This great faith of ours at times can be a mystery. This mysterious nature can lead us to think of the walk of sanctification in a spiritual context that lacks practical considerations. It is no surprise, then, that the words of our Savior and the remainder of Scripture are rife with practical metaphors and object lessons to help us understand this spiritual journey in a better way. When it comes to practicality, we must remember that our faith journey will not follow a clearly upward trajectory. Just as we will reach summits, we also will cross valleys. We cannot think ourselves too set or too secure to need regular encouragement as we traverse this landscape. Let us look at five practical and biblical ways for us to find that push when we need it.
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.
I remember teaching youth at an inner-city ministry in my early thirties. Although I lived in the city until the end of middle school, and I lived in the city at that point in adulthood, the kids with whom I worked did not see me as they saw themselves. From appearances only, they thought I was someone altogether different from who I am, and they had a hard time understanding the value I would be able to bring to their lives. The big issue seemed to be that they could not relate to someone like me because I could not possibly relate to their struggles. It was only after months of work with those kids and honest conversations about life that they would come to realize that my past was not much different than their present.
If you are anything like me and anything like those kids, you gravitate toward leaders who have something in common with you. Sometimes we look for those who have been where we have been. Other times we look for those who are exactly where we would like to be. Even other times we look for someone who fits both of those molds. We can feel like we are alone in our struggles here, but our hopeful truth is that the Savior we follow has been there and can sympathize with us. We do not serve a God who cannot understand this human condition. Although He has never sinned, He is completely familiar with temptation, with hunger, with pain. Not only that, the perfect, living example of Jesus Christ lets us know that it is possible to walk in victory over sin. He knows where we have been, He knows how difficult this is, and He promises that we can be victorious every day.
1 John 2:1-2
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
Even knowing that Jesus Christ has suffered as we have and as we will, some still see his perfection as a barrier between us and him. It is true that He is of a different breed than we are. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, full God yet full man, and sin did not dwell in him as it dwells in us. Yet, although the perfection of Christ is a great difference from us, it is a necessary difference. If any encouragement can be taken from our faith, it is that we have the promise of salvation for those who believe that Christ died for our sins, rose again and ascended to his rightful throne. He offered what we could not so that we can reach a place where we could not go but for his sacrifice. In this way, He is called our advocate, but his advocacy goes much further than the perfect propitiation for our sins.
The advocacy of Jesus Christ was not a once-and-done act. He continues to advocate for us today. [Rom.8:34] His intercession is a constant event. Like a legal advocate, or like the brother or sister who prays for another, Jesus intercedes before the Father to represent our interest and plead our case. That pleading, however, is not really about us. He is pleading his own case before the Father that his sacrifice, the shedding of his blood, is sufficient. I have done nothing to gain the favor of God, and neither have you, but Jesus opens the way for us to have that favor. When discouragement comes, picture the scene occurring in the heavens. The Son stands before the Father coming to your defense and asking for favor to be poured over you because He is perfect and holy, the unblemished and sufficient lamb sacrificed in your stead.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
Maybe you gain some encouragement from knowing that Jesus suffered on the earth as we do and comes to our defense in the heavens. Maybe that encouragement helps, but you still feel as if you are alone in your struggles. We all battle different temptations, and each person’s life is a unique set and pattern of circumstances. God is there all the time, but we cannot see him with our eyes and touch him with our hands. This might still leave you feeling alone in your suffering, but I think this is part of the design. We are not to be isolated spiritual islands connected only to God but not to one another. So much of Scripture tells us that we are part of a larger body designed to carry out the will of God as a unit. Perhaps this is why He gives us the desire beyond fellowship with him for fellowship with people like us who we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands.
God has given us each other for many reasons, and one of the greatest reasons is encouragement. I may struggle with some sin I believe is unique to me, but nothing is new under the sun. Our enemy wants us to believe that we are the worst and that no one can help us with our struggles. He will try to have us believe that no one could understand, so we should keep our imperfections to ourselves. The truth is that the Church is here to consider you, to stir you up in love and good works. You are here to do the same for the other members. Maybe you have sought guidance and encouragement from others only to be disappointed and made to feel “less than”. I exhort you to move beyond those disappointments and continue searching for the brothers and sisters who can prop you up as God would have. He has designed his Church with this purpose in mind, and He promises that you will find support in her.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
Some people cannot distinguish between conviction and condemnation. I used to be quite the perfectionist, although I have realized over time that this character trait for me was more about control than anything else. I can recall many, many occasions when I did not meet my own standard and beat myself up tremendously for being a failure. I thought that I was doing myself a favor by being as hard as I could be on myself because I thought that was what I needed to wake up and change. What I failed to realize was that I was just trying to motivate myself with negative feelings and perceptions about me, but those perceptions were only tearing me down. Coming from anyone else, that kind of response to my failure would not have brought any positive change.
Paul gives us the key to encouragement when we feel suffocated and pinned down by sin. He makes the distinction between conviction and condemnation when he realizes that his anger is not to be directed at himself for falling but at the sin within him that is producing bad fruit. This conviction is filled with grace as he battles not himself but the evil at work within him which is trying to destroy him. He does not want to dishonor God, but sin within him does. He does not want to exist separated from God and approaching destruction, but sin within him does. When you have the opportunity to beat yourself up and tear yourself apart for falling short, take some encouragement in the fact that you have felt conviction and realized your error. Take encouragement in the fact that you still desire to defeat sin and remain faithful to God. Hate sin, battle against it, and forgive yourself in love in the process.
1 John 5:14-15
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.
The Wizard of Oz was a fraud, but let us consider the man the people thought he was. When Dorothy and her friends approached him for help, they did so understanding the great honor and privilege it would be for him to hear their case. Their need of him was so great that they were willing to go to dangerous lengths to do what was necessary for him to answer their requests. All of this was done with the expectation that the Great Oz would fulfill his promises to them. It is a picture of those who are unable seeking help from the one who is able. Their first step in receiving help from him was humbling themselves enough to go to him with their need. It is much the same for us, but we can be assured that the One we seek is no fraud.
Discouragement can be a vicious cycle just like any other negative emotion we entertain and allow to grow in us. The longer we let it fester, the harder it is to approach the Lord in humility and faith for the help we desperately need. The incredible thing is that God’s faithfulness in hearing and answering our prayers is not dependent on how we feel about ourselves. What He requires is not confidence in us but confidence in Him. That is the power of our faith and the key to destroying discouragement in our lives, that our hope does not lie in ourselves. Despite these flaws, despite these faults and clear errors, despite taking years to even get close to getting it right, He remains faithful to hear and answer those whose confidence is in him. Regardless of your circumstances, regardless of your struggles, be encouraged that the foot of God’s throne is waiting for you to bring your requests in the secure knowledge that He will listen and act.
Discouragement has its effect when it paralyzes us from continuing in our spiritual growth. It tries to convince us that we are so different from God that He cannot understand how terrible we are. It tries to convince us that no other people can even relate to us because we are so bad. Discouragement wants to isolate us in a bubble of ineffectiveness where self-deprecation compounds until we see no way out of it. God’s truth tells us that we are not the problem but that sin is the problem. It is for us to rail against sin, to hate it as He hates it and to fight against it because our lives depend on it. Even in the depths, He extends his hand to help us and promises to hear our cries. The Son is contending for us before the Father, and He wants us to humble ourselves and pray along with his intercession that we would be victorious over discouragement and over sin so that we can continue our ascent to the summit. Victory awaits those who endure and finish the race.