An Encouraging Word: Part 2–Becoming Encouragers

Author’s note: I’m putting a pin in a promised post: I was caught up in an online poetry forum yesterday and did not get to my piece on Priscilla who possibly authored Hebrews (gosh, I do love alliteration, especially when its use is unplanned). I hate not keeping my promises, so I will not pledge as to an approximate publishing date about Priscilla—but, shooting for next Monday, June 12.

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. Hebrews 10:23-25

To encourage is to inspire others with courage, spirit, or confidence. If you are like me, you have faltered and flailed when giving encouragement, especially when a friend is facing a mountain of challenge difficult to climb; if we believe our comfort may ring shallow because we haven’t suffered the same hurts or disappointments; or, when the person is just plain difficult to encourage (#eeyore).

My husband and I have a friend who is a gifted encourager—just being around him makes us feel better. During a particularly difficult period, this friend invested time in us—listening, asking questions, and getting us laughing (this always works for me). He drew our gaze to the Gospel, not to himself—and then would gently remind us that the Gospel is not just about our own need for healing, forgiveness, and restoration. What we receive, we are to give.

Encouragement, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:8), is also known as exhortation. To be exhorted is to be told emphatically to do something (If you heard a parent tell you, “Clean your room!” then you know what it is to be exhorted.)

The Letter to Hebrews is one big exhortation to God’s people to hang in there—to remember who they are, who they serve, and how to persevere in their faith.

Donald Guthrie, in his commentary on Hebrews, explains that Hebrews 10:22-25 contains the main exhortation within this epistle, which itself consists of three exhortations: to draw near (v. 22), to hold fast (v. 23, RSV; I use the NIV, which says “hold unswervingly”), and let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (v. 24, NIV; the RSV uses to stir up one another).1

In these three, the author of Hebrews exhorts readers that we can:

1) draw near fearlessly and faithfully to God because He has already granted us forgiveness and access to a “new and living way” (v. 20) through Jesus’s sacrifice—even when we mess up (can I hear a halleluiah?);

2) hold fast to this hope and assurance we have as believers—in this present moment and in the future—because God is ever faithful, even when we are not; and

3) be thoughtful about how best to encourage one another in becoming loving change-makers.

It’s this last exhortation of the three that I want to explore briefly. Guthrie writes that the author’s use of the word for stirring up (eis paroxysmon) in verse 24 suggests that loving one another will not just happen: “It needs to be worked at, even provoked, in the same way as good works.”2

We need a thoughtful and sometimes creative approach to help one another grow in love and in loving action.

By the way, when we drink from a dry well, we cannot offer water to others—we can’t give what we don’t have. If we are struggling to help a friend find hope, take courage, or just have a reason to get out of bed the next morning, we must go first to the best source of encouragement and wisdom: the Holy Spirit, our comforter and our teacher.

We can also learn from those who are gifted at encouragement, like our friend I mentioned earlier. Watch and listen. An encourager is a cheerleader. An encourager is a comforter. An encourager is a kindness generator. An encourager is loving truth-teller (emphasis on loving).

Sometimes to learn what something is, we can look at what it is not. The opposite of encouragement is …discouragement. If encouragement means to give courage, then discouragement is its taking-away. If we want to help a person increase in cheerful courage, then we should avoid discouraging him. This does not mean, however, that encouragement is always a sugary snack; often we need the nutrients found in a bitter herb.

The writer to the Hebrews asks,

Have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement 
that addresses you as a father addresses his son?
 It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, 
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you… Heb. 12:5

Truth, spoken in love and grace, helps the medicine go down without a spoonful of sugar needed.

Here’s a shortlist of tools we need for training in encouragement:

We can’t encourage without empathy. Empathy is a willingness to enter into another person’s experience. The opposite of empathy is indifference. This is not about saying, “I know how you feel.” Because we really don’t. Just being willing to walk beside people in their difficulties can be a powerful encouragement.

We can’t encourage without an ear. People long to be understood, but if someone isn’t listening, understanding goes out the window. Speaking is the opposite of listening. Here’s a tip on how we begin as encouragers: simply sit. And listen.

There are two main ways I can respond to another person after they’ve shared their reality with me. One is the shift focus; the other is the support focus.

The shift focus goes like this: Marie tells me she is having a bad day. My response: “My day has been crummy, too. My car died and the cat threw up on my favorite sweater and I can’t find my wallet.” 

The support focus is this: Marie tells me she is having a bad day. My response? “Do you want to talk about it?”

See the difference? When using the support focus, I shift from self-focus to focusing on the other person. We are all guilty of doing the shift focus shuffle, and to avoid using it takes real restraint (Surely my problems will make her feel better about her own! #nope).

If you’ve ever been the victim of the shift focus shuffle, you are not alone. I found this gem from Job who had wanted his so-called friends just to lend an ear:

I have heard many things like these;
    you are miserable comforters, all of you!
Will your long-winded speeches never end?
Job 16:2-3a

We can’t encourage without kindness. Kindness equals consideration and caring. If you don’t care, you won’t encourage. A kind word or deed goes a long way in helping someone feel just a bit better. Show up when you are invited. Send a note. Tell someone they are appreciated. Notice the unnoticed. Don’t kick someone when they’re down (“A bruised reed he will not break,” Is. 42:3; Matt. 12:20). This last one reminds me of poor Job again. He lost everything he held dear—children, property, his health—and his wife’s advice is the opposite of encouragement: “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). Lovely.

These are all practical ideas for the day-to-day (I recommend avoiding Job’s wife’s method). The author of Hebrews is giving us the long view of encouragement as we await the Day of Christ—when all will be made right, and there will be no more discouragement, strife, grief, or evil. (Can’t wait!)

I hope you are encouraged today. But if you aren’t, remember Job had it way worse than you…oops. Sorry, I told you I was not very good at this…

  1. Guthrie, Donald. The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary. Ed. by Leon Morris. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983, p. 213.
  2. Ibid, p. 215.

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