Unfortunately most of us are familiar with MURPHY’S LAWS—those humorous lists of things that, according to some guy named Murphy, CAN and DO go wrong in life. Here’s some examples:
- The other check-out line at COSTCO always moves faster than the one you are in. This is true even when your line is the shortest.
- The chance of a piece of bread falling with the peanut butter side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet it is falling toward.
- No matter how careful you were to save the Christmas gift receipts—when you need to return something, you won’t be able to find the receipt for that particular gift.
- Any tool dropped while fixing a car will roll underneath to the exact center of that car.
- You will remember that you forgot to take out the trash when the garbage truck is two doors away.
There are even TEEN versions of Murphy’s pessimistic list. For example:
- The shortest distance between two classes never takes you near your locker.
- Even the most absent-minded teachers never forget a test.
And then here’s one other that my own adolescence taught me to be true:
- Planned dates cause pimples.
We all CHUCKLE at these “laws,” but we also WINCE a bit because our own experiences have shown us that more often than not MURPHY is right. We live in a world in which BAD—and usually WORSE—happens to all of us all the time. All this unfairness and pain—all these inevitable disappointments in life—combine to make our world a very DISCOURAGING place. Think about your own life. How many times do you feel DISCOURAGED on a typical day?
- Have you ever had a fellow commuter sit on his horn because you didn’t catch the light changing to green fast enough for his or her tastes?
- Has your boss ever given you a hard time for some trivial reason?
- Have you worried that with all the job cuts, yours might be on the line?
As a Christian…
- …have you ever felt discouraged after a day of living in a fallen world where Godly morals seem to be increasingly nonexistent?
- …have the constant complaints or grumblings of a fellow Christ-follower ever drained your spiritual battery?
I don’t think I’m being too pessimistic to say this…but I imagine all of us are very familiar with situations and experiences like these. We have all been through discouraging days—and we all know how BAD they make us feel. Here’s a couple word pictures I came across that I can personally relate to:
- Sometimes discouragement feels like a BARREN WIND off a lonely desert in that it blows on us and something inside us begins to wilt.
- Sometimes it feels more like a CHILLING MIST. Seeping through our pores, it numbs our spirit and fogs the path before us.
But no matter how you word it, discouragement hurts. And—since the PAIN of DIScouragement is so prevalent in our world, as Christians it is vital that we heed the Bible’s teaching and learn how to practice, ENcouragement. As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, we MUST, “…consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. We MUST NOT give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but we MUST ENCOURAGE one another and all the more as we see the Day approaching.” 1st Thessalonians 5:11 puts it this way. “Encourage one another and build each other up.”
And…please note—the structure of the Greek in these texts is not that of a GENTLE SUGGESTION. God’s Word doesn’t say, “Oh by the way, if you are a Christian it might be nice to throw in a little encouragement now and then.” No…these are COMMANDS from our Heavenly Father. It is His will that CHRISTIANS practice the art of encouragement and that His congregations be places where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Our church family here at Redland and tens of thousands of other church families like it around the world are called by God to be islands of encouragement where believers can come….and find the kind of help that enables them to deal with the pain that comes from living in this cruel world of ours. John Ortberg puts it this way. He says that Christians are to be “balcony people” cheering each other on—and I like that word picture. Our churches need to be places where we can find people who believe in us and root for us as they urge us on toward Godliness.
But being a “balcony people place” doesn’t just benefit Christians. You see, when we LEARN to obey God in this—when we become skilled encouragers—we draw lost people like metal to a magnet because encouragement IS such a rare thing. Ours IS indeed a discouraging world where the theme of life seems to be putting people down and pointing out their faults. So people are just naturally drawn to places where the opposite is found.
Since encouragement is so important, let’s begin by DEFINING it. What exactly is encouragement? The word literally means to “put courage INTO someone.” It conveys the idea of giving someone the emotional strength to go on—in spite of the MURPHY’S LAW events of life. The GREEK word for ENCOURAGEMENT is “paraklesis” and it’s used more than a hundred times in the New Testament. It comes from the same root as the Greek word for HOLY SPIRIT. To be more precise, it’s a combination of two Greek words: “para” meaning “along side.” and the word “kaleo” meaning “to call.” In other words, in the same way that the Holy Spirit is CALLED ALONGSIDE to help us, we are CALLED ALONGSIDE to help or encourage each other.
(1) There are lots of ways to do this but the simplest form of encouragement is VERBAL—which of course involves using our WORDS to put courage into someone.
As we face the challenges of life, we all know how good it feels to have someone come alongside and encourage us as they say things to us like, “I am really impressed with your servant attitude!” or “You did a great job!” or “I really believe you can do this—and do it well!”
If you know your “Olympic history” then you know that in the 1936 Olympic games which were held in Berlin, Germany, everyone felt that this man, Jesse Owens, was sure to win the long jump. After all, the year before Jesse had set three world records in one day. In fact, he was the current record holder for the running broad jump with 26 feet 8 1/4 inches—a record that would stand for 25 years. As he walked to the long jump pit in Berlin, Owens saw a tall German athlete taking practice jumps that were somewhere in the 26 foot range. Owens was understandably nervous. He was aware of the tension created by his presence. He knew the Nazis’ desire was to prove Aryan “superiority,” especially over black people. Well, with that overwhelming pressure, on his first jump Owens inadvertently leaped from several inches beyond the takeoff board—a foul. Rattled and nervous, on his second attempt he fouled again. This means he was only one foul away from being eliminated from competition all together. At this point, the tall German approached Owens and introduced himself as Luz Long. Then an amazing event took place. The black son of a sharecropper and the white model of Nazi manhood chatted in view of the entire stadium. Since the qualifying distance was only 23 feet 5 ½ inches, Long suggested that Jesse make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there, just to play it safe.
Think of it—at the beginning of World War II, this model of Germany’s strength was providing technical assistance and words of encouragement to a foe both on and off the field. Using this tip Owens qualified easily. Then, in the finals, he set an Olympic record and earned the second of four gold medals during the 1936 Olympics. The first person to congratulate Owens was Luz Long—in full view of Adolf Hitler. Here’s a picture of the two friends. Owens never saw Long again, because Long was killed in World War II….but Owens later wrote, “You could melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long.”
And all of us who have been encouraged can understand why Owens would say that. We know how wonderful it feels to have someone encourage us with their words. As that old film star from yesteryear, Celeste Holme, once said, “We LIVE by encouragement and we DIE without it, slowly, sadly, angrily.” I would agree. In fact, I think we each have a minimum daily requirement of uplifting WORDS from others that we must hear…if we are to endure the discouragement that comes from living in a fallen world. As Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” And as Proverbs 15:4 puts it, “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.”
Now—don’t misunderstand me. Sometimes the kind of encouragement someone needs is loving CRITICISM. Being FOR someone—wanting them to succeed—spurring them on to good deeds—can include telling them painful things…if pain is the only way to bring growth.
Sometimes encouraging words are “warning words,” “reproving words,” “confronting words,” “admonishing words” —because those are the kinds of words that benefit most. In any case, VERBAL encouragement is an important thing for Christians to learn to practice. But, there are other ways to OBEY God’s command and encourage others—and by looking at the life of a little-known man named BARNABAS, we can see three of them. By the way, BARNABAS must have been an EXPERT when it comes to encouraging others because “Barnabas” was a nickname he was given by the disciples and it literally means, “Son of Encouragement.” Take your Bibles and turn with me now to ACTS 4, verses 32-37.
Acts 4:32 – All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.
33 – With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.
34 – There were no needy persons among them, for from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales,
35 – and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
36 – Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement),
37 – sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
In this chapter from his life Barnabas shows that a 2nd way we can encourage each other is,
(2)…with our MATERIAL resources.
Now—at this point in history the little church in Jerusalem was going through particularly discouraging times due to the persecution of the Jewish religious leaders. These evil men did not want the crowd of Jesus’ first followers to continue to grow. And one of the things they did to try and nip this movement in the bud so to speak was to find Christians and dismiss them from their jobs—depriving them of a way to make a living. This of course caused many believers to have a tough time financially. Some were unable to pay their debts. Many were even going hungry.
And at this moment—when insecurity was mounting among the believers—Barnabas went out and sold some property that he owned, and brought the money to the Apostles for them to use for the good of the people of the church. He said in effect, “Here, take this and distribute it to those people who are in trouble and in need. I have more than enough. I want this surplus to find its way to those whose faithfulness to Jesus Christ has caused them to have less than they need.”
Now, the Scripture says that Barnabas was from Cyprus. Since he was a LEVITE, he would have owned no land in Israel itself. So this land that he sold was probably on that island in the Mediterranean. And if it was, then his gift was lavish indeed. You see, to own land on Cyprus was like owning a city block in downtown San Francisco. In any case, Barnabas’ great generosity was VERY encouraging to that church. In fact it set off a kind of chain reaction. His gift encouraged others to do the same and the writer of Acts seems to suggest that Barnabas’ act of encouragement paved the way for one of the finest periods in the history of the church. For a while at least, no Christian was totally possessive or selfish about his or her wealth. They became a real brotherhood and gladly and generously made what resources they had available to each other according to need. So you see, Barnabas’ life shows that you don’ t even have to be able to “speak” to be an encourager. You can PUT COURAGE INTO someone who needs it by simply sharing your material possessions with them…helping people with a physical need.
This Christmas my daughter Sarah was very generous in that she bought every member of our family a pair of TOMS shoes. As you can see in this picture, even Lydia received a tiny pair from her aunt. I imagine most of you know but just in case—I’ll tell you that TOMS shoes are unique in that when you buy a pair, the company give an identical pair to someone in the world who otherwise would not have a pair of shoes. Right on their logo it says, “one for one.” After we finished opening our presents from Sarah we all gathered around someone’s laptop to view a video of those people in third world countries: men, women, and children—receiving their TOMS shoes. It was obviously encouraging to these people—but I have to admit—it was encouraging to me as well…and that’s usually the case. Encouraging others—especially when it includes helping them in some material way—has a sort of “mirror effect” in that the encouragement the givee receives bounces right back at the giver.
The truth is that sometimes words just aren’t sufficient to encourage someone. I mean when people are hungry or in physical need, telling them “I’ll be thinking about you.” isn’t enough.
Do you remember the words of James 2:15-16? “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well-fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”
So—if you want to prove MURPHY wrong—if you want to encourage someone, look for ways to do so by giving to meet their material needs. Look for ways to bless people in a physical way.
I don’t want to belabor this point but as we draw near to Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend I can’t help but think of his example. Dr. King made it his life’s work to encourage others by striving to end discriminatory practices that made people’s physical lives hard. In this sense he was a “Barnabas” of the 20th century.
Okay—take your Bibles and turn to Acts chapters 9 and 11 because if we do I think we’ll see a THIRD way we can practice the art of encouragement. Let’s begin by looking at verses 26-28 of chapter 9:
Act 9:26 – When he (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.
27 – 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.
28 – So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
Flip over to Acts chapter 11 and follow along as I read verses 25-26
25 – Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,
26 – and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
I hope you noticed that in this episode of his life Barnabas shows us that a third way to encourage people…
(3) …is by seeing their God-given POTENTIAL and urging them to pursue it.
Let me remind you at this point that before Paul was PAUL THE APOSTLE, he was SAUL THE PERSECUTOR OF CHRISTIANS. Here’s a quick review of his life. SAUL…had been one of the ring leaders of those who tormented the early church. But he had not satisfied himself with firing Christians—taking away their jobs. No, Saul had arrested them and had them whipped and imprisoned—he even collaborated in having Deacon Stephen stoned to death. And then he got permission from the Jewish authorities to go to Damascus and halt the beginnings of the Christian movement there. But on that Damascus road, Saul ran head on into the risen Christ Himself, and discovered to his great astonishment that those he’d been persecuting were telling the truth…Jesus WAS in fact the Son of God…the long-awaited Messiah.
As a result of that Damascus road experience, Saul became a follower of Christ himself. He in essence changed sides. Now—of course Jesus’ followers were understandably terrified of Saul. So the day he “walked down the aisle,” asking to join the “First Baptist Church of Jerusalem,” he wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Those Christians hated and distrusted Saul. And, I can understand their feelings. They thought this might be a subtle trick that Saul was playing…a ploy on his part to enable him to infiltrate the ranks of the church…so that he might find out who was part of the movement and destroy it from the inside.
That old adage about a leopard not being able to change his spots must have entered the apostles’ minds when Saul showed up—CLAIMING to be a Christian. Plus—let’s be honest—it would be hard to forgive someone who had imprisoned and killed our brothers in the faith. Well, just as they were about to kick Saul out—at that crucial moment in Saul’s life, WHO should step in but Barnabas—Son of Encouragement—and begin to do his thing! He said in essence, “You guys are wrong about Saul. He met our Lord on the Damascus road. He has placed his faith in Him. Saul has changed! I can vouch for him!” At the risk of his own good reputation, Barnabas took this former persecutor and went around to all the Christians in Jerusalem…and put the weight of his influence behind the credibility of this new convert.
A couple chapters later we read that the church was growing very quickly—so fast in fact that it was too big for the leaders to handle. They needed other leadership to rely on—and again Barnabas did his thing. He went and searched for Saul and brought him back to Antioch. He must have said something like, “Saul, you have what it takes to be a leader in the church. In fact it is obvious to me that God has designed you and gifted you for this task.” Barnabas saw Saul’s God-given potential and urged him to pursue it!
And all you have to do to see what a far-reaching act this was, is to read the rest of the New Testament. Doing so shows that the church came withing a hair’s breath of losing the gifts of it’s finest missionary because, with all his determination, Paul couldn’t have done what he did, without the acceptance of the rest of the church and that acceptance would not have come if BARNABAS, the SON OF ENCOURAGEMENT hadn’t been willing to take a chance on what everybody else considered a risky possibility. He saw potential in Paul and acted on it.
You know, I tend to think the world is divided into people who think the best of others and those who think the worst of others. As Christians we are called to join the first group—we are called to see GOD’S BEST in all people and urge them to pursue it. Think about it. There could be a PAUL or a PAULA here in our body—someone whom God has gifted to help us take the Gospel in places it has never gone before…and all he or she needs is a Christian to nudge them toward that God-given potential. Is there someone in your life who you should encourage in this way? A son or daughter? A college student…someone in the background here at Redland who is not using their giftedness…someone who should be teaching Sunday School…someone who should serve as a deacon…someone who would be great at working with teens?
If you can think of a person like that—you need to look for ways to encourage them to be all God has prepared in advance for them to be! Okay, turn in your Bibles to Acts chapter 15:36-41 and look with me at one other form of encouragement that Barnabas teaches us.
Acts 15:36 – Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”
37 – Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them,
38 – but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.
39 – They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus,
40 – but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.
41 – He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Did you deduce the kind of encouragement Barnabas displayed here? At this point in his life this Godly man showed that one other way to encourage others is by helping them to understand that…
(4) …God gives us SECOND chances.
When we sin—if we repent God forgives us and helps us to start over. This text records a time when Paul and Barnabas were preparing for another missionary journey. And Barnabas suggested that they take John Mark with them. Well, Paul disagreed. You see, on their first missionary journey, Mark had found the going too rough, and had turned back and deserted Paul and Barnabas. Because of this Paul felt that Mark wasn’t dependable and he said as much. But Barnabas stood by his guns—and so did Paul. Well, the result of this sharp disagreement was that Paul and Barnabas decided to part company. Barnabas took John Mark himself and set out for Cyprus.
This is the last we hear of Barnabas in the book of Acts—but it is not the last we hear of the results of his encouraging nature. You see, years later, when Paul was old and in prison, and feeling somewhat discouraged himself…he wrote Timothy and said, “When you come, please bring JOHN MARK with you, for he is useful to me.” (1 Tim. 4:12) John Mark got the message and went to Rome. He became his former critic’s colleague until Paul’s martyrdom and then John Mark worked alongside of the Apostle Peter…whom he used as the oral source of the FIRST gospel ever written—the Gospel According to Mark. Think of it! How many countless millions have been led to follow Jesus because they read of His footsteps in this Gospel. If tradition serves us well, John Mark went on to become the founder and bishop of the church in Alexandria, North Africa. And John Mark was able to do all this because Barnabas encouraged him by helping him to see that God does give us second chances. The amazing fruit of John Mark’s life was the result of the power of this form of encouragement, expressed through a Christian who believed that with God’s help we CAN start over.
Have you ever wished you could have another chance—that the slate could be wiped clean? Have you ever day-dreamed and thought, “If I could go back in time and re-live my life again, I wouldn’t do this and I wouldn’t do this or this…etc.” I know I have—I think we ALL have….because sin is never as good as it seems it will be. It always hurts to disobey God….and so, when we do, we long for one more chance. Now, MURPHY would say, there is no such place. You can’t begin again. You sin…you pay. That’s the law. But the good news of the Gospel is Someone has paid. When Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s Cross, He took the punishment for all our sins on Himself. On the cross Jesus made it possible for God to forgive us…to wipe the slate clean and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That’s the Gospel…God giving man a second chance.
In fact God waits to do that—He yearns for sinners to turn from their sin and ask for His forgiveness and restoration. I like how John Ortberg puts it. He says, “If there is one way that human beings consistently underestimate God’s love, it is perhaps His loving longing to forgive.” As I said last week, the encouraging news is that God does allow U-Turns in life.
This is what Barnabas must have told young John Mark. “You failed, but if you ask Him, God will forgive you and give you another chance. He’ll help you to start over.” I know several times in my own life when I messed up royally…people gave me a second chance. I don’t think I would be a pastor if they hadn’t done that. How about you? How many of you are thankful for a second chance? How many of you wouldn’t be where you are today if it weren’t for a second chance?
Several years ago Christian psychologist, LARRY CRABB startled his colleagues at a convention by saying that in his opinion….all the hurting people of the world…all those men and women and boys and girls discouraged from the MURPHY’S LAWS of life…he said that they did not always need to see a psychologist. Crabb said that what their primary need was the love and care of a Christian community where they could find brothers and sisters in the Lord who would nurture and encourage them. I tend to agree because I talk to hurting people all the time…lonely people whose main problem is that they are starving for ENCOURAGING relationships.
With this in mind I encourage each of you to obey God and practice the art of encouragement—to use your WORDS and MATERIAL RESOURCES to boost the spirits of the hurting people that are all around us. Listen for God’s still, small voice pointing out the potential in people around you and to push them toward it. Come along side sinful people and help them see that if they repent of their sin and turn to God, He will help them to start over. In fact, let’s all strive to make this a place where seldom is heard a discouraging word.
LET US PRAY.