Monday, January 25, 2021

Anonymous Asks (129)

“What’s the difference between encouragement and flattery?”

Years ago, I got together for coffee with an elder from a church where I had enjoyed happy fellowship for several years. This was not the first time and it wouldn’t be the last; he is one of those godly older men who takes the job of shepherding very seriously indeed, and he kept track of me long after I had moved out of town and was no longer, strictly speaking, his “spiritual business”.

I had worn a particularly goofy, juvenile T-shirt to the coffee shop, and as we sat down together, he shot me a wry grin and asked, “So, when are you going to grow up?”

That was encouragement. It sure wasn’t flattery.

The Objective of Encouragement

One difference between flattery and encouragement is that flattery is all about the speaker, while encouragement is about the hearer. That’s not to say that all encouragement must be verbal, of course, but the point is that encouragement looks to build up another person, while flattery’s objective is to get the flatterer something he desires. That observation alone will tell you that one is a spiritual exercise, and the other is not.

The word translated “encouragement” in our Greek New Testament is paraklēsis, a word closely related to the biblical description of the work of the Holy Spirit, who is called the “comforter”, or paraklētos. We first encounter this term in Luke 2:25, where Simeon is said to have waited patiently for the “consolation of Israel”, which he saw coming to fulfillment before his eyes in the person of the Lord Jesus, though only a babe in arms. In this case, paraklēsis appears to carry the sense of emotional and physical restoration.

The Price of Encouragement

But stop and think for a moment how exactly it was that Israel’s “consolation” was to be accomplished. It would be a very painful ongoing process. It wasn’t all healings, driving out demons and raising the dead. An astounding price had to be paid to set the stage for Israel’s ultimate “consolation”, and Israel as a nation has suffered and will suffer tremendously in the process of being brought back into a right spiritual state and relationship with their God.

That points out another difference between encouragement and flattery. Flattery costs nothing, but encouraging our fellow believers is often quite expensive. It may involve giving until it hurts. Barnabas, who is called the “son of encouragement”, is introduced to us in the book of Acts selling a field and laying the money at the feet of the apostles. That was a fairly encouraging gesture, and Barnabas went on to encourage first century believers in many other ways, including traveling all over the ancient Middle East to take the word of God to them. Encouragement does not come cheap.

Three Kinds of Encouragement

In Acts 15, we find another reference to encouragement. We are told that the church in Antioch was encouraged by a letter from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about the question of obliging converted Gentiles to keep the Law of Moses, especially the rite of circumcision.

What did the letter say? Well, it had several elements to it. Previously, Christians in Antioch were unsettled by the teaching of the Judaizers, who told them they could not be saved apart from being circumcised. Firstly, the letter had the effect of providing a clear answer from the highest possible earthly authority of the day, based on the teaching of scripture. Having authoritative answers is very encouraging. Secondly, the letter relieved the Gentiles in Antioch from trying to keep a law that Israel as a nation had entirely failed to keep. It had the effect of lifting a huge anticipated burden from the backs of the believers. Encouragement does that too. Thirdly, the letter provided clear directions for moving forward, giving the Gentiles four clear areas of conduct to avoid. Clarity is also a very encouraging thing.

There was nothing flattering about this letter from Jerusalem. Nobody had to tell the church in Antioch how wonderful they were to fill their hearts with rejoicing.

The Primary Source of Encouragement

In Romans 15, Paul tells the believers, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement [paraklēsis] of the scriptures we might have hope.” If the Holy Spirit is the believer’s Great Encourager, it should not surprise us to find that one of the ways he encourages us is through the scriptures. After all, he wrote them. Christians are built up and encouraged when they immerse themselves in the Bible. There are lots of little ways we can give someone a lift, but it is the words of God themselves that have the greatest and most lasting effect on the attitudes of believers. Sentiments, platitudes and even the occasional compliment are all well and good, and Christian bookstores are full of them, but many of them fall short of providing a lasting effect because they have no real substance to them.

And flattery? Well, everyone likes to have positive things said about them, but if we know in our heart of hearts that those things are baseless, they do not provide any lasting comfort. Encouragement does, because it is rooted in timeless truth.

A Little Self-Examination

“So, when are you going to grow up?” asked my older friend.

I know, I know ... that’s not really the sort of thing we traditionally think of as encouragement. But it absolutely was. In reminding me that I didn’t always come across as particularly mature in the way I dressed, he was trying to provide me with an incentive to be better than I was. I wasn’t hurt by the remark, but it had the effect of making me think more seriously about the image I choose to project: is it about Christ first and foremost, or do I just like to be a bit of an iconoclast?

A little self-examination never hurts anyone, and this too is the job of an encourager. If you want to get a picture of all that is involved in encouragement, read through the book of Hebrews. Its writer refers to the letter as “my word of exhortation” [once again, paraklēsis]. You will see that there is much in the book to confirm and strengthen, but much to challenge and provoke self-examination as well. All these things are part of the spiritual growing process, and all are aspects of biblical encouragement.

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