If you’ve ever been in the wilderness, you know it can be a lonely place. And that’s when we most need the encouragement of a friend.

1 Samuel tells the dramatic story of David’s rise to Israel’s throne as the anointed king. But if you’re familiar with the story, you know it’s full of twists and turns. David is anointed by the prophet Samuel while still a very young man, and years go by before he is established as king. In the meantime, Saul is still on the throne, even though God had made clear his rejection of the Benjamite king.

By the time we get to chapter 23, Saul has massacred an entire Israelite town, Nob, and slaughtered all the priests with the exception of Abiathar, who manages to escape to David. Meanwhile, David is saving God’s people at Keilah from the plundering raids of Philistine troops, only to then discover that if they have the chance they will deliver over their heroic redeemer to Saul.

So there he is, in the wilderness, reeling from an avalanche of difficulties.

What did Jonathan do? He “rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God” (1 Sam 23:16). What does that mean? I like how the CSB translates the same verse: he “encouraged him in his faith in God.” What is genuine encouragement?

  1. Meaningful encouragement is personal.

While Saul cannot seem to track down David, Jonathan has no such difficulty. However, it was no small thing for Jonathan to make the journey from Gibeah to Horesh. David had been labeled a traitor to the crown, an enemy of the state, and someone to be killed upon sight. To put it mildly, he is not someone the crown prince is supposed to be hanging around.

But Jonathan made the trip to Horesh.

Don’t discount the impact of personal encouragement. We should all be grateful for the many ways in which we can offer and receive encouragement in our day. It can mean so much to receive a kind text message, a phone call or especially a hand-written note of encouragement from a friend when we most seem to need it. And we should have no reluctance to make use of those opportunities.

But there is something extraordinarily powerful when encouragement comes in person. When’s the last time you went out of your way to seek someone out to offer them a word of encouragement in person? Jonathan could have sent a messenger to Horesh, to relay a word to his friend, but he did not. He made sure to get there and to show up in person. That’s what friends do. Whenever you can, be there in person.

  1. Meaningful encouragement is timely.

It’s hard to miss this in the story, but Jonathan’s encouragement comes at a key moment. David has just discovered that the residents of Keilah will betray him if given the opportunity and has had to flee into the wilderness. He has sought to honor the Lord, to deliver his people and to obey his calling. And yet here he is, with his troops, back in the wilderness, away from home, family and comfort. And it seems that the promise of the kingdom is no closer than it was before. Can you imagine the discouragement of that experience?

As we read along, we know that the resident of Ziph would proactively seek to betray David, sending emissaries to Saul at Gibeah with a preemptive offer of full cooperation in arresting the future king. Sandwiched between these two episodes, David’s friend arrives in Horesh at an urgent moment, when he’s most in need of encouragement.

In our own lives, there can be a temptation to be passive, failing to offer encouragement. We might merely miss the opportunity (although late is better than never!). Or perhaps we are tempted to think that someone else closer will surely be there to offer encouragement.

Don’t underestimate the impact your encouragement might have in someone’s life today. Rather than putting it off, who is God calling you to strengthen today?

  1. Meaningful encouragement is godly.

Encouragement can come in person and at the right time, but still ring hollow. True encouragement that strengthens faith must be godly. Or perhaps we might say, it must be godward.

Jonathan did not come to Horesh to give David a pep talk. He did not arrive with a commiserating indictment about Saul’s wickedness. He did not boost David with a recital of all of his impressive accomplishments and clear qualifications to rule.

No, true encouragement points us to God and his promises. When the text says that he strengthened his hand in the Lord, it’s clear that this is the case when we consider the summary of Jonathan’s own message: “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.”

These two friends then renewed their covenant of friendship before the Lord, and Jonathan returned home to Gibeah.

But Jonathan left David stronger because he reminded his friend of God’s promises. Among the people of God, there is no better encouragement we can give than to remind one another of the promises our Heavenly Father has made to us in His Word.

But what do you do when it seems there’s no one near and encouragement seems sparse? The apostle Paul knew that feeling. Writing of his own suffering and persecution, he explained it this way to Timothy:

“At my first defense, no one stood by me, but everyone deserted me. May it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that I might fully preach the word and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Tim. 4:16-17, CSB).

Godly friends who provide encouragement and strength are a gift from the Lord. But the good news is that even when friends fail or disappear, Jesus still stands with his own. What a friend we have in Jesus, indeed. By his Spirit and his Word, he will strengthen and empower for what he calls us to do.

Editors’ note: This article was originally published at Baptist Press.