1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Encourage one another and build one another up.” In the book of Acts, we are introduced to a man named Joseph, but he was better known as Barnabas or the “son of encouragement.” He was a man who loved God and saw himself as someone called to help others in their time of desperation and need.
We live in difficult and uncertain days. With the COVID-19 crisis and the economic fallout, things have not been this uncertain in a generation or two. How do we face today and tomorrow with this kind of uncertainty? One author said, “Courage is the resolve to face a fearful threat.” But the question that I have is what is it that fuels this courage? The answer is hope. But not just any hope, rather it is a hope in something stronger than what we fear.
Discouragement sets in when our hope leaks. We begin to cower before our fear. When this process happens, and it happens often, we need an infusion of hope. That’s what encouragement is. Barnabas went around giving people hope-infusions, which helped them keep fighting what 1 Timothy 6:12 calls, “the fight of faith.” We need Barnabas people. We need to be a Barnabas.
We live in a deluge of discouragement. COVID-19, an economic crisis, negativity towards Christianity, all of which have led to uncertainty even in our church. It seems to be the attitude of everyone in our fallen world today. Sadly much of what we experience comes from our human condition, our sinfulness and the long-term effects of the Fall.
We human beings are by sinful nature viciously critical of one another. We read Matthew 7:1 about not judging one another, and do it anyways. Students are critical of each other and their teachers. Parents are critical of their children and their spouses. We have even made being a “critic” a profession. They tell us which movies to watch and pundits tell us which candidates to vote for.
For many people, the vast majority of opinions on things are based on the analyses of other people and more often than not, their views are from a negative perspective. Think of all the ideas, organizations, movements, and governments we hear, whether in the press, on blogs, or at the table next to us, are negative. There are, of course, things that legitimately need critique and correction. But the overabundance of negativity is mostly because the prideful eye of the fallen human heart is trained to see others’ weaknesses, foibles, mistakes, and sins. It looks for them and relishes in them. It even sees ones that are not there. Why are we like this?
Ironically, one reason is that we are all looking for hope for ourselves. So we sinful humans are on the lookout for any reason to lighten our discouragement and the guilt of our failings and sins it often comes at the expense of others. When faith in the gospel of the grace of the God of encouragement is absent or deficient in our hearts, we look to others’ failings and sins to make ourselves feel better. Paul reminds us in Romans 15:5-6 that this is not how we should think: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In a way, we should not be surprised that this is the case. What else would we expect from a culture in a world under the governance of the evil one?
And we should not even be surprised when the church falls into a disproportionate amount of discouraging negativity. We should remember that suffering and persecution are to be expected. The combination of our sinful tendencies and the influence of the world can lead to a negative attitude towards ourselves. Critical discernment is necessary for spiritual survival.
In the chaos of the battle, we can easily wound each other with critical friendly fire and forget that encouragement is also necessary for spiritual survival.
Encouragement is spiritual warfare. If we are going to encourage anyone, we will have to fight Satan and our sin to do it. Many Christians today underestimate the role and influence of the devil. He is constantly trying to discourage us. In Revelation 12:10, he is called “the accuser of [the] brothers… who accuses them day and night before our God”. And he does not do this on his own. His minions are frequently throwing “flaming darts” of condemnation and jealousy and resentment at us. As Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5:9, we need to resist them.
And our sin nature wants to discourage others. It desires self-exaltation more than anything. So it loves to focus on others’ weaknesses and sins out of arrogance or envy. Pride is why so much of what we think or say or interpret or hear about others is negative and uncharitably critical.
But the “God of encouragement” has given us the weapon that is designed to defeat these enemies. Ephesians 6:17 tells us we have been given “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. The Bible, as Romans 15:4 tells us, was “written for our instruction, that . . . through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope”. And when we have hope, we will have courage.
Joseph was called Barnabas most likely because he had an eye trained to see the grace of God in whatever happened. No matter what theological controversy or persecution or health crisis or financial crisis or criticism or failure, Barnabas had a resilient hope in God. When some threat discouraged his friends, he would consistently remind them of God’s promises in such a contagiously hopeful way that their courage would revive.
And that’s what we want to be like. We need to be Barnabas people. For those of us who are naturally pessimistic or judgemental, this is a difficult task. It is not natural. To be an encourager, we must spend time soaking in and storing God’s Word in our hearts. When we do this, we can walk and talk by the Spirit and the very words we speak will be edifying and building up those who hear them.
I do want to point out that this is not a simplistic call to stop thinking critically and be nice to each other. After all, Barnabas, the model of encouragement, clearly had a backbone. In Acts 15, he went toe-to-toe with Paul over Mark’s participation in the ministry. But he was most often characterized by encouragement, not combativeness or critique.
So this is a call for us to cultivate a culture of encouragement wherever we are. It is a call for us to become Barnabas people, odd people who are so characterized by being encouraging that it becomes part of our identity. People like Barnabas give grace to those who hear them. They are at-large hope-infusers to the discouraged.
Becoming a “Barnabas” really begins by asking the God of encouragement to transform us into sons and daughters of encouragement who have Spirit-empowered discernment so that we leave whomever we interact with today more encouraged than we found them. As 1 Thessalonians 4:18 tells us, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” In these days of darkness, may we be encouragers who display the love of God to others.