Utterly spiritless

In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul writes about the mystery of Christ that has been made known to him (v. 3). He writes about how God has given him grace to speak about the boundless riches of Christ (v. 8). And he writes that, in Christ, we have boldness and confidence to approach God (v. 12). 

Then, in v. 13, he writes, “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory” (NIV). (All the “you”s here are plural, by the way, so feel free to replace them with “y’all”s if you feel so inclined.)

I got interested in the word that is translated as “be discouraged” in this verse, in the NIV. Other translations read “lose heart” (NASB, NRSV, ESV). The Greek word is ἐκκακέω (ek-kä-ke’-o).

As a translation of ἐκκακέω, I feel like “be discouraged” is quite mild (and “lose heart” is a common enough English expression that it might as well just mean “be discouraged”).

The word comes from ἐκ, which means “from” or “out of,” and κακός, which means “bad” or “evil.” According to my buddy blueletterbible.org (have I been socially distancing for too long, such that I now consider websites my buddies? probably…), ἐκκακέω means “to be utterly spiritless, to be wearied out, exhausted.” It carries a sense of failing in heart, of being faint.

I appreciate this fuller definition of ἐκκακέω because the real, hard stuff of life often makes us feel something stronger than just discouragement. There are things we encounter―in the news, and in our own lives and circles and communities―that evoke in us a stronger response than just “well, that’s disappointing…not ideal, a little discouraging, but it’s okay. I’ll do some yoga and get a good night’s sleep and feel better in the morning.” 

The real stuff of life―and of trying to live a Jesus-following life that seeks love and justice amidst powerful forces that work against these things―can make us feel utterly spiritless. Wearied out. Exhausted. It can make our hearts fail and our bodies faint. 

Looking at where ἐκκακέω (or a very similar word, ἐγκακέω), is used in the New Testament, I see that some of the particular things that make people feel utterly spiritless include:

  • Praying. Especially when it doesn’t feel like there’s an answer. And, in particular, praying for justice that doesn’t seem to be coming (see Luke 18:1 and its context).
  • Being ministers of a new covenant. A covenant that is not so much about following rules as it is about experiencing freedom in God’s Spirit, contemplating God, and being transformed by God―a covenant that is very good, and yet also often not what people want, or think they want. A covenant that pushes back against oppression by invoking freedom, grates against a drive for efficiency and productivity by calling for the slow work of contemplation, and contradicts independent self-sufficiency by inviting communal spiritual transformation (see 2 Cor 4:1 and its context, especially the verses preceding it in Ch 3). 
  • Being hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Experiencing all sorts of pushback and difficulties, especially from those in positions of power and authority, because we’re trying to seek justice, trying to do the things God calls us to do (see 2 Cor 4:16 and its context, including 4:7-12).
  • Doing good. Galatians 6:9 could read “let us not become exhausted, or utterly spiritless, in doing good.” Trying to do good can be exhausting. Especially when people around us are not.
  • Seeing other people suffer, as the Ephesian church saw Paul suffer (from the verse we started with, Eph 3:13). Suffering is exhausting, not just for the person undergoing the suffering, but for everyone who cares about them as well. Not knowing the answers to our questions of “why?” or “where is God?” in it all can leave us utterly spiritless. Even hearing about the suffering of people we don’t know―especially when it’s unnecessary suffering, caused by powerful people’s and governments’ evil actions―can be completely wearying. 

It is Paul’s hope and prayer that God meets the people of the church in Ephesus in the midst of their total faintness, their complete exhaustion, their utter spiritlessness. For this reason Paul kneels before God (Eph 3:14).

May we, too, not be afraid to acknowledge and engage with utter spiritlessness―our own, and that of others. And may God meet us in our exhaustion, breathe life into our faintness, and lift up our failing hearts.

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