“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in all our affliction so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
The main purpose of GraceWaves is to encourage Christians by inviting them more deeply into God’s grace. My eye, therefore, naturally gravitates to passages that depict God’s grace being dispensed to struggling saints, and the Bible is full of such examples.
This past week as I read 2 Corinthians I paused at the verses above. The key word in the passage, encouragement, is transliterated as paraclesis. You probably recognize that word as the name Jesus gave to the Spirit, i.e. the Paraclete, in John 14:16 and 26. The word means one who comforts (so the Holy Spirit is referred to as The Comforter). Often translators use comfort in the 2 Corinthians passage, and I cannot fault that translation.
However, the word paraclesis, and its verbal forms, also has the meaning of encouragement and exhortation. It also has the nuance of beseeching. Comfort connotes tender compassion, and we certainly all need God to take us into His arms and comfort us. But God’s aim is not merely to comfort. He encourages, exhorts, and beseeches us to return to the game, as it were. In fact, Paul’s idea here is to gain encouragement from God so that we may seek out others with whom we share this encouragement. Encouragement has a goal beyond mere comfort, and that is why I prefer that translation.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians reflect both his need for encouragement and his commitment to encourage. He wrote from personal experience in which he faced discouragement in three main areas: circumstances, vocation, and relationships. These areas of discouragement can threaten to overwhelm any of us. Paul faced each one, and God taught him something important.
Circumstances. Paul wrote of a mysterious but harrowing experience in which he and his companions were so “utterly and unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 8). This occurred in Asia, and while we don’t have the details, something happened so traumatic that he felt he had “received the sentence of death.” Many of you know what it is like to despair of life itself. How you emerge on the other side of the events depends on you. For Paul he learned from a tragic circumstance “to rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-10). God encouraged him. Paul survived and returned to strengthen churches and write letters.
Vocation. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul wrote about “this treasure” (v. 7) which was his calling and vocation as an apostle. He firmly believed God had called and gifted him to do what he was doing. But he was not always received well. He felt he had failed many times. As a result he felt “afflicted,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” and “struck down” (4:8-9). But for each challenge God provided encouragement so that Paul was “not crushed,” “not driven to despair,” “not forsaken,” and “not destroyed.” Once again he learned more deeply to rely on the transcendent power that belongs to God (v.7).
Relationships. Betrayal and rejection were consistent themes in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians. He was not their favorite preacher (1 Cor. 1:12). Some said he could write well but not speak well, and that he was not very good looking! (2 Cor. 10:10). Others claimed he was not a “real apostle” and thus inferior (2 Cor. 11:5). I could cite many other passages to convince you that Paul had a very rough time with people he loved and depended on. People he counted on disappointed him, but in these weak moments of despair he learned that God’s grace is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
You can relate to every area of discouragement cited. You might be in the middle of a difficult time in which you don’t see a way forward, or have lost a job, or have needless struggles with people you thought you could trust and rely on. God encourages you. He will give you the comfort you need, but He also exhorts you to keep pushing ahead and use your gifts and opportunities.
As I write this on Father’s Day, please indulge an illustration from this area of my life. When Gregory was about 4 or 5, I was putting decking in our attic. Of course, he wanted to help nail, so I set a few nails for him to work on while I continued in another area. Squatting down and swinging the hammer with two hands, he was making steady progress every third strike or so. On one backswing, however, he hit his forehead with the back of the hammer. He dropped it and ran to me, burying his face in my chest, crying, and rubbing the small bump forming right above his eyes.
I hugged him, and told him I had hit various parts of my body on countless occasions. As I continued to try and console him, he pushed away from me, went back and picked up the hammer, and finished driving the nail. He then came back to my embrace, again rubbing his head, and said, “I wasn’t going to quit.”
Comfort helps you to feel better. Encouragement helps you to do better. While God certainly does want to comfort us, I believe His main goal is to encourage us to reenter the fray. The affliction you face is common to all people, and God is with you to strengthen and console you. But He also wants you to get back to life. You have His encouragement. Now go and encourage someone else this week.
Dr. Terry Ellis
June 19, 2011