I’ve been a Christian now for over 20 years, and I have something of a confession: I am so sick of “encouragement” that gives us the warm fuzzies at church on Sunday and ends there.
Here’s how it often goes: We go to church, sing in varying degrees of passion according to how the message spoke to us, and then the doors are thrown open and the people stream out into their cars, on to lunch, naps, chores, soul-crushing marital dysfunctions, sex addictions, alcoholism, anxiety and depression and much more.
When did encouragement become soft and weak? The thing is, I can’t find a place in the Gospels where Jesus simply sang a song to someone. Or gave someone a side hug and said, “Glad you made it to our women’s luncheon.”
We’ve forgotten what ‘encourage’ really means.
Jesus looked at the woman terrified and helpless before a crowd with murder in its heart; He looked at a woman he shouldn’t have been talking to at a well on a scorching hot day; He looked at a despicable man clinging to the branches of a tree like a child—and He encouraged every single one of them. Whether these people knew they were at the end of their ropes or not, Jesus did. And He looked at them like He knew them and gave them true encouragement, which included giving them a way out.
At its root, encouragement is about courage; it means to give support, confidence, or hope. There’s something really lion-hearted about true encouragement, and we’ve completely lost sight of that.
Real encouragement gets its hands dirty.
Real, actual encouragement is not always “positive.” It’s giving a priceless gift to a person. It’s what you’re doing when you see a friend headed towards destruction, and you grab her face in your hands and say, “Your choices are killing the woman I love.”
A life of talking without the actions to back it up holds no water—but not talking at all is another ship that can’t float. St. Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve chosen to shut up, only to realize later how necessary the words were.
How we can practice real encouragement.
In college, a friend of mine confronted me, but it wasn’t an angry or belittling experience. She took me to lunch, and she painted a picture for me: “If you keep on this path, this is what your life will look like,” she said tearfully. She had been my friend for over a year at that point, and had invested meaningfully in our relationship. I felt loved because I was loved, and when she waved the red flag of warning, I listened.
My friend’s encouragement changed my life, and we can learn from her example. The first step in giving true encouragement is to go deep instead of wide. It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll have a deeply meaningful impact on a thousand Instagram followers, but you can almost guarantee you’ll have an impact on the person you meet with weekly.
The second step is to be vulnerable. My friend had been open about her struggles, so I felt free to share mine.
Most importantly, if we’re to offer true, lion-hearted encouragement, it’s imperative that we learn to walk the fine line between judging and tearing down our brother or sister and not offering the teaching and edification we are called to give our fellow Christians. My friend sought godly counsel before she confronted me, and when she did, her aim was my heart’s reconciliation with God, and not just a change in my behavior.
In a world that’s desperate for healing and hope, let’s stop hiding behind platitudes and smiles or Facebook posts and Instagram tags. Let’s look at our brothers, friends and coworkers, and with all the empathy, compassion, hope and humility a bunch of sinners saved by grace can muster, let’s say, “I know where you’ve been. I know what you need. Let’s get you out of here.”