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Pastor, Don’t Waste Your Discouragement

While reading one pastor’s farewell sermon to his congregation of three decades, I thought he must have pastored on a different planet.

As he lauded the cooperation and support he received throughout his lengthy ministry, it sounded like a pleasant dream, not reality. You’d expect hyperbole, but for the rest of us who’ve not experienced such pastoral grandeur, it would’ve been encouraging to hear of at least one rough patch. Surely he had difficult times he considered inappropriate to mention.

Seasons of discouragement are inevitable for any gospel minister. It comes with the territory. But I learned something else in 44 years of pastoral ministry: the Lord uses seasons of discouragement as seasons of growth.

Alone and Needy

My first pastorate was rural. A lonely gravel road led to the whitewashed church building, with an accompanying cemetery and mid-19th-century gravestones. Learning to preach twice each Sunday, develop pastoral disciplines, and shepherd the congregation proved challenging.

But to add more pressure, the bivocational job I was assured would be available when our family moved into the pastoral residence after seminary didn’t materialize. On my first Sunday as full-time pastor—after having pastored there part-time for eight months—the deacons recommended a five-dollar-a-week raise. Yes, five bucks. I smiled, anticipating that the job I’d been promised would start the next week and we’d be OK. But it didn’t, and we weren’t.

As I soon learned, there were no jobs available in the depressed area near the church. I’d moved from a comfortable income to below the poverty line—with no remedy in sight.

I’d moved from a comfortable income to below the poverty line—with no remedy in sight.

Everything unraveled. I struggled. When my parents visited, I poured out the sad story to my dad, hoping he might help bail us out of our financial woes. I can still hear him saying, “The Lord will take care of you.” That was it. No cash or check, just a word of encouragement to refocus my trust on Christ. I was annoyed. And he was right.

The Lord did take care of us, in part by providing work on a county road crew. By tightening my discipline and helping me better identify with those I was called to shepherd, that job increased my capacity to serve the church. The same Lord Jesus who laid down his life for us wouldn’t abandon us in time of need (Rom. 8:32).

Later, my wife and I realized this had been a training ground—a different seminary. The Lord was teaching us to trust him, and the lessons from that first pastorate have stayed with us. The gift of discouragement led to the greater gift of trusting Christ.

Fractured Church, Increased Discouragement

A later pastorate I took appeared promising. With several hundred attending, my pastoral duties increased. But so did the challenges and discouragements.

The search committee sold me on the church’s unity and love. After a few months, the aura dissolved. I discovered the church was fraught with division, bickering, and conflict. I’d walked into an ecclesiological war zone, ambushed by various factions who wouldn’t be satisfied unless I sided with them against the others.

The gift of discouragement led to the greater gift of trusting Christ.

Rather than siding, I sought weekly to expound God’s Word. So the factions unified against me. The one thing many of them were not interested in was gospel-focused biblical exposition. Whenever I sought to lead the congregation toward more biblical leadership and community and mission, opposition mounted. Sniping, complaining, undermining, and stonewalling characterized those years.

Early on, I felt like leaving. But by God’s grace, experienced pastor friends encouraged me to stay—to keep preaching Jesus, modeling the Christian life, and leading toward biblical transformation. As Jesus observed, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). My friends who’d walked the same path reinforced this truth. I began to learn that the good news of Jesus as the Redeemer demands perseverance in gospel ministry. Yet it seems we only learn this lesson in the trenches. So we’re helped to persevere by learning from others who’ve been in the trenches far longer.

Through these discouraging struggles came an unparalleled gift. I learned how deeply I needed fellow pastors to speak into my life and teach me humility, submission, and trust. Just as Timothy and Titus needed Paul, Martin Luther needed Johann von Staupitz, and John Ryland Jr. needed John Newton, I needed godly men to shepherd this shepherd. And pastor, so do you.

Three Strategies

How do we make good use of discouragements rather than letting them paralyze us? Here are three ways.

1. Discouragements are about God’s reign—so yield to his wise, loving providence.

Whatever is causing discouragement isn’t outside the Lord’s governance. Your senses may tell you he’s as paralyzed as you are, but his Word corrects that lie: “The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand” (Ps. 37:23–24).

Does God only order things you like? That’s the assumption the psalmist corrects. Sometimes you need discouragements to stretch, test, and reinforce trust in the Lord. Confessing his wisdom and love—even when you feel the weight of distress—trains the heart to trust him in discouraging times.

2. Discouragements are about learning spiritual consistency—so maintain spiritual disciplines.

The paralyzing effects of discouragement can deflate the rhythms of spiritual practice. Your emotions will tell you to nurse your hurt instead of your soul. Discouraging seasons will expose sins you need to confess, even die to. Such times provide an opportunity to praise God in every circumstance as you realize nothing can distance you from his love (1 Thess. 5:18; Rom. 8:38–39).

Even if your time in the Word and prayer aren’t lively, persist in these daily disciplines. A discouraging season can ready you for other life shifts and hard times that will likely come, so use the present discouragement as preparation for future trials.

3. Discouragements are about the affections—so cultivate a heart of worship.

As the apostle John witnessed the heavenly vision, he made a triumphant declaration concerning the Lamb: “He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Rev. 5:7). Jesus, the Lamb of God slain to ransom you for God, took the book of divine history and rule into his hands. As the emperor Domitian’s persecution raged, those witnessing the Lamb’s triumph worshiped (vv. 8–10). And so can you.

He reigns over the details, so move from eyeing your trouble to worshiping your King, who took the book and who rules every aspect of your life.

Embrace the Gift

Don’t waste discouragement, brother pastor. See it as a gracious gift. Learn even to use discouragement to your spiritual advantage by letting the least hint of it bring you to Jesus.

In his grace, even the most disconsolate heart finds solace.

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