How to become better encouragers

better future ahead

No one can argue against the value and importance of encouragement. The former post on this blog affirms the role that encouraging others ought to have in our lives. Every believer should leave others, especially other believers, better than the way we found them.

But how might we become better encouragers? We live in a cynical, critical and competitive world—encouragement may not be first nature to many. There is a way to develop an encouraging nature, to ready our hearts and minds for every opportunity to edify. In light of the scriptural imperative to encourage, and the powerful impact encouragement can have on others, consider the following as one way to improve:

Intercession (prayer for others) builds an empathetic, eager infrastructure for a lifestyle of encouragement.

First of all, intercession is a great gig all by itself without forcing it to be a means by which another virtue is developed. But in this case, since the shoe fits…let’s see how this works. What we’ll see is that the same basic principles that are at work in intercession equip us to become better encouragers. Here’s how:

Intercession agrees with Heaven about another person

When I intercede for someone else, I begin by considering what heaven says about them. (Not incidentally, intercession helps me regularly and affectionately thinking about others, instead of keeping my radar focused on me.) What do the scriptures affirm as true with regard to how God sees them, what He has done for them, and what is true about them in light of the finished work of Jesus? And further, what does the Holy Spirit say about them? His voice always encourages (consider that 1 Cor. 14 explains that His voice edifies either the speaker or the spoken to – only and always). These things are true about the person not because of their conduct, but because of their identity, calling and inheritance in Christ (Eph. 1:17-18). I pray these things, these truths, over the person. I agree with heaven about them. That is intercession. And, coincidentally, that carries right over into encouragement. I can “say” the same truths that I “pray.” I can (should) speak to people about and in the light of who they are because of what God has done for them in Christ, and about the joyful, hopeful, powerful implications thereof. Encouragement is agreeing with heaven about someone to their face.

Intercession Follows Love’s Promptings

Having considered and agreed with heaven, I can intercede further by immersing my heart and mind into the love of God for a person, and then praying according to Love’s inspiration. What does Love prompt me to feel or think toward them in the moment? Pray accordingly. The same is true for encouragement. Trust the leadership of Love. This is fantastic exercise to cultivate divine empathy for others. Again, I can “say” the same truths that I “pray.” Listening and responding to Love’s prompting is a powerful means of encouragement, enabling me to become a conduit of the love of God.

Intercession Gives Thanks

Reading Paul’s prayers of intercession, one cannot miss that Paul expressed gratitude toward God for those he prayed, even as he asked for great things for them. When praying over others, it is powerful and practical to pause and deliberately affirm before God how and why we are grateful for them. This, again, will condition us to readily express our appreciation to others. Gratitude is very encouraging, whether general or specific. Use both. Express gratitude for the “general” things about a person (that will help shape and enforce their sense of identity) and for the specific things they are or do (that will affirm their uniqueness and value).

With intercession, you are not the expert

When I pray for others, I am not primarily expressing my opinion to God. I don’t treat my opinion as the primary objective standard by which God should act. The same is true for encouragement; it is not primarily about my opinion. Encouragement is rarely advice. It should never have as its goal the desire to control or direct someone’s behavior, getting then to say or do or decide what I think is right for them. That is mentoring or managing – and those are based on a set of shared expectations, where a measure of control is granted to another party by permission. Encouragement doesn’t require permission, because it is not an instrument of control.  I can pray for you all day (and you may not even know about it), and I can encourage at-will without even asking. I seek only to grace you and not govern you. Encouragement goes in the gas tank; it does not reach for the steering wheel.

Leaving  people better than we found them: 

            Intercession and encouragement go hand-in-glove; they work well together. Both are grace-gifts that help us leave people better than we found them. They are happy habits, practicing one helps us with the other. I’d suggest starting with intercession, but don’t wait to encourage. After all, it is “today.”

Leave People Better than You Found Them


How many of you have ever needed the ministry of discouragement? I don’t mean talked out of a bad idea or steered in a different direction via the courageous confrontation of a faithful friend. I mean how often have you needed to have your courage revoked? No one ever needs that. Rather, people deeply and regularly need and benefit greatly from encouragement.

Encouragement is an essential, integral aspect of the Christian’s calling. The writer of Hebrews twice enjoins his readers to “encourage one another” (Heb. 3:13, 10:25)*. We are to encourage one another “as long as it is called today.” That means that if it is “today” then it is the right day to encourage someone. Encouragement is a regular, ongoing, daily exercise. Encouragement, in the context of chapter 3 of Hebrews, is a powerful means to keep our hearts soft and free from sin’s deceitfulness. In chapter 10, the readers are encouraged to encourage one another more and more as we see “the day” approaching – meaning the Day of the Lord. Encourage one another, more and more, with every day that draws us nearer to Christ’s return. That means that not only do we encourage one another daily, but that with every passing day we get better at encouragement, and that we do so more often. Daily, we should get better at leaving people better than we found them. Today is a perfect day to start.

* In 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and 5:14 Paul uses similar language, urging his readers to continue encouraging one another regularly, and especially the disheartened.


Spiritual Spontaneity in a Worship Gathering

living in the box

Every Thursday morning I meet the same friend for breakfast. We meet at the same time, and we meet for approximately the same length of time each week. I know pretty well what range of subject matter we’ll talk about. I am nearly certain what each of us will eat for breakfast. And yet, each morning we meet, our conversation is fresh, it is robust, it is encouraging, open and honest. We have cried (well, we’re dudes so we only got a little choked up); we laugh (without fail, every week). We don’t have a specific agenda to cover, though we may likely have thoughtfully prepared a thought or question or story for the other. Our meetings are the result of schedule, planning, and preparation. But when we actually sit down, no matter how much of our routine is…routine, our conversation and interaction is living. It is spontaneous. It is guided by good manners but stirred by great passion.

I reflect on this breakfast dynamic as I consider current (though ancient) discussion about the structure and flow of worship gatherings – of “church” – in terms of the freedom and movement of the Holy Spirit.  I read blog posts and articles and have heard posited from pulpitis cautioning against spontaneity or sensationalism, reminding the reader or auditor that The Holy Spirit can anoint thorough preparation and bless tidy presentation.  I have observed, too, the hazards and chaos and boundary-less worship gatherings that are blamed on the Holy Spirit (who evidently struggles with Tourette’s Syndrome or ADHD).

I would argue, not so much for one or the other, but for an alternative. Of course the Holy Spirit is planner and a preparer. It was He who hovered over the face of deep (Genesis 1) at creation before any creative word was released. It was He who stirred Samson (Judges 13:25) before any lion or Philistine tasted death-by-fist. It was He who filled and “flipped” John the Baptist in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15, 44) before any locust shared a plate with wild honey or anyone got wet with repentance. I deeply believe and depend upon His infilling and influence each week as I prepare to lead our worship gatherings and study for messages to share with the church. In fact, I believe that the Spirit prompts “previews” of needs that can be met, themes to emphasize, and specific actions to take to engage the congregation. I am glad and grateful for the partnership of the Spirit with regard to planning and preparation.

However, I do not leave the Holy Spirit in my study. I bring Him, or rather follow Him, into the auditorium. Much like my breakfast meeting, this occasion is planned for, prepared for, and even allotted a certain time-frame for completion. But also like my breakfast meeting, I anticipate a living atmosphere, a dynamic environment. Real people have gathered in this room. People with needs and opportunities, people with gifts and graces. Moreover, a Real Person is present to preside over and permeate this gathering. The Holy Spirit is fully, actively present with us. It more than just stands to reason that I should be ready for spontaneity, I should expect and accommodate it. Whenever you combine man’s passion and God’s Presence, you’d better leave some white-space in the margins.

Consider with me the role of some of the unplanned events in the NT narratives. Most of the individual miracle stories of Jesus, the ones where we have most specific details and the same ones that have inspired the hope and faith of countless generations, are the result of Jesus being interrupted. If Jesus had refused to accommodate spontaneity (as a result of man’s passion connecting with divine presence), consider the consequences. He would have never made water into wine (John 2). He wouldn’t have freed the grave-living demoniac (Mark 5:1-2). He’d have never told the lame man to take up his bed and walk (Matthew 9:2). He wouldn’t have raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18). The blind men shouting for mercy would have remained “shushed.” In fact, the tendency to shush people and keep them from interrupting didn’t start with seeker-sensitive services. The disciples of Jesus tried to keep a tidy ministry from the get-go (Mark 10:13-14, Mark 10:42, Matthew 15:21-23). The list of things that Jesus would not have done gets very long if we don’t let him get interrupted.

Along those lines, I don’t believe that wind and fire and glossolalia were on the prayer meeting agenda in the upper room (Acts 2). Peter and John went to pray, and met a lame man on the way….(Acts 3). Things got real crazy during offering (Acts 5).

A living, dynamic gathering need not be characterized by and certainly not limited to specific manifestations or expressions. The Holy Spirit speaks to and through us in various and creative ways. People often see pictures, or feel an impression, or are made aware of specific needs in the room—the goal of which is all to minister grace to the gathered.

Nor is there any need for or benefit from rudeness or overt silly-ness. It seems reasonable to welcome people who have some established level of relationship in the community to share with the gathered what they feel the Spirit is saying to / through them for the benefit of the body. It also seems reasonable that they do so at a time that makes sense in the flow of the service (especially if white space is deliberately provided). Spontaneity need not be urgent; “when” we hear from or share something the Spirit has said is not nearly as important as how we respond. Furthermore, there should be a reasonable means for people to share – like having a microphone available for people to come to. There’s no rationale for hollering-at-will from around the room—no one needs to reach from the back seat of the car and grab the steering wheel. Great passion can function in the context of good manners.

But the largest issue is simply to remember, to celebrate and surrender to the reality that God, very God, the Holy Spirit is present with us. He is living; He is active; He is speaking and acting—through people, the community gathered for worship. The presence and activity of the Spirit in the life and functions of the church is important to heaven. His coming and activity are actually the final intention and plan of God for the planet (Acts 2:17-18). There is no replacement for His presence, no substitute for His activity. He should fill and flood our plan, our preparation, and our presentation. Ultimately, we, the church, are being built together in Christ for the singularly sublime purpose of being a dwelling where God lives by His Spirit (Eph. 2:22). I’m planning on it.

The Tears of the Oppressed and The Compassionate Commission

tears of the oppressed

Ecclesiastes 4 begins with the teacher describing yet another meaningless situation.  He says, “I saw oppression, and the tears of the oppressed. The oppressors have great power, and the victims are helpless.” He responds to such sadness by saying, “So I concluded it is better to dead.” (My paraphrase of Ecc. 4:1-2)

He observes the pain and injustice of oppression, and the sad helplessness of suffering and concludes that the only response is to wait for death. Death is the solution to oppression and suffering. The dead can’t be hurt, nor will they have to endure suffering.

Most folks familiar enough with biblical literature know that by this point Solomon had polluted his mind and heart by indulging in debauchery and was pontificating from a poisoned point of view. We don’t generally accept his position that life is meaningless as reliable let alone inspiring.

However, I find some similarities in some Christian thought / teaching with the sentiment expressed here. We see oppression. We see the tears of the oppressed. We see the sick, the hurting, the tormented and the persecuted. Their tears stain our prayer altars and clinic counters. Other’s tears are well-hidden, their pain or addiction or personal torment is obfuscated behind affluence or well-managed-appearance. Most often they are offered means of coping with their problems. They are supported; they are pitied, they are accommodated. They may be offered the best tools available for managing their pain or controlling their addiction. Some of the best-hearted people on the planet are doing everything they can to help relieve some of the symptoms of the suffering.

But here’s the rub. No real hope is offered for a solution, no real means of dealing with the oppressor (the cause of oppression) seems possible. It is good and kind and appropriate for us to console the tearful, but we fall short unless we confront the tyranny behind those tears. Ultimately the hurting (or sick, or oppressed) are too often told to hold out until heaven. They are, essentially, “encouraged” that they will be better off dead.

On a larger scale, there is popular sentiment that this whole world is so bad and getting so much worse, and therefore “we just can’t wait for the first bus out of here.” Swing low, sweet chariot! I am glad for heaven; I rejoice that there is more Life than this life; I am grateful that death is not final. But death is not our hope, and managing suffering is not our mission.

Compare the Teacher’s (Ecc. 4:1-2) resignation against Christ’s compassion. In Matthew 9:35-38 the reader finds Jesus fully engaged in powerful, compassionate confrontation of suffering. “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Jesus came as a liberator, a deliverer, a healer—with a specific message and mission to the oppressed and their oppressor (Luke 4:18-19, Acts 10:38, 1 John 3:8). Jesus saw the tears of the oppressed, and He (like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes) saw that the oppressor was strong and the oppressed were helpless; “he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Harassed and helpless. The language here implies a third party – an aggressor, an harasser. Someone is harassing the multitude, and they are helpless against their oppressor. Jesus, in contrast to the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, responds with resolve. His solution was NOT to console the hurting with the hope of death, but to enjoin His followers to join Him in being carriers of hope and help.

Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” What was the harvest? The harvest was the mandate from heaven to powerfully, compassionately confront suffering. Jesus saw the oppressed and hurting as a harvest. Meaning, he saw bound people as potentially free people, and the sick as well, and the broken as whole. This is harvest. So, Jesus implores, pray! Ask Heaven to intervene because only Heaven can deal with hell. Specifically, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest. In other words, Heaven is going to deal with suffering by sending you to do something about it.

And right away the reader finds that Jesus sends His disciples out to confront suffering exactly the way he did: He gathered His disciples together and “gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matt. 10:1). Notice the exact same depiction of Jesus’ ministry in Matt. 4:23-25 and 9:35. Their commission included the mission and means to drive out the evil spirits while delivering healing for hurting people. Christ commands them, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give’” (10:7-8). Christians have the mission of Christ (vv. 7-8) and the means of Christ (10:1).

God hates suffering. He has given us resources and responsibility to powerfully, compassionately, comfort the oppressed and confront their oppressor. It’s worthwhile to explore how we go about this, what this looks like in our life-settings, and even how to start. However, because the harvest is great, let the workers start working, even if we must learn on the job. But of first importance is that we embrace fully the belief that the suffering are not better of dead. They are the harvest.