What does encouragement look like?
– By Jim Linder
As a pastor and teacher I want to be a good communicator. I know I sat through many class lectures in college as well as many sermons that were boring and easily forgotten. Yet some examples, stories or illustrations have remained with me for decades.
It is of particular interest to me that Paul chose the example of the family and family relationships when he wrote about encouragement and Christian growth. None of us forget our families, and I imagine every one of us has a deep emotional connotation for the words father and mother, as well as sister, brother, grandparents, etc. if they were also part of our family structure.
Paul doesn’t dodge the issue that families can be discouraging as well as encouraging. Yet at their best, family relationships can provide a good illustration of our relationship with God and with one another. At their worst they remind us of why we need a heavenly parent and “Jesus with skin on” in our Christian sisters and brothers.
When Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica he describes his own and his traveling companions’ relationship with those followers of Jesus as comparable to parent-child bonds—a nursing mother caring for her children and as a father who deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging them to live lives worthy of God… I Thess 2.7, 11, 12 TNIV
In his advice to fathers (parents) in Ephesus and Colossae, Paul warns against embittering, provoking to anger and, ultimately, discouraging their children. How? By setting bad examples, such as yelling at a child to stop yelling, hitting a child to “teach” them not to hit, humiliating them to demand that they be respectful. Even when done in the best of ways, parental discipline can provoke children to anger and invite feelings of shame and decreased worth.
How do we avoid that? By restoring relationships as quickly as possible after any kind of difficult interaction, whether between parents and children, friends, co-workers, spouses, or our Christian brothers and sisters. Paul urges the Ephesians that when a life situation stirs them to anger, not to stay angry—Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Eph 4.26 TNIV Since we can’t stop the progress of the sun setting, I guess that means we need to learn how to manage our own anger so that we don’t stay angry all day, and for days after.
Of course, often our children, friends, co-workers, spouses and/or Christian brothers or sisters resist efforts to repair injured relationships, at least initially. Sometimes even our most heartfelt and persistent efforts to repair relationships are rebuffed. That may be why Paul writes to the Christians at Rome If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12.18 TNIV
When I teach about anger, injured relationships, repairing relationships, forgiveness, and related topics, I always worry that rather than being encouraging, I will invite discouragement and shame as a response to my words. One way to move beyond our own discouragement is through sharing with one another our own memories, stories and experiences of growing up in a family. How were our families encouraging to us? How were they discouraging? What are we doing to make our Christian family an encouraging place to be?
I can remember in elementary school being pleased when the teacher would use my work as an illustration of how to do something well. How pleased I think we would all be if the quality of relationships we have with one another in New Covenant Fellowship could be used as an illustration of what encouragement looks like in a congregation.