It’s happened to you too—many times. Your friend, co-worker, or family member is so discouraged that it’s like a dark cloud follows them into the room. You rack your brain trying to think of something to say that will help them turn to the corner onto “easier street,” but the words don’t come. But the sadness is looming, and the silence is deafening, so you open your mouth anyway, and then out comes, “It can’t be that bad.” Or, “I’m sure it will all work out.” Or maybe even the anti-encouragement of, “Well, it can’t get any worse.” You’re reminded again, encouraging others can be hard!
"Many Christians have a vague understanding of what constitutes encouragement, treating it like little more than a pat on the back..."
I recently read a helpful book on the topic of encouragement titled, “Encouragement Isn’t Enough” (Jay E. Adams, Timeless Texts, 2007). Its aim is to teach the “what” and “how” of true biblical encouragement. Many Christians have a vague understanding of what constitutes encouragement, treating it like little more than a pat on the back, a kind word, or some shallow reassurance like above. Others have a deeper desire to help but just don’t know what to say or how far to extend themselves without seeming intrusive. Here are some helpful truths I learned and was reminded of from this book. I hope it will help you too.
It is probably true that we use the term “encourage” too broadly, using it to refer to things other than what the Bible uses it for. This fact alone may cause us to think we don’t do it very well. The term “encourage” in English implies the idea of “putting courage into” someone.
While we may think of “encourage” in terms of words only, Scripture uses the term to describe energizing and empowering those who hearts are ready to take action to obey and follow God. For this reason, the older English translations of the Bible limited the use of “encourage” to contexts where people were infused with courage (emboldened or strengthened) to perform a task. This is generally the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek terms for “encourage.” Encouragement clearly involves more than words.
Adams defined encouragement this way: “Speaking in ways that inwardly calm, strengthen, and urge one to perform some duty or task by giving advice about what he must do and, at times, by offering other possible forms of help as well” (p. 9).
The principle that real encouragement takes place only when people are ready to take action has some implications. Not everyone desires to move forward. Some people wallow in guilt, or bask in self-pity, or look for shallow sympathy. These people are not ready for encouragement the way the Bible defines it. They may need instruction about confession and forgiveness, or admonishment to think humbly about their circumstances and responses. But without readiness for action and change, you can’t really empower them to pursue it. This may explain why your words seem to fall on deaf ears at times.
Be careful though. It takes real discernment and a kindhearted spirit to understand and speak into troubled lives. Don’t make judgmental assumptions. Consider Jesus’ dealings with the woman at the well. She was in habitual sin, confused about the true God, and misguided in her beliefs about worship. Jesus confronted her sin and pointed her to the source and aim of true worship. Though you must always have discernment and compassion, it is still true that not everyone who is downcast is ready or willing to be lifted up. Some folks want to be angry, or prefer to be defined by their troubles and responses. Not every failed attempt at encouragement is a failure of the encourager.
So, who can we encourage, and how can we encourage them? Encouragement as it is defined and described in Scripture is designed to push forward those who are ready to please God, but may be timid or feel weak (encourage the fainthearted—1 Thes 5:14). Helping requires leaning personally into a person’s situation. But, the good encourager also needs to have a thorough enough understanding of what God desires to show them, how Scripture applies to their situation, and how God desires to strengthen them in it. This must be a loving, selfless pursuit.
"Real encouragement may mean bearing another’s burden out of love (Galatians 6:2)."
Your first concern must be to carefully understand the situation and how it is impacting the person in need of help. Asking questions to determine the emotional or relational dynamics is important. Enter into their pain, and weep with those who weep. This must truly be a ministry of love, care, and concern. Only then do we have the relational passport to offer the intentional verbal encouragements to remain faithful to Christ and to understand what it means to have a determined heart in the face to trial, difficulty, or discouragement.
Another key factor of encouragement, and in gaining the relational privilege to speak into another’s life, is to be willing to serve them practically if necessary. Real encouragement may mean bearing another’s burden out of love (Galatians 6:2). It may mean helping them when the load is too big to bear alone, whether with financial help, physical assistance, or some other practical expression of care and concern. This help and burden bearing must be motivated by love and genuine concern for their spiritual welfare.
Discouraged people are everywhere. Encouragement is a needed ministry among God’s people. To some degree, every Christian must be willing to take up the task to strengthen and embolden their brothers and sisters to be faithful in their service to Christ. The only way to do this is to grow beyond the shallow view of encouragement often held and practiced by believers, and graduate to a true, biblical, bold, and intentional pursuit of speaking truth and providing practical help, in order to move fellow believers to be strong, courageous, obedient, and faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.