On occasion, one of my favorite comedy writers will find five free minutes, hop on Twitter, and ask if anyone needs a pep talk. Strangers raise their virtual hands. I’ve almost hit reply once or twice.
To tell you the truth, I could use a good pep talk more often than I’d like to admit. When doubt or self-loathing loom even the most anonymous vote of confidence sounds better than the record skipping in my head.
Still, I’ve never followed through with my reply. I know encouragement from this stranger would bring an electric charge. I want that, but I know the wires aren’t grounded in anything besides his desire to help and my desire for someone to hear me. While the beauty of an offer born of the belief in the power of kindness enlivens, the encouragement only lasts ten or fifteen minutes, an hour if I’m lucky.
Christians may use the word “encourage” almost as frequently as “God,” “Jesus,” “Holy Spirit,” and “grace.” We embrace it as a core part of the temperament we all want. It has the ring of something everyone can do. In our zeal, we try to never let an opportunity to encourage pass us by.
In our rush to encourage, we can easily leave behind the forces that make encouragement truly powerful—context, intimacy, wisdom. Divorced from these companions, encouragement loses some of its strength, and most important, it can stop short of accomplishing its intended purpose: urging each other on toward love and good works.
You see an internet acquaintance post that they can’t find their way out of a problem, or set their sights on an course of action. Their announcement triggers their followers’ encouragement reflexes. In a vacuum, everything they say rings true. They can do whatever they put their minds to. They shouldn’t let anybody tell them what to do.
Or maybe two people in a church start dating and breathlessly announce their engagement. Nobody’s asking, but it all sounds fine to us. We’ve seen him around, we’ve seen her around—surely it can’t be a bad thing. We think surely they’ll help, not hinder, each other on the slow march to Christlikeness. Congratulations are in order—right?
And so we line up to add our plus one. We co-sign the choice. We sing “Amen” like we’re trying to hit the back of the sanctuary from the choir loft. And we rarely know what we’ve really done.
What have we enabled? What have we emboldened?
We don’t know what move comes next, who else might be affected, how encouragement might feed unhealthy impulses. What tendencies do they exhibit? Do they have blind spots that might trouble their vision, nagging sins that might grow even more serious?
Nobody wants to be the one to rock the boat or raise a red flag skyward, so encouragement rains down as if from heaven. Wisdom would say, if we can’t speak to these conditions, we should probably shut up. If we’re not intimately involved, or even up-to-speed on the details, we might just have stirred someone up toward hate and disobedience instead of love and good works.
An even more insidious form of praise exists, one with the potential to destroy. This encouragement that puffs up beyond proof or elevates a saint beyond their station.
A person walks through the doors of a church, and everyone gets that excited teenage feeling but tries not to show it. Maybe they fit a demographic or fill a void that’s been lacking.
Instead of waiting to see if their spiritual maturity is proportional to this seeming providence, we build them up with our words—they’re The Answer We’ve Been Looking For. Once everybody starts writing this newcomer’s name all over their notebooks, it’s hard to pull back. But if something breaks or someone betrays, all those words encouraged was a fall—and a fallout—that never had to happen.
Encouragement from Everlasting
What’s the alternative? Withholding isn’t a good look for God’s people. If we’re going to err, we should err on the side of encouragement. After all, the Bible calls us to outdo one another in showing honor. We need a community of radical support, and the world needs to see it. God gives us desires to help and be heard. How do we affirm that yet step around the landmines?
Paul tells us that knowledge without love is just a racket that doesn’t do anyone any good. Trying to love without knowledge can also be a bunch of noise. The intimacy of our knowledge and strength of our encouragement should run along parallel tracks.
The better we know someone, the better we can see them through the eyes of God. That is, we see them as they are, see them as they will be, and see ways they can close the gap between the two. Our words of encouragement will not overshoot their target—they will land on hearts the years have softened and readied.
But in the absence of relationship, we can start with words of encouragement that will never fail us, or our hearers: the messages offered to every Christian, regardless of time, place or circumstance. With full-throated confidence, we can declare God’s will for their lives, as laid out in scripture:
Don’t grow weary in doing good.
Fix your eyes on Jesus.
Know that nothing can separate you from God’s love.
Voiced earnestly, with hearts that believe them, these words avoid the emptiness of cliches and the distance of recycled material. They breathe into us our very life.
Igniting the Right Kind of Fire
We slip easily into thinking of encouragement like a brand of ’90s motivational posters—the kind that bears the striking image of a mountain climber or soothing picture of a mountain stream. Below the art, a pithy definition of courage or peace. In this view, encouragement fills the role of something you hang on the wall and look at whenever you need a pick-me-up.
Encouraging words act more like a fire than a motivational poster. They can warm the blood and give life. Or they can burn down the very houses we set out to to build. All that wildness and power can burn beautifully red and gold in a believer’s life. But it requires restraint. As we inhale air and prepare to exhale encouragement, we must make certain that these are flames we want to fan.
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