Earlier this week, I posted five practical helps for training to use promises to fight against unbelief and doubt. I want to add to those observations with five practical ways we can train together in community to embrace God’s promises. Again, these are the fruit of a brainstorming session with a few people in my community at NHCC. The first three focus on how to give encouragement in community with God’s promises. The last two focus on how to receive encouragement in community.
1. Listen empathetically and Spirit-dependently to each other’s doubts or unbelief.
“To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). Our goal shouldn’t be to slap a random promise on each other’s struggles, but to listen long enough and prayerfully enough to begin to feel what they feel and to understand what specific aspect of the gospel they might be questioning or not believing.
As you listen, pray for the Spirit’s wisdom and for a specific promise that may be helpful. One of the gracious roles of the Spirit is to remind us of the words of Jesus (John 14:26). So we can pray, while we listen, that the Spirit will do just that. But we also shouldn’t assume that the promise we happened to read this morning or that is on our mind at the moment is the right one (although it just might be). We should be willing to question and abandon our initial impression as we do our best to hear the other person well. I can’t count the times I’ve had the “perfect” promise pop into my head in the first thirty seconds of a conversation, only to realize after listening for five or ten more minutes that if I insisted on my initial impression, I would probably be trying to cram a square peg into a round hole.
What if no appropriate promises come to mind? The most loving thing you can do is not to offer a trite Christian platitude (more on this below), but to redirect your listening vertically. Tell the one you are helping that although the Spirit hasn’t given you anything at the moment, you will pray with him or her that God will give one or both of you a promise from his Word. If you can, stop right then and there and ask God to speak into the situation as only he can.
2. Humbly offer appropriate promises, connecting them directly to each other’s struggles.
One of my friends consistently models this humble approach. Whenever God gives him a promise to speak to me, he almost always begins with, “I think God has given this promise to me for you. I might be wrong, but maybe this will encourage you.” That kind of humble approach nearly always removes my defensiveness and puts me in a place where I’m willing to consider God’s words. Words like these also simultaneously remind me that my friend is not the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit may very well be speaking through him, so I had better listen.
But what constitutes an “appropriate” promise? Two thoughts might help. First, an appropriate promise helps focus on the why instead of the what. Here’s what I mean. When we are struggling to believe, it’s rarely helpful for someone to tell us to “just trust the Lord” or “walk by faith” (that’s the what). Most of us already know that we need to believe—piling more law on top of our struggle to believe is almost always counterproductive and simply produces more shame. What we need to be reminded of in moments of doubt and unbelief is why God is trustworthy. When I’m struggling to believe that God is good, I need to hear specific promises that tell me why I can believe he is good. When I can’t seem to see that God’s gracious and sovereign rule is perfect, I need to hear specific promises that tell me why I can believe God is really good at his job as King. So, as you listen and help others identify the aspect of the gospel or God’s character that she or he is not trusting, think, “what promise might help them see why God is worth being trusted in this particular area?”
Second, an appropriate promise is rooted in specific words of Scripture. The only words that God promises have supernatural power are his words and not ours (John 6:63). We should want to help give each other a solid resting place and the ability to say, “I’m resting in the fact that God is…because he says…” not, “my friend told me…” I don’t mean that the only encouragement that is helpful is strictly the “chapter and verse” kind. Sometimes stories from Scripture have implicit promises that are more helpful and more memorable than declarative statements. For example, Habakkuk’s three-chapter mini-biography illustrates, among many other truths, that God is working for the good of his people even when it doesn’t seem like it. There’s no specific verse in Habakkuk that has those words, but the story clearly leads us to that promise-like conclusion.
What I do believe are almost always unhelpful are the Christian clichés we tend to revert to in our impatience or in our ignorance of God’s Word. Statements like “God is in control” or “all things work together for good” or “God is good all the time” might be true and at least partially rooted in Scripture, but they don’t usually communicate love and a desire to see the Word of God produce fruit in another’s life. They often, even when spoken with the best of intentions, feel more like, “get over it, will you?” or “I don’t really have time to listen. Here’s a generic truth. Let’s move on now.”
To put it all together, appropriate encouragement is humble, focuses on the why, and is rooted directly in God’s words.
3. Use promises to point each other to Jesus.
When Spurgeon was asked to describe his preaching style, he said, “I take my text and make a beeline for the cross.” That’s usually a good pattern for preaching and it’s usually a good pattern for helping each other rest in God’s promises too. Paul reminds us why that’s true: “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words, we have no guarantee that we can actually claim God’s promises for us without Jesus. His work on the cross assures us that we can actually read a promise made to God’s people and claim it as our own.
It’s probably not a term I invented, but I like to call this connection between the cross and God’s promises “the logic of faith.” Paul uses this logic in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The clearest, most graphic, most profound, most public demonstration that God is for us (i.e., he’s a promise-keeper) is the cross, therefore we can believe his promises to “give us all things.”
So, practically, what does making this cross-connection look like? Here’s one example. Suppose my friend is questioning whether or not God is going to give him wisdom to navigate through a very complex relationship problem. He doubts God’s willingness to help him. After listening well, perhaps I feel that the appropriate promise for him is the “old,” familiar one in James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” But along with this promise, I also want to point my friend to Jesus, so I may something like, “we know we can ask God for the wisdom you need because he solved the biggest relationship dilemma in the universe—he reconciled us to himself through the cross of Jesus. If he can do that, we know your dilemma is not too big for him.” Do you see “the logic of faith” at work? These kinds of connections to the gospel, empowered by the Spirit, can help bolster my friend’s faith in God’s promises and move him to experience and enjoy Jesus more too.
What if I’m the receiver, instead of the giver, of promise-based encouragement? Here are two helpful ways to receive encouragement.
4. Receive God’s Word even if it’s delivered in poor packaging.
What do you do when your friend doesn’t actually listen, doesn’t point you to God’s Word, or doesn’t point you to Jesus? What do you do when you are feeling deep spiritual turmoil and your friend simply tells you, with a smile and a laugh, “you know, all things work together for good!”?
I call these “Balaam’s ass moments.” God used a donkey to speak to Balaam and sometimes God uses our well-meaning, but less-than-tactful friends, to speak to us. I’m not sure it’s wise to tell your friend he’s a “donkey,” but you get the point. Behind the tritely-spoken general truth or behind the poorly-delivered promise, there may be the kind voice of the Father getting your attention, wanting you to look beyond the human messenger and look up to him and listen to his voice.
A good question to ask in moments like these is, “God, if you were encouraging me with this truth, what would it sound like?” If you listen to your friend through that filter of kindness, perhaps you’ll still be able to hear God’s voice and humbly say (to God and your friend), “thank you.”
5. Remember that the fight of faith can be a lonely one, but Jesus is with you.
We are not supposed to say things like this in a community church, but here’s the reality: when you are fighting to believe God’s promises instead of succumbing to doubt or unbelief, your fight will largely take place outside of community, alone. In the middle of the night, when you’re driving to work, when you’re taking a walk, when you’re preventing your four kids from killing each other, when you’re alone on a ladder painting—these are the times doubt hits, times when no other believers are around. In those moments when we can’t reach anyone on the phone, when we have to keep working, or even when our friends try to help but don’t actually understand us, God is reminding us of something very important: community is not our savior. Jesus is.
The job of community is to point us to Jesus, not to be Jesus. Only Jesus can be Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in Christ can encourage us, and remind us of truth, and pray for us, but they cannot create faith or remove our need to fight personally to rest in Jesus Himself. A gospel-centered community is a huge gift, but if your hope to relieve your doubts is that the believers around you will always have just the right word to say, then your hope is misplaced. Only Jesus can always be there to support you in the middle of your fight of faith. Only he always has just the right words. So, thank God for your promise-giving community, but put all your hope in your promise-keeping Savior.
By Ben Arnold