Recovering The Lost Art Of Encouragement

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A few years ago, my friends Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnaman wrote unChristian, a sobering commentary on Christianity’s decline in the West due to departure from the biblical vision to engage a secular world with grace and love. Similarly, Philip Yancey wrote in What’s So Amazing about Grace:

When I ask people, “What is a Christian?” they don’t usually respond with words like love, compassion, grace; usually they describe a person who’s anti-something. Jesus was not primarily known for what he was against. He was known for serving people who had needs, feeding people who were hungry, and giving water to the thirsty. If we [Christians] were known primarily for that, then we could cut through so many divisions…Christians often have a bad reputation. People think of Christians as uptight and judgmental. Odd, I thought, that [our version of Christianity] has come to convey the opposite of God’s intent, as it’s lived out through us.

Somehow, in a sincere effort to “speak the truth,” we can lose our way. How easy it is to forget that truth, in order to be true in the truest sense, must be spoken in love.

Jesus affirmed some and critiqued others. But it might surprise us to see who Jesus affirmed and who He critiqued.

Consider Peter. Even though Peter was hot-headed, fell asleep when Jesus asked him to pray, and betrayed Jesus at His darkest hour, Jesus called Him “the Rock” because Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah was the rock on which He would build His church.

Jesus reached out to the morally compromised Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). He invited a crook to be one of His disciples (Matthew 9). He praised the promiscuous woman who anointed him at Simon’s house with extravagant—and very unorthodox—expressions of love (Luke 7). He regularly ate with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He hung out with lepers and women and little children, all of whom were at the bottom of the social pecking order. Jesus, the author of all truth, beauty, and goodness, was quick to affirm, embrace, and keep company with the most unlikely people.

The only people Jesus seemed to chastise were pious religious people who were quite sure of themselves—priests, Levites, Bible scholars, as well as committed pray-ers, money givers, and churchgoers. Wherever there was self-congratulating and superiority, Jesus was unimpressed. He gave no applause to those known for bravado. He critiqued them sharply and often; told them they were not children of Abraham but children of the devil; called them blind guides who don’t practice what they preach, narcissists who honor themselves instead of God, hypocrites who neglect justice and mercy and shed innocent blood, and whose devotion was a self-indulgent show.

And yet, their self-praise reflected not only a prideful root but a needy one. Their posture of needing praise so deeply that they felt compelled to muster up praise for themselves wasn’t just off-putting and offensive. It was also very sad.

Comedian Tom Arnold once confessed in an interview about his book, How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years, that most entertainers are in show business because they are broken people, looking for affirmation:

The reason I wrote this book is because I wanted something out there so people would tell me they liked me. It’s the reason behind almost everything I do.

Tom Arnold is not alone. Who can’t identify with a craving for affirmation?

Some call this neediness. Others call it the image of a God whose nature invites not only people, but rocks and trees and skies and seas, to praise Him. The chief end of everyone and everything, we are told, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We have been designed to be a reflection of Him. This means that receptivity to and desire for praise is deeply ingrained in us. In other words, it is natural.

Demanding recognition and praise is neither good nor healthy.

Desiring it is both good and healthy.

This is why the gospel, the truth that we have been given all the affirmation we will ever need in Christ, is such good news.

This longing for affirmation makes sense. Both existentially real and biblically true, it is the reason we Christians should be the most affirming people in the world. Rather than rushing to find fault, we should proactively seek opportunities to, as Tim Keller calls it, “catch others doing good” and to encourage (literally, put courage into) others.

Jesus certainly understood this, and so must we.

“But,” a Christian may ask, “Doesn’t critique play some sort of role in the life of a believer?” Shouldn’t Christians speak truth and warn people about sin and judgment? Shouldn’t Christians shine as light in dark places, call people to repent and believe, and go into the world and teach people to obey everything that Jesus commanded? Shouldn’t we expect that as we do these things, there will be people who oppose us and who say, like Gandhi once did, “I do not like your Christians?”

Yes, in some instances we should. Even when done in love, speaking the truth, shining as light in darkness, and taking up a cross to follow Jesus will draw certain forms of opposition. But if people are going to resist and reject us, let’s at least make sure that they are the same kinds of people who resisted and rejected Jesus.

Smug religious people wanted to throw him off a cliff.

People with special needs, little children, women, as well as sexually damaged people, crooks, charlatans, prodigals and addicts couldn’t get enough of him.

I remember watching an interview with Mariah Carey, who at the time was in her late twenties and had accumulated more #1 hits than anyone in music except for Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The interviewer asked Carey if there was anything left for her to accomplish. She sat quietly for a moment, then replied, “Happiness.” The interviewer, thrown off by the answer, asked how this could be true. Carey didn’t even have to think about it. Right away, she said that she could hear a thousand praises and then just one criticism, and the one criticism would cancel out the thousand praises.

What does criticism accomplish? Really?

How many people do you know who started following Jesus because someone scolded them, disapproved of them because of their substandard ethics, or made it clear how appalling their “lifestyle” is? I have been a Christian for more than twenty-five years and a minister for seventeen. I have never met one.

So, does that mean we just “live and let live” when we see friends and family exhibiting destructive behaviors? Of course not. When a friend is caught in addiction or destructive behavior, the loving thing to do is to help them out of it through intervention.

But intervention is not damning criticism, it’s redeeming critique. Critique is motivated by restoring and building up. Criticism aims to harm and shame. Critique, in the end, will leave a person feeling cared for and built up. Criticism will leave a person feeling belittled and beaten down. Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

Restore…in a spirit of gentleness.

Sometimes love calls us to be courageous, because it takes courage to offer a redemptive critique. Similarly, it takes courage to receive critique, even when it is redemptive. Yet this is what we are called into – like iron sharpening iron, we can help one another grow into the likeness of Jesus. We speak the truth in love to another, to build up the body of Christ, but leave judging those outside the body to God (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

If we want to really reflect Jesus to the world and also amongst ourselves, let’s not be known for what we’re against, but for loving as we have been loved.

Yes?

So, critique where you must.

And, for God’s sake, affirm and encourage – that is, put courage into a soul – wherever you can.


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6 responses to “Recovering The Lost Art Of Encouragement”

  1. Ed White says:

    Great commentary on the beautiful gift of natural ; instinctive ; and genuine encouragement of others . As a Christian , when you are free of the prison cell of a dominating thirst and desire to be accepted by the ” world ” ; liked by the ” cool group ” ; and have powerful impact for the wrong reasons coupled with that wonderful Godly gift of seizing opportunities to encourage people , you are in a wonderful place ( when led by the Holy Spirit in these actions ) . A simple comment to a waitress as to what a great job she did ; a comment to the checkout clerk at the grocery store that she / he reflects the gift / blessing of a natural joy filled smile ; just a simple thank you to someone for helping you — when prompted by the Holy Sprit — can mean so much to the recipient in ways which we will never know but the Lord unequivocally does . We should thrive on the opportunities to encourage people — you never know what trials that person might be undergoing .

  2. Michael Willemse says:

    Thanks for your article Scott. Your weekly articles are stimulating and encouraging and this one was no exception. I have a question mark at one point though …

    You said “The chief end of everyone and everything, we are told, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We have been designed to be a reflection of Him. This means that receptivity to and desire for praise is deeply ingrained in us. In other words, it is natural.” With these words you appear to be linking our calling to glorify God and our own need for praise.

    I believe that the glory we give to God and the encouragement that we desire from others are not the same thing. Glory is a weight too great for any fallen human being to bear – a tale borne out in the experience of the “stars” of our day (as well as written large in Scripture). We human beings do best when we give all glory to the one to whom it belongs and desire and take none of it for ourselves.

    We do need acceptance, encouragement and love – and we need to learn to be people who give these often and well. Your article expresses that well. Thanks!

    • scottsauls says:

      “Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
      – Romans 8:17

      • Michael Willemse says:

        True – but I notice that it is His glory that we share and also that it is speaking about the life to come.

        “Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory …” – Psalm 115:1a

        “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another …” – Isaiah 42:8

        “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this, How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.” – Isaiah 48:11

        “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who … made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant …” – Philippians 2:5-7

        I maintain that our calling to encourage one another and our own need for encouragement are not the same thing as a natural desire for praise which flows out of being image bearers. It was wanting “to be like God” (Genesis 3:5) that brought us into sin in the first place. As I said in my earlier comment:

        “We human beings do best when we give all glory to the one to whom it belongs and desire and take none of it for ourselves.”

        None of this is intended to undermine the main theme of your article to be people who show acceptance, encouragement and love well. That’s a challenge I’ve also tried to bear in mind with these comments!

        Keep up the good work and God bless!

  3. repentant says:

    I just found out a friend is pregnant with her 3rd child. She’s not married, lives in government housing but was just beginning to get her feet under her. I was so mad. Then I briefly felt compassion. Then I was mad again. I’ve been debating whether to scold or encourage. This reminder melted my stony heart. Thank you.

  4. lindam says:

    Hi Scott Sauls,
    From what I see in scripture the encouragement of the Saints is what is taught. We are to encourage one another to godliness, righteousness, and peace. I struggle to think of any scripture that tells us to build up and encourage the world, so to speak. What I see in scripture is that people followed Jesus, he did not follow them. We see in the beatitudes what types of teaching he was giving to the people. John the Baptist was another example. He chastised the followers of Judaism for their hypocrisies. He told people to get their lives in order with the things of God. Jesus chastised the Jewish leaders because they were not teaching the people correctly about God. They had followed their ‘old nature’ and had instituted a man-made religion in place of Godliness. They even instituted their own rules for people that were extremely burdensome to people to the point of being oppressive.
    We are admonished in scripture to take off the ‘old man’ and put on the ‘new man’. The new man is the one who will inherit the things of God. God is creating ‘One New Man’ from the both the Jews and the Gentiles. Much of this kind of teaching has been lost to believers in our day.

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