Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.—Matthew 11:28
Depression occurs for a number of reasons. The mental health community classifies depression as “an illness that can affect the way we eat, sleep, and feel about ourselves, and others. Severe depression is not usually a condition that can be “willed” away. Symptoms can last for weeks, months, or even years. There are often medical conditions that lead to depression. There is a distinction, however, between the severe effects of depression and the more common feelings of discouragement.
Events or circumstances that enter our lives are often the source of discouragement. This was the case with the apostle Peter. His discouragement was the result of specific external circumstances, as well as certain actions he had taken. These caused him to be deeply discouraged, though not clinically depressed.
Peter by nature had a strong and positive personality. He was not generally prone to discouragement. Yet through the circumstances that led to the death of our Lord, we see him behaving in a way that was contrary to his natural disposition.
It is entirely understandable why Peter would be despondent after the crucifixion. Jesus had told the disciples on a number of occasions about his impending death, yet they all seemed incapable of accepting it. That was a natural reaction. People often choose not to believe things they do not want to happen. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a newly-proclaimed king, thoughts of his death were far from their minds. They were undoubtedly thinking about his new incoming kingdom rather than the death of their beloved king.
Being without their Lord was unthinkable for Peter and the others. How could they survive without him? Who would plan their work and assign them their tasks? Who would explain things and comfort their fears?
Peter’s despondency began in the Garden of Gethsemane, the last night he was with Jesus. There was something different about that night, but Peter and the others were not prepared for what was to happen. We see in Peter’s experiences in Gethsemane some of the elements that lead to discouragement: unexpected tragic events and uncertainty about what course to take. These led to a bewildered state for all the disciples. Jesus had made it clear when being arrested that the disciples were to be left alone, so when Jesus was taken away they must have wondered what they should do.
Peter chose to follow the crowd to the home of the high priest where Jesus was being interrogated. It was a courageous act to undertake alone. However, his courage soon failed him under the questioning of those in the courtyard: “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” declared one woman. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said (Matthew 26:69,70, NIV).
Peter’s fear led him to suppress his conscience and conviction to Jesus. Two more denials followed. With an oath and with cursing Peter again denied, saying, “I do not know the man.” Only hours earlier Jesus had said that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster would crow (John 13:38). In one of the most emotionally piercing moments that anyone has ever experienced, Peter’s heart was struck cold when he heard the first rooster crow. It is remarkable that the common sound of a rooster could cause such an emotional reaction. When the sound awakened Peter’s consciousness, he realized what he had done. He had said earlier, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (Matthew 26:33). He left the courtyard and wept bitterly.
There were certainly understandable reasons for Peter’s discouragement. Peter perceived the crucifixion of Jesus as a tragedy of insurmountable proportions. In addition to carrying the burden of guilt for his three denials, he also mourned the death of his beloved Master. These mental burdens made Peter morose and withdrawn. His normal enthusiasm and zeal were gone, buried beneath a blanket of sorrow.
Coping with Death
One lesson we see in Peter’s experience is the lesson of dealing with death. How does a consecrated Christian handle the death of one who is dearly loved, whether a spouse or a friend? Some are not very understanding of this struggle. They assume that one’s faith should make them rejoice that their loved one is with the Lord, or is awaiting the resurrection. When such rejoicing takes place, we share in the joy. However, when others struggle with a loss, we must not think they are being weak. Losing a “soul-mate” can forever change us. Silence replaces the daily interchange so often enjoyed in the past. Stillness becomes a constant reminder of the empty seat a loved one once filled. Discouragement sets in and life is tinged with sadness.
How can a Christian change this normal reaction to death? For the disciples the answer came quickly. After only three days, they began seeing evidence that the Lord was alive again. When the proof became undeniable, it lifted their hearts; the sorrow of death was gone. But our sorrow is not so easily lifted. Loneliness continues and discouragement becomes a constant companion. It is a time of great testing. At some point, a choice must be made. If allowed to continue, these experiences can paralyze us. If, on the other hand, after a time of mourning, we choose to deal with our discouragement, we can find a way to rejoice once again.
The consecrated Christian possesses a great advantage. The key that lifts us from the depression of losing a loved one can be found only in the Lord. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It is often when we experience great loss that we turn to the Lord and it can be a true blessing. Pastor Russell wrote, “Few have ever been saints without passing through sorrowful experiences … Mourning is necessary for us before we can appreciate the comfort which God has provided for this particular class” (Reprints, p. 5003).
We also remember that Jesus was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Because sorrow was such a part of our Lord’s earthly experience, the sorrowing Christian heart knows that it can turn to him for understanding and comfort. He knew sadness. He dealt with emotional pain. He experienced discouragement. As we become more acquainted with Jesus, we learn to come to him as an understanding friend. We learn the value of heart sympathy for those feeling the same pain we have felt. Yes, pain is part of the process, but the reward in what we can learn is priceless. This practice of turning to the Lord and seeing our experiences through his eyes adds meaning to the loss of a loved one. The experience should change us, and in time, the change should make us stronger. When we accept our sorrow as part of our sin-offering experience, we see the tremendous value in it.
The natural reaction of a sorrowing heart is often to withdraw oneself from others. Jesus however encouraged us to reach out to others. After inviting us to come to him for rest he added the words “Take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). A yoke is a symbol of servitude. One of the Lord’s balms for a discouraged heart is service for others. When we work for the blessing of others, we receive positive energy in return that lifts us from discouragement and self-pity. We find worth in servitude. It is a natural consequence of bearing the Lord’s yoke. Being with brethren on a regular basis is another balm for a discouraged heart. Finding our kinship in them helps us see ourselves as part of a wonderful family. We need that sense of belonging to help us feel loved and needed.
A Guilty Conscience
In addition to the sorrow he felt over the Lord’s death, Peter’s guilty conscience continued to distress his heart. In his mind, he had committed a grievous sin. Though all the other disciples had abandoned Jesus, none had so directly denied him. Once he understood that God had foreordained Jesus’ death as part of his plan, he no longer sorrowed for that death. But discouragement still filled his heart. How could his soul be revived knowing what he had done? He may have put himself in the same category as Judas the betrayer. It was such a heavy weight for Peter to carry that even after knowing of the Lord’s resurrection he still returned to his fishing business (John 21:3).
Undoubtedly, the Adversary tried to use Peter’s struggle with guilt. Jesus had warned Peter earlier saying, “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). Jesus gave him this insight so Peter could understand that his very life was in jeopardy if he did not overcome the negative mental state that would later engulf him. Discouragement is a powerful weapon used against the New Creation. Simply understanding that it may be used against us by the Adversary may be helpful in seeing the need to combat it.
Sinful conduct is an understandable cause of Peter’s discouragement. The way Jesus dealt with him provides a marvelous insight into the gracious and benevolent heart of our Lord. He was not angry with Peter, nor was he offended. His only desire was to restore and bless Peter. Jesus knew the thoughts that troubled Peter, and the knowledge that finally released him from the captivity of discouragement was when Jesus told him the manner in which he would die. In essence, Jesus said that Peter’s service to the brethren would result in his martyrdom (John 21:18,19). There was a great deal of implied meaning in Jesus’ words. It indicated first, that Jesus had forgiven Peter for his denials, and second, that Peter could still be a productive and valuable servant.
The Process of Forgiveness
Illustrating the process of forgiveness through one of the chief apostles provides a significant lesson. There are times when we will have legitimate reasons for being discouraged. Possibly, we, too, have committed a grievous sin. A natural response might be discouragement. Discouragement may actually be an indication that our consciences are tender. The Lord saw the heart of Peter in spite of his actions. He didn’t have to condemn Peter. Peter was doing that to himself. The Lord’s role was to comfort Peter and let him know that he was still loved and appreciated.
The apostle wrote words so often remembered when we examine our struggles with sin: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15,16).
Here is the gift of grace that helps us deal with our discouraging sins. Our “high priest” knows our frame. He knows we are weak, fallen creatures. In spite of our shortcomings, he encourages us to come boldly to the throne of grace where we will find a merciful Lord, one ready to bear us up and forgive us. The apostle John adds, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
Life can be discouraging when we want so much to serve faithfully, yet so often fall short. It is good to be sensitive to sin. However, it is also vital to know that God has provided the ransom to cover our sins, and a high priest to administer mercy and grace.
Two Paths Leading to Discouragement
In Peter’s experience we see two of the many elements that lead to discouragement: sorrow of death and guilt over sin. Both sources of discouragement have their antidotes in the Lord. We must never allow discouragement to overwhelm us. It is a device of the Adversary. The Lord has given us the tools to overcome all obstacles in the narrow way and we are expected to apply them. When we do, we will be triumphant in the circumstances of life, and can rejoice from the very depths of our being: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).