The apostle Paul was big on encouragement. He opens his letter to the Philippians with this deeply personal greeting, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’ (Phil 1:3). Who could fail to be delighted by these words? In 1 Thessalonians he says, ‘We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well’ (1 Thess 1:8). He communicated words that must have been such a thrill for his original readers but even now, down the centuries, they still connect with something deep inside. We don’t ever tire of hearing these words.
Someone commented recently that we’re all insecure and under-encouraged. I was really struck by this. It may not be how you feel right now but, as I’ve reflected on my own experience and on conversations over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded repeatedly that there is a lot of truth in this. Perhaps especially now as we emerge from a lockdown that has at times seemed endless – many of us feeling fragile, weary and bruised – we are really very badly in need of encouragement. It has been a tough year.
Paul urges us in Ephesians 4:29 to ‘build each other up’ with our words. Encouragement is one of the core foundations of living in relationship. Words of encouragement are a balm to the soul. There’s something supernatural about how they lift us up and nourish us. We flourish when we’re encouraged. We feel less alone, we feel seen, we feel acknowledged. So, I want to suggest three key elements of encouragement: sincere words, words in community and the words of Jesus.
1. Sincere words
Proverbs 16:24 says ‘Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones’. There’s a mystery here. They are words and yet they bring healing. Ponder the last time you were genuinely encouraged by someone and how it made you feel. It can change the course of the day, week or even longer.
A pastor introducing me to his leaders last year, as I was navigating the mental health implications of the pandemic with them, spoke with such kindness that his words have stayed with me ever since. Remembering this, a year later, is both emboldening and a quiet reassurance of God’s hand on my life. It spurs me on (in the words of the writer to the Hebrews) to do good works (Heb 10:24). This pastor’s encouragement was an affirmation. This was someone who knew me so I recognised that he was both genuine and sincere. And of course, the opposite is true when we only pick at faults or forget to encourage at all – the world is harder and lonelier. We doubt ourselves even more and can find ourselves retreating from those who might hurt us. Job’s comforters were not encouragers. They wore Job down, questioned his love of God, questioned God’s love for him. They picked and picked at his faults. They diminished Job.
We need genuine words of truth to strengthen us for what comes our way, to give us hope that will guide us when we are riddled with doubt, drained of confidence and anxious for the future. I’m not talking about meaningless words designed to puff us up or to flatter us, I’m talking of using our words wisely as gifts from the Lord to bless.
2. Words in community
Our normal rhythms of life have been drastically reduced recently and along with that the opportunities to incidentally encourage have almost disappeared. Lockdown and all its implications, necessary as they have been, have created barriers to the casual unplanned interactions of life – no ‘good to see you’, no ‘you’re doing a great job as a mum’, no visible reminders that someone else is struggling to prompt kind words. Remember gracious words are a honeycomb. They taste delicious. They strengthen us. They satisfy us. We need them. In many ways we’ve been starved of them over the past year. What on earth would we do without the community of saints around us? 1 Corinthians 12:27 reminds us that we are the body of Christ and each one of us is a part of it. We cannot do this on our own.
As we emerge from lockdown, perhaps feeling a slight panic at the thought of a return to normality, how can we share words that will be sweet to our souls? Take some time to prayerfully consider who in your community, in your church, is keenly in need of a thoughtful word.
3. Words of Jesus
Jesus is, of course, our ultimate encourager. The sweetest words of all come from our Saviour. He reminds us to ‘Take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). He says that he is going to prepare a place for us (John 14:3). He calls us his friends (John 15:15). When we do feel alone and forgotten (maybe we haven’t heard from that friend for over a month), Jesus remembers us. He sees us and knows exactly what we need to hear. He hasn’t forgotten you. Jesus is not only our ultimate encourager, he is our encouragement: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).
If the Spirit prompts you to make that phone call, send that text or write that card, then do it. Don’t underestimate the need around you. Words of encouragement also delight the giver. You are in the business of kingdom work.