I was asked to speak about encouragement. Given the topic I guessed that at least some of the retreat participants already knew about its negative alternatives, of discouragement and its lurking big brother, depression.
The assignment turned out to be more challenging than I expected. I first considered what the option of simple volition might offer—the answer of the simple ditty from a decade or two back, “Don’t worry; be happy!” A nice sentiment, but winsomely misguided and impossible to apply. It’s like telling a person to turn on the lights during a power outage.
So I next asked myself, “And what causes emotional disruptions?” Let me stay with the analogy of electrical power. That’s like asking a lineman in charge of the power grid, “And what are the most common reasons for you to be called out?” His answers might include broken lines caused by storms; burned out fuses; short circuits; power plant problems; and more. Yet the problem is usually somewhere in the transmission network rather than in the power plant itself. Nowadays most of the developed world has reliable power generation systems, so that’s the last point of concern.
Here’s a question, then. Does the analogy of the electric power grid actually apply to our soul concerns? I’m convinced it does. As just suggested, lost electric power can be assessed in three steps: is the problem in the source; in the transmission; or in the appliance I’m using? In other words a working appliance assumes an uninterrupted connection to the power source. So our analogy presumes that encouragement and discouragement are relational, with encouragement gained from a source outside ourselves: from an emotional power source.
We must be careful, though, not to insist that restored relationships are the immediate solution to every form of discouragement. A post partum depression, for instance, can be traced to the mother’s physical state—a function of chemistry. I also know of some who experience seasonal depressions and need a good sunshine cure.
We also can be discouraged by impersonal circumstances that disrupt our lives—the loss of a job, or some sort of property loss. So let me say from the outset that what follows next must always be an invitation, not a task.
With that said, here is what I came to in preparing my talks: the deepest sorts of discouragement come from broken bonds of love. Courage for life, on the other hand, comes from being loved. To put it in terms of what I’ve written before about God’s being, we are made as transitive beings: designed for relationships in the image of God’s own Triune relationality. Call this the need to love and to be loved. Without both of these we begin to lose our courage for life.
But, on the other hand, in the love the Spirit pours out in our hearts—a love more profound than the superficial romantic and sexually construed love of our culture—we find the ultimate basis for deep encouragement. It offers us a way forward emotionally when darkness wraps its coils around us. Certainly this is what Paul had in mind when he offered some otherwise implausible instructions:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
So the power supply for emotional encouragement is this love of God offered to us by God through Christ and expressed to our hearts by the Spirit.
Some readers are certain to ask, “Is it really that easy? Aren’t we back to humming ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ with this sort of advice.” The answer is, absolutely not.
What makes all the difference is the reality that the “Lord is at hand”—that is, he is immediately concerned with our welfare and alert to our needs. Our requests have someone “on the other end”—God—who is listening to us with a devotion of love for us that was expressed through the cross. It is this relational certainty that brings peace.
That’s not to say that God won’t allow us to experience hard times; or that his love requires him to maintain our personal financial, social, and physical security. What he offers, instead, is the embrace he shares with his Son who died on the cross for our sake. This love is poured out to us by the Spirit so that we begin to have emotional access to it in our activity of rejoicing. Or, to put it another way, we begin to engage God’s reality rather than our own self-absorbed view of life as soon as we begin to tell him how much we delight in him.
This is not a mind-game, either, of saying something we don’t really believe. The point is that the Lord really is at hand, expressing his love to us both through the Scriptures and through the Spirit who is present to us as we read and respond to the Scriptures.
In other words we begin to reciprocate God’s already-present-love once we begin to rejoice. We are simply living out an appropriate response to his many initiatives on our behalf. In rejoicing we find our eyes being opened to see why our rejoicing is so proper and fulfilling. We rediscover worship, and with worship the “transmission line” between our hearts and God’s heart is restored.
So as I’m here in Cambodia, speaking to a wonderful group of believers about encouragement in an emotionally difficult setting, all I’ve done is to make God and his love for us our focus. And although we are just halfway through the retreat we already have some rich measures of new courage instilled in our hearts. And it will only get better. For that we rejoice!