Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end… (Hebrews 3:12-14).
Ultimately discouragement can be a sign of deeper issues. If we need encouragement then in the simplest way we are discouraged. Discouragement is often caused when we have our hopes and expectations firmly set on something or someone and something happens that robs us of the fulfillment of those hopes or expectations. Sometimes those hopes and expectations are not realistic or biblical. We can have expectations of God that often do not align with the Scriptures and we can often be discouraged when God does not live up to our hopes or expectations. This is double-jeopardy because when the picture in our mind of how God should behave does not match the reality of our experiences then we are tempted to question God’s integrity. We start feeling God is letting us down and our hopes that our faith is in vain start to creep into our way of thinking.
Practically discouragement can harden our heart and make us bitter. I know several friends who were part of our church in Portland who no longer participate in a local church. They get their “spiritual food” from livestreaming but have withdrawn from a faith community. I don’t know all the reasons for it but often this happens because our faith in the “church” is greatly undermined by people, policies and practices of the church. We have to be really careful that our faith is firmly in Christ, not the church, not the programs, not the rules and regulations of others. When our real confidence is in the structures and program (or even in people) and those things do not seem to make the difference we have always hoped they would, people feel like they have wasted their time and efforts and become disillusioned and discouraged by those “institutions”. When our faith is in Christ, the gospel and the mission of Christ and our commitment and faith is in Christ, then we have the ability to rise above the disappointments of people, programs and policies because the simple fact of the matter is they will always fall short. People will give us hundreds of reason to drop our commitment, abandon the “institution” and do our own thing; hey, I get it, I am a full time pastor. But God provides one reason to keep on investing – our living, resurrected Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. The church is not the foundation of our living, Christ is. The rules and regulations we often hold dear to our life do not define spiritual success, Christ does. The expectations of others are not what we are to live up to, only Christ. If we have been partakers of Christ our greatest ministry to one another is to encourage each other in the flood of circumstances, people and problems we face every week that can discourage our faith.
Realistically the greatest danger of discouragement is that it erodes our faith. We often become convinced that our faith has not really made a difference in our lives if we go for long periods of time and cannot value the way God has chosen to work in our life. We might look back 10 years (or 15 or 20) and convince ourselves that my life is really not much different after all the time, energy and work I have put into “church” or my walk with God. When that happens, we start to think that our faith, realistically (at least in our own mind) has made little to no difference. This becomes severe when we think we have been faithful but everyone around us is acting badly. If they really knew Christ why would they (after this many years) act in such an ungodly and unspiritual way? Our greatest discouragement is not always what we see, or do not see happening in our life but what we do not see in other people’s lives. After all, the fact that most of us get discouraged is because of the behavior of other people. When “Christians” act badly – they won’t be kind, sacrificial or loving but they act selfishly, throw us under a bus or hurt us deeply without regret we get discouraged.
Encouraging one another is our greatest gift and often our most powerful ministry. Encouraging others is a great act of love, selflessness and sacrifice. We all need it. We do have the capacity to give it.