If you’ve been involved in ministry for any length of time, then Paul’s concern for the Thessalonian church and for Timothy will resonate with you:
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:8–11, emphasis added)
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Tim. 4:1–2, emphasis added)
In both of these letters, Paul wanted his readers to encourage others. Paul presumed encouragement needs to be a regular element of Christians’ experiences with one another, because all of us will face trials that could drain us of the motivation to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11). Given the importance of encouragement, let’s think further about when encouragement is particularly needed and how we go about fortifying one another’s resolve to godly living.
Opportunities to encourage are “divine appointments”
Consider the following scenario in which sixteen-year-old Amber initiates a conversation with her father, Brian. Think about how you might counsel him if he came to you wondering how to respond to her.
“Dad, I’m struggling again with Savannah.”
“What’s happening now, Amber?”
“Well, she is making hurtful comments about me when she talks to the other girls in the youth group. I’m getting really irritated with her.”
“Have you actually heard these comments, or have you heard about them from others?”
“Have you said anything to her about this?”
“No. It’s hard to talk to her. She doesn’t really give you much opportunity to say anything. She just talks over you. She gets really dramatic in her responses … makes a scene. Then, you never really know what will happen after the conversation. I don’t want to talk to her—well, kinda. I guess I should. I don’t know!”
How might you counsel Brian to respond to his daughter’s frustration and confusion? What does Amber need from this conversation? An even better way to frame this question would be to ask, “What is God giving Amber an opportunity to learn in this situation with Savannah?” Every day, throughout the day, God gives us opportunities both to experience His love and grace and to share His love and grace. Brian can bless her by helping her understand that this trial with Savannah is a “divine appointment” in which she can bless Savannah.
Opportunities to encourage will empower or embolden listeners
In this scenario, Amber needs encouragement, because (1) she shows a willingness to do what is right or appropriate, but (2) she is hesitant to move forward. So, if you were to guide her father on how to encourage her, you could stress with him: (1) affirm her right desire and (2) point out the resources God gives her to move forward in her relationship with Savannah. Make sure Brian’s goal is not simply to make her feel good, but rather to offer whatever assistance is needed to reduce Amber’s hesitation so she is more motivated to approach Savannah in a God-honoring way. In a real sense, he should understand that his encouragement will empower or embolden Amber.
Opportunities to encourage are more than empty clichés
In helping Brian figure out how to give Amber real assistance, make sure he doesn’t settle for a response such as, “Ah, honey, I’m sure everything will work out. Don’t sweat it.” Nor should he be satisfied with saying, “Just pray about. God will help you.” Although this comment can be part of his response to Amber, it won’t reduce her hesitation enough for her to move forward productively. If she already clearly understood how to use the Lord’s resources, she probably wouldn’t have the struggle she has revealed to him. Rather, help him think through the following elements of his conversation with Amber:
- Questions that will uncover the details of her struggle with Savannah so he has a better idea of what she is experiencing. (Brian already has started this by asking if Amber actually heard Savannah’s negative comments or if she is responding to hearsay. Be sure to affirm this.)
- A biblical goal in Amber’s response to Savannah’s hurtful remarks: How might she point Savannah to the Lord?
- Amber’s word choice, tone of voice, and even body language that likely will convey to Savannah what she needs to hear. Amber’s own response to Savannah should model how Savannah should change in how she talks.
Opportunities to encourage will point others to God’s resources
God will help Amber if she desires to please Him, and He will do so as she takes seriously what He gives her in the Bible (Ps. 37:3–6, 23–24; James 1:22–25). With that in mind, you might discuss with Brian how the following passages could be used with his daughter:
God says: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2).
Brian might say: “Amber, when you talk to Savannah, you have to go with the right attitude.1 From this passage, you know that attitude is ‘completely humble and gentle.’ Why do you think this approach is so important?”
(Brian should make sure that Amber understands what humility means: biblical humility is recognizing who we are and where we stand before God and in relation to other people. She should understand that in approaching Savannah, she must not act superior to Savannah, nor should she want any more from Savannah than what God wants from her. Gentleness involves being tender and firm rather than being harsh or demanding or rude. Brian could remind Amber: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” [Prov. 15:1]. He might ask her to replay the last negative comment she heard Savannah say about her, and then either show her the difference between a “gentle response” and a “harsh word” or ask Amber to demonstrate this. Demonstrations of this sort tend to leave a longer-lasting impression than more abstract descriptions do.)
“Notice that Paul also says you must be patient—that is to say, you need to be willing to put up with others. He doesn’t mean you become a doormat and let others, like Savannah, walk all over you. Instead, he is saying that you must be committed to showing others God’s love regardless of the response you get in return. Hopefully, she will respond positively and ask for forgiveness. But even if she doesn’t, you don’t retaliate. You don’t gossip. If she ignores you or mocks you, you can stop trying to have a conversation with her. But, in that case, you can still pray for her.”
God says: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” (Eph. 4:29).
Brian might say: “Amber, based on this verse, what is ‘unwholesome talk’?”
(Brian will want Amber to understand that unwholesome talk is any type of speech that tears down another person: insults, name-calling, lying, and turning others against someone are all examples.)
“Instead of speech that tears down, you should use speech that builds up Savannah. I’m not saying you should just try to make her feel good about herself. I’m certainly not saying you should give her an insincere compliment. Let her know how her hurtful comments affect you. Remind her that she is sinning against the Lord by talking that way. God wants her to stop; share this verse with her to prove your point.”
Opportunities for encouragement are valuable every day
Encouragement is a powerful tool to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). Without it, we are vulnerable to the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13 NASB). But thankfully, our loving Lord Himself provides the “encouragement of the Scriptures [that] we might have hope” in order to persevere (Rom. 15:4 NASB).2
- In line with Matthew 18:15, Amber should have this initial conversation with Savannah privately.
- For more guidance on effective encouragement, see Jay E. Adams, Encouragement Isn’t Enough (Stanley, NC: Timeless Texts, 2007).