This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear. (Haggai 2:5)
The Old Testament book of Haggai has much to teach us about facing discouragement. These lessons are of particular importance for those facing discouragement in their work to help those who are vulnerable — for example, the social workers, community organizers, fundraisers, teachers, legal advisors, volunteers, and even donors.
In the book of Haggai, we see the people who are working to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem go from spirited, well resourced, and effective, to despondent and defeated in a matter of weeks. In this book, we see discouragement happening in real time.
We all know what discouragement feels like, but I want to explore three things we learn about what discouragement is from Haggai.
1. Discouragement is spiritual.
When the temple builders are encouraged and working hard, three times the text says that God had stirred up their spirits (1:4). When they’re discouraged, God tells the people three times to take courage (2:4). Why? They had lost spirit. That’s what discouragement is.
But discouragement is also a matter of God’s Spirit. God reminds the beleaguered workers, “My Spirit is abiding in your midst” (2:5). Yet, when we encourage each other, often we focus almost exclusively on the human spirit. We say things like, “Look at all the people you’re helping, the money you’ve raised, the goals you’ve set!” Our ministry of encouragement needs to work on people’s connection to God’s Spirit, too, using His tools of scripture and prayer.
2. Discouragement is preoccupied with appearances.
The temple builders knew their new temple was nothing compared to Solomon’s great temple (2:3). But here’s the real gem of Haggai — even though the outside of the temple was small, God says, “The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former” (2:9). What the temple lacked in appearance would be made up for with God’s presence dwelling in a greater way than Solomon’s temple.
What’s puzzling, though, is that the Old Testament never says God moved in. When Jesus appears in this very temple, God finally arrives, and He comes saying that even this temple points to another one — Himself (John 2:13-22). Jesus is the Final Temple, disappointing to many on the outside, but God in the flesh (1:14).
In your work, don’t be preoccupied by what appears on the surface, the things you can appraise by what people notice. Look for the ways that God is working that you might not initially see — in hearts, motivations, structures, and the mystery of His bigger plans.
3. God works in the gaps that discourage us.
When the temple builders became discouraged, it seems they also stopped working (2:4). This is precisely when God gets to work on them. In the book of Haggai, God is a sort of foreman. The individual workers at a construction site may not understand the whole plan or where their part fits, but the foreman does.
It’s the same with us when we’re discouraged that our work is adding up to little or nothing, when we’re out of work, or we’re discouraged for no apparent reason. You may not understand how all the parts of your life — the highs and lows, the frustrations and unwanted pauses — fit into God’s plan for your life and work, but He does. Be especially attentive to God’s renovation work on you when your own work is hardest.
Did you know that if you’re a Christian you’re actually mentioned in Haggai? God says, “I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts” (2:7). Amazingly, God shares His glory with people so that they can bring it back to Him. The result? “And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (2:9).
Peace here is shalom — full-orbed flourishing for all of God’s creation. If that’s what you’re hoping and working for, you have all the reason to “‘take courage ... and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord” (2:4).