It’s not a cozy blanket. It’s a rod wielded in victorious battle.
An entry in one of my favorite children’s devotionals, Thoughts to Make the Heart Sing by Sally Lloyd-Jones, focuses on the Comforter promised by Jesus to His disciples. After asking the readers if “comforter” makes them think of a fluffy warm blanket, she directs them to the picture from a 1066 tapestry with the caption: “Bishop Odo comforts his troops.” There it is clear that Bishop Odo is not engaged in a cozy, understanding talk, but rather, spurring his troops on with an upraised stick in his hand. The author tells the reader that comfort, in its original sense, meant sending help in the form of strength and encouragement.
This type of comfort is found throughout Scripture in both the divine-human relationship and in human relationships. The Hebrew verb, chazaq, among other things, may be translated “to strengthen” or “to encourage” and occurs frequently in the Old Testament. We read in 1 Samuel 23:16 that “Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and encouraged (chazaq) his hand in God.” The word appears again when David returned to Ziklag and found it burned to the ground and his wives carried away by Amalekites. He was already leading the life of a fugitive from Saul, had been rejected by the Philistines from joining them in battle against the Israelites, and then experienced the devastating blow of losing what little he had including his wives. Scripture records: “And David was greatly distressed; for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and daughters. But David strengthened (chazaq) himself in the LORD his God” (1 Samuel 30:6).
The brevity of the description makes it easy to overlook David’s disastrous circumstances—the shock of finding his home burned down and his wives captured by the ruthless Amalekites, his own men in mutiny, a crushing sense of failure, the paralyzing numbness of grief. Every natural prop in his life was gone. David might well have wallowed in self-pity or in self-recrimination; he might have questioned or complained to God, engaged in self-defense, or impulsively set off in an effort to avenge himself. However, the next word, “but,” signals his salutary response to these dire circumstances. Rather than dwelling on his losses, David turned to the resource essential and available to every child of God; he “strengthened (or encouraged) himself in the LORD his God.” He, like Bishop Odo, raised a stick against his natural distress by seeking the LORD whom he knew as “my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength” (Psalm 18:2).
Luther once commented that “The life of Christianity consists in possessive pronouns.” It is clear from the psalms of David that his faith was not theoretical but very personal. True to form, in his extremity at Ziklag he turned to Jehovah, his God. With the steadying, fortifying strength he received, he then sought guidance using the ephod, God’s prescribed method of guiding His people in those days. God’s counsel was very specific, and ultimately “David recovered all that the Amalekites had carried away…. And nothing of theirs was lacking, either small or great, sons or daughters, spoil or anything which they had taken from them; David recovered all” (1 Samuel 30:18-19).
“Courage,” according to Maya Angelou, “is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” And encouragement is the act of internalizing courage—that quality of mind which enables one to meet trouble and danger in spite of fear or distress. It is no wonder that with the New Covenant came new access to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus designated at the Parakletos, variously translated as the Comforter, the Helper, the Advocate, the Strengthener. Parakletos corresponds to the Hebrew word, chazaq, which is the manner in which Bishop Odo comforted his troops in the Middle Ages. He infused courage and strength which spurred them on to victory. Without this cardinal virtue, believers are at the mercy of the evening news or actual circumstances which are often foreboding and distressing.
“But every commonest day of his life, he who would be a live child of the living has to fight with the God-denying look of things, and believe that in spite of that look, seeming ever to assert that God has nothing to do with them, God has his own way—the best, the only, the live way, of being in everything, and taking his own pure, saving will in them.” We all can identify with these words of George MacDonald. I dare say David felt the impact of the God-denying look of things at Ziklag. However, rather than wasting time and emotional energy bemoaning the circumstances, he turned to his God, who had strengthened and helped him in the past, and trusted Him for fresh courage and strength.
As children of the New Covenant, indwelt by the Parakletos, our Source of true comfort is closer than our next breath, an inestimable privilege which can be obscured by static from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our strongest defense is to cultivate on a daily basis our relationship with the Triune God which keeps the spiritual world in ascendancy over the natural that threatens to distress us. How do we do that? By listening to Him as He speaks to us through His Word, and by talking to Him as we would to our dearest friend. Paul speaks in Romans 15:4 of the “patience and comfort (parakleseos) of the Scriptures that give us hope,” and in 1 Timothy 4:13 he advises Timothy to “give attention to reading, to exhortation (paraklesei), to teaching,” underscoring the strengthening nature of true comfort.
Barnabas, which means Son of Encouragement (Parakleseos), is described later in Acts as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24). One full of the Holy Spirit will always be full of encouragement. It is no surprise that the verse continues, “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” First we encourage ourselves in the Lord, then we are equipped to encourage others.
A significant aspect of encouragement is perspective. “Pie in the sky, by and by” has been used to mock Christians and perhaps contributes to our being wary of referencing eternity. To our “present” oriented culture, speaking of rewards beyond the grave seems like a copout. However, Paul had no such inhibitions. “But our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Christians have the long view, and are willing to forego pleasure in the present for future glory.
Scripture is filled with accounts of miraculous deliverances including Daniel in the lion’s den, Peter’s release from prison, and supremely, Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. These can actually be discouraging when we have a loved one who isn’t healed or read of believers being persecuted and martyred today for their faith. Miraculous intervention may seem unreal when one encounters “the God-denying look of things.” That is, until we take Paul’s long perspective. What God did (and still does in some cases) in the twinkling of an eye demonstrates His omnipotence, but not necessarily His ordinary modus operandi. With the comforting strength of the Holy Spirit we are helped to see life from the eternal perspective and live in hope, knowing that ultimately all will be well. “God’s timing sets all right,” wrote MacDonald. Meanwhile, He takes our suffering and uses it to strengthen our intimacy with Jesus (the fellowship of His suffering), and to enable us to comfort (parakletos) others who are afflicted.
May God help us, by His indwelling Spirit, to learn to encourage ourselves in the Lord, not expecting warm, fuzzy emotions but seeking spiritual strength that spurs us on to a deeper walk with Jesus. With that internalized courage, other virtues such as selflessness, kindness, patience, generosity, and self-control—virtues that are impossible in the face of timidity and fear—will flourish and enable us to be “children without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). ■
—Julia has been a helpmeet/encourager to her husband, George, for fifty years and continues to encourage their children, grandchildren, and all within their circle of acquaintances to seek the Lord in the challenges they face.