Story of our Lives – Dealing with Discouragement

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The Story of our Lives

Joshua 1:1-18

Welcome to First UMC Burlington’s Facebook Live and our conversation this evening on “Dealing with Discouragement”, which hopefully will not be discouraging to you. Unfortunately the technology didn’t quite work for us – we could see but not hear. So we decided to put the text of what I was going to share.

I pray that what is shared here will be a source of strength for us all.

Let me tell you about Civilla Martin. She lived in last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Civilla married a Harvard-educated Baptist minister and the two of them organized and conducted revivals throughout the country. Civilla and Walter, her husband, traveled to Elmira, New York and there they made friends with a couple – a Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle, both of whom were cripple. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for 20 years when the Martins met them. And her husband was in a wheelchair. But the Martins noticed that the Doolittles always seemed happy. In the spring of 1905 Civilla and Walter mustered up the courage to ask Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle: What is the secret of your happiness? Mrs. Doolittle answered right away: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. Civilla Martin went home that evening and wrote a poem that became a very well-loved hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow”  – still sung by soloists and congregations today. The hymn begins with two questions: Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come?

That hymn comes out of an experience which certainly could have left people very discouraged. Instead, it becomes a testimony to the power of faith and to the joy the good news of Christ can bring.

The Biblical inspiration for the hymn is from the Gospel of Matthew 6:26, where Jesus directs people’s attention to the birds of the air “who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,” and yet God takes care of them. Later, in Matthew 10:29 Jesus once again directs us to the birds of the air – this time, specifically to the sparrow, two of which “are sold for a penny” – a very insignificant amount. And yet, Jesus says not one of them falls to the ground without God being aware of it. The point of Jesus’ message is simple: If God watches sparrows, certainly God watches you.

For purposes of this session, I am defining “discouragement” as “a loss of confidence or enthusiasm; dispiritedness.”

The “shadows” come because that’s part of life. One of the more intense times of discouragement for me was the fall of my junior year in college. The pressure to perform as a music major, and the knowledge that one bad performance can have a devastating effect on your career – and also realizing that I would probably have to practice the piano four to six hours every day for the rest of my life! It all got to be too much for me. I ended up leaving school and coming home.

Uncontained discouragement, if it is not addressed, can lead to depression. It can paralyze us. Not only is it an indication of a lack of confidence, but it can eat away at whatever confidence you might have left.

Pastor Rick Warren points to the book of Nehemiah in the Bible as an example of what can happen when an entire people become discouraged. Faced with the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and surrounded by hostile neighbors, the people became discouraged and fearful. Rick Warren believes that fear is behind a lot of our discouragement – the fear that people will criticize or ridicule us, and even more, that we will fail. I know that is certainly what I was feeling in college. I suspect that is certainly the cause of much of the discouragement and depression young people feel. Peer pressure to look, talk and behave a certain way can have a devastating emotional effect on a twelve or thirteen – or eighteen year old.

Nehemiah saw the evidence of this fear and discouragement and realized he had to do something. So he organized the people. They were short of supplies; the labor needed for the task was almost overwhelming. And the laborers had to think about their own needs and those of their family. They had to tend their own gardens and animals and provide food and shelter. So Nehemiah put some structure into the process, hoping to encourage the people to complete the task they had begun.

Sometimes our lives can be filled with tasks the demands of which are overwhelming. I think the one thing I hear about more often than any other these days is the amount of work people have to do – not just at their jobs, but the effort required to get children to activities, the issues we have with medical bills, taking care of loved ones – elderly parents or a chronically ill partner – maintaining our homes, or … for students – it’s the papers and the homework that keeps coming and the final exams to be prepared for – and the peer pressure.

When life becomes overwhelming, it is easy to become discouraged.

But if we think about it, it may be that what is discouraging to us is also the seed for the adventure and growth that awaits us.

And the passage I want us to think about for the rest of our time together is from the first chapter of the Book of Joshua.

As far as I can tell, Joshua makes his first appearance in the second book of the Hebrew Bible – the Book of Exodus. The people of Israel have only just barely wiped the dust of Egypt from their feet when they are faced with a new enemy – Amalek. You might remember this battle as the one in which, as long as Moses kept his arms upraised, the people of Israel were victorious. Whenever Moses let his arms down, the battle turned against them. And so, Aaron and Hur were on either side of Moses, helping to hold his arms and hands up in the air. Meanwhile, Joshua was the commander of the army of Israel, engaged in the fight. We are told that ultimately, Israel was victorious and defeated Amalek and his army. But these people would be back, and Israel would have to deal with them again – and in fact, Israel would face defeat at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites. (See Numbers 14:44-45.) I wonder … is it safe to assume that Joshua was present for that defeat?

Joshua served at the pleasure of Moses throughout the wandering of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Here is a man who apprenticed with Israel’s greatest prophet, a man to whom God spoke directly. Joshua must have come to know how Moses worked, how he thought through problems, how he faced the people’s stubbornness. If we can read anything into the chronology of the Bible, we can figure that Joshua worked with Moses, prayed with Moses, and led the armies of Israel under the guidance of Moses for forty years.

Joshua goes down in the annals of Biblical History as a great military leader, a prophet in his own right. But in the first chapter, reading the first sentence, perhaps we get a glimpse of why he had to be told four times to be “strong and courageous”.

This is how the book begins: After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying: ‘My servant Moses is dead.’

Several verses later God will say to Joshua: As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you or forsake you. But think about it …

Maybe you have been told in a round-about way that you won’t measure up to the reputation of the person whose shoes you are having to fill. In the work place, when you step into a position formerly held by someone who was very effective and highly regarded, the first obstacle you might have to overcome is the prejudice people feel against you – not because of anything you have said or done, but simply because you are not the person they had long respected who is now gone from them. And then, fear can creep in. Will I ever be as effective as my predecessor? Will I ever gain the respect of those who work with me and for me?

In the first two verses of the book, Joshua hears Moses referred to as “God’s servant” twice. Moses has died, leaving the people just outside the borders of the land of promise. After forty years of wandering, and the young having to bury an entire generation of their elders, the hardest work lies before them.

Right after God says to Joshua that God will be with him and not fail him, God then says: Be strong and courageous. And in the next verse, God repeats the line, except with an underscore: Be strong and very courageous.

And then, two verses later, God says: I command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed.

I suggest to you that you don’t repeat this kind of encouragement to someone who is fired up, confident, ready and raring to go. You don’t tell someone: Don’t be afraid unless they are afraid.

There is one more time in this first chapter where Joshua is told to “be strong and courageous”. And this time, it’s not God who is telling him. It is the people he is going to lead. After giving some instructions to them, the people respond to Joshua and say: We will do everything you command. May the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your orders shall be put to death. And here it comes – the last phrase of the chapter: Only, be strong and courageous.

Strength and courage have to come from someplace inside us. It is so important to give children a sense of God’s love for them, to assure them they are accepted and valued. Joshua needed to have that assurance in his own soul. But we need to be encouraged by each other as well, just as Joshua was.

Some things to think about: Is there a time in your life when you were particularly discouraged, but that ultimately was the catalyst for spiritual growth?

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.