Fighting the spurs of encouragement

Some people are born with the gift of conciseness. These people boast the ability to sum up complex ideas in pithy statements of wisdom, which often become cliché over time as people continually use them since they are so true.

I am not one of these people. I am longwinded.

My stories can last for hours and my blog posts routinely fly past 1,000 words. Through all my journalism classes, the most common critique I received from professors focused on my wordiness.

Since I have been unable to find the happy medium of wisdom in few words, I tend to go to extremes. I will either allow thoughts to pour out of my mind and heart in full force, or I will clam up entirely and say little or nothing at all.

This has been a particular struggle for me as I strive to be more encouraging. My personality leans ever so slightly toward sarcasm (not that anyone has ever noticed, I’m sure), but the more I engage in God’s Word the more I realize that I need to be more encouraging.

But this opens the door to another struggle. How do I balance encouragement with authenticity? Where do I toe that line between sharing the exact word someone needs to hear in that moment and overwhelming someone with encouragement to the point that they shut down and stop listening?

“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 on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:23-25)

I love Biblical adverbs. To say “let us hold to the hope we profess” would be much simpler, but the idea of doing so “unswervingly” makes it so much more focused and deliberate. There is no looking to either side; there is no hesitation. He who promised is faithful.

So now let’s consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. How do we do this? Today’s culture is so fragmented, so individual-focused, that it is really anti-encouragement. We must do it on our own and we must provide our own strength. Anyone who “encourages” us clearly has an ulterior motive or is simply being sarcastic and is actually mocking our shortcomings and inevitable failures.

Whenever we see someone who is authentically happy and encouraging, we are repulsed. I know I’ve met a few people throughout my life who were always genuinely positive. It was disgusting. But why is this?

We’ve been so tainted by the darkness that we cower at the light. It’s like when we sit in a dark room for a long time and someone flips the light switch. We close our eyes and whine about the brightness.

I’ve heard so many times the idea of sin compared to “living in darkness,” and I think it really works. But here I’m thinking of something slightly different. Just in general we live our lives based on an artificial light. Even if we aren’t “living in darkness” (foreboding music plays…) we are living in a tainted world where things are just off. It’s as if we’re living in a house without windows, relying only on artificial light without ever seeing the natural light for comparison.

I know how wonderful it is each year as the sun stays out later and we don’t need to turn on the lights as early. There’s a certain draw about natural light over artificial that makes it superior, but there is also a downside.

We can’t control natural light. With artificial light, we simply turn the switch off. With natural light, we can pull down the shades, hide behind a tree and close ourselves into a windowless room. But in the end we are powerless over natural light because it is a force beyond and superior to us.

I think encouragement is the same way. We appreciate it in limited doses, but when someone is genuine, an encourager who thrives on helping people see their potential, we shy away from it. It scares us. We can’t control it.

I think that’s exactly what the author of Hebrews was talking about in this passage. We are called to spur one another on, and the wording there is very telling (I know I’m not reading the original language and I’m sure other translations use other words, but I really like the imagery in this particular passage). When a cowboy wears his spurs and uses them to push his horse to go faster, it was not a painless experience. He literally kicked his heel (with the sharp-edged spurs) into the horse.

In the same way, encouragement is not merely saying positive words. “You’re great!” It’s a nice thing to say, but it doesn’t really encourage anyone. True encouragement is saying what needs to be said when the other person needs to hear it. It often is positive, but it can also be more of a calling out process. We are taught throughout the Bible to do this (and everything else) in love, but that does not mean the words are always rainbows and butterflies.

But we bristle at true encouragement. It scares us because it requires something of us; it calls us to be more than we are. I think that’s why the author followed that sentence with a call to continue to meet together as some people (apparently) were choosing to avoid gathering together. The easiest way to avoid a push forward is to avoid people in general.

Let us encourage one another. I wrote recently about true love and how it’s not something that works one way but is actually purely relational. Encouragement is the same thing. If I say all the encouraging words the world has ever known, but you are unwilling to listen, it goes for naught. True encouragement requires openness and acceptance on the part of the hearer and love and wisdom on the part of the sharer. And true encouragement goes both ways, with two people switching roles based on the particular situation.

I keep thinking back to the idea of holding unswervingly to the hope we profess. We can’t do that alone; there are too many distractions all around us. That’s why we are called to encourage one another. Stay focused; look forward; don’t fall for the trap set in front of you.

I cannot simply say a wise remark of encouragement and then walk away. My personality longs for constant interaction so I can continually feed encouragement into the heart of another. From the world’s perspective that can be really overbearing.

But the more clichéd comments I hear and the more of God’s Word I read, the more I think we have it mixed up. Genuine encouragement is not overbearing by nature; it is simply our own cultural desire to hide in the artificial light we can control that teaches us to consider it as such and despise it.

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