By John McGee
When you attempt anything significant, you will face times of discouragement. It always comes with the territory. Since you’ll probably have many periods of discouragement, if you’re observant, you will probably notice patterns about how to best handle them. I’m still learning, but here is what I’ve learned so far and the steps I now take when I’m discouraged.
Go to sleep. Discouragement and sleep deprivation seem to go hand in hand. When I’m discouraged, one of the first things I do is commit to go to bed early. When you’re tired, problems seem to be magnified. When you’re well-rested, you can see them in their proper place. Like Elijah, if I can just get some sleep, I often wake up ready to go, rather than being paralyzed by discouragement.
Remember God is in control. Scripture is full of stories of people who faced dire circumstances during the journey and later found out that God was in control the entire time. When I’m discouraged, I remember people like Joseph who faced some discouraging circumstances but later found out that God was ordaining his steps and had been in control the whole time. I’ve found that when I repeatedly affirm God’s sovereignty, my circumstances don’t always change, but my ability to continue on through them does. Pick your favorite leader in Scripture and remember that just as God was with them and in control of their circumstances, He is with you.
Exercise. I once asked a medical doctor who has seen many depressed patients what his best piece of advice was for those who struggle depression. He said, “I tell my patients to sweat and workout hard.” When I’m discouraged, lacing up my running shoes is generally one of the last things I want to do. However, I’ve learned that this doctor was correct. Vigorous exercise and the ensuing rush of endorphins helps the clouds part. I never want to run when I’m discouraged, but I’m always glad when I do.
Tell your spouse. Discouragement grows in isolation but dissipates when it’s out in the open. Since I am one with my spouse, I need her help when I’m discouraged. Sometimes there’s nothing new to say or do, but just letting your spouse know helps them know to pray, encourage, and look out for you along the way.
Eat Well. When I’m discouraged, I’m amazed at how quickly I open the freezer thinking the answer lies in a large bowl of ice cream. Sweets and ice cream actually do make me feel better for a few minutes. The problem is that I actually feel worse after the sugar crash. Being disciplined to eat healthy will keep you from riding blood sugar rushes and crashes which make it difficult to manage your emotional state.
Spend time in God’s Word. If you’re like most pastors, you struggle to find time to read and meditate on Scripture without a sermon or the congregation in mind. When I’m discouraged, I prioritize time to read the Bible for me. Christians historically have turned to the Psalms when they are depressed or distressed. One of the first places I go is Psalm 73:24-25. As I read and meditate, I ask the Lord to help me see that He is all I need and all I should desire. Getting my heart to this place helps me focus on Christ and not on the things that I wish I had or the things that aren’t going my way.
Do something that recharges you. For some, an activity will recharge us. For others, it’s people or even solitude that gives energy. I have a friend who’s the most positive and joyful person I know. If I’m down, he gets a phone call and lunch invitation. When I’m with him, I can feel my emotional status change the same way a dead cell phone changes when you plug it into the wall. Figure out who or what would charge your batteries, and put it on the calendar, even if it means canceling something else.
I’ve learned that pastors are generally good at helping people walk through seasons of discouragement. They have some helpful Bible verses and some tried and true practical ideas that have helped many.
I’ve also learned that pastors aren’t always good at following the same advice they give to others. It’s as if they tell everyone else on the team to follow the doctor’s orders but chose to play hurt themselves. Athletic injuries can get worse if you ignore them – depression and discouragement are much the same.
Make sure you have a plan that you will follow before your next season of discouragement. A spiritually and emotionally energized pastor is a much better gift to a congregation than a great sermon or someone to chair the next meeting. When things are difficult or you’re discouraged, make sure to put your own emotional oxygen mask on before you tend to the needs of others. This isn’t selfish – it’s simply good leadership.