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Discouragement

Discouragement

Excerpts from Chapter 4 of Deserted by God? by Sinclair Ferguson.

Read Psalms 42 and 43.

Spiritual thirst is painful, not pleasant; it may produce melancholy, not melody in our lives.

[There is] a deep sense of the absence and distance of God that drains all our energy and makes each day a superhuman effort just to get through. When we rise in the morning, we feel unrefreshed, energy-less, listless, gloomy; we see and do everything through a cloud; we live life with the shades drawn. Everything is tinged with darkness. We are downcast.

Sometimes well-meaning Christians assume that if someone is melancholic or in low spirits, the solution is all too simple and obvious. They dispense easy medicine for a disease of the soul that is difficult to cure, simple formulas that they assume will deal with every need.

Only when he has discovered the reasons for his discouragements will he be able to prescribe an appropriate antidote.

We too often fail precisely here. In fact, our spiritual discouragement discourages us from analyzing its causes! We yield to discouragement rather than trace back its symptoms to the root. Discouragement does not simply go away on its own account. It must be cross-examined. We must learn to say to it: “Why are you there?” Only then will we discover that there is an appropriate medicine even for our souls.

How important the fellowship of the church is to our well-being!…

Do not be so proud or self-sufficient as to think that you do not need regular exposure to the exposition and application of Scripture in the context of a living, praying group of Christians…

When you are downcast – for whatever reason, minor or life-shaking – it takes more effort to maintain the regular disciplines of the Christian life. Even getting out to church is an enormous struggle…

Ask yourself: “Even if I cannot sense what God is doing in my situation, and cannot understand his ways; where would I be without him?”

Few of us realize how much our sense of significance and worth is tied up to our service and leadership. We often counsel people not to become so absorbed in their service that they lose sight of the One they are supposed to be serving. But if we give ourselves in the service of Christ, who we are becomes so identified with what we do that the two are practically indistinguishable. Our service, after all, is an expression of ourselves; it is an investing of ourselves in others, for Christ. Lose that and part of our very self is lost. Discouragement is often the result.

… [Some] find a small corner, take modest employment, have far fewer material resources than most of their contemporaries. It is easy to feel that the significant parts of life all lie in the past.

Unemployment, of various kinds, can have the same effect…

The same is true in the family context: a mother gives the whole of her life to serving her family for Christ; then they leave home…
The darkest cloud often comes when a mother and wife is widowed…

[The Psalmist] has good reason to feel discouraged; he is experiencing isolation, opposition, and loss of position. To deny that these are reasons to be discouraged would be unhealthy psychologically and emotionally.

The gospel saves us from death, not by removing death, but by helping us to face it in the power of Christ’s victory and thus to overcome it. So, too, with sin. And similarly with discouragement. Faith in Christ does not remove all of the causes of discouragement; rather, it enables us to overcome them. We may experience discouragement; but we will not be defeated by it.

It is true that there are reasons for being discouraged; but there are better and stronger reasons for being encouraged.

“Hope” in Scripture is not wishful thinking. It is confidence based on the promise of God; it is the assurance that we will experience blessings we do not yet experience. That certainty is based on the fact that he is “my Savior and my God.”

A mind well stocked with the knowledge of Scripture is a great preservative from overmuch discouragement; it is like a well-stocked pharmacy in which remedies are always at hand.

It is widely recognized that our own times scorn thinking and emphasize feeling. Sadly, the litmus test of a worship service is often whether or not it makes you feel good, not whether it centered on the Lord. But discouraged Christians need much more than an emotional pick-me-up. They need light that will dispel the darkness.

When we allow discouragement to dictate the conversation, we look inward, downward, and backward. When God’s word dictates it, we look upward, outward – yes, and forward.

Deserted by God?

Deserted by God?

I’ve been reading a lot over the last few months since I lost my job teaching Bible. One reason for this is that I have a lot more time. But another reason for this is the need to work through some issues that I’ve never had to deal with before. You would think a trip though cancer surgery and treatment might fix a lot of  aspects of your perspective on life, but losing a job brings on a whole different set of difficulties, especially when it’s in a ministry setting.

One of the books that has been a positive help is Sinclair Ferguson’s Deserted by God? The sub-title sets the theme for the book: Hope for all who do not sense the Lord’s sustaining presence during life’s most troublesome times. I believe that Dr. Ferguson succeeds in giving that hope. In order to encourage others, I want to proved some of the highlights of each chapter, hoping that you will not just read my excerpts, but purchase the book and work through the whole thing yourself. I believe you will be blessed in that endeavor.

The following excerpts come from the first chapter, Can Anyone Help Me?:

An important reason for approaching this subject by means of Bible study is that when we are discouraged, or face difficulties, or feel that God has deserted us, our great temptation is to turn upon ourselves. We lose our sense of perspective, our objectivity. We need to be brought out of ourselves and have our gaze redirected from what we are and do to what God is and does. This alone will provide the reorientation we all need for spiritual health.

We are all too familiar with Christians who have been told by secular counselors that their problem is that they read the Bible. They need to avoid it. But, on the other hand, sadly, the way many Christians read the Bible and view the Christian life does in fact aggravate their difficulties…

…Their counsel is to get rid of the Bible, and the God of the Bible, when the true solution is to learn how properly to understand the Bible and to discover the God of infinite grace and compassion who speaks to us in it.

Most of us come to a book like this looking for help for ourselves or others: as quick a fix as possible. But quick counsel will only see us through from one crisis to the next. We need long-term help, and that can only be provided by long-term measures. Disciplined, thoughtful, prayerful study of God’s word, undertaken with the Spirit’s help is what we need. It will change the way we think, and consequently the way we live, and ultimately the way we feel.

I do not believe it is possible to overstress the importance of this principle. Of course it is unglamorous; but there is much about the Christian life that is unglamorous. The important thing is not its glamor, but that it is God’s way. And because it is his way, it works.

A cleansing process takes place when our lives are thus exposed to the influence of God’s word in Scripture.

Most of all, Scripture refocuses our hearts and minds on the God whose character is revealed in it. Knowing him better is our deepest need. Meeting that need will put all our other needs – our doubts, discouragements, depression, disconsolation – in their proper context.

Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis

Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis

I have just finished reading the first volume of the Sermons of John Calvin on the book of Genesis. This is a modern translation by Rob Roy McGregor that reads quickly and smoothly. I say that, even though it took me five years to read it. But I probably read about one of these sermons every month or so, so that comes out about right since there are 49 sermons. The book is big – over 800 pages – but it is an easy 800 pages.

I bought this book back in October of 2013, while I was in the middle of radiation therapy for oral cancer. I distinctly remember the enjoyment of reading those first chapters while in the midst of great physical pain. Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis have traveled with me through the whole five year period of cancer treatment.

While there is nothing particularly flashy or earth-shaking about Calvin’s sermons, there is a definite solidity about them. It’s like he has the regular people in front of him in mind as he preaches (which we should all try to do) and not a room full of academics. He is constantly bringing Biblical themes and ideas before his people and urging his congregation, “This is what we need to remember,” and then he reinforces it some more.

The fact that these sermons were preached daily, and not weekly, also serves to give us some insight into what was going on in Geneva in the mid-1500’s. How many of today’s preachers could give us such solid doctrine and application on a daily basis without giving up or wearing out?

The first sermons, of course, deal with creation. We have many today who doubt God’s creation of the universe in seven days, but Calvin also had those. I found it interesting to see how Calvin responded to those who thought the universe came to be by some sort of random evolution:

They have conjured up the most obtuse and absurd things a human could utter to resist God’s majesty, and they are unable to contemplate his glory, which ought to be evident as it displays itself so plainly before us. That is why they prefer – I am not joking – to say that the world came together by chance and that there were tiny objects tumbling around that the sun used for building the moon and the stars, the earth, the trees, and even more. Could anyone think up a scenario more stupid than that?

Most of the sermons, however, deal with the application of the first eleven chapters of Genesis to the church in Geneva. In sermon 33 on Genesis 6:5-8, Calvin, in speaking of the punishment that sin deserves by the Flood, brings the teaching of the whole Bible to bear –

“if there exists a single drop of good within us, it proceeds from the regeneration which we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In speaking of why Abel was accepted and Cain was not, in sermon 22, Calvin states –

“It is impossible for our works to be acceptable unless God is first favorably disposed toward us… therefore, God must change us before he can love us.”

And then this –

“every time our Lord gives us some sign that he is rebuking us and is not accepting our works, we must hold ourselves in check and in all humility consider what needs to be rebuked.”

So then, how can we be accepted in God’s sight?

“We can do it because God, out of his free goodness, gives us both the will and the power to do it. Therefore, if we understood that as God’s rebuking and admonishing Cain that he was supposed to conquer sin, we would be profitably instructed not to be cowardly when the devil tries to draw us into evil, but to arm ourselves with power from on high until we are victorious, as we are assured we will be, provided we call upon our God to help us.”

Calvin also does not get bogged down in conspiracy theories. When discussing the passage about the sons of God and the daughters of men in sermon 31, he has this to say to his congregation –

“This passage has long suffered from an absurd and stupid error, but learned people have been wrong about it, for the devil has always devised misunderstandings in order to obscure God’s truth, and even to destroy it completely, were it possible. They have understood the children of God to be angels, supposing they were attracted by carnal lust, which is a naive and imbecilic notion. Yet it has been commonly accepted.”

I could give many more examples, but it would take too much time and space. It is much easier just to recommend that you read the book.