Thursday, August 17, 2017

the big deal about encouragement



I often think of encouragement as a nice thing to do, a little something extra that people appreciate. Today as I read Deuteronomy 1:19-46, I was struck by how many times I saw words relating to "encouragement." Apparently, God thinks it is a big deal.

In this chapter, Moses is telling the story of the Israelites journeying through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. When Moses gave the command for the Israelites to go into and possess the land that God gave to them, he told them, "Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged" (verse 21). The people responded by proposing a plan to send spies into the land in order to determine the route they should take. After spying out the land, the report brought back was basically, "The land God has given us is good, but it's too much work and we are too afraid to take possession of it," (my paraphrase of verses 25-28).

The Lord has a very good inheritance for His children,  but sometimes we are distracted by the obstacles that appear to stand in the way of His promises. When we focus on these instead of on the Lord's promises and faithfulness, our minds begin to believe the lie that we are not able to take hold of all that God means for us to possess. This leads to toxic unbelief that sabotages the original battle plan. Unbelief, a sin in itself, results in further disobedience. Ultimately, our disobedience keeps us from entering the Promised Land, the inheritance of abundant life that the Lord desires to give us.

Deuteronomy 1:26-28 says,
“Nevertheless you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God; and you complained in your tents, and said, ‘Because the Lord hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where can we go up? Our brethren have discouraged our hearts, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’


Wrapped up in the Israelites' discouragement was rebellion, disobedience, complaining, unbelief, fear, and despair. They say that, "Our brethren have discouraged our hearts," (NKJ version), which is translated as, "Our brothers have made our hearts melt in fear" in the NIV version. Discouragement is enmeshed with fear, and heavy doses of it can be debilitating, especially when it comes from those we love and respect the most (i.e., "our brothers"). 

Moses exhorts the people in verses 29-31, "Then I said to you, ‘Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.’"

I keep writing about and studying these verses because I seem to find no end to their depth and implications. Moses responds to the fear, discouragement, and outright lies ("Because the Lord hates us...") with powerful encouragement that I believe can serve as a model for how we can encourage one another and ourselves. We can remind others (and ourselves) to:

1. Calm down! What, that wasn't in your Bible? Seriously though, Moses begins by saying simply, "Do not be terrified." Sometimes the first step in helping someone (or ourselves) is to help them calm down. Stop the tailspin and breathe.

2. Shift your focus off of the problem and onto God. The second part of verse 29 says, "Do not be afraid of them." This doesn't mean we live in denial, but we need to quit idolizing our problems by making them bigger than God. `This is easier said than done, and sometimes we need someone who is outside of the problem to remind us that God is bigger.

3. Remember who God is. Verse 30 starts with, "The LORD your God..." "LORD" in all caps indicates the name "Yahweh," which is the name He used to reveal Himself to Moses when Moses first asked who He was at the burning bush, and it means, "I AM WHO I AM." God is "I AM," existing in His own right, independent of space and time, and He is also "your God" (if you are a believer). He is big, and our problems, no matter how great, are eclipsed by the Lord our God.

4. Remember that God is for us (see linked post for more on this). Moses tells the Israelites that God is going before them and will fight for them. When we are weary of fighting, He fights for us, undeserving as we are.

5. Remember what God did in the past (see linked post for more on this). We need people in our lives who remind us of the difficulties God brought us through in the past, and we need to be that person to others. Even when God doesn't "fix" a problem in an obvious way, we can ask Him to open our eyes to see His provision in times of adversity. The Old Testament is full of stories of ways that the Israelites were commanded to memorialize the good things that God had done for them. We forget His wonders quickly as they fade into the rearview mirror and a new set of struggles is looming in the distance.

6. Reflect on God's tenderness. My favorite part of this passage is when Moses says, "There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son..." The picture of a father carrying his son is a beautiful combination of tenderness and strength. Our Heavenly Father loves us and carries us tenderly and with strength when we are suffering.

7. Remember that God is long-suffering. The toughest problems are often long-term, drawn-out ordeals. Moses reminds the Israelites that God carried them "all the way you went until you reached this place." In His great compassion, God is with us and for us for the long haul.

Encouragement is not just made up of nice words that we say lightly to someone who is upset. Biblical encouragement involves speaking truth to confront the lies we hear from others, from culture, and from our own destructive self-talk. In a world where we prefer to prepare for the worst rather than hope for the best, encouragement is an invitation to vulnerability. Brene Brown, a researcher of shame and vulnerability and author of Daring Greatly, talks about the concept of "foreboding joy," which is the idea that when we are on the brink of experiencing joy, we often begin to imagine all the things that could threaten that joy. We try to protect ourselves by preparing for the worst. In her book Rising Strong, she says, "Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they're choosing to live disappointed."

When we are poised to take hold of the joy and the inheritance we are promised in Jesus Christ, we may find ourselves discouraged, afraid to hope for fear of what could go wrong, and tempted to believe the lies that contradict the truth of God's Word. In His wisdom, the Lord often calls us to places that require victory against impossible odds, but with Him, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). 

Encouragement is an invitation to hope, to try, to believe, to lay down our coping mechanisms and the destructive things we do in our attempts at self-preservation. Encouragement is an invitation to pick up the three things which will always remain: faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Our minds are powerful and influence our behaviors, and when we align them with the truth, we can move forward with hope and courage.

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