Today’s sermon was part of our Take Heart series, that explores what encouragement looks like in the church, in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us. But before getting to encouragement, Sandra wanted to talk first about discouragement.
Discouragement means to be deprived of courage, hope or confidence. People who are discouraged lack the courage and confidence to things like try again at a challenge, saying yes to love, trying something new, or, sometimes, just getting out of bed.
Some churches teach it’s a sin to be discouraged. This is in Sandra’s view ridiculous because Jesus himself was discouraged! And the Bible is filled with stories of many blessed people feeling the same thing. Discouragement is a normal, human feeling that we all will feel from time to time.
It is true that God is our hope in the middle of our pain, but we don’t often feel it. We tell each other “You got this”, “you can do it”, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, and, simply “have courage!” These puffy phrases are the short-falling efforts of people who mean well but are not willing to engage at the deepest levels of what it means to be discouraged. At best it does nothing, or at worst it can make things worse for the sufferer when you can’t follow their advice by just “having courage.”
We say these meaningless things when we don’t know what else to say or do. And to some extent we all do (or have done) this. But we can do better.
To help us see a better way to interact with someone who is discouraged, Sandra shared with us a real life story of discouragement to help us think about what a helpful, Christlike encouraging response looks like.
Sandra’s brother Gerry is a big hearted, energetic person who takes life by the horns. He has always been very active in the church and community with mentoring kids, working with kids in the court system, working as a therapist, serving as a missionary, and starting a church. He is a talented athlete, tennis player, coach, and runner. He even excelled at not just water skiing but barefoot waterskiing. He is creative and clever and builds things. He is married with three kids and grandkids too, who he rolls around on the floor with. He is very bouncy, passionate and energetic like Tigger.
In 2015 he started having foot problems. He saw a variety of doctors and specialists and in 2016 was diagnosed with something called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in his left leg/foot. It is an issue with the nerve signals which causes persistent severe pain in a part of the body, but there is nothing wrong to treat.
He has tried lots of different treatments over the years, but nothing has helped. In addition to the constant pain, he has trouble sleeping (since it’s very hard to relax and sleep deeply when you are in pain). All of this started having other effects like arthritis and muscle atrophy. There was one last treatment option, a nerve stimulator, but it did not work.
They call CRPS the “Suicide disease” because it leaves people without hope.
So it would be accurate (but an understatement) to describe Gerry as profoundly discouraged.
They had to sell their house and move into a 1st floor apartment, and he will be forced to retire early next month. He has lost the ability to do the things he used to do. He no longer participates in athletics, no more rolling on the floor with the grandkids. It is like Tigger’s tail (that gives him his bounce) is broken.
Their family did not know how to handle it. They were traditionally very “pick yourself up, you can do it” types of people so this was very new, very uncomfortable territory for them. Suffering can drive people away because they don’t know what to do or say.
In preparing for this sermon, Sandra asked Gerry about what NOT to do for a person who is discouraged. He gave three things:
1- Don’t bring up biblical promises of healing – These stories suggest that if only you pray the right way, or with the right people, or with enough people, that you could be healed. It tends to make the sufferer feel that it’s their fault for not “doing it right,” or excluded because God healed everyone else but them. Gerry just needs to know God is 100% on his side.
2- Don’t immediately follow their story by relating your own tales of woe. Like don’t respond by saying “oh I know how that is, one time such and such happened to me…” This approach comes off like one-upping.
3- Don’t constantly ask how he’s doing. Sometimes he just wants to put it aside and not think about it and try to live like a normal person for a little while.
So what SHOULD we do for a deeply discouraged person?
Well to start with, it’s good to be aware that it is not going to be easy to engage with severe discouragement. It is a very hard journey to go into someone else’s pain, but this is precisely what we are asked to do. It is a challenging journey absolutely worth taking.
Let’s start with some definitions.
Discourage, as we mentioned earlier is to “Deprive of courage, hope or confidence.”
Encourage is to “Inspire with courage, hope or confidence.”
Okay so what exactly is courage? Courage is “The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficult danger and pain without fear.”
Encouraging someone is not a quick fix or a one-time task. To encourage others we ourselves must have courage. The author Brene Brown says that courage requires being vulnerable.
Vulnerable: “capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt”
When you encourage someone you take risks: The person may continue to suffer. You will suffer too, just knowing that they are suffering. Your life might be a little less easy than it was before. This is why it takes courage to encourage someone else.
Her confession: in December Gerry’s therapist suggested writing his story down, so that he didn’t have to carry the full weight inside. So he sent a 15-page (single spaced) letter to his family, detailing the story of his experience with CRPS. She did not want to read it. So she didn’t. She put it somewhere and tried not to look at it. It’s not that she didn’t care. It’s because she *does* care and she knew that learning about his pain would cause her pain.
When we encourage, we have a choice: we can love someone enough to enter into their pain with them, or we can skim along the surface with pleasantries and push their pain and vulnerability away. In the example that Jesus gave us with his life, it’s clear we are called to do the former.
If you really want to enter in to someone’s pain, here is what you should do:
1- Do look at the person. Both literally with your eyes, and figuratively with your heart. Brene Brown said this:
“My mom taught us to never look away from people’s pain. The lesson was simple: Don’t look away. Don’t look down. Don’t pretend not to see hurt. Look people in the eye. Even when their pain is overwhelming. And when you’re in pain, find the people who can look you in the eye. We need to know we’re not alone – especially when we are hurting.”
2- Do acknowledge their pain. We see someone hurting we think it’s our job to take the pain away. This is not your job. Not only is it not your job but it’s. fruitless. And, ultimately it’s selfish. We try to take their pain away because WE are uncomfortable. So we must fight that urge to “fix it.”
The quaker Theologian Parker Palmer put it this way:
“The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.”
It is tremendously difficult to witness suffering that we cannot fix.
The renowned author and priest Henry Nouwen said this:
“What keeps us from opening to the reality of the world? Could it be that we cannot accept our powerlessness and are only willing to see those wounds that we can heal? Could it be that we do not want to give up on our illusion that we are masters over our world and, therefore, create our own Disneyland where we can make ourselves believe that all events of life are safely under control? Could it be that our blindness and deafness are signs of our own resistance to acknowledging that we are not the Lord of the Universe? It is hard to allow these questions to go beyond the level of rhetoric and to really sense in our innermost self how much we resent our powerlessness.”
Yes! Sandra resents her powerlessness to fix Gerry. There is nothing she can do and she hates this. So we must struggle ourselves with this discomfort, and come to terms with it. We need to look at the sufferer and acknowledge their pain.
You cannot love someone without being willing to carry their sadness. This is what Christ did for us and the world.
And if you are not willing to be vulnerable, you cannot encourage people. So you must start with a choice to be vulnerable. You will be stepping into something that will make you uncomfortable and sad. This willingness is vulnerable and it’s a requirement. Not everyone is a natural at this but we all must push ourselves to grow in that direction. It makes us better Christians, better friends, and more whole as a person.
The good news is there is no pressure in compassionate encouragement — It is not on our shoulders to fix the problem. There is no magic we must conjure, and no brilliant wisdom we must come up with. We simply need to be present. Be with them in the midst of the struggle, saying “I hear you. I’m with you.” That is all! And that is everything.
Finally, here is what Gerry shared about what to do if you yourself are discouraged:
1- Find people who will look at you. Not everyone is cut out for this. Expect that some people may be pushed away by your pain. It’s not personal. It’s just them not knowing what to say or how to act. Find the ones that do. They do exist. Seek them out.
2- Surrender your old life narrative for the new one. Gerry had to let go of many of the things that had meaning for him in his old life, and trade those in for the things that are promised to him in the next life.
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”
“The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Sometimes God’s promises are all we have. But even without our struggles, they are the only things we can truly rely on in a chaotic world. These promises are the only things that truly matter. Changing our narrative to be a realistic representation of this reality is where we ideally want to be, with or without our struggles.
3- Believe and know that God truly and profoundly cares for you. When asked by others how Gerry was managing, he shares a story to explain where he finds rest: When his kids were sick or injured, he ached at seeing their discomfort. He could not fix it for them. But he showed his love and compassion by offering his presence and giving reassurance that he would not leave them. As a result his kids knew in their hearts they could count on him and believe his words. Gerry has come to understand that his actions as a father to his children are a faint reflection of God’s boundless love and compassion for us. God is walking with you and offers you this same assurance. He is sitting at your bed beside you, reassuring you that he is there and he’s not going anywhere. You are not suffering alone.
Now, it’s easy to cheer for Gerry because he is suffering through no fault of his own. What about people who suffer as a result of choices they have made?
Sometimes the church is like the Pharisees, offering little comfort and mostly laws, and getting judgment instead of rest.
So the last most important thing we have to do when people are suffering: Suspend Judgment. Judging how or why they got there is not our job. We are all a mess in our own ways. We don’t put an asterisk next to people’s pain, as though some are more deserving of encouragement than others. There is no separation in suffering, no difference. Gerry’s pain is no more or less than the pain of someone who lost their kids because of drugs. Give them rest no matter who they are and how they got there.
In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus proclaims:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This is an invitation to ALL, no exceptions. Even if your reason for discouragement is because you screwed up. God could not love you more or less because of what you’ve done to get here. There is no judgment here. Only life. This is truly reason for you to take heart!
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