Sometimes prophecy encourages. Sometimes not.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 February

Too often, wannabe prophets insist prophecy and encouragement are one and the same. They’re not.

When Christians teach about prophecy, one of the more popular verses we throw around is this one:

1 Corinthians 14.3 NIV
But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

’Cause if prophets are looking for a mission statement, Paul and Sosthenes provided us a convenient one-line description. Prophecy is for the purpose of strengthening, encouraging, and comfort.

Sometimes they tighten it up just a little bit: Which of those three words can encapsulate the other two? So these prophets will see it as their particular mission to strengthen… and less so to encourage or comfort. Others, to comfort… and not so much strengthen and encourage. What I encounter most often are the prophets who wanna encourage. Wanna get Christians all confident and excited about our role in God’s kingdom, and wanna give us nothing but encouraging messages which’ll shove us forward.

Trouble is, there are certain self-proclaimed prophets who claim anyone who encourages Christians—regardless of whether they directly heard from God—is a prophet. It’s ’cause of the cessationists. They don’t believe God talks to anyone anymore; at most he “talks” to them through the words of the bible, and makes us feel really good about what we just read. To them any preacher who teaches on God’s word, who disciples Christians, and who persuades people to give up sin and repent, counts as a prophet. Of course once you redefine “prophet” to mean someone who doesn’t have to hear God, it’s kind of a problem. Not to them, but certainly to everyone else on the planet—who might incorrectly believe prophets only predict the future, but are at least pretty sure prophets gotta hear God.

Anyway, this idea that encouragers are the same as prophets, has trickled into way too many continuationist churches. I’ve visited charismatic churches which no-fooling teach every time we encourage another person, we’re “activating the prophetic.” Supposedly every time we encourage one another, we’ve opened a door for the Holy Spirit to step through, and start giving us revelation and directing our words.

Since God has free will, he’s under no obligation to do any such thing. If he doesn’t care to speak through me—’cause the only reason I’m trying to “activate the prophetic” is so I can show off a little, and God prefers his prophets to be humble—he’s not gonna. Hence all I’ll say are bunch of encouraging-sounding things. They’ll sound nice, but won’t be God. They’ll feel nice, but feelings aren’t God either. At best they’ll be harmless, benign. At worst, they’ll lead people astray, just like they got King Ahab ben Omri killed. 1Ki 22.6, 23

Whereas actual prophecy? Never harmless. Always powerful and mighty and effective, ’cause it’s the word of God. He 4.12 “Benign” is never a word we ought to hear describing God’s prophets. They—we—had better do way more than merely encourage.

False encouragement.

Here’s a brief lesson prophets oughta learn from the prophet Nathan.

2 Samuel 7.1-7 KWL
1 When the king sat in his house, and the LORD gave him rest
from everything round him, from all his enemies,
2 the king told the prophet Nathan, “Now look: I sit in a cedar house.
God’s ark sits in the middle of curtains.”
3 Nathan told the king, “Go do everything you have in mind:
The LORD is with you.”
4 When it was night, the LORD’s word came to speak to Nathan:
“Go tell my slave David the LORD says this: You want to build me a house to sit in?
6 From the day I brought Israel’s children out of Egypt to this day,
I haven’t sat in a house; I travel with a tent, a tabernacle.
7 All the places I’ve traveled, with all Israel’s children,
I never told a single one of Israel’s princes, whom I commanded to pastor my people Israel,
‘Why don’t you build me a cedar house?’”

The LORD goes on, but the gist of it is he never dropped this idea for a temple into David’s head. He commanded Moses to build him a tent; he was perfectly fine with it.

Never once, in the rest of Nathan’s prophecy, does the LORD say, “But since you had this clever idea, go right ahead and build me a cedar house.” The temple was never a God-idea. God’s idea was for us Christians to be his temple; to be with his people, not shut up in a box. Even a fancy gold-covered cedar box. Even though David went forward anyway; even though Solomon built it, Zerubbabel rebuilt it, and Herod re-rebuilt it. But God doesn’t live in buildings. Ac 7.48 He lives in hearts.

But I digress; back to Nathan. Beginning of the chapter, David shares his bright idea with his prophet, and Nathan’s response was, “Go do everything you have in mind: The LORD is with you.” 2Sa 7.3 Yet that night the LORD had to correct his prophet: Do not do everything you have in mind. Your descendant, not you, after you’re dead, will build this house you’re thinking of. 2Sa 7.12-13

By any rubric, Nathan had spoken presumptively, and given a false prophecy. Because he wanted to be encouraging. Hey, it sounded like a God-idea, right? Why wouldn’t God love the idea of a temple? Other, lesser, nastier gods had temples; who better to get a temple than the one true God? Other kings built temples in order to suck up to their gods, but here David was saying, “Why should I have a nicer place than my God?” and offering to do it out of love and gratitude: Godlike attitude should have some connection with God’s inspiration, right? Sounds like an inspired idea.

But till he heard from the LORD, Nathan had no business saying, “Sounds great; go for it.” Doesn’t matter how good David’s idea sounds. That’s why we bounce such ideas off prophets: They sound like great ideas and God-ideas, but God has another, better idea in mind. And the last thing David needed, or wanted, was a yes-man or cheerleader. He needed a prophet.

You getting this, prophets? Too many prophets nowadays are cheerleaders, eager to tell us, “Follow your heart!” when our hearts are self-centered, compromised, and kinda evil. (Sometimes they themselves are a little compromised: Prophecy’s a rough job sometimes, and they just wanna be liked for once.)

So there’s encouragement… and there’s false encouragement. And when people have it in their heads to do something “great for God” that’s actually contrary to what God wants, it’s time to stop encouraging, and start discouraging.

Yep, discouragement.

Speaking of that word we tend to translate “encouragement”: Let me first correct that translation just a little.

1 Corinthians 14.3 KWL
Prophecy-speakers speak to people: They build up, help out, and advise.

Here’s why I chose the words I did.

  • Build up comes from oikodomín/“house-building.” Really, it refers to any structure. The KJV has “edification,” which means the same thing.
  • Help out comes from paráklisin/“coming along [to help].” Often it gets translated “comforting,” ’cause the KJV translates parákliton/“helper,” one of the Holy Spirit’s titles, Jn 14.16 as “comforter.”
  • Advise comes from paramythían/“storytelling along”—namely, telling people something they can understand or relate to, like Jesus or the apostles’ analogies.

The purpose of building up, helping out, and advisement, vary. That’s why these words get various translations… which bluntly tend to reflect translator bias, the way each bible’s translators generally believe about prophets. Hence…

KJV: Edification, exhortation, comfort.
CSB: Edification, encouragement, consolation.
ESV, NRSV: Upbuilding, encouragement, consolation.
Message: Grow, be strong, experience God’s presence.
NASB: Edification, exhortation, consolation.
NIV, NLT: Strengthening, encouraging, comfort.
NJB: Speaks, building up, gives encouragement and reassurance.

That word everybody’s been translating “encouragement”? Paráklisin/“helping out.” So I guess the question we oughta ask is pretty simple: Does encouragement help out? Might it help better sometimes, especially when someone has sin on the brain, to do a little discouragement?

And in fact that’s what we see in the scriptures. When people had sin in mind, prophets tried to discourage ’em away from it. Encouragement was not what they needed at the time.

To listen to some Christians, the only things prophets oughta ever proclaim are positivity, cheerfulness, optimism, and grace. And yeah, that definitely oughta be our default mode, ’cause the gospel is good news. Jesus conquered sin! The Lord is coming back! He wins! We joined his side, so we win too!

But prophecy isn’t Prozac, and Christianity isn’t just about shiny happy people, jazzed into having all sorts of great adventures. If that’s what you think, you’re gonna fail time and time again, because you’re seeking emotional highs instead of God.

Say a businessman is determined to buy a building. Say the Holy Spirit says, “Absolutely not!” And say you’re the prophet who’s gotta break the bad news—but you’ve had it pounded into your head that all our prophecies need to be encouraging, not discouraging, so you’re having the darnedest time trying to spin the message in a positive way. Some of us will take the Spirit’s “Absolutely not!” and turn it into, “God doesn’t want you to, because he has a much greater thing in mind.” Problem is, God may not have any such greater thing in mind. He may want the businessman to sell everything, because he’s gonna be diagnosed with cancer and gonna need the money. Or there’s a recession or other disaster coming. We don’t know… but if we promised the businessman something greater, we just gave a false prophecy. We didn’t trust God enough to share his bad news, just as he gave it.

When someone seeks the Lord’s advice, or has what they think is a God-idea and want confirmation or denial, we need to give it to them. And if we don’t know God’s answer, we need to encourage them to go find it. Not do as Nathan did. Nor as over-encouraging Christians do, and respond, “Wow, that sounds amazing! Do it! God’s gonna bless you! God wants you to prosper! God wants everybody to prosper! Rainbows and donuts and iPads for everyone!”

No. Unless God told us any such thing, we have no business encouraging them in a direction which may lead to utter failure, destruction, and loss of faith. Yeah, these are worst-case scenarios, but if we didn’t hear from God, we don’t know whether a worst-case scenario lies at the end of our bad advice. I know you wanna encourage people, but make it crystal clear your encouragement comes from you, not God—and you could be wrong. Our best wishes aren’t necessarily God’s best-laid plans.

After all, sometimes God’s “no” answer is exactly what they needed or wanted to hear. The job looked too scary for them; they had cold feet; and of course Nathan’s corrected prophecy to David came with a pretty substantial blessing that his house and throne will last forever. 2Sa 7.16 Inspired David to write a psalm:

2 Samuel 7.18-20 KWL
18 King David came and sat before the LORD’s presence
and said, “What am I, my Lord YHWH?
What’s my family, that you’ve brought me to this?
19 This is so small to your eye, my Lord YHWH.
You speak of your slave’s house lasting for ages,
as a lesson for humanity, my Lord YHWH.
20 What more can David say to you?
You know your servant, my Lord YHWH.”

You see, when we think encouragement is more important than God’s message (or just as good), we’ve seriously short-changed people. They wanted to hear from the Almighty! Instead they got the same platitudes they could get from anyone—heck, they’d be better off buying fortune cookies. Our encouragement is a pale, pathetic substitute for the word of God. Never offer ’em that instead.

Got that? Good.