Class X: Encouragement
In the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians, Paul says something remarkable:
We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. (Col. 1:28-29)
Did you catch that? Paul says his aim is to present everyone perfect in Christ. Everyone.
Now that’s what you call an audacious goal! Yet we are called to do the same thing. Hebrews tells us this:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:23-25)
What a massive responsibility. As Christians, and especially as fellow church members, we are accountable for each other. Together, we are in a life and death struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and our goal is to cross the finish line together and present every one of us perfect in Christ.
Part of that is what we talked about last week—confronting sin in each other’s lives. But our task is bigger than that. In the passage from Colossians, Paul doesn’t just talk about admonishing. He also speaks of teaching. And in Hebrews, we are told to consider how we might spur one another on toward love and good deeds—proactively, lovingly, urgently pushing our brothers and sisters ahead in the life of the kingdom.
Now to be clear, this class isn’t intended to make us all busybodies. The New Testament roundly condemns the idea of being a “meddler”—of butting in where we have no relationship and no permission to speak into a person’s life. But where we do have a relationship or the opportunity to build one, we are to encourage each other in the Christian life. How we do that—how we spur one another on toward love and good deeds—is the subject of our time in this class.
I. OUR ENEMIES IN GODLINESS
As members of a Christian church, we are called to encourage each other to live fruitful lives for the kingdom of God. That is not an easy task, and therefore we must have our eyes opened to what we’re up against. We must know the enemies that would keep us from growing in godliness. Here are two.
1. Our Struggle is With Our Own Hearts
First and foremost, our enemy is our own heart—the core desires that motivate our decisions and actions every day. Jeremiah puts it plainly:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9)
James, too, points to the desires of the heart as both the cause of temptation (James 1:14) and of external conflict (James 4:1). When we find our brothers and sisters in this church making decisions that don’t align with their calling in Christ, we must remember that the ultimate source is not external, but rather the sinful desires in their hearts.
Why does this matter? Because it has massive implications for how we should go about encouraging other Christians.
So often, our goal with other Christians is to get them to behave differently. “If only he wouldn’t spend so much time around those people,” we say. Or, “If only she would spend more time volunteering at church.” “If only he would switch into a job that gave him more time with his family.”
But behavior is not the ultimate problem, and that understanding should shape our encouragement to other Christians. Here a few implications of this:
- First, while we can sometimes manage to change a person’s behavior, only God can change the heart. As we involve ourselves in the lives of others, we must remember that prayer is our best weapon, that guilt and coercion cannot address the core of these issues, and that our desperation for God to act merely increases the glory due him. Certainly there may be times when we work for behavior change (holding someone accountable for sexual sin, for example) but that is not our ultimate goal. What we finally want to see changed is the heart.
- Second, we must not compare ourselves to others based on the externals of our life. A church where people evaluate themselves and take confidence in their own spiritual actions—the relative length of their quiet times, the number of old books they’re reading, the number of people they’re discipling, the number of friends they’re evangelizing—is not a gospel church. It is a legalistic church. Of course we must look at externals as a sign of spiritual health, but we must remember that they are the fruits of repentance, not repentance itself.
- Third, we must take to heart the old phrase, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” It is no accident that immediately after Paul exhorts us to restore those caught in sin in Galatians 6:1, he warns us against our own pride and self-reliance. Our hearts are more corrupt than we can ever know, and capable of more evil than we will ever realize.
- Fourth, we must remember that our goal is not finally to feel happy and fulfilled. There are many ways to feel happy which never get to the issues of the heart. Our goal in encouraging others is not merely to make them feel good—about themselves, about the world, or about God—but to help them know and experience the abiding joy of having their desires transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Thus the first enemy we face as we struggle to watch over our brothers and sisters is the deceitfulness of our own hearts.
2. Our Struggle Is With Hollow and Deceptive Philosophies.
A second enemy we face is hollow and deceptive philosophies. Paul writes to the saints in Colossae in Colossians 2:8,
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
We are all philosophers. All the time, we are creating philosophies of meaning in our lives. What matters? Why do things happen? What’s worth living for? Though we usually know the correct answers to those questions, we are easily deceived and taken captive by sinful and deceptive philosophies.
We often fool ourselves into believing that we are immune to the world’s philosophies, that we can ignore the message being blared at us day after day. But the world’s ideas of meaning and purpose can gain a foothold in the desires of our hearts without our even recognizing it.
That leads to what Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp call “gospel gaps” in our lives. Our guiding philosophy should rest on the truth of the gospel, but the way we act and think is often inconsistent with the gospel.
In other words, there are gaps between what we believe and what we do. And such gaps don’t stay empty. All of us operate with a mix of gospel truth and worldly philosophies in our minds, and part of our goal as Christians is to identify and root out what is worldly.
Seven Counterfeit Gospels
Being able to recognize gospel counterfeits is incredibly important. In their book How People Change, Lane and Tripp lay out seven of these counterfeit gospels. How many of these do you recognize in your own heart?
- Formalism. “I participate in the regular meetings and ministries of the church, so I feel like my life is under control. I’m always in church, but it really has little impact on my heart or on how I live. I may become judgmental and impatient with those who do not have the same commitment as I do.”
- Legalism. “I live by the rules—rules I create for myself and rules I create for others. I feel good if I can keep my own rules, and I become arrogant and full of contempt when others don’t meet the standards I set for them. There is no joy in my life because there is no grace to be celebrated.”
- Mysticism. “I am engaged in the incessant pursuit of an emotional experience with God. I live for the moments when I feel close to him, and I often struggle with discouragement when I don’t feel that way. I may change churches often, too, looking for one that will give me what I’m looking for.”
- Activism. “I recognize the missional nature of Christianity and am passionately involved in fixing this broken world. But at the end of the day, my life is more of a defense of what’s right than a joyful pursuit of Christ.”
- Biblicism. “I know my Bible inside and out, but I do not let it master me. I have reduced the gospel to a mastery of biblical content and theology, so I am intolerant and critical of those with lesser knowledge.”
- Therapism. “I talk a lot about the hurting people in our congregation, and how Christ is the only answer for their hurt. Yet even without realizing it, I have made Christ more Therapist than Savior. I view hurt as a greater problem than sin—and I subtly shift my greatest need from my moral failure to my unmet needs.”
- “Social-ism.” “The deep fellowship and friendships I find at church have become their own idol. The body of Christ has replaced Christ himself, and the gospel is reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.”
So that’s what we’re up against. We are battling the desires of our hearts, even while we struggle with worldly philosophies that fill the gaps in our lives. Yet praise God for the hope of the gospel! Because of Christ’s death on the cross and the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, we can know that it is God who works in us both to will and to act according to his good purpose (Phil. 2:13).
II. THE CONTEXT FOR ENCOURAGEMENT
Before we talk specifically about how we can help our brothers and sisters in Christ in their struggle for godliness, let’s think about the kind of atmosphere that will facilitate that work. There are two relationship challenges that we need to watch out for—hiding our struggles, and not helping when struggles appear.
Nothing we say in this class will be of any use if you are not willing to reveal your struggles to others, and if you are not close enough to others to know when and how they need help. So here are two good questions to ask yourself:
- First, are you helping to make this a church that welcomes struggling people? Or do you only welcome people when they have it all together?
- Second, do you make it a regular habit to share your struggles with others? Or do you keep everything locked up in your own soul?
So what can we do to create a church context where struggles are honestly faced and addressed?
How to Help Others
Nothing can make a church more unwelcome to struggling people than a bunch of church members who work hard to look like they have no problems of their own—or even worse, who look down on those who admit their struggles.
When someone bears their soul to you, act in humility. Even as you work to help them hate the sin in their hearts, strive to sympathize with them. It is only the grace of God that prevents you, too, from stumbling into the same trap.
One thing that will help is to refrain from offering trite solutions that make it sound like only a fool would have that problem. “Struggling with depression? Just read your Bible more; and spend more time outside. Then you’ll feel better.” Don’t just try to solve people’s problems; listen to them. Remember that the godly saints of the Bible struggled mightily. Don’t pretend that only “bad Christians” suffer in this life. You’ll have half the Psalms arguing against you.
How to Be Helped
There is nothing godly about handling your struggles alone. That kind of independence doesn’t show strength; it shows pride. Be willing to engage in the “ministry of dependence.” Show that you recognize your dependence on Christ by being dependent on other people.
On the casual level, that means going deeper than “Fine, thank you” when people ask how you’re doing. Be honest: “I’m doing okay, thanks. It’s been a rough week, but God seems to be teaching me a lot.” On a deeper level, confess sin to your brothers and sisters. Give them the opportunity to minister to you and to rejoice when God answers your prayers.
Above all, we want to build a church full of honest relationships—relationships that welcome struggling people.
III. HOW TO ENCOURAGE STRUGGLING PEOPLE
The Christians around us are fighting both the flesh and the hollow and deceptive philosophies around them. We are exhorted to encourage them and to instruct them. How do we do that?
The answer is that “it depends.”
One passage that might be helpful as you seek to encourage others is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14. Paul writes there:
Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
How are we to care for those around us? By warning those who are idle, encouraging the timid, helping the weak, and being patient with everyone.
When you encounter a struggling brother or sister in Christ, run through those categories in your mind.
- Is this person idle (or “unruly” as the New American Standard puts it), and in need of exhortation?
- Is he timid and in need of encouragement?
- Or is he simply weak and in need of someone to help shoulder their burden?
- Whatever the case, how can I have patience with this situation?
As you consider what course of action to take, remember two important things that will be necessary in every situation:
First, speak Scripture to them. That does not mean simply throwing a verse at them. It might mean reminding them of a pattern in salvation history, like the fact that God always proves himself faithful. It might mean reading through a book that explains and applies Scripture. It might mean studying a passage of Scripture with them.
Second, “preach” the gospel to them. Whether a person is idle, timid, or weak, the problem is finally that their understanding of the gospel is in need of repair. At the root of the problem is a “gospel gap.” So use Scripture to help your brother or sister realize how their understanding of the gospel is deficient, and share with them afresh the joyous good news that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Let’s consider now each of the three categories Paul lays out in 1 Thessalonians 5:14.
“Warn Those Who Are Idle.”
Suppose you’re talking with Sue, who will not remove herself from the path of temptation. She is very tempted to be in love with the things of this world, and watching a particular show on television always seems to leave her discontent with the life God has given her. But she really, really likes the show, and she has fun talking with friends the next morning after it airs. The two of you have talked about how this show is playing a destructive roll in her life, but while she confesses this sin, her life hasn’t changed.
What do you do? Where is the gap in Sue’s understanding of the gospel? There’s probably at least three gaps.
First, there’s probably some idol represented by the show that she believes is more satisfying than God. Maybe the beautiful people on the show? Maybe her ability to feel like she’s “with it” when talking about the show the next day with her friends. Explore what those idols might be. That’s what she’s worshipping.
Second, recognize that that idol is where she’s finding her justification. Is it the idea being beautiful or with beautiful people that makes her feel justified before the world? Does she feel justified when her friends regard her as cool or “with it”? Whatever it is that makes us feel important, good, special, worthy of recognition—that’s the thing we’re using to justifying ourselves. By the same token, that’s the thing we’re worshiping. So, is she worshipping Christ, knowing that her justification is bound up entirely in him? Or is she worshipping the world, wanting the justification and approval of the world more than anything?
Third, because she’s still worshipping some idol and seeking her justification through that idol, she’s failing to repent. She’s not fleeing temptation. The question Paul would put to her is, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:2). Does Sue understand what repentance looks like? Is she taking Jesus’ words seriously, that “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” (Mark 5:30)? Does she understand that mere regret is not repentance?
Talk with Sue about the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. Show her 2 Corinthians 7:10:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Warn her of the consequences of sin and idolatry in her life. Remind her of the amazing love and freedom that are hers in Christ!
Or consider Matt. Matt comes to church regularly, but he isn’t very involved. In fact, other than his weekly visits to church, his life isn’t much different from his moral, non-Christian neighbors. If you could listen in on his conversations, you’d quickly get a feeling for where his passions are—his job, the new house he bought on the shore, and his boat. Matt may well be a Christian, but he is worldly, and he is trying to serve two masters.
While there is no explicit sin in his life, Matt certainly has his own version of the gospel gap. Like Sue, he understands his sin and God’s salvation on an intellectual level, but it he hasn’t really internalized what it all means. Jesus said that if we understand that we’ve been forgiven much, we will love much. He also told us that we cannot love both him and the world.
So what do you do?
First, state your concern to Matt about what looks like an inconsistency of his claim to faith and his love of the world. The apostle John’s words are pretty stark: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15) Once again, we have an idol problem—a worship problem. What does he really love and worship?
Second, you might be able to help Matt see this by asking him to consider who is the active god in his life. That is, which god is guiding his values, ambitions, pleasures, and decisions on an hour to hour basis through the week? Ask him to consider whether this other god will be able to mediate for him before the throne of God the Father on Judgment Day.
Third, warn him of the danger of investing his talents in things that are passing away. And pray that God would enable to see through the lies he’s believe, that he would understand God’s forgiveness, and that he would thereby be driven to love of the true God.
“Encourage the Timid.”
Regarding those who are “timid,” think of people who have given in to sin, who have tried to walk in righteousness but have failed so many times that they have completely given up. You might see this with sexual sin, or with someone who finds marriage so difficult that he sees no option but divorce. These people aren’t obstinate; they’ve just tried to follow Christ and been exhausted by it. In their words, “It isn’t working.”
How do we encourage these Christians?
- Make sure they really are “timid,” and not simply in need of a strong warning.
- If they do need encouragement, then remind them of God’s promises in Scripture. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a good place to start: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
- Recognize that at some level they’re being deceived, whether by themselves, the world, or the devil. Maybe they’ve been deceived into believing they cannot change, even though they really want to—”John, you’re always gonna have this struggle; you might as well give in.” Maybe they’ve been deceived into believing they want to change, when really they don’t because they still love their sin more than anything—”I want to change…but, then again, I can’t imagine life with out this.” Introduce them to Christians who have seen God provide victory, and who can help diagnose the specific lies they are believing.
- Find specific truths and promises to counteract the lies they are believing. Spend time with them. Offer regular, specific accountability.
- Pray earnestly that God would give them faith in his promises, and encourage them to pray for the same thing.
- In all you do, show them the hope of the gospel. Remind them that we have received the righteousness of Christ and the Holy Spirit who is our hope for real change. Remind them also that God has good purposes for them in even this most demanding trial. He is in control, he is good, and he will carry onto completion what he has begun in them.
Think, for example, of Joe. Joe is in his late twenties and still trying to figure out what to do with his life. He works in a dead-end job, doesn’t find himself particularly useful at church, and would like to get married but isn’t anywhere close. In short, he’s been struggling for several years with what God’s purpose might be for his life. Joe feels like he’s close to giving up, though he doesn’t know what “giving up” would really mean. But it sounds dramatic anyway. How do you encourage him?
Again, look for the gospel gap. It could be in several places. In a strange way, he could have fallen into legalism: Having begun with the Spirit, he now thinks of his goal in terms of human effort. He considers his worth to be directly related to his productivity (or his lack of productivity), and that has resulted in despondency.
Remind Joe that his worth before God is grounded in Christ’s finished work, not his own. Share with him the glorious hope that God has given to all those who are his children.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
“Help the weak.”
Who is weak? In a sense, all of us are. But there are some in our midst who are weak in ways that make them spiritually vulnerable. If the timid are those who have faith but will not exercise it, the weak are those who cannot exercise faith without great difficulty.
Max has been diagnosed with clinical depression. He is unable to do the amount of good that he once could. He struggles mightily with his relationship with God now that many of the emotions of faith he once counted on—without ever realizing it—are few and far between. Through work with his pastor, he has come to recognize some of the spiritual roots of his problem, but his mind is still susceptible to that downward spiral of depression, and there is a physical-chemical side of his disease that is hard to escape. He is discouraged and downhearted in many different ways. Max is weak. How can you help him?
Well, consider how he is weak. He may be weak in faith. His present emotions feel like they will last forever, so God’s promises seem so distant as to appear non-existent. Help him learn to trust God more than himself.
Or perhaps the help he needs is the constant reminder that there are Christians in his life who love him, and whose love is rooted in something much more secure than his own “lovability.” Read through Ed Welch’s book Depression: A Stubborn Darkness with him, looking for where there might be gospel gaps that are at the root of these struggles.
Above all, share with Max the gospel of hope. Help him to see how his sufferings are producing perseverance, character, and ultimately, hope. Remind him why he can trust the goodness of God even as he wonders why he is struggling. Remind him that Jesus is returning and that one day he will see with his own eyes the great things Jesus was doing through all these present trials.
As a last example, consider those in our church who are frail in their old age. They are weak in a very physical sense of the word, and yet that physical weakness can make them weak in many other ways as well. Have they put too much confidence in their of productivity? In their close friends or spouse? In the physical pleasures of life?
The loss of those things may well expose gospel gaps in their life. You can help them by reading Scripture, praying, and using your strength to point them to the gospel. People sometimes need your faith in order to exercise their own. Your reading of Scripture, praying, or talking about the gospel may be just what this saint needs to remember the One in whom they believe.
Encouraging such brothers and sisters may be as simple as providing physical help so that they can carry out their desires to help others. Mail letters. Provide transportation to church. Helping someone, even on a very menial level, can do wonderful spiritual good.
Finally, encourage them with the reward that awaits them in heaven, and let them encourage you as those who live just footsteps away from eternity. Ask them to share with you what they have come to love about God, how they have found him faithful. You will be helped even as you help them. You may never know how much those conversations keep at bay the temptation to complain against God for pain, and suffering, and loss.
“Be patient with everyone.”
Finally, be patient with everyone. Never condemn, and never justify yourself by your own relative strength or holiness. Instead, be patient. Be marked by a patience that is driven by humility; that comes from knowing how patient your heavenly Father is with you; and that delights to serve your brothers and sisters because they are reflections of God’s character.
In conclusion, here’s what C. S. Lewis wrote about the love of God:
In awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of his love. You asked for a loving God; you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the “lord of terrible aspect,” is present; not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of the host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. . . . It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.
We love because he first loved us. Our love comes from his and ought to reflect his. May that persistent, venerable, jealous, inexorable love be ours for this church. May we labor to present everyone perfect in Christ.
- Living As A Church
A short class on living together as a local church.