Read part 1 here.
The Gospel, then, is the truly encouraging message. Everything that encourages, to paraphrase pastor and author Sam Crabtree, everything truly encouraging originates from and is supremely found in Christ — whether that is recognized or not.
Why is this? Simply because God is a God of encouragement. Let’s look at a few examples to see God’s character in action. We’ll start at the beginning, in Genesis. Genesis 3 finds us in the Garden — you know the story. The serpent has tempted Eve, she has eaten and then has tempted Adam to eat. Now both of them are hiding. Starting at verse 8, we read,
“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
This is encouragement. God knows, of course, where Adam is. He knows what has happened. But he is asking for a response from Adam, he wants Adam to come to him and confess, to give up hiding. His first words to Adam are not words of condemnation, but of encouragement.
He does this again for Adam’s son. Again, you know the story — Cain and Abel. Cain is jealous of the acceptance his brother receives. God sees Cain’s anger, and his first words to him are encouragement. He says, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God then warns him of the consequences of going the other way. But notice that, again, his first words are not rebuke but encouragement to do the right thing.
Let’s fast forward to Hagar. Here is a woman in a difficult position: first a slave and then a tool, a pawn in Sarah’s game to get an heir for Abraham. When God gives her a child, she reacts, as many of us would, with pride. And when Sarah treats her poorly, she flees.
Do you remember how God meets her in the wilderness? Hear the gentleness, the encouragement in his words:
“Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (16:8)
One commentary notices that God is the first person in the story to call Hagar by her name — until then, Abraham and Sarah call her “my servant” or “your servant.” What encouragement, to be known and called by name by God himself!
And more encouragement: God gives her a promise. He sends her back, yes, but not without hope or strength. We understand the encouragement God has given her by her response: she names God “El Roi,” the God who Sees, saying “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me”(Genesis 16:13).
But God is not done encouraging Hagar! Years later, when Isaac is born and Sarah forsees the tension between Ishmael and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are set free. But this is not a happy situation for Hagar: she wanders in the wilderness, runs out of water, and despairs of her and her son’s survival.
Again God meets her in her distress. Genesis 21:17-20 tells us, “And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow.”
Reassurance, promises, deliverance. What encouragement God gives to Hagar! His character is demonstrated so clearly in this story, showing us that he is a God who encourages his people, no matter who they are or where they are.
But maybe we can find a few examples not in Genesis. Here’s one in 1 Kings. Elijah, God’s prophet to the wicked queen Jezebel, fears for his life and flees into the wilderness and finds himself in a cave. When God comes to him — again, he asks what he is doing! — listen to Elijah’s response: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Do you hear the despair? Elijah has been rejected and persecuted, and he thinks that he is the only one left. Perhaps you and I might be tempted to respond something like this, “Don’t be silly, Elijah, you’re not the only one left! And don’t you trust me to take care of you??”
But of course, God does not say that. His words are full of encouragement.
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:15-18).
God graciously addresses Elijah’s fears and discouragement. First, he encourages Elijah by giving him a job. Elijah still has work to do as God’s prophet, to anoint Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. Having good, important work to do encouraged Elijah to come out from hiding.
Next, he encourages him by promising that justice will be done. Those who persecute God’s people, who profane God’s name and his worship, will not be allowed to continue. The wicked will not escape judgment. Elijah can be encouraged that God sees and judges.
And finally, he encourages Elijah that he is not the only one left who fears God — there are actually 7,000 left in Israel! What an enormous number in contrast to Elijah’s despair of being the only one left. How encouraging to know that he is not the only one.
God is a God of encouragement. His encouragement takes many different forms: to Adam he encouraged him to turn and repent. To Cain he encourages him to do what is right and not let sin master him. To Hagar he encourages her that he sees her and knows her, and that she and her son are in his tender care. And to Elijah he encourages him by giving him good work to do, promising to judge the wicked, and revealing that he is not the only one left.
These examples are not foreign to you, I hope. Because if God is your God as he is the God of these men and women, then God does the same for you. This is his character; this is how he cares for his people.
Continue reading with part 3