Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Word of Discouragement

“If you look at most successful people, somewhere in their background there is someone cheering for them and believing in what they can accomplish,” says Harrison Barnes.

“Have you ever been in a situation where you really needed someone to just say the words ‘It will be okay’? Until you reach that point, you might underestimate the power of encouragement,” say the people at SuccessStory.com.

Encouragement means believing in people, cheering for them and getting them to think positively about their chances of success at what they are doing. Or at least so goes the conventional wisdom.

Naturally I disagree, or this wouldn’t be much of a post.

Cheering Them On

Certainly there are circumstances in which cheering on someone can be tremendously beneficial, and where having someone believe in you can be critical to your ability to endure. There are plenty of stories about that sort of thing, and some of them are even true. An uplifting message is probably what the synagogue rulers in Pisidian Antioch had in the mind when they asked Paul and Barnabas to share a “word of encouragement”. It is quite unlikely they were anticipating anything that ended with the exhortation to “beware”.

One problem with telling discouraged people that you believe in what they can accomplish is that they may well be attempting something for which they are not remotely qualified or able, or may be going about it in the worst possible way. Cheering them on effectively and profitably (as Paul and Barnabas did later) often means redirecting them a bit. A few of the elements of Paul’s gospel message in that synagogue might not have seemed too encouraging to his audience. But telling a group of Jews and Jewish proselytes they were doing a terrific job of keeping the Law of Moses and just needed to keep at it more faithfully would have been about as counterproductive as is possible to imagine.

It Will Be Okay

In the Greek, “encouragement” is paraklēsis. You will note that is related to another word, used to describe the Holy Spirit, the Helper or Comforter [paraklētos], as he is called in John’s gospel. Comforting is a good thing. We all like comfort.

But biblical comfort does not necessarily involve giving people the expectation of immediate relief. The problem associated with telling discouraged people “It will be okay” is that sometimes it will not, at least not in the way they are currently thinking about it. Oh sure, assuming the person you are speaking to is a believer, of course it’ll be “okay” in a much grander and more significant sense at some point in the indeterminate future, but in the present things might actually be pretty awful, and the immediate future might well hold more of the same. You can keep that platitude, thanks.

When the writer to the Hebrews refers to “the exhortation [paraklēsis, same word] that addresses you as sons,” it turns out that particular word of encouragement is accompanied by the strong suggestion that significant hostility will continue to be directed toward Hebrew Christians from unbelievers, and that this is God’s characteristic disciplinary work in the lives of his children.

Now, there’s absolutely a comforting message in there, but it’s not one the Prosperity Gospel folks and their ilk are inclined to hear. To people looking for a pleasant present, the idea of delaying gratification (something the scriptures refer to as “hope”) and finding the path to God’s will through suffering rather than around it is a bit of a foreign notion.

All to say, “rah-rah” encouragement is not the only sort there is. There is another, subtler kind, and some of us need that sort.

Coming to Grips with Reality

To really encourage someone is to help them to come to grips with reality, as ugly as it may sometimes seem, and to find God’s purpose for them in it. It is not “encouraging” to tell an unattractive girl she is pretty, or an unintelligent boy that he is as smart as his classmates. Encouragement does not gloss over our negatives; it takes them into account and considers what we can do in spite of them.

That includes what we can do for Christ. It is not “encouraging” to compliment an ungifted man on preaching a notably substandard message his twentieth time on the platform. That is ill-advised and indulgent flattery. It will only lead to greater trouble later on. It would be far more encouraging to help him think honestly about his spiritual gifts and redirect his energies into something he is actually good at.

Honesty is a critical component of biblical encouragement. One of the most encouraging things anyone ever said to me was “When are you going to grow up?” Why? Because it became suddenly very clear to me that it mattered if I did. Something important turned on it. People would benefit if I elected to mature a bit, and people would suffer if I didn’t. I hadn’t thought about that before. But on the face of it, you might not exactly call such a challenge encouraging. I did, and do.

God ‘Encourages’ Jeremiah

Consider God’s encouragement of his servants in the Old Testament. Here’s righteous Jeremiah, more than a little bit downcast by what he sees around him:
“Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?”
The faithful prophet is discouraged. He’s in need of something to buoy his spirits. And his God replies:
“If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?
Basically, God tells him, “You’re not keeping up, Jeremiah.” He goes on with what boils down to something like “You’re too naive. The situation in Israel is actually worse than you think. Even your friends are not really your friends. But look at how much I have lost.”

Whoa. That’s not exactly “It’ll be okay, old pal,” is it? Did God not get the memo about how to make people believe in themselves? Does God not know how to encourage his servants?

I don’t know how Jeremiah felt about God’s response to his complaint, because he doesn’t say. But he kept going. That’s what encouragement does. It inspires us not to quit.

God ‘Encourages’ Job

Further, if we searched the entire Old Testament, we’d find few servants of God more discouraged than Job. After a series of devastating blows from Satan, Job has just about had it. Thirty-six chapters of “encouragement” from friends and neighbors have been completely insufficient to get him back on track. Then God steps up to the plate, and we can be confident his purpose is not to destroy his servant, but to build him back up. So how does he begin?
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.’ ”
If we wanted to be uncharitable, we could paraphrase this as something like “You’re speaking out of ignorance, and you’re behaving in an unmanly way. Here, have a challenge you can’t possibly meet …”

If you think it gets any fluffier later on, you obviously haven’t read the next four chapters of Job recently. It is unrelenting, and Job’s conclusion is “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Now, that’s not usually the result we’re looking for when we encourage someone, is it? But the subsequent blessing with which Job is blessed is impossible without this complete revision of his perspective that God forces on him by confronting him with hard reality. God has to break his servant down before he can lift him back up.

The Long and the Short of It

So what can we learn from God’s encouragement techniques?

Well, for one thing, comfort and encouragement are impossible without the correct perspective. Moving forward and feeling better about who we are and what we are called to do in this life involves coping with reality first. For the Christian, perspective is impossible so long as we are staring at ourselves.

“Why me? I’m a nice guy. I’ve done everything right!” is not a helpful way to think about our performance as believers. It might be better not to think too much about that at all. It’s a distraction that keeps us from seeing the things that will really lift us up.

Therefore the role of the encourager, I think, is not so much to tell the discouraged individual nice things about himself as it is to redirect him into thinking correctly about God’s person and purposes.

That may involve a word of discouragement first.

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