Daily Mutual Encouragement
April 4, 2024

God made man to live in a larger relational context, and even in high rebellion, man cannot escape his created nature. Instead, that nature takes revenge on rebellious man. Autonomous and alone, the self craves absolution but recognizes no authority that might give it; it thirsts for glory but rejects any standard by which to recognize it; it craves purpose but hates any connection that might offer it. Everywhere people gather in elective tribes, collectives, and fandoms, seeking a context where they won’t be naked and alone. Whether it’s brand loyalty, enjoying particular music, or following a TV show, these fig leaves with which we gird ourselves are “safe” because they are the products of untrammeled consumer choice.

And yet, precisely because they are simply choices that we can opt into and (crucially) out of, how could we be surprised that in the end we can’t find them compelling? When relational problems crop up, as they inevitably do—“man is born for trouble,” after all—you can always sell the car, turn off the music, change the channel, abandon the old affinity group and get a new one. Easy come, easy go.

How are we to minister to the refugees that wander this bleak and blasted no man’s land? By inviting them into the fruitful relationships God has given us, of course…but that assumes that we are gratefully relishing what God has given us so that we can be good guides. That’s a big assumption. The acids that destroyed our social cohesion in the general culture have long been at work within the church. Throughout North America, most evangelical churches function just like the world’s affinity groups. How can our churches recover from being just another fandom and return to being vital fellowships that turn the world upside down? Forget vision and mission statements; if all that high-sounding noise was going to work, it would be working already. We’re not going to solve this in a boardroom. So let’s start with a very different question: down at street level, what do we actually do?

One key answer is sitting right in the pages of Hebrews. At first glance, our situation and theirs could not be more different. His audience is an exhausted congregation of spiritual heroes (Heb. 10:32–34) teetering on the edge of giving up. What could those persecuted 1st-century saints possibly have in common with today’s slack and disaffected victims of 21st-century ennui?

Just this: they were radically tempted to give up on their faith and sink back into the prevailing cultural background. For altogether different reasons, we face the same temptation today, and the author offers a simple prescription against that temptation: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but encourage one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12–13). The antidote that will prevent us from wandering away from God, he says, is giving and receiving daily encouragement.

At risk of belaboring the matter: not weekly encouragement, but “daily, while it is called ‘Today.’” Not just a devotional book or a sermon on the radio: “one another.” A YouTube video can encourage you, but you can’t encourage it back. Daily mutual encouragement—that’s the prescription. This is not an activity that most Sunday services are designed to facilitate, and even if they were, once a week is only a seventh of the command. We have to get outside the walls of the sanctuary. This obedience happens everywhere, daily, from house to house.

This passage of Hebrews first hit me between the eyes over 20 years ago. At the time, I was single, living alone, working full time, and in grad school. Most days, I drove a triangle from home to work to school and back home again, spending 90 minutes or more alone in the car fighting city traffic. I realized only too keenly that the rhythms of modern life make it difficult, if not impossible, to spend time in daily fellowship with other believers. I was briefly inclined to accept that excuse and let it go at that.

But I began to wonder: in what other context would I accept such flimsy moral reasoning? “The expenses of modern life make it difficult to give generously, so I don’t.” No. “The fragility of modern sensibilities makes it necessary to lie to my friends.” Obviously not. How about this one? “The relational patterns of modern life make it untenable to delay sex until marriage.” Of course not. So why would I accept the busyness of modern life as an excuse to ignore something Scripture clearly tells me to do? If modern life is getting in the way of obedience, then so much the worse for modern life!

In David F. Wells’ memorable phrase, worldliness is what “makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange.” The relational patterns to which the New Testament authors encourage us certainly look strange to us. So let’s name our modern lives for what they are: worldly. We are awash in a blizzard of opportunities, many of them very good. There’s soccer and gymnastics and swim lessons, books to read and nature documentaries to watch and the art museum has that exhibition of Chinese ink drawings I want to see before it leaves town….

While the original audience of Hebrews was discouraged from gathering by persecution, we are discouraged from gathering by FOMO: fear of missing out. There are so many good things to do. We’d be better off with fewer good things and more mutual encouragement. Now, many of us find it hard to believe that this is the case. Over the past couple decades, I have taught this lesson countless times, and the objection I hear most often is, “But I’m not seeing believers every day, and I’m doing fine!”

Are you? To whatever extent God has providentially prevented you from achieving daily fellowship, that’s in His hands. If you’re marooned on a desert island with naught but a volleyball for company, then I fully expect God will take care of you. But to whatever extent you can obey, but just don’t see the need, let me draw your attention to the danger the author sets before us at the end of the prescription: “lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

What does it look like to become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness? Well, you might start saying things like, “It’s not so bad. I’m disobeying, and I’m doing fine!”

Trust that God knows something you don’t, and obey Him as hard as He’ll let you. Thus convicted, I began to pursue daily sharing of life with other believers. Morning coffee, a shared lunch break, a movie night, even a quick phone call—something, anything. It was as inconvenient as it sounds, and as far as I could tell at the time, there were some days where it really wasn’t possible; nobody was available. Most days, though, it was merely difficult. I have no regrets for embracing the difficulties; it was the beginning of a lifelong habit.

A couple decades into it, I’m out of school, married, living in a different state, and surrounded (mostly) by people I didn’t know back then. But God has been kind, and years of seeking shared life have paid off. The people I presently share my daily life with are among the best and wisest I’ve ever known, and I’m deeply grateful for them all. They mend me when I’m wounded, encourage me when I’m down, and call me to repentance when I’m in sin, as I do for them. They’re close enough to me to know what’s going on, and courageous enough to do what’s needed. Without them, I wouldn’t be half the man, or the Christian, that I am today.

This is what our world is starving for. The framers (and victims) of our culture are fast making a society barely worthy of the name. Fractured into rootless individuals and constantly shifting groups, they are more like water than solid ground. But the Spirit broods over the water, preparing a new people of God. The ancient god-kings once fell before the Incarnation. Once we knew what God-in-flesh really looked like, Caesar could not be anything but a sad imitation. Today, it is not our rulers but we ourselves who need to be dethroned, and the theological key to smashing our current idol—autonomous man—is the power of Pentecost.

As with the fall of the god-kings, it is not the Christian idea that defeats paganism, but the experienced reality. Divinely empowered relationship frees us from corrosive suspicion. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the self is no longer naked, but clothed with Christ. Clothed with Christ, we have a Father and a family: “the Sanctifier and the sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:11). We are together invited into the perichoretic triune dance. We could not, and by God’s grace need not, manufacture such relationships; we need only steward and enjoy them forever.

These relationships are fundamentally inescapable. You can sell your car, turn off the music, change the channel, but the new birth is a historical event, stubbornly present in your backstory. God has forever removed the question of your parentage and familial membership from the table. You’re one of us now, and always will be. All your remaining choices have to do with what sort of brother or sister you’re going to be.

When you live into your family membership instead of running away, you’ll discover that being in this community isn’t about moral perfection. It’s about being visible, what 1 John aptly calls “walking in the light.” It means being seen by the people around you, confessing what’s true, no matter how bad it is, and refusing to project a false image. The counterintuitive truth is that when we don’t hide the mess, God cleans it up, and we share life with each other and with Him.

This is what we are inviting people into: relationships that have compelling power because they are given to us by a loving God, relationships within which our choices have meaning. When we invite the Spirit to move in power and co-labor with Him to follow through, we are not only united to God in fact, but we reap the benefits in practice. The sharing of the triune life (into which we enter vertically) is mirrored horizontally in our shared life with one another. In the triune dance, we find our freedom in the ability to grow into who and what we were built to be, in relation to others who do the same.

Tim Nichols is a minister, teacher, bodyworker, martial arts instructor, and the co-author with Joe Anderson of Loving: Spiritual Exercises in Tangibly Loving Your Literal Neighbors, the Victorious Bible curriculum, and the forthcoming book Boniface in the Front Yard. He lives with his wife Kimberly in Englewood, Colorado.

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