By Kevin Riggs
I no longer remember what she said. I vaguely recall the context from which she spoke. I am confident she did I not mean any harm, and it’s highly possible I took what I she said the wrong way. She was not a vindictive person, and she had proven herself to be among the most faithful and supportive church members I had. Nevertheless, her words pierced me like no sword ever could. They hurt deeply, and I went home and cried.
After church that Wednesday night, I stood in my driveway shooting basketball, crying, praying and, at times, yelling at God.
“Get me out of this church,” I prayed in pain, “l can’t take it anymore.”
“Why aren’t we growing? What am I doing wrong?” I asked angrily.
This “shoot-around” with God lasted about 45 minutes. Nothing was settled. I didn’t feel better, and I received no lightning bolts full of wisdom. I simply grew tired and went to bed discouraged . . . again.
In the Pit
Discouragement is the job hazard of ministry. I know I have been there, and I still struggle with discouragement continually. I have pastored my one and only church eight years now. That’s over 400 Sundays and 400 discouraging Mondays. I came to this church immediately after college at age 23, and with virtually no previous pastoral experience. I was a prime candidate for discouragement.
A. W. Tozier said, “It is impossible for God to use a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.”
I have been hurt deeply. For over two years I wallowed in the pit of discouragement. Things were not going well at church, and I was being attacked by fellow brothers in the ministry. Some of the things I was going through were my own fault, others were not.
I pictured myself as a jet fighter pilot whose plane had been hit and was on its way down. I had been knocked into a tail spin and was fighting desperately to hang on, regain control and pull out of the spin. Thankfully, I survived . . . but not without battle scars.
Looking back I now know that discouragement can be a barren waste land in which you feel all alone, or it can be fertile soil in which your faith and trust in God can grow miraculously. It all depends on how you deal with it.
I do not consider myself an expert, but I have learned some valuable lessons. I’ve learned that a person never “overcomes” discouragement. There are no three steps, and “presto-chango,” you will never be discouraged again.
While you can’t permanently overcome discouragement, you need not be overwhelmed by it either. You can learn to deal with it. If you want to survive in ministry, you mustlearn to deal with it.
I have learned, and am learning, how to deal with discouragement. My teacher and mentor has been the Apostle Paul, a true expert on the subject. The more Paul tried to do right, the more he got himself in trouble— that’s discouraging. The more he tried to help people, the more they wanted to stone him—still more discouragement.
On one occasion Paul was in prison, but instead of being discouraged he wrote a letter emphasizing joy. That letter is known as Philippians, and in it I have learned three things that have helped me deal with discouragement.
One thing I have learned is that when I am discouraged I must not forget my purpose. I must remind myself who I am in Christ and what it is God has called me to do.
Paul summed up his purpose when he wrote, “That I may know him (Christ) . . .” (Philippians 3:10). What helped me deal with my discouragement was spending time alone with God and defining His purpose for my life. From that time I determined that my purpose is to love the Lord with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:3740).
Now when ministry gets me discouraged, I remind myself that my purpose is not to pastor the largest church in the world or even in my denomination, but to love God and love others. If I am doing that, then I am successful.
Another lesson is that when I am discouraged I must not focus on my past. It’s easy to look back on past failures and realize I will never be all God wants me to be. The Enemy loves to remind me of my past, and so do other people. I have learned that focusing on past failures keeps me bogged down in defeat, while focusing on past victories keeps me from seizing the opportunities of today.
When I get discouraged I try to say, like Paul, “l count not myself to have apprehended . . .”—l know I have failed in the past, and I know I haven’t been all God wanted me to be—”. . . but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind . . .” (Philippians 3:13).
I find that when I concentrate on the present and plan for the future in’ stead of dwelling on my past, I am not as likely to be overwhelmed by discouragement.
One final lesson I have learned is that when I am discouraged the best way to deal with it is to firmly press on. I need the same determination that caused Paul to say, “I press on toward the goal. . .” (Philippians 3:14).
When I played basketball at Free Will Baptist Bible College, Coach Byron Deel had a series of agonizing drills that were nothing short of torture. It was easy to get tired and lazy during those drills. Sometimes I would whine and complain saying, “Coach, I can’t go on. I need to stop.”
Coach Deel would compassionately respond by yelling, “Suck it up, Kevin, and keep going.”
If there was anything I heard God saying to me that night while shooting basketball in my driveway, it was, “Suck it up, Kevin, and keep going.” Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is a dogged determination that this is where God wants me.
Not long ago a friend stopped by my office just to talk. He brought me a Coke, interrupted my sermon preparation, sat down on my office couch and started talking about everything . . . and about nothing.
A few years earlier this man was out of church, an alcoholic with a couple of DUIs, and on the verge of losing his job and his wife. Now he has been sober for more than two years, his job is secure, he and his wife have two lovely children, and they are active members in my church.
As he sat in my office talking, I reflected on where God had brought him and the privilege I had to be God’s instrument in reaching out to this man and his family. When he left with his young son grasped around his leg, I received that lightning bolt of wisdom I had been looking for on that Wednesday night in my driveway: Discouragement may be the job hazard of ministry, but the benefits far outweigh the danger.
Article adapted from Contactmagazine, February 1997.