During both periods of depression I’ve experienced, discouragement played an outsized role. For various reasons, I was confused about what God was doing and why he was doing it, and what God was not doing and why he was not doing it.
In one way or another, and whether or not a person is depressed, all of us experience discouragement. And if discouragement really sinks its teeth into us and lasts longer than a few moments or days, it becomes a spiritual battle. This battle is waged for control over our hearts, for whatever controls the heart controls the mind and body as well. Once it has control of our mind, body, and spirit, discouragement shapes the way we view and experience life, and exerts influence on our words and behaviors.
The question, therefore, becomes “What will I do with my discouragement?” Left unchecked, it could grow to enormous proportions, like a giant octopus, reaching its tentacles into every square inch of our hearts and minds. It will dull our motivations, undermine our hope, sap our strength, and steal our courage. Eventually, if not counteracted, it will drive us to depression.
When Discouragement Takes the Form of Broken Dreams
Generally, people who are not in the throes of depression react to dashed hopes by latching on to new hopes. But depressed people often give up hope altogether, either by killing it themselves or letting it die of natural causes.
As psychologist Ed Welch notes, shattered hope is devastating because the yearning for hope is part and parcel of being human and experiencing life in a healthy manner. Human languages are full of words like wish, aspire, dream, anticipate, and desire. We have a mission in life. We hold on to goals, ambitions, and aims. Our hopes for the future can help pull us along and keep us from being mired in the past.
But somewhere along the way, some of us give up, at least temporarily. We feel that our unfulfilled hopes have given us enormous pain. We end up wanting hope to die within us.
And, although this is an understandable response to dashed hopes, it is quite unhealthy spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Life is bound up with hope. When we have no hope, a part of us dies, at least temporarily. If we don’t entertain hope about the future, we have difficulty getting out of bed, working, or loving. We think that if we let hope die, life will be less painful, but the death of hope brings its own kind of pain. Thus, instead of protecting ourselves, we are opening ourselves to a longer term and deadlier type of pain.
Broken dreams begin with simple desires. We want something, we begin imagining it, maybe we get a taste of it, but then it disappears. We get frustrated. We might lash out at people or at God, or perhaps we lash out at life in general. We treat God with cold anger, sidelining him and becoming indifferent to him. We might still turn to him for certain things, but on the whole, we do not seek our happiness in him. The biblical story of Jonah portrays this sort of anger toward God.
Compounding the problem, sometimes we get to a point in life where we prefer to be hopeless. We have become comfortable with it, and it allows us to seek satisfaction in being cynical. Yet, God did not create us to be people without hope. Thus, he responds by calling us to hope and by lavishing mercy and grace on us.
Breaking out of the Discouragement Trap
When caught in the trap of discouragement, how should we respond? For Christians, the intuitive response will be to remind ourselves that God “will never leave me or forsake me, (Heb 13:5), will give me the strength I need (Phil 1:6), and has good purposes for me that cannot be derailed (Eph 1:11). Thus, we remind ourselves that, ultimately, God walks alongside of us, gives us strength, and guides us toward good ends.
Yet, most of the time, we need more than merely a carte blanch mental reminder that God has good will toward us and is in charge of our lives. Thus, it is helpful to build certain habits into our days that, over time, will structure our days in a positive direction.
One significant habit is prayer. We can pray spontaneously in the moment, reminding ourselves of biblical truths such as the ones above. And we can offer habitual prayers, such as The Serenity Prayer, that over time bend our hearts and minds in the right direction. The Serenity prayer is especially effective for reminding us that life comes at us hard sometimes—discouraging us—and we cannot change that fact because we are not God; that there are constructive things we can do each day to keep our lives headed in the right direction; and that God will give us wisdom as to which things we can control and which things we cannot.
Another significant habit is the creation of a daily gratitude list. I’ve found it helpful each day to reflect on the many things for which can be grateful. That list includes not only positive things I have experienced, but negative things that could have happened but have not. For example, I can express gratitude not only for the wonderful children he’s given me and also gratitude that none of them have been afflicted with serious medical problems.
There are many other habits, but these two suffice to reveal the encouragement that can be gained from daily, habitually, taking courage rather than succumbing to discouragement. These habits function as a dual fertilizer/pesticide in our lives; when we participate in them, we are fertilizing our courage and joy while at the same time poisoning our discouragement and depression.