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Encouragement: how words change lives

In Gordon Cheng’s book, Encouragement: How Words Change Lives, he advocates speaking the truth in love. In view of this, I feel the need to disclose a few facts. I’ve known Gordon since I began university. I’ve had to put up with his the endless Monty Python recitations, even being roped into performing some skits together in college reviews. We did some of our ministry and theological college training together, before both working in university ministry in different parts of the country. Our wives are both named Fiona and they shared a house together before they were married (to each of us respectively). Most importantly, I regularly won our push-up competitions.

In all seriousness, I say these things because we often don’t have a clue about the life of an author, and whether they practise what they preach. It’s one thing to write a book about ‘encouraging words’ and quite another to live it out. In my experience, this author walks the talk. Despite the silly banter between us, he’s always aiming to build up rather than tear down. He’s been quick to add encouraging comments to this blog and he’s spent time on the phone encouraging me in the struggles I’ve been going through this year. And he hasn’t offered any cash for comments here!

Encouragement is a word that’s commonly thrown around in Christian circles to mean whatever we want it to mean. This book offers a biblically-shaped definition:

Christian encouragement is speaking the truth in love, with the aim of building Christians up in Christ-likeness, as we wait for the day of judgement. Christian encouragement will likewise involve speaking the truth in love to unbelievers, thus encouraging them to put their trust in Christ for forgiveness and salvation.  (p11)

This definition draws on many parts of Scripture, but is particularly based in Ephesians 4:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  (Ephesians 4:11-16)

There are four parts to this definition. Truth and love are both essential for genuine Christian encouragement. Words of ‘truth’ can be used to cause harm – this is not encouragement. The truth can be distorted or lost, with the aim of ‘loving’ another – neither is this encouragement. Notice also, that there are two recipients in view, the Christian and the unbeliever. Truth and love, grounded in the message of Jesus Christ, is what will both build Christians and offer life to those who don’t as yet believe.

The overarching context for Christian encouragement is the coming day of judgement. If, as Hebrews 9:27 says, it’s appointed for all people to die and then to face judgement, then genuine Christian encouragement will be shaped and directed by this reality. How we live, and what we decide and do and say, matters. The reason we can offer encouragement in the face of judgement is because Jesus Christ, the One who was full of love and truth, has already taken the judgement in our place. Jesus’ death and resurrection changes everything, and this is the core message of encouragement we have to share.

In this postmodern world it’s easy to be dismissive of words, as if they are empty of real significance or power. However, the Bible demonstrates the enormous power of words. God is the one who spoke the universe into existence and who maintains everything by his powerful world. The same word that creates life also brings new life in Jesus. We’re encouraged to draw deeply on God’s powerful word, as we offer hope for life and bring encouragement to others. Soaking ourselves in the Scriptures will help equip us to offer the right words in season. However, we’re not talking about mindless parroting of the Bible here. There’ll be times to speak and times to refrain from speaking. There’ll be occasions to read from God’s word and occasions to apply godly wisdom and common sense. If we lack the ability to choose what to say, and if or when, and how to say it, then we’re urged to pray and ask God for wisdom. In fact, we’d be wise to pray whenever we seek to encourage others, asking God’s Spirit to guide our words, and to apply them, and for them to be well received.

I found Encouragement to be a very encouraging book! It models what it teaches. It’s a joy to read because it’s not fundamentally about tips and techniques. Rather, it points the reader to the greatest source of encouragement, in God himself. In so doing, it inspires me to become an encourager of others. It doesn’t leave me feeling a failure or guilty, but reminds me of God’s grace. This book is gospel-shaped.

There are so many practical suggestions scattered throughout Encouragement. A good example is the chapter on ‘How we say what we say’. The basic message is, consider your motives in speaking. Are you aiming to love and build up? Cheng offers five examples of how ‘speaking the truth in love’ might work out in practice:

  1. Always remember the gospel of grace and repentance
  2. Be specific
  3. Be humble
  4. Deal with important issues
  5. There is a time for silence.  (p86)

The section on grace is pure gold. There is absolutely no place for a rule-based, sickening, dead moralism! Throughout each of the following sections it was apparent how important listening is to being able to find the right words and the right time to speak. We’re often not too good at it because we’re more interested in speaking than we are at listening. But, good encouragers will be good listeners. Listening will help us to choose the specific words, to use them humbly, to focus on what matters most, and to know when words are not the best option.

I’d recommend Encouragement to any Christian who is wanting to make the most of their days in loving and serving others. It’s not just about how we speak – it’s about how we think and act and speak as God’s children in his world. It’s about living out the implications of the gospel of God’s grace in our lives. It’s about being a loving friend to others. It’s about having a ministry within your church, without needing an invitation, position, or job description. It’s about being wise as we engage with politics, or teach our kids about sex, or care for someone with terminal cancer. It’s about our God-given life. It’s for enthusiastic new Christians and it’s for crusty old Christians!

There is much I liked about this book. It contains some wonderful illustrations and stories of real people. It’s good humoured and gracious while making it’s points very clearly. The message of the Bible has shaped the argument throughout and there are many helpful references included in the text. I especially appreciated the smattering of Proverbs quoted and applied throughout. The author also shows genuine empathy for people who are doing it tough and this is especially helpful in a book on ‘encouragement’.

So I say, get yourself a copy and, while you’re at it, get one for someone else. You could read it together, or catch up and talk about what you’ve read. Perhaps you could use the study/review questions at the back. Help your friend, and get them to help you, become a better encourager of others. Maybe you could introduce this book into your book club. A friend told me last week that he reads out loud from good Christian books as he car-pools to work (and no, the others don’t mind!). This would be an excellent book to use for this purpose. Take it in bite size chunks and learn from it.

However you may choose to use this book, pray that God will apply his words of encouragement to your heart, so that you can pass them on to others also.


 

Posted: 5 December 2012
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My name is Dave McDonald, but many people call me ‘Macca’. I’m married to Fiona and we have four children and a daughter in law. We’ve been in Canberra for 23 years, where I’ve been the pastor of a church called Crossroads. Recently I was diagnosed with an ‘incurable’ lung cancer. This has turned our lives upside down, impacted our plans for the future, and caused us to reflect on what truly matters in life. Many people have encouraged me to write. While not being a writer, there are things I would like to communicate. I hope and pray this blog may be a blessing to others.