People cannot live without hope. Throughout history, human beings have endured the loss of many things. People have lost their health, their finances, their reputations, their careers, even their loved ones, and yet have endured. The pages of history books are filled with those who suffered pain, rejection, isolation, persecution and abuse; there have been people who faced concentration camps with unbroken spirits and unbowed heads, people who have been devastated by Job-like trials and yet found the strength to go on without cursing God and dying. Humans can survive the loss of almost anything – but not without hope.
Hope is how we live. Hope is what gets us from one day to the next. A person goes to school and hopes that one day he will graduate. That person graduates and hopes that one day he will enter into a great career. If he is single, he hopes that perhaps one day he will meet the right person and get married. He gets married and hopes that one day he and his wife will have children. When they have children, they hope that they will live long enough to get the kids out of the house.
We live by hope, and when hope is gone, endurance and joy and energy and courage just evaporate. Life itself begins to fade. When hope goes, we start to die. One of the most profound proverbs of the Bible says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).
It could be argued that everyone has hope and that the problem with most people is simply that their hopes have been misplaced. Many people begin looking around from the time they are young and wondering what is going to pay off. Perhaps they will invest in athletics or academics. Perhaps they will invest all their hope in beauty and fashion. As we get a little older (but not always wiser) we put our hopes in wealth and status, achievement and prestige.
When we place our hope in the wrong things, one of two things is likely to happen. Either we will never make it to the level we had hoped for, in which case we end up envious or bitter. Or we make it to that level only to discover that it doesn’t fill our heart. In that case, we end up unfulfilled and disappointed.
With all this is mind, it is easy to see that few functions a leader is called upon to perform are more important than that of keeping hope alive. When others are lost in the dark, and seemingly endless, maze of despair, effective leaders drive away the darkness with positive projections for the future of their organization. They know when to come alongside of someone. They sense when a team member needs a quick admonition or a shoulder on which to cry.
No other New Testament character illustrates the ability to encourage more strongly than Barnabas, whose name means “Son of Encouragement.” Think of that alone: here was a man named Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He was a wealthy and generous man who somehow earned a wonderful nickname. What must he have done to impress the apostles to such an extent that they said, “Joseph isn’t an accurate name for you; your name should be Barnabas because you are such a son of encouragement”?
Luke tells us,
When [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
The disciples in Jerusalem were understandably afraid of Saul of Tarsus. Before his conversion, Saul had done everything in his power to destroy the church (9:1-2). It’s no wonder they questioned the validity of his profession of faith in Christ. As a devout Pharisee, Saul had doggedly hunted down and persecuted followers of Jesus; this could have been just another one of his tricks.
Due to their suspicion, it seemed as if Saul’s ministry would flounder before it ever got started. And that might have happened had not Barnabas stood in the gap beside Saul, leading him to the apostles and testifying concerning his conversion and subsequent ministry. Barnabas encouraged the apostles to bless Saul’s ministry, and they responded favorably. Barnabas provided the timely support that Saul needed to launch his ministry.
Perhaps this is one reason why Saul (who was later known as Paul) spoke so often of total forgiveness and the encouraging hope it provides. He had experienced it in such a tangible way through the ministry of the “Son of Encouragement.” Had Barnabas not offered his hand in fellowship to this penitent man whose life had been turned absolutely upside down, Saul may never have been able to fully experience the freedom he so loudly proclaimed to others. As Jim McGuiggan writes,
The trouble is, you see, they [the remorseful and penitent] can’t enjoy the forgiveness God has freely given them, because you, we, make them doubt it. They haven’t the strength or assurance to live in the joy and freedom of a gracious God’s free-flowing grace.1
Effective leaders, like Barnabas, sustain hope by offering words of support. Suppose for a moment that Barnabas had said nothing on Saul’s behalf. What might have happened? In what ways did his actions demonstrate both love and courage? Think for a moment about how you can follow his example, whether with a family member, a co-worker or a peer. A little bit of encouragement can go a long way toward motivating those around you.
There are so many attributes of God, that it seems mind-boggling to try to contemplate them all. But a major theme throughout the Old Testament prophets is God as an encourager. He lovingly sought to inspire his people to put their confidence and hope in him. In other words, God encourages his people because he loves his people. Thus, even when God warns his people of impending judgment, there is always a note of consolation quick at hand. In speaking of coming judgment, they always looked beyond the time of travail to a time of unprecedented blessing. This consolation is a kind of encouragement for his people to endure discipline and trust that God will be merciful in his justice. Isaiah, for example, begins his consolation section with these words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). After the people’s captivity in Babylon, God’s plan was still to prosper them and not to harm them, to give them hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
The post-exilic prophet Zechariah is a classic example of a prophet through whom God spoke a tremendous word of encouragement:
“Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the Lord, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the Lord.
“Come, O Zion! Escape, you who live in the Daughter of Babylon!” For this is what the Lord Almighty says: “After he has honored me and has sent me against the nations that have plundered you – for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye – I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me.
“Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord. “Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.”
The people of Israel had recently experienced the trauma of the 70-year Babylonian captivity. Now that a remnant had returned to Jerusalem to re-settle the land and rebuild their temple, many of them may have wondered if God still had a purpose for them. They were a small remnant and the land to which they returned was desolate. Jerusalem was a shambles, the temple had been destroyed, the palaces, the walls – everything was gone. It may have seemed to them as if God had abandoned his people in favor of some other plan.
It is into this context that the Lord sent his servant Zechariah with a message of comfort and hope. Zechariah encouraged the people to complete the rebuilding project by giving them a vision of the Messiah who would one day come to this temple and bring salvation to his people. Through his prophet Zechariah, God reassured the remnant that he had brought them back to the land for a purpose and that his covenant promises to them would be fulfilled in the Messiah’s glorious reign over the nations of the earth (vv. 11-12). God had not abandoned his people or his promise! In spite of their history of unfaithfulness, the Lord says he will remain faithful to the promises he has made.
Like the children of Israel, the early disciples must have wondered if God was going to abandon them as Christ told of his death and eventual return to his Father. After all, they had invested years of their lives, left behind careers and families in order to follow this miracle-working rabbi, and now he was telling them about his impending departure. Jesus comforted his friends on the night he was betrayed with these words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1). Later that same night, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (14:27).
God is trustworthy. When our hope is found in him, we need never lose courage. Regardless of what happens in our world, his promises are sure. There is nothing that can keep his Word from coming to pass – no adversity, no pain, no sorrow, no setback. Nothing can keep his promise from being fulfilled. Ultimately, we will be with him in the Father’s dwelling place. This simple truth gives us comfort and hope in the midst of tough times.
Andy Cook tells us how we may walk through times of trouble without losing our confidence:
How will you walk in confidence toward your future? Focus on the blessings, the peace, and the joy that Christ offers. Focus on the fact that Jesus has walked first, inviting us to come with him. We don’t have to travel alone. It might be dark, descending into the valley of hell, but at least we’re not alone. Jesus promised that he would never, ever leave us. As Paul said in that tiny verse of Philippians, let your countenance be known to all men, a countenance of confidence that knows, in faith, that “the Lord is near.”
Let his attitude be your cloak. Let his sandals guide your footsteps. And as you go, remember that the laughter is just beyond the pain. Just beyond the cross is resurrection. Just beyond the grief is wild celebration. Focus on the laughter that is to come.2
God, the Ruler of the Universe, cares about encouraging you. He makes it his business to provide his people a sense of comfort and peace – even in the midst of fear and uncertainty. But the way he normally provides his encouragement for his people is through his people. It is no wonder, then, that our enemy so often uses other people to sabotage and undermine God’s purposes for our lives. Joyce Heatherley has written a marvelous little book called Balcony People, in which she discusses the pain caused by people who feel the need to constantly evaluate our shortcomings and the joy brought by people who affirm our potential. She writes:
I am more convinced than ever that if our inner brokenness is ever to be made whole, and if we are to ever sing again, we will need to deal with the issues of evaluators and affirmers in our lives. I also firmly believe that the need for affirming one another is crucial to our process of becoming real, not phony or hypocritical, people of God. Affirming brings authenticity and credibility to our faith as it is lived day by day.3
As you become more like Jesus, you must make it your business to provide encouragement to the people around you. In this way, you will find his promise of comfort and peace becoming a greater reality in your life.
In the rough-and-tumble circumstances of life, we sometimes receive blows that leave us bleeding and gasping for breath. During such times, we need reassurance from God and others so that we may remain faithful in “the good fight” of faith, fix our eyes on Jesus and finish the race.
Jonathan and David entered into a deep and profound, covenantal relationship of mutual support that served both men well and gave them steadiness and comfort in unstable times.
After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father’s house. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
1 Samuel 18:1-4
These men walked together, prayed for one another and encouraged one another until Jonathan’s death. David would eventually say of his friend, “Jonathan, my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
Jonathan encouraged David by demonstrating his loyalty to him in the good times, when David was the favorite member of Saul’s court. But later, when his father Saul wanted to kill David, Jonathan’s encouragement was far more important to his friend. Many people who encouraged David in the good times abandoned him when he most needed support.
In this trying situation, Jonathan modeled the character of the encourager. When David could give nothing in return, Jonathan upheld him by offering his total support:
Then David fled from Naioth at Ramah and went to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to take my life?”
“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without confiding in me. Why would he hide this from me? It’s not so!”
But David took an oath and said, “Your father knows very well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he has said to himself, ‘Jonathan must not know this or he will be grieved.’ Yet as surely as the Lord lives and as you live, there is only a step between me and death.”
Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you.”
1 Samuel 20:1-4
Imagine how David must have felt knowing that, despite great personal risk, his dear friend Jonathan was still standing by him and doing his best to protect him from harm. Jonathan made a promise to his friend with no strings attached and proved his willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect David:
“Why should [David] be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David.
Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the month he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David.
1 Samuel 20:32-34
Because of Saul’s violent temper, Jonathan and David were forced to part. The intense drama of their final separation was played out in an open field. David bowed three times before Jonathan, face down in the dirt. They kissed each other, each weeping on the other’s shoulder.
Jonathan verbally encouraged David in their frequent meetings, and that was important to David. But no words in the world can match the reassurance of knowing that someone believes in you and cares enough to stand with you no matter how tough things get or what it costs. Encouragement in the good times shows care and thoughtfulness. Encouragement in the tough times reflects character. Often, those who encourage during good times abandon us when we need them the most. Jonathan, however, demonstrated godly character by remaining steadfast in the times of hardship.
Men, especially, need other men to walk with through the peaks and valleys of life. The power of men walking together in peace and in truth is incredible and necessary for us to be the leaders God has called us to be. We all need to know that there are people who are committed to looking out for our best interests, people who think of ways to stimulate and encourage us toward love and good deeds.
Consider ways in which you can be an encourager to others. A phone call, a brief note or a personal word of thanks for what another person has meant to you requires little time but yields positively disproportionate benefits. Take the time to thank each person who has made an investment in your life. When the Lord accomplishes something good through you, let the person know that another dividend has just been paid on his or her investment.
Paul’s life in general, and his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in particular, give us some good insight into the mechanics of encouragement. Paul was a great encourager, not simply because he received such expert encouragement himself from Barnabas, but because he diligently worked at it. After he planted a church, he was conscientious about visiting whenever possible, writing letters and sending others to minister in his absence. He always assured people of his accessibility, even though he may physically have been many miles away or even locked up in a prison cell. Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 includes some guidance for the godly leader who wants to uplift others.
First, Paul was able to lend support because his listeners respected his example.
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
If he had been unable to speak these words with a clear conscience, the meeting would have been over. He had made an investment of time and had demonstrated by his example that he was a man of integrity. His example was a source of encouragement for these men of God.
Second, Paul didn’t gloss over or distort reality (vv. 22-31).
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me…. Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again…. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
Acts 20:22-23, 25, 29-31a
Supporting people when all the news is good does not set one apart as a gifted encourager. Neither does soft-pedaling bad news. Psychologists Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton say that one of the signs of a healthy faith is that it is based in reality:
Growing Christians strive to see the world and their lives as they really are, not through some stained-glass filter, not through the grid of some externally imposed myth or make-believe worldview. They do not feel compelled to “explain away” hardships or events that mystify them, but are willing to live with some ambiguity, trust God to rule the world in righteousness – even if that means difficulty for them.4
No matter how grim reality may look, the leader who trusts God must blend God’s sovereign presence with motivation to faithful effort (vv. 32-35). Paul’s willingness to face reality was a source of encouragement for these elders.
Third, Paul prayed with the elders before his departure and demonstrated genuine love and care for them:
When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.
Paul’s story in this passage demonstrates that encouragement doesn’t always accompany auspicious circumstances. Paul was facing hardship and separation from his friends, and their parting was difficult. But his uplifting words despite the coming trials show us that the gift of encouragement must always be related both to God’s sovereign power and to the leader’s genuine concern. Paul’s reliance on the goodness of God was a source of encouragement to them, as it is to us.
Encouragement is to a team what wind is to a sail – it moves people forward. Like the ancient Hebrew Christians, we all need words of support. The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews needed encouragement. The fires of persecution were burning so intensely that the believers were tempted to forsake the living God. Because the author knew this, he urged them to offer daily reassurance to one another: “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).
Of course, encouragement is something every leader needs to offer to his or her team members. In his capacity as the leader of Outreach of Hope, a ministry geared to instill hope in cancer patients, amputees and their families, former major-league baseball great Dave Dravecky urges his readers to offer encouragement that validates a person’s worth before God.
Dravecky notes that “It’s easy for us to confuse our true worth with our sense of worth. While the Bible teaches that our true worth never varies, since it’s based on God and not on us, our sense or feeling of worth can vary tremendously.”5 The problem is that our feelings don’t always align with truth. So what should a leader do to encourage a person in an adverse situation? First, the leader needs to help that person to acknowledge his or her feelings and to align them with the truth. As people who are made in the image of God, our worth isn’t tied into material things that can be bought at a shopping mall, nor is it rooted in a position of power.
Next, Dravecky urges his readers to help a person who is struggling with self-worth to find work that is productive and strengthens his or her relationship with God and other people. Finding productive work is an important, God-given means to help men and women to sense their intrinsic worth as sons and daughters of God. When we figure out why we’re here and what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives, God infuses us with a sense of hope and encouragement.
In the latter years of his life, C.S. Lewis had a remarkable correspondence with an anonymous woman from America.6 In his letters, Lewis urged the woman to deal with life in an emotionally honest way, acknowledging grief, fear and anger openly. He also warns her about the danger of allowing anger and fear to drive her away from God. His letters refer often to suffering and the difficulty of dealing with abrasive people. He also writes regularly about prayer and its place in the spiritual life. In all the letters, there are three themes that continually surface: honestly dealing with our emotional state, responding graciously to trials and trying people and being diligent in our prayer life.
The letters are fascinating to read, but what is most striking is that Lewis bothered to write them at all. He confessed to being often overwhelmed by his workload, and by this time in his life he could hardly write because of rheumatic pain in his arm. Yet, as Clyde S. Kilby notes, the reason Lewis continued the correspondence was because “Lewis believed that taking time out to advise or encourage another Christian was both a humbling of one’s talents before the Lord and also as much the work of the Holy Spirit as producing a book.”7 Being a source of encouragement to a fellow Christian was as meaningful to him as anything else he did. His is an example to all of us about the enormous value of spiritual encouragement, of being present with each other, of giving generously to those who may have little or nothing to give in return.
All of this reminds us that we are not called to walk the road of life alone. God kindly gives us the grace of knowing his encouragement and acceptance. He then provides us with the encouragement and acceptance of others. Finally, he invites us to participate with him in the giving of these same gifts to those who follow our lead.
1 Jim McGuiggan, The God of the Towel (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 1997), p. 100.
2 Andy Cook, A Different Kind of Laughter: Finding Joy and Peace in the Deep End of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2002), p. 77.
3 Joyce Landorf Heatherley, Balcony People (Austin, TX: Balcony Publishing, 1984), p. 25.
4 Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, More Jesus, Less Religion: Moving from Rules to Relationships (Colorado Springs, CO: Water Brook Press, 2000), p. 4.
5 Dave Dravecky with Connie Neal, Worth of a Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
6 C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, ed. Clyde S. Kilby (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967).
7 Ibid., p. 7.