Source of True Encouragement
Paul's letters to the church at Thessalonica were written in the midst of great concern among the brethren regarding death, the coming of Christ and the hope of those in Christ. When we read 1 Thessalonians 4, it is evident that some among their number had died while awaiting the promised hope at the Lord's coming. Some wondered if the death of those saints separated them from that hope in Christ. No doubt, the thought of faithful brethren having been robbed of their hope by untimely death was discouraging and depressing to the saints.
When viewed in terms of the present reality of their severe persecution, the obvious concern existed as to the ability of evil men to take away their hope by killing them (1 Thessalonians 1:6). After all, martyrdom was a present fact in the first century (Acts 7:59-60; 12:1-2; et. al.). In the midst of affliction, the saints in Thessalonica needed strength and comfort to help them live with joy and hope. Where could they find the real, lasting and substantive encouragement they needed? What could be the source for such?
A Look at 1 Thessalonians 4
The end of the fourth chapter contains the answer to our question as well as a lesson concerning how we can be encouraged. Think about these words:
In the last verse of the above text, the New International and the New Revised Standard versions read, "Therefore encourage each other with these words." The word translated "comfort" or "encourage" in this verse is the same one translated "exhort" in 1 Thessalonians 4:1 and many other passages. The Greek word parakaleo is a combination of two words: to call plus along side of, by, or near. The literal sense of the word is found in the father's calling of the elder brother aside entreating him to join the feast for the prodigal who had returned (Luke 15:28). When a father calls his son aside, the reason for the separation is to impart instruction, information or correction. The emphasis is not on the manner of approach, but the effect of the approach. In its general use, the Greek word parakaleo has the same connotation. The effect of being encouraged was seen as the result of the message given.
Now back to our text, notice how these discouraged and depressed Christians were to be encouraged. Paul told them to "encourage each other with these words." He answered their feeling of discouragement with the revelation of God's will. It was not by Paul's style that they were encouraged, but by truth. It was not by a change in atmosphere or setting that they were encouraged, but by coming to correctly understand God's will. As long as they had erroneous views, they could not receive true encouragement. True encouragement had to come from correction of that false idea and replacing it with truth. Hence, true encouragement came from God's will.
Encouragement Based on Bible Instruction
This same point is found throughout this context and others inspired by God. The saints were encouraged or exhorted (parakaleo) to live properly (1 Thessalonians 4:1). How? Paul said it was "as ye received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God." The word was the source of the encouragement. Paul prayed for all that they might be comforted in their hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). How? He said it would take place "in every good work and word." Without the word and its application in their lives, there could be no real or lasting encouragement. Elders must be able to exhort or encourage the flock (Titus 1:9). How? God told them to do it "in the sound doctrine," adding the instruction to "convict the gainsayer" as a necessary part of the process. As they came to see the eternal truth of the God they sought to serve, they had the encouragement needed. No person, style or setting could match that given by God's will.
A Parallel on True Encouragement
While in school, I played football in South Texas. We practiced long hours in hot weather. Our coaches drilled and instructed us hour upon hour. When we were not being instructed on specific skills used as a lineman, we lifted weights over and over. After we were tired from exhausting workouts, we ran one wind sprint after another. All of that was done to prepare us to play the game. On the day of the game, our school gathered for a pep rally. It was held in an air conditioned gym where we heard enthusiastic cheers from the students while we smiled, all dressed in clean game jerseys. The pep rally was intended to encourage us and I liked it. But at game time, I was usually faced with a big, strong, mean guy on the other side of the line that I had to block. When the fourth quarter came and I was hot, tired and bruised, it was not the pep rally with its enthusiastic atmosphere that encouraged me to block that guy I faced. It was the preparation of a coach that drilled and drilled techniques, strength and correction day after day that encouraged me to know I could do it. I knew I could do it because I had been taught properly and had done it repeatedly.
What is the point? We often see Christians seeking for externals to give them encouragement when they need to seek the true source. Some say they could be more encouraged by a different speaker or a different style or a different setting. They seek the spiritual equivalent of a pep rally. The simple fact is this Christians are brought to real and lasting encouragement in and through the truth of God. It is not accomplished by pop psychology, an enthusiastic style of speech or artificial changes in atmosphere. Such trappings may make one feel more enthused for the moment, but the feeling will not last. True encouragement comes from God's word. When we fail to study and learn and grow, we are weak and depressed. When we let the word dwell within us richly, it will show in our speech and actions (Colossians 3:16-17). No externals can match the encouragement in the gospel of a Savior who was crucified for us.
Need some encouragement? Pick up your Bible and study. Go to an meeting nearby and hear a lesson of truth which will point you to God's will and correct you from wrong. Find a sinner and teach him. Look for a brother or sister to serve. You will find true encouragement and impart it rather than blaming others for a problem caused by self.