You probably remember the craze from the mid-90s. Chicken Soup for the Soul books were suddenly everywhere, showing up on shelves in bookstores, grocery stores, gas stations, and libraries. These collections of feel-good stories quickly gained popularity and began to target specific audiences with titles like Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover’s Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Scrapbooker’s Soul. The series contains more than 250 books, and the brand has continued to grow, now boasting a podcast, and even a line of dog food! As encouraging as these uplifting stories undoubtedly are, Christ would have us go a bit farther in strengthening the souls of those around us. We see one example in the life of the Apostle Paul.
After his conversion, Antioch became a home for Paul. He spent time there, sharpening the tools in his belt for ministry; and eventually the church there would be the springboard from which he would launch his missionary endeavors. After his first missionary journey, which ended with his being stoned in Lystra (Acts 14:19), he returned to Antioch to “strengthen the souls” of the believers (14:21-23). As we dive a little deeper into Paul’s ministry to the church where believers were first called “Christians,” we’ll see that he offered more than warm, fuzzy stories.
Before we get too far into this discussion, please keep this caveat in mind. Genuine soul-strengthening cannot take place without the groundwork of a relationship. Ideally, this will take place within the context of a local church body where these types of relationships can be fostered and cultivated. Paul had spent over a year with this body of believers, likely even more than that. When he went back to them to strengthen their souls, he returned to a group of people who knew his strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and gifts.
If you attend a large church, you will not be able to strengthen the souls of every other brother and sister in your congregation. Yes, you could feasibly send text messages or cards to each of them, but you will not have enough relational bandwidth for a soul-strengthening level of relationship with everybody. And that’s okay. Focus on just a few people with whom you can grow in an honest, vulnerable, and Christ-centered friendship. It will be in this environment that biblical soul-strengthening blossoms.
In studying through Acts and noting the number of interactions and obviously close relationships Paul had with the church at Antioch, I find it surprising that the canon of Scripture does not contain a letter from Paul to this church. While I don’t doubt that Paul did correspond with his sending church via letter, that isn’t how he goes about strengthening their souls. This required his physical presence. After God miraculously spared Paul’s life in Lystra when he was stoned, the mere sight of Paul probably lifted the spirits of his home church.
The Zoom platform and livestream technology have been incalculable gifts of God’s grace since March of 2020; however, they have also proven poor substitutes for in-person interaction. If we’ve learned nothing else from the COVID pandemic, we have at least learned the value of face-to-face conversation, personal touch, and a warm smile. In short, strengthening souls requires physical presence. God created the Church as a body, a unit of many members that function properly only when connected to the whole. In fact, your presence alone may be the balm that someone’s soul needs.
Whether via church attendance, hospitality, or a meet-up for ice cream, to the extent that you are able, strengthen a weary soul through your presence.
Point Them Toward Eternity
Persecution was picking up speed in the Early Church, a fact that no doubt alarmed the first-generation believers. Stephen had been stoned, and James, the brother of John, had been beheaded—two key figures in the Church. And now the Jewish leaders had attempted to stone Paul himself. Though Christ had told His followers to expect opposition (John 15:18-25), the temptation to turn back no doubt appealed to these young disciples. Knowing this, Paul sought to “encourage them to continue in the faith,” telling them, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
While I’m sure this is the heavily abridged version of a much longer message, probably iterated over many days, Luke captures an important facet of soul-strengthening. Paul pointed them toward eternity by helping them to remember the kingdom of God. In an onslaught of persecution—whether physical or emotional—the kingdom can start to seem pretty far away. Paul recognized this and wanted to remind his brothers and sisters that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). In short, he reminded them of the security of their citizenship in heaven.
As you sit across a table at Starbucks or on a deck sipping some lemonade, or as you walk down a trail with a friend whose soul is weak, look for opportunities to speak quiet, winsome truths that point to eternity. A sermon probably won’t be necessary, and you should listen a lot more than you speak. But when the door opens, strengthen your friend’s soul with a glimpse of the Kingdom. If all we have to offer is the happiness found in this world, our souls will atrophy to nothing. Hold out hope that breathes life!
Paul told the Corinthian church that he was “afflicted in every way but not crushed”. . . “perplexed but not in despair” . . . “persecuted but not abandoned” . . . and “struck down but not destroyed” (2Co 4:8-9).
A few verses later he gives precious truth that illumines why he could make such claims:
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
This hope propels us forward and provides “muscle milk” for weak souls.
Give Tangible Help
Paul didn’t just wax eloquent when he went to Antioch; he also helped the church in tangible ways. Acts 14:23 records that he assisted them in appointing elders in order to avoid a leadership vacuum. Paul demonstrated his love for this church by meeting an important need that they had.
The work of soul-strengthening, while certainly not less than speaking life-giving truth to a fatigued pilgrim, will likely involve more than just words. James warns us against the danger of talking a good game while failing to put our pretty words into action:
If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed," but you don't give them what the body needs, what good is it? (Jas 2:15-16)
As you listen to the cares of your friend, look for areas where you may be able to offer help (not just advice). This might look like taking her kids for an afternoon or bringing a meal by. Be creative, and be specific. Usually a “let me know how I can help” request goes unanswered. A specific offer, however, may just be met with an enthusiastic, “That would be great! Thanks!” Or maybe they’ll decline. Even so, don’t let that be the reason that you never offer again.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “But what if I’m the weary soul? Why is no one strengthening me?” If so, start small. Be a soul-strengthener by being present. Fight the urge to isolate. Our time spent social distancing has made it more comfortable than ever to stay home in comfy pants. Even if you’re feeling weary, take the first step of obedience by offering your presence. I think you may be surprised with how your soul—as well as those around you—may be strengthened by this small act.