If I asked you to encourage another Christian by texting her, what message would you send? What would you attempt to communicate? Would you compliment her on how cute her outfit looked on Sunday morning? Would you affirm her parenting by applauding her well-behaved kids? Maybe you’d inspire a weary woman with words like, “You are such a rockstar. You own this day!” Perhaps you’d motivate her to take more “me time” this weekend.
These are all common ways I’ve heard women attempt to encourage each other. But is this the encouragement that Christians need the most?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary explains that to encourage is to
- inspire with courage, spirit, or hope (hearten),
- attempt to persuade (urge),
- spur on (stimulate), or
- give help (foster).
We don’t typically expect enough of our encouragement. We pick one of these descriptors and call it good. We assume that as long as the words feel like a verbal gold star, the encouragement is worthy of sticking to our heart and making us feel acceptable and confident. We assume that the goal of encouragement is to feel appreciated and approved of and perhaps have our good noticed by others. With this understanding, we look for words of encouragement that
- compliment by offering “a polite expression of praise or admiration,”
- affirm by saying “something [we desire to be] true in a confident way,”
- inspire by filling us with “the urge or ability to do or feel something,”
- motivate by providing us with a motive or “reason to act.”
These are tools of the trade that we’ve gathered from a self-help culture that in 2019 was worth $11.6 billion. Christians, we haven’t slipped by unscathed. We frequently believe that to be complimented, affirmed, inspired, or motivated is the same as being encouraged, and that’s all there is to it.
Self-Help Isn’t Encouragement
Listen to the urgency in Paul’s warning to Timothy in his second letter as he pleads with him to avoid those who have the appearance of godliness but deny its power: “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:5–7).
When we are weak, we’re more easily fooled and led astray. False encouragement won’t help or satisfy our hearts. The self-help movement calls women to find refreshment at an oasis that’s nothing more than a mirage. Self-help isn’t encouragement—it’s sand.
False encouragement won’t help or satisfy our hearts.
Christian, you need encouragement that serves a better purpose than providing shallow compliments, affirming your preferences, inspiring personal bests, or motivating more lucrative sales. God’s people need encouragement that lasts longer than the next 30-day Instagram challenge and is sustained by more than the power of positive thinking.
Encouragement based on self-confidence has produced a world of under-encouraged Christians. Our confidence is too often in our own desires and feelings, both of which are subject to change. When our confidence is shaken, our heart grows quickly discouraged and we’re far less likely to endure the trials set before us.
We lose the ability to stand firm, fight the good fight, and run the race set before us. But in order for encouragement to hearten, urge, stimulate, and foster courage in the heart of the Christian, the message must be applicable for us personally and reliable when our feelings aren’t.
Freed by Truth
We must be encouraged by words that do not change or fail; we require the encouragement of God’s Word that “proves true” and “is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 18:30). As worldly philosophies in our culture attempt to convince us we’re good enough on our own and that happiness and joy are our own responsibility, we need God’s truth to free us from the weight of this oppressive cultural lie. Christian, there is freedom in recognizing you’re a limited creature who relies first and foremost on the care of your limitless Creator.
This is the good news Jesus came to preach to weary hearts: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
Christ’s disciples are not meant to self-produce their own courage, freedom, or good news. We must be reminded of the good news we’ve already been promised: Christ’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises” (2 Pet. 1:3–4).
As Christians, when we encounter various messages meant for our encouragement, we should be able to clearly discern two distinguishing characteristics. The Christian’s encouragement must be (1) filled with God’s promises and (2) given for the encouragement of God’s people by grace through Christ.
God’s encouragement frees us from the burdensome weight of our own feelings in times of discouragement and when we lack confidence. We need encouragement that points us to the unchanging truth of God. Encouragement from the triune God heartens and urges us toward his complete sufficiency and goodness, and the Spirit stimulates and fosters courage and comfort in the hearts of those who have been adopted through Christ.
We need encouragement that points us to the unchanging truth of God.
As God’s people, we need encouragement meant specifically for the family of God. Followers of Christ are meant to be persuaded by the power of God’s encouragement and his ability to provide his people with the clarity of biblically informed thinking.
Your heart thirsts for the refreshing good news that’s found only through the promises of Christ because the gospel message “speaks a better word” (Heb. 12:24) than anything you have to offer and better than any message the world has to offer you. The God of endurance and encouragement offers his people better encouragement by offering himself. Fix your eyes on God’s promises and take courage.
This article is adapted from Lindsey Carlson’s book A Better Encouragement: Trading Self-Help for True Hope (TGC/Crossway, June 2022).