Many things may seem to conspire easily to cast us down. Discouragement is a temptation that robs us of our blessings and spiritual strength. How can we rise above our fears and concerns? The great danger is when discouragement dissuades us from prayer and makes God seem distant. God is the source of life, strength and hope and we are truly debilitated when not consciously trusting Him. When David was in the worst of circumstances – distressed, having lost everything and his life in danger – he encouraged himself in God (1 Samuel 30:6). This is the antidote to discouragement. But how do we apply it?
John Dickson (c.1629-1700) preached a sermon on this verse that gives valuable counsel. It is important to remember that it was preached by one suffering persecution to those suffering persecution. The distress they faced was not only hardship but also potentially losing everything, being imprisoned and executed.
Dickson was minister of Rutherglen. Almost as soon as Charles II came to the throne he was imprisoned for “seditious” sermons against the government. When he was removed from his charge by the government he continued his work by preaching in the fields, mostly at night. Hunted by government troops, he was eventually arrested in 1680. He was sentenced to imprisonment on the Bass Rock. This is a very high rock in the sea off the Scottish coast purchased by the government expressly for imprisoning presbyterian ministers. Along with many others he suffered much in those fearful conditions. Yet, he also experienced spiritual blessing in fellowship with Christ in this dismal place. In fact he wrote various letters full of spiritual joy from prison.
The following is extracted and updated from Dickson’s sermon, which was preached at Little Govan in 1675. Dickson says that “God is the best foundation of encouragement for the people of God in time of distress. ‘God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in the time of trouble: we will not fear though the earth be removed’ (Psalm 46:1). I will not be afraid. Why? Because the Lord is the sure shelter of His church and people”. He gives three main helps for the discouraged to encourage themselves in God:
1. Look Back to God’s Gracious Dealings
O Christian, you must cast your back on your former and past experiences. Think on the way the Lord communicated His kindness and love to you, or think of His power exerted to advance your journey heavenward.
David encounters growing enemies and adversaries, namely Goliath who defies the armies of the living God. The armies of the living God are ready to faint for fear of him. David comes and ventures a strange attempt in order to condemn the adversaries and raise up his own spirit. What does he do? He says, “I will venture”. “O”, says the king of Israel, “you are but a stripling, what can you do?” “But”, says David, “I will venture, O king. I was feeding my father’s flock: and there came a lion and a bear; and I slew them both. And the Lord that delivered me out of the paws of the lion and the mouth of the bear, will also deliver me out of the hands of this uncircumcised Philistine”. This former experience was a declaration of the Lord’s regard for him. “Upon that”, he says, “I will venture my blood for him”.
Afterwards, he challenges Goliath. He said unto David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with staves?” And he cursed him by his god and said he you give him flesh to be meat to the beasts of the earth etc. “But” says David, “hear me one word. You come to me with a sword and a spear, but I come to you in the name of the living God, whose armies you have defied”. He came in the strength of an old experience.
So, in a distressed condition, when the people of God are brought very low, they may yet insure themselves, and venture on difficulties by recapitulating former experiences. “There was once a day when Christ met with my soul and I was once obliged to say: ‘The Lord is my God’. I will now venture, my life and all I have on that, if the Lord calls me to do that”. “I was once at such and such a communion, and His loving kindness broke in on my soul so greatly that I did not care for anything”. Reflect on that old experience. Look back to the one whom you have avouched to be your God in the past. Why may He not be your God now also?
2. Look to God rather than Relations
The people of God ought to relieve their spirits in distress in these days by casting their eyes on Him instead of all relations. He is your father, husband, elder brother and best friend. He is the sympathiser with His people in all their afflictions. What a privilege to be related in this way to the king of saints and the glory of the Church! Not only this but old experiences show that He is your own God. Take Him therefore in all the relations in which He is given to your soul. This will give great encouragements against all distress.
David greatly encouraged himself with a consideration of these relations, when he says: “The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower” (Psalm 18:2). He encourages himself in this to bless and magnify the Lord.
3. Look to God’s Attributes
A view of the Lord in His divine attributes may help to hold up your soul, O believer. He is mighty to save, and to save you in all your distresses and complex difficulties. He is also infinite in counsel and can set your foot on a rock and establish your way before you. You cannot tell what will become of your own condition or the affairs of the Church of Christ. Cast it all on an infinite God. He sits at the helm of affairs, and steers the rudder and so points the ship wherever she is to go.
Even though we were overclouded with the greatest number of discouragements, yet God is the Lord. Psalm 97 and Psalm 99 both begin: “The Lord reigneth”. They speak of the earth rejoicing, the people trembling and God’s hand lifted up. If you consider His attributes in the right way you will see His mercy in them. He pities those that fear Him as a father pities his children (Psalm 103:13). Do you think He will put more on them than they are able to bear? He may lay troubles and trials on them but what does that matter? This is His way with the Church. What follows such trials? He relieves His people and delivers Jacob “out of all his troubles”. O, if we were rightly fortified against the distress of these times the children of God might have a pleasant life at this time. “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect?” Let Him then give His kindness to His people and secure their right for them. It is God that justifies me you may say.
You are happy, O believers that a right to benefit from such a powerful and wise God. He is one that guides His own with His everlasting arms around them. As the walls are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord encompasses His Church. He that neither slumbers nor sleeps watches over her. I’ll tell you, that your faintness of spirit arises from your lack of faith. “O ye of little faith, how long shall I be with you?” “When the centurion came to me”, says the Saviour about the condition of his servant, “I bade him go home, his servant would be healed. He did so, and found him whole at the set hour. But now, you doubt of my power and abilities. How long will you be without faith? If you had faith but as a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mountain, be removed and cast into the sea and it shall be done”. This seems to be the worst disaster that many Christians meet with – they will not venture their soul’s case on Him. Ye of little faith, why do you doubt?
Some Christians will venture their soul’s salvation on Him, but do not have confidence in Him concerning His Church and cause in the world. But do you not think He has an equal interest in both? Has he not promised to build the walls of his Jerusalem, and to put on the top stone with shouting, saying “Grace, grace unto it?” There are no grounds to doubt that Antichrist and all his anti-Christian crew shall yet be brought under the feet of the living God. And all these anti-Christian doctrines now taught and applauded by men, shall yet be trodden under foot.
He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (see 1 Corinthians 15:25-26). He shall tread under His feet the nations, piercing unto their very heart with the soles of His feet, driving them to pieces, as a potsherd is broken to shivers. If you were acquainted with Him aright, you would have faith in this. Though we are under a cloud for a time by the present discouragements, what does that matter? We cannot mistrust the Lord, who has promised that He shall reign in spite of all His enemies.
There are glorious days coming O Christians when that which concerns Himself shall be accomplished. The days are coming when these poor despised people that are now weeping, sighing, sobbing, and disheartened shall be raised up. Poor mean-spirited folk with no faith in God think that religion consists entirely in sighing and drooping. But this does not matter; it is the responsibility of the people of God to look up to the captain of their salvation, who through suffering was made perfect. He has promised to do all things for you that have this sure benefit in Him.
David encouraged himself in the Lord his God. Follow this example, and all shall be well.