Although we’re only one week removed from Easter, today’s post comes from a seed of inspiration planted this past Christmas. Strange timing? Maybe. Or, perhaps there’s no time like the present to connect these two seasons.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic Christmas movie loved by many for the last 7 decades. I hadn’t seen it for quite some time and was thrilled to watch it with my family this past holiday season. It was the first viewing for both my kids (then 11 and 8) and I was so happy they enjoyed it. For those who may not be familiar (or if it’s been awhile) the story begins with the introduction of Clarence, the angel who is to intervene in the life of George Bailey. Clarence, eager to earn his wings, is told by God of a man on earth in need of help. He responds by asking God if the man is sick. God answers, “No, worse. He’s discouraged.”
That answer resonated with me that night. Although nobody enjoys experiencing a sickness of any kind, to be downtrodden in spirit is indeed a worse woe.
Discouragement is defined as the loss of confidence or enthusiasm. In short, dispiritedness. How does this happen? What is it that leads us to this barren state of being? Often the culprit comes in the form of unmet expectations or not making progress with goals despite great effort. Certainly, discouragement can creep it’s way into every aspect of our lives- financial, relational, occupational, spiritual, emotional, and physical. And while there are varying degrees to which one feels discouraged, there is one central theme: A loss of hope.
For instance, we lose hope that a relationship can be mended, that our bank account will be sufficient, that our ailments will be healed, or that we will obtain a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life. We even lose hope in the goodness and faithfulness of God. When there is no perceivable light at the end of the tunnel and all seems lost, discouragement resides within us. Such was the case with George Bailey. He could see no hope for the future and came to believe it would have been better if he had never been born. This certainly demonstrates the ultimate depth of disheartedness.
Additionally, the voice of discouragement yields destruction by breeding doubt, uncertainty, and fear. If you have experienced these effects, know you are in good company- for so did John the Baptist, Peter, and Thomas.
John the Baptist. This was the man who announced to the world, “Behold, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the the world,” (John 1:29). The man who proclaimed he was unworthy to untie the sandal straps of Jesus. The man who held the Son of Man in his arms as he simultaneously heard the voice of God and saw the Holy Spirit. This man, steeped in prison discouragement, doubted. So much so that he asked the disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). Those words could only have been spoken out of deep uncertainty and despair.
In the wake of Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter, the disciple who had boldly declared he would always stay by Jesus’ side, denied him three times. Peter, although he had a strong love and devotion for his lord, failed to grasp the true reason for Jesus coming to the world. It was Peter’s great hope that Jesus would overturn the power of the Romans and thereby grant freedom to the Jews. He did not comprehend that Jesus came to offer a better freedom- freedom from sin. When Jesus did not resist arrest by the Roman guards, Peter’s discouragement- his unmet expectations- lead him to fear for his life and deny his Savior.
In between the crucifixion and the resurrection laid the second day. Jesus was dead and buried and those who had been following him for three years were left in the wake of discouragement and angst. Despite the prophetic words Jesus had spoken about his return, nobody expected an empty grave. Upon hearing of his resurrection from the dead, Thomas stated he would only believe if he were to touch the hands and side of Jesus. Bitter discouragement prevented belief.
Have you felt the same? Can you relate to George Bailey, John the Baptist, Peter, and Thomas? I think at some point and time we all can. Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us there is nothing new under the sun and what has been will be again. Nobody is immune to discouragement and its ugly effects. And while discouragement may at times be inevitable, there is a remedy: Hope and Grace.
Grace. Unmerited favor bestowed upon sinners by a holy and loving God. Freely given and completely unearned. Instead of a harsh condemning lecture, Jesus responded to John the Baptist by saying to his disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” (Matthew 11:4-6). He could have rolled his eyes and scoffed at John the Baptist for losing faith. Instead, Jesus extended grace with a hope saturated reply.
Then there was Peter. I can’t imagine the anguish he felt the day Jesus was crucified. The guilt that must have consumed him after leaving the one he loved must have been unbearable. How the tears must have fallen when he heard the rooster crow. Instant shame and sorrow. At the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection what ran through his mind? What must he have felt? Joy? Hope? Most likely. But I’m sure there was also a great sense of anxiety about facing the one he denied. Perhaps he was expecting Jesus to say, “Peter, how could you?” Or, “Didn’t I tell you that you would deny me?!” Or, maybe worse, “Peter I want no part of you.” Instead, Jesus simply asked him if he loved him– three times. For each denial, Jesus gave Peter glorious and gracious redemption.
What was the response to “Doubting Thomas?” Jesus could have ignored him or chided him for his lack of faith. But when he appeared to Thomas a week after his resurrection, he said to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe,” (John 20:27). He honored Thomas’ request. We aren’t told what Thomas does next, only that he said, “My Lord and my God!” Undoubtedly, Jesus’ grace to Thomas strengthened his faith for the rest of his life.
And with us. In the midst of our discouragement, Jesus invites us to lean hard into his infinite grace. When we’re swimming in the waters of fear, doubt, and uncertainty we can be sure he will extend the same grace to us as he did to our brothers in Christ discussed above. Grace that increases our faith and restores us from the valley of guilt and shame. Grace that bids us to love him and trust his promises. Grace that is forever sufficient.
Finally, true and lasting hope extinguishes the flames of discouragement. Far too often we place our hope in the things of this world: money, jobs, status, relationships, and health. We are blessed to be stewards of these things but they are not to be our greatest treasure; for when we make them so, we create a misplaced hope- and misplaced hope always leads to despair. It seems David, the Old Testament poet and king, reminded himself of this truth when he wrote: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God,” (Psalm 42:5). Because God never fails us, our hope in Him will never be in vain.
And yet, there’s good news still; for the intersection of Christmas and Easter is our ultimate hope. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus made a way for sinners like us to become sons and daughters of God, complete with an inheritance that is imperishable and undefiled. This beautiful and unchanging truth is the source of our hope even in the depths of discouragement.
To be sure, there will be days when all feels lost. In those times, we can rest soundly in the grace of God and in the hope of our Savior. And when needed, we can read these words and take heart: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” These are the words written by a man who would know- a man forever changed by the grace and hope of Jesus. You can find them in 1 Peter 5:10.