Sunday, August 12, 2012

How To Deal With Discouragement

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 12, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Kings: 19: 4-8; Ephesians 4: 30-5:2; John 6: 41-51.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Nineteenth Sunday 2012]

How do you deal with discouragement?

That’s a very important question, since most of us get discouraged from time to time—or, at the very least, we’re  often forced to deal with situations that have the potential to get us discouraged.

To which the prophet Elijah would say, “Well, welcome to the club!”

In our first reading this morning, we heard about a very discouraged Elijah, who sat under a broom tree one day and prayed for death.

He was not suicidal—he wouldn’t have done any physical harm to himself (he knew better than that!)—but he was so discouraged as he sat there that he wouldn’t have complained at all if Almighty God had chosen to take him home at that precise moment.

A little background information would be helpful here.  Elijah lived way back in the 9th century, B.C., at a time in the history of Israel when most of the people—including the king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel—had compromised their faith and were living lives of idolatry and sin, worshipping Baal and other false gods.  Elijah did his best to battle this evil and lead his fellow Israelites to repentance and conversion, but it was an uphill fight all the way.  Day in and day out, he met up with all kinds of resistance—especially from the king and queen.

He finally had a direct confrontation with the prophets of Baal—all 450 of them—at Mt. Carmel.  As we are told in 1 Kings 18: "Elijah approached all the people and said, 'How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.'  But the people did not answer him.  So Elijah said to the people, ‘I am the only remaining prophet of the Lord, and there are 450 prophets of Baal.  Give us two young bulls.  Let them choose one, cut it into pieces, and place it on the wood, but start no fire.  I shall prepare the other and place it on the wood, but shall start no fire.  You shall call upon the name of your gods, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.  The God who answers with fire is God.’  All the people answered, ‘We agree!’”

Now unfortunately, for the prophets of Baal, it didn’t go very well that day.  They danced around and engaged in all kinds of weird antics while they begged Baal to send fire from heaven to consume their bull—but nothing happened.  However, when Elijah prayed to God--the one, true God--the Lord sent a fire from heaven that consumed not only Elijah’s bull, but also the one that the false prophets of Baal had prepared.

And that caused the day to get even worse for the false prophets of Baal, because Elijah immediately had them all taken down to a nearby brook and executed!

Well, as you might imagine, Queen Jezebel was not too pleased with all this, and she immediately swore an oath that she would have Elijah killed within 24 hours.

Which is the point in the story where today’s first reading begins.  Elijah, discouraged that most of the people have still not repented, and afraid because Jezebel is trying to kill him, takes off into the desert where he comes upon this broom tree.  And after he sits down under it, he says to God those words we heard a few moments ago: “This is enough, O Lord!  Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

God, thankfully, doesn’t decide to “take” Elijah by allowing him to die (although he does eventually take him to heaven alive on a flaming chariot!). 

But in the meantime he helps Elijah to deal with his discouragement.  And here’s where we can learn some important lessons for our own lives: lessons that we can apply in the midst of the discouraging situations we face.

The first point to be made here is that God provided two types of remedies for Elijah: natural and supernatural. 

First, the natural.  As we heard a few moments ago, shortly after Elijah fell asleep under the broom tree, the Lord sent an angel to him with some food and drink: specifically a hearth cake and water.  And the angel told Elijah to consume this food and drink twice, so that he would have sufficient strength to make the long journey that he needed to make to Mt. Horeb.

The lesson here for us should be clear enough: To battle discouragement in our lives we need to take advantage of all the good, natural remedies at our disposal.  Healthy eating, exercise, sufficient rest, counseling and/or spiritual direction—and sometimes even medication: these are some of the means—the natural means—that God gives us so that we can deal successfully with discouraging situations.

As long as the natural remedies in question are morally good, we should not hesitate to utilize them.

But, if we want to be like Elijah, we won’t stop there—although that is where Elijah “stopped” in today’s first reading.  The text we heard a few moments ago ended with his arrival at Mt. Horeb after a walk of 40 days and 40 nights.

But the story continued.  After Elijah arrived at Mt. Horeb something very important happened to him: He had a powerful encounter with God in prayer.  In a famous scene from the Old Testament, Elijah met God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

This provided Elijah with an added supernatural remedy for his discouragement—which is what we should also seek for parallel situations in our lives.  In this regard, I don’t think it was a coincidence that we heard these words in today’s responsorial psalm: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.  Look to him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame.  When the afflicted man called out, the Lord heard, and from all his distress he saved him.”

I’m sure Elijah would say a big “Amen” to that!

It was also not a coincidence that our second reading today was about forgiveness and about getting rid of our sins.  St. Paul said, “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice.  And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

Unforgiveness is incredibly destructive.  Any good psychologist or spiritual director will tell you that.  In fact, you could say that what cancer is to the body, unforgiveness is to the soul.  And so it shouldn’t surprise us that unforgiving people are much more likely to experience deep discouragement than forgiving people are.

Actually, any unrepented, serious sin can make discouragement worse—which is why the sacrament of reconciliation is one the most important supernatural remedies we have for the condition!

This means that as baptized, practicing Catholics in 2012, we are actually in a much better position than Elijah was in back in the 9th century, B.C.  Yes, he was able to receive supernatural help to battle his discouragement through prayer—for example, by encountering God on Mt. Horeb in that “tiny whispering sound.”  But we have much more assistance available to us.  We not only have the opportunity to receive supernatural help from God by praying on a daily basis; we also have the opportunity to receive God’s help where Elijah couldn’t, namely, through the sacraments—especially confession and the Eucharist.

Was it a coincidence, therefore, that the Eucharist was the focus of today’s gospel passage from John 6?

I don’t think so!  

That was by design—God’s design!

So the bottom line is this: Many people (including many Catholics) battle their discouragement by using natural means only: with good food, exercise, rest, etc.  But there’s something lacking in that approach.  As I once heard a speaker say, “When you battle a problem [like discouragement] by using natural means only, you get only natural results; but when you tackle that same problem with natural and supernatural means, you get natural and supernatural results.

As we just heard, with the help of God, Elijah the prophet used both in battling his discouragement.

May we always follow his example in battling ours.