As ordinary mortals, even the most persistent optimists among us become discouraged at times. To be discouraged means to lose heart. Metaphorically and spiritually, the heart is the core of human energy, emotional connection, and drive for life. When we lose heart, we may become bored and restless with life, fearful of the future and anxious in the present, cynical about people or institutions, passive or distant in our relationships, and low on basic energy for daily tasks. We may even descend into the profound isolation of depression. Sources of discouragement seem endless. Perhaps we experience failure at some endeavor, or a person we trusted betrays us. A sudden loss changes our lives forever, a dreaded diagnosis is given, or a new perspective on reality shakes the foundations of our faith. Perhaps we feel our elected officials have failed us, our public social structures are crumbling, or that “the system” is rigged against us. Sometimes it seems life is just a series of curve balls in a game where survival requires a constant dance of repositioning ourselves to maintain any sense of balance or stability.
What resources from our faith tradition can offer the gift of encouragement, a restoring of heart to those who have lost it? I hope to suggest perspectives and practices that might help wobbly legs find a sense of solid ground underfoot. Solid ground gives a place to stand, to recover balance, to rest and be replenished. The familiar biblical image of God as “rock” suggests the kind of solidity and firmness we seek when our heads are spinning from the changing challenges of life. As we get “grounded in God,” we discover the gifts of reorientation and renewed strength. Our spirits are filled; our hearts come back to life; our courage returns.
From common human experience we empathize with fellow journeyers struggling with loss of heart. I believe the image of God in which we are created includes great generosity of heart, supplying each of us with a profound reserve of courage. Helping one another rediscover the gift of courage residing deep within is part of our calling as followers of Jesus. It offers us a way of maturing in Christ’s love. As a pastor and spiritual guide, I have always found it a great privilege and honor to accompany others on this journey into the fullness of what God yearns for us to be! I trust you have found or will find it to be so as well.
In our encouraging of others, we do not want to imply that the goal or norm of human life is to get past all suffering. Jesus tells his disciples before his death, “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Julian of Norwich, fourteenth- century anchoress and mystic, reflects on this truth: “He did not say: You will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted; but he said: You will not be overcome."
Life on earth involves us in suffering—our own and that of others. This is only natural in a finite world where life and death weave a constant dance. The simple truth is that we do not grow—physically, emotionally, or spiritually—without encountering, coping with, and learning from suffering. Certainly we learn far more from experiences that push us out of our comfort zones than from a life of smooth sailing. And as most of us discover, we cannot become truly empathetic or compassionate toward others if we have not known loss and hardship ourselves. Saint John of Kronstadt (nineteenth century) wisely counseled: “Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it; where there is no struggle, there is no virtue. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.”2
In the spiritual life, without suffering there can be no maturing into the fullness of our humanity. The way of the cross entails dying to our small, ego-centered life so that we may rise into our true selfhood—the identity that finds its center and ground in God. This true human identity is represented and fully embodied in Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). We, too, are created in the divine image, and as believers we are promised the destiny of being conformed to Christ (Rom. 8:29), in whom we recover the beauty and clarity of that image.
Whereas I do not believe God actively creates suffering for us, surely God allows us to undergo adversities with a continual hope that we will open up to the very real transformations they can work in us if we are willing. The questions we ask of one another and of ourselves in times of trial are important: What are you learning from this experience? How does it enlarge your view of life, of others, of yourself? Is there an invitation from God within this experience that is new or surprising to you—or perhaps urging you further toward something you already know? These are questions aimed at evoking our deeper wisdom and guidance from the Spirit dwelling within.
Nothing of our life’s experience is lost or wasted when we are open to grace—even if we have made terrible choices, affecting our lives and the lives of others for years; even if we bear and inflict permanent scars; even if we have lost years of productive work to chronic illness or depression; even if our life seems the most boring, meaningless existence possible. The Holy One takes it all into the immense humility of Christ for the repair and replenishing that only love can fashion. “The Ascension is Christ’s return to the heart of all creation. . . . Faith reveals that Christ, dwelling at the center of all creation and of each individual member of it, is transforming it and bringing it back, in union with himself, into the bosom of the Father.”
God has promised to use our life experiences in ways that build toward a new configuration of goodness: “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God” (Rom. 8:28). No matter what kind of mess we find ourselves in or create by our thoughtless distraction or willful rebellion, God continues the long, patient process of reweaving our broken threads into a new tapestry. This seems to be the divine job description: making heavenly gold out of human lead. Of course, God can do even more with our willing cooperation, since this is what we are created for!
What a powerful source of hope and encouragement this offers to us all. The great promises of our faith are incalculable gifts to those who believe them:
- God is with us always. (Josh. 1:5, 9; Matt. 28:20)
- Love, life, and light lie at the heart of all creation. (John 1:1-5; Eph. 1:9-10, 22-23; Col. 1:15-17)
- There is no need to be afraid. (Luke 2:9–11; 12:6-7, 32; 24:36-39; Matt. 6:25-33, 28:5-10; 1 John 4:18)
- The Spirit is within, and will guide us as we listen. (1 Cor. 6:19; John 14:25-26)
- The blessed life is to be found in God’s way: simplicity, humility, right relationships, mercy, purity, and peace. (Matt. 5:3-9)
- Peace and joy are the gifts of life in Christ. (John 14:27; 15:11; Eph. 2:14)
- The end of life on earth is but the beginning of something wonderfully new in God’s eternal reality. (John 14:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:16–5:5)
Our faith proclaims that ultimately God will prevail, unconditional love will reveal its fullness, the New Creation will manifest in glory, and—as Julian of Norwich saw in one of her revelations and put so memorably to words—“Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”4 This is our deep faith, our realistic hope, and the source, sustenance, and destiny of our love. What greater encouragement could we hope for?
Excerpted from: The Gift of Encouragement: Restoring Heart to Those Who Have Lost It by Marjorie J. Thompson ©2013 Abingdon Press. Used with permission.
Read an excerpt from: The Gift of Compassion: A Guide to Helping Those Who Grieve by Becca Stevens here