Without a doubt, Thomas Edison is the greatest inventor in US history. But what I admire most about Edison is how he handled failure and discouragement. In 1914, after ten years of experimenting on the storage battery without success, Edison’s finances were depleted. The only thing propping up his laboratory was film and record production. Then one night, a fire erupted in the film room. Fire departments from eight towns converged on Edison’s plant, but the flames were so intense that the firefighters might as well have been using squirt guns.
The next day, Edison directed one employee to lease a wrecking crane and another to rent machine shops around town. He said, “You can always make capital out of disaster. We’ve just cleared out a bunch of old rubbish. We’ll build bigger and better on the ruins.”1
In Nehemiah 4, the Israelites were also dealing with a bunch of old rubbish. They were rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, and halfway through this massive construction project, the people were discouraged. They were surrounded by rubble, and enemies threatened them from all sides. In verse 10, the Israelites said, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, yet there is much rubbish; and we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.” They were saying, “If we get one more piece of bad news, we’re going to collapse. We might as well hang it up.”
Have you ever felt that way? At some point in our lives, we all deal with discouragement. Lots of things can lead to discouragement: anger, worry, grief, fatigue, a lack of purpose, and even chemical imbalances in the brain.
The Path to Hope
How Nehemiah responded to the people in Nehemiah 4 illustrates the path from discouragement to hope. Let’s look at five decisive actions you can take when you feel discouraged.
Find Encouragement in Your Family
Nehemiah 4:13 says, “I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows.” Nehemiah put people together as families to work on the wall. Your family ought to be a place where you can find encouragement. If you come from a dysfunctional family, then you need a family of friends and church family—people who love you unconditionally and with whom you can find encouragement.
Remember God Is on Your Side
Nehemiah reminded the people in verse 14 that God was on their side: “When I saw their fear, I rose and I spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome.’” We, too, need to be reminded of the greatness and the awesomeness of God because it puts our problems in proper perspective.
We see an example of this in Numbers 13. Moses sent twelve spies into the promised land to check things out. Ten of the spies reported, in essence, “We cannot overtake the land. There are giants in the land, and they made us feel like grasshoppers.” Those spies had forgotten that God was on their side, and their perspective had become distorted. The same thing happens to you and me. Without God, we’re susceptible to being overwhelmed by our problems.
We need to remind ourselves of the greatness of God.
Do the Work God Has Given You
Don’t wait until the cloud of discouragement lifts before you start doing what God has called you to do. Look at Nehemiah 4:15: “All of us returned to the wall, each one to his work.”
Most of us wait until we feel right to do right. We have it reversed. Psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote, “You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action.”2 In other words, when you do right, you will start to feel right.
This is a biblical concept that goes back to the beginning. In Genesis 4:6, Cain was discouraged after God rejected his offering, and God said to him, “Why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?”
Do the work that God has already called you to do.
Enlist Other People to Help
In Nehemiah 4:19–20, Nehemiah told the people, “We are separated on the wall far from one another. At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there.” He established a place for the people to gather in the event of an attack.
That’s a principle we all need to remember: never try to fight your battles alone, or even within your own family. You need a group of believers who will surround you. Solomon said it this way in Ecclesiastes 4:12: “A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken” (NLT). Isolated people are defeated people. We need one another.
Serve Another Person in Need
When you’re discouraged, encourage another person who needs encouragement. Nehemiah 4:22 says, “Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.” Nehemiah was saying, “We need people to stay in the city after their shifts and guard the other people who are working. Even when you’re tired, protect one another.” Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re discouraged is to encourage somebody else.
You might think you don’t have anything to offer somebody else. But if you’re a Christian, you do have something to offer. You have the assurance that while trials will be challenging, our victory in Christ is certain. Remind yourself of that truth, and then find somebody to encourage. Why? Because the path from discouragement to hope is best traveled together rather than alone.
1. Charles Edison, “The Electric Thomas Edison,” in Great Lives, Great Deeds (New York: Reader’s Digest Association, 1964), 203.
2. Jerome Bruner, On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, expanded ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1997), 24.