do everything — and do it well. They might compare their pastor to a predecessor who is remembered as perfect. In far too many instances the members of a congregation expect the minister to meet his own family's material needs, but on a fraction of the income common among the members. The minister who attempts to serve the Lord in a church with any of these expectations could face a constant battle with discouragement.
When unrealistic expectations lead to discouragement godly counsel is in order. Mentors, colleagues, predecessors, the church patriarch, and others have helped me set realistic expectations. Very few churches do not desire to move forward. Often they have been pushed, dragged, and beaten to the point that they are very careful about how they proceed. They may want to follow the minister's leadership, but must first be better equipped. Good counsel from wiser, more experienced saints can go a long way in preventing discouragement.
Discouragement may descend on us when certain members resist church growth, or when each spark of vibrancy is smothered by a wet blanket. Most congregations have at least one member with a negative attitude. Those who see it as their "ministry" to approve or disapprove every idea and proposal can dampen not only the pastor's spirit, but also the entire congregation's.
A popular song from a couple of generations ago said, "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don't mess with nothin' in between." It is neither realistic nor appropriate for a us to "eliminate" negative church members — but we can pray for them. I have also learned not to give much weight to the burdens negative people try to place upon me. We can choose to focus on and accentuate the positive. Concentrating on Christ and His will rather than circumstances will help us to overcome discouragement.
Jealousy will certainly lead to discouragement. Ministers are not immune from the temptation to covet. The problem is exacerbated by the boasting of colleagues who seem to have the perfect ministry setting. When the Holy Spirit is pouring out blessings somewhere else it is easier for the minister to complain about what's not happening in his own church than to rejoice with his brother.
As with any sin, when we fall into jealousy we must repent. Since jealousy is rooted in love for self, one solution for jealousy is developing genuine love for, and communion with, others. I Corinthians 13 speaks of love as not being jealous. As love for fellow ministers grows it is easier to rejoice when they rejoice.
Closely related to this source of discouragement is unconfessed sin. Jealousy is indeed sin and needs to be confessed, but the same is true of all sin. Because sin disrupts our fellowship with God, and when we fail to confess it, He removes His hand of blessing. Without God's hand upon him, the minister is left to his own devices and strength. Jesus reminded his followers in John 15 that without Him we can do nothing. When there is unconfessed sin there is no divine strength, wisdom, joy, or sustenance. Indeed, there is guilt, shame, fear, and trepidation. No wonder unconfessed sin leads to discouragement!
The word discourage is made up of the word "courage" with the prefix "dis", which means absent of, deprived of, free from, or the opposite of. Thus "discourage" means the opposite of courage. When one is discouraged it means he lacks courage. As Christians and pastors, our courage comes from the Lord, as does the joy of the Lord, which is our strength. When David was confessing his sin with Bathsheba in Psalm 51 he prayed restore to me the joy of Thy salvation. ... David had lost the joy of the Lord's salvation because of his sin. Without the Lord's joy David became weak, disheartened and discouraged.
When unconfessed sin is behind discouragement, the obvious cure is confession. Remember: If we confess our sins He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9). Nothing is more refreshing than a good cleansing. Repentance opens the faucet of grace and washes away the filth of sin. When we are cleansed we have boldness and confidence before God.
Obviously, Satan's attacks can lead to discouragement. He has determined to steal, kill, and destroy all that he can. He attempts to derail God's ministers through doubt, confusion, and misunderstandings. Even in the midst of exciting times in my life and ministry, I have found myself focusing on the next valley; about when it will come, how deep it will be, and how long it will last. Job, though a truly righteous man, faced the brunt of Satan's attempts to discourage and dishearten. The sixth chapter of Ephesians instructs about the full armor of God because of the reality of spiritual warfare.
When Satan's schemes and ploys lead to discouragement it helps to remember II Corinthians 10:5, We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Jesus has conquered Satan totally and eternally. He has also shared that victory with us. In James we are reminded to resist the devil and he will flee from you.
At some point, every pastor will face discouragement. Sometimes these battles are a direct result of our own behavior and lifestyle. At other times we may not be responsible for the battle at all. At no time are we doomed to dwell in the darkness of discouragement. In every case, God has a solution. There is hope, there is healing, there is a way to find victory over discouragement.
Timothy Faber is pastor of the Santa Fe Trail Baptist Church in Boonville, Mo.