Updated: May 1, 2020
Warning: This is a long post. And there is an important action step/challenge at the end, a daily practice to encourage your best friends is this upside-down time. If you aren't going to read the whole thing, I won't be hurt if you just skip to the end and read the action steps in blue. Indeed, I won't even know. But I encourage you (urge, plead, summon you ) to read the whole thing, because there's some good theology in this today, my friends, and I don't want you to miss it.
Let's start with this verse about which I am currently obsessed:
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. (NAS)
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given. (NIV) Timely advice is lovely, like golden apples in a silver basket. (NLT)
I’m a lover of words: a writer, a speaker (professional), a talker (amateur), an avid reader. Even in my love of music, I’m all about the lyrics. You could say my whole life's pursuit is for the right words. And for the last two years or so, I’ve been meditating, studying, praying and writing on what it means to find the right words of encouragement to those I love. The word usually translated into “encourage” in the New Testament is the Greek word parakaleo, used 108 times. It means many things: summon, exhort, comfort, instruct, console, fill with courage.
And this is true -- encouragement embodies all those things. It can be advice giving, cheer-leading, co-grieving, celebrating, reminding, rebuking, urging, name-calling (identity-naming names, pet names). It can be showing up, standing down, present giving, sending flowers, sending letters, texting, calling, submitting to God together, fighting shoulder to shoulder, or, at the moment, social isolating in solidarity.
There are many ways to get encouragement right, and I believe in its healing and empowering effectiveness, which is why I’m obsessed with Proverbs 25:11. But I know also, there are times when I offer -- and certainly have been offered -- the wrong words.
Proverbs 18:21 says this:
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (NIV) The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences. (NLT)
So because words are so powerful, before we open our mouths (or put our fingers to the keyboard) to encourage someone, first we need to open our ears – and really listen.
If we offer encouragement and advice without really listening, without knowing well the person we offer it to, we can bring death, discouragement, shame and enslavement to them, when we meant to bring them life. Even a Good Word from the Lord becomes a bad word when used at the wrong time.
I actually believe that one of the most destructive things we can do to a fellow believer is use Scripture to advise and encourage them when we don’t have a working knowledge of their issues, their history, or even a full understanding of their current circumstances. You can find a verse to back up many points of view, but once spoken over a sister that struggles with legalism, guilt, or perfectionism, she may feel she has to “obey” the verse you set out for her, even if it’s not the right spiritual principle at the right time in her life. Consider the harm you might do in encouraging someone to be patient and cautious when God is pointing her toward taking a big risk in her career; or in a more extreme circumstance, submission in a wife being physically abused by her husband.
Here are some examples of how Scripture can be used to point us to two seemingly contrary actions.
Do I fight/take action or do I wait on God?
The Lord himself will fight for you; you need only be still. Exodus 14:14
Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. Psalm 144:1
Do I seek peace with my parents?
He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents. Malachi 4:6
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.’ Matthew 10:34
Do I practice my gifts boldly in public, or keep my good deeds private?
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward in heaven. Matthew 6:1
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16
Friends, do you see what I’m saying? I don’t believe there is any true contradictions in Jesus’ teaching, nor in that of the Apostles, prophets, or teachers of the law. Instead, I believe that context is paramount, not just the context of the larger passage and who it’s being spoken to, but the context of our individual lives, character issues and circumstances.
Why is this truth burning on my heart today? Because we are in crisis, globally, nationally, personally. And each of us has a platform in which to get our words out in the world more than at any time in history. (I've seen Christians online on different sides of the issues of the Covid-19 quarantine orders, all using scripture to back up their position, but, many have extreme points of view based on out-of-context instructions.) I’m of the opinion that the words we speak in our intimate relationships are much more likely to be accurate, powerful and effective than how we are trying to use our voices online, because we are able to provide encouragement in the knowledgeable contexts of our friends' issues and circumstances. (Says the girl who is writing an email to a list of 1,000 women. 😊 You are always free to ignore me.)
Darlings, if you are fortunate enough to have authentic relationships with others, now is the time to lean on them for your own sustenance and sustain them with your words and actions.
All my friends have issues. And I know what they are, and have a pretty good idea how those issues are manifesting right now. I know that my extroverted friends are dying that they are stuck home with so few people; I know that my introverted friends are struggling with having so many people in the house with them all day. Some of my dearests who have had health traumas are fearful of contracting the virus, while others who fear scarcity are obsessing about the economy. We workaholics are struggling with our value now that we can’t be as “productive” in the traditional sense. Some of us are coming up against our selfishness, and others, wrestling with our inability to practice self-care.
For each of us, God has good words, right words, to speak in right circumstances.
I’d like to invite you into these Encouraging Action Steps with me over the next couple of weeks, so we offer our friends good words in right circumstances.
Choose two to three close friends and give this a try.
1. Call or text and ask her what she most needs prayer for and why. Ask:
What circumstance in this “new normal” are you most struggling with?
What emotion threatens to overwhelm you?
What goals have you set for yourself during quarantine: spiritual, behavioral, in your home, professionally.
What kind of encouragement would make you feel most supported right now? (See a potential list in red near the beginning of this blog.)
2. Give her your list, too, and ask for her prayers.
3. Pray for her daily. Ask God to give you the right words to encourage her, including pointing you to a relevant passage in the Bible for her circumstances.
4. Check in and encourage her as God leads you. If you felt guided toward a specific verse as you prayed for her, ask permission to share it with her. Understand it’s possible you didn’t hear it quite right.
5. Watch and limit your advice giving. I gave advice just YESTERDAY to a dear, dear friend who just needed to vent. I apologized about an hour later. Keep in mind that there are not always solutions to our “negative” feelings. Sometimes the best encouragement is to say, “It’s okay that you don’t feel okay right now.”
A final encouragement to all of you, which I know is true in ANY circumstance for ALL of us, these words from Jesus:
“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (NLT)
God bless each of you, issues and all.