Soul Food

Fresh, heartfelt essays and observations that uncover psychological insights from Scripture shared by Dr Mike. You’ll find these essays to be surprisingly honest, refreshingly candid, and truly inspiring . . . food for your soul.

Soul Food is a benefit exclusively for our Members. However, from time to time we post samples here which are freely available to all. We hope you enjoy!

Exploring Discouragement

Nehemiah 4:6-23

(Michael Ruth, PhD)

Discouragement is not a clinical term. Rather, it is a characteristic of depression. But we can take that a bit further. We can accurately look at discouragement as a mild form of acute depression.

In saying this however, I want to caution against taking this to mean that we are talking about mental illness here. There’s no need for us to reach for the diagnostic manual and slap a clinical label on the subject before us.

In short, we don’t need to pathologize this experience called discouragement.

We’re talking about something here that is very common – very normal even – for human beings. We all contract this emotional flu from time to time. Imperfect people in an imperfect world get discouraged.

Let’s define our basic term, discourage. To discourage is to deprive someone of their courage, to dis-courage them. So, discouragement is being in a state of experiencing a loss of courage.

But we’re not talking about courage in general. The kind of courage involved is very specific. It has to do with life itself.

What’s in play here is the type of courage – confidence, if you like – required to take on life.

It takes courage, personal confidence, to truly live – to aspire, to shoot for your dreams, to refuse to settle.   

(This is precisely why we have an upcoming course for our Members entitled The Courageous Act of Being. The subject is such an important one and we can’t wait do a dive into this with our Members.)

For your convenience, I’m including our primary text for today’s Soul Food, Nehemiah 4:6-24, below:       

             6 We kept at it, repairing and rebuilding the wall.[1] The whole wall was soon joined together and halfway to its intended height because the people had a heart for the work.                   
              7 When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repairs of the walls of Jerusalem were going so well—that the breaks in the wall were being fixed—they were furious. 8 They put their heads together and decided to fight against Jerusalem and create as much trouble as they could. 9 We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
              10 But soon word was going around in Judah, “The builders are pooped, the rubbish piles up; We’re in over our heads, we can’t build this wall”.
              11 And all this time our enemies were saying, “They won’t know what hit them. Before they know it we’ll be at their throats, killing them right and left. That will put a stop to the work!” 12 The Jews who were their neighbors kept reporting, “They have us surrounded; they’re going to attack!” If we heard it once, we heard it ten times.
              13 So I stationed armed guards at the most vulnerable places of the wall and assigned people by families with their swords, lances, and bows. 14 After looking things over I stood up and spoke to the nobles, officials, and everyone else: “Don’t be afraid of them. Put your minds on the Master, great and awesome, and then fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”
              15 Our enemies learned that we knew all about their plan and that God had frustrated it. And we went back to the wall and went to work. 16 From then on half of my young men worked while the other half stood guard with lances, shields, bows, and mail armor. Military officers served as backup for everyone in Judah who was at work rebuilding the wall. 17 The common laborers held a tool in one hand and a spear in the other. 18 Each of the builders had a sword strapped to his side as he worked. I kept the trumpeter at my side to sound the 

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alert. 19 Then I spoke to the nobles and officials and everyone else: “There’s a lot of work going on and we are spread out all along the wall, separated from each other. 20 When you hear the trumpet call, join us there; our God will fight for us.”
              21 And so we kept working, from first light until the stars came out, half of us holding lances.
              22 I also instructed the people, “Each person and his helper is to stay inside Jerusalem – guards by night and workmen by day.”
              23 We all slept in our clothes – I, my brothers, my workmen, and the guards backing me up. And each one kept his spear in his hand, even when getting water.

In the mid-400s BC Nehemiah was given permission from Artaxerxes, king of Persia, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls.  

Well into the work both Nehemiah and his coworkers found themselves in the throes of a discouragement that was both strong and real.

Let’s combine the biblical precepts from this passage with the relevant psychological processes and see what we can learn about discouragement. More importantly, let’s find some insights on how to confront and combat discouragement. There is so much more we can do than merely wait until that troublesome state of heart and mind abates of its own accord.

Common Causes for Discouragement (v 6-12)

1. Interpersonal Conflict

Our interactions with others can be a major sources of discouragement. Sanballat and Tobiah, the ringleaders in the attack on Nehemiah and his fellow countrymen who were rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, were relentless. They opposed the builders on every front. (The former was governor of Samaria, the latter, an Ammonite official.)

These two men and their consorts attacked Nehemiah and his companions with the intent of destroying both the workers and their work. They lied, they schemed, they did anything and everything they could think of to bring misery to these Jews. They attacked them both directly and indirectly.

It is highly unlikely you will face the full-on assault experienced by Nehemiah and his friends.

However, it is wise to reflect on your own relationships to see if there are any which bear the fruit of discouragement . . . and then to do what you can to mitigate that influence.

Distance yourself mentally and emotionally, if not physically as well, from those who discourage you.

opeless? 2 Corinthians 1:8.

2. Physical Exhaustion

Fatigue had set in on the workers – building a high rock wall around the complete perimeter of a city is demanding work – and their strength was beginning to give out.

Their exhaustion was compounded by the fact that they were being spread too thin. Due to the threat from their enemies (who planned an actual attack on the workers) they had to post guards to protect the workers as they labored. Build a while, stand guard a while, sleep a while became their routine.

Physically, as The Message translation puts it above, they were pooped!

It is so very easy for discouragement to set in when you are physically exhausted. If you are discouraged, see if you have been overdoing it. Momentary breaks throughout the day can go a long way toward sustaining your energy.

Becoming worn down mentally and emotionally is a short distance away when you are physically exhausted.

3. Emotional Exhaustion

You can hear it in the voices of the workers. Verse 10 gives us insight into how the physical exhaustion of the builders soon led to an emotional crisis. “There is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall”, they say.

The spoken: There’s just so much to do and there are so many hindrances (the enemies) and obstacles (the rubble). The implied: This job is just too big. We’re not going to be able to do this.

You can hear the plaintiff nature of their words. This is how we see things, and this is how we talk, when we are emotionally exhausted.

Discouragement is a state of mind . . . but that state of mind is often set by physical and emotional fatigue. 

Remember me saying on page one that discouragement is a kind of loss of confidence? Note their words in the passage above: “we cannot rebuild this wall.” These workers, once filled with positivity over their task (“the people had a heart for the work,” v6) are now in despair.

Emotional exhaustion changes our attitude and our confidence about the possibility of achieving a worthy goal. Some translations put the passage like this: we will never be able to rebuild the wall. Note how their words catastrophize the problem. The job has gone from difficult to impossible in their minds. It is worth noting, by the way, that the physical and emotional exhaustion hit them – as it so often does – when they were at the halfway point (v6).

At the heart of most giving up is a mindset change, a change from confidence and enthusiasm to a lack of confidence (life courage) and the onset of discouragement.

Discouragement, if allowed to continue and grow will almost inevitably turn to despair.

Despair is the belief and feeling that you’re in a bad place and that the situation is not going to improve.

The word translated despair in the New Testament carries the meaning of no passage, meaning no way out – that is, of hopelessness.[1]

Emotionally, when one is in despair it feels like the situation is without solution (again, hopeless). It is critical at such a time to remember that this is a feeling state, and not a statement of fact – of reality.

Clinically, despair is considered to be one of the most negative and destructive emotional states.[2] 

4. Toxic Influence

These workers who have before them a task that is at once both great and grand are being bombarded with negativity so that, in the words of the apostle Paul, they are “surrounded and battered by troubles” (2 Cor 4:8).

First, there are those same enemies we covered in #1 above. Sanballat, Tobias, and their minions have it in their minds to kill Nehemiah and his companions and thereby stop the rebuilding of the city wall (v11).

Hopefully, there is no one out to take your life – but as Christians we must remember that we have a great spiritual enemy who is out to wreck us. The New Testament speaks both clearly and concisely about our spiritual battle in Ephesians 6.

The second toxic influence might surprise you. It came from . . . their own people!

On ten different occasions their fellow countrymen came to them and said, “wherever you turn they will attack us”!

Note very carefully and important point – they didn’t come to be part of the solution, they came to drill in deeper about the problem.

Think about it. Had they come to help they couldn’t possibly have returned 10 times. They would have shown up once, settled in, and then pitched in on the work.

There is no one who can discourage you, bring you down, like someone who should be along side you helping – or at the very least, encouraging you, in a goal you’re trying hard to accomplish.

A spouse, family members, good friends . . . no one can discourage you like these people. We have had many clients who were regularly discouraged by family members but continually put up with it because, in their words, the person “meant well”. 

If you’re setting out to accomplish a meaningful goal, beware of toxic influence. And beware especially of toxic influence – however sincere the intent – coming from your own people. Don’t allow them to bring you down.

Nehemiah’s Cure for Discouragement (v 6-12)

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1 Image of Nehemiah’s wall – J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, eds., The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, digital edition.
2 Would it surprise you to learn that the apostle Paul had just such an experience of despair in his life – that the situation he was in was hopeless? 2 Corinthians 1:8.
3 American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2nd ed, 302.

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