Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Courage to Encourage

Everyone needs encouragement. Humans are created to be relational beings and we naturally take comfort in an encouraging word from a friend during a time of difficulty, fear, or uncertainty. Sometimes, even more than words, just the encouraging presence of loved ones can ease feelings of pain or worry. The importance of such relationships cannot be over-estimated. Studies have shown that those who live in healthy community with others, live longer, whereas isolation and loneliness breed depression and anxiety.

Paul taught the early church that the Body of Christ should be a loving and encouraging fellowship of believers. In his letter to the Romans he paints us a striking picture of what it looks like to live in biblical community (Romans 12). Among other things, he urges us to be empathetic with one another; to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15).

Isn't it true that when we experience a blessing or victory in our lives, we long for others to rejoice with us? True friends will be glad when God uses us to achieve something or when He blesses us. They will celebrate with us as if the victory or blessings are theirs also! But, sadly, the achievements or gifts of others can breed discontentment, insecurity, and jealousy in the hearts of some. And sometimes, people secretly take pleasure in the failures of others, because it makes them feel temporarily better about themselves in comparison. But to rejoice with those who rejoice is to let go of our insecurities and the prideful temptation to one-up each other. It is to think of others as more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3). It is to show selflessness, empathy, and humility.

Mourning with those who mourn can also be a challenge in our busy lives today. We are a society of hectic, over-scheduled people and in the midst of our "crazy" lives, when do we really have the time to sit down with a brother or sister who needs encouragement or walk with them through their time of hardship? When do we have the time to visit the shut-in? To spend time with the lonely, elderly, or sick...or even to pray for them?

But Paul is clear that encouraging one another is key to a loving church community. He knew firsthand what it was like to be afflicted, isolated, and in dire need of encouragement. He even lists encouragement as a spiritual gift (Rom 12:7-8). He uses here the Greek word, paracletos, which literally means “to call to one’s side,” and is translated as to “exhort,” “urge,” “encourage,” and “comfort.” Exhortation (to emphatically urge someone to do something) isn't always associated with encouragement as much as comforting someone might be. But just as the Holy Spirit—whom Jesus referred to as our “Helper” or “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26)—both comforts and convicts us, those with the gift of encouragement will both comfort as well as counsel others, exhorting them to remain true to the Lord with all their heartsas modeled by Barnabas, “the son of encouragement." (Acts 4:36; Acts 11:23; Acts 13:43).

The words we speak to one another can have huge impact. They can serve to tear us down or build us up. They can further laden a heavy heart, or uplift it with hope. They can feed self-centeredness and self-deception or help to point us to Jesus Christ. Scripture has much to say about the power of the tongue, describing rash words like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise to bring healing (Prov 12:18). The tongue is an outlet for what ever is in the heart; "the good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." (Luke 6:4-5). We should take this seriously, for Jesus said: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt 12:36-37). And in James we read, "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless." (James 1:26). In this vein, Paul wrote: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph 4:29).

Indeed, anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad (Proverbs 12:25). So, what exactly is a "good word"? To answer this, it's helpful to take a look at what biblical encouragement actually isand also to identify what it is not:

1. Encouragement is to empathize not to give a pep-talk. To truly comfort some one involves empathy and depth of understanding. When you're dealing with a difficult time of fear and uncertainty, the hollow, "it will be alright," doesn't really cut it, does it? And in the midst of suffering, a cursory, "it will be fine," doesn't resonate. This is because it isn't really true. Things aren't always "alright." Things aren't always going to be "fine." The reality is, sometimes things are difficult, painful, or even tragic. Often, statements like these are defaulted to in order to alleviate the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. To truly empathize with another person, however, there must be a genuine level of emotional commitment to that person. But in a commitment-phobic society in which we're all being pulled in so many different directions, to truly encourage one another is counter-cultural. It involves an investment of time and emotional energy that many of us may not feel we have to give. But Paul reminds us that now more than ever, investing in, and committing to, one another is important. He exhorts us to "consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Heb 10:24-25). This involves taking the time to listen to, and trying to understand, what a brother or sister is actually going through. It involves the act of prayerfully loving others as ourselves.

2. Encouragement involves exhortation not enablement. In other words, encouragement is to urge others to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God—not to succumb to, or be overwhelmed by, feelings of hopelessness (Rom 5:2). Enablement, however, perpetuates hopelessness. It's true that misery loves company. But to indulge the fears, insecurities, or pride of others without pointing them to Christ is not to comfort them with everlasting hope, but to provide only temporary relief. Encouragement, on the other hand, is to point them away from their problems to fix their eyes on Jesus. Encouragement, then, must be rooted in the gospel. When Paul tells us to encourage one another and build one another up, he consistently does so in the context of the gospel message. He lays out the basis for our hope and encouragement, which is our "salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him." (1 Thess 9-11).

3. Encouragement is sincere not flattery. We should absolutely give credit where credit is due. Recognizing the achievements of our peers is important. And to live in unity is to celebrate each other's strengths and give thanks for each other's blessings as if they are our own. But encouraging words must be anchored in truth. Speech that is peppered with gushing accolades or disingenuous compliments does not reflect Christ-like love for others. Words of encouragement shouldn't be based on what the other person wants to hear. Instead, Paul urges us to speak the truth in love in order to build up the Body of Christ (Eph 4:15-16). We can especially encourage one another with the truth that God knows, cares for, and loves, each one of us intimately (Psa 139) even though we are sinners. We need to be vigilant, however, that the message of God's amazing love for us doesn't get confused with the popular lie that "you are perfect just as you are." This lie feeds the human desire to remain unchanged and self-antonymous. In effect, it negates our perceived need for sanctification, for submission, and—if taken too far—even for salvation. Thus, Scripture warns us that a man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet (Prov 29:5). Our words of encouragement must be motivated by a desire to glorify God. Furthermore, encouragement involves exhorting one another to boast only in the Lord and to fully rely on God's strength, not enabling self-centered attempts to be self-reliant and confident in our own strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10; 2 Cor 10:17). When we seek to encourage others, we might ask ourselves, what am I seeking to encourage my fellow believer to hope in? His own abilities? His own success? Or am I ultimately pointing him to Christ for God's glory?

4. Encouragement is self-sacrificial not self-serving. While flattering lips are motivated by self-gain, speaking genuine words of encouragement—speaking the truth in love—can be costly to us. But sometimes, our church communities can be consumer-driven rather than service-minded, seeming more akin to social clubs than spiritual families. They can be full of relationships based on expediency and quick-fix community. Some churches have a tendency to promote organized fun over authentic fellowship. And an overemphasis on common interest- or convenience-based community gives rise to the ever-pressing problem of church cliques and creates an environment devoid of open-heartedness and outreach-mindedness. Stepping out of our comfort zones, social circles, and interest-areas to encourage the lonely and the afflicted with the gospel was clearly modeled by Jesus during His earthly life. But to genuinely comfort a suffering brother or sister can be in be time-consuming, inconvenient, even messy. There isn't always an easy answer to someone's difficult situation or painful condition. Jesus, however, spent time pouring His love into the afflicted, the lost, the weary, the ostracized—not those from whom He would gain something. He didn't work His way up the social ladder or seek out politically expedient relationships. Instead, He made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil 2:7). 
Encouragement, then, is to seek first His Kingdomnot a church clique. Indeed, when we step back and look at ourselves, we might consider our own motivations: are we encouraging others selectively so they might like us more or because we want to feel needed? Are we practicing favoritism or are we non-discriminatory in building up the Body of Christ, which transcends personal preferences, along with social, cultural, and even national boundaries?

In light of all this, it is safe to say that encouragement takes courage. It involves self-sacrifice and getting out of our comfort-zone, 
giving selflessly of our time and energy. It's about avoiding flattery and people-pleasing for self-gain. It may mean addressing inconvenient truths from time-to-time and exhorting others to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. It may involve getting our hands dirty, dealing with some messy situations, and confronting difficult, even heart-wrenching, realities (not brushing the suffering of our brothers and sisters under the carpet). And because encouragement is about pointing ourselves and others to Christ, it's counter-cultural. Encouragement, therefore, will mean swimming against the tide.

But we can be encouraged by the fact we are not alone. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to encourage others. We don't have to rely on our own strength to build up the Body of Christ, but can take courage in the Lord's strength. For He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt 16:19). Now that is encouraging!

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