Exorcising the Specter of Discouragement
Dear Father John, What are some ways to help me or others overcome discouragement or a feeling of loss when evangelizing efforts don’t bear fruit?
DISCOURAGEMENT IS ONE of an apostle’s greatest enemies. It can sneak up on us. We need to understand it in order to be ready to resist it. A good place to do so is in chapter 24 of St. Luke’s Gospel, where we read the familiar story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
It was Easter Sunday. The gruesome events of Good Friday were over, and while the eleven apostles were still hanging together, the wider circle of disciples was starting to disperse. Two of these, one named Cleopas, were walking from Jerusalem back their hometown of Emmaus.
Along the way, they were discussing everything that had happened—the life and teaching of Jesus, his trial and crucifixion, and even the first vague reports of the empty tomb. But it was not a happy, enthusiastic discussion. On the contrary, St. Luke tells us they were “looking downcast.” They were disheartened—the Greek word has connotations of gloomy and morose. They were experiencing what all of us experience sooner or later in our faith journey: the suffocating weight of discouragement.
The Role of Sadness
Simple sadness is different than discouragement. Feeling sad is part of being human, and nothing is wrong with that emotion. But when we let the feeling of sadness seep into our hearts and minds and extinguish our hope, when we let it convince us to relinquish our evangelizing efforts, then it becomes a danger, a temptation, a threat to the health of our souls—that’s discouragement.
An old saying among spiritual writers claims that discouragement never comes from the Holy Spirit. The emotion of sadness can be in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s work in our souls, because this fallen world has legitimate causes for sadness—death, loss, sin, and the destruction that sin wreaks, for example. To be insensitive to those things would be inhuman and spiritually blind.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed that experiencing sadness over these kinds of things, a sadness in harmony with truth, helps us move forward on the path of a meaningful life. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he taught, “for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Jesus himself sometimes experienced profound sadness: He wept over the city of Jerusalem, which refused to receive his message of salvation; he wept over the death of his friend Lazarus; his soul became “sorrowful even to death” in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:34).
But that kind of sadness is different than discouragement. Since sadness comes simply from recognizing the brokenness of a fallen world, it doesn’t paralyze us and extinguish our hope. Rather, it expresses our love for all that is good and true, for all that sin and evil destroy. This kind of sadness, then, strengthens our hearts against evil and actually feeds our courage.
Discouragement, on the other hand, is sadness gone crazy. Like a wound that has become infected, discouragement is sadness that starts to fester, and it produces spiritual poison. The English word discouragement expresses this well. It literally means “without courage.” To become discouraged is to lose the energy necessary to continue fighting. To become discouraged is to play with the temptation to give up and give in, to stop trying.
Someone who is discouraged no longer strives after the worthy goal he or she used to believe in, because that person no longer has any hope that goal is attainable. And that is precisely why discouragement can never come from the Holy Spirit—in Christ, with the help of God’s grace, every worthy goal is always attainable. As the angel said to the Blessed Virgin Mary during the Annunciation: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And Jesus himself said the same thing: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). That’s why discouragement always hides some kind of lie.
The Expectation Trap
These two disciples, then, were dragging their feet toward Emmaus, with long faces and downcast hearts. They were in a dangerous situation, spiritually speaking: They were discouraged.
At that point, Jesus came up and started walking beside them, although they didn’t recognize him. Jesus asked them what they were talking about, and in their explanation of the recent events, they revealed why they were discouraged. After recounting all the wonderful things Jesus had done and the horrible tragedy of his betrayal, crucifixion, and death, they said, “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
“We were hoping,” the two disciples admit. They had hoped in Jesus, but now their hope had died. They had expected so much from him, even changing their lives to follow him, but now their expectations had been shattered, and they were returning to the way things had been.
We have all had that experience. We have expected God to act in a certain way in our life or give us a certain kind of apostolic success, and then had the wind knocked out of us when those expectations were not met. We have all felt the disappointment, the confusion, the frustration—the discouragement—that can come with shattered expectations.
The Real Cause of Discouragement
Up to that point in the conversation, Jesus had simply been listening. But once they finished their story, he chimed in with some words that didn’t appear to be very comforting, at least not at first: “O how foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25) He called them fools! Most likely he said it with a smile and not a frown, but even so, we can only imagine the shocked look on the faces of these two disciples when this apparent stranger, instead of commiserating with them, upbraided them.
And then Jesus went on to explain why they were being foolish, and in so doing, he revealed the real cause of every discouragement, of every festering sadness that threatens to extinguish our hope, paralyze our souls, and halt the advance of evangelization.
O, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:25, emphasis added)
There it is, the source of all spiritual discouragement: a faltering faith, an unwillingness to believe in God’s way of doing things, a reluctance to accept the revealed truth that all salvation, all growth in holiness, all progress in spiritual maturity, and all apostolic fruitfulness must pass along the way of the cross. When things go wrong, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned us—the Crucifixion isn’t the end of the story; the Resurrection is.
When we expect life to be without the cross, our expectations are false, and they will always end up being shattered. The cross was necessary, Jesus emphasized; it was somehow part of God’s plan that the new and eternal life shining out on Easter Sunday should rise from the hideous and painful darkness of Good Friday.
This is true for our own spiritual lives, and it is also true for our evangelizing efforts. Jesus summarized it with one of his favorite images, that of a seed: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).
And throughout the history of the Church, that saying has been verified, over and over again. As the early Christian theologian Tertullian put it, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”* And since our evangelization efforts are all about spreading and growing the Church, we need not be discouraged when those efforts require our blood—on the contrary, we should rejoice: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
* Tertullian, Apologeticum, chapter 50; http://www.tertullian.org/works/apologeticum.htm.
Editor’s Note: This is the final excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s book “Go! 30 Meditations on How Best to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read online.
Art for this post on exorcising the specter of discouragement: Le sermon sur la montagne (The Sermon on the Mount), Guillaume Fouace, 1878, PD-US published in the U.S. prior to 1 January 1923; Partial restoration detail of “Road to Emmaus” Painting of Jesus at Pochayiv monastery, Ternopil oblast, western Ukraine, artist not named, undated, photographed by Roman Zacharij, 2008 own work, PD-Worldwide; Wheat Sheaf Emblem of the Tribe of Joseph, synagogue HaPoel HaMizrachi Centeral in Bnei Brak in Israel, Bloody-ibu 6 October 2011 from original by Djampa 3 December 2010, “universal” license; all Wikimedia Commons.