It is one source of the eternal freshness of the Psalms that they tell the story of a struggling soul. They open a window on to that battlefield with which no other battle can be compared—the moral struggle of the individual with himself. And it is well that that story should be told in poetry, for there is nothing like poetry for describing battles. There is a rich suggestiveness in poetry, a rush of emotion, an enthusiasm that catches and conveys the excitement of the field. The dullest war correspondent grows poetical, his words become colored, vivid, picturesque, when he narrates the actions in the war. It was right, then, that for this warfare of the soul we should have the strong music of the Psalms.
Now as we read that story of the psalmist’s struggle, one of the first things to arrest us is the likeness of that battle to our own. Ages have fled, and everything is different since the shepherd-king poured out his heart in melody. And yet his failures and his hopes are so like ours, he might have been shepherding and reigning yesterday. We are so apt to think we fight alone. We are so prone to think there never was a life so weak, so ragged, so full of a dull gnawing, as ours. We are so ready to believe that we have suffered more than any heart that ever loved and lost. And then God opens up the heart of David, and we see its failures and we hear its cries, and the sense of loneliness at least is gone. He prayed as we have prayed. He fell as we have fallen. He rose and started again as we have done. He was disheartened, and so are we.
Speaking of disheartenment, there is one temperament that is peculiarly exposed to that temptation. It is that of the eager and sensitive and earnest soul. If you are never in earnest about anything, you may escape disheartening altogether. To be disheartened is a kind of price we pay for having a glimpse at the heavens now and then.
“The mark of rank in nature is capacity for pain;
And the anguish of the singer makes the sweetness of the strain.”
So the dull pain of being disheartened now and then is the other side of man’s capacity for enthusiasm. Give me a flood-tide and I shall expect an ebb. Give me an earnest, daring, generous, loyal heart, and I shall know where to discover melancholy.
And one word I should like to say here—never pass judgments in your disheartened hours. It is part of the conduct of an honest soul never to take the verdict of its melancholy. The hours come when everything seems wrong. And all that we do and all that we are seem worthless. And by a strange and subtle trick of darkness, it is just then we begin to judge ourselves. Suspend alt judgment when you are disheartened. Tear into fragments the verdict of your melancholy. Wait till the sunshine comes; wait till the light of the countenance of God comes, then judge—you cannot judge without the light. But in your darkness, stay yourself on God. Disheartenment is the wise man’s time for striking out. It is only the fool’s time for summing up.
No doubt there is a physical element in much disheartenment. There is a need of health; there is a lack of sunshine in the hills about it. When we are badly nourished and poorly clothed and live and sleep in a vitiated atmosphere, it is so very easy to lose heart. And all that inter-working of body and soul, with the reaction of a man’s environment upon his life, should make us very charitable to our neighbor. If you knew everything, you would find more heroism in a smiling face sometimes than in the most gallant deed out in South Africa. Make every allowance for a disheartened neighbor. Be charitable. Be helpful and be kind. But in the name of the Christlike character you strive for, make no allowance, brother, for yourself. Allowance is merely the pet name for excuse. It speaks of that tender handling of ourselves which is so utterly foreign to a vigorous manhood. I must make no excuse. I must be at it when I feel least like it. It is so much better to live nobly than live long.
Causes of Disheartenment
Now what are the common causes of disheartment? I think we can lay our hand on some, at any rate. And the first is the long and monotonous stretches of our life. “Variety’s the very spice of life, and gives it all its flavor,” sings the poet. And when there is no variety at all, no new horizon in the morning, but the same work and the same haunting worry, day in day out, we are all apt to grow disheartened. It is a dreary business walking in the country when the dusty road, without a turn or a bend, stretches ahead of you for miles. If there was only some dip and rise in the road, some unexpected scenery, some surprises, you would cover the distance and never think of it. It is the sameness that disheartens us. It is the dreary monotony of life’s journey until we lose all spring and spontaneity, all freshness of feeling, all power to react; and we live and work mechanically, deadly.
Another cause is bitter disappointment. When we have made our plans, and suddenly they are shattered; when we have built our castles, and the gale comes and brings them down in ruin at our feet; when the ties are wrenched and the loving heart is emptied, and in the bitterness of death the grave is full—we are all ready to be disheartened then. For where our treasure is, there shall our hearts be also; and when our treasure vanishes, our heart is gone.
The poet Wordsworth, whose calm, deep verse we should all keep reading in these hurrying days, tells us of the utter disheartening that fell on him after the French Revolution. He had hoped great things from that stormy time. He had hoped for the birth of brotherhood and freedom. He had thought that the race was going to shake its fetters off and proclaim the dignity of man at last. And when these dreams were blighted as they were, and instead of liberty and true equality there came the tumbril and the guillotine and blood, “I lost,” says Wordsworth,
“All feeling of conviction, and in fine
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.”
It was his terrible disappointment that disheartened him. Perhaps it is that, friend, that has disheartened you.
Another cause of the deepest disheartening is this: it is the apparent uselessness of all we do. It is the partial failure, it is the lack of progress, it is the fact that I strive and never seem to attain that lies at the root of spiritual despondency. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” says Andrea. And this very psalm from which we took our text, that thrills and wails with spiritual depression, begins with the cry of the soul after the Infinite “as the hart pants after the water-brooks.” It is the other side of my glory, that disheartening. It is the witness of my kinship with infinitude. I am never satisfied: there is always another hilltop. I am never at rest: there is a better somewhere. And so I am disheartened—fool!—because I am something better than a beast and have been made to crave, to strive, to yearn, to hope—unsatisfied—till the day break and the shadows flee away.
Advice Against Disheartenment
Now I shall venture to give some advice against disheartenment (I have received help here from the sermons of Dean Paget), and the first is this: disheartenment can often be dispelled by action.
A friend who knew Robert Browning well has said of him that one of his priceless qualities was that he always made effort seem worthwhile. You came into his presence restless, wearied, with all the edge taken off moral effort by the doubts and criticisms of this troubled age, and you left him feeling that in spite of a thousand doubts, the humblest effort heavenward was worthwhile.
O, how I wish that every young man and woman could feel the same thing! For what we want is not more light. What we want is more quiet fortitude. It is to believe that effort is worthwhile. It is to hold it, though the world deny it, that man shall not live by bread alone. And though it is very easy to preach that, and we read it and sing it like a common thing, there is the power of God in it against moral collapse, and it carries the makings of moral heroism on its bosom.
And this is my second counsel to the disheartened. Remember, friend, what others have to suffer. Look around you and see the burden of your neighbor and mark the patience and sweetness of the man, until, in that great brotherhood of trial, you ask God to forgive your gloom and bitterness.
In the theater of the ancient Greeks—and the theater was religious, it was not vulgar then—they played great tragedies and brought the sorrows and passions of the noble on the state. And the men and women of Athens went to see them, and by the portrayal of these mightier sorrows, their own so shrank into an insignificance that they went home with something of new hope in them and the determination to be braver now. There are such tragedies today, my friend, and you cannot only witness, you can help. “When you are quite despondent,” said Mr. Keble, “the best way is to go out and do something kind to somebody.”
And lastly, in your hours of disheartenment, just ask if there was ever a man on earth who had such cause to be disheartened as our Lord. What griefs, what exquisite sorrows, and what agonies!—what seeming failure, what crushing disappointment! Yet on the very eve of Gethsemane and Calvary our wonderful Lord is talking of His joy. And when heart fails and faints, and I lose all will power, and my arm hangs helpless, and my soul seems dead, there is nothing like coming right to the feet of Jesus and crying with Peter, “Lord, save me or I perish.” It is then that I take heart again to sing—
“The night is mother of the day,
The winter of the spring,
And ever upon old decay
The greenest mosses cling.
Behind the cloud the starlight lurks,
Through showers the sunbeams fall,
For God who loveth all His works,
Hath left His hope with all.”