In These Difficult Times, Be An Encourager (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
The Bible verse, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, reads: “Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up…” Encouraging and inspiring your neighbors is an important part of loving them as yourself. Providing encouragement and inspiration is doubly important because most people you meet are hurting in some way. Even if they don’t show it on the outside, most people are struggling on the inside. The problem might be grief, disappointment, insecurity, fear, betrayal, doubt, unmet needs, loneliness, or any number of other issues, but regardless of its source you can safely assume most people you interact with are struggling. Add the COVID-19 pandemic to the mix and things just get worse. This is the nature of life in a fallen world. Regardless of the specifics concerning their struggles, you will rarely be wrong if you assume that the people you interact with need encouragement.
Encouraging your neighbors means uplifting, supporting, cheering, and reassuring them. But even more important, it means giving them hope because the discouragement they feel robs them of hope. Discouragement and hopelessness go hand in hand. When trying to give discouraged neighbors hope, remember that a real and lasting sense of hope can be found only in Jesus Christ. He is not just a source of hope he is THE source of hope. This means the best way to encourage people who are struggling is to point them to our Lord.
Inspiring your neighbors means showing them an example that encourages them to do better and be better. By “do better” I mean trying to do one’s best in every situation. By “be better” I mean trying to walk more closely with God in every situation. People are inspired by an example they admire enough to emulate. This is why it is so important to consistently show your neighbors a Christ-like example in which you are always trying to do better and be better. No example is as worthy of emulating as one that reflects the image of Christ.
Encouragement and inspiration, though not the same thing, are closely related. More importantly, they work better in tandem. It is easier to inspire someone who feels encouraged and easier to encourage someone who feels inspired. Encouragement is usually provided in the form of words. Inspiration, on the other hand, is best provided by example. Together, encouragement and inspiration—words reinforced by an example—have the power to help people overcome the struggles they face and point them to a better future.
I have benefited immensely from the encouragement and inspiration of others. Here is just one example. I was ten years old and struggling because my parents had recently divorced. My mother found a job in an office supply company next to the courthouse in our hometown. In the summer when school was out, my brothers and I would ride to town with our mother and find ways to occupy ourselves while she worked. We played in the park, swam in the bayou, window shopped, browsed through the museum, and went to the occasional movie.
These activities were fun at first, but after a few weeks, I had seen everything our little town had to offer and was ready for something different. More studious than my brothers, I started bringing books to read and a box full of pencils and paper for writing and drawing. My favorite place to work was the lobby of the courthouse where there were comfortable chairs and tables. One day while I was scribbling away pretending to be a journalist writing a story for the local newspaper, a prominent local attorney I had seen several times stopped to talk.
He told me it was good to see a young man my age “hitting the books” on a summer day. As we talked, I became comfortable enough to share my situation with him. I told him about the divorce and how my mother was struggling to pay the bills. This attorney told me that life can be difficult but the best way to overcome my circumstances was to study hard and do well in school. He told me education would lead to a better life for me. Then he looked me right in the eyes and said, “David, I can tell you are a young man who is going to go far. Keep reading, writing, and studying and one day I will read about you in the newspaper.” To this day those are some of the most encouraging words I have ever heard; words I took to heart.
This attorney went on to become a state legislator and eventually governor of our state. I followed his career with interest, and was inspired by his example. I read about him in the local newspaper often. Then, years later, just as he said he would, he read about me. Even more years later, this former governor and I were inducted into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame on the same day. The Hall of Fame recognizes veterans from Florida not just for their military service but for contributions they make to the state following their time in the military. By the time of the ceremony, the Governor had died and was inducted posthumously, but after the ceremony I had the opportunity to thank his widow for the encouragement he gave a struggling ten-year old boy all those years earlier.
ENCOURAGEMENT IS NOT FALSE OPTIMISM
Before getting into more detail on the subject of encouragement, a caveat is in order. Encouragement is not false optimism. It is not painting artificially rosy pictures for people who are hurting, nor is it telling your neighbors everything is going to be fine when, in fact, it may not be; at least not in the short run. Encouragement is about giving Biblical hope not false hope.
Biblical hope is vertical in that it comes down to us from Jesus Christ and is Jesus Christ. Worldly hope is horizontal because it comes from people and things around us. Horizontal hope is fleeting at best. The most effective way to encourage neighbors who are struggling is to acknowledge the difficulties they face while praying for God’s grace and intervention in their lives. Let them know they have not been singled out and they are not being punished. Rather, in a fallen world, bad things sometimes happen to good people. When troubles pour down, the rain falls on sinners and saints alike.
Remind neighbors who are hurting that no matter how bad things seem in their lives at the moment, God loves them and will never leave them. Remind them that if they will place their fears, doubts, grief, disappointment, and insecurities at the feet of Jesus Christ in prayer he will walk with them through their ordeal. Finally, remind neighbors who are hurting that no matter how much they suffer in the short run, God will restore them in the long run if they remain faithful.
I learned a valuable lesson about the difference between false optimism and encouragement while playing football as a youngster. We were playing a game against a much better team. Not surprisingly, the score was lopsided in our opponent’s favor. By the fourth quarter, my team mates and I were pretty discouraged. We just wanted the game to end so we could escape an embarrassing scene that just kept getting worse.
Near the end of the game we were coming off the field after another failed attempt to move the ball. As we trotted toward the sideline, battered, bruised and our heads hung in shame, our cheerleaders were yelling, “We’re gunna Win, we’re gunna win!” They were all smiles and false optimism. With just five minutes left in the game and our team down more than 40 points, we weren’t going to win. This wasn’t television. Winning wasn’t even a possibility. Consequently, the false optimism of our cheerleaders just added to our discouragement. That’s when our coach called a timeout and assembled the entire team in a large huddle on the sideline.
Once we were gathered around him, the coach presented a no-nonsense message that was forthright, but encouraging. “We aren’t going to win this game, at least not on the scoreboard; all of you know that.” Then, pointing to his heart, he said, “But we can still win it in here. Look at the other team. They have become cocky, bragging to each other, laughing, and taunting you. They don’t think we can score on them or stop them from scoring on us. I think they are wrong.
“They have shut out every opponent they have played this year. Not one team has scored on them. They plan to shut us out too. We’re not going to let that happen. If we stop them from scoring on this drive, get the ball back, and put it in the end zone, we can walk off of this field with our heads held high. That’s just what we are going to do. Defense, I want you to put everything you have left into stopping them and getting the ball back. Offense, when we get the ball, I want you to put it in the end zone. We may not be in this team’s league, but we’re not going to be shut out or humiliated.”
Our defense took the field motivated, reinvigorated, and with a purpose. On the first play, our defense sacked their quarterback, caused him to fumble, and recovered the ball. That was step one. Our offensive team then took the field and proceeded to slam the ball into their defense three and four yards at a time. When we picked up our only first down of the second half, the opposing team became frantic. They started yelling, shoving, and blaming each other for failing to stop us. They became more focused on pointing fingers at each other than on defending against us. The more frantic they became, the more determined we became. We continued to grind out hard yardage. Finally, with just two seconds remaining in the game, we shocked ourselves and our opponents by scoring a touchdown.
The response of the two teams was a study in contrasts, one that proved our coach was right. The other team had just won the game by more than 40 points, but by their reaction to our touchdown you would have thought they lost. We, on the other hand, had been completely outplayed at every position on every down until the last five minutes, yet you would have thought we won the game. While the players on the other team skulked off the field, heads hung in shame and snarling at each other, we walked off the field with heads held high as if we had won, and in a way we did. Like our coach said, we didn’t win the game on the scoreboard but we did win a moral victory. What our cheerleaders provided was false optimism. What our coach provided was true encouragement.
ENCOURAGEMENT AND INSPIRATION IN THE BIBLE
The Bible is replete with guidance on encouragement and inspiration. In fact, the Bible is the most encouraging and inspiring book ever written. Isaiah 40:31 makes clear that those who remain strong in the faith need not be discouraged. They shall “…mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” This is an important message to give neighbors who are struggling with grief, fear, doubt, insecurity, disappointment, or any other source of discouragement. The key to providing them hope is to point them to Jesus Christ and encourage them to “…wait for the Lord.” God knows when we are hurting. When we place our faith in him not only will we overcome the struggles confronting us, but we will “…mount up with wings like eagles.”
Joshua 1:9 states forthrightly and without adornment that the Lord is with us wherever we go. Therefore, we can be strong and courageous and need not be frightened. This is an especially encouraging verse to share with neighbors who are experiencing fear, insecurity, or self-doubt. If the Lord is with you, what is there to fear? A similar message can be found in Deuteronomy 31:8: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” The message to give those who are beaten down by fear, insecurity, or self-doubt is that with the Lord at their side they can overcome the things that are causing their fear and discouragement.
Perhaps the most encouraging verse in the Bible for people who are struggling is Psalm 23:4. This often-quoted verse states, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.” Even when we are facing the possibility of death, the Lord is there to strengthen and comfort. He is there to lead us from our temporary life on earth to our eternal life in Heaven. From all of these verses and others in Scripture it is clear that our faith in God is the best shield we have when facing discouraging circumstances in our lives. This is why it is important to use Scripture as your primary tool for encouraging your neighbors and a Christ-like example for inspiring them.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR ENCOURAGEMENT AND INSPIRATION
What follows is a list of ideas provided to trigger your thoughts concerning how you can be an encourager:
Assume the people you interact with are struggling and approach them accordingly.
Challenge people of all ages to do more and do it better and reassure them they can.
Send uplifting notes, emails, cards, or letters to people.
Praise the efforts of people who are trying hard, even if the results of their efforts fall short.
Listen to people who need to talk, vent, or bounce ideas off of you.
Tell someone’s boss what a good job they are doing.
Make a point of thanking people for what they do.
Give people who are trying to make positive changes in their lives affirmation and reinforcement.
Pray for people and let them know you are doing so.
Support people who recommend unpopular but necessary actions.
Build people up who have been torn down by circumstances.
Let people know you believe in them.
Celebrate and congratulate the success of others.
Take photos of special moments in the lives of others and send the photos to them with encouraging notes.
Help people see how they can turn failures or mistakes into something positive by learning from them.
When giving constructive criticism, begin with something good before getting into the areas that need of improvement.
Assure people who are grieving that they are not to blame, nor are they being singled out for punishment. Rather, let them know that in a fallen, world bad things sometimes happen to good people. Let them know that God loves them, will never leave them, and will comfort them if they will place their grief at his feet.
Assure people who are disappointed that the end of the story has not yet been written. They are disappointed now but other opportunities will arise if they remain faithful and keep their eye on the ball.
Assure people who are insecure they are more capable than they think they are. Let them know they can enhance their capabilities by enlisting God’s help in all they do.
Assure people who are experiencing fear that with God on their side they have nothing to fear. Share the 23rd Psalm with them.
Assure people who have been betrayed that although people are going to let them down, God will never betray them. His promises were true in the past, they are true now, and they will be true in the future. Encourage them to put their faith in Jesus Christ, not people.
Assure people who are struggling with unmet needs to be patient and wait on the Lord. Help them step back and count their blessings instead of focusing on what they want but don’t have.
Commit to setting a Christ-like example every day and in all situations.
This list is neither comprehensive nor prescriptive. Rather, it is provided to suggest ideas and trigger your thoughts as you develop you own list. Your list might be much different than this one. Take the time to develop a list, but don’t be limited by it. Rather, assume that your neighbors are struggling and approach them accordingly. Be encouraging and set a Christ-like example to inspire them.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Veteran’s Lament: Is This the America We Fought For? and Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press.