Since January we have witnessed an outbreak of suffering on a global scale. Some of that suffering has befallen us unwillingly. Loved ones have become ill and died. Friends have lost jobs, along with the financial security those jobs provide. Some of our suffering we have willingly undertaken and embraced. We have refrained from public gatherings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to avoid overburdening our health-care professionals.
With the outbreak of suffering brought about by the global pandemic, we have also witnessed an outbreak of sorrow, fear, and anxiety. The losses of various goods, or their threatened losses, have caused various forms of emotional disturbance. In such a situation, the natural desire of Christians in general and Christian leaders in particular is to offer encouragement to those in misery and exhortation regarding how they might endure the road ahead.
I’ve been thinking about an approach to pastoral encouragement that I’ve witnessed over the past couple of months. It’s been somewhat prominent across various social-media platforms among a certain Reformed or Reformed-adjacent type, though it doesn’t exhibit a truly Reformed approach to pastoral care.
This approach uses specific biblical exhortations to address those suffering various forms of misery caused by the pandemic: “fear not,” “do not be anxious,” and so on. Such exhortations, in many cases, are offered with great bravado, exhibiting the kind of sanctified machismo that has become strangely popular in certain corners of evangelicalism.
As the divinely inspired Word of the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3), the Bible is certainly the supreme source of consolation for Christians in times like these. However, there’s an unbiblical way of using the Bible to encourage and exhort. In fact, there are many.
There’s an unbiblical way of using the Bible to encourage and exhort.
The one described above seems to presuppose a certain view of the heart—the center of cognition, evaluation, and movement in human beings. My sense is that an unbiblical view of the heart underlies certain methods of using Bible verses to exhort and encourage.
Perhaps the best way to see it is by considering two competing metaphors for the heart.
Heart ≠ Cup
According to one metaphor, the heart is a cup. A cup may be full of coffee or full of tea but, under normal circumstances, one would not want to fill his cup with both.
It seems that folks sometimes offer biblical encouragements—platitudes like “fear not,” “do not be anxious,” and so on—as if the heart were a cup full of fear or anxiety that needs to be emptied of those emotions so it can be filled with alternative emotions. But this is wrongheaded.
The metaphor errs in at least two ways. First, it fails to understand that sorrow, fear, and anxiety are not always sinful emotions. In fact, such emotions may constitute appropriate responses to the loss (actual or threatened) of real goods. Jesus’s soul was “troubled” as he faced the cross (John 12:27; cf. Luke 22:41–44). Paul says that he carried the “daily pressure” of “anxiety” for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28).
Second, this metaphor seems guilty of an over-realized eschatology. It fails to appreciate that, from a redemptive-historical perspective, these are days of sorrow (Ps. 126; Prov. 14:13; 2 Cor. 6:10; 1 Pet. 1:6). It is not yet the day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes once and for all (Rev. 21:4).
The heart isn’t a cup.
Heart = Scale
The heart is more like a scale. Specifically, a “balance scale,” the kind often used as a symbol for justice because its two sides weigh different arguments and positions in the process of reaching a true and righteous judgment.
To borrow an analogy from Basil of Caesarea (AD 330–379), the heart is the internal court of the soul. This internal court weighs the meaning and value of differing realities as it seeks to acquire wisdom, and it considers differing courses of action as it seeks to make a prudential decision (Rom. 12:2; Phil. 1:9–10).
The heart is the internal court of the soul.
A proper use of biblical encouragements and exhortations, then, will take this picture of the heart into account. Encouragements like “fear not” and “do not be anxious” should not be offered (in every case at least) as rebukes, as in “pour out the contents of your heart; fill them with something else.” These kinds of “encouragements” can be the cause of a lot of false guilt among sincere believers.
Instead, biblical encouragements should be offered as counterweights. Doing so might look like this:
I know your heart is (rightly) heavy with sorrow due to the loss of some good thing(s), that it is overwhelmed by present circumstances, that it is uncertain of what tomorrow may bring. However, let me offer you a counterweight, not to remove these emotions (the cup metaphor) but to place them in relation to a larger reality: the reality of God’s sovereign goodness, attention, and purpose, which offer solid reasons for encouragement and hope in the midst of trial.
These “counterweights” do not remove the other “weights” of our hearts. Rather, they provide consolations that enable our hearts to bear the weights of sorrow, anxiety, and fear in this vale of tears (Ps. 84:6)—until we arrive at our destination of unmixed, unshakeable beatitude in the presence of the triune God (Ps. 84:4).
Of course, much pastoral wisdom consists in knowing when to offer such biblical encouragements and when to shut your mouth. There is “a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1)—even “a time to keep silence” (Eccles. 3:7).