One of the saddest memories I have from childhood involves a family we occasionally visited. While I recall many good times playing with the children, I cannot shake the image of a stern father who expected his boys to operate within narrow boundaries – any deviation of which was met with condemnation and punishment. It seemed to me that his standards were arbitrary and unattainable, particularly for two young boys. For example, if one of them mowed the lawn it was never good enough – the critical eye of the father always found the blade of grass that was missed. As years passed the boys struggled in both their professional and private lives.
Now I want to be careful in judging the lives of the boys as they grew into men, because many people have trouble holding down a job and/or end up with broken marriages. Caution too must be taken in drawing an inference between the father’s words and the lives lived out by the boys – every individual bears ultimate responsibility for the life he or she lives. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, one’s past need not determine one’s future. Nonetheless, our reclamation is made much harder by destructive words and actions – particularly those from a parent to a child. The word of the Lord is that “He visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations.” (Numbers 14:18) Not, I suppose, because God is vengeful, but because the sin of one person can inflict wounds and establish patterns of destructive behavior that can endure for generations.
Consider now the virtue of Encouragement.
In their excellent book entitled Encouragement, Larry Crabb & Dan Allender define encouragement as “the kind of expression that helps someone want to be a better Christian, even when life is rough.” This I think is a wonderful goal – wanting to be a better Christian. Encouragement should flow naturally from our Christian community as we “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another … .” (Hebrews 10:24-25) What a lovely ministry to stir up in another person love and good works.
I believe that encouragement is a fundamental human need – one with roots that are deeper than our desire to live a better life, as critical as that is. I say this because the roughest times in my life, such as when I underwent open heart surgery, have been more about my feelings of being alone than the circumstances of my operation. Feelings that we are alone, or perhaps unloved or unwanted are a lie of the enemy. We know this because God has said “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Encouragement then addresses this need by letting a person know they are valued. Thus, I would define Encouragement as: “the kind of expression that makes someone feel valued.”
So what does it take to be an encourager? Part of the thought process here is simply thinking about the people and times we were most encouraged in our own lives. I submit that there are two qualities of an encourager, which involve both the heart and mind – namely, sincerity and appropriateness.
Regarding sincerity, the heart of an encourager is genuinely interested in and values another person. A wonderful Christian couple I know have modeled this over the years by simply being curious about others. They are aware of those around them and initiate conversations. They ask lots of questions and are interested in the answers. They are emotionally present. When I am with them for any length of time I tend to feel better about myself, better about them, and better about interacting with others – in short, I feel encouraged. Sincere interest in another person sends a powerful message that such person is valued. Perhaps this is the reason Paul exhorts us to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:2-4) If we value others above ourselves we will naturally show a sincere interest in them.
Regarding appropriateness, the mind of an encourager is sensitive to what is appropriate for a given situation. As with other matters of the mind, knowledge is vital. I recall a time at work when a colleague lost her daughter in a tragic automobile accident. Our employer brought in a grief counselor who gave us a number of helpful guidelines. For example, we were advised that telling the woman that her daughter “is in a better place,” would likely not be received well by the woman and there were better ways for us to express our sympathy in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Paul’s urging to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” (Romans 12:2) is a great reminder that we need to think through the best way to be an encourager in a given situation. Although there are no formulas to follow, there are principles to practice.
While every Christian virtue impacts those around us, there are few as directly impacting as encouragement. Conversely, there is none more deadly than discouragement. As we are told in Scripture, “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit – you choose.” (Proverbs 18:12) (Message) A clearer and more concise statement you will not find.
After half a century, I still grieve the experience of the family from my youth. I pity the father who himself had no model of a loving father. I mourn the sons who struggled with the wounds they received. I am saddened by new wounds that are visited upon the next generation. And yet I can rejoice that One has come with the power to turn “the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.” (Malachi 4:6) Jesus saves us so that words spoken to us need not determine the course of our life. And He heals us so that we can speak words of life to others.
Who will you encourage today?