After our first wedding anniversary, my husband and I received some interesting encouragement from different folks in our life. The comments went something like this:
“You made it to your first anniversary! The rest will be easy!”
“Year one is tough, but year seven is the roughest. If you can make it past that, you’re golden.”
“Our third year is what almost broke me. The rest is no problem.”
I’m confident these people meant to both affirm our first year of marriage and remind us that we shouldn’t be surprised when things get harder.
The encouragement was certainly well-intentioned, but it was also misguided and unhelpful. Receiving that feedback has spurred me to consider what characterizes biblical encouragement.
Characteristics of Misguided Encouragement
Before considering what biblical encouragement looks like, it’s helpful to look at two characteristics of misguided encouragement.
First, misguided encouragement often assumes a story’s outcome. We’re prone to make our story the single story and offer encouragement from that framework. Misguided encouragement takes one person’s experience to use as the standard.
Several of my friends have known the heartache of long-term relationships ending when they thought they would lead to marriage. As they grieve the loss, I find myself wanting to simply say, “Look at XYZ. She broke up with her boyfriend, and then met another guy just a few months later and is now engaged.” Though I want to offer hope, those words are ultimately empty because they simply tell one person’s story, and I cannot presume to know how my friend’s story will go.
Second, misguided encouragement is rooted in something flimsy. At my church’s women’s retreat last fall, our speaker shared that we are prone to be like Adam and Eve. When we find ourselves ashamed, we try to cover up with fig leaves instead of turning to the God who wants to cover us with garments. Fig leaves might do the job of keeping us covered, the speaker explained, but they’re insufficient to provide lasting coverage. They don’t offer the assurance and comfort we long for: coverings for our shame that are only found when we look to God.
When we encourage, it’s easy to let our words be fig leaves instead of garments to cover fear and shame. When I struggle with feelings of insecurity over my appearance and weight, friends might say how good I look, or that they haven’t noticed that I’ve put on weight. Their compliments are by no means a bad thing. But if the encouragement ends there, we’re simply offering fig leaves. Compliments don’t sufficiently address the shame and fear that often undergird comments about appearance. I need to be reminded that I am a fearfully and wonderfully made image-bearer of God (regardless of how I measure up to society’s beauty standards), that I am beloved and cherished by my Creator, and that He is at work through me.
How Should We Encourage One Another Daily?
What does it look like to offer good encouragement? First, we need to understand what encouragement actually is.
“When I hear the word encouragement, I think of soft, sweet words spoken gently in season,” writes Karen Swallow Prior. “Hallmark cards. Certain Pinterest boards. Stuart Smalley-esque words of affirmation…But the word ‘encourage’ actually means so much more. It means to hearten, to make strong, to give courage. The ways to give courage to someone in need of it are countless.”
Our encouragement must seek to instill courage in another, providing people with the courage to hold to hope and joy when the daily grind feels suffocating, to believe in their inherent worth when the world tells them otherwise, and to cultivate trust when they feel like questioning the goodness of their Heavenly Father.
What are the characteristics of this encouragement? When I consider helpful encouragement that I’ve received, two traits stand out.
The encouragement never assumes how someone’s story will end. God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. As we converse with our friends, we shouldn’t assume to know what the end of their story will look like.
The encouragement is rooted in the truths of Scripture and enveloped with empathy and kindness. We don’t need flattery or platitudes, commiserating and complaining. We need people to simply remind us of who God is and who we are in Him.
In college, when a guy wouldn’t be interested in dating me after we went out for the first time, I needed encouragement. In my mind, I wondered if I wasn’t pretty enough or interesting enough, if I was overbearing, if I would ever marry. As I processed my experiences with my friends, they listened to and sympathized with me.
What I remember most, and what I most needed to hear, were the bite-sized truths they shared. They reminded me that God is good and is for me, and that I am an image-bearer of God with inherent beauty. That encouragement didn’t leave me empty. It grounded me and gave me courage to trust God and follow Him instead of giving in to fear, doubt and shame.
The Importance of Encouragement
Year two of our marriage was harder than the first. Year three of our marriage was harder than the second. I don’t know what the future years of marriage will hold. But I am thankful for the people in my life who have given me the courage to keep at this work of marriage that I’m called to. The most helpful encouragement has never been a long-winded, tidy monologue filled with spiritual clichés. More times than not, the best encouragement has been a single sentence from a friend over coffee, reminding me that marriage is hard and God is faithful.
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thess. 5:10-11)
When we encourage one another, we’re not simply trying to make someone feel better about their life; we’re obeying a command we see time and time again throughout Scripture to call one another to obedience and faithfulness in following Jesus. And it is because of the salvation we have through Jesus that we are enabled to give encouragement that comforts and emboldens.