There used to be a banner hanging in the corner of our church, it said “Encourage one another and build each other up.” Now this is a command from God’s word [1 Thessalonians 5:11], we must do it; but unless we understand what the author meant by ‘encourage’ we will end up tearing people down rather than building them up.
Most people think encouragement is about saying whatever it takes to make people feel good about themselves, to lift their spirits, increase their self-esteem and affirm their value to us. But that’s not what any of the apostles understood by ‘encouragement.’ They learnt a thing or two about real encouragement, and they learnt from Jesus.
When Peter, for instance, hears Jesus – obviously on a bit of a downer, poor chap - saying something about a cross, he chips in with “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” ‘That’s the stuff,’ we’d probably have said, ‘a classic bit of encouragement, that’s what Jesus needs.’ Except that Jesus promptly reveals that this kind of encouragement is actually demonic in origin! “Get behind me, Satan!”
You have a moment? Pick up a Bible and sift through one of the gospels. As you read, ask yourself how Jesus rates as an encourager by popular standards. What do you think; a bit confrontative? A little bit sharp in tone? Too much “Woe to you” and not enough “You’ve all done very, very well”? Is Jesus just not very good at this or have we just lost our way?
It’s us. Jesus is the encourager. Charles Wesley was right “He speaks and, listening to His voice, new life the dead receive, the mournful, broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.” But Jesus doesn’t do all that by strokes for folks. He does it by telling them the truth. Jesus encourages by teaching people, by rebuking sin, by correcting wrong thinking, by answering people’s questions, all of it with one aim in mind: giving people courage to keep on being and becoming the people of God in a hostile world.
So for Jesus and for the writers of the New Testament, encouragement is all about helping people not to sin. The writer of Hebrews says “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
We tend to be quite careless about what our encouragement causes people to do, we’re more concerned with how it makes them feel. But if we aim to do what Jesus does (never a bad idea!) in the power of the Holy Spirit, the funny thing is that the people end up in a much better place than the one our flattery puts them in. After all, the best I can give people is my approval; big deal. The folks that Jesus encourages end up saying things like “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” And armed with this self-knowledge they fight sin to the death, discipline each other and form an army fit to change the world.
Encourage one another and build each other up.