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Build me up - don’t push me down! 

We all need encouragement from time to time - this is what it is (and isn't). By Colin Sedgwick 



A man turned to me once after a sermon which had been, in essence, a word of encouragement: “You know, it’s really refreshing to hear this kind of message. All these ‘challenging’ and ‘hard-hitting’ sermons we keep getting are all very well, but so often you just end up reeling, feeling guilty and a failure.”

Encouragement: it’s a key word in the Christian life. Or should be.

When Paul was on his missionary journeys he didn’t usually stay very long in one place. His method was to preach Christ first to his fellow-Jews in the local synagogue, to gather around him a group of new believers, and then to move on to the next place.

But he made an exception for the big, bustling city of Ephesus, a focal point of political, economic and religious power. We learn in Acts 19 and 20 that he stayed there for over two years; and his stay was anything but uneventful, to put it mildly. To cap it all, the city erupted into a riot - what Luke calls “uproar” - triggered by the preaching of the gospel, and Paul decided it was time he was on his way.

But before he left there was something he was keen to do. Luke tells us that he “sent for the disciples” and “encouraged” them. He then tells us that, after leaving, he “travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people”.

Paul, of course, is among people who haven’t been followers of Jesus for all that long, people who live in an area dominated by dark forces such as the worship of the goddess Artemis (or Diana) of the Ephesians, people whose society is corrupted by all kinds of immorality. If these infant Christians are to thrive after his departure - well, they need all the encouragement they can get!

The circumstances of many of us today are very different, thank God. But the fact remains that life brings all of us many troubles and pressures - and not least the Christian life. Whether you look at the “developed” or the “undeveloped” world, the powers of darkness, ignorance, superstition and sheer wickedness sometimes seem overwhelming. How can the people Jesus called his “little flock” (Luke 12:32) possibly survive, never mind thrive? Sheep among wolves indeed.

Encouragement is vital.

But what is encouragement? What does this quite common word in fact mean?

It’s an elastic word - you can stretch it different ways. At its simplest: to encourage someone is to give them a boost. And this can be done in various ways... A simple word of thanks for something done. An arm literally or metaphorically round the shoulder. A word of advice, guidance or rebuke. Even perhaps a bit of a scold (as long, of course, as it’s a loving scold). A practical gift to meet a particular need.

In essence, the person on the receiving end of encouragement will feel that they have somebody standing with them - somebody who loves and cares and who has power to help them. In the New Testament the ultimate encourager is the Holy Spirit himself - in John 14:26 Jesus calls him “the Advocate”: and that word could be translated “Encourager”.

Of course it’s not only preachers who can offer encouragement in their sermons; in fact, they may be the people who need it most! It can seem a thankless task preaching your heart out to what sometimes seems like a brick wall.

The fact is that encouragement should be like a perfume that fills the whole church. Just as flowers blossom in the spring sunshine, so Christians blossom under encouragement.

A word of warning, though: let’s be careful not to confuse encouragement with flattery.

Flattery can be described as false praise, given in order to worm your way into somebody’s good books so as to get something from them. That is obviously wrong.

But well-meaning Christians can also be guilty of false praise. Why? Because we don’t like hurting people’s feelings by being frank and honest, and so we offer syrupy words of praise instead - and we imagine that we are somehow doing them good.

This too is wrong. We need to learn how to speak the truth in kind and loving ways, ways that allow scope for further talk and, hopefully, solid building up.

I love the wise words of Proverbs 27:6 - that “wounds inflicted by a friend” can in fact be “trusted”; whereas the person who “multiplies kisses” is an “enemy”.

Worth thinking about, that!

Christian, make up your mind to be a Spirit-like encourager!

Image | Unsplash 

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com


Baptist Times, 17/04/2018
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