“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing… And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14
Courage might be the greatest need of the hour.
More than sympathy and compassion, we need courage. Compassion is wonderful for a moment but it always needs to be married to something else — an action. For instance if a friend has compassion and that’s it…well, you will eventually need them to do something for you. Compassion is most stark when it is lacking and when it is alone. When someone acts and has no compassion, the action feels harsh and unloving. But if it is alone, compassion feels useless and tepid.
So more than more compassion, we need more courage.
But what is courage? Maybe we can think of courage this way, “the willingness to take the next step in light of overwhelming obstacles.”
Courage is the recently widowed woman who is willing to open her house up to a hurting friend even though she has no emotional margin. Courage is the faithful mom who has one more conversation with her addicted child even through every other conversation has fallen on deaf ears. Courage is Winston Church bombing Germany even though Britain was greatly outmanned and underfunded. But courage is also sometimes just getting up out of bed amidst debilitating depression.
But if we assume that courage will arise from within ourselves, we will find that well dry.
Courage is something that comes from another. The English language reflects this. To “encourage” in the English language means to “give someone courage.” Likewise, to “discourage” means that we take courage away from someone.
In Biblical Greek, the word that often gets translated as “encourage” (parakaleō) has a wide range of meanings. At times it means “exhort” and at times it means “comfort.” At first glance, those seem to be widely different experiences. “Exhort” in most ears carries a negative connotation — it is an unpleasant experience. While comfort is pleasant. We exhort someone who has done something wrong, and we comfort those who have been wronged.
But parakaleō literally means to “speak (or call) alongside someone” (para is the prefix for “alongside”). In this sense, parakaleō is when someone speaks in a way that calls you to something greater in light of God’s promises. Now you can begin to see the wide range of translations: comfort, console, encourage, exhort, and appeal.
In Psalm 85, David uses a Hebrew equivalent when he says:
Show me a sign of your favor, that those who hate me may see and be put to shame because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me. – Psalm 86:17
Similarly, in Psalm 94:
When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul. – Psalm 94:19
The “comfort” of the Lord is not like the comfort of sitting in your recliner after a long day’s work. It is the “comfort” of a deliver who has come alongside you and helped you. That is why God’s “consolations cheer my soul.” The Lord coming along side a helpless person like myself is en-couraging. Knowing that the Lord in his gracious power is both able and willing to help a poor sinner gives me courage to go after the next thing he asks me to do.
This is similar to what “encourage” means in the New Testament. If you want to “encourage” someone remind them of the great promises of God, his tremendous grace, Jesus overwhelming power to deliver us from sin and its consequences, etc. In other words, summon them out of their affliction and weakness to rely on the grace of God. This is what Paul means in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 when he says, “encourage the fainthearted.”
This is why Paul send his fellow pastor Tychicus to the Colossians church,
I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts. – Colossians 4:8 (he says a similar thing to the Ephesian church about Tychicus (Ephesians 6:8)
So with the Lord Jesus, compassion and resurrection power become a courage giving combination. The courage comes from his throne of grace, but it comes through his word. And it comes to weary wanders that we might return to him, rely on his promises, and go after the next step of faithfulness.
Stand besides someone who is unable to take the next step, and call out God’s promises to them. Give them courage. They are likely fainthearted because the circumstances are greater than their ability or strength. But to call in God’s Word — to encourage — remind them that they belong to Jesus who is interceding on behalf of his people. Call them to a life of faithfulness in light of the power of the Holy Spirit. Encourage them with the gospel and toward the end of gospel faithfulness.