“You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” John 18:37
No one likes to be disciplined. I remember getting in trouble when I was in third grade. I don’t recall what I did at school, but I have a vivid memory of my dad’s response. He sat me down and asked me what I did. While I don’t recall what that was, I do remember that I lied to my dad about it. That was the only time my father laid a hand on me. It hurt. I did not like being corrected. But it had a very positive effect. I don’t lie. I learned that lesson at a young age. And I learned that lesson because I had a father who loved me enough not to let me get away with lying. His love cured me of that sin.
Today, many people are looking for love. But, as the song goes, they are looking for love in all the wrong places. Over the course of the last few years I have developed a bit of a twitch whenever someone has the radio turned to a contemporary Christian radio station. I actually love much of the contemporary music, but I can’t say the same for the announcers and commentary between the songs. I have come to affectionately refer to these stations as the Cult of Encouragement. These radio stations ooze encouragement all over your car, out of the window, and down the street. As the ooze slithers down the road, in my review mirror, I think I even once saw it rise up, raise something like a hand in the air and a voice said, “You are loved! Yeah!!”
Now, before you accuse me of begin an Ebenezer Scrooge, hear me out. I am all for encouragement – when it is appropriate to give it. And, I am all for people hearing that God loves them. But, what I am violently opposed to is redefining God’s love as encouragement. While God’s love certainly can be encouraging, it can also be very painful. And when it is encouraging, it is usually experienced as a form of relief – the relief that comes from knowing that despite yourself, God forgives and cleanses one from sin; or the relief that results when God’s love brings reconciliation to a broken marriage; or the relief that comes after a long season of prayer and a loved one turns to God; or the relief that despite the pain of losing a loved one, God has promised eternal life. I think you get the idea. God’s love does bring encouragement, but God’s love can’t be defined as encouragement.
Unfortunately today many people understand love as encouragement. Therefore they believe they have shared God’s love when they make someone feel better, or offer a shoulder to cry on, or just listen to someone talk about their problems, or give relief to a difficult situation. While those things are good, and there are times those things are needed, if left to themselves, while they may communicate a form of compassion, they have not risen to the level of revealing God’s love. The problem is that type of encouragement gives the impression that God seeks to make life better for us, or less painful, or more fulfilling by eliminating the problems that arise. This definition of love says that when you relieve the distress or suffering of someone you have shared God’s love with them. It also communicates the idea that suffering is incompatible with God’s love. How often have you heard someone say, “How could a loving God allow someone to suffer?” People make that statement because they don’t understand the true nature of love – as God has revealed it.
The reality is that there are times God uses suffering as a tool to shape and mold his people. God told his people through Malachi that, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD” (Mal 3:3).The refining process requires a lot of heat! And consider the life of Paul. Of him Jesus said, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). And the Bible reveals that, indeed, Paul suffered much for the cause of Christ. Yet, despite his suffering he said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:18). Also think about the entire chapter of Hebrews 11, commonly referred to as the “Great Hall of Faith.” Just one jewel from that chapter dispels the idea that God’s love is incompatible with suffering. And then there is the cross where Jesus died the horrible death of crucifixion as our sacrifice for sin. The reality is that God’s love does not always relieve the distress and suffering one can experience in life. Living for God can actually intensify the suffering one can experience. Therefore to define God’s love as relieving the distress and suffering of a person does not conform to the biblical data. In fact, it runs counter to it. And when people define God’s love in that way, it may be the case that they are in reality working against the work that God is doing in the lives of people through suffering.
Another problem that arises when God’s love is defined as encouragement is that those who give encouragement may, by the very act of being an encourager, actually conceal God’s love. This happens when the person doing the encouraging happily tells themselves that they have shared God’s love because they have encouraged someone. Since the proper relief has been given, or the person in distress feels better, or their situation is less bitter, it is believed they have experienced God’s love. But, one ultimately experiences God’s love only through Christ. Christ, not the encourager, brings a person to God. The encourager’s job is to bring the afflicted person to Christ. How Christ deals with the person may be very different than how we would deal with the person. Therefore the negative effect of giving only encouragement is that the encourager has effectively replaced the gospel with themselves. In other words, instead of giving them the Good News of Jesus, they replace that message with their act of encouragement. So, instead of giving the person what they really need – and invitation to come to Christ, they have given only an encounter with themselves and called that God’s love. No living person is a substitute for Christ. We cannot replace the gospel by being nice and encouraging to others. When this is done, the real issue that the distressed individual is dealing with may actually never be addressed, and therefore, it may be the case that the encourager is working against the purposes of God.
Now, let me stress that relieving another’s distress is good and even commanded by our Lord. When we do such things we open the door for people to learn that there is a God who loves them. But, it is often the case that the person on the receiving end never learns of the true nature of God’s love through Christ; because, the person doing the good work thinks God’s love has been revealed by virtue of the encouragement given. It hasn’t. It may have opened the door, but it has not communicated God’s true love as revealed and experienced only in the gospel. Our job is always to lead a person to Christ through the gospel. His love will do the perfect work needed in the life of the individual, not our encouragement.
I once knew a man who was a devout Christian. He clearly loved the Lord and wanted to be an encourager to others. He had a good friend who fell away from the Lord and was living a lifestyle incompatible for a professing Christian. After a while I noticed that their friendship continued, but the man living in sin did not change or repent. I asked my friend what was going on. He replied by saying that he did not want to push his friend further away. But, his friend had already fallen away from Christ – his actions proved that. Yet when he was around our mutual friend he felt encouraged enough to keep on living a life of sin that was going to lead him into a state of judgment before God. So, while my friend was an encourager, his encouragement had no impact on leading his friend back to Christ, and in fact, may have helped push him further away by virtue of making him feel comfortable in his sin.
I once read a story about a man who happened to walk upon a butterfly struggling to get out of its cocoon. After watching the poor creature struggle for a period of time, in his compassion he thought the best thing to do was to help the fella out. So he leaned down and made a tear in the cocoon relieving the distressed creature of his struggle. But to his astonishment, instead of seeing a beautiful butterfly emerge from the cocoon, he saw a deformed butterfly with shriveled wings crawl away. It never flew. He later learned that the very act of struggling to get out was the mechanism which pushed the blood into the wings allowing the creature to spread them out in all their beauty and glory. But his act of compassion crippled and effectively killed the poor creature. Misplaced encouragement has the same effect.
So, while encouragement is not bad, and can certainly be helpful, it can, however, be deadly when not used properly. It is much the like old adage, “You have sacrificed the best for the good.” It’s good to make people feel better, but it’s not good if that feeling comes at the expense of their eternal salvation.
Now consider, the Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing the Word of God.” The greatest need people have is to come to know their creator God by being reconciled to Him through Christ. All people have a sin problem. In fact, most of the problems people seek encouragement from are the result of sin. I know, not all problems are the result of sin, but after pastoring for many years I can say with confidence that the vast majority of the problems people experience are from sin. What people need is not a dose of, “God loves you, and it’s all going to be well.” They need less pie in the sky and a more realistic dose of reality in their life. Sure God loves them. That is real. But His love reveals what’s real in their life, including the sin that is afflicting them. It is precisely because of His love that a person can turn from sin and be healed from it. God’s love reveals what we cannot always see. But because of His love, we are allowed to see the real issue. We can repent because in His love God shows us our errors and corrects us. But, sometimes, in fact most of the time, people do not want to hear what the real cause of their problems are. It can be painful. But, as the Bible says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Ps 126:5).
So a better definition of love: God’s love is revealed as truth. Love reveals what is real and true. Love is truth given for the purpose of restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. Whereas misplaced encouragement can actually conceal God’s love, true love opens the eyes of a person so they can see what God sees.
A note of warning is needed here. Our job is not to browbeat others in an attempt to get them to see what only God can lead them to see. God is the one to open the eyes of another. No person is a substitute for the Holy Spirit. Our job is to lead someone to Christ so that the Holy Spirit opens their eyes. We are never to replace ourselves with the Holy Spirit by trying to demonstrate an inappropriate tough love. Tough love is sometimes needed; but our job is to lead them to Christ and let Him do the real work needed in their life. There are times we need to call sin for what it is, but we should do so only in a spirit of love where we come along side someone so they know that despite their sin, we are there to help them, not hurt them. And while listening to someone, or lending them a shoulder to cry on, may be part of the process in helping someone, our goal is to lead that person into saving faith in Christ who loved them enough to experience the unimaginable suffering of the cross, so they can be forgiven and healed. Jesus brings healing. Our job is to bring them to Jesus.
So, “Faith comes by hearing …” truth – the Word of God. And in that truth God’s love is revealed, and by faith it is received. There is a great deficit of truth today. The Cult of Encouragement is doing a poor job of revealing truth. And the less truth is revealed, the less of God’s love is actually expressed. Our culture has become a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants to reveal His love to the world, but His love will be revealed to the proportion that God’s people reveal truth. The church needs to stop trying to win the worlds favor by being the great encourager, and reclaim its place as the revealer of truth. Truth reveals God’s love; and to reveal truth is why Jesus came, and why He commissioned the church to preach the gospel. Truth leads people to God, and God knows how to love people.
But the world doesn’t need truth just because it’s a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah because truth has been withheld from it. The reality is that people are looking for significance in life. And in their desperation they are looking anywhere they might find it – even in the depths of sin. They are lost and don’t know it. They were created for a purpose and do not understand that purpose – yet strive to achieve that purpose though they do not have the means to accomplish it. They were created to enjoy the glory of God’s person, but they are separated from Him – yet still have an innate longing for something more. The world needs truth because it can never find meaning, significance, and satisfaction until it meets its creator-God who loves them. Only God can fulfill the desires of the human heart; and the human heart was created for God.
Because it has received the truth, the church holds the key that can unleash the power of God’s love by revealing truth. Only the church can deliver the satisfaction that the human heart longs for. But that truth comes only through Christ who is the truth of God incarnate. Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). It is God’s desire that we unleash the power of God by proclaiming the truth. Truth opens the door of heaven, and truth reveals a very real God who is the answer to every longing and desire of a desperate heart.
A Great example of this is seen in Jesus’ encounter with a sinful woman at Jacob’s well. This story is found in John’s gospel in the fourth chapter. The scene opens with Jesus waiting at a well after a long journey on foot. He is tired and hungry and his disciples leave to buy food. While resting at the well a woman from a nearby village comes to draw water. While she is busy drawing water Jesus asks her to give Him a drink. Being surprised that He is speaking with her, she remarks that Jews have no dealing with Samaritans. In effect, she was asking, “Why are you talking to me?” Instead of answering her question, He says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). The women, thinking He is talking about the water at the bottom of the well, asks where His bucket is. As she realizes that He is talking about something more, she asks Jesus if He thought He was greater than Jacob, who, centuries earlier dug the well. Jesus then tells her that He can give her a drink that will satisfy her thirst forever. Pause here. She has been seeking to satisfy herself by immersing herself in the sins of life. Jesus is revealing to her the one thing that will, in fact, deliver that satisfaction forever: Himself. Okay, resume. Feeling the ting of desire, and therefore wanting this water that He promises will give her eternal satisfaction, she says, “Sir, give me this water.” It is at this point that Jesus reveals why she longs for it but does not have it. He says, “Go, call your husband.”
This may seem like a strange request, but Jesus is revealing the truth of her life to her. She is a sinner that has gone through several bad relationships and is now living with a man outside of marriage. In short Jesus invites her to drink the water of life; but before she can drink from that eternally satisfying well, she must come to grips with her sin. Jesus laid bare her sin where she could not hide from it. No one would deny that Jesus loved the woman. In fact, it was His love for her that led Him to confront her about her sin. Jesus wants her (and all people) to drink from His well. But, they can only do so from the vantage point of truth.
Her response is amazing. After Jesus reveals her sin, He then tells her that her religion is false. One would think she would be gasping in horror and expressing her offense at his bluntness. But, instead, she leaves her bucket and runs into her village and tells the villagers that she met a man who told her everything she ever did wrong. Wow. Instead of being angry, she invites the entire village to share her experience with Jesus.
You have to admit, it’s an odd response. But, there is more. Jesus revealed to her that He was the messiah. And while her religion was wrong, and while He made it very clear that her and her people did not worship God in truth, they knew something of the promised Jewish Messiah. When He revealed that He was it, she instantly knew something of great significance: the messiah can forgive. Not the bland forgiveness that can be nothing more than a platitude from the lips of another person; but the real cleansing, refreshing, life giving forgiveness that restores life. So, when she goes running back into the village to invite everyone to come and share her experience, she was really focusing on the reality that though her sin was exposed, it was also forgiven – and it felt good!
Jesus confronted this woman with the intimate details of her sin. And when it was all said and done, she was happy, and I think relieved. Truth saved her life. Jesus, as the truth saved her life – but not without a confrontation. The modern day Cult of Encouragement would have sought to first build a relationship, demonstrate how much they cared, spent countless hours listening to her “heart” and then, after long agonizing ages of telling her how much she is loved, valued and adored by God, only then would they finally get around to tell her about Jesus and how He died for her sin. She would have died of old age before they ever got to that point!
Truth is love because, while it always exposes, it brings eternal relief. Jesus himself said, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). When John the Baptist, Jesus, and then the apostles began their preaching ministry, they all began with the same word: repent.
The word is, first, a term of confrontation. When a person is told to “repent,” unless they have lived in a bubble their whole life, they will understand it, at some level, as a challenge. Most people get their hackles up when challenged. Many people instinctively react with some form of self-defense. Second, the word is an accusation. To call someone to repent is to lay a charge of wrongdoing at their feet. Most people don’t like that either. Third, the word is a request to surrender. When told to repent, the person being confronted is also being asked, demanded really, to acknowledge the wrong being done and then immediately surrender by agreeing with the charge, and then by making every effort to stop the wrongdoing. Again, generally not looked upon with approval – yet this is how God greets us!
By itself the word looks like an instant fight waiting to happen. If the word came in a package the label on the front would say, “Instant fight, just add water!” Yet, this was the first word of the Gospel. It’s amazing to think that when God became a man His first words weren’t “I love you so much, love yourself and be encouraged!” but instead, “Repent!” Do we dare accuse God of being unloving? God is love! True love floes from his being. He can’t not love. And when His loves invades our life, the first thing it does is expose all that is real. It exposes the reality of our sin – the reality that because of our sin we are completely cut off from, and separated from His life. Only when that is known, understood, and at some level, experienced (think of the women who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears before she heard, “Your sins are forgiven…. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace”) can a person begin to understand how good God’s love really is. Because only when that is experienced can a person take ownership of their sin and bring it to Christ to be forgiven. And when it’s forgiven, the burdened lifted is beyond words, and the new life lived is, as Peter said, “Inexpressible and full of glory!”
That’s why the woman at the well went running to back to her village. She had been forgiven. She was released, revived, renewed, and reconciled to the God who created her and loved her enough to expose her to His uncompromising, eternal, life giving love. She went to the well with a dry, thirsty soul. She left with a satisfaction that sin could never deliver. In that encounter with Truth, she met her creator and was embraced, filed, and satisfied by eternal life.