In case you’re wondering, nope, that’s not a self-portrait. I’ve never been a bodybuilder nor an exercise buff. I haven’t even bothered putting on my Fitbit these days, since I don’t get many steps while quarantined in the house.
But strength isn’t just about getting ripped.
Crises like COVID-19 expose both our strengths and weaknesses, the best and worst bits about how we deal with stress. The emotional and relational challenges come in all forms, from boredom and loneliness to increased conflict and the lure of self-medicating addiction.
We can help keep ourselves physically safe through social distancing, washing our hands until they wrinkle like raisins, and wearing protective masks. But to stay sane, we have to dig into our reserves of emotional and spiritual strength, reserves that remain relatively untapped when things seem normal.
The apostle Paul, I think, understood this implicitly.
Reading the book of Acts, we might think of Paul as primarily an evangelist, boldly preaching the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. But Paul’s mission wasn’t simply to make converts. It was to establish churches, communities of believers who not only believed the gospel but embodied it in their life together.
To do that, he had to be more than just an evangelist; he had to be a pastor. The communities he founded would face persecution from their neighbors, and it was Paul’s job to help them stay strong.
Although he doesn’t devote a lot of space to Paul’s pastoral work, Luke ensures that we don’t miss it. After Paul and Barnabas completed the eastward part of their missionary journey through south Galatia, founding churches as they went, they turned right around, went back the other way, and “strengthened the disciples and urged them to remain firm in the faith” (Acts 14:22, CEB).
On his second missionary journey, Paul made sure to encourage Lydia and the new believers in Philippi before moving on (16:40). And sometime after he returned from that journey, he set out again, going back through Galatia and Phrygia once more, “strengthening all the disciples” (18:23).
Paul surely had his prickly side. There was the pre-Christian Saul who zealously persecuted believers. There was the newly converted Saul who got into arguments that left people wanting to kill him. There was the Paul who heatedly argued with both Barnabas and Peter.
And then there was the Paul who loved and cared for people as their pastor and spiritual father (e.g., 1 Cor 4:14-17; 1 Tim 1:2), the Paul who thought often of the people under his care and longed to see them grow and stay strong.
Paul, of course, didn’t want churches to depend upon him alone. He had taught people the good news of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and eventual return in glory, and wanted them to encourage one another by reminding each other of those words of hope (e.g., 1 Thess 4:18).
We are not called to wait for the paid ministry staff to encourage us. A church that depends on its pastor to do all the work of strengthening and encouragement will eventually be a church with a burned-out pastor, to the detriment of all.
Nor are we called merely to stay strong in ourselves. Rather, we are called, as the body of Christ, to minister to one another.
What can you do, in this difficult season, to help someone else stay strong? What would let people know, “I’m thinking of you” or “I’m ready to help”? It doesn’t have to be complicated. A phone call, email, text, or video chat can go a long way toward letting people know they’re not alone even while sheltering. The body of Christ transcends physical boundaries.
And together, we can help that body stay strong.