In the corner of our bedroom is a desk where I meet the Lord every morning in His Word. Its shelves hold several Bibles, devotionals, journals, and prayer books. During the years I served as teaching pastor at our church, the table was where I most often prepared my sermons. And on the right-hand side is a special drawer filled with notes.
Preaching forty times a year (on top of having a full-time job elsewhere) was an exhilarating, sometimes exhausting process. As much as I loved preaching regularly, there were moments when I felt I couldn’t summon the creative energy to put together yet another sermon. I’d ask the Lord to guide me into truth, for the Spirit to fill me with His presence, and for God to speak to His people through me. But that didn’t always make the inspiration flow.
That’s when I’d be drawn to the right side of the desk. Over the years, I stuffed that little drawer with various cards, emails, and letters of encouragement from members of the congregation. The gratitude came in various forms: a card of thanks, a handwritten paper from a kid in Sunday School, an email telling me how a recent sermon had really hit home. No matter the format, the words blessed me. So I hung onto them. And whenever the work felt harder than usual and my energy was spent, I’d gravitate to the desk drawer for a jolt of energy—to be blessed by the people I had blessed.
An Encouragement File
In The Flourishing Teacher, Christina Bieber Lake describes the need for teachers to find in their students a renewable source of energy. She recommends an “encouragement file.”
If you teach long enough, you will receive numerous notes from students, many of them pouring out their souls to thank you for mentoring them. They will even share some specific moments from years ago that you had forgotten. When you feel like you can’t possibly go back for another year of teaching, pull these notes out. I keep some of mine in books in my home study and in my college office so that when I randomly stumble over the note, it speaks to my soul on the spot. A colleague recently posted an image of her file titled, “Why I Do This.” You can keep an email folder for this purpose too.
This year marks fifteen years since I started a blog, and next year will mark the tenth year anniversary since I moved this column to The Gospel Coalition. As much as I love to write, the work doesn’t always come easily. That’s why I’m always grateful to receive feedback from readers.
The most meaningful encouragement is when someone says, “You expressed exactly what I think and feel but couldn’t put into words,” or when a church leader says, “We printed out this article for our staff to discuss.” Nothing keeps me going more than the knowledge that I can serve readers well by saying something they want to share, or by offering something substantive that stimulates thinking among front line ministers.
Encouragement Is Not An Option
The New Testament commands encouragement—the action of comforting one another, of cheering someone else along in their pursuit of holiness and love, or of consoling a member who has been ground down by sorrow. Ray Ortlund writes:
Encouragement is what the gospel feels like as it moves from one believer to another… Encouragement is about the life-giving power of our shared beliefs and our shared life in the Lord.
The author of Hebrews sets the command of encouragement within the wider context of holding on to “the confession of our hope without wavering.” Instead of “neglecting to gather together,” or failing to consider ways we can “provoke love and good works,” he writes, we are to encourage each other in anticipation of Christ’s coming (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Infusions of Hope
Perhaps you’re experiencing a season of discontent or discouragement. Maybe you’ve felt the pressures of the past year in ways you didn’t anticipate, and the fallout continues to affect you in ways you don’t expect. Perhaps you battle low-level feelings of guilt in ministry because your service feels like drudgery rather than a joy, to the point you wonder if it’s your sin causing your sadness, or if it’s that you can’t handle the sorrows that drain you of energy.
Maybe you’re in the opposite situation. Ministry is going well. You’ve never enjoyed your avenue of service more than you do right now. You’re overflowing with joy and passion, and you receive a steady stream of words of encouragement.
In both cases, an encouragement file would be well worth your time. Set aside those notes, print out those emails, and file away those cards. If things are going well, you’ll need those words in the future. If things are going terribly, you’ll need those words now. Don’t throw away the words, or dismiss the faces of the people they come from. Take heart through receiving positive feedback from the people who benefit most when you do what God has called you to do.
Discouragement sets in when our hope leaks. We begin to cower before our fear. When this process happens, and it happens often, we need an infusion of hope. That’s what encouragement is.
So, set up an encouragement file and fill it up with hope-infusions from the saints who cheer you on in the race. And then take a moment to write down something that could go into someone else’s encouragement file. Send a word of encouragement—however brief—to someone whose ministry has served you well. Give others an infusion of hope so that when they face the difficult days ahead they may take courage and not grow weary in doing good.
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