Pilgrims don’t progress alone. One of the primary reasons God wants us to live in community as born again believers is so that we can “exhort one another every day” (ESV) or “encourage one another daily” (NIV) (Hebrews 3:13) because our hearts “are always going astray” (3:10).
Often, however, we set the bar too low when it comes to our Christian fellowship. The mere fact of being together doesn’t necessarily mean we are exhorting one another. Have you ever turned to a brother or sister sitting next to you after the worship service to talk about . . . what’s for lunch?! Or your lawn, or the weather, or anything but spiritual things? Have you ever invited a friend from your small group out for coffee but never gotten beyond talking about your kids?
John Bunyan can provide us with some help here. If you’ve never read The Pilgrim’s Progress, be sure to put it on your list this year. While we may think of Christian (our protagonist’s name) as being on a solitary journey to the Celestial City, Bunyan gives him many companions along the way, some helpful and some nefarious. The best of them, Faithful and Hopeful, provide a model for how we can encourage one another daily by godly conversation. Early in their journey, Christian and Faithful discuss how they came to be pilgrims (their conversion), how they have gained victory over temptations, and in general, spend their time “discoursing of things that are profitable . . . for what things [are] so worthy of the use of the tongue and mouth of men on earth, as are the things of the God of Heaven?” (85).
We tend to grow weary of life, even of the Christian life. Later on in the story as Christian and his new friend, Hopeful, enter the Enchanted Ground, Hopeful expresses how we often feel: “I do now begin to grow so drowsy that I can scarcely hold up mine eyes; let us lie down here, and take one nap” (155). Christian, remembering that they are on Enchanted Ground and should beware of sleeping, exhorts Hopeful to stay awake: “to prevent drowsiness in this place, let us fall into good discourse.” They then go on to talk about what first awakened their conscience to sin, how they became aware of God’s grace, and how they came to repent and believe.
We can slip into this type of spiritual drowsiness even while faithfully attending weekly worship, and small group, and whatever other Christian activities we are a part of. There is nothing more refreshing, when your eyelids are heavy, than sharing your testimony, or hearing how God spoke to someone in their devotions recently. To begin these types of conversations, we also have to be asking spiritual questions: how is your prayer life going? Are you struggling with any particular temptations? Do you ever have doubts about your salvation? Have you been baptized?
Recently in my small group, someone asked if we could all share how we came to believe, and to me it was very soul-refreshing. I also thought, “I’ve known some of these people for ten years, and I’ve never asked them about that.” As Christians, our faith should be the thing we’re most eager to talk about. In order to encourage one another, let’s occasionally postpone talk of sports, food, and the things of this world, and help keep each other awake with godly conversation.
Saints’ fellowship, if it be manag’d well,
Keeps them awake, and that in spite of hell.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, (orig. 1678) published by Desiring God, 2014.