Speaking to Encourage
Abraham Lincoln consistently tops the polls as the most popular U.S. president of all time. That would probably shock him, since he was also the most embattled U.S. president of all time, presiding over a nation that was literally at war with itself. His troubled presidency came on top of a lifelong struggle with depression so severe that he suffered at least one nervous breakdown, and his neighbors were known to set suicide watches over him in his youth.
So how did he do it? How did this severely depressed man soldier through the turmoil surrounding his presidency? History has left us an intriguing clue. On the night he was assassinated, Lincoln’s pockets were stuffed with newspaper clippings that praised him, his leadership, and the positive impact he was having.
We all need a little encouragement every now and then. Let’s look at what the author of Hebrews says in 10:23–25.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We need each other. We need to be reminded of the beautiful characteristics we carry as image-bearers of God, to have the courage to live into the high and holy calling God has laid on every human life.
Life-Giving Fruit or Bitterroot?
My friend Natasha says she wants to eulogize people before they’re dead. This doesn’t mean she resorts to flattery or warm fuzzies—the lady is a former marine officer who worked hard for her goals and expects no less from others. But Natasha calls out the best in people, inspiring them to live up to their God-given potential as she strives to live up to hers. The seeds of encouragement she sows into people’s lives bear wonderful, life-giving fruit. When she sees something that is praiseworthy in someone else, she doesn’t wait to tell them (and others) about it.
Unfortunately, there’s another way we Christians try to spur one another on: shame. This is short-sighted, arrogant, and dangerous. We can pressure people into behaving the way we want them to behave for a little while, but good deeds motivated by anything but love, for God and for others, will eventually turn toxic.
I was in first grade when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I still remember how devastated I was when I got a spelling test back with bright red check marks next to every single word—I had spelled them all correctly, but written the letters backward. But math was my real nemesis. I couldn’t get the numbers to line up in my mind, and copying problems out of the hardcover text into my notebook felt like trying to build the Taj Mahal with toothpicks, a jumble of disconnected shapes that had to be painstakingly pieced together. After being kept in from recess enough times, agonizing over problems other kids had long since solved, I developed the belief that I was hopeless at math and should quit trying. Sometimes, I scribbled random numbers in my notebook just to end the misery. Though they were trying to help, all the “help” did was make me feel bad about myself. To this day, I dislike math, and nothing shuts me down faster than a page full of numbers.
Shame does not motivate people to try their best, and keep trying, even when the going gets tough. Shame tells us we’re not good enough and motivates us to give up once we realize we can’t meet the requirements. This is a problem for Christians, because when it comes to our walk with God, none of us can meet the requirements. That’s why we need Jesus.
In many ways, this is the flip side of speaking with integrity. When we judge people (not just their behavior), it’s like we’re holding a cracked, dirty mirror in front of them, affirming the idea that they’re bad, and broken, and wrong. While it is true that we all have been broken by sin, God’s invitation to us in Jesus is to come out of the shadow of the curse, and live in the light of the resurrection. Our goal should not be to pressure people into fixing what’s wrong with them. They might not even be capable of the sort of change we hope for until Jesus returns to set all things right. Instead, our goal should be to point people toward Jesus, who not only shows us what humanity is supposed to be like, but transforms us, re-creating us in his image as we surrender to him.
Focusing on sin and failure only leads to despair. Focusing on Jesus leads to victory.
“One Thing I Appreciate About You”
Ephesians 4:29 is one of my favorite verses. It says, “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.” Isn’t that good? Can you imagine what could happen if we were able to live up to that in our homes, churches, and communities?
Years ago, when my husband and I were working in youth ministry, we discovered an exercise we call “One thing I appreciate about you.” Everyone sits in a circle, with one person in the hot seat. Then, each person takes a turn looking that person in the eye and saying “One thing I appreciate about you is . . .” followed by whatever they appreciate about that person, especially focusing on traits like the fruit of the Spirit. No silly or backhanded compliments are allowed, and the person in the hot seat is only allowed to say “thank you” in response.
That simple exercise turned out to be a life-changer for some of the kids. Imagine being an awkward, insecure middle schooler, and having your peers not only accept you, but affirm what is good and godly about your character. They were holding up the Jesus mirror, and pointing out the family resemblance! I’ve used this exercise with almost every group I’ve worked with since then, teen and adult. Once, a lady from an evening Bible study I was teaching showed up and said, “Can we affirm me again tonight? It’s been a rough week, and I really need it!” We laughed with her, but we did it! We all need that from time to time.
Don’t Go It Alone
As a teen, I had the opportunity to participate in several short-term mission trips. One of the things that always struck me was how much easier it was to tell people about Jesus when I was part of a group. I was a pretty evangelistic kid anyway, always on the lookout for opportunities to talk about Jesus, but my bold-o-meter went through the roof when I was immersed in a community that prayed together, planned together, and was committed to living out Jesus’s mandate to go and make disciples.
Hebrews 10:25 warns us not to give up meeting together. I’ve often heard it used as a “quit skipping church” clobber verse, but there is so much more to it than that.
The Christian life isn’t meant to be lived alone. We were created to be in community with God and others, and when we isolate ourselves, physically and emotionally, we become unhealthy. Not only that, but the whole body takes a loss. We need one another, to cheer each other on in the work God gave us to do and encourage one another when we are tempted to despair. Even Jesus didn’t go it alone—he gathered a group of people to share life and ministry with, and asked his closest friends to watch and pray with him when he needed it most. If Jesus sought out that kind of support, certainly there is no shame in us doing so as well!
To encourage literally means to give courage, and we need all the courage we can get to live the lives God has called us to. With God’s help, we can tame our tongues, and use them to bring life, not strife.
Study: Ephesians 4:29 encourages us speak well to each other. What else does Paul say in Ephesians that impacts how we speak to each other?
Reflect: Jesus said that out of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). What does it say about your heart if both blessings and cursing come out?
Apply: Commit to building up in your conversations. Choose one person that you know you will speak to this week and deliberately build them up in your conversation.