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.

3 Comments On “What does encouragement look like?”

  1. Jim, I have to admit that the cynical side of me thought, “Did Paul ever have kids?” Because the sibling bickering, the seemingly endless cycle of trying to get kids to behave appropriately while they resist, and the battles over music practice and screen time do not feel encouraging and comforting to me. But there are occasionally points of light, so here is one: When we were having a family meeting last night to try and tweak (yet again) our behavior system in order to have something that helps guide our interactions towards greater appropriateness and kindness (and less yelling and slamming doors), our 10 year old said that one thing that he would like to add to the system is the ability for the kids to give the adults “bonus points” for extra-good behavior like we give them. They weren’t sure what the adult bonus points should add up to (they use theirs for screen time), but that impulse to build us up was very encouraging. And it was also a good reminder that family meetings themselves (which we have just started doing) really can be encouraging and helpful. Especially when followed by a good movie! 🙂

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  3. Jim, this teaching really hit home in many ways. In the past, I have avoided repairing hurt relationships “before the sun goes down” for a variety of reasons.

    For instance, sometimes I convince myself that if I bring up the issue I will just make things worse—but if I can let go of the hurt we can all just move on. Other times I feel the need to put some time and distance on the issue. If I try to repair things right away, I often am still too angry or hurt to be thoughtful and rational. And there are other times, particularly within marriage, when it’s just too late and you’re both too tired to hash out an issue. If you can go to bed with mutual love and respect, even if there’s “unfinished business,” that often seems like the healthiest thing.

    I’m wondering if you think there’s a healthy, practical way to handle these conflicts “when the time is right,” or if the right time is always immediately.

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