Irma writes in to ask, “Pastor John, is discouragement a sin?”
It all depends on what the experience of discouragement is for Irma and for me. Let’s make some distinctions between the sin kind of discouragement and the non-sin kind. I think it is helpful to compare discouragement to something like anger and irritation and sorrow for our sin, because I think all of those are possible without sin, and they are quickly converted into sin. And the question is, What is the difference?
Holy Emotions Turned Deadly
The Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). And then it says in James, “[Be] slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20). So anger is dangerous. If you go to bed with it, if you come to it too quickly, if you stay with it too long, it is going to rot on you.
And it’s the same thing with irritation. I always wondered about this, because it says in Acts 17:16 that Paul was irritated in his soul when he saw the idolatry. And, according to 1 Corinthians 13:5, love is not irritated. It is the same word. And even though the translations stick in the word “easily irritated,” it just says “irritated.” So there is irritation that love doesn’t do, and there is irritation that love does experience. There is a holy irritation that can pass quickly into sinful irritation. It’s the same way with sorrow. It is right to feel remorse and sorrow when we sin, but if that sorrow starts to paralyze us, if it doesn’t willingly bow and receive grace, it is going to become a deadly and ungodly sorrow.
So those analogies help me when I come back now to discouragement, and I say, It is right to be saddened and disappointed and disheartened by the sin in our lives, or the failures of other lives we see, or the sins that our family members or our church or our pastor are committing. We see it, and our hearts sink. We are sad, we are disappointed — I think that is a kind of discouragement, and yet, I don’t think it is wrong to feel that way.
Discouraged, Yet Always Rejoicing
What did Jesus feel in Mark 9:19 when he said, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” What was he just feeling when he felt, it seems like, irritated — a holy irritation at the faithlessness of his disciples, a kind of a holy frustration that his efforts to bring them to faith were taking so long? That’s not sin in Jesus. It is not an expression of delight. He is somehow discouraged with the way they are.
So when we see faithlessness in others or in ourselves, we ought to disapprove. We ought to feel disheartened at failures of love, and we ought to feel remorse at our sin and ache for the lostness of others. And the big question is, What is the difference? Or, when does the good kind become the bad kind? And here are the things I think Irma should watch for:
Watch for discouragement starting to turn into self-pity.
Watch for discouragement starting to paralyze you and keeping you from doing what you should.
Watch for the threat to the abiding contentment that you have in God, so that you can’t say “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
If that “always rejoicing” starts to be defeated by your discouragement, discouragement has moved into the sinful category. When it leads us to doubt God’s goodness or his wisdom or his power, it has passed over into the sinful part. When it stamps our lives so that we are not outgoing and loving toward people anymore — we are just moping, feeling sorry for ourselves — and we are so preoccupied with our own discouragements that we can’t love people anymore, we know our discouragement has become sin.