Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Real Encouragement

Of late, I have been distressed by some of the postings I have seen offered on Facebook. It brought to light a disturbing trend which I have witnessed throughout the years, and particularly in the churches. People are encouraging one another.

“Now, I'm confused, Jonathan. You believe that people encouraging one another is a bad thing?”

Just like a weapon, encouragement can be a useful tool when utilized properly, but can be deadly when mishandled. Let me offer an example:

      Betty is worried because her husband lost his job and they have had trouble paying the bills.
     Wilma – a church friend – encourages her, “Hang in, there! Things will get better. I'm praying for you.”
     Betty appreciates having someone nearby who cares for her. “Thanks, Wilma. I don't know what I would do without you.”
     To which Wilma replies, “That's what we're supposed to do as Christians, to encourage one another!”

Here's one more example:

     Fred is struggling to fit in at work. In order to be recognized and promoted, he feels it necessary to do what everyone else is doing, even though many of those things are sinful. He takes the problem to his minister, Barney.
     After listening to the situation, Barney “encourages” Fred to just be himself. He suggests that Fred's co-workers should accept him for who he is, not who they want him to be. He then prays with Fred, asking the Lord to intervene in his workplace and soften the hearts of Fred's co-workers. Barney then closes by offering a verse of Scripture, “Remember, Fred … God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him!”
     “Thanks for the encouragement, Barney. You're a great minister and a great friend!”

Now, one might look at those two situations and believe that encouragement has in fact taken place. Fred and Betty “felt” better after talking to their friends, right? But “feeling better” is not what Biblical encouragement is at all about. In the Scriptures, encouragement is about pointing you to the Rock (Christ) and exhorting you to stay there until rescued.

The Greek word primarily translated as encourage or encouragement is parakaleo, which comes from two Greek words which mean to call to, or to call beside. What is God doing through Christ? Calling us to Himself. We are “partakers of a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1). Even though this world is fraught with trials and tribulations, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Encouragement then is that which causes us to maintain our conviction that Christ has overcome this world and move forward in the hope that we also will overcome through Him (1 John 5:4). It is solely a by-product of faith in God's word. “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

The reason that encouragement is necessary is because Satan strives to pull us from the narrow way (Matthew 7:14). Therefore, there is no Christian encouragement that does not urge us to return to or remain on that straight path (Acts 13:10). So let's go back to our examples and reconsider them in light of this new information.

Betty was struggling with financial problems, and supposedly Wilma encouraged her. I would challenge such thinking, because it does not fit the Biblical criteria for encouragement, which is to point people back to the word of Christ. Why didn't Wilma remind Betty that Christ has said not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19), but “in heaven” (Matthew 6:20)?

“That seems awfully insensitive.”

According to whom? Was Christ then insensitive to a people struggling financially under the iron rule and heavy taxation of Rome? His encouragement to them was, “do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25). He reminded the people of God's providence and His upward call by saying, “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Is there a reason that Wilma did not point Betty back to the word of Christ? Or why didn't she at least urge Betty to remain faithful to the Lord under such trials? When the Christians of Thessalonica were being persecuted by the Jews, Paul sent them Timothy for a single purpose, “to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, [3] so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. [4] For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. [5] For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain” (1 Thessalonians 3:2-5).

Personally, I would have encouraged Betty not to be disturbed by trials which are “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13), and not to allow Satan to tempt her to worry about this physical life or to waver in her faith. I would have followed the example of Barnabas – the son of encouragement – in speaking to a group of Greek Christians in Antioch who had been born out of suffering, as he traveled from Jerusalem “to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord” (Acts 11:23). I would have imitated the pattern of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”” (Acts 14:22).

“But that might not make her feel any better.”

She doesn't have to feel better. She needs to be “firmly rooted” and “built up” in Christ (Colossians 2:7). That's real encouragement.

Then consider Fred. Why didn't his minister – when hearing of a temptation to participate in sinful activities in order to succeed – immediately follow the pattern established in Hebrews 3:12-14? “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. [13] But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. [14] For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”

What kind of a minister avoids the real issue at hand? (The answer is a false one.) Instead of dealing with Fred's potential sin, Barney turned the whole situation around and made it about Fred's co-workers. THEY were the ones who should accept Fred. Barney's prayer was for the Lord to soften THEIR hearts. Way to shirk your responsibility, Barney!

The Bible tells us what the real minister will do in such a situation. Paul told Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). What a great outline for Christian service. Sinners are to be convicted of their sin (reproved) and urged to accept Christ. Upon accepting Him, if they continue in sinful behavior they should be rebuked and pointed back to the Rock. And when temptations arise that would lead someone away from the Lord, they should be exhorted (or encouraged, same Greek word) to remain faithful.

Shame on Barney for not addressing Fred's most basic Christian responsibility. Titus 2:11-12 tells us that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, [12] instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” Why didn't that “great” minister remind his Christian disciple of that fact? I would have encouraged Fred to live in a Christ-like fashion, regardless of the behavior or expectations of his co-workers. Christ “gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:13-14).

“But if Fred doesn't fit in, he could lose his job!”

You don't think the Lord knew that when revealing His word to man? If Barney had been any kind of a real minister, he would have known the Scriptures and directed Fred's attention away from the physical job and right back to the Rock. “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; [6] not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. [7] With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, [8] knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free” (Ephesians 6:5-8).

It is important to note in this discussion that not everyone needs such encouragement. To those who do not belong to Christ, the only encouragement needed is to leave sin, listen to the upward call of God and accept Christ. For those in Christ though, not all of them need to be persuaded of the Scriptures. Some Christians know well that the difficulties endured are only temporary and that heaven awaits. Some brothers and sisters – despite life's hardships and Satan's temptations – refuse to leave the narrow way. There is no need to point someone back to the Rock to which they are already firmly clinging. Thus wisdom must accompany knowledge.

Solomon writes, “There is an appointed time for everything. … A time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7). Perhaps your Christian friend doesn't need you to speak at all. Maybe they just need to know you are there for them. Perhaps the best thing to do is to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) … and keep your mouth shut.

But if the situation calls for it and you want to be a real encourager, stop focusing people's attention on the physical. You want them concentrating upon Christ and His spiritual blessings. God is calling us heavenward. Remembering that call and reminding your spiritual brother of its insistent righteous pull is the heart of real encouragement. As the apostle has written, “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; [11] just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, [12] so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12).

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