Many of us will walk through a life-altering tragedy at some point in this short life. But for most of us, most of the time, the deepest challenge of life is not weathering some earth-shattering, once-in-a-lifetime disaster. The greatest challenge at any given moment is negotiating the garden-variety discouragements of life. A passive-aggressive email. A dear friend who moves away. An elusive promotion. Chronic back pain. And especially, our own ongoing yielding to temptation.
A flash flood may drown us, but eventually so will incessant dripping if it is not dealt with. Sudden disaster may overwhelm us, but eventually so will the drip of discouragement if it is allowed to pool.
There are two ways to do life as a believer. One, gradually grow cynical by allowing the discouragements of life to beat out of you the acute sense of eternal destiny and wonder that God gave you at conversion. Two, leverage the discouragements of life into deeper reality with God and the doctrines you confess.
How do we do the second of these?
Here are four reminders for my fellow saints as we all battle our way together through the discouragements of life, especially as regards our own failures and weaknesses.
Slow Growth Is Real Growth
Perhaps you feel as if your growth in Christ is too painfully slow. That’s good. What healthy Christian is smilingly content at his or her growth, floating breezily through this fallen world? Healthy Christians are confounded at their slow pace of growth. This is the blessed frustration of a heart alive to God and joy and beauty.
Remember, however, that slow growth is still real growth. Consider the agricultural metaphors used all over the New Testament for our life in Christ (for example, Matthew 13:1–9; John 15:1–9; Hebrews 6:7). Flowers don’t blossom overnight — they blossom at the end of several months of varying conditions: day and night, sunny and cloudy, dry and wet, warmer and cooler. They’re growing, but it’s almost imperceptible day to day.
“The great danger is not that you grow slowly. The great danger is that you stop fighting to grow.”
The great danger is not that you grow slowly. The great danger is that you stop fighting to grow. In the economy of the gospel, fighting is winning. Don’t give up. Your frustration at your rate of growth itself reflects the Spirit’s presence in your life.
Slow growth is real growth.
You Have Everything You Need
Second, don’t let your friends or the Christian publishing industry or your own frantic heart have the effect of spiritual infomercials, sending the message that if you just get that particular resource or book or habit or doctrine or job, then discouragement will go poof. If you are in Christ — and every Christian is — then you have everything you need.
Discouragement about the state of your Christian life is the result not of lacking spiritual resources, but of losing reality with spiritual resources. A billionaire beggar’s problem is not lack of funds but lack of accessing those funds. “His divine power has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him” (Colossians 1:9–10). Discouragement is so deadly because it can feel as if this is our new normal. We tend to think that now we are seeing clearly, and it will never pass. It feels like the only joy we’ll know from now on is fake joy. So we embrace cynicism as an emotional defense mechanism.
The way out of discouragement, however, is not to put up defenses, but to ask God to give us back reality with him. Often in discouragement, the Lord himself goes from reality to theory. We remain theists, but in our heart, we quietly demote him from actual Savior to abstract Savior. Silence your discouraging thoughts by doggedly putting your full weight on all that is yours already in Christ: adoption, forgiveness, reconciliation, liberation, returned dignity, and all the rest.
I’m not saying you won’t be helped by ordering and reading an excellent Christian book, or by joining that small group. Yes, there may be resources and practices you need to “add” to your life. But in terms of the deep structures of how we overcome discouragement, we are equipped with everything we need at the moment of conversion for the rest of life’s battle. We are united to Christ. The Spirit dwells within us. We have been plucked up out of the old age and placed in the dawning new age. We are justified, and the logic of the New Testament is that we are not able to get “de-justified” any more than Jesus is able to get kicked out of heaven and put back in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
You have everything you need.
Christ Is Bigger Than You Imagine
Third, “consider Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1). When Lucy sees Aslan on her second journey into Narnia in Prince Caspian, she is surprised at what she sees:
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” (380)
Spiritual growth does not lessen how much is left to explore in Christ. Spiritual growth takes us unendingly into new discoveries of Christ. Our growth is a growth in apprehension of Christ. Paul speaks of his “unsearchable riches” (Ephesians 3:8). The Jesus you’re bored with isn’t the real Jesus. The problem is you, not him. The real Jesus is unsearchable and irresistible.
“The Jesus you’re bored with isn’t the real Jesus.”
In your discouragement, plunge deeper in Jesus Christ than ever before. Collapse onto him with greater abandon than ever before. Pour out your heart to him. Wrestle with him. Freshly surrender to him. Whatever you do, don’t look elsewhere other than Jesus as you seek to outgrow your discouragement, like a toddler looking everywhere except to his or her own mother when tired and hungry.
Consider the possibility that you have unwittingly domesticated the real Christ. Perhaps, like Columbus hitting the Caribbean and thinking he was in Asia, without realizing there was a vast unexplored continent that would later be called North America, there are vast regions in the real Christ you have yet to discover.
That journey of exploration will not make the discouragements go away. But it will buoy your heart above them. Armed with a fountain of fresh discoveries of Christ, you can dance your way through the Normandy Beach of this life.
He’s an endless Christ. Let him loom above your discouragements, fortifying you afresh. You don’t need an easier life. You need a bigger Christ.
Heaven Is Coming
Fourth and finally, remember: final rest is just around the next bend. Heaven is near. Nearer now than when you began this article (Romans 13:11–12). Paradise and peace are creeping toward you, and none in Christ can evade their blessed capture.
And here’s the astonishing promise of the New Testament, clinched in Christ’s own resurrection, to which your own fate has been inevitably bound: every earthly discouragement will one day fold back on itself and become part of your final resplendence (Romans 8:28).
You’re almost home. Nothing can derail you. Not even you. When you fall, take his hand and get up. Jesus Christ is walking you to heaven with his arm around you. When you fail, look up into his eyes and let him freshly dignify and calm you. You belong to him. Be at peace, and keep trudging forward, repenting and rejoicing your way toward your life’s sunset.
In a 1942 letter to a woman discouraged with her sinful habits, C.S. Lewis wrote,
I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc doesn’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are airing in the cupboard. (Collected Letters, 2:507)
See you there.