6 steps to overcome discouragement

praying-womanBy Matt Sapp

It’s A Wonderful Life opens with a conversation between God, St. Peter and Clarence, angel second-class. Clarence is about to get his big chance as a guardian angel, and upon hearing that his charge, George Bailey, is in desperate need of his services, Clarence asks with urgency, “What’s wrong? Is he sick?”

To which God replies, “No. Worse. He’s discouraged.”

Discouragement is the worst. It sneaks up on us. It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment when discouragement sets in, but discouragement finds its way into all of our hearts at one time or another, and it’s an awful way to feel.

When we’re discouraged we feel incapable, unaccomplished, lost, like we’ve ventured too far into the woods without realizing it and are sure we can’t find our way back.

Uncertainty is a key source of discouragement. A lot of churches today face uncertain futures, so it’s easy for clergy and lay leaders to give in to discouragement.  A lot of families today aren’t as stable as they’d like to be—financially and otherwise—so it’s easy for families to feel discouraged, too.

Unexpected financial setbacks, health scares, relationships gone bad—you name it, most people are one life event away from disaster, and that in and of itself can be discouraging. Discouragement drains energy, stifles motivation, clouds vision, and leads to paralyzing anxiety and inaction.

So, I hope you’re not experiencing discouragement right now, but if you are, let me suggest six things you can do when you’re discouraged.

  1. Take The Long View

Step back and see the big picture. Sometimes the sources of our discouragement are much smaller than they appear. When we see the big picture we can give ourselves credit for progress and success that discouragement seeks to hide from us.

Seeing the big picture allows us to view setbacks as momentary and gives us the perspective to envision creative and healthy ways to move beyond our present circumstances.

  1. Evaluate Shortcomings

When we’re discouraged, unless we’re just dreadfully off base, it’s usually because of a real obstacle or setback in our lives. So one of the first things you can do when you discover that you’re discouraged is to honestly evaluate the circumstances that have led you to this point.

What are your individual shortcomings? Are there organizational or family shortcomings involved? Have changes to the larger culture or the environment contributed to your discouragement? Use your discouragement as an opportunity for honest evaluation.

  1. Make A Plan

Once you’ve evaluated your situation, make a plan. When we’re discouraged, it’s easy to feel like we are being carried along by forces beyond our control.  Active planning helps us feel in control again.

Outline necessary changes. Figure out what it will take to overcome the present obstacles. Are there things that you can do better? Are there things you need to do more? How about routines or habits or patterns you need to change? Are there new realities you need to accept or new environments you need to explore? Make a plan.

  1. Resolve To Act

Put your plan into action. Go ahead, give it a shot. Don’t wait for the perfect time or the perfect circumstances. Realize that failure will always be a possible outcome of action. And then act anyway.

And don’t let one bad day or one bad outcome get you off track. Keep plugging along, each day resolving to do what that day requires of you.

  1. Remember That God Is In Control

It doesn’t all depend on you. Discouragement becomes such a heavy burden because we delude ourselves into thinking that we have to climb out of the pit alone. But we don’t. As Christians, we have the supportive community and partnership of God and God’s people—a repository of healthy relationships on which to draw when the events of life seem overwhelming.

So when you need it, ask for help–in prayer and from your Christian community. Don’t have a Christian community? Then find a church to attend this Sunday.

  1. Encourage Someone Else

Finally, remember, the opposite of discouragement is encouragement. Use your own discouragement as a reminder to be an encourager to others around you. Where discouragement drains energy, stifles motivation, clouds vision and leads to inaction, encouragement does just the opposite.

It provides energy, creates motivation, clears vision and leads to action.

We all need encouragement, and the Bible is a great place to find it. In fact, that might be the most important thing for me to do when I’m discouraged. Usually when I’m discouraged I discover that I haven’t been reading my Bible like I should.

In John 16, Jesus tells us that he comes to share God’s truth with us so that we might be encouraged, saying, “I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world!” Sometimes, that’s all I need to hear.

The Limits of Technology and the Fullness of Faith

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

This is the second article in a new message series at Heritage Baptist Fellowship, Canton, Georgia, that focuses on finding meaning in a chaotic world.  Find the first article here.

In the 1990s politicians told us about the “information super highway.”  Most of us couldn’t understand what they were talking about then, but today we are smack dab in the middle of the Information Age.

Everything the world has ever known or experienced or discovered is at our fingertips—in our pockets, even. The thoughts and ideas and opinions and experiences of billions of people are catalogued and archived every day on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Tumbler.

So for a generation now, conventional wisdom has supported the idea that more information is the key to better living.  Today, data analysis, feedback systems and performance metrics improve products and services to make our lives better and easier—and our businesses more profitable.

Access to information also makes us more productive. The information age makes same day delivery from Amazon possible—wonder of wonders!  It holds the promise of improving the standard of living and quality of life for people all over the world.

Increasingly, though, we’re discovering the limits of information. And in places where the Information Age has fully blossomed we find ourselves binging on information to distract us from thoughts, relationships, situations, and emotions we’d rather avoid.

Unlimited access to information has some wonderful benefits, but what if we need more?  What if convenience and productivity do not translate into more us becoming fulfilled, grounded, and connected?  What if it takes more than facts and information to build meaningful lives?

Researchers are discovering that our minds and senses are so overly stimulated that our attention spans are shrinking to the vanishing point.

techAt the same time, depth is disappearing from our lives: Depth of relationship, depth of feeling, depth of purpose, just to name a few.  The meaning and rootedness that used to ground us—the physical places and spaces of community that used to connect us–are disappearing.

How can lives full of access to knowledge and stimulation feel so…empty?

Cultural observers have been openly wondering whether the church can survive the upheavals of this new era.  The shift away from physical places and space of community poses a huge challenge to churches, but we still need depth of relationship and feeling and purpose, of rootedness and connectedness.  The church can provide that kind of depth!

At HERITAGE we’re working to organize ourselves around three big ideas and needs that will help weather the Information Age.

Instead of easy answers we desperately want to find HEALTHY WAYS to understand the world and be understood. We’re discovering that answers can’t organize themselves into a coherent worldview that provides order and meaning to life.  In a world full of facts we hunger for understanding.

Instead of facts, we hunger for deeper TRUTH—a truth that’s Google proof.  Maybe even a truth that’s HOLY. There’s a depth to real truth that we often miss when we’re conditioned to search for facts that can be found with a few key strokes. We’re so used to searching for facts that we no longer even know to ask for truth. Truth is deeper than facts.  Truth has roots.  It connects at a spiritual, elemental level.

Truth is searched for, hard-earned, embodied and owned in a way that facts aren’t. Google offers facts; but it doesn’t offer truth.

As we discover the limits of knowledge, we might just be starting to rediscover the benefits of a LIFE of faith–a life that makes us WHOLE.  Knowledge might change how we think and may even change how we live; but we don’t just want to know how to live, we want to know why we live.

The bounded fields of knowledge can’t hold a candle to the unlimited landscape of faith.  Faith leads us to ask questions and a search for truth that knowledge can’t fully address. It leads us to truth instead of facts.

We want understanding, not answers. We hunger for truth, not facts. It’s not knowledge that we yearn for; it’s life! We want a new way to live.  We’ve heard the conventional wisdom. We’ve tried the easy fixes. We’ve experienced all the Information Age has to offer, and we want more.

We want lives that are holier, healthier and more complete than the lives we’re living right now. We want a chance to dream and exist and hope beyond the limits of the present reality. That’s what it means to be human. We were uniquely created to exist on more than information.

Jesus once made a claim about his identity that might be useful as we look to move beyond information. Jesus says, “I am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE.”  The WAY to understanding, the TRUTH beyond facts, a LIFE that transcends mere knowledge.

Recent experience teaches us that more access to information fails to make us more holy, more healthy, or more whole. That’s precisely what Christ promises to do as we search for truth, understanding and faith.

In a world where nothing is permanent, where even facts seem to change as quickly as you can google them, Christ offers something solid to hold onto—something that keeps us from drowning in a sea of information.

The Spiritual Discipline of Saying “No”

just-say-noMolly and her mother, Esther, live right down the street from one another.  They have a good relationship, and they’ve become closer since Molly’s father passed away a few years ago.

Without Molly’s father around anymore, Esther is demanding more of Molly’s time. Molly loves her mother, but she is getting frustrated with having to care for her when she–Molly–should be home taking care of her own children.

Molly’s husband said something about it recently: “You spend a lot of time with your mother, and you’re not here when the children and I need you most.  Your mother needs to learn how to be more independent.”

Now Molly is frustrated with her husband and, like many caregivers in the sandwich generation, feels torn between two worlds.  She doesn’t know what to do.

Before Molly gets more resentful, it would be helpful for her to learn a new spiritual discipline: that of saying “no.”

All of us have a penchant for people-pleasing, and so many of us have been taught that we are valued–and valuable–when we care for others.  We care for our loved ones, our children, and friends in need.

When we take care of people at the expense of caring for ourselves–and our immediate families–then we need to stop, listen to the Spirit, and learn to set boundaries so that we don’t burn out.

The spiritual discipline of saying “no” is one of the hardest to practice, but it is one of the most critical in maintaining a healthy relationship with God and with others.  It is a practice important for families, for loved ones; and, it is even important in the workplace.

I know of a bridesmaid and bride who stopped talking to one another years after the wedding because the bride demanded too much from the bridesmaid.  The bridesmaid chose to say “yes” to everything she was being asked to do instead of being honest enough to tell the bride that she felt used and manipulated.

The bridesmaid enjoyed being in the wedding party, and she longed to make sure the bride had the best wedding ever.  The lack of boundaries burned her out, however, and she stopped participating in the relationship once the wedding day had passed.

All the bridesmaid had to do in order to save the relationship was practice the art of saying “no” to some of the things she was being asked to do.

One of the best ways to practice this spiritual discipline is to try it on the small things in life.  When a loved one whom you trust asks you to do something that’s easy–say, go to the store or participate in a dinner party–politely, but firmly decline.

Give a general reason, but be positive: “That sounds like a good opportunity, but I have a previous engagement at that time.”  You have the right to keep your “engagement” confidential, even if the engagement only amounts to you staying home to watch a favorite movie.

Another way to practice this spiritual discipline is to keep a calendar in which you block off time for work, recreation, rest, and other obligations.

I find that if I don’t write things in my calendar related to my family, I either forget about them or I don’t make time for them.

It’s better to write down appointments no matter how innocuous than to forget or break a promise to a loved one who is counting on you to be somewhere at a specific time.

This includes making time to catch up on rest.  I block off Saturday nights for some good “me time.”  I don’t make plans, and I don’t make promises about that time.  It’s my night to rest before having to preach the next day.  If a friend asks to spend time together, I look for another time to do so.

I know this is harder when you are actively caring for someone or need to help someone who relies on you, but saying “no” will improve and salvage the relationship in the long run.

What good is it if you always say “yes,” but your spirit grows in resentment towards a loved one who needs you to be honest, healthy, and whole?