The God who encourages

Everyone goes through days, perhaps seasons, of discouragement — literally, of having your courage sapped, your heart taken away. That can be particularly true of people in ministry. You believe you’re doing what God called you to do; you believe you’re where you’re supposed to be. And you give it your all. But things keep going wrong.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. Some people believe the message you preach; new friends are made as the family of God expands. But there are people who fight you, sometimes with what seems like unreasonable anger. You’d like to be able to meet the onslaught with calm, unshakable faith. But the truth is that these are traumatic experiences. And with that trauma can come the fear and uncertainty of not knowing when the next challenge is coming, or how difficult it will be.

It’s easy, in the book of Acts, to see Paul as some kind of apostolic superhero. Wasn’t this the guy who was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, and then just “got up and went into the city” (Acts 14:20, NRSV)? Wasn’t this the guy who was beaten and thrown in prison in Philippi, but ended up giving a gospel music concert from his cell and then evangelizing the jailer? He seems so supremely confident in his mission, able to brush off trials that would surely break the average Joe (or Yosef, as the case may be).

When Paul arrived in the bustling city of Corinth, he had just been through a series of hair-raising scrapes. Again, he had been beaten and jailed in Philippi. Soon after, a mob came after him in Thessalonica, forcing him to flee to Beroea, where some of the same mob caused still more trouble. Most recently, he had been hauled before the council in Athens, facing the same accusation that had cost Socrates his life.

And now, Corinth…an infamously pagan place. What would happen to him there? Was he worried?

Would you have been?

Luke doesn’t tell us Paul’s state of mind. But Paul himself gives us a hint, in a letter he later wrote to the believers in Corinth: “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3).

He doesn’t name the reason for his fear and trembling. But it’s reasonable to suppose that at least part of it stemmed from the trauma of his experiences in Macedonia.

Paul wasn’t invulnerable, emotionally untouchable. If he could be said to have a superpower, it wasn’t his own; it was God’s Spirit within him. And here’s the point: even as mightily as the Spirit worked in and through Paul, he still needed a bit of encouragement now and again.

Surely his joy at new converts was an encouragement in itself. Nearly everywhere he went, he left behind a core of new brothers and sisters. Add to that the fact that there’s nothing like a good earthquake and a converted jailer to reinforce your sense of being right where God wants you.

But even more: if it’s true that Paul came to Corinth bearing the burden of recent trauma, then God seems to have supplied him with an extra dose of encouragement there.

There was the gift of new and unexpected friends, named Priscilla and Aquila. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to hear a word of encouragement directly from God himself. We’ll look more closely at both of these encouragements and more in upcoming posts.

But for now, take heart. It’s normal and expectable to experience a bit of fear and trembling when we’ve been terrorized. God doesn’t turn away in disgust at our weakness.

Quite the contrary. Sometimes, he throws a little unexpected courage our way.

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