Why are you cast down O my soul and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Psalm 43:5
Discouragement is real among God’s people. To deny it is folly, and to hide it is useless. Not too long ago, I prayed that God would teach me to look at emotional pain through his eyes and not mine. I have shed lots of tears since then as I began to see the depth and complexity of the struggles that are all too common among women, regardless of where we may be in our journey with Christ. Despondency plagues new converts and mature believers alike.
I am aware that it will be impossible (and pridefully ambitious) to embark on a thorough discussion of discouragement in this blog. That is not my intention and it is definitely beyond my expertise. I just wanted to share what I consider one of the best illustrations of this difficult state, through John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (my all-time favorite allegory). Meet the Slough of Despond – “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.” Christian, the main character of the story, fell into the Slough of Despond until Help came along and pulled him out. In their conversation, Help asked “Why did you not look for the Steps?” Christian replied, “Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way, and fell in.”
It is true that the slough of despond is a place we all go through on our way to the “Celestial City” but we are not meant to remain there. While it may seem inevitable to fall into it, I believe God’s loving desire is to pull us out of it. Please understand that I’m not saying all suffering and struggle is bad. (Didn’t I pray to become malleable clay in the Potter’s hands? Just last week?). I am referring specifically to a prolonged state of hopelessness and emotional defeat that is prevalent even among the most committed servants of God. The slough of despond may stop us for a time, but thanks be to God, it is not our final destination.
“True, there are, by the direction of the Lawgiver, certain good and substantial Steps, placed even through the very midst of this Slough.” John Bunyan tells us we are not without help. The Steps – the Word of God, the promises of God, the means that He provides – they’re right there in the very midst of our despondency, and Help (the Holy Spirit) reminds us of where they are. John 16:13 says, When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…And what does knowledge of the truth do to us? John 8:32“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
There was once a powerful king who also found himself in the slough of despond. David said “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” Psalm 40:1-2
My prayer is that the slough of despond becomes a place that ultimately proves the futility of self-reliance; that it will be a quicksand for the ego (in its deceptive form known as self-pity) and where all self-imposed burdens of guilt, resentment, bitterness simply sink into oblivion. I pray that in the slough, we would lift our eyes to the hills and know that our help is in God alone; our keeper will never slumber (Psalm 121:1-2).
In this life, we will be discouraged. Praise God it doesn’t mean we have to be defeated. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry ‘Abba Father’.” Romans 8:15 Yes, “My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26