The Only Remedy for Discouragement
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
I regularly marvel at the Apostle Paul’s devotion and zeal for the gospel in light of the myriad of discouragements and disappointments he encountered. Shortly after his conversion on the road to Damascus the Jewish believers were uncertain about this former persecutor. Could he be trusted? He went into the desert for an extended time to be alone with God and when he came back to civilization he was largely ignored, going back to Tarsus, engaged in little or no ministry until Barnabas fetched him to help him at Antioch. And then when the two of them were set apart for missionary service, John Mark deserted them. They continued on but met severe opposition, persecution, and beatings everywhere they went. Paul met the same rejection and ridicule on his second missionary journey and was severely mocked by the sophisticated Areopagites. Finally he was arrested, imprisoned, and as his execution approached he lamented that so many of his friends had left him, including Demas, a formerly faithful servant.
Yet Paul was able to say, ‘Whatever things were gain to me I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ’ (Phil. 3:8). He said, ‘I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am’ (Phil. 4:11). He said, ‘I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith. In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me, and not only to me but to all who have loved his appearing’ (2 Tim. 4:8).
How did he do it? How did he keep going in the face of all his troubles? There is only one answer. There is only one remedy. Paul’s life was characterized by James’ words, ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’ What does this mean? First, you will notice our responsibility – draw near to God. Isaiah says that we are to seek God while he may be found (Isa. 55:6-7). Jesus says that we are to come to him, all of us who are weary and weighed down with the cares of the world and our sin (Matt. 11:28-30). But more specifically, what does it mean to draw near to God? We can say many things but I limit myself here to just two. First, it means seeking God’s presence. We see this in King David when, with great emotion, he says to God, ‘Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice, and be gracious to me and answer me. When thou didst say, “Seek my face,” my heart said to thee, “Thy face, O Lord, I shall seek.” Do not hide thy face from me’ (Psa. 27:7-9a). You must make a wilful, intentional move toward God, seeing your own desperate need for his presence and power. And second, it means cultivating his fellowship. The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘Let us, therefore, draw near with confidence to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4:16). What was it that caused you to spend every possible moment with the one you loved prior to your marriage? You enjoyed his or her presence and fellowship. You shared so many things in common. You delighted to be with each other. In far greater measure this is what it means to draw near to God. You come to delight more than anything in simply being with Jesus.
But then consider God’s responsibility. Note that it is conditional. If we draw near to God then he promises to draw near to us. Consider some of the biblical data that support this truth. Azariah told King Asa, ‘The Lord is with you when you are with him. And if you seek him, he will let you find him, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you’ (2 Chron. 15:2). And the Lord of hosts said, ‘Return to me that I may return to you’ (Zech. 1:3, Mal. 3:7). In other words – you must make the first move. Wait a second, doesn’t the Bible say that no one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11). Yes but the Bible also tells us to circumcise ourselves to the Lord and to remove the foreskin of our hearts (Jer. 4:4) and we cannot do that either. Here is the ever recurring theme of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, what we call the complementarity of truth. Both are true at the same time.
And how do we draw near to God? What is the methodology? James tells us to do two things. First, we sinners are to cleanse our hands (clean up our actions, values, attitudes, and words). Though the Old Testament priests were sanctified, set apart by God for his service of sacrifice, they nonetheless washed their hands and feet in the bronze laver before going into the holy place before almighty God (Exod. 30:19-21). We likewise must be cleansed daily of our sins. And second, though we have regenerate hearts that love God and hate sin, we nonetheless must practice the purification of our inner most being (James 3:14). Paul is a realist. In Romans 7 he is not speaking of an unregenerate man nor is he speaking of a so-called carnal Christian. He speaks for all of us when he says, ‘The very thing I do not want to do, I do; and when I do what I don’t want to do, I realize it is no longer me doing it but sin that dwells in me . . . wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death’ (Rom. 7:20, 24).
I say to you with all earnestness – only a hot pursuit of God will handle the discouragement you feel, whatever its source. That’s what Paul found. That’s what James is after. Okay then, how do you follow in hot pursuit of God? I offer to you the lost art of Christian meditation. The Bible is full of exhortations to practice it, promising success to those who do so (Psa. 1:2-3, 63:6, 77:12, 119:15, 23, 48, 78, 148, 143:5, Josh. 1:8). What is it? It is not eastern mysticism. It is not Transcendental Meditation. TM empties the mind while Christian meditation fills it. Though Bible reading and study is vital, though Scripture memory is essential, though reading good Christian books is necessary, none of these are Christian meditation. Well, what is it then? It is not quickly reading or passing over a verse, rather it is thinking deeply about a verse or portion of Scripture. It is dissecting it, observing it, cross referencing it with other Scripture, and it is applying the passage practically to your life. Take, for example, Paul’s command in Philippians 2:14, ‘Do all things without grumbling or disputing.’ To meditate on this verse means asking yourself, ‘What does it mean to grumble? What does it mean to be one who disputes what others say or command me to do? What are ways man typically grumbles or disputes? And am I guilty of these things? In what specific instances have I recently grumbled or complained? What does God think of my grumbling and disputing? What has he done to others who practiced the same thing (see Numbers 11)? When I grumble, what am I saying about God?’
And then what do you do? You look at Jesus. I often start at Genesis and go through to Revelation, thinking as deeply as I can about the names of Jesus. Richard Pratt’s book, Pray with Your Eyes Open1 is a good resource in this regard. Take one of the names of Jesus, like Advocate (1 John 2:1), and think on what it means and its implications for you. For example, an Advocate is one who helps another who cannot help himself. Every poor child in the hood needs an advocate, someone who will help him learn the importance of study, of staying away from bad friends who corrupt good morals, who will help him find a way to attend college. And in a much greater way Jesus is our Advocate, the One who helps us because we cannot help ourselves.
Here’s my challenge to you – if you want to overcome discouragement, if you want to follow in hot pursuit of God, then spend fifteen minutes per day in Christian meditation. You must sit quietly, allowing no distractions. And then as you go on your way during the day, as you drive to work, as you have a moment by yourself in your hectic schedule, think back for a moment on what you meditated on that morning. You will find your intimacy with Jesus growing, and you likewise will find, in due time, greater faith which will allow you to weather the discouragements of life.
- Pages 183-190 offer a very helpful list of the names, titles, and metaphors for the Triune God. There is much here that will keep you busy on looking at Jesus.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
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