Discouragement is no stranger to those in pastoral ministry. The pressures of preaching, teaching, counseling, and administration can be crushing—and even thankless at times. One or more of these factors may kick in: The giving is down. The budget is tight. The staff is tired. The weekly attendance is static or declining. A family is threatening to leave the church because of something the pastor preached—and the sermon was faithful to the Bible.
I am not claiming that most pastors and church leaders are discouraged or that the church is about to go under. No, “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church,” according to the Head of the church, Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18). Further, while anyone can find statistics about the sad state of pastoral ministry, they are often overstated or unreliable, according to a 2015 Christianity Today article by church trend expert Ed Stetzer. In fact in 2011. Lifeway Research found that 93% of American pastors “strongly agreed” with the statement, “I feel privileged to be a pastor.” Nevertheless, we need a theology of discouragement, as odd as that sounds.
As someone who has struggled with melancholy and discouragement for decades as a teacher, writer, and interim preacher, I have pondered the meaning of ministry when so much seems to be going so wrong. While I have not been a full-time pastor in the local church, I offer several biblical themes that should encourage the discouraged, and, I hope, “to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4).
All ministry, whether in the church or outside of it, is accomplished under the providence of Almighty God, whose sovereign ways are often beyond finding out. It is no cliché to affirm and confess with the hymn writer William Cowper (1731-1800) that “God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.” After penning the first ten chapters of Romans, the most comprehensive account of God’s ways with humanity in the Bible, the Apostle Paul, nevertheless, marvels over what we cannot know about God.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
(Romans 11:33-36; see also Deuteronomy 29:29 and Ecclesiastes 8:17-18).
When pastors are discouraged by empty seats, unpaid bills, fatigue, and a sense of spiritual deadness, they can rest in God’s good governance of the cosmos. His will shall be done in the end. Our part is to be faithful to the Bible, to ask for God’s spiritual strength in all things, to be humble and to patiently wait on a God who works at His own pace. As we wait and even lament, we can praise, worship, and trust our Lord. The deepest comfort and encouragement can come in and through the darkest valleys. And God will lead us through valleys up to the heights (Psalm 23; Isaiah 40:31).
We should place our discouragement and bewilderment in the context of what we do know. In the Bible, God graciously reveals to us his character, the way of salvation, and the path of righteousness. There is wisdom enough to live life well by faith in the one true God, who has revealed Himself supremely through the matchless person and achievements of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1-5, 14, 18).
Pastors can also take comfort in the midst of discouragement by knowing that many great men and women of God have felt the same way. About sixty of the Psalms are laments in which the writer calls out to God from the heart to voice his complaints, fears and anguish (Psalm 22, 88, 90, etc.). This, too, is Holy Scripture and God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:15). The Psalms are the prayer book for the church, and each Psalm give us wisdom in how to pray as we ought. Despite his sins, there is no greater servant of God in the Old Testament than David. Yet he calls out
Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
The prophet Elijah was used dramatically by God to decisively defeat King Ahab and the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 18). Yet after, he fell into deep discouragement when he had to flee to Horeb to escape from Jezebel, who had sworn to kill him. After going a day’s journey into the wilderness, he prayed that he might die!
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep (1 Kings 19:4-5).
God nevertheless revived His despondent prophet by giving him rest and nourishment. Elijah later handed over his ministry to his understudy, the prophet Elisha. Elijah’s life on earth did not end in defeat, but rather in being taken to heaven in a chariot!
God did not give up on His overwrought and overwhelmed prophet. Instead, He loved him through it all and restored him. Those who have fallen into sorrow and exhaustion due to fatigue and stress should remember God’s mercy to Elijah. A pastor’s discouragement may be due to overwork, however, anointed and blessed that work may have been.
Some of us have been so tired and weighed down by ministry and the rest of life under the sun that we have prayed as Elijah did. But God mercifully did not answer that prayer, but instead turned things around for the good. Moses and Job also wanted to die, but God met them where they were and brought good out of their despair (Numbers 11:13-15; Job 3:11). I testify to this as well.
In early 2014, I was a philosophy professor with a full and meaningful life of teaching, preaching, and writing responsibilities. My wife, Rebecca, a writer and editor had been ill with a variety of maladies for years; but now we received a dreaded diagnosis. She had a rare form of dementia that was fatal. The next four and a half years until her death were a crushing ordeal for both of us, although our faith in God sustained us. He brought Rebecca into his presence on July 6, 2018, where she now rejoices with all the heavenly host. And God has renewed my life on earth by giving me rest, better health, and a new and delightful wife, Kathleen. The crushing weight of sadness and responsibility for caring for a dying wife are gone. Of course, I have sad memories, but I also have hope for this life and for eternity. Discouragement may come to the godliest and most talented of God’s ministers in the church. But as we remember to reflect on God’s good providence, His willingness to let us lament before Him, and how He has rescued his servants who sank deep into despair, we can find our moorings and press on to serve Him with gladness of heart.