The Power of Encouragement
By Jeanne Doering
We need to encourage one another, because our sin-tainted world delights in discouragement. Negative people can pollute our outlooks; negative circumstances, our hope. These can easily strangle our spiritual lives.
Many Scriptures point out creative ways by which Christians can communicate encouragement to one another. Some of them best convey comfort and consolation: listening, touching, showing hospitality, helping and praying. Speaking and writing can console while they also “exhort,” or prod to action. These latter I will discuss first.
Warming Up Winters
There is truth to the Japanese saying “One kind word can warm up three winter months.” We all need friends whose “pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
Such people can “warm winters” in three ways. First, they can pull the discouraged out of their despondency, showing them that somebody does care.
Second, they can affirm a person and help him build up positive qualities. Verbal affirmation should especially characterize Christian homes.
A third way words can encourage is through what many would not consider positive strokes: exhortation. But because the Greek word for encouragement, paraklesis, means “comfort” as well as “exhortation,” we are treading the same ground. I define “exhortation” as dealing with potential or existing negatives in an attempt to turn them into positives.
Exhortation must be tempered with love. This prevents it from becoming a negative criticism that wounds without healing. In his booklet Practical Criticism, John Alexander suggests that those who must criticize others should make their comments constructive by including remedial suggestions.
“Loveless negative criticism is a prime component of worldliness,” he says. “It is also one of the burdens of leaders. The spirit of a Christless society is to gossip, ridicule, focus on mistakes and emphasize weaknesses of leaders. Our nation is riddled with critics who can point out what’s wrong with nary a word of how to make it better. Rare indeed is the individual who can temper the indictment with a commensurate dose of viable options.”1
He said positive criticism should have these three parts:
1. Here is what I think you should stop doing.
2. Here is what I think you should start doing.
3. Here is what I think you should continue
doing, but I believe it would be better if you did it this way.
The Encourager’s Heart
Whether it be consolation or exhortation, verbal encouragement must begin with the right motives. Jude, for example, saw plenty of people engage in flattery, but he also saw through them. He called them “grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage” (Jude 16).
Paul urged the Philippians to think on those things that were honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, showing excellence and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). The person who grumbles and dwells on negatives can rarely be a verbal encourager.
We often think of “encouragement” as something we do by what we say. But some of my greatest encouragement has come through written means when friends cared enough to write what was on their hearts.
Written encouragement can pack more power than verbal encouragement for two reasons. First, we are less apt to be shy on paper. Paul admitted to that. “I am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent” (2 Corinthians 10:1). In person he may have come across like a soggy gym towel. But his pen packed dynamite.
Second, what is written can encourage over and over. When someone writes to encourage me, I reread that note so often I almost memorize it. The notes become self-administered booster shots or, as Proverbs puts it, “cold water to a weary soul” (25:25).
The Secrets of Easier Writing
It is true that some people seem to have clogged passages between their minds and pens. But let me tell you a secret: Those passages tend to unclog with use. The more you write, the easier it gets.
And it is no secret that we find time for what we want to do. If people matter, then look procrastination in the eye and do it. If you type easily, type the notes and forget any rumor about typed notes being “improper.”
Make writing convenient for you. One person I know keeps a supply of postcards in her Bible. Sometimes during her devotions she recalls someone she wants to encourage and then writes a brief note. Another puts stationery in her car’s glove compartment or her purse. When she has a spare moment, she jots down a message to somebody whom God has put on her heart.
Take some hints from the pros. When you visit a card shop, spend time reading the unrhymed messages. Don’t plagiarize, but adapt the ones that sound like you. If words still come hard, try a rough draft on an old scrap of paper. And, if you are uneasy about your grammar, ask someone close to read over your draft.
If you truly want to encourage, the Lord will supply the right words and make them communicate. And He also will point out to you those who need the boost of written encouragement.
Who Needs It?
Often those most needing encouragement are the sick. Scriptures telling of comfort and hope are also appropriate for those who are terminally ill. As they struggle through accepting their approaching deaths, they need to know that they are loved and their lives have been worthwhile. They need to know people are praying. A few written words telling of your care and of things you appreciate about them can pack sunshine. One pastor encouraged a little girl dying of cancer by writing letters on big paper bags that supposedly were from his horse. The imaginary correspondence brightened her last painful weeks. Sympathy cards can encourage the bereaved even more when they contain a few words of personal encouragement. When my parents died, I wept through the stacks of cards that came. But I was encouraged when people took the time to write something special that they remembered about Mom or Dad. Since then I have been challenged to make my “sympathy notes” more than rote phrases by adding something positive to help the bereaved.
I have also tried to write to teachers and professors, former bosses, former colleagues, and there are probably more I should write. A few years ago, for example, gratitude welled up in my heart for the pastor whose preaching nudged me toward surrendering my life to Jesus Christ. He probably never knew it-I was just one of those collegians who filled up his pews every Sunday and dropped a pittance in the plate. But his humility and great love for Jesus had communicated to me.
Later I learned that he had transferred to another church. Halfway apologizing, I wrote him, thanking him for his faithfulness in reaching out to the college crowd and telling him what it had meant to my life. I do not know how he reacted to that letter, but when I eventually visited his new church and introduced myself, he was so full of joy that his handshake nearly dislocated my shoulder.
Some people use birthdays or anniversaries as special occasions to write encouraging notes. Instead of a commercial card, they send a letter of love. One young man, on his first wedding anniversary, thanked his in-laws by letter for preparing their daughter to be his wife. He told of her traits and skills that he appreciated. I am sure his stock in that family went up several points.
Writing encouragement is something parents can teach their children and turn into a family ministry. Most children enjoy coloring and creating. They also like to give their work away. I have wondered why more families do not establish “greeting card factories” and allow children to make original cards for birthdays, anniversaries or illnesses.
Not only would they save money, but the message would be personalized. And the children would derive great pleasure from knowing their work had a purpose and a destination. The recipients would not be the only ones encouraged.
We can encourage those who suffer greatly by offering our presence and our hearts. When people are stunned by a tragedy, they don’t want someone clawing at their wounds. They want someone to come alongside of them and be there.
“Secular education today,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by the One who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”2
This means offering our presence as well as our ears and hearts. Our presence means we are willing to come. Our ears and hearts means we will offer our uncondemning attention. When I think of “presence” I often am reminded of the story of a little girl who went to comfort the mother of a playmate who recently died. When she came back, her own mother asked her what she had done to comfort the other mother. The little girl replied, “I just climbed up on her lap and cried with her.”
The Support of Silence
Presence is especially meaningful to the sick and grieving. Pain can wither their emotions and make them feel lonely. If that loneliness goes unchecked, they may think nobody cares about them and decide life is not worth living. Going to a sickbed, holding a person’s hand, sometimes just sitting silently, helps them know they are not alone.
When grief from death is freshest, words should be few. The Joe Baylys lost three sons, and he recalls after the death of one,
I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.
A Listening-Post Ministry
But “silent love” requires more than being there. Paul Tournier, considered one of the great people-helpers of this century, was asked one time to share his secret for counseling. He replied, “I don’t know how to help people. I simply listen and love and try to provide a safe place where people can come and report on their progress without any judgment. ”
Listening means offering our uncondemning attention so a person can talk out his confused feelings. When the hurting person wants to talk about the crisis or his anger or his guilt, the
listener should not try to change the subject. The details may be retold several times, with the same ideas expressed, but the process will lead to healing.
Listening requires loving patience; healing may take months or sometimes years. I remember how several didn’t forget me and my need for listeners after my parents’ deaths. One widow who had never known me-only my parents-called at least once a week for several months. Her first question was, “How are you doing?” She was an uncondemning, comforting listener.
A Kindly Touch
God chose the primary limb of touching-the hand-to convey an image of caring. We often think of communicating “I care” through what we write or say. But a touch kindly given can show caring like no other form of communication. Social scientists, in fact, say that only a fourth of human communication is verbal. More than we realize is relayed nonverbally-by body actions, facial expressions and other aspects of our culture such as smell and sound.
A touch can be a beautiful tool of encouragement.
The Touch of His Hand
Some of the Gospels’ most poignant passages show Jesus touching people. Even though His culture had taboos about touching “unclean” things, He had a freedom to reach out and make contact, to let people know that He wanted to minister to them. Others had refused to touch many of these people: the dead, the leper, the “unclean” hemorrhaging woman. But their needs were before Him. He touched to perform miracles. He also touched to tell people that they mattered to Him as flesh-and-blood beings in need of strength, courage and love.
When we touch, we can offer the same encouraging message. When we grasp the hand of someone who is sick, discouraged or fearful, it is one way to communicate that he or she is not forgotten or forsaken. When we join hands to pray, we express that message of spiritual love: “We are one in the Spirit.”
Important Enough to Touch
The appropriate touch may seem like a small thing, but it can mean more than we realize. A dying alcoholic in a large county hospital related how he especially appreciated a certain intern assigned to his floor. What had this young doctor done? He tweaked the patient’s toe when he went by. This old, forgotten man was not a chart. He was a real person, and somebody was not too important to touch him.
It is particularly true for children that touching affirms worth. Those who are touched in love-hugged, cuddled, their hair rumpled or stroked, their hands held, their backs rubbed, their shoulders squeezed-are often those who have better self-images and become better adjusted adults.
A Wrong Touch at the Right Time
Yet touch can be a very difficult ministry to use appropriately. The nonverbal aspects of our culture abide by certain rules that, when violated, void that communication.
As we reach out to others in touch we must remember that each person may have set certain perimeters for acceptable touching. The memory of a perversion may haunt him. Touching calls for the greatest sensitivity to the situation, the person and the problem. Yet fear of undefined restrictions should not prevent us from encouraging in this wordless way.
A Practice, Not a Ritual
Recognizing the ministry of touch, some churches have attempted to put this form of intimacy into church worship services. One pastor asks people to pray for others during a part of the service and, afterward, to touch someone near them. He even steps down from the pulpit to touch people himself. He believes it creates an environment of caring.
Perhaps such touching does, but I believe that we need to guard against its becoming a ritualistic, mechanical thing. It is an intimate communication, far more volatile than speech or words on paper. It invades interpersonal distance and fares poorly between strangers.
But there are many whom we could encourage by touching. I admit I am weak in this area and at times have seemed like a cigar store statue. But as the Lord rubs His balm of love into my life, I am learning how people are consoled or affirmed by the simple act of touching.
So I am trying to shake and squeeze hands more often, to touch arms or shoulders lightly, and to hug. I am trying to be sensitive to times when this nonverbal communication will work a lot better than anything I say or do.
For the Love of Strangers
The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, tells much about its original function. Philo refers to “brotherly love,” and xeno means “stranger.” Putting the two together makes it, literally, “love of strangers.” That is why Christians are told in Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
When I saw that the New Testament definition of hospitality focused on strangers, I felt guilty inviting friends for a meal and time together. Then I saw that even the Lord Jesus enjoyed simply being with friends. I saw how the hospitality offered to Jesus not only allowed Him to relax and just enjoy people, but to extend His base of ministry. And so it could be for me. I could express my love for Jesus by opening my home to others for His sake. That helped me redefine hospitality as this: “I love you so much for Christ’s sake that I want to share my haven with you and encourage you. My home and my family are as yours.”
That definition of hospitality was fleshed out by others for me many times when I lived in central Washington, where I had my first job as a newspaper reporter. I was drawn to the pastor’s wife, a gregarious, huggable woman who seemed to have a special place in her heart for the church’s young single women. I lost count of the meals I shared at their table and the times their family of five squeezed into my tiny apartment for spaghetti.
I remember warmly the informal banter and fellowship. But I also have many friends who rarely invite people in. When they do, it’s an ordeal. The house has to be immaculate, the dishes set exactly right. By the time the guests come, everybody’s unnatural.
At times I have to agree with a missionary friend who remarked: “A lot of people don’t invite others over because they think their homes aren’t good enough. They’re waiting until they get the linoleum laid or they can buy a decent couch. If they’d only realize I don’t want to look at their house. I want to enjoy them.”
Repayment not Needed
I had my own experience offering hospitality to strangers one winter night after I got home from my newspaper job. The telephone rang, and the unfamiliar voice turned out to be a young woman who had written to my weekly women’s column.
But this call was not for chitchat. She was down at the city bus station with two of her three children. Her marriage had fallen apart, and she was headed to her parents’ home. Her transfer bus would not leave until the next morning, and the station was closing for the night. She had no money for a motel.
I lived alone in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. But I knew what I had to do. I brought her and the children home, fed them, then opened up my couch (a third-hand relic) and found enough bedding for all of them. I helped rack the frightened children to sleep, then prayed with the mother. On my way to work the next morning, I took them back to the bus depot. I never heard from her again, and perhaps will never know until eternity the rest of her story.
Caring Enough to Serve
Jesus said the measure of our greatness in God’s kingdom would be our servanthood (Matthew 20:26-28). But a servant attitude-doing the simple things for one another-does not come easily. We claim rights to our time and resources, and jealously guard them.
A young mother, for example, panicked when her child fell and cut his head. As blood quickly ran over his face, she phoned the first person she could think of: a Christian neighbor. Could she come for a minute to help her determine how serious the cut was? No, the woman replied, she was in the middle of fixing dinner.
A far cry from encouragement.
German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945, said some crucial things about how Christians need to live together.
In his book Life Together, he said Christians need to learn how to manifest “active helpfulness” or “simple assistance in trifling, external matters.” Writes Bonhoeffer,
There is a multitude of these things whenever people live together. Nobody is too big for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of encouragement entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.’
The Needs Around Us
At times, needs of others will almost fall at our feet. We do not have to look far to find those who need something done but lack the ability. Or those unable to cope with their circumstance due to illness, death, or physical or emotional handicap.
Helping may involve our area of expertise. My father delighted in working at what we called his “tinker bench,” where he took apart broken things and put them back together whole. Often he did small repairs for neighbors. And he had a special corner in his heart for older widows in our town. When the elderly widow across the street had to have part of her home rebuilt after a fire, he went over and offered to do things the insurance would not cover. He found carpet on sale, and by cutting carefully was able to put a rug in her odd-shaped living room.
My mother sewed. She could shape designer-look clothes out of bargain remnants and often sewed for others and their children. Frustrated friends who brought her their sewing problems knew that she could solve them in minutes. For her, fixing a bad zipper was as easy as cracking an egg.
I have heard of churches that sponsor a labor’ exchange a man who can do plumbing, for example, will fix a bad sink in exchange for a mechanical job of equal difficulty on his car. But true helping goes beyond the idea of exchange. It is offered without price.
The Encouragement of Another’s Prayers
The body that weeps and rejoices together is the body that prays together. Scripture commands that we get so involved in each others’ lives that people’s needs occupy our prayer time. I am encouraged when I learn that I matter enough to others to occupy their conversations with God. It tells me our friendship is deep enough to allow us to be open with one another.
It shows me they want to draw alongside my need.
The prayer-encourager needs three “abilities”: vulnerability, dependability and accountability.
A Prayer-Encourager’s Vulnerability
Vulnerability denotes a heart sensitive to the needs of others and a spiritual mindset ready to plead the will of God. So often people who desire the encouragement and support of our prayers bleed in silence. Our ears are deaf, and our eyes blind to their wounds.
Intercession for one another, wrote Oswald Chambers, “means that we rouse ourselves up to get the mind of Christ about the one for whom we pray.” We cannot hurl our requests at God’s throne nor dictate to Him what we want Him to do. We should not pray selfishly, with our hearts hardened to His will, but that others will discover His sovereignty and His purpose.
One man told of having lunch with a prominent businessman who had just purchased a large enterprise. Discouragement seeped out of the corners of their talk as the businessman related the weight of responsibility, the slack in business and the unfaithful personnel. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally.
The first man admitted that his initial thought was to leave this wealthy friend alone with his problems. But he realized the Bible instructed him to help his friend bear that burden-to be vulnerable (Galatians 6:2).
“After lunch we found a quiet spot in his office,” he recalled, “and I suggested we have prayer. While I was talking to the Lord on behalf of both of us, this man began to sob. I looked up while praying. Tears were streaming down his face, and he was wiping them away with his big rugged hands.
“At the conclusion he said to me, ‘Bob, thanks a million. I don’t ever remember anyone coming to my office and taking the time to pray with me and for me. This has been perhaps one of the greatest days in my life!'”
Dependability and Encouragement Prayer
Dependability is the dimension Paul described when he said, “Be on the alert with all perseverance and petition” (Ephesians 6:18). The term “be on the alert” comes from a word that means being sleepless and watchful. Here it is used metaphorically to suggest that our prayer concern for one another should not be taken casually.
But we often neglect this command. When somebody asks us to pray for an urgent or pressing need, and we are slightly weary of the whole story, it is easy to say, “I’ll pray for you,” just to terminate the conversation. Besides, it sounds holy. Unfortunately, we often fail to carry through on the promise to pray.
But what results when prayer encouragers are dependable! Many talk about the unbelievable success that Henrietta Mears had as leader of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood’s college department. Few realize that the woman who preceded her in that post, someone called “Mother Atwood,” prayed that department into a powerful instrument of God. Every Sunday morning at 5 she would be on her knees to pray at least two hours for Miss Mears and the college department. She prayed like that throughout the 35 years that Miss Mears served at the church.
Accountability and the Prayer-Encourager
Those on spiritual battlefronts-pastors, missionaries and parachurch workers-say they appreciate most the prayer supporters who want to be accountable.
“One lady told me she remembers to pray for me every morning,” a busy pastor said. “That registers, especially when I have a day when things aren’t going so well. Knowing she has prayed encourages me.”
My missionary friend Helen says her greatest prayer encourager was a straightforward woman who meant business when she said, “I want to pray for you.”
“She was strong and stable,” Helen recalls. “Later when my husband and I went to the field as missionaries, her letters followed us. She’d ask about the Indian people we mentioned in our letters. In other ways, too, she led us to believe she was genuinely interested in our work.”
But the woman also sensed that Helen and her husband were not telling her the whole story. After a weekend at the church for missionary meetings, she asked them to breakfast before they left town.
“There were no frills, no pretending,” Helen recalls. “She looked straight at me and said, `Okay, I have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing. Tell me what really bothers you out there.’
“At that I was able to open up. I could tell her about my loneliness, my wounded pride in getting behind in the work because I needed to care for my family. All these things we couldn’t share in public meetings. So we started a correspondence, and I learned I could trust her to pray for the very special needs that we had-the types of things that can’t go in prayer letters.
“That woman believed in me and accepted me. She was a picture of the love of Christ, who knows us perfectly and yet loves us anyway.”
And when you get right down to the bottom line, being a prayer encourager is simply following the model of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is vulnerable. “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
He is dependable. “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34). “He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
And He is accountable. “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19).
There is no greater encourager.
From, “Focus on the Family” Colorado Springs, Co 80995,/ 1991, by Jeanne Doering
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