The words of Isaiah, the prophet: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa 49:4).
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? In that valley of desolation and discouragement; that place where we start wondering if our efforts have made a difference, if they have been appreciated, if they’ve been worthwhile, if we’ve accomplished anything of value. Isaiah is discouraged. The people are in exile and all his efforts to redirect them to God have been met with indifference. He feels like a failure. “I have labored in vain,” he sighs, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Discouragement is something we all experience from time to time. We may feel trapped in a dead-end job or a strained relationship, and have no sense of how to move forward. We may be enduring a chronic illness, with no relief in sight. We may find ourselves consumed with worry about our finances or our home or our work, and we wonder if things will ever get better. A sense of hopelessness settles over us, and we despair of our future. It’s difficult to imagine our circumstances improving and we’re not sure if we have the strength to go on.
Sometimes it’s the circumstances of our lives that get us down. We feel overwhelmed by our responsibilities, or we get passed over for a promotion at work, or we’re struggling mightily to make ends meet.
At other times, it’s the people in our lives who are getting us down: perhaps a rebellious adolescent who is critical of our efforts to parent, or an employer who just won’t give us a break, or a spouse who seems to have lost interest in us.
It might also be that we’re discouraged with God. We might have expectations of what God would be or do for us that haven’t been met, or we’ve been hurt or disappointed by some tragedy that we’re convinced God could have, or should have, prevented.
Sometimes it’s we ourselves that are the cause of our discouragement. We can’t seem to live up to our own expectations for ourselves. We’re continually failing to realize our hopes and desires, and we feel like we’re failing at life.
There are countless causes for discouragement, and all of us get entangled in them from time to time.
Fatigue can be a factor. If we’re not getting adequate sleep or we’re pushing ourselves too hard, we can become more vulnerable to discouraging thoughts. Sometimes it’s frustration that’s at the root of our discouragement. We set out to do something good, but we encounter obstacles and challenges that threaten to defeat our good intentions. Sometimes it’s failure that brings us down. A project collapses, our well-laid plans fall apart, a relationship runs aground. Or it may be fear that’s at the root of our discouragement: fear of criticism, fear of our own inadequacy, fear of failure.
But it’s not always rational, is it? Isaiah lost sight of all that he had going for him. He had a clear sense of his own vocation, a certainty about his call (Isa. 49:1-3). He was gifted and empowered by God for the role that had been given him. He had used those talents well, working hard for God’s honor and for the well-being of God’s people. But at the moment he can’t see any of this. All he sees and feels are his own inadequacies and his deep sense of personal failure. His expectations – of himself, of God, of the people to whom he had been sent – were not being met, and he was overwhelmed with discouragement. There are times when we are so focused on what is not that we lose sight of what is.
So how does Isaiah escape from this valley of desolation and discouragement? He listens and remembers. He listens to the voice of God, and reminds himself of his calling. He hears God speaking words of affirmation and assurance, calling him on. He takes in God’s promise to answer him and to help him (v. 8). He renews his trust in God.
And what about you? If you’ve been in a place of discouragement, or if you’re feeling discouraged here today, what can you do?
You may need, first of all, to REST. I mentioned earlier the impact of fatigue on our physical and emotional well-being. But perhaps it’s not rest that you need, but more exercise. You may need to eat healthier food or take better care of yourself. Whatever it takes, restoring and renewing your physical and emotional health is a good first step.
Second, REFLECT. Think about it: What prompted your current state? What was it that led to discouragement, and why did this particular person or circumstance bring you down? What have you been telling yourself about the situation, or about the person, or about yourself. Explore your thoughts and your actions. Challenge your negative thoughts and assumptions. Reflect on what you need to say to yourself – sometimes a “pep talk” is in order – or what you need to hear from others, including from God.
Third, REMEMBER. Recall a time when you felt hopeful and optimistic. Remember the things and people in your life that are good and wholesome and life-giving: “Meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8). Remember that you are beautifully and wonderfully made, that you are a beloved child of God, that nothing in all the world can separate you from God’s love. Remember who you are, and to whom you belong. Remember that your weakness doesn’t disqualify you from God’s love, but instead, opens the way for God to act in and through you. Let your failures or your fears remind you of your need to rely on God for all things. God’s strength is made perfect in your weakness. Remember God’s faithfulness and goodness to you, in so many ways.
Fourth, REORGANIZE. Re-set your purpose, clarify your intentions, study your options, and resolve to begin again. You may want to reflect on your current situation with a skilled counselor or a trusted friend. Take a fresh look at who you are, at what you’re doing, at where you’re headed – and set out again on the path.
You might find it helpful in reviewing a difficult or discouraging situation to pray the Serenity Prayer, originally composed by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s full text goes like this:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Finally, RESIST. Resist discouraging thoughts, resist the temptation to give in or give up. You may need to be gentle with yourself, or you may need to be tough. The only way we will overcome is through persistence. Ask God to help you. Ask for God’s power to be at work in you. Ask for God’s love to surround and comfort you. Put your whole trust in God.
Listen to the words of the psalmist:
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
God is good, and the sun will shine again. You can count on it!