“Why did I sign up for this?” I muttered. “I could be watching Law and Order re-runs and eating ice cream.”
Instead, I sat with a prayer book perched on my lap, reading through a nightly examination of conscience. A friend had challenged me to switch off the television and spend more time with the Lord. “You’ve already seen every Law and Order episode ever filmed, and probably all of the outtakes too,” she’d quipped.
Deep down, I knew that my relationship with God was more important than entertainment. And ending the day with quiet reflection, rather than crime dramas and chocolate, certainly made for a better night’s sleep. But one line in the examination of conscience nettled me:
“Whom did I encourage today?”
As I sifted through the preceding hours, I realized that — if I were honest — the answer was “no one.”
Excuses buzzed like wasps – I was too busy, I was running late, I didn’t want to seem insincere.
Scripture quickly silenced my pretexts. “Encourage one another and build one another up,” St. Paul wrote (1 Thess. 5:11). The author of Hebrews echoes this command: “Encourage yourselves daily” (Heb. 3:13).
One New Testament figure earned a nickname for his skill in uplifting others: Joseph, whom the apostles also called “Barnabas (which is translated ‘son of encouragement’)” (Acts 4:36).
St. Barnabas worked tirelessly to evangelize and strengthen the early church. Scripture “loads him with accolades,” writes Biblical scholar Robin Branch. True to his nickname, Barnabas championed those who needed reassurance — including the Gentile believers at Antioch (Acts 11:19-30), his kinsman John Mark (Acts 15:36-41), and St. Paul himself (Acts 9:26-28, 11:25-26).
The disciples at Jerusalem were understandably frightened of Paul, then known as Saul, when he first attempted to meet with them (Acts 9:26). Only a few verses earlier, he’d been “breathing murderous threats against [them]” (Acts 9:1).
Barnabas, however, sensed the work of the Holy Spirit in this former persecutor of the faith: “[He] took [Saul] and brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27).
Thanks to Barnabas’ endorsement, the believers in Jerusalem accepted Saul, who “moved about freely with them in Jerusalem” preaching the Gospel (Acts 9:28).
The apostles then sent Barnabas to Antioch, where Greeks were reported to have joined the Jewish believers in Christ (Acts 11:19-24). Barnabas confirmed that the Spirit had indeed spread to the Gentiles, and “he encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart” (Acts 11:23). To shepherd the group, Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch, and together they pastored the first community to be called “Christian” (Acts 11:26).
Later, Barnabas defended his kinsman John Mark, who had “deserted [Paul and Barnabas] in Pamphylia and who had not continued with them in the work” (Acts 15:38). Scripture doesn’t specify the reason for John Mark’s sudden departure from that missionary journey.
But to Barnabas, it didn’t matter. He believed in the young man enough to withstand Paul’s emphatic refusal to give John Mark a second chance: “So sharp was their disagreement that they separated. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39).
Unlike flattery — which is given without cost and is therefore worthless — encouragement requires sacrifice, humility and bravery. Barnabas routinely set aside his own concerns to inspire and serve others.
It’s no coincidence that the Greek word used here for “encouragement” (paraklēsis) is related to the one used in John’s Gospel to name the Holy Spirit (Paraklētos; John 14:16). Both words refer to “one called or sent for to assist another.” As Christians, we are to channel the Spirit that “[knows] how to sustain the weary with a word” (Is. 50:4).
In the digital age, our words are magnified; they echo across the globe. How much more, then, should those words be ones of hope and compassion, uttered so that “[God’s] salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6). The gentle, persistent power of encouragement can mend the wounds of our hearts — just as it eventually healed the rifts among Paul, Barnabas and John Mark (2 Tim. 4:11, Col. 4:10, 1 Cor. 9:5).
Looking back over my day, I remembered a woman who’d been in front of me at the grocery store checkout. Anxiety and fatigue had wilted her; she hunched over her shopping cart. I realized that a simple pleasantry, or even a silent smile, might have eased her burden in that moment.
And in my strange new routine of evening prayer, I asked for the grace not to miss tomorrow’s chances to share — if only in the smallest, most ordinary way — the gift of encouragement.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.