"AS GOD INTENDED" (SLOW CLAP)
I sat in my office on a Tuesday afternoon in May, trying to work up the gusto to prepare a message for our youth group, but events leading up to that moment had stolen much of my joy. My day began with an unpleasant visit from some unexpected bills. Tensions in my personal life were wearing me down and only a few days earlier, I stood at the graveside of my grandfather after his brief battle with Leukemia. I felt vulnerable and weak. The waves of life seemed to batter me from all directions and I was feeling a lot less like an “equipped” youth leader and a lot more like a fish, trying to swim upstream against a tide of discouragement. Needless to say, I found myself attempting to materialize a sermon without an ounce of inspiration. To be honest, I was frustrated with the Lord, struggling with the eternal question of why He allows things to happen the way they do. I hadn’t spoken to Him for days- completely absorbed in my own situation. So, there I sat... zoning out... tapping my finger on the desk to the rhythm of the cursor blinking on my computer screen. Was I foolish enough to think that words would appear on their own? I knew that I had no choice but to solicit God’s help. “Lord,” I mumbled under my breath, “what do you want me to talk them about?” No scriptures spoke to me as I carelessly flipped through the pages of my Bible. At the least, I knew that I should try to offer some encouragement, but I could only focus on how badly I wanted it myself. The more the word repeated in my head, however, the deeper it was planted in my heart.
Encouragement. We love receiving it, but do we prioritize "giving" it? Should we be concerned with its place in our lives? Absolutely! God carefully crafted encouragement to fit it into His creation, so sidestepping a chance to dig deeper would only be doing our faith a disservice. Encouragement is an irreplaceable instrument in the Christian’s tool belt; often holstered when our lives take precedence. This shouldn’t be! If God so graciously encourages His people, how can we not pass it on? At this point, someone may wish to attempt the, “we’re all different” argument, but let me clarify one thing; encouraging others (from a faith standpoint) is not reliant upon having the “right personality." It doesn’t matter if you’re the “bubbly extrovert” or the “serious introvert.” It doesn't matter if you hide behind a "Christian" smile or kneel in tears at the altar for all the world to see. Everyone is called to encourage. It quiets the noise of life and refills our emotional “gas tank.” So, where do you go looking for it? When you find it, how do you bring it to others? Do you?!
Sadly, we’ve all taken part in the misconception that encouragement can only be found in the things that build confidence. To reinforce this fallacy, I showed the youth group a commercial demonstrating what is comically referred to as the “slow clap.” You’ve more than likely seen it in a movie before, and while plots may vary, the results are always the same. Perhaps the “underdogs” have won the game, the hero has overcome the obstacle, the lost dog has found his way home or the struggling artist has finally been given her big break. Some characters look on with disgust and frustration while others watch in amazement. Suddenly, the music begins to change; one person steps forward and begins to clap (unnaturally slow, of course). Everyone else looks on, unsure, even a bit uncomfortable with this bold act until something softens their expressions. The orchestra builds to a crescendo as they succumb to the inspiration of the moment, wild with applause. Our heartstrings are tugged and we want nothing more than to jump through the screen and join in. The good guys win! The hero survives! Even the “bad guys” learned to smile! What a fluffy, beautiful, inconsequential ending.
We’ve all been “slow clapped” before; maybe not in literal terms, but in various forms of vain, hollow praise. It’s a “pat on the back” when we truly need love. It’s casual "inspiration" when we should be seeking truth. “Slow clap” encouragement may (temporarily) lift our spirits, but it’s not the make or model God designed for us. A believer’s heart is meant to chase more than “feel good” moments. Faith-filled encouragement is infused with purpose, far exceeding that of worldly motivation. We can’t always "charge" at life like an athlete after a half-time speech, and the Lord doesn’t “slow clap” for His children like they just scored the winning touchdown. He makes investments in building up the soul. We’re called to do the same for one another and we owe it to ourselves to know the difference. Unfortunately, our culture has disguised God’s purposes for encouragement as a selfish need for inspirational empowerment. Just type the word in a search engine and see what comes up first...
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” —Henry Ford
“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” —Charles Swindoll
“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more.
If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.” —Oprah Winfrey
“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” —Theodore Roosevelt
“Do or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda
“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” —Albert Einstein
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” —Steve Jobs
Don't get me wrong, these are great thoughts and sturdy advice from some very important people; historical figures, pop icons and money moguls alike. Inspiration is scattered throughout our movies, song lyrics and commercials. It’s plastered on posters, bumper stickers, t-shirts and coffee mugs. It’s woven into the fabric of the social media we lovingly devour on a daily basis. I won’t stand here and say that these forms of “encouragement” are wrong. They have their place and their value. They’re quotable and beneficial to repeat when you need a little “pick me up.” However, these words are also fleeting, holding little influence on your faith. Too many of us rely upon some kind of “mantra.” We write it on a post-it note or get it tattooed on our wrist. We love our “slogans,” but attempting to live by a saying like “just do it...” “YOLO...” and “never back down...” can’t fulfill your soul. Encouragement (through Christian love) is the only approach that makes us more like Christ. Worldly wisdom can inspire, but it can also be an idol.
A friend once told me, “I start each day by reading one encouraging quote from an important person in history,” and I thought to myself, “that’s wonderful,” but, this friend also professed to be a Christian and I couldn’t help but wonder, ”shouldn’t your encouragement be found in Jesus, rather than Abraham Lincoln, Beyonce or Ellen?” The dictionary defines encouragement as “the act of giving support, confidence or hope,” so in “kingdom terms,” how might God press your heart in these ways? Keep a few simple thoughts in mind as you read on… How does encouragement make you feel? (strong? optimistic? valuable?) How do you feel when you need it and you don’t get it? (pessimistic? weak? unimportant?) How do you feel when you encourage someone else? (unselfish? enlightened? purposeful?)
A lot of changes have occurred in my life this year, but the most important ones have taken place in my heart. I’m eternally thankful that God's work in us is ongoing and active and the Holy Spirit does a very good job of exposing the “holes” in our faith that require serious attention. The Lord revealed to me my inadequacies as an encourager. Yes, I lead others; I serve others; I attempt to be a good husband, friend, son and brother. I’m a relatively “nice” guy, but God made it abundantly clear that He wanted more from me and I’m ready to pursue a productive path of genuine encouragement. What about you? When I reflect on certain moments in my life I feel regret and remorse. Why? Because I’ve squandered so many God-given opportunities to build others up; even in my closest circles of friends and family. What stopped me? Laziness, selfishness, and a silly delusion that I just wasn’t a "naturally" uplifting person. The Spirit of discernment gave me a choice- I could either add to the weight of this world with my indolence or shine some real light like a child of God.
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." Philippians 2: 3-4
Examine yourself (and the company you keep). Why do some people seem to be a bit more "sad-sack" than "spark plug?" Who are the biggest encouragers among you? Before you jump in and hastily answer, “I am,” think about the question for a moment. We're all capable, but we're not all proficient. In many ways, the ability to encourage stems from a healthy life perspective, but more importantly, it sprouts from whatever source of "joy" you are rooted to. So, consider your sphere of influence and identify the natural-born encouragers. They’re not usually hard to find. They tend to be the ones who bring energy into a room. They’re genuinely kind; they speak life, shine light and lift spirits. Face it, we’re not all there, God’s transformative grace says that we can be!
Anyone can encourage when they’re content with their lot in life. It’s not that difficult to keep a healthy perspective on things when your bank account is full, your body is healthy and your circumstances are ideal. We all have a "skip in our step" when we manage to wake up on the right side of the bed; when the sun is shining and we’ve had a fresh cup of coffee, but natural encouragers are the ones who speak life regardless of their situation (even in the midst of struggle) because they draw from a deeper well. This is God’s intent for all of us, but conscious decisions must be made before it comes naturally. Start by identifying your source of joy. What are you rooted to? Where do you draw encouragement from? Spiritually speaking, true encouragement is a bi-product of God’s grace, and while some have the “gift” more than others, no one in the kingdom is exempt from pursuing it. To reinforce our topic today (with a little humor) we’ll use the acronym, P.A.T, Why? Because “everyone needs a pat on the back” sometimes, right? It’s simple, yet effective!
“P” Encouragement is… PART of the change in you. It’s fairly simple. God encourages you, so encourage others. We can’t claim to love the Lord and continue to live for ourselves if scripture clearly calls us to "put off our old self." If we proclaim that grace has changed our hearts, but we lack hope, faith or joy, than have we truly been changed? God offers us a full inheritance when we are transformed from death to life. Don’t squander that inheritance! A changed heart finds confidence in the Savior and hears the call to plant that confidence in others. How? With encouragement, of course! When the Holy Spirit enters our hearts a spring of life is opened up, and from the overflow of that spring, we are capable of speaking life. What a gift! By encouraging others, you are crediting God’s supernatural work in you.
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10: 23-25
Don’t depart from the hope you’ve found and certainly don’t veer off to keep it for yourself. Hope is a contagious element of the Christian lifestyle. It reminds us why we live the way we live and increases our faith in the God who works for our good. Encouragement walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. It was woven tightly into the fabric of the earliest churches in Acts. It’s a gift to every believer, and today, it remains a key ingredient in God’s recipe for fruitful Christian community. The author of Hebrews inspires us to begin with our own fellowship. Play a role in keeping the body of Christ healthy. Invest in building up the lives around you and see evidence of God’s vision come to life. Encouragement will spur others toward love and good deeds because you lead by example. It reveals God's faithfulness. To be an encourager is to be an influencer, so influence, regardless of whether it’s fun, easy or popular. The Lord changed you to change others!
“A” Encouragement is… a call for AWARENESS. Earlier, I asked you to consider how being encouraged makes you feel. Strong? Optimistic? Valuable? When someone encourages you, it means they chose to make YOU a priority. What an incredible blessing! Be aware of the opportunities God’s given you to do the same for someone else. Wake up! You can't notice much when you’re sleeping. The average human being is awake 12-16 hours a day. That’s 84-112 hours a week; 360- 480 hours a month and 4,380- 5,840 hours a year. By the time you’ve reached your 40th birthday, you will have been awake for an average of 200,000 hours. That’s a lot of time to keep for yourself! How could you reshape the lives around you by being a vessel of encouragement? In order to do so, we must be on watch! Encourage when it’s hard and even when it hurts, regardless of your “mood” or your personal opinions. Do it for God’s glory, not because of what He can do for you, but because of who He is. Set your heart on encouragement and it will be stored up for you as treasure in heaven. Be attentive to the souls God has placed in your path. There’s honor and purpose in playing the role of a spirit-lifter and proactively building up someone’s heart will bring strength to your own as well. Isn’t it funny how that works? Imagine what your world could look like if you adopted this as your purpose.
“You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…” 1 Thessalonians 5: 5-6, 11
When we’re “self-absorbed,” we tend to look past the needs around us. Sure, we can all site instances of successful encouragement, but are you regularly on watch for the opportunities or just waiting for them to fall in your lap? Would it benefit the fisherman to say, “I’ve caught fish before” without actively dropping his net in the water? Encouragement is an investment of yourself, if only for a moment. Yes, it does demand a sacrifice of your precious time. It often requires you to be vulnerable and transparent. It’s rarely convenient. Some souls will be difficult to encourage and some of your efforts may be thrown back in your face, but does that mean you shouldn’t try? Pray for the Holy Spirit to stir your heart and open your eyes. Yes, you may have to change your plans and patterns and even adjust parts of your personality to better reflect an encouraging nature, but do it. Your heart will feel good when you do! Wake up and be aware like a child of light. Your time, your pride and your comforts are not so precious that you can’t share words and deeds of love. Can you imagine if Christ only encouraged when he was “in the mood?” Emulate His attitude and embrace His mission as your own. Being an encourager may not change your life circumstances, but it can certainly change your perspective.
“L” Encouragement is… tied to LOVE. While they’re not one in the same, they are unmistakably intertwined. God has called us to lead others in love, equipped us to work for the purposes of love and wired us to be driven by love. The first step to running as an encourager is learning to walk in love- It begins when we receive the love that the Father offers to us and it develops as we follow the Son's unselfish example. There’s no place for “self” in a life of faith because it will always seek to counteract our outreach. It’s the voice of lies, convincing us to keep kindness to ourselves or hold hope tightly in our fists. It’s the reason we cling to the compliments we're meant to share and protect our personal time like it’s worth its weight in gold. True encouragement is delivered out of love, simply because we want to emulate Christ.
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5: 1-2, 15-16
Love (and encouragement) are deliberately meant to be shared and doing so will display wisdom as you imitate the Father. It creates unity, plants joy in others and reminds us that we're all one. If you’re “rooted and established in love,” than express it through your encouragement. Build up the body and “grasp how wide and long and high and deep” the love of Christ truly is. (ref. Ephesians 3: 17-18)
“Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.” Galatians 6: 7-10
Godly encouragement plants seeds and you will reap the blessings of what you harvest in others. Yes, sometimes it may be difficult to step outside of yourself and express love to someone, but in doing so, you please the Spirit. Just think of how the human race greets God's love on a daily basis. Can you imagine how taxing it must be on His heart to watch our endless cycle of rebellion and repentance? And still, He chooses to love us. Jesus, the epitome of encouragement (the model of our Christian walk) certainly understood the difficulty of expressing love, but in doing so, He took victory over darkness.
“Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all love each other deeply because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 4: 7-11
Serving others, without love, is merely an act of goodwill, but faithfully pouring love into others brings praise and glory to God. It’s what separates the emptiness of “slow clap” encouragement from an act that can build up the deepest parts of the human heart. Making encouragement a priority is making God a priority. If you love Him, love others. Love them the way Jesus loves you and leave everything else behind. Any "act," without love, is just “noise” (ref. 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3). Don’t make excuses! You were designed to love and God intends to shine it through your encouragement. Don’t wait (like me) to get serious about it. Has God done a work in you? Tell others about it and bring them into the fold of unity. Be an advocate for others in your submission to Christ.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my job by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." Philippians 2: 2
When you speak, do you speak life? Do you seek to bless (friend or foe) every time you open your mouth? Elect to deliver joy, strength and wisdom with your words. Be dedicated and deliberate, and don’t regulate your enthusiasm based on your opinion of someone. Remember who you’re working for! See through God's eyes.
“Do not let unwholesome [worthless] words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak].” Ephesians 4: 29 (AMP)
I may not know you. Therefore, I can’t determine if you’re a "natural" encourager. (Good news! This isn't some sort of personality profile). I also can’t convince you to make encouragement your prerogative. I can only recommend taking stock of yourself and the effect you have on others. Don’t live content in the status quo. Don’t just be another spectator in the crowd, "slow clapping" so you don’t have to get your hands dirty. Promote support, confidence and hope. The measuring stick will always be Jesus, but we can all start small. How? By expressing kindness. It’s the core value of Godly encouragement and it speaks volumes about your relationship with your heavenly Father.
Kindness can take countless forms, but they all bring harmony. Learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and stay near to those in sorrow. Celebrate in someone’s victory and reach out to hurting souls. Look for opportunities to be a better helper, listener and lover. Set an example of grace through forgiveness, humility and compassion. Share God’s truth in all circumstance. Take nothing (and no one) for granted, for we never know how long we may have someone. Kindness is revealed in the compliments you offer and the respect you give. Show support even when it stretches your comforts, your free time, your level of patience and your own personal interests. Acknowledge gifts when they shine. Learn to smile more. Laugh a bit. Hug someone and learn to say “I love you,” even when it may not seem necessary. Remember where true joy comes from. Kindness convinces others that they’re important, irreplaceable and appreciated. Be someone that YOU would want to be around. Your life will change if you learn to encourage as God intended.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4: 8-9