Dr, James T. Naismith of Scarborough, Ontario is a retired physician who now devotes his full time to a Bible teaching ministry. This study is the first of a series on a needful theme among God’s people today — encouragement.
Are you ever discouraged? downcast? depressed? Do you always live on the mountain-top of elation, or do you sometimes descend to the valley of depression? Are you discouraged because you do sometimes “get down”? Perhaps you imagine that a believer in the Lord should always be on the mountaintop. While a Christian should never take up residence in “downcast valley,” if that’s where you are from time to time, you are in good company! Think of Elijah: that great prophet: man of faith — and prayer! If anyone ever had a mountain-top experience, it was he, when he faced and triumphed over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). How quickly the situation changed! How soon he came down to the deep valley of depression! The next chapter finds him very discouraged as a result of the threat of a woman — Jezebel; he was almost suicidal, asking the Lord to take away his life.
Think of the psalmists: they loved God and knew Him better than most. They experienced His goodness and guidance. Yet they had their downs as well as their ups. The unnamed writer of Psalms 42 and 43 — probably two parts of a single poem — was evidently devoted to the Lord. He speaks of God as “my God” (42:6, 11; 43:4, 5), as “the God of my life” (42:8) and as “God my rock” (42:9). He had enjoyed in the past going to God’s house (42:4), and he really longed for God: his “soul thirsted for God, the living God” (42:2). But he seemed now to be far from Jerusalem and God’s house (42:6), and was passing through a severe trial —a deep valley. Three times in the space of 16 verses, he asks the questions: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me?” (42:5, 11; 43:5). It seemed to him that God had forgotten him (42:9) and had cast him off (43:2). All God’s “waves and billows” had swept over him (42:7). Because of his circumstances, he was the object of reproach by his enemies, who questioned, “Where is your God?” (42:3, 10). Have you been there?
Asaph, the writer of Psalm 77 seems to have been in a darker night of trial and was even more discouraged: “In the day of my trouble, I sought the Lord… my soul refused to be comforted … I remembered God and was troubled … I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (vv. 2-4). He too had questions about God that we would hardly dare to ask: “Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He be favourable no more? Is His mercy clean gone forever? Doth His promise fail forevermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies?” How low he was! So low, it has been suggested, that even the mosquitoes had to get down on their knees to bite him! Have you been there?
Even the Apostle Paul, great man of God though he was, had his periods of discouragement. He wrote about them in 2 Corinthians: “We are troubled (hard-pressed) on every side…perplexed…persecuted… cast down” (though “not distressed…in despair…forsaken…destroyed”) (1 Cor. 4:7-9). Later in the same epistle, he writes: “We were troubled on every side (harassed at every turn); without were fightings, within were fears. Nevertheless God, who comforts those who are cast down, comforted us…” (7:5, 6). The implication is that Paul was “cast down” and in need of comfort, or encouragement, which God provided. Have you been there?
Such experiences and feelings have been repeated in the lives of God’s choice saints through the centuries. Many hymns we sing express the experience of discouragement —and give the answer to it. For example: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed, When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.” “Come, ye disconsolate! where’er ye languish, Come to the mercy-seat, fervently kneel; Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish: Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”
Evidently, these hymn-writers —and many others — knew (probably from personal experience) the circumstances and experiences that their fellows passed through and wrote to encourage them.
What discouraging circumstances beset us all, particularly in these days at the close of the twentieth century! Many of the Lord’s dear people have cause to be discouraged: by sickness or sadness; family problems or financial difficulties; world crises or personal calamities. The question arises: If Christians become discouraged by circumstances, what value is there in being a Christian? The difference between a believer and an unbeliever is that the believer has sources of encouragement which are unknown to the unbeliever. In this series of studies, we shall consider some of these sources of encouragement.
Strange as it may seem, the word “encourage” does not occur once in the King James Version of the New Testament — and only nine times in the Old Testament. However, in the New International Version, the words “encourage” and its derivatives occur 62 times: 46 of these in the New Testament, where, in all but five instances, they are the translation of the Greek, “palakaleo” and the noun “paraklesis,” which are found 107 and 29 times respectively in the Greek New Testament. Another form of the word, the verbal adjective “parakletos,” translated “paraklete,” occurs five times: four in reference to the Holy Spirit, the “Comforter”; and once of “Jesus Christ the Righteous,” the “Advocate.” Literally, “parakaleo” means “to call alongside” (i.e. to one’s help). Among the KJV translations are: “comfort, consolation, beseech, pray, desire, intreat, exhort.” In many cases, the best translation would be: “encourage.” From a study of the occurrence of these words, we can learn the sources of encouragement for the child of God in circumstances of discouragement.
1. GOD: In Romans 15:5, God is described as “the God of patience and consolation” (paraklesis); “The God who gives endurance and encouragement” (NIV). In a passage in which the words “parakaleo” and “paraklesis” occur frequently (2 Cor.1:3-7), Paul introduces his words of encouragement by giving praise to “God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort (paraklesis).” There are many channels by which encouragement comes to us, but they all proceed from one source, the God of all encouragement, who encourages “in all our tribulation.”
2. THE SON OF GOD, THE SAVIOUR: In Philippians 2:1, the statement, “If there be therefore any consolation (paraklesis) in Christ” does not imply any doubt or question, but rather assurance that Christ does provide encouragement to the Christian. The NIV translation is: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…” All our blessings — including encouragement — come to us from God through His Son.
3. THE SPIRIT OF GOD: He is the Paraklete, the Encourager, sent by the Father in the name of the Son (John 14:26), who makes God’s blessings real to every believer. He gives encouragement, not only to individual believers, but also to churches. Thus, the early churches in Judea, Galilee and Samaria, “were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort (paraklesis) of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” “The church … was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (NIV).
4. THE SCRIPTURES: The Word of God is a prime channel through which God’s encouragement is provided for God’s people. Old and New Testaments alike have been written “for our learning, that we through patience and comfort (paraklesis) of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The NIV reads: “through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures.”
5. THE SAINTS: An important means God uses to encourage His people is — His people! Repeatedly, believers are exhorted to encourage one another. For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:18: “Wherefore comfort (parakaleo: “encourage” —NIV) one another with these words.” In Hebrews we read: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together … but exhorting (parakaleo — “encourage” — NIV) one another.” “The God of all comfort (paraklesis) comforts (parakleo) us … that we may be able to comfort (parakaleo) by the comfort (paraklesis) wherwith we ourselves are comforted (parakaleo) of God” (2 Cor. 1:3, 4). He, the God of encouragement, encourages us, not only that we may be encouraged, but that we may be encouragers.
In succeeding studies we shall examine these sources of encouragement, prayerfully trusting that we shall all be encouraged thereby.