The Greek word parakaleo is a compound word consisting of the word ‘para’ meaning ‘beside’ or ‘alongside’ and kaleo meaning ‘call.’ The word means ‘call alongside.’ *
The image associated with parakaleo is the image of nearness or presence. However, the word is not translated in that way in the English versions of the New Testament. Rather, personal presence seems to be assumed by virtue of the word’s literal meaning. In other words, parakaleo, as it is used in the New Testament, suggests both where one is relative to another (presence; nearness) and what one does when one is near to another.
Being physically present is the gold standard for offering support to someone who is suffering or to their caregivers. However, I don’t mean to suggest that one cannot be present even from a distance, especially given our use of social media.
What to Do?
So you have drawn close to the suffering/ caregiving other? What do the English translations of the word suggest that you do?
While there are many words used in the various versions of the English New Testament, it appears that those words can be categorized in two ways: (1) in terms of encouragement, exhortation, or admonishment and (2) in terms of consolation and comfort.
I like to think that the first category has to do with speaking truth to the sufferer/ caregiver while the second category has to do with speaking grace to the sufferer/ caregiver. For me, we are called alongside the sufferer/caregiver to walk that fine line between truth and grace. After all, if we speak truth without grace we fail to speak truth and if we offer grace without truth, we fail to speak grace. In other words, we are to speak truth gracefully and grace truthfully.
What does it mean to encourage, exhort and admonish? To encourage is to be present to the other in ways that infuse them with the courage to face what they must face. To exhibit courage is to stand against that which seeks to break the sufferer down.
To exhort is to come alongside discouraged sufferers, made weary by their struggles, and bring a word or gesture that helps them to go on. To admonish is to come alongside a sufferer who seems to be mired in self-pity and gracefully administer a kind kick in the pants.
Of course, speaking truth to a sufferer, whether in the form of exhortation or admonishment, requires wisdom, a deep sense of what is appropriate given the circumstances and a level of trust and friendship that enables one to speak truth to another. And, again, whenever truth is spoken to someone suffering or weary from caregiving it must always be swaddled in grace, gentleness, and respect.
What does it mean to comfort or console? To comfort is to speak and act in ways that bring peace to the sufferer. It is to convey to the sufferer the sense of the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Or, as I like to put it, “even when things are not alright, they are ultimately alright.”
To console is to soothe one who is mired in anguish, grief, or disappointment. It is to come alongside them in a way that honors their anguish but also, without being trite or cliche, to assure them that there are reasons for hope, even in the face of that which appears to be hopeless. Perhaps the greatest words of consolation in the Bible are these: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” (Psalm 23)
While thinking about the meanings of words and their etymologies is a useful exercise, we can’t really grasp their meaning unless we locate them within a particular context. In other words, the question is not simply what a word means in terms of its dictionary definition but what it means in terms of the larger story in which the word is used. What makes Christian exhortation, admonishment, comfort, and consolation Christian?
The answer? The larger story in which those words are found.
As believers, our offerings of truth, encouragement, and comfort are shaped by at least three aspects of the Christian story: (1) the cross, (2) salvation, and (3) hope. The cross reminds us that all of our words and deeds are to be shaped by the cross. Just as Jesus laid down his life for the good of the world, so we are called to lay down our lives for the good of the other. So, how can I offer my hours, minutes, and seconds to a sufferer such that they are helped to go on or are comforted?
The doctrine of salvation reminds us that through the gift of Jesus- his cross and resurrection- that we have been and are being made whole in him. And, it is in the sense of being made whole that we can come alongside others and not only pray they too would be made whole but also that they realize more deeply there is great assurance and confidence in such wholeness-making salvation.
And finally, the hope that we bring with us to the side of the sufferer is not simple optimism that tomorrow will be a better day but absolute confidence in the faithfulness of God and the assurance that whatever befalls us going forward that God is at work preparing a new tomorrow, a New Creation, a New Heaven and Earth where there will be no more suffering, anguish, grief or chaos.
As I learned through my own sufferings: “Whether I live or whether I die, I will live or die into the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
That is a great assurance, a wonderful exhortation, and a word that is filled with comfort.
*For an outline of etymologies, translations, and cognate words associated with parakaleo see Wenstrom. My aim here is not to get into a deep dive on this particular word as much as to convey a sense of what it means for the purpose of offering care to the suffering and their caregivers. Of all of its cognates, Parakaleo has a poetic ring.
I am indebted to Schmitz, author of the essay on Parakaleo in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 5, for much of the material on this page.