I’m taking some risks here. No, I’m not talking about politics, except in the sense that everything is connected to politics these days. I’m talking about things we’re bad at but don’t seem aware that we’re so bad at, or don’t care that we are.
I’m going to explain, so please bear with me.
Saturday, I started thinking about what I would write next. My muse or God’s Spirit or whatever part of my cerebral cortex lines up words in a row started composing a post on encouragement, which I think is 1)crucially important and 2)woefully under-utilized. Encouraging others is one of the most easily accessible and impactful ways to love people.
My thoughts were starting to gain momentum and I sat down to set them down. But then it occurred to me to check if or what I’d already written on encouragement.
Huh. Lo and behold, there was a post about encouragement I’d put up quite a while ago, earlier in this little blog’s history. I read it and you know, it was pretty good. One of my better ones, albeit not as accessible as some. By “accessible” I mean I often try to write in such a way that both Jesus followers and those who aren’t can connect with what I’m saying. For the encouragement post, my reasoning will appeal more to people who share my beliefs about Jesus…though ya know, encouragement–it’s applicable for everyone.
Here’s the point I’m not beating around the bush to make: nobody had read it. Not literally “nobody,” but it was in the bottom quarter of my posts, which is mostly populated by sermons (and I get that not everyone wants to listen to a sermon online), sermon manuscripts (ditto, insert “read” ), and some misfires.
Okay. Few people read it the first time, I’m not a wiz at self-promotion, there could be other explanations…so I decided I’d repost it. I worked it over, edited some, found a good picture that connected better with my theme, and stuck it back up on a Saturday afternoon.
And nobody read it. A much smaller pool of nobody than the first time. I could see people thinking, “Nah, I’ve seen that before,” but A)It looked different, and B)Very few read it the first time, so they hadn’t seen it before.
If you’re still with me here, God bless your soul. Let me make this clear: I’m not writing a post whining or feeling sorry for myself that more people don’t read my posts. I promise on my baseball card collection.* Now don’t get me wrong, I could write that; I am capable of such ill-advised self-pity. But were I to do so, I would probably make more references to my under-appreciated genius. Keep an eye out for that, it will be your first clue.
I’m saying that almost no one has interest in reading what I have to say about encouragement, which is a topic I happen to understand well. A pastor friend who, in general, has reservations about my abilities–not a guess here–made a point of recognizing my “gift of encouragement” publicly. (Yes, I was encouraged.) “Encouraging” is one of the words I hear most frequently when people describe me (“short” and “competitive” also rank high). In contrast, people do read what I say about politics and I’m truly not an expert in that field.
I’m very discouraged, irony intended, that people don’t take more interest in encouragement. If we’ll grant that I might know what I’m talking about, the possible reasons I see are A)People seriously just don’t care, B)People already think they’re doing just fine in this area.
I’m guessing there’s not a lot I can do about “A.” Not that I won’t try. I mentor high school and college students, a lot. I teach them, coach them, pastor, counsel, and mentor them. I’ve been in ministry in one form or another for approaching 30 years now. EVERY STUDENT I KNOW AND NEARLY EVERY PERSON I’VE EVER WORKED WITH DIRECTLY IN MINISTRY NEEDS MORE ENCOURAGEMENT THAN THEY GET.
I know, all caps is shouting. But that’s the deal. Encouragement is empowering and healing and it costs us nothing except the will to love and the effort to pay real attention. Maybe those are not small “excepts.”
But I don’t believe people think of encouragement as unimportant. I personally believe that most recognize its importance and already believe they are good at it.
Again, drawing on 30 years of experience, politely and diplomatically I’m going to say “no.”
I have met some extraordinarily encouraging people in my life. I have seen the power their words and actions have to heal and transform hurting individuals. I’m not saying they aren’t out there.
But this is my opinion, this is the thin ice upon which I will now stomp: most people are poor at encouraging others.**
As long as I’m going to get hypothermia anyway, I’ll add this: most people are poor listeners. I mean, somewhere between not very good and truly lousy. And I thought this to be true long before electronic devices started sucking up what little attention we pay to others.
These points are connected, of course. Encouragement requires attention. Listening and encouraging are both acts of love built from time and a willingness to see beyond ourselves. Jesus was a great listener, which is striking considering that he knew he had some important things to say. But since his important things to say revolved around, “I love you,” it shouldn’t surprise us at all that Jesus loved people by listening to them. Jesus was also the greatest encourager, which comes as no surprise since encouragement is rooted in seeing people through God’s eyes, so…duh.
Now we’ve come to the part of the show where I tell you why I think people are such poor encouragers (and listeners), even though they think they’re awesome. Let me say first, I don’t know if this applies to you or not. You may very well be a much better encourager than I am. As honest as I am capable of being with myself, I don’t say these things out of pride or boasting. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help change the world, and this one feels big to me.
- It’s not a competition. You may work in the most cutthroat position in the most backstabbing industry and you may have to fight for your job every day, and I’m not telling you how to do your job (about which I have no clue), but this is still true: Life is not a bloody competition. We are not here to tear others down. We are not here to ignore others. We are not here to build ourselves up at the cost of others nor to convince them how great we are. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Straightforward. I think often we don’t encourage others because we’re already afraid they’re going to beat us–at whatever–and we’re not going to give them any more advantages. But the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God and the wisdom of God is foolishness in this world.
As mentioned above, I’m competitive. Being competitive and being encouraging are not mutually exclusive if we can accept that life itself is not a competition and the people with whom we compete are more important than the competition itself. Always. But the deeper competition, not sports but jockeying for position in life, trying to gauge our value by how we stack up against others, prohibits us from building others up. This may be my weakest area, in terms of encouraging those around me, because I too often feel threatened by their success or abilities that I don’t have, which inclines me to shut my mouth when I could speak words of life to them. I repent.
When we see others as threats, when we envy them, when we need to outdo or defeat them, the last thing on our minds is “How could I build this person up?” But love overcomes our fears. Perfect love casts out all fear. What would it mean if, even when we are competing, even when a job or promotion or a very important game was on the line, we could still build up instead of tearing down, regardless of who wins?
- We know love when we seek to love. We grow in our capacity to receive love as we love others. We are healed as we seek others’ healing. Because we fail to grasp this, we miss how important encouraging other people is for them and for ourselves.
There are times when we are going through extreme torment and struggle when we must focus inward and pull in our arms instead of extending ourselves for others. There is no shame in this. God isn’t disappointed in us. Sometimes we have to do whatever we can to keep breathing and survive.
In the general course of our lives, however, we love ourselves well by loving others. When we show grace, we can receive grace. Refusing to offer grace cuts off the same channel through which we can accept grace, just as refusing to forgive cuts off the same channel through which we receive forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom counseled fellow Holocaust survivors to move forward in their lives by caring for others. The moment I read that, I became convinced this truth applies to all of us.
We have not become encouragers because we have failed to grasp the power of our words for others and for ourselves. We do not encourage as we could because we are still learning that building up others is loving ourselves. Being an encouragement is not a nice extra we might add on to the resume, it’s our way out of the traps of being small-hearted and self-centered. We encourage other people for our own healing as well as theirs, because God designed us to grow spiritually as we give.
- We simply think too much about ourselves and not enough about others. I don’t offer this as something we can quickly fix nor am I suggesting that we will correct it just by becoming aware of the problem. But we have to face it. It is important to love ourselves–Jesus actually makes it part of the second most important commandments–but real self-love is not self-obsession. It’s not self above others. Jesus said we gain life as we give up our lives and we become great as we learn to serve other people. Learning to become other-focused is a crucial step.
My take is we are, most of us, blind to this, certainly blind to the extent of it in our lives.
“Okay, yeah, I’m a little selfish. Aren’t we all?”
Yes, we all are.
Do you know the best way to be encouraging to others? Pay attention to them. Literally, give them your attention. As a gift. Focus. Listen. Learn what’s important to them. Hear what hurts them and what brings them joy. Give them enough time and enough chance to speak that you know what matters to them. As one who listens, I often wonder if people are aware how much they speak versus how much they listen. And being silent doesn’t necessarily imply true listening.
Then, look for how you can affirm them in areas that they value. One easy way to do this is to see what you value in common. It’s easy because you really do care about this and can say with all sincerity that you think it’s great how they are invested in it, too. But whether you share the interest or not, encouragement counts double when it touches on something that truly matters to the person you’re seeking to encourage.
If you are still with me–God bless your fields and your crops and your livestock and your pets–and you sincerely want to improve in these areas of your life, I’ll end with this: our lives are made up of small steps in the right direction. Obedience and faith are almost entirely (seemingly) little choices in the right direction. Learning to become people who seek justice, who love mercy, who walk humbly with God, all of this happens a moment at a time, sometimes even through imperceptible increments. We make a small choice, we grow, and through this God changes us.
Is God nudging you to encourage anyone in particular? If you want to try to be more encouraging, listen a little more. Take a bit more time to pay attention. Pay attention to the other person and pay attention to yourself. Are there things in you that hold you back from speaking affirmation? Sometimes we hesitate to encourage certain people simply because they bug us and we don’t want them to take our affirmation as condoning how they act. I’m sincerely glad God does not wait for us to stop doing irritating things before we receive his grace or his encouragement. God’s kindness leads us to repentance. God will address our sins and weaknesses and foibles in good time but God’s first priority is to make certain we know we are loved. Is that my first priority for those in my path?
May it be so.
*You think that’s a weak promise? Ask my wife.
**If this strikes you as arrogant, understand that I believe humility is a right view of ourselves before God and I’m also acutely aware of the things at which I’m lousy, which is a foundation of my understanding of grace.