Sometimes it takes only one little word, or a smile, or a grasp of the hand. Sometimes it means standing by someone during a particularly hard time and helping him or her not give in to despair.
What does encouragement mean to you? Can you recall a time when someone came alongside you for the sole purpose of lifting your spirits or making you smile?
Have you ever done that for a hurting person? It feels good to know you're loved. It feels especially good in those low moments when you can't see ahead clearly, when you don't grasp God's perspective and vision for your life.
Romans 12:7-8 says: "If it [the spiritual gift] is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully."
God has given each of us special tasks within the body of Christ, and those with the gift of encouragement can rejoice in their unique and tender ministries.
But encouragement isn't strictly the domain of those to whom the Lord has given a special gift; it's not just an activity for those with naturally "bubbly" or "warm" personalities.
It's the wonderful, God-given function of everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ.
In the early days of the church, the new believers were in great need of encouragement. Societal pressures were great, persecution in certain locales was tremendous, and the availability of the apostle's teaching was limited at best.
In his book The Power Of Encouragement, David Jeremiah explains what encouragement means in practical application:
"Each of us lives some of our days in the war zone! Weekly we face battles, challenges, and shock. When we see the missiles flying overhead, we need someone who will give us encouragement. Encouragement is transfusing some of your courage into another life.
"The Bible says, 'In the last days perilous times will come' (2 Timothy 3:1).
"The Book of Hebrews says we ought to be more and more involved in encouragement as these days approach.
"When the perilous times increase and the battles intensify, we will need encouragement more than we've ever needed it.
"One of the motivations behind Paul's letters to the New Testament churches was his desire to encourage . . . They faced life-threatening challenges every day. Paul, who founded most of these churches, wrote to communicate his heart to them. In the beginning verses of almost every one of his letters, Paul's priority message was a word of hope and affirmation."
Paul's instructions to Timothy, and by extension to the church at large, were an exhortation to continual readiness to speak words of truth and hope:
"Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV).
Encouragement is not always speedy in its administration; the real kind is always attentive to deeper spiritual needs and is willing to go the distance.
Very often, encouragement for the early church came in the form of a person, as it does today. Sometimes just the sight of a certain loved one can reinvigorate your spirits and remove your focus from yourself. More than once the companion Tychicus was sent by Paul as a special envoy of joy.
The ministry of encouragement is indispensable, both to yourself and to the body of Christ. Pastors and Christian counselors speak often about the devastating effects of depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation - in the community of believers. These aren't just the problems of those who do not know the hope of Christ.
Emotional paralysis and insensitivity to spiritual concerns are frequent ailments of believers who simply need a positive reminder of Jesus' love and the joy of trusting Him.
There's no such thing as a person who doesn't need encouragement. The individual who claims to be above "simple-minded comfort," or who seems completely unreceptive to it, is likely the one in the most dire need of it. God's Word is filled with important principles that can be applied to building up others' hearts.
Maintain a positive attitude of peacemaking, reconciliation, and hope.
The prayer of your heart can be the same as Paul's, who longed for all believers to know the sweetness of united fellowship.
He prayed "that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself" (Colossians 2:2).
Do you see what comes from an atmosphere of encouragement?
Comfort and understanding provide fertile ground for spiritual growth and nurture. By seeking ways to build up those with whom you interact on a daily basis, you further the potential for meaningful, Christ-centered relationships. It's crucial to always speak graciously and politely, the way you want others to speak to you.
The issue of communication is paramount in every arena of life. Colossians 4:5-6 says: "Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person."
It's not always easy to use gentle words, particularly in a situation in which you must confront someone about an uncomfortable issue--or when the person is antagonistic or abrasive to you. If you ask the Lord to set a guard over your tongue, He will give you discretion in what to say and what to withhold. (Psalm 141:3)
A common pitfall of misguided encouragers, however, is the temptation to flattery. Complimenting someone's appearance or abilities is a good thing, when it is done for the purpose of genuine appreciation without seeking gain for oneself. If every time you see someone you feel the urge to find something to compliment about that person, analyze your motives. No one trusts or believes a continual stream of empty praise, so make sure that your compliments are sincere, sparing, and designed to encourage at appropriate moments.
Remember to encourage yourself with God's truth and to savor reminders of His love through others.
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