The gift of encouraging is vital to the triumph of the church over the kingdoms of this world. Romans 12:8 begins, “If it is encouraging, let him encourage….” One who is an encourager would increase courage in the recipient. Courage is much like faith and is both an indication and a product of faith. The importance of courage in facing our spiritual battles cannot be over emphasized. In the first chapter of Joshua, as the Lord instructs Joshua to conquer the Promised Land, He exhorts Joshua three times to “be strong and courageous.” Each time, the Lord couples the two character traits together, perhaps indicating a connecting relationship between spiritual strength or vitality and courage.
Barnabas is commended by Luke for his gift of encouraging. In fact, his name means “Son of Encouragement.” In Acts 11 we are told how Barnabas encouraged the new church in Antioch. The scripture describes him as “a good man full of the Holy Spirit and faith….” The result of his work of encouragement was that “a great number of people were brought to the Lord”. He is identified as a prophet in Acts 13:1. One of the main reasons that God gave the church the gift of prophesy is “so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” We see Judas and Silas, identified as prophets, fulfilling this ministry in encouraging the new Gentile church in Antioch.
The ability to fulfill this ministry of encouragement is listed as one of the qualifications for an elder in Titus 1:9. Paul instructed both Titus and Timothy that encouraging the flock is one of the main tasks of a pastor. Encouragement gives the body strength to withstand trials. Timothy was sent to encourage the Thessalonians in their faith “so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” Encouragement helps us overcome fear by building faith in our hearts. It tells us that we are not alone in the battle. Fear seems to have a grip on the western church. We have been bullied by our secular humanist culture to the point that many Christians are afraid to open their mouths about their faith. We need prophets and pastors with the gift of encouraging others to be bold in their faith.
Why does God allow suffering? Suffering is common to man. You can’t positively confess your way out of suffering. Jesus said, “In this life you will have trouble…”
How do we respond to the question of suffering? I believe that the person who raises that objection may not always be looking for an answer, but they may be seeking compassion. Perhaps our first response should be to ask, “Have you experienced suffering?”, rather than to launch into a theological dissertation. One thing that we must realize is that God doesn’t need us to defend Him. He is perfectly capable of defending Himself.
How do we respond to the suffering of others? We must avoid the tendency to judge or blame. Job’s friends accused him of hidden sin. But, Job was a “blameless” man according to Job 1:1-3, 23. Understand that God called him “blameless” because he was justified by faith just like Abraham. (See Job 19:25-27 for his faith statement) You can be sure that Job was not without sin (see Psalm 14:1-3, Romans 3:23). But his suffering was not the result of a specific sin as his friends assumed. His friends started out good by coming to comfort him and by not saying anything for a week (see Job 2:11, 13). But, then they began to blame Job. Of course there is sin in our lives, but is suffering always the direct result of individual sin? Not always.
Jesus repudiated the automatic link between individual sin and suffering (see John 9:1-3). Jesus also pointed out that not all natural disasters are the judgment of God on individual or collective sin (see Luke 13:1-5). It is appropriate to examine ourselves when we are suffering, but we must be careful about making judgments about why others are suffering. Instead, we should show compassion. We should “Weep with those who weep” (Ro. 12:15), feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and set the captives free.
Why does God allow suffering? This is the most frequently raised objection to the Christian faith. To the unbeliever, its distribution and degree appear to be random and unfair. This is an acute problem for the Christian faith because we believe God is both good and all powerful. The unbeliever, unconsciously volunteering to be a robot, asks, “If God is good and all powerful, why doesn’t He stop suffering?” Of course the answer is, “He did; He died on the cross to stop suffering.” We must never doubt that God is just. There is not a standard of fairness above or outside God. Who defines what is fair? Fairness can only be defined by God. God would be just to destroy us all. Anything we receive from Him is pure mercy.
God allows suffering because He grants us freedom. Suffering was not part of the original created order (Gen 1-2). There will be no suffering when God recreates a new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:4). Suffering only entered the world as a result of sin. What God wants from us is love. Love requires freedom. All have freely chosen to break God’s laws. At what point does divine interference negate free will?
All suffering is a result of sin, either directly or indirectly. We can consider three causes of suffering. There is suffering as a result of our own sin. Job’s kids suffered as a result of their own sin (see Job 1:4-5, 8:4). If we play with fire, we will get burned. “Whatsoever a man sews, that shall he reap.” Drug addiction leads to many problems: Poverty, broken relationships and sickness for starters. Promiscuity leads to broken relationships and further inability to trust and love freely and appropriately. Sometimes God actively judges sin in this life.
There is suffering as a result of others’ sin. War occurs because of greed and lust for power. Violence is perpetrated upon innocent victims because of someone else’s sin. Joseph suffered as a result of his brother’s jealousy.
There is suffering which occurs as a result of living in a fallen world. Thorns and weeds came into being as a result of sin (Gen. 3:18). Farmers, in an effort to grow food pollute the ground with fertilizers and pesticides that put carcinogens in our water. The Bible says that the entire creation is subject to frustration (Ro. 8:20).
How does God respond to our suffering? God works through suffering, He uses it for good. He uses it to draw us to Himself, to Christ. God uses suffering to mature and perfect us. Job was not perfect. His troubles were a test of faith, which began to waiver (see Job 30:20-23). God was rooting out self righteousness in Job (see Job 40:8). Even Jesus “learned obedience from what HE suffered” (He. 5:8) The Bible says, “Whom a father loves, He disciplines.” (He. 12:10) He does it for our good. He is the potter, we are the clay. Can the clay complain to the potter? He disciplines us to make us more fruitful. He “prunes every fruitful branch so that it will bear more fruit.” (John. 15:2)
Smith Wigglesworth once said, “Great faith is the product of great fights, great testimonies are the outcome of great tests. Great triumphs can only come after great trials.” Our temptation might be to respond to God’s pruning by saying, “God, I’m happy please leave me alone.” That would be to want God to love us less. God uses suffering to bring about His good purposes. (Ro. 8:28) God used Joseph’s sufferings to preserve two nations from famine. He used Job’s sufferings to teach us about suffering and redemption.
God more than compensates for our suffering. Joseph was rewarded by being restored to his family. Job was restored. “God blessed the latter days of Job more than the first.” (Job 42:12)
God is involved in our suffering. He suffers with us. Isaiah 53 is the great prophesy of the suffering servant Jesus. It says, “He is a man acquainted with grief.” He is not immune to suffering. He became one of us and suffered more than any of us to the point that He was separated from the one He loved. He was betrayed by His closest friends, falsely accused, tortured and disgraced.
How should we respond to our own suffering? We need to examine ourselves to determine what God is saying. We may not get an answer as to why. God never told Job why He had undergone such suffering. We need to keep the faith, keep our eyes on Christ. The Cross is God’s answer to suffering. Our sin, a result of freedom, put Christ on the cross. On the cross God was reconciling the world unto Himself. He used His suffering and turned it for good. God more than compensates for our suffering. “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross.” (He. 12:2) He suffered, still suffers with us.