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Psalms 118:5-6

In my anguish I cried to the Lord,
and he answered by setting me free.
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can man do to me?

Our theme today is “How To Overcome Discouragement.” I was thinking of making the theme “How To Overcome Depression.” However, I felt that because the word depression has taken on a much greater significance in our culture, with the medical and psychiatric diagnosis of clinical depression, I would not want to trivialize the depth of mental illness with words of a pastor that would be insufficient to deal with the pathology of clinical depression. We are talking about discouragement, and we are talking about that kind of depression, that melancholy, that malaise of life that captures us from time to time in its grips.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you been there? Have you been discouraged? Have you been depressed? Have you had to reach up to touch bottom? If so, you are not alone. Modern society has tremendous depressing-producing dynamics in it and much reason for us to be discouraged.

I, from time to time, receive advance copies of book manuscripts to read and to give a little jacket blurb. I received one a few days ago written by a Christian psychiatrist by the name of Dwight Carlson. Some of you know of his other writings. This book is yet untitled because it is unpublished. Let me read what he says. His theme is on the discouragements and the stresses of life that produce great discouragement. He talks about how it is in modern life and the pressures we have.

Several decades ago we thought that with all the modern conveniences our lives would slow down and there would be increasing free time to enjoy life. Instant e-mail, cell phones, computers, and palm display units were supposed to help us become more efficient. Somehow the opposite has occurred. Our work loads are heavier, our jobs are insecure, and generally a sense of loss of control hangs over our future. Leisure time has significantly decreased. A 45 percent increase in life stresses has occurred in the last 30 years.” The industrialized nations have more color TVs, high-speed computers, luxury cars, and brand-name clothes than they did several decades ago, but we are no happier. “Meanwhile, the divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide tripled, violent crime nearly quadrupled . . . [and] depression rates have soared.” During the week after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center 90 percent of the adults in the United States experienced some symptoms of stress, and 44 percent of all adults experienced symptoms of substantial stress. In a recent study in Great Britain, it was reported that one in ten believed that they would be better off if dead, one in four said they were unhappy in their jobs, while one in three felt exhausted, unappreciated, or underpaid.

Do you catch it? If you experience discouragement from time to time, you are not alone. It is a reality of life, common to everyone to a lesser or greater degree. Oh, occasionally, you see a person who seems to skate through life without discouragement. I’m sometimes inclined to want to scratch beneath the surface to see if that person is in touch with reality.

Do we have to succumb to it? Are we all alone in it? Do you know what I’m grateful for about the Bible? I’m grateful that the Bible is God’s Word conveyed to us with reality. The Bible is not a book filled with religious platitudes that describe life beyond reality. Oh, it lifts us beyond the reality of our existence, but it shows the great saints of the faith with all of the struggles that they had.

Elijah — could you ask for a greater prophet of God than Elijah? See that great victory on Mount Carmel where he stared Ahab and Jezebel directly in the eyes, and the hundreds of prophets of Baal, and he called down the fire of God from heaven. After that great victory, what did he do? He went into deep depression. He fled to a remote place in the wilderness and lamented that he was alive and even begged God to take him out of this world.

Peter — one of the most energetic, A-type personality people you’ll read about in Scripture — the one when Jesus looked his disciples in the eye and said, “Who do you say that I am?” and they all speculated on who He was. Peter finally got it, and he said, “Thou art the Christ, the Messiah, the very Son of the Living God.” You know how when Jesus, on that night of His betrayal, said that He was going to die, Peter said, “Oh, no, no, no, I’ll die in your place. If anyone has to die, I’ll do it.” And Jesus said, “Oh Peter, thanks for your encouragement, but before this night is over, you’ll betray me three times.” Even with that warning in advance, when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter took out the sword and started to flail away, because he was going to take this thing. He cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant/bodyguard, and Jesus chided him. Jesus was taken under arrest. And, during that night, Peter did deny the Lord three times. Then, after the crucifixion and the burial, he disappeared and off he went. Where? To Galilee. Back to what? His trade as a fisherman. In His resurrection state, Jesus made it all the way up to Galilee to reclaim that discouraged brother of His, about whom He said, “On a faith like yours, I will build my church.” This man, known by the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox to be the first pope, had his discouragements. Even our Lord in His human form models for us what it is to be discouraged. He stood on the Mount of Olives, and He looked over the Jerusalem of that day and what did he do? The shortest verse in the Bible says, “Jesus wept.”

As I’ve been thinking about it this week, I think He wept for the Jerusalem He saw then. But I have to believe that the God in human form also looked into the future, and He wept for the Jerusalem of the twenty-first century and what we read in the papers today about that. See, we have a High Priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities, who has been tested and tempted, as we’ve already seen, in every way we are, yet without sin. He feels what we feel, and He models for us what it is to be discouraged, to identify. If you, at times, get discouraged, you are in good company.

What are the causes of discouragement? Sometimes, it’s a simple crisis in life; sometimes it’s a clobbering crisis in life. We all have them. I could go around with a roving microphone and interview you. And I’d venture to say that as I talk to each person, we could come up with some crises.

I have a dear friend, Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, who for many, many years was the pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. For the past eight years, he has been the chaplain of the United States Senate. Back in October, I mentioned to you I was invited to a White House briefing. In advance of going there, I called my friend Lloyd, with whom I had been in a covenant group with for many years, and he invited me to have lunch with him up at the Senate. During that lunch, he described his discouragement as his dear wife Mary Jane had been on a ventilator for six months. Back in the 1970s, she had Hodgkin’s Disease, the same disease that took the life of our daughter. The radiation, as I understand it, had impacted one of her lungs. Last spring, she developed a bacterial infection that they couldn’t lick and caused that lung not to work. In the other lung, she developed emphysema, never having smoked or been around smokers. So, for six months, she had been on a ventilator. He told how the next day they were going to Medivac her to Los Angeles and hoped that, in a clinic here, she could improve. He said, “I’m going to maybe have to make a major decision.” He went with her the next day and, a few weeks later, announced his resignation of the Senate chaplaincy to be with his wife. It becomes effective March 15.

As he anticipates that, he has invited a few of his friends, myself included, to go back to be guest chaplain of the Senate for a day. My day was last Thursday. He updated me, as we talked at length. Briefly, the therapy worked out here, and she was off the ventilator for just a little bit. Then, as she went to the bathroom, she fell, and an orderly came in and thrust the tracheal tube back in, and she’s back on the ventilator.

A person at the peak of his ministry, and prestige of office, is carrying this burden as he continues to minister. He is only able to communicate when he calls her by the tapping on the phone and when with her by the reading of the lips and the scribbling of notes. Just imagine the challenge that both he and she are facing.

Into every life come these tragedies and difficulties and discouragements. You’re not alone. Show me a person who makes it through life without some of these.

What are other causes, some other physiological causes, general and specific? The lack of exercise, the lack of rest, addictions to substances, endocrine imbalance, hormonal problems, hypoglycemia, and some of these things that can produce discouragement just of a physiological nature.

Some are psychological in nature, and we could talk at length about early childhood issues, and the divorce of parents, and the separation anxieties that come, and sibling rivalries, and the list goes on. This is not a psychological classroom, but the reality is there are crises of life that hit us. There are physiological issues.

There are psychological matters. And also much of our discouragement and even some of our depression are spiritual in basis.

Perhaps you’ve not heard this reference before, but I thank God for the mental health team. Are you aware of what the mental health team is? In a world of reflection of the profession of the caring ministries, the mental health team is made up of the medical doctor, the therapist (the psychologist, the psychiatrist) and the pastor. Not that we divide the human being into three parts — there’s always a danger to do that — but the reality is we are physical beings, we are psychological beings, we are spiritual beings. Where one lets off and the other picks up, it’s very complex, is it not? We cannot assume that a pastor can do it all, or a psychiatrist can do it all, or a medical doctor can do it all. But thank God for the healing ministries of that health team.

If you are suffering from prolonged depression, I urge you to go see your doctor and get a checkup. I urge you, if that doesn’t work, to be in touch with a therapist. But at the same time, I urge you to open the Word of God and be involved with the family of God and take advantage of the pastors here to help work through some of the issues that may be at play.

What I would like to do in the rest of the time that remains today, in a very constructive way, is to look at Psalms 118 and ask you some questions.

Question one: In whom do you put your ultimate trust?

The pace of the world is quickened. Some of us get depressed just by looking at the world around us. I know right now an enormous amount of anxiety is present in the area of our concern about whether or not there is going to be a war with Iraq. Most of us in this room, on one hand, would like to be out there marching for peace, and part of us within say, “Hey, we’ve got to deal with this thing.” And many of us are praying, “Oh, if he’d only go into exile and save the loss of life of the innocents of the world who could be destroyed.” Anxieties come, and there is discouragement from the world’s issues.

The depression that comes from matters strictly personal. How self-centered I so often am, and I get caught up with my own problems about my health or my aging or the lack of finances, and so forth. You deal with these issues. We deal with these issues — global issues and internal issues of a very personal nature, dynamics in a marriage relationship, and the raising of children, and the depression of being let down by others. How often have you been let down by someone, someone close to you? Or let down by that leader in whom you put your trust — that prince, that Camelot you dreamed would happen when that one you voted for president was elected and then failed to produce that Camelot?

Someone was telling me this week that one of the best things that can happen to a leader is to die young. What would the Camelot of the Kennedy years have looked like if that president had continued for a few more decades of life? We don’t know, do we?

What does the Bible say about this? It says here in verses eight and nine, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

It was an exciting day on Thursday to be the Senate chaplain for the day. You’re actually an officer of the Senate for one day as a guest. You open the Senate in prayer. Then there is a chair on one side — on the Republican side — reserved for the chaplain. And there is a chair on the other side — on the Democratic side. In the time that I was there, most of the day, I divided my time equally, as I was told to do, between the Democratic side and the Republican side, to somehow convey the idea that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. And I was privileged to meet 20 or 25 of the senators, these people you see on the news. You know something, they’re human-sized. When you’re sitting there in a chamber and they’re walking around and milling around, I discovered that they put their trousers on one leg at a time, just like I do. But the reality is they are human also.

The Scripture makes it so clear: “It’s better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It’s better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” My question of you is, “In whom do you put your ultimate trust?” That’s the bottom line. Is it in a human being or political leader, in a spouse, in friends? Ultimately, our trust is to be in the Lord. There’s a verse here that I wanted to share with you, Psalms 118:14. It says, “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”

Question two: To whom do you first look for help when you are depressed?

I said it’s important to go to a doctor. You know, in Southern California, we probably have a greater percentage than any other part of the country I know of good, well-trained Christian psychotherapists. We’re fortunate to have that resource, and we certainly have plenty of pastors. At the same time, as much as we human beings are here to help, again, the first place to turn is to the Lord. Thank God for others, unless perchance we assume that the doctor or the therapist or the pastor can take the place of the Lord, and if the three of them don’t do it, then we’ll turn to the Lord. The question is, “To whom do you turn first?” That’s the starting place.

In Psalms 118:5-6, the psalmist writes, “In my anguish, I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free. The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.” See, we get the perspective of the past and the present and the future, all is in the Lord’s hands, when we turn first to Him and then claim the resources He gives us through His Word and through the resources of others.

My problem is in my own discouragements of life, I tend to turn internal and spiral downward, trying to work it all through myself, when really what I need is the Lord. I thank God for a wonderful wife to whom I can turn. I thank God for a wonderful staff to which I can turn. But, in the final analysis, I need first to turn to the Lord.

I remember one occasion in the first church that I was the head of staff, the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, the pressures and the battering of parish life just had knocked me down so low, and I was taking this stuff so personally and was anguishing so greatly. I wondered if I should stay at the church. Finally, I realized I had lost my perspective. I should have been turning to the Lord first and doing exactly what I was telling others to do.

Also, I was so drained of energy, I had not been giving attention to physical exercise. One night I got on my bicycle and took a long, long ride around that island of Key Biscayne, Florida. It was dark and, as I was riding down one street, I saw a young woman with long, blond hair walking along the side of the street, obviously sobbing her heart out. I circled back, and I said, “Young lady.” She lifted her head, and I recognized one of the teenagers of our church. I had just buried her dad a few months before — an airline captain who had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I knew that she was struggling with drugs and alcohol. And I said, “Hey, let’s just talk.” For an hour and a half, this teenager, half the age of her pastor, with her pastor, sat cross-legged on someone’s front lawn just talking, as she sobbed out the discouragements and the struggles of her life. You know, it didn’t solve all her problems, and she went even deeper into the valley. But she came out of it. Some years later, I remember coming back to Key Biscayne, and there she was the front desk manager of one of the fine hotels. She had gotten a handle, with the Lord’s help, on her problems and her discouragements.

But that night, I know I went home feeling a different person. I had allowed my stuff to spiral down. Then I discovered two things, and I have to remember them periodically. I share them with you — two great discoveries. One, look to God. And two, share the pain of someone else. As you share the pain of someone else and encourage and help them, it has a way of lifting you and lifting me. It’s amazing! Jesus put it in this way. The economy of the Kingdom is a crazy economy. The first shall be last; the last shall be first. The master will be servant; the servant will be master. See, it’s an upside-down economy. You say, gee, you’ve got enough problems of your own. Why share the problems of someone else? That will make you more depressed. But not if there’s the empathy, and the love, and the care.

Question three: When was the last time you counted your blessings?

Was it on Thanksgiving Day? This kind of message we tend to give on Thanksgiving. What does Psalms 118:18 say? It says, “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” I’m still alive! This is the day the Lord hath made; I will be glad and rejoice and be glad in it. You say, well now wait. Yes, it’s right down here, Psalms 118:24. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Whatever the discouragements of life are, and I’m going to say right now what I say at every Thanksgiving service on that wonderful Thursday when the sanctuary is packed and all the choirs are here. Every Thanksgiving I’ve been here I’ve suggested you take a piece of eight by eleven paper, and you draw a line down the middle, and you put your debits and your credits — the pluses and the minuses — and you begin to list them. I’ve discovered every time I do that, the list of negatives goes so quickly, and I can think of all the stuff that’s been bothering me, and then I run out of steam. Then when I begin to list the blessings, they just go on and on, and I need extra pages of paper to cover all the blessings of God in my life.

I love that little song. “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep; and I fall asleep counting my blessings. When my bank roll is getting small, I think of when I had none at all. Then I fall asleep counting my blessings. I think about a nursery, and I picture curly heads; and one by one I count them as they snuggle in their beds. When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep counting my blessings.”

One Thanksgiving I got carried away. Harry Babbitt wasn’t able to be with us that year, and I sang for you, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God has done.” I wrecked Thanksgiving by trying to sing it and, at the door, someone came up and said in the words of one of the political characters of the time, “I have heard Harry Babbitt, and you are no Harry Babbitt!” So I did not sing that for you this morning. But the reality is we have the privilege of counting our blessings and thanking God and getting up triumphantly — as we list the negatives and see the positives.

I get some negative mail, and it’s painful. I get critiques on my sermons and comments on my life and how I could do this better and that better. If I listened to all of them, I’d refuse to get out of bed and come to church. Yet, at the same time, I get more of people very grateful. This week, as I was preparing this message, I got a note from the father of one of the babies we baptized several weeks ago. The penmanship is hard for me to read, and I’ll not read directly from it. Let me paraphrase what he wrote: “Thank you for the charge you gave to us parents in the message that morning. It’s easy to go out of church and say I’m going to do these things, and then forget to do them. But when it’s promises you’re taking on behalf of your new child, you tend to take those things at little bit more seriously.” Then he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for charging me with my responsibilities as a father. And with God’s help, I’m going to follow through with the vows I took.” That makes a pastor’s heart leap, because you can’t force people, can you? But there’s a wonderful blessing.

Then I received this long e-mail, and it’s very complex in what this woman is saying. She said, “I joined the church last spring, and you gave us a charge to be faithful in worship, to get involved in a covenant group (that’s the last thing I wanted was to be with a group of other Christians), to get involved in Adult Education, and to get involved in some kind of servant ministry. I said, if I’m going to take this seriously, I better do what the pastor said. I was afraid that people would find out some stuff about me that I don’t want them to know. I joined a covenant group and, as I shared, it leaked out. I just said, ‘I had an abortion.’ And I was afraid I would be alienated. And another person a few weeks later said, ‘I had one, too.’ Thank God for His grace and His forgiveness.” She said, “I began to understand what you’re talking about when you say ,’Get into a covenant group,’ to realize that there’s forgiveness and there’s acceptance and there’s encouragement. Then a few weeks ago, you talked about making an assessment of your life and, if you had come to Christ, calling up someone and telling them.” She said, “I was astounded. Another person called me up and said it had been hard to get to the phone to do this, but I’ve got to tell you what God’s doing in my life.

“All kinds of things are happening. Problem is I can get so discouraged.”

You can get so discouraged that we fail to count the blessings, and we accentuate the negatives and minimize the positives. What a privilege, with God’s help, of turning that around!

Question four: Are you allowing yourself to grow spiritually?

Well, we see in Psalms 118:23-24, “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

What a privilege it is to come to Jesus Christ in faith! I never want to lose that wooing dimension of inviting the person who’s never received Christ to come to Him. Start with the Lord. This is the day He’s made. Come to Him now.

Also realize that some of us are just out of fellowship, and we’re arrested in our development. You can come to the Lord and then be like Susan Wiley. Do you know who Susan Wiley was? In Arcadia, California, a number of years ago, the authorities found a 13-year-old girl who had been confined to her room for those entire thirteen years. She had parents who obviously had some deep problems. They fed her but left her in her room, never let her leave the room. And they discovered she had the intelligence and the social skills of a one-year-old. She was a case of arrested development, and that’s possible also spiritually.

It’s important to grow spiritually in your devotional life. Do you have fellowship with other believers? Are you involved in the spiritual disciplines, and are you sharing your life with others? I asked these questions, and you’re going to have to decide whether to even take them seriously or not. But I’ll encourage you by saying this: If you’re honest in your responses and you take seriously the words of this song, I’ll assure you not of a life without discouragement but a life that takes on a positive dimension, as you find the Lord’s help and the help of others to deal with the problems of life.

Verse one again, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Would you think about that?

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About The Author

Dr. John A. Huffman Jr. served many years as pastor of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Early in his ministerial career, Huffman served as an assistant under Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He has published several books, including “The Family You Want,” “Forgive Us Our Prayers,” and his memoir, “A Most Amazing Call.” He has served on the boards of several influential evangelical organizations, including Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.

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