Read part two here.
God is a God of encouragement. His encouragement takes many different forms: to Adam he encouraged him to turn and repent. To Cain he encourages him to do what is right and not let sin master him. To Hagar he encourages her that he sees her and knows her, and that she and her son are in his tender care. And to Elijah he encourages him by giving him good work to do, promising to judge the wicked, and revealing that he is not the only one left.
These examples are not foreign to you, I hope. Because if God is your God as he is the God of these men and women, then God does the same for you. This is his character; this is how he cares for his people.
And this is where we should start when we think about encouragement: we start with God, his character, the way he acted again and again and again to encourage his people throughout history, and how he has acted in Jesus Christ to encourage us. We start with the way we have received encouragement. But that’s not where we end.
We don’t end there because we were made to be image bearers. Image bearers: we are people, given physical bodies that represent our spiritual God in and to a physical world. All that we do with our hands, feet, mouths, our whole bodies, should be in harmony with how God would act. All that we do, or ought to do, in some way represents God to the world. And so because God is a God of encouragement, we are also called to be encouragers — to be the hands and feet and mouths that communicate God’s encouragement to the people God brings to us.
But how do we do this? Maybe this is the question you’ve been waiting for. Something practical, yes? This is a crucial question, but hopefully you’ve seen so far that it’s not the only crucial question. We start with the Gospel, we start with what God has done and what God is like, because our encouragement of others must flow out of those. And you may have noticed that we’ve talked about the Father and we’ve talked about the Son. Now, as we think about the how, hopefully the practical bit, we’re going to talk about the Spirit.
The Spirit, you could say, is the wheels on all of this: the Spirit is the one who works in us and others to apply what Jesus has done and to empower us to imitate the Father.
John talks more than the other Gospels about the Spirit. He gives us Jesus’ final words to his disciples, the words that comfort them and reassure them as he gets ready to leave. Jesus tells them that he is sending someone — “And I will ask the Father,” Jesus says to them, “and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). That’s the ESV using the name “helper” to describe the Holy Spirit. Other translations use comforter, counselor, or advocate. The word in the Greek is paraklete, and its related to the Greek word for encourage. And you can hear the idea of encouragement in those words — helper, comforter, counselor, advocate. The Holy Spirit is the one who comes alongside of us, bringing God’s presence and power to us. He is the means of our encouragement.
Remember — we are made to be imitators of God, representatives of him to the world. And so even though I say that all encouragement comes from God, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t encouraged by others. Of course not. You can probably think of many, many times that someone — a person — encouraged you.
There are lots and lots of stories about how someone’s words or actions encouraged someone else. I’m not going to give you more of those today — instead, I want to think about one way that the New Testament frequently talks about as a means of encouragement.
Let’s look at a few verses, and see if you can pick up on the theme in them.
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12)
“I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7:3-4).
“But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers,in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord” 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8.
“…and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” Philemon 6-7.
Did you notice a theme? Paul, the speaker in all of these passages, speaks about being encouraged. Why? Because he has seen the faith, or love, of others. I’m really challenged by this. When I think of the encouragement I would like to have, it centers on me: I’d really like people to tell me how good I am at something, so that I’ll feel good about myself. But that is absent from Paul’s letters! He DOES praise the churches for their faithfulness, for specific things that they have done. But their praise of HIM is not what gives HIM encouragement. If it did, he’d be in a bad state. Just look at 2 Corinthians, where Paul has to defend his apostleship from a church who’d rather disassociate themselves from him. The Corinthians were NOT singing Paul’s praises. And yet, in that letter, to those people, Paul tells them how encouraged he is. Why? Because of the Corinthians’ faith. Because of them.
All you have to do to be encouraged is look around your church, or your home — asking for eyes to see as Jesus does — to be encouraged. No one needs to say anything to you — although they ought! The question is, are our eyes on ourselves or on others? Are we thinking about what we wished people noticed about us, or are we eagerly, expectantly looking for how God is working in the lives of the people we call brother and sister?
We have to get our eyes off ourselves. This takes such conscientious effort. Not only are we self-worshippers by nature, but we have a culture that delights in self-worship. All day long we are inundated by messages about how much we ought to love ourselves, treat ourselves, indulge ourselves, promote ourselves. Our culture is antithetical to a culture of encouragement. Instead, it breeds competition and dissatisfaction. A church full of self-worshippers will be a church devoid of encouragement.
And when you notice the faith of others and are encouraged by it, don’t be silent! Speak words of praise and encouragement. Speak words of comfort. This does not mean that we are to soothe each other into a lull with our words. The comfort of the world anesthetizes, but the comfort of God galvanizes. It rouses us to action, giving us the reassurance and the strength that we need for renewed faithfulness.
One pitfall that I often fall into is thinking that if I encourage someone, it will cause them to think that everything is OK, and they won’t have any desire to improve. If you’re shocked, or laughing, either is appropriate — how ridiculous am I to think this! First it implies that I can see the spiritual growth of a person and know what progress they need to make. I’m afraid only God can accurately assess that. And second it implies that my encouragement of someone will halt their growth, by lulling them into a false sense of perfection. I suppose that could happen. But if I think about my own life and the encouragement that I’ve received, the risk isn’t great. Good encouragement, as I said, galvanizes. It builds us up so that we are renewed for the next thing. It restores our strength so that we can continue in the difficult work of the kingdom.
I want you to take your eyes off of yourselves for a moment, imagine the people in your life: in your home, your neighborhood, your church, your work. Who is walking faithfully? Who is pressing on in their love for Jesus and their love for others? Be encouraged by them! And tell them about it.
Who might be struggling? Who is feeling their knees give way because of physical sickness or limitations? Or because of emotional and relational stress? Who is being lured away from Jesus by the world’s siren song? Give them the words of Jesus — not as a firehose to drown them, but as a cool, refreshing drink on a hot summer’s day.
I don’t want to make it sound easy. Encouraging others is difficult work, because we are limited — we don’t know how! We don’t always know what someone needs, or what words will be helpful. But there is One who does. We must ask and rely on the Holy Spirit to show us how, to give us words and wisdom to encourage well. We are individuals, we have different personalities and cultures. What is encouraging for me may not be what is encouraging for you. We need the Spirit, who DOES know each of us intimately, to help us know how and when and what.
One more thing. Relying on the Spirit does not necessarily mean being spontaneous.
Culturally, we associate the Spirit with free-flowing, unplanned, go where the wind blows you, kind of thing. And when we are surrendered to the Spirit, that often means holding our plans and desires lightly, with an open hand, being willing to do something that we hadn’t planned on.
But, it doesn’t mean we don’t need to make plans. Especially if we don’t find that encouragement comes easily — Make a plan!
Paul’s letters were not composed in one setting, one trance-like dictation. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but writing takes work. His own character and writing style mark his letters, as other authors’ do. I’m sure you all would consider the New Testament letters tremendously encouraging — don’t think that that kind of depth of encouragement spills out on a whim.
At youth camp last month, we listened to a series of talks by Jared Olivetti. One thing he challenged the young people to do was to “scheme for good.” I want to give you the same challenge. Scheme. Set aside some time to think about what God has done — both his actions in Old Testament history and his work in Jesus. And then think about how you can imitate him. How can you represent God to the people you meet so that they are encouraged?