Encouragement Crisis

We suffer from excess. We’re overdrawn on our bank accounts, overextended in our responsibilities, and overwhelmed with life in general. And with the cultural anger and division taking place right now, a lot of people are overheated. But when’s the last time you heard someone complain of being over encouraged? Me neither, especially after the headlines this month. They read like an apocalyptic paragraph from the Bible. 

  • Dixie Wildfire in CA destroys half a million acres, as other fires rage across 14 states  
  • 7.2 earthquake in Haiti kills over 1400 as tropical storm challenges relief efforts 
  • Taliban takes over in Kabul as Afghanistan forces surrender and flee
  • Hospitals struggle to house Covid patients as Delta Strain surges
  • Two hurricane-force storms barrel toward the U.S.
  • Heatwaves threaten millions in the West

Fear and pessimism have gripped our hearts. The cultural glass is half empty for pretty much everyone right now. And we’re seeing a crisis of encouragement. We don’t give or receive encouragement well. Why not? Here are 4 problems that create the crisis, and a striking passage where Jonathan shows us how to overcome them.  

We Don’t Pay Attention: Everyone needs encouragement. But it’s not an invisible crisis. When we look around, we can see. Discouragement is pervasive. Consider how often you need encouragement—and how rarely you receive it. Gavin Ortlund recently made this observation on twitter: 

“When I practice deliberate encouragement to others, it’s amazing how often someone says, ‘this came at exactly the right time’ or ‘I really needed that today.’ I’ve concluded that people are walking around needing encouragement like 80% of the time. Good to remember this!”  

That’s true of those who live with chronic affliction, doubt, or depression. And it’s also true of people whose discouragement may surprise you, people like King David.  

David was God’s chosen King. He was a man after God’s heart. He was godly, humble, and just. And he was discouraged. David was surrounded with people who admired him. But only one of them was paying attention—his friend Jonathan. His name means “Yahweh’s gift,” or “The Lord has given.” David was having a bad year. 

David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.” And the two of them made a covenant before the Lord. David remained at Horesh, and Jonathan went home. —1 Sam. 23:15–18.

This event took place during the years of awkward, ugly transition from King Saul to King David. Things have not been easy for David. He is the most wanted man in Israel. Saul wants him dead. If you read 1 Samuel carefully, you’ll notice King Saul is psychotic and satanic. He slaughtered 85 priests, along with their wives and children. He wiped out an entire city, for the crime of showing kindness to David. 

Saul tried to kill David on several occasions. He was bitterly jealous and full of envy. He had murder in his heart. He even tried to kill his own son, Jonathan for being loyal to David. Understandably, David is in distress and on the run. 

In the wilderness, he is isolated, afraid, exhausted, and confused. Fear has taken hold of David. He is unrecognizable from the man we read about just chapters earlier who defeated the Philistine Giant, Goliath. David is discouraged. He needs help. 

God’s invisible grace became visible when he sent Jonathan. He wasn’t a prophet, priest, or king—just an ordinary man who did something extraordinary to strengthen his friend. So often, that’s God’s method. Ed Welch writes in Side by Side: 

“God is pleased to use ordinary people, ordinary conversations, and extraordinary and wise love to do most of the heavy lifting in his kingdom…In our era we consult experts, professionals, and specialists, but when you look at your own history of having been helped, it’s likely that you’ll notice very few experts among those who have helped you. Who were your helpers? Were they professional counselors or specialists? Probably not. Most often, they were friends—the regular, everyday people in your life. Friends are the best helpers.” 

We Don’t Take Risks: Providing genuine, earnest encouragement will require a risk. It will cost us. Jonathan was opposing his father. We see in this passage the inherent danger. “And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David.” Everyone was pursuing David in this story, but only one of them had a noble purpose. Jonathan counted the cost to encourage his friend. Saul would never forgive him. 

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the fellowship and burden of the Cross, and reserved strong words for for sharing it. “If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refused to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.”  

We Don’t Aim Well: Notice what Jonathan said. “Do not fear!” He struck gold. Underneath David’s distress was one thing: Fear. Jonathan did not preach a sermon to his friend. This encounter was brief, but powerful. To encourage someone according to the Bible is to speak words to them, to “call to one’s side” in Greek. We have over 171 thousand words in the English language. Choose well. Aim well. 

Solomon wrote, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad,” andA word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverb 12:25, and 25:11). What do your friends need to be reminded of today?

We Don’t Leave People with God: We’re not given all the words Jonathan said—which is common in Scripture. But we are told the effect and impact they had on David, “he strengthened his hand in God.” David was weak in his faith. But a weak faith in a strong God is all we need. Jonathan reminded David where his strength came from. He served his friend well. He brought him to God and left him there.

Jonathan was not the source of David’s strength. He was the guide. We could learn a lot from Jonathan. Making our friends co-dependent on us isn’t helping them or us. We are not the Christ. We can be incredible encouragers, but we’re terrible saviors. Jonathan put David’s hand in God’s, not his own. We’re nobody’s rock or answer. 

That’s biblical encouragement. We don’t bear the full burden. God does. We just have to connect our friends back to God.

Maybe David’s declaration in Psalm 138 is a rehearsal of Jonathan’s words to him on that day, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.”

Jonathan helped David, but a Jonathan can only take us so far. We must come to the point where we can strengthen ourselves in the Lord. We can’t live on the leftovers of others. Just chapters later, David returns home from war to find his city burnt to the ground, his mens’ wives and children missing, and his soldiers distressed. They want to kill David. And Jonathan is not around to encourage his friend. This is bad. But watch… 

“And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” — 1 Samuel 30:6

David never forgot what his friend did for him. When Jonathan was not around, David drug himself into God’s hands. He found strength in the Lord.   

We can be encouraged in our worst crisis, but only because Jesus had no-one to encourage him in his. He lost His Father’s hand. Everywhere he looked he faced rejection, hate, betrayal, and silence. He was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. …But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  —Isaiah 53:3–8

Jesus is our truest encouragement. Jonathan risked his life to encourage David. But Jesus gave his life to encourage us. That’s the beauty and horror of the Cross.