This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Discouragement - Part 5 - Real Battle

The attitude seems to be fairly prevalent that discouragement and depression are not valid Christian struggles. Much advice implies that these problems would go away simply by "turning them off." People are advised to "stop being that way," "let it go," or "get over it." While there are always steps that people can take to stop the downward spiral and start heading in the right direction, there are also factors that cannot simply be turned off. Even when the cause is entirely a spiritual problem, discouragement is a life-long struggle for some Christians just like worry, carnality, ingratitude, complacency, anger, and so on are life-long struggles for other Christians.

Whether discouragement and depression are the very essence of the battle, or whether they are a by-product of losses in some other battle, these struggles are real. They are not imagined or made up. It would not take long to come up with a lengthy list of Bible characters who fought with discouragement. This is one of the strategies - powerful and potentially crippling - that the devil uses to derail believers in their Christian walk.

"Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Peter 5:8). The battle is real, because the adversary is real. Satan is actively on the alert, looking for those whom he can trip up. In fact, his intent is much more malicious than that. His goal is to devour - to completely destroy.

"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31-32). Jesus told Peter of a specific battle that Satan was waging against him. The intent was not for Peter merely to make a mistake or a poor decision. Satan's goal was much more sadistic. The content of Jesus' prayer reveals Satan's motive, which was that Peter's faith would fail. Satan wanted Peter to lose it all.

This is how God describes "the schemes of the devil." He says that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:11-12). This description is not of some puny, weak attack that has no backbone. Instead, it describes something powerful, controlling, heavy, and oppressive. Anyone who has struggled with intense discouragement would give assent to those descriptions. The battle is real, and it is intense.

It is not, however, impossible. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil" (Ephesians 6:10-11). With his own strength, a believer could never win this battle, but with God's help, victory is possible. With God's help, a believer can stand firm under the attack, not wavering, not falling, and not surrendering. Victory is possible because the strength and the armor are God's.

The weapons are also God's. "For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 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" (II Corinthians 10:4-5). There is no doubt that the enemy is formidable, but God is more than equal to the task. He provides supernatural weapons that are capable of defeating the supernatural enemy. God can destroy fortresses that seem insurmountable.

Consider a real soldier on a real battlefield. He knows he is at war, and his knowledge helps him to be properly focused. He knows that he is fighting enemy soldiers, not trees. He knows he must be alert and free from distractions so he can focus on what is most crucial. He wisely evaluates the enemy's strength and tactics; instead of ignoring the weapons, he takes steps to face them effectively. He knows that Spartan conditions are part of the package, and he accepts them. He knows the cause or the people he is fighting for, and is motivated to fight on. If he has confidence in his leaders, weapons, and strategies, he anticipates the victory that he knows is only a matter of time.

It should be the same for a Christian soldier. He must be aware that he is at war; he must be on the alert. He must know that his enemy is comprised of Satan and spiritual forces. Lack of sleep, social isolation, a medication, an illness, a life disappointment, or a past experience may be factors in the struggle, but they are not the real enemy. The Christian soldier must eliminate earthly allurements that would distract him in the battle. He must realize that the enemy's weapons are too mighty for him alone, and that he must utilize God's armor and God's weapons. He must absorb the inconveniences of his particular situation, realizing that they are an inevitable part of this greater battle. The Christian soldier must know what he is fighting for - to maintain the faith that Satan wants to destroy. With confidence in his Leader, he must comfort himself with the knowledge that daily victory is possible and ultimate victory is coming.

There is much help in recognizing the battle not as a minor, meaningless skirmish, but as a major battle designed to destroy. Satan knows that discouragement is a powerful tactic, and he will attempt to use it often and effectively. A believer who is aware of the nature of the battle is no longer confused about why his struggle is so difficult, nor is he overly hard on himself for having struggles. At the same time, he is better prepared for knowing how to fight the battle and more positive about its outcome. Satan is determined to destroy faith, but with dependence on God's strength, God's armor, and God's weapons, a believer can maintain faith; like Peter he can go on to be used as a positive force in God's army.

"Just as it is written, 'For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.' But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us." Romans 8:36-37 (NASB)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Discouragement - Part 4 - Support Group

Two things are true for those who struggle with deep discouragement or depression. One is that they feel very weak. As they consider their life and struggle, they might use words like incompetent, overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless, unable, crushed, worthless, defeated, or powerless.

The second thing is related; as those people struggle with their weakness, they crave help and support. Having a support system is recognized as quite beneficial, and is highly recommended by both secular and Christian counselors. That support might be as simple as love and acceptance. It could include someone to talk to, to receive counsel from, or simply to interact with during especially challenging times.

While the Bible may not use the terminology of "support group" or "support system," the concept is quite biblical. "Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). "Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed" (Hebrews 12:12-13). "Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing" (I Thessalonians 5:11).

It is a blessing for anyone to know that he has support - someone to care about him, love him, pray for him, and encourage him. On the other hand, if someone does not have that support structure (or believes he does not), his already overwhelming situation can seem even more discouraging and impossible. Someone who is struggling might crave help - might even seek help and ask for it, and he does not always find it. For various reasons, other people may feel too uncomfortable or unqualified to give help. It is true that people sometimes fail, but it is also true that God never does. If someone finds himself without a human support system, he will always have the support of God.

"Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him, for He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:13-14).

"For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).

"In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

These three verses have in common that each one acknowledges human weakness. The first verse refers to "our [weak] frame" and states that it is "but dust." The second verse refers to "our weaknesses" and our "time of need." The third verse also mentions "our weakness." Man may feel weak, and he is, and God knows that. God understands human weakness, and He responds accordingly.

The first verse above refers to God as a father. As a father (and creator), He knows exactly how weak man is. He knows that man is only dust - so frail. God's fatherly response to this weakness is compassion. God does not condemn, ignore, write off, or give up on His children who are struggling. He does not get awkward over their struggle; He does not respond by looking down on them or by pulling away. Instead, He reaches out in compassion and with the love of a Father who cares deeply about His hurting children.

The second verse refers to Jesus. The Savior also knows man's weakness. In fact, one reason He came to this earth was to learn about the challenges of human weakness so that He would be fully equipped to help believers. Jesus experienced the struggles of being human. Because He knows what that weakness is like, His response is sympathy. He knows man needs help, and He invites believers to come to Him in time of need. They need not come with fear and trepidation about how they will be treated, but can come with confidence, knowing they are coming to someone who understands and sympathizes. To these people who are struggling, the Savior offers mercy and grace to help and support in their weakness.

The third verse addresses the Spirit's role in man's struggle. The Spirit also knows the struggle of man, and He becomes involved in helping. He takes the overwhelming needs of man's weak flesh, things that cannot even be put into words, that are actually too heavy for words, and He prays to God for them. The Spirit's prayers are amazing, because He prays for believers as they ought to be prayed for in their weakness. The believer need not despair over not knowing what to say or how to pray for himself. The Spirit knows what to say; although this verse does not reveal the specific content of His prayers, Christians can have confidence that He will pray the right way. I believe those prayers include things like requests for maturity and victory, for faithfulness and endurance, and for praise and honor to be given to God.

For those who need support the most, and perhaps find it nowhere else, support from God is abundant. The God-head is unified in its compassion and in its gentle and loving support. No matter how others might react, God will remain faithful. Others may not know what to do or what to say, but God knows exactly what is needed. His deep level of understanding makes His support especially comforting and effective. There is no greater support group.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Discouragement - Part 3 - Positive Perspective

When discouragement comes, whether it be over a specific event, a single failure, or something more enduring, the discouragement can seem overwhelming. It can take over the entire life, becoming so huge that it overshadows all else and so constant that it permeates all of life. It can become difficult to see anything else or to imagine any possible release. What a believer needs is a shift in focus and a deliberate examination of a different reality. The afflicted person must purposefully readjust his perspective.

Here's what the Bible says about affliction. "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (II Corinthians 4:16-18 NASB).

The Bible does not deny that difficult times will come; in fact, it teaches that they will. In the midst of the trial, however, a believer does not need to lose heart. He can have hope; that hope comes as the Christian takes an eternal perspective rather than a temporal one. One of the most beautiful, stabilizing, and motivating truths of the Christian faith is that there is an eternity to come. No matter how long this life with its trials lasts, it will end. No matter how overwhelming the struggles may be, there will be relief.

Man is so limited by his constant focus on this life that he easily loses sight of the reality that there is also an eternal perspective. Eternity in heaven will far overshadow this life. What happens now may seem terrible, and it may seem to last for a long time. With an eternal perspective, however, one can realize that neither the intensity ("light") nor the duration ("momentary") of the affliction is really that bad. When the believer reaches the glories of heaven, every heartache of life will disappear, simply swallowed up by the overwhelming glories of heaven. There will not be merely enough glory to smooth over the harshness; the glory will ascend so abundantly above the harshness that the hardships won't even deserve another thought - and that glory will last forever.

The glory that will come at the end of life's trials is not limited to what the believer himself will experience in heaven. A Christian's enduring faith through trials also brings glory directly to God. "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:6-7). When Christ returns and gathers believers to Himself, God's work will evoke tremendous rejoicing. The purified faith of believers who have endured through trials will bring great glory and praise and honor to God. These ones who have faithfully suffered will be a beautiful trophy of God's victory over self and sin and trouble. It is an amazing thought that something so terrible has the potential to be used in such a lofty purpose.

While the hope of heaven offers a wonderful perspective, it is not the only hope a believer possesses. God's work also has impact in the here and now. "After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you" (I Peter 5:10). Though there are trials that will last until the very end of life, it is more often the case that God brings deliverance here on this earth. A particular trouble may last for weeks, months, or even years, but God does give deliverance and restoration after a time. He comes and does a very personal healing and strengthening work in the life of the believer, a work whose full magnitude is possible only because of the trial.

This is, in fact, one of God's great purposes for afflictions. "Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:3-4). God is equipping His children to serve Him better, to reflect Him more fully, and to more effectively do His work. Through the trial of faith accomplished through these earthly afflictions, the believer is molded more and more into the image of Christ. He reaches new levels of maturity, which brings glory to God, answers his own heart cry for growth, and has impact on those around him.

With such an impressive work by God in the life of the sufferer, a believer can maintain a positive perspective as he regards the wonder of God's current plan. His positive perspective is enhanced even more as he remembers the incredible hope of God's eternal plan. A focus on the trial, the difficulty, and the affliction will bring (or increase) discouragement, but a focus on God's plan, God's glory, and God's ultimate release will bring hope.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Discouragement - Part 2 - Dogged Determination

Discouragement often hits hardest when life is bleakest, sometimes severely enough that it threatens to derail a Christian who has followed God for years. Dark emotions can emerge suddenly through an unexpected event, such as the death of a child, the dissolving of a marriage, the loss of a job, the failure of a ministry, or the delivery of a hopeless diagnosis. Not always spurred by a single event, discouragement can also result from reflecting about ongoing situations. Perhaps the children seem no closer to returning to God than they were ten years ago. A disappointing marriage drags on with no hope of change. Someone realizes he no longer has the physical energy to work like he used to. Faithful ministry is rewarded only with spiritual complacency. Every suggestion and potential remedy has been exhausted, with no progress toward a cure. Whether the cause of discouragement is a sudden, overwhelming event or the gradual realization of a continuing or worsening situation, the believer must have something to give him hope no matter how bleak life becomes.

Job provides an example. In a very short space of time and in cataclysmic fashion, Job lost everything. His riches vanished, his livelihood disappeared, his children were tragically killed, his health was destroyed, and, in the midst of it all, his wife was unsupportive. Job's life suffered a tremendous reversal, and the friends who came to comfort did more harm than good by alleging that the troubles were all Job's fault. Job was, in fact, very discouraged. He wished he had never been born, and several chapters are filled with his expressions of despair. In the end, however, Job came out victorious. How did that happen? In part, it was due to a dogged determination on the part of Job. In the midst of his discouragement, he made a phenomenal stabilizing statement: "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him" (Job 13:15).

Job's statement considered two factors. First, he thought about how bad life could get. It would have been almost impossible for his life to get any worse. The only thing Job could imagine to make things worse was if God would kill him. The second factor revealed in Job's statement was his faith in God. Job determined that NOTHING would eliminate his hope in God. Job knew that troubles come to all men; in the midst of those troubles, man could turn his back on God or man could look to God. Job chose the latter. He knew it was better to hope in God and experience divine help through the trial than to have no such hope and to walk through the time of trouble alone.

Consider Job's statement: "Though He slay me." Was that a possibility? Could it come to the point that God might take his life? Could a servant of God actually die in the process of trying to faithfully serve God? This week marked the sixty-year anniversary (January 1956) of when that very thing happened to Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian. Others killed as a result of their faith include Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, John and Betty Stam, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Burnham. At least six missionaries died (some cannibalized) on "Martyr Isle," part of what is now Vanuatu, before any missionary successfully lived there. During the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900), 189 Christian missionaries were killed, along with 32,000 Chinese Christians. Many Christians have been killed and continue to be killed in places like North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other countries around the world. These modern-day believers join those mentioned in Hebrews 11:35-37. "Others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword." Many of God's faithful servants have died over the years due to illness, accident, or attack.

God does not carelessly neglect His children, nor does He capriciously allow some to be killed. Nevertheless, sometimes within the greater scope of God's world-wide redemptive plan, it is necessary for some to die. The Christians listed above accepted that fact; many of them made statements expressing such a belief. Hebrews recalls these sufferers and martyrs in the very context of their faith. Job recognized the possibility; his statement essentially says, "I accept God's plan for me, and I will continue to follow Him even if an untimely death is part of His blueprint for my life." Job and many other believers in history have chosen not to give up on God in the midst of their despair. They have chosen to trust Him no matter what.

Peter provides another example of dogged determination. At a time when many were deserting Jesus, Jesus asked the twelve if they would leave also. "Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life'" (John 6:68).

Peter knew there was nowhere else to go. If he were to leave Jesus when things were hard and discouraging, he would be left with no source of words that really mattered. While Job seems to express the idea that he could not turn away from the God of his trust, Peter extends the idea a little further. Even if he were to leave God, where would he go? Where, indeed? Jesus gave him words of life. It is true that a life bent on following God sometimes experiences discouragement and confusion, but without God, those troubling things only increase. The one who follows God may not have all the answers and hope, but with his trust in God, at least he has some answers and hope.

Job clung to God as the source of hope; Peter clung to the source of life. Job did not know what God was doing, but he chose to hope in God when life went wrong. Others had turned from Jesus when they did not understand His teaching (John 6:60-66); Peter did not fully understand either (Matthew 16:9), but he chose to follow God when things didn't make sense. Aren't those the primary discouraging aspects of life - that even sincere believers don't always know what God is doing and don't always understand what He is trying to teach? These men were willing to persevere in spite of the lack of answers; they knew enough about God to determine that they would follow Him anyway - no matter what. They would not let discouragement win.

These two verses, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, reveal the absolute necessity of trusting God in every situation. God is the only answer, the only source of hope and life. No matter how terrible life becomes, when it is all over, it will be clear that trust in God was never misplaced. Therefore, it does not matter how bad the circumstances or challenges of life are. God is the right place for the believer to place his trust, even if he dies in the process, even if he never sees the answers he hopes for. It is this dogged determination that keeps a believer from yielding to the discouragement that threatens to tear him away from his faith in God.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Discouragement - Part 1 - Initial Inspiration

Discouragement. Depression. Despair. These negative feelings can happen at any time, but winter can be harder for many people than any other season of the year. People can be affected by the dreariness outside, by the scarcity of singing birds, blooming flowers, beaming sun, thriving trees, and even growing grass. Surroundings are brown and ugly - unless they are covered by that white stuff, which doesn't always bring happy feelings either. For a time it seems as if life has been swallowed up by death. Many people feel trapped inside by the cold and snow, leaving them more isolated from other people and depriving them of beneficial exercise. There is also the letdown after the joyous Christmas celebrations with family, as well as the disappointment of ending another year without having achieved desired goals or of failing yet again in New Year's resolutions - after only two days, a week, or a month. In light of the fact that winter can be a sad time, I want to share some help over the next few months to combat these negative feelings.

For sake of continuity, I am titling these articles "discouragement." It is a broad enough word to include a variety of manifestations, and discouragement does, in fact, happen at varying levels of intensity. Some people have mild down feelings that come and go. Others experience deeper discouragement that seems never to go away. Some are trapped in depression and despondency so intense that they completely give up hope and perhaps even think of ending their lives. There is hope and help for every level.

Many people do not realize that discouragement can have varied contributing factors. "Depression" is a bad word, particularly in many Christian circles. It is typically viewed as one of the most taboo sin problems and as something that a Christian should never experience and certainly should not mention to anyone else. This mindset views the sole cause of depression and discouragement to be wrong thinking. Other possible causes can exist, however. There can be contributing physical factors. A number of diseases affect the brain or hormones, which can cause tremendous (and mystifying) changes in the emotions. Depressed feelings can also be induced chemically by many medications that interfere with the emotional aspects of a person. There are even very practically-based contributors, such as poor sleep, unhealthy diet, limited exercise, and social isolation.

While many of these factors can (and should) be controlled and changed by discouraged individuals, some of them are completely outside one's control. To these people in particular, discouragement may seem to be an unconquerable enemy. After all, there is nothing they can do to change the cause. The good news is that there is hope for every cause. The "treatment," in fact, is basically the same for all. The answer lies in addressing as many of the contributing factors as possible. That may include eating better, exercising more, getting enough sleep, and becoming socially involved, for example. Of all the causes listed above, however, I believe that wrong thinking is the most prevalent cause of depression. It is the thinking then that needs to change.

Even when there are other contributing factors that are outside a person's control, thinking is within a person's control. It is interesting that even if the cause of discouragement is primarily physical, a change in thinking can still combat the discouragement. If someone's discouragement results from an underlying physical cause that cannot be eliminated, the fight against discouragement might be more challenging. This person's discouragement could be more intense or more persistent, and he may have to fight it for the rest of his life. That does not mean, however, that he has to lose to it for the rest of his life. It might be an on-going challenge, but it is also a challenge that can be effectively met and held at bay.

While there is hope for every cause and every level of intensity, for many people the relief will not be instantaneous, nor will the change happen overnight. Those with extreme levels of discouragement may feel helpless, not even knowing where to start. They may recognize that the journey out of their dungeon will take an extended length of time. They may believe that victory is theoretically possible, but that they can't make it through until the time that things finally get better. Believing the solution to be a change in thinking, I offer the meditations below - initial inspirations for fighting discouragement. For those with mild discouragement, these truths alone could be enough to change the day. For those with severe discouragement, they can serve as a step in the right direction and as a foothold on the downward slide. Here are three wonderful hope-giving foundations for the thoughts.

"Being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you'" (Hebrews 13:5).

God is not a mere human. People fail and abandon, sometimes when help is most needed. God never does that. He is with the believer every moment of every day. He is not going anywhere. He will never abandon the believer, no matter how dark the days; He will never fail to give the help and support that is expected based on the nature of His relationship with the believer.

"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).

God gives the strength that a believer otherwise would not have and could never produce on his own. That strength comes only through God. There is no other source that can provide for every facet of strength; God's strength can enable the believer to endure, to be faithful, to keep his mind fixed on truth, and to achieve victory.

"And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19).

"All" means "all." Believers sometimes apply this promise to financial or material needs; while that is appropriate, God also supplies for emotional needs. He will not allow any true need to go unmet. The wonderful thing about this provision is that God has rich resources at His disposal to be able to meet every need. There is no need too great for Him.

If I could choose three truths as the foundation in the fight against discouragement, they would be these three. These verses reveal the precious assurances that God is ALWAYS with me, that He will strengthen me for EVERYTHING, and that He will supply for EVERY need.

Perhaps these truths provided immediate help for someone. I realize (and the reader probably does, too) that the discouraged thoughts will probably return, maybe by later today or by tomorrow morning. If the truths helped once, they can help again, but only when they are recalled. It is important to repeat, re-read, and reiterate these truths often. Even if they seem at times to have no impact, they must serve as frequent reminders. God's Word is powerful and can make more of a difference than one realizes. While recalling these truths may not lift the spirits on every occasion, they can stop the negative thoughts on their downward journey and can help to reinforce a more consistent practice of turning to the right thoughts - a habit that will lead to positive results.