“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 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.
Many 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. Most people are one life event away from disaster, and that can be discouraging.
Discouragement drains energy, stifles motivation, clouds vision and leads to paralyzing anxiety and inaction.
Here are six ways that we can respond to discouragement:
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.
This allows us to view setbacks as momentary and gives us the perspective to envision creative and healthy ways to move beyond our present circumstances.
2. Evaluate shortcomings.
When we’re discouraged, 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.
3. 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?
4. Resolve to act.
Put your plan into action. 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.
5. 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 – 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.
6. Encourage someone else.
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 16:33, 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.
Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia.