One of the blessings of being in Christian ministry is personal discipleship. Because I’m regularly teaching biblical doctrines in Protestant services in the military, as an adjunct instructor at a university, or in the local church setting, many of my hours are taken up in study and preparation. Contrary to some people’s experiences, sustained research and study are not burdens to me; I emerge from those disciplines reinvigorated. Recently I was requested to speak at a Bible study to military personnel and Department of Defense civilians. I’d been studying in Psalm 67, so I thought that would be a sound passage from which to teach. It was not just because that is where I’d been in some of my recent studies. It was more than that. I consistently see the longing for encouragement that we all have.
Because we are fallen creatures, and because we live in a fallen world, the pathos of this world is more properly identified as tragic rather than comic. Suffering is real. Unlike the cult of Christian Science, the Bible does not deny the reality of suffering. Unlike pantheistic worldviews like Buddhism, the Bible does not teach that suffering can be avoided through an eightfold noble path. Among other profound truths, the Bible teaches that, because this world is fallen, Christians are pilgrims moving through this valley of the shadow of death.
The Bible repeatedly uses the metaphor of the good shepherd (Jesus) who guards his sheep, abiding with them amidst evil, and preserves them from ultimate death. This is why Jesus, after his incarnation, repeatedly referred to himself as the good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11 ESV). He reminds his followers that most of the world consists of thieves and wolves in sheep’s clothing, and that he (God alone) is wholly trustworthy. Jesus is the shepherd who encourages his sheep amidst suffering. This life’s slings and arrows are endurable because of Jesus, the conquering shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15 ESV).
There is a relationship between Jesus as the good shepherd and his sheep that endures because of the shepherd’s triumph. Yes, the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep (the crucifixion), but three days later, he took it up again (Jesus’ resurrection). Therefore, his sheep are to have hope. We can be encouraged. This is the good news. The gospel does not mean that the sheep (Christ-followers) are exempt from suffering, but it does mean that we are equipped to endure, because we are buried with Christ and raised because of his triumphal resurrection.
Psalm 67 begins with a reference to the well-known Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:25. This is where God told Moses what to teach Aaron about blessing Israel. Like many of you, I love that blessing: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Nub 6:24-26 ESV). I think we gravitate towards it because we sense its intent: God promises to bless his people. It is sheer encouragement, and the whole creation groans for encouragement.
But when you read Psalm 67 closely, you see that God blesses his people in order that they might bless others by introducing them to this fount of blessing–God himself. He blesses them so that God’s way “may be known on earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (Ps 67:2 ESV). In other words, the greatest blessing is God himself. Upon receiving the blessing of God, the proper response should be outward—namely, to declare who God is and what God has done.
Growing up as I did in a local church, I remember old ladies saying this many times, “May God bless you, and make you a blessing.” Now, my personality tends to recoil at clichés and platitudes, but there is great truth in that phrase. We are blessed in order to be a blessing.
So what does this have to do with the longing for encouragement? Let me share one anecdote to illustrate it. Several months ago, a senior noncommissioned officer was retiring from the Army after 30 years. He’d been a chaplain assistant his entire career. He was (and is) one of the most gentle and humble men I’ve ever known. Never one to put his name out front for recognition, he eschewed the limelight. He was more like Mary (see Jn 3:3) who poured oil upon Jesus’ feet and dried them with the locks of her hair. Neither this soldier nor Mary was self-absorbed; their focus was outward—upon others because of Christ. Speaker after speaker lined up to share stories of how SFC Franklin had touched their lives by pouring his own life and ministry into them. Sometimes he had done it just by his gentle manner. At other times, he served them by providing a small service at just the right time. But the pattern that emerged over and over was of the encouragement he brought. When it came time for us to listen to his remarks, he kept them short. He said this, “I’ve always wanted God’s favor upon my life. In order to ask for that, I have aimed to please God first. Thank you all for allowing me to be part of God’s plan.” Then he stepped away from the podium, away from the microphone.
Scores of us lined up afterwards to shake his hand, to embrace him, to wish him blessings in his future endeavors. And we all had similar stories: he had encouraged us via his life and ministry. We all long for encouragement. I get that. What is much harder to inculcate and live out, however, is to encourage others. I guess those old ladies in the small Baptist churches were (once again) right all along: May God bless us, and make us a blessing.