He wore his shame like a weighty overcoat—understandable, given all he’d been through. A “moral failure”—that’s what it’s called in church circles, which essentially means you’ve been unfaithful to your marriage vows, and also to the rules that church staff are supposed to uphold. He’d been let go from his ministry position but still kept coming around, Sunday after Sunday, eager to engage in worship, desperate for the heaviness to lift. The weekend I last saw him, he looked overtired—dark circles underneath his eyes, shoulders slumped a little, a distinct lack of spring in his step. As soon as the service ended, I made a beeline for the guy, sticking out my right hand as I approached. “I’m glad to see you,” I said, meaning it. “Listen, it’s tough right now, but it won’t always be this hard. I believe in you. I care about you. You are going to get through this … you will.”
He met my gaze in hopes of responding, but before he could choke out a word, he broke down. My best guess was that in light of the long road toward healing and restoration this man faced, he was under the attack of some pretty disparaging self-talk: “Give up. It’s not worth the work you’re going to have to put in. Nobody is going to trust you again, anyway—at least, not your family … and that’s who really counts.” His tears held a question: Should I give up?
I stood there silently for what felt like forever, my hand on his shoulder, and then I repeated my earlier remark: “It won’t always be this hard.”
What is Encouragement, Anyway?
To “encourage” someone is to momentarily replace thoughts of despair and pain with thoughts of courage and strength. It is to equip them with useful weapons for taking down the fear and frustration that is presently running their mind. It is to remind them that their efforts toward wholeness and holiness are worth it, regardless of what has them questioning the effort in the first place. If you were to net out the apostle Paul’s letters—and his contribution represents nearly half of the New Testament—you would find this central theme: Don’t quit! Don’t give up! Keep going. Keep trying. Keep giving the effort. You have everything you need, in order to overcome this difficult thing. In short: encouragement. Paul knew the value of an encouraging word. The question for us is: Do we?
A handful of weekends ago, a mounting frustration regarding our nation’s ever-shifting immigration policies bubbled up inside of me, culminating with what I thought was a pretty measured comment during my Sunday-morning talk. The subject that day was compassion, and at one point, I looked upon the congregation before me and said, “If our priority is that of becoming more like Jesus, and one of the hallmarks of Jesus’s treatment of people was a thoroughly compassionate bent, then we may need to rethink our country’s laws regarding how we welcome strangers to our land.”
During the week leading up to that talk, I had posted to my social-media sites several comments I felt were worthy of propagating, especially for those who also follow Christ. Nothing venomous or angry. Just a few things to consider. And both there on social media and also to my face that Sunday morning, I was lambasted as a result. People questioned my salvation. People questioned my patriotism. People questioned my leadership, my wisdom, and my rights. I was shell-shocked as I absorbed all the vitriol: have we entered an era in which we can’t even promote food for thought?
At the close of the service, as is customary for our church, the thousands of people who had gathered for worship filed by one of several communion stations, where they could gather the bread and the cup before heading back to their seats. I was sitting with my own thoughts when I caught sight of an old friend there in line, one of the first people I had met ten years ago, when I became the pastor of this church. She is in her eighties and is one of the sharpest, classiest, wisest people I know. What did she think of these divisive issues? What did she think of what I had said?
As if reading my mind, once she had the communion elements in hand, and in one of the greatest demonstrations of the incarnation I have ever seen, she turned and walked right toward me. She bent over so that her mouth was near my ear and whispered, “Pastor Brady, you’re doing good.” She then kissed my cheek, straightened her posture, grinned at me, and strode back to her row.
Now, listen: I may be completely off-base in my immigration concerns. (I don’t think I am, but perhaps I am.) But in that moment, my friend’s support of me was more about her desire to strengthen me than it was a play for nitpicking political ideals. Here’s what her comment did for me: it took a downward-moving spiral of self-doubt, self-recrimination, irritation, frustration, and pain, and it totally reversed it. It halted the downward momentum and actually made the thing start climbing up.
Just before I took the stage again, in order to lead our congregation in receiving the communion elements together, I thought, “Hey, if she thinks I’m doing good, then all is right in my world.” I’d been encouraged. I’d been refilled with optimism and strength.
No Better Way to Use Words
To be alive in this day and age is to be keenly aware that things aren’t as they should be. I’m not sure our world is in worse shape than it was, say, ten or fifteen years ago, but we sure are more aware of the issues now than we were then, given the explosion of social media. If a political decision is being weighed in Washington, D.C., we know about it. If an Amber Alert has been issued on behalf of an abducted child in Oregon, we know about it. If two Hollywood A-listers file for a divorce, we know about it. If a police officer oversteps his authority in Mississippi, we know about it. If we wish to know it, we can know it these days, and we can know it—snap!Just like that. But if we’re not mindful, all this knowledge will bring us down. We’ll start meditating on discouraging things. We’ll start talking with others about discouraging things. We’ll start focusing only on discouraging things, to the point where we’re cynical about all of life. We’ll grumble, we’ll grips, we’ll rant, we’ll rave, and at the end, what will we have accomplished, apart from further stirring the pot?
Certainly, I’m not advocating for sticking our heads in the sand and pretending all is well in the world. I’m not suggesting that we eschew information in favor of believing that ignorance really is bliss. It’s important for us—especially those who follow Christ—to be present with those who are suffering, to include those who are marginalized, to seek understanding where there is division, and to provide resources for those who are in need, and how else will we know of all these travails unless we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world? No, what I’m pushing for here is simply a resurgence of encouragement, wherein we choose to use our words to focus on the positive instead of the negative, to accentuate the timeless instead of the fleeting, to build up instead of tear down.
Three Encouraging Things to Say
Over the years, I have worked to keep three important truths in mind. I tell myself these things over and over again, and I speak them out to others who may be feeling deflated, demoralized, and weak. If you are in need of a little encouragement yourself, latch onto one of these phrases. If those around you are in need of the encouragement, now you can be the one to provide it.
Truth #1: This pain will not last.
The first encouraging truth we can convey—to others and ourselves—is the reminder that whatever pain we’re suffering in this moment will not be with us forever. The pains of this world will pass. Just like I told my friend in ministry: “It won’t always be this hard.”
Eugene Peterson rendered a powerful section of Romans 8 this way: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times” (vv. 15-18, MSG).
We could stack up all the pain we know today on one side of the scales, and regardless how weighty it is, weightier still is the stack of goodness that’s coming our way. We just can’t outweigh God’s good plans, which brings me to point 2.
Truth #2: God’s promises will come to pass.
Throughout Scripture, God promises his children that we can know comfort during our trials, that he has a plan for our life that is good, that we can be transformed into his likeness, that we can have every spiritual blessing through Christ, that he will finish the work he began in us, that we will know peace whenever we pray, that our needs will be met in him, that when we come to him we will find rest, that we can live a life that is marked by abundance, that we can never be snatched out of God’s protective hand, that from our ashes beauty will rise, that he will return for us one day, and dozens and dozens more. In fact, somebody sat down one day to count all of God’s promises and logged more than five thousand entries on his list. But better than the fact that God made these promises is the fact that he will keep them. God cannot not keep his word.
When you encounter someone who is feeling down, (even if that someone is you), remind them that the good stuff God has set in motion will one day come to pass. We may not see it yet. We may not feel it yet. We may not fully believe it is near. Which is precisely when our faith takes its cue, bridging the chasm left by our doubts. It was by faith that every spiritual giant overcame, and it is by faith that we overcome too.
Truth #3: Encouragement resides inside of you.
A third truth to remember: if you are a follower of Christ, then there is an Encourager available to you, every moment of every hour. When Jesus left the earth after his days of incarnational ministry were done, he promised his disciples that he would not leave them alone, that he would leave a Comforter with them who would operate like a friend. It’s “so that you will always have someone with you,” Jesus said, a friend named “the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16, MSG). The implications of this indwelling are mind-boggling. Because of this Friend—the Holy Spirit—we never have to walk alone. We never have to live discouraged. We never have to cave to fear, doubt, or despair. No, because of this Friend, whenever we are feeling hopeless, helpless, or weak, we can simply turn to the Spirit and ask for assistance—in effect “building ourselves up,” as Jude 1:20 tells us to do. “Carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit,” that verse begins, “staying right at the center of God’s love, keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ” (vv. 20-21, MSG).
When we are feeling discouraged, we can encourage ourselves there on the spot, which means that no person, predicament, or situation can leave us discouraged, unless we invite in that discouragement ourselves. This is a game-changer, I hope you’ll agree. It is worth noting that in the ancient world, when Roman officials first persecuted Christians—this would have been sixty or so years after Jesus ascended back into heaven—they could sic rabid dogs on those Christians, allowing them to tear the believers apart; they could light Christians as human torches, letting them burn for all to see; and they could murder them en masse, in wild displays of ungoverned power. But there was one thing the Romans could not do, and that was take away the Christians’ joy. That one fact drove the Roman guard nuts. “How can these people remain so happy,” they must have said to themselves, “when we’re ripping them to shreds?”
It was actually this posture of constant courage and strength that caused those inside Rome to begin investigating “Jehovah God.” If this God could spawn such steadfastly joyous followers, the thinking went, then they wanted to know more about this God. And here’s a truly encouraging fact: we have the same opportunity still today. You and I can stay apprised of the world’s goings-on without letting ourselves lose heart. We can face financial downturns and housing crises and job lay-offs without letting ourselves lose heart. We can absorb buckets of vitriol for holding fast to our beliefs without letting ourselves lose heart. And we can help others learn to do the same. We can use our words to build people up, encouraging them as best we can. What’s more: each time we make the choice to refresh another, Proverbs 11:25 says, we ourselves will be refreshed.