Friday, December 03, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 5

Not long ago, I was talking with a friend. In the course of our conversation, I shared some of the things that have happened in my life. None of them are earth-shaking, really. But if you've been walking around this planet for fifty-one years, a few things do come your way and not all of them happy or uplifting.

My friend asked, "How have you turned out so normal?"

Normal isn't usually a word people use of me, so I laughed and asked, "What do you mean?"

"I mean how are you so functional? I've seen the way you are with your family. You and your wife have done a good job with your kids. You have friends. You seem happy. How have you turned out to be so normal?"

I knew the answer to the question. But I hesitated to answer. After a short pause though, I forged ahead. "To the extent that I am 'normal,' whatever that means, it's because of my relationship with Christ," I said.

I believe that the ultimate source of encouragement any of us can have is Jesus Christ! How does Christ encourage us?

First: By demonstrating to us that our lives matter to God. He shows that in an almost incomprehensible way. The New Testament is clear in its witness that Jesus was (and is) God in the flesh (see here and here). Yet God became one of us. (Jesus is the answer to Joan Osborne's old song, "What if God was one of us?" He was!)

The Gospel of John in the New Testament calls Jesus the Creator-Word of the universe and then says:
...the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen His glory (John 1:14)
And Paul says of Jesus that:
...though He was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form... (Philippians 2:6-7)
Second: Jesus not only demonstrates that we matter to God, He shows how much God loves us. The problem with the human race, of course, is the "S" word. We are sinners who sin. That means that we live distorted lives. Deep down, all of us know that our lives aren't what they're meant to be. Sin describes our basic human condition. It's the gap between who we are and our true God-selves. The condition of Sin, in turn, causes us to commit individual sins: dishonesty, cheating, gossip, adultery, selfishness of all kinds, greed, violence, and so on.

God is very clear in saying that these things deserve death, separation from God and the life that only He can give. But God has refused to give up on us. In Jesus, God came into the world and took the punishment we deserve. Jesus, called God's Son, died on a cross and then, as the guarantee of His power to give life, rose from death on the first Easter.

That's love!
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Third: Jesus also demonstrates His love for us by promising to stick with us no matter what! "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20), uttered by Jesus before He ascended into heaven, is the greatest promise ever!

When you put all these three elements together and let them infect your life, you begin to understand that followers of Jesus Christ have what Pastor Gerald Mann calls, "God's cosmic okie-dokie." Knowing that through Christ, God has given your life His approval, forgiveness, and acceptance, brings an inexhaustible supply of encouragement to one's life.

Does that mean that Christians live with a constantly upbeat attitude? Speaking for myself, the answer would be, "No." There are several reasons for that, I suppose. But one stands out for me above all others. It's this: I experience a constant ebb and flow in my faith, what C. S. Lewis called spiritual undulation. Sometimes my faith in God is strong and I sense His presence and His approval. At other times, I feel distant from God and my sense of His encouragement is almost nil.

I go through times when I feel that I'm close to God and that everything is going well. But after awhile, things are going so well and I become so caught up in doing the things of my successdul life, that I begin to function as though I don't need God. A sense of self-satisfaction can be a dangerous thing. Smugness can't long co-exist with faith in Christ.

In Old Testament times, David was known for his closeness to God. But one Spring, after he had consolidated his power as king, David decided to slack off on his duties and not join his soldiers in battle. He stayed home in Jerusalem. In short order, he filled his idle time with an affair with a soldier's wife. When she became pregnant, he had her husband murdered by "friendly fire."

It wasn't until David repented for his sin and turned back to God that he sensed God's encouragement coming back to him. David found, as I have, that it's only when we're dissatisfied with ourselves that we once again become vulnerable enough to let God's reassuring, encouraging presence back into our lives.

As an imperfect human being, I can do (and often have done) things to mess up my relationship with God. I'm thankful that when that happens, I can turn to God and receive forgiveness and the power to live. When that happens, God floods my life with His encouragement again.

Another reason that Christians experience discouragement should be sort of obvious. On an episode of the classic TV series, M*A*S*H, lead character Hawkeye Pierce felt deeply depressed and guilty over the death of a wounded soldier he thought that he had saved on the operating table. The usually buffoon-like commanding officer, Henry Blake, tells Hawkeye that at command school, he was taught that were two immutable laws combat surgeons needed to remember. Rule number one was that in war, soldiers die. And rule number two was that doctors can't do anything about rule number two. His voice dripping with rage and sarcasm, Hawkeye asks, "What's that supposed to mean?" Henry replies, "I don't know. If I knew, I'd be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this look like the Mayo Clinic?"

To Henry, the Mayo Clinic represented perfection. In any condition short of perfection, he was telling Hawkeye, bad things, inexplicable things, difficult things can happen.

The world in which we live isn't heaven. It isn't perfect. "For now we see in a mirror dimly..." Paul writes in First Corinthians 13:12. He goes on to say: "Now we see only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known [by God]."

God has great plans for every human being. He loves us and is committed to us. Those who follow Jesus Christ live in the certainty that God only wants what is best for us. Our surest bet for overcoming the discouragement that so often can shake us is to keep focused on Christ, or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, to "seize the hope that Christ gives" (Hebrews 6:18).

Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of encouragement.

More on the power of encouragement coming...

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