THE LORD’S MESSAGE TO A DISCOURAGED MAN
Have you ever tried to define discouragement? Would you agree with this definition by William Ward? “Discouragement is dissatisfaction with the past, distaste for the present, and distrust of the future. It is ingratitude for the blessings of yesterday, indifference to the opportunities of today, and insecurity regarding strength for tomorrow.”
All of us have had times of discouragement. To fight the battle with Satan in the spiritual realm is to grow weary of seeing him win on so many fronts. Today, Christians are attacked in outward and practical ways. A teacher shows a student his Bible and he loses his job because of it. A high school track team wins a relay race and point to heaven to give praise to God and they are disqualified. A student who writes a paper about his faith is given an “F”.
But the real battle is not in the practical. It is in the realm of the mind. Every Christian is under assault in the mind. Here is Satan’s playground. Remember those thoughts: “Surely you can’t believe this” “Who are you to make a claim of faith?” “Don’t you remember your sin?” “Why do you feel so insecure if you believe that God will take care of you?” “Look at what has happened – where is your God now?” Satan attacks God to us. He also attacks us to us. He will reach deep into our past and bring to our minds things that happened to us as children and play them for all they are worth today. He tries to get us to turn inward and get on the introspection treadmill. We ask, “Where did this come from?” “Why is this happening to me?” “What have I done to deserve this?” “How do I get out of this?” “Will I ever feel any different?” “Dare I tell anybody what I am going through?” “Does God care?” Even though some of these thoughts may arise from a chemical imbalance, Satan does not care – he will use it anyway. The greatest thing that Satan takes away is hope.
Paul had been worn down both physically and spiritually. He had suffered months of relentless attack by unseen spiritual forces and by opposition to everything he believed and was trying to do. He had been beaten in Philippi, escaped from Thessalonica, run out of Berea, mildly tolerated in Athens, and shouted down in the synagogue in Corinth. He was exhausted in body, mind, and spirit and was a prime candidate for despair.
As he walked the fifty miles from Athens to Corinth, he wondered if he had the courage to begin again. Would the pattern of opposition begin all over again? Depression settled over him. He was sick, discouraged and deeply troubled. Later, he wrote to the Corinthian church: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” I Corinthians 2:3.
It is easy for us to turn negative and become angry about everything. We are most vulnerable when we do our best and see little or no apparent progress. We can understand his emotions. Fear had gripped him for the first time in his ministry. He began to wonder if it was really worthwhile to continue. Then the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said four things to him. The first was:
I. DO NOT BE AFRAID (v.9)
What was he afraid of? He began to fear the pattern of success and then retaliation. It is like a hunter shooting rabbits and then the rabbits get guns and start shooting back. But in the midst of it all he did have success. Converts were made. Churches were formed. Then came the retaliation from both the religious and civic leaders. The religious opposition was especially painful when it came from his own Jewish people. In Corinth, he had had enough from them. “But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” (v.6)
He feared the high price that he would have to pay. Somehow he knew that he would end up a martyr like Stephen and like many of his fellow believers. The nature of his ministry proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ to the Jews and the only true God to the pagans was a natural creator of tensions and opposition that would try to shut him up.
He also feared failure. It had been about fifteen years since his conversion when he arrived at Corinth. He had given up his dreams of being a Rabbi and a leader in Judaism. He did not want to fail as a Christian missionary. But he was afraid he might just quit! Statistics show that about 100 of our pastors quit every month because of the unrest in our churches.
II. KEEP ON SPEAKING AND DO NOT BE SILENT (v.9)
The success of our churches is due to the faithful members who keep on keeping on. The faint hearted who drop out or run to another church because they aren’t pleased with some aspect of church life never amount to much in the kingdom. But the devout souls whose loyalty is not based on everything pleasing them are the ones who will hear the clapping of nail-scarred hands.
The Lord understood Paul’s feelings and knew all about his weaknesses. In this vision of support he said to Paul, “This is not the time to be silent. Keep on speaking and you will get through this. Do not be silent for they need to hear what you are saying.”
The Lord will give the same instructions to the members of his churches. “Don’t give up because it is difficult and you are tired. What I expect of you cannot be handed over to someone else. Your talents are needed. Your grasp of the Gospel is strong. Your spirit of adventure and optimism is vital to this congregation. You were led here for a purpose and it has not been completed. So keep witnessing to the lost. Keep building up the saints. Keep encouraging fellow believers. Keep strengthening the fellowship. I will empower you for service and give you joy in your work.”
To be sure it is a struggle “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of his dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) Every time I come to the pulpit I am conscious of the opposition of the spiritual forces of evil. They do not like what I say. They do not like the work that you do in the church and the spirit in which you do it. They try to get us to quit, to be quiet, to give up. But by the grace given to us as it was to Paul we won’t do it.
III. I AM WITH YOU. (v. 10)
We have to be continually reminded of that. Just like wives have to be reminded by their husbands by saying, “I love you,” we have to be reminded by our Lord that he is with us. The Lord reminded Paul of this on two other occasions: In Acts 23:10-11, Paul is before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem after returning home from his mission journeys. “The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them…the following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” Also in 27:23-24, he is on a ship as a prisoner on the way to Rome and is caught in a hurricane in the Mediterranean Sea. “Last night and angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’”
Jesus gave to his disciples a promise and it also applies to us: “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age!” Matthew 28:20.
There is something reassuring about that promise. When David Livingston left his home in England and went into the darkness of Africa he said, “Do you know what sustained and kept me there when I would go to a hillside in the late afternoons and see the smoke from many villages all about and I would think of home, it was the promise of our Lord Jesus where he said, ‘I am with you!’”
The fourth thing the Lord said to Paul was:
IV. I HAVE MANY PEOPLE IN THIS CITY (v.10)
Look where the Lord’s concern is. It is not just for his servant, it is mainly for those he knows as present believers and those who will come to be believers. I often think, “Who are the people that we do not yet know that the Lord has in mind for Friendship. It is exciting every Sunday to look for new people who come due to the faithful witness of our congregation. Some of them will find a spiritual home here and a place to use their talents for the Kingdom.
The Lord wanted Paul to see what was unseen at the present. He would have Aquila and Priscilla, fellow Jewish believers who had been driven out of Rome, Justus whose home Paul stayed in, and Crispus who was the chief ruler of the synagogue, both became believers, and also Silas and Timothy were soon coming – so he would have a support that would help him in the founding of the Corinthian church. There were also the potential converts that the Lord had in mind for the church. He would end up staying there for a year and a half which was longer than he had stayed anywhere to date on these first two missionary journeys.
It really matters who the workers in the church are to the pastor and staff. They are the ones that can be trusted to be true to the work and give it their best. Their personalities, spirit, and Christian commitment make all the difference in what is accomplished. A harmonious group of leaders and workers are indispensable to the progress of God’s work.
Everything as far as new people wanting to plant their lives with us depends on their perception of the reality and trueness of our fellowship and witness. The Lord would say to us as he did to Paul, “I have a lot of people here that I want you to reach for me.”
Janice and I went to Corinth and saw the foundation of what had been the church that was established there. It is one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine. We read this scripture that we are considering today and thought in our mindseye what it must have been for Paul and the early believers as they tried to make an impact on this thriving, wicked, pagan, port city.
So Paul came out of his depression and got the courage and stamina to passionately proclaim Christ to Corinth. He found that what Job said was true: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) Paul restated it for us: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13).
The prophet of old learned that depression and discouragement can be overcome. Listen to Isaiah: “He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:29-31)
PRAISE BE TO HIS NAME!