May 8, 2020

What to do When Discipleship Seems Hopeless

One of my trainees chose alcohol over a job this week.

I was hopeful that she would choose employment, but she thought she’d find hope at the bottom of the bottle, again. What breaks my heart most is not that she struggles with alcoholism; it’s that I’m not sure when the struggle will cease. Even worse, I fear that her struggle may conclude in a way that will harm her, even death. We’ve been meeting for over a year. To be sure, it’s been a year filled with many victories—for which we’ve fervently prayed—but this week, I’m discouraged.

Ups and Downs

Part of my job as a Gospel Worker at One Hope is not just to connect individuals to employment opportunities (unemployment is extremely high in our community), but more importantly, to connect them to individuals who will share the gospel with them. The good news of Jesus Christ is that He died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:1–4).

The reality of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection permeates every aspect of the Christian’s life. Not only does it provide hope for life in this age, it also secures for us a glorious future in the age to come. This hope is greater than any human promise ever made or conceived of. We look forward with certain hope that our Savior will come back to reign. On that great day, everyone who trusts in Christ will be free from sickness, the evil elements of nature, hell, the wrath of God, and ultimately death itself.

Now, it should be enough to hear this truth once be changed forever—free from doubt, discouragement, anxiety, and addiction. But our bodies are frail and fickle. Sin, though no longer our master, still infects us. The battle with it is real. At times, by God’s grace, we prevail. But other times, we don’t. And this can be cause for great discouragement. I’m not immune from the effects of a discouraged heart, and neither are you.

If you’ve been a Christian for any number of years, you’ve experienced the many highs, lows, and curveballs that life throws at you. Simply put: discipleship is not easy—whether personal or corporate. And in poor communities, we face challenges that are unique. One day, it can seem like someone we’ve been discipling is growing in the Lord. Naturally, we’re encouraged. Then, in the blink of an eye, something goes wrong. That person runs back to their sin, and we’re deflated and dejected. It’s painful.

But Christian: take heart. You’re not alone. When discipleship seems hopeless, here are three things I’ve sought to do to—with God’s help—to keep going.

1. Look to the Past

In 2 Corinthians 3:8, Paul says that he was “burdened beyond his strength”. Christian, do you feel that way? Do you feel as though you have been stripped of resources? Of encouragement? Even of the ability to keep going? Take heart, you’re not alone.

There are brothers and sisters in the faith who have experienced and endured the blows that loving and following Jesus brings. He’s worth it. If you read the whole of 2 Corinthians, you’ll notice that Paul doesn’t seek to minimize his sufferings. Rather, he’s honest and transparent. He even says that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8).

So here’s my point: It’s healthy to look at the experiences of past saints, not simply for comparison or commiseration, but that we might see where they placed their hope. When life felt hopeless for our brother Paul, he looked to the object of his faith. Paul recounted the times God had delivered him from deadly perils like the one he was facing, and it grew his confidence in God, who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:9).

So Christian, look to the past to offer comfort and hope for the present.

2. Draw near to God

Every trial is an opportunity to grow closer to God. James tell us to “count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1:2) Now, James doesn’t expect us to be masochists—somehow taking pleasure in our pain. Rather, the point he is making is that the pursuit of Christ in the midst of suffering grows our intimacy with God. We find that we have all that we need in the nearness of the Lord.

3. Return to Your Refuge

Discipleship can be a lonely journey. Even when we’re surrounded by supportive friends and family in our local church, there can still be depths of loneliness that only one’s own soul knows. Believers can be tempted to either minimize their feelings or make their feelings Lord. Neither is a good option. Instead, when discipleship seems hopeless, confess your feelings to the Lord. Make known to Him your doubts, fears, and pain. Then, run steadily to the only source of refuge.

Join the Psalmist as he expresses trust in God amid being abandoned by friends, being persecuted by enemies, and enduring the many disappointments in life. We will endure various trials in life. Even still, we can confidently proclaim: “[The Lord is] my refuge, my portion in the land of living.” (Ps. 142:5)

We are not exempt from suffering and the various discouragements that come along with discipleship. We can, however, grow in a deeper and intimate relationship with the One who takes thought (Ps. 40:17) and cares for us in the midst of the challenges.

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