How do you encourage someone after a tragic loss? How do you minister to someone languishing in discouragement? There’s no simple answer, and certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. The most helpful initial responses are counterintuitive: presence, sympathy, listening, and hands-on help. Inexperienced counselors or fix-it friends often err by rushing to offer solutions and explain truth before the person has absorbed the tragedy or had the chance to explain their despair.
However, in every relationship, the time comes to speak truth in order to provide perspective and stability. A few months ago, a student emailed me asking for advice about dealing with overwhelming discouragement. We had already talked in person about the difficulties she faced in life, but her trials had multiplied and she was wanting more concrete guidance on dealing with despair. I share the meat of my reflections here because her request for advice forced me to write down some thoughts I’d shared with others struggling in similar ways. There’s much more to say, of course, and many other important angles to address. But here’s one angle I have found essential when wrestling with lasting discouragement or depression.
<> <> <> <> <>
I would encourage you to spend time reading and re-reading Psalm 77. In the first nine verses, Asaph bemoans his life and his suffering, questioning God and wondering if God is truly who he promises — a God of enduring love, a God of gracious promises, a God who is kind and compassionate toward us. In the last ten verses (vv. 11-20), Asaph resolves that he will remember God’s mighty and gracious works on behalf of his people. Asaph reminds himself that despite what he feels and senses, God is consistent and good and stable and loving. Asaph specifically reminds himself of the Exodus, when God freed the Israelites from 400 years of slavery and abuse and brought them into their own land. These events show that God is truly powerful, faithful, and good, despite the dark circumstances in our lives or the painful feelings in our heart.
You have legitimate reason to feel sorrowful, broken, and overwhelmed, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about your grief. Suffering and death are horrible, and the Bible is the story of how God is redeeming his people and his creation from sin and its horrible effects. Grief and devastation are biblical and right responses to the sin in our hearts and the destruction in our world.
At the same time, we tend to question God when our experiences grow dark. This is like questioning the presence of the sun because clouds have rolled in. Remember that the sun doesn’t change — its position doesn’t change, its nature doesn’t change, its light doesn’t change, and its warmth doesn’t change. But every 12 hours we experience a deep darkness, and often even the daytime is darkened by clouds. When this darkness comes (in our circumstances or in our emotions), God has not changed at all. Only our situation or our feelings have changed. As you meditate on Psalm 77 and learn to preach to yourself about who God is and what He’s done (like Asaph does), you will find that your feelings will be dictated less by the darkness of the clouds (which you see and feel) and more guided by the presence of the sun (which you believe and know).
In order to deal with and conquer overwhelming feelings of grief and despair, you will have to read and re-read and memorize and meditate on the truths of God’s Word. After you spend some time in Psalm 77, I can recommend some other passages to you. Only God’s Word contains truths that are so real and powerful that they can uphold you when your heart is failing. Only the Bible has the truth that can re-orient you when you feel confused and lost in the darkness of grief. Only the Bible can re-introduce you to your God who loves you with a covenant love and who holds you securely at all times.
None of what I’m saying is meant to minimize your pain and struggle. You should grieve honestly and freely because suffering and death are grievous things. However, I hope that as you walk with your gracious Father through this trial, you will also learn practically how to remind yourself of the truth of God’s Word which gives real stability when our circumstances and emotions are shaking uncontrollably.
When you return [to your spiritual community], I would encourage you to talk with your friends and leaders about what you’re going through. Having fellow believers walk with you through this time of deep pain will be very important. As they comfort you, also allow them to challenge you. This is a great opportunity to grow deeper in your relationship with Christ and more mature in your walk with him. These women are faithful believers and wise counselors who can help you — both by comforting and challenging you in love.
We love you and have been praying for you as a staff. Thanks for opening up your life to us.