Murphy’s Law says, “If anything can go wrong it will.” If your doctor’s appointment is for 4:00pm and you have something else at 5:00pm, he or she will be an hour behind. If you’ve decided to go on a ski holiday, it will be the mildest, most snowless winter on record. This is just one reason why we all need encouragement. But most of us don’t seem to give it or get it much these days; which is why exploring it as a renewed practice seems appropriate as we enter the season of Lent and celebrate St. Valentine’s with R.A.K. (Random Acts of Kindness) Week (at least here in Canada).
To Encourage One Another Is Rare
I wonder why encouragement has become a random and often rare habit even amongst Christ followers, even though the Bible talks about it frequently. Perhaps it’s because, as a society, we tend to encourage only winners. When a musician drops from the top of the charts or when an actor no longer gets leading roles, their popularity quickly fades and their fans rapidly disappear. Meanwhile, this conditional encouragement leaves the rest of us, who might think of ourselves as an average Joe or Jane, just getting by (often without anyone cheering us on except maybe Mom, if we’re so blessed!)
Within the church, we excuse ourselves from encouraging others under other pretenses. Some of the righteous assume that encouragement might make us proud and pride is one of the 7 dead-lees! Others fear that recognizing the work of God in another person might detract from giving all of the glory to God. Such thinking has left Christ’s servants feeling unappreciated, neglected, tired, and burnt out.
But I think that there is a third, and perhaps more significant, reason for a shortage of encouragement these days; encouraging others assumes that we know one another and that we are involved in one another’s lives. Yet, our fast paced and individualistic society isolates us from each other. You can’t say thank you to an ATM! Robocallers don’t respond to the feelings that come with our opinions. Even within our church communities, people can come and go without significant contact with others. We have to understand what’s going on in each other’s lives in order to support and encourage one another.
What Is Encouragement?
This brings us to the question about what we mean by encouragement. The word translated from the Greek in Scriptures literally means “called to the side of.” Sometimes it is translated as “exhorting”: meaning to “strengthen and stimulate one another.” Paul sends his workers … for this very purpose, so that… [they] may encourage your hearts. (Col.4:7; Eph.6:22; 1 Thess.3:2).
Not only do we all need encouragement but we are also all called to encourage! (1 Cor.14:3; 1 Thess.4:18, 5:11, 14; 2 Tim. 4:2b; Hebr.10:24, 25) It’s commanded and modeled for us throughout Scripture—Aaron encourages Moses; Moses encourages Joshua; Ruth encourages Naomi; Elizabeth and Mary encourage each other and so on.
The Bible suggests at least three occasions when we need to give encouragement:
- When someone is in distress of any sort or what Paul calls ‘faint of heart’ (1 Thess.5:14). A great example is when David was being hunted by Saul and Jonathan came and encouraged him (1Sam.23:15-16). How many have simply drifted away from the Christian community due to lack of encouragement?
- When we are seeking to obey, follow, use our gifts and love our neighbors—that is, participating in God’s mission as God’s people (Acts 20:2, 1 Thess.3:2). Like fans who inspire athletes, one “Way to go!” or note of appreciation goes a long way in keeping us going! As Solomon said, “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body (Prov.16:24).” Wouldn’t it be great if we cheered each other on a little bit more in the church?
- Paul also seems to target new churches, young and/or new believers for encouragement. Throughout Acts, we read about Paul returning to the communities God has seeded through him in order to “strengthen the disciples and encourage them to remain true to the faith (Acts 14:22).” Even after he had been imprisoned, Paul met with sisters and brothers and encouraged them (Acts 16:40).
Encouragement, like Valentine’s gestures and random acts of kindness, comes in many shapes and sizes: verbal, material, emotional and spiritual. With our words, whether spoken in person or written on paper, we bless, affirm and build others up. With our actions, we journey with, share a meal, provide childcare, a drive, a grocery pick up. With our souls, we pray and anoint, bless and intercede. With our hearts, we empathize with a smile, a hug, a thumbs up, or a listening ear.
Encouragement is Incarnational
It’s really all about “the being there,” isn’t it? This is the “I am with you” gift of encouragement. We said at the beginning that the Biblical word for encouragement meant literally “to come along side.” The Greek word is “Paracle-eo.” This is the very same word that Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit: the “paraclete,” the comforter, the wonderful counselor, the encourager! The Spirit is ever-present to encourage us that we might encourage others. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus gave not just a commission but a promise; “I will be with you always (Matt.28:20).” As Jesus has come alongside us in all of our joys and struggles, we’re called and empowered by the Spirit to come alongside others. What a joy! What a privilege and responsibility! What an encouragement! Encourage one another “and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25).”
“And may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).”
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