The Disciplines of Life – Lesson #10: Desperation and Difficulty

This is the tenth lesson in our series, The Disciplines of Life. We have studied: Solitude; Discipleship; Dependability & Determination; Discernment, Decision & Duty; Declining Days, Deformity, & Disability; Danger, Daring and Darkness; Defamation and Defense; and Delight and Desire thus far. There are many disciplines that should be evident in the life of the Christian. In this lesson we want to look at the Disciplines of Desperation and Difficulty.

As we have been emphasizing in this series, these are called “disciplines” because they are not acquired without deliberate effort. Discipline is “Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 360). We have been using, as an anchor for this series, a book by V. Raymond Edman published in 1948 titled The Disciplines of Life. Although Mr. Edman was associated with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, many of the things he has written resonate with me. Mr. Edman appears to have had a love for alliteration, as all thirty-0ne of the disciplines he wrote about begin with the letter “D.” Another source that I have used for this series that is not so “contrived” is the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines edited by Warren Berkley and Jon Quin and published by Expository Files.

Desperation

Life can be tough. Even as Christians, we may sometimes find ourselves in circumstances that cause us to despair. Or as Edman describes it, “We cannot strive nor struggle, flee nor even faint; we can only cry unto God” (Edman, p. 121).

Consider the following examples …

Peter

In Matthew 14:30, Peter cried, “Lord, save me.” As we look at the context of that plea of desperation by the apostle, we remember that he had been enjoying the safety of the boat, when his impetuosity caused him to step out of it onto the water and begin walking to Jesus.  “But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. ‘Save me, Lord!’ he shouted.

Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. ‘You have so little faith,’ Jesus said. ‘Why did you doubt me?’

“We may not approve his impetuosity nor his human impertinence in attempting to walk on the sea; but we must admire his implicit obedience and his deep devotion to his Lord” (Edman, p. 122).

The Disciples

Mark tells of another night when the disciples were with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee:

35 As evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” 36 So they took Jesus in the boat and started out, leaving the crowds behind (although other boats followed). 37 But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water.

38 Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” 39 When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. 40 Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 The disciples were absolutely terrified. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “Even the wind and waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-41, NLT).

“That terrible thought, ‘Carest thou not?’ had been forming in their minds as the wind and wave rose higher, and the ship began to founder. Darkness of night, danger of storm, depths of the sea with death all about them, then in desperation the disciples gave vent to their pent-up fears, ‘Carest thou not that we perish?’” (Edman, p. 123).

We can experience those same kinds of feelings. We sing a song that asks “Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song, As the burdens press, and the cares distress, And the way grows weary and long? Does Jesus care when my way is dark With a nameless dread and fear? As the day-light fades into deep night shades, Does He care enough to be near? Does Jesus care when I’ve said ‘good-bye’ To the dearest on earth to me, And my sad heart aches till it nearly breaks Is it aught to Him? Does He see?” The resounding response of the chorus is, “O yes, He cares, I know He cares, His heart is touched with my grief; when the days are weary, the long night dreary, I know my Savior cares” (Does Jesus Care, WORDS: Frank E. Graeff, 1901).

In writing about this song, Robert J. Morgan says, “In his book, Lectures to My Students, Charles Haddon Spurgeon devoted a chapter to ‘The Minister’s Fainting Fits,’ warning his students of the dangers of discouragement and depression in the ministry. The chapter begins, ‘Fits of depression come over the most of us … The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.” He goes on to explain that, “A series of heartbreaks shattered his spirits, and Frank Graeff found himself in the unfamiliar valley of deep depress and despondency…. The truth of 1Peter 5:7 suddenly too hold of him ‘… casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Out of that experience, Frank wrote ‘Does  Jesus Care?’ with its series of commonly asked questions, followed by this resounding reply: O yes, He cares …” (Then Sings My Soul, p. 253).

The Tax Collector

Luke recounts the story of the Tax Collector

Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14, NLT).

“If he had been so minded, like many of his day and ours, he could have blamed his sinful condition upon his family background, his heritage, environment, circumstances, evil companion. He really never had a chance: a poor home, no education, the pitiless strife of the street, ward politics, the dishonest and trickery of tax-gathering. Of course respectable people like yonder Pharisee despised him; he despised himself. Not only did he not blame his unhappy and unfortunate fate, he also laid no claim to any merit in God’s sight, no prayers, no fasting, no tithing, nothing of the Law. He was just a miserable, lost sinner, an ‘extortioner, unjust’ (v.11). He could only blame himself, and pray, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ (v.13). And God had mercy upon him, instantly, completely; so that ‘this man went down to his home justified’ (v.14)” (Edman, p.125).

David

David testified:

When I refused to confess my sin,
    my body wasted away,
    and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
    My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Interlude

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
    and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
    And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. Interlude

(Psalm 32:3-5, NLT)

We need to have this same attitude when we sin. We must not bury ourselves in denial. We must not try to run away from responsibility and accountability. We must not seek to transfer blame to others. Let us duplicate the attitude expressed by David in another of his psalms.

From the depths of despair, O Lord,
    I call for your help.
Hear my cry, O Lord.
    Pay attention to my prayer.

Lord, if you kept a record of our sins,
    who, O Lord, could ever survive?
But you offer forgiveness,
    that we might learn to fear you.

I am counting on the Lord;
    yes, I am counting on him.
    I have put my hope in his word.
I long for the Lord
    more than sentries long for the dawn,
    yes, more than sentries long for the dawn. (Psalm 130:1-6, NLT)

George Matheson 

Erdman quotes George Matheson, Thoughts for Life’s Journey (pp. 266-267) to further illustrate this discipline of despair, “My soul, reject not the place of thy prostration! It has ever been the robing room for royalty. Ask the great ones of the past what has been the spot of their prosperity; they will say, ‘It was the cold ground on which I once was lying.’ Ask Abraham; he will point you to the sacrifice of Moriah. Ask Joseph; he will direct you to his dungeon. Ask Moses; he will date his fortune from his danger in the Nile. Ask Ruth; she will bid you build her monument in the field of her toil. Ask David; he will tell you that his songs came from the night. Ask Job; he will remind you that God answered him out of the whirlwind. Ask Peter; he will extol his submission in the sea. Ask John; he will give the palm to Patmos. Ask Paul; he will attribute his inspiration to the light that struck him blind. Ask one more – the Son of Man. Ask Him whence has come His rule over the world. He will answer, ‘From the cold ground on which I was lying – the Gethsemane ground; I received my scepter there.’ Thou too, my soul, shalt be garlanded by Gethsemane. The cup thou fain wouldst pass from thee will be thy coronet in the sweet by-and-by. The hour of thy loneliness will crown thee. The day of thy depression will regale thee. It is thy desert that will break forth into singing; it is the trees of thy silent forest that will clasp their hands” (Edman, pp.126-127).

Disciplined by desperation, we come to depend upon our God! Our Almighty God will deliver us! As we sing, “What A Mighty God We Serve!” “Our God is an awesome God!”

Difficulty

William H. Prescott

Edman relates the difficulties of William H. Prescott as he attempted to write his historical accounts, The Conquest of Peru and its companion, The Conquest of Mexico. Prescott first received an injury to one of his eyes, and then the other became inflamed making it debilitated for the rest of his life. He made up for his lost sight, by procuring the services of a secretary who read to him the resource material that he needed for his writing. He then used a writing-case to commit his thoughts to paper without the aid of sight.

“This is the discipline of difficult, understood and overcome only by the indomitable in heart. Only the undaunted, despite aching head and failing sight, could say that others could be in deeper difficulty than they. Lesser souls would be swallowed up in their own sickness, sorrows and silence” (Edman, pp145-146).

John Milton

John Milton became totally blind at the age of forty-four and was forced to give up public service. But he did not give up nor cease to actively pursue his passion. During this time, he brought forth his immortal masterpieces, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

Moses

“Moses had the handicap of age before he began his lifework. At forty, when life allegedly begins, he went into exile, to spend his days as an obscure shepherd of the desert. He endured the adjustments made necessary by the shifting from Pharaoh’s majestic court to a Midian sheepfold, with its solitude, silence and apparent uselessness. At eighty, when most men have retired from active service, he was called at the burning bush to become the Deliverer of his people. With reasons, he could object to this calling, saying ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ (Exodus 3:11).” (Edman, pp, 146-147).

Mordecai

“Mordecai knew the humanly hopeless handicap of racial prejudice. He was a Jew in a strange land, and knew by experience the bitterness of unbridled racial bigotry. He had to warn his niece, Esther, not to reveal her nationality (Esther 2:20). Haman’s wrath knew no bounds when he was told that Mordecai was a Jew (3:4); with the result that he ‘sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai’ (3:6). The plot proceeded temporarily without hindrance, to the pleasure of Haman; while Mordecai was overcome with fear and grief (4:1-3). Only the soul that has felt the heel of the oppressor and the fury of the sadist can sense the sorrow that was Mordecai’s” (Edman, pp. 147-148)

Matthew

As a tax-collector, Matthew was familiar with social prejudice. Palestinians of his day viewed him as a traitor, as selling himself to be a servant of the hated Romans. They classed the publicans with the lowest of the population: the sinners. Matthew, however, was not overcome with social stigma. He responded immediately to the Lord’s call, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9).

“Herein lies the discipline of difficulty: to recognize one’s limitation and handicaps; nevertheless, to rise up and do the impossible in spite of them. To yield to discouragement and difficulty is to be defeated. The handicap, I repeat, can be physical, racial, social, personal in any way; yet the soul that will rise up and follow the Saviour will know life that climbs with Bunyan’s Pilgrim the Hill Difficulty, to find on its summit the Palace Beautiful, whose windows face the sun-rising. Our discipline is to keep on climbing when sight is dim and strength is debilitated, when friends fail and foes are fierce, when handicaps hinder and hardships harry. God has use for the heart that no difficulties can deter!” (Edman, p. 149).

(Source: The Disciplines of Life, pp. 121-127, 143-149)

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