1 After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. 2 When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. (Acts 20:1,2 ESV)
When studying this passage in Sunday school this spring, we had to address the question, “What is encouragement?” “Encouragement” is one of those Christiany words that can bring a soft, Precious Moments haze to our thinking. We often use is as a replacement for “feeling good.” I was encouraged to know you were thinking about me when my father was in the hospital. But is that what this word really means?
What is Encouragement?
If we are to interpret Acts 20 correctly, we need to learn what “encourage/encouragement” means. Additionally, since we are charged with “encourag[ing] one another” as a Biblical imperative (1 Thess 5:11), this is not only a matter of interpretation, but obedience.
A quick Bible search will help. Frequently the words translated “encourage” are used in parallel with other words or phrases which mean “to strengthen” or “to build up.” This can be seen in 1 Thess 5:11, Deut 3:28, Acts 15:32, and 1 Cor 14:3. There is also a note on 1 Cor 8:10 in the ESV that indicates “fortified” or “built up” is an appropriate way to translate this word. We should further consider the meaning of the English word “encourage,” since translations from Hebrew and Greek take this definition into account: this dictionary suggests that “encourage” means “to inspire with courage, spirit, or confidence,” “to stimulate by assistance,” or “to promote, advance, or foster.” “Embolden” and “hearten” are listed as synonyms for “encourage.”
How to Give Encouragement
How are you strengthened? How are you built up? It may give you a warm feeling to know that someone is thinking of you or missing you, but does that really strengthen you? Does that equip you for the challenges and tasks that lie ahead of you? How are you emboldened or heartened in your Christian walk?
Before offering some practical suggestions on encouragement, let me make one appeal. Encouragement is individual. Though there are some activities or approaches that apply broadly, the work of encouragement within a local church must be preceded by the work of getting to know your neighbor. While a preacher or leader can encourage a congregation from the front of the sanctuary, encouragement is more meaningful and effective on a smaller scale. If you know how your friend is wired and you are aware of his or her particular struggles, you will be much more effective in your encouragment.
With that said, here are four ways to encourage a brother or sister in Christ.
- Speak gospel words. Often the most encouraging action is a loving reminder of the gospel. When we are lonely, dejected, or mourning, we need to be reminded of God’s faithful, unconditional love. When our lives seem overrun with disappointment and failure, sorrow and sadness, we need to hear again of our great savior, Jesus and his work on our behalf. We must be careful not to bring the gospel to our believing friends in a trite, little-orphan-Annie sort of way. (“The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar!”) But if our speech is seasoned with salt and we are frequently conversing about the things of God, reminding a friend about what is true will be natural, loving, and encouraging. Remember, the enemy of our souls wants us to forget this great truth in favor of believing his lies. We will fight against Satan and the darkness within by speaking the truth in love to one another.
- Pray. This is one of the ways I have felt the most genuine encouragement over the years. A friend who is praying for me is doing far more than merely thinking of me—he is lifting my concerns up before the God of the universe. And, in his mysterious way, this is how God carries out his plan. How emboldening it is to know that someone is asking the only one who has ultimate power to work on my behalf, pleading that his will be done!
Prayer by itself will encourage, because God really does hear, provide strength, and work. But telling a brother about your prayers for him can accomplish much within his heart.
- Identify God’s work. When you feel trapped in a stubborn sin pattern, you might despair of God’s grace. You might believe the lie that you are not growing, and maybe you’re not God’s child at all. Enter a friend. With a bit of distance from your struggle, he can remind you how much growth God has given you in the last year or six months. What an encouragement it is to know that God has not abandoned me over a long period of time, and that he is at work in me! And if God has been at work in me over the past year, and if his word says he is commited to me, why wouldn’t he continue to work in my life? In my experience, the more specific you can be here, the better.
- Give practical help. In the way that an archer is emboldened to stand and fire his arrows if he does not also have to hoist his shield, so we can strengthen our friends for good works by shouldering some special or everyday burdens for them. By babysitting you may free a couple to strengthen their marriage on a date; by supplying a meal, you may give that sick mother another crucial hour to rest; by swooping in with a mop, broom, and sponge you may teach that single man some of the skills he needs to make his apartment more inviting for the members of his evangelistic Bible study group. Remember, encouraging is more than doing something nice—this is no mere muffin-delivery service. The goal behind an act of encouragement is to strengthen and build up.
In the end, encouragement is one way to image our God to a fellow Christian. We can speak to, work for, and hug our friends in a way that provides a small echo of the earth-shaking ways God has spoken to, worked for, and loved us.