Tired of preaching sermon after sermon with little response from the congregation, a pastor resigns from his post. Feeling isolated from the rest of the world, a missionary family decides that it’s time to return from the field. After years of subtle putdowns and critical comments, a wife leaves her husband whom she can never make happy. What went wrong? Who failed? While it’s easy to point the finger at the pastor, missionary, and wife, one has to wonder about the role of the church, the supporters, and the husband. What could they have done to save the church, mission, and marriage?
I believe the apostle Paul would have had an able answer. In 1 Thessalonians 5:11 we read, “encourage one another, and build up one another”; in verse 12, “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you”; and finally in verse 14 he teaches us to “Encourage the fainthearted.” While he would doubtless have some issues to address with the pastor, missionary, and wife, Paul would also point the finger at failure of the church, missionary supporters, and husband. Namely, they failed to encourage.
The basic definition of encouragement is to hearten one’s soul through words of comfort, consolation, and affirmation. In the world, people often do this by stroking egos and affirming their self-worth. For instance, a friend of yours gets dumped by his girlfriend and you say “Obviously, she wouldn’t know a good man if he was right in front of her.” Now that comment may give your friend a sense of vindication, as it suggests that any discerning woman would be drawn to his appearance and charms. Yet, in the long run that comment does not point him to his true Comforter – our Father. If you want to raise someone’s confidence and comfort them, point them to the cross. Say, “God is good God and He has a perfect plan in all of this,” or, “I see the Holy Spirit at work in your life in all of this, as you are handling it in a godly fashion.” Such comments point your downtrodden friend to the Divine Comforter and assure him that God is at work in his life.
Now this all seems simple enough. But, like many other simple things, it is far from easy, and many people (including myself) fail at this vital ministry. Why is this so? I believe there are a few reasons:
- Lack of Awareness: Often we keep our conversations so superficial that we do not even detect discouragement in others. Even worse, we never think to ask about other people’s problems because we are so consumed with our own.
- Bitterness: If you ever want to know if you are truly bitter at someone, see if you have it in you to encourage them. Many times in our sinfulness, our desire to see our enemies as evil makes us sweep their redeeming virtues under our mental carpet. If a friend of yours has slandered you, how easy would it be to say to her “I praise God for the way I see you sacrificially serve in the children’s ministry”? We often withhold encouragement as a means of retribution.
- A False View of Motivation: Sometimes people do not want to encourage their husbands, wives, friends etc. because they are afraid that encouragement will lead to complacency. For instance, your wife made a dinner that was better than last week’s effort, but still substandard. You think about encouraging her, but you reason that if you do, she would never try to improve. This makes about as much sense as teaching your child to read, but never encouraging him until he is at an acceptable college reading level. Without some choice words of encouragement, your wife or child will begin to wonder if any progress is being made at all. And more than likely, they will give up trying altogether.
- You Are Not Good at It: When I was younger, I remember complementing a friend by mentioning that her fresh baked cookies tasted like they were bought from a store. It was a feeble effort. If I had to do it over again, I would say these cookies are so good you could sell them in a store. You will flub a few times, everybody does. Yet, God knows your heart, and if you are sincere and earnest you the recipient will see it, too.
Encouragement is a wonderful ministry. It comforts the downtrodden, spurs the brethren to excel still more, and confirms work of the Spirit in a believer’s life. If your spouse seems easily offended, if your pastor’s preaching dips, or if you sense a missionary struggling, take some time to write a note, call them, or speak words of encouragement in person. By doing so, you will safeguard your brothers and sisters from the despondency that has ensnared so many.