I'm terrible at encouragement. Particularly at encouraging my husband.
There, I've said it.
It's a hard one to admit; particularly when it was the first thing I spoke on when I took over the women's ministry at church. But I could see how we were all desperately crying out for more encouragement. When I started putting together my talk I began to realise how bad I was at encouraging those close to me.
I am married to a man whose primary love language is words of affirmation. And that is probably way down there on my list: practical help does it for me. (Isn't it funny how God so often seems to pair us up with a life partner whose love languages are the opposite of our own? Is it His sense of humour or the best way to rub those rough edges off us? Probably both...)
Sometimes I have literally had to force myself to speak words of encouragement to my husband (not because he didn't deserve them but because it doesn't come naturally!). I've learned how important this is to him and it makes such a huge difference in our relationship. It's a great discipline for all of us to cultivate, especially if you know encouragement is something you are not good at.
I also have to check myself – and I know I fall down all the time – as I have a tendency to nag. But, as I'm told so often, words of encouragement get better results than nagging...
So here are some things I've learned about the importance of encouragement:
The Bible teaches it
Throughout the Bible we can see examples of encouragement. So many of the main characters that we learn about in Sunday school had people around them to encourage them (think of how Jonathan rooted for David even when it pitted him against his father).
The New Testament letters often refer to building one another up. I love the Message translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:11: 'So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you'll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.'
It makes a difference
Having someone consistently in your life that totally believes in you makes such a difference. In The Family You've Always Wanted Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, recognises that: 'From the smallest child to the oldest adult, when our fan club applauds us, we try harder.'
God wants us to become members of each other's fan club, but how do we do that? Paul gave a good guideline when he wrote that everything we say should build up the one who is listening:
'Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen' (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).
Let's get a bit more honest now. How often do we spend time with our friends moaning about various things or 'sharing news' (aka gossiping), when we could be using that time to build one another up?
I know that there are various reasons why we might find it difficult to be encouraging:
Shyness – we're used to not saying much because we are shy so we avoid speaking encouraging words as they seem too direct.
Worry – we worry that we'll say the wrong thing so we just keep quiet.
Upbringing – we may have been taught by our parents that being humble is vital, therefore withholding affirmation is a way of doing that for others. This can be a cultural thing too – as British people we can be slow to praise (but very quick to be sarcastic).
Assumptions – we may assume that because someone is so good at something that they must know that they are. And so we think there's no point in saying anything to them. And yet RT Kendall talks in his book, Your Words have Power, about the fact that he still needs affirming each time he preaches – and he experienced first-hand the fact that the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones needed it too! If people so known as being great in their field need it, how much more do we in our everyday lives?
Insecurity – this can actually cause us to be self-absorbed. It is usually an unconscious thing rather than intentional but the result is that we don't see another's needs because we are focusing on ourselves and our own problems.
This isn't the way that God intends us to live. He wants us to be part of a church family, partly so we can give and receive encouragement: 'And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.' (Hebrews 10:25, NLT).
So here are some pointers on thinking and speaking more positively, that may help you readdress the balance:
Ask yourself: do I bring sunshine or gloom into the room?
If you have a natural tendency to be a negative person, don't say, 'I was born that way.' The Bible says 'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!' (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).
God wants you to 'be conformed to the image of his Son' (Romans 8:29, NIV). You can become known for your encouraging words.
Actively pursue a positive thought life
What goes in is what comes out. So often we can struggle with speaking negatively but pay no attention to what we are feeding our minds with. Immerse yourself in God's Word. Pray. Over time, you will discover that you can control the way you think. As Romans 12:2 says: 'Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.'
The mind can be a battlefield but 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, 'Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.' We need to be proactive, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones (we need to know our Bibles so that we have positive replacements!).
As soon as you wake up in the morning, ask God for help
Ask Him to help you look for and focus on the positive. Ask His Holy Spirit to help you be an encourager throughout the day.
Bring friendly speech into your relationships
Don't start complaining as soon as you see your spouse, child, employee, neighbour or someone else. Ask about his or her day. Give a compliment. Share stories about your day too.
Acknowledge other people's abilities and efforts
Rather than just thinking them, train yourself to voice words of encouragement, appreciation, support and respect. If someone feels inadequate, look to build them up.
Monitor your positive and negative remarks
Learn to be self-aware and listen to what you say. Be sure you make many more positive comments than negative ones.
Avoid subtle criticisms
Watch out for subtle ways you may tear others down, such as pointing out how much better you think you could have led an activity, or even passing comments on other people's appearance or ability to those around you.
Respond to problems with hope and encouragement
When someone talks about personal difficulties, listen with compassion and avoid simplistic advice. Ask how you can help practically and offer to pray. Remember: '[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4)'.