It goes without saying that it is easy to get discouraged today. We get discouraged about so many things: about the future of our country, about how our work is going, about our relationships and sometimes, most painfully of all, we get discouraged about our lives. Recently I was invited to speak at Compassionate Friends – an organization where those who have suffered the loss of a child come together to support each other- and in the invitation email I was given the extremely difficult task: “Please bring some words of encouragement.”
What does it mean to be discouraged? Marjorie Thompson, who has written so helpfully about this subject, says wisely: “To be discouraged means to lose heart. Metaphorically and spiritually, the heart is the core of human energy, emotional connection, and drive for life. When we lose heart, we may become bored and restless with life, fearful of the future and anxious in the present, cynical about people and institutions, passive or distant in our relationships, and low on energy for daily tasks. We may even descend onto the profound isolation of depression.” (1) Perhaps, right now, you may recognise yourself in these words.
Against this background, I want to reflect briefly about how we can bring the gift of encouragement to those who are discouraged. I hope these reflections may also speak to those reading this who feel discouraged at the moment. I have become convinced that, given the overwhelming levels of discouragement around us today, one of our main tasks as Christ-followers is help one another rediscover the gift of courage which resides deeply within all of our hearts. Surely, this is what it means, in the words of Paul, “to encourage the fainthearted.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) Imagine our different faith- communities becoming safe and sacred spaces where we restore heart to each other. Here are three simple thoughts to guide us in this “way of encouragement” that belongs to all of us.
First of all, we encourage the discouraged when we help them realise that they are uniquely God’s beloved. When we lose heart, it is so easy for us not to feel good about ourselves. For this reason, I have a very simple goal as a pastor. This priority undergirds my preaching, shapes my teaching and guides the way I care for people. When the moment comes for me to step away from my work, I will be immensely grateful if they are a handful of women and men who will say, “My pastor helped me to discover that I really matter to God. He helped me to recognise my own infinite worth and immense potential as a dearly beloved child of God.”
I realise that it may be very hard for some of us to realise that we are God’s beloved. Negative childhood experiences can leave us with deep- seated feelings of shame and low self-esteem. Perhaps you can remember been labelled “stupid’” or “bad” or “no good.” Words like these stain our souls from our very early years with self-rejection and self- hatred. Even more tragically, painful experiences of abuse and abandonment as a child can cause someone to lose heart at a very early age. It then becomes very difficult to know inwardly that we matter to God as unique and precious individuals.
However, it is not only childhood experiences that can cause us to lose heart. As adults we can go through one bad experience after another that can knock courage out of us. I think of someone in their fifties who, in the in the past year, has been retrenched, lost a parent and been diagnosed with a life – threatening illness. Each of these experiences has been overwhelmingly painful and difficult. For them to come one after another has been devastating and soul-destroying to say the least. It has not been surprising to see this person lose their sense of God’s personal love, become discouraged and slip into a dark depression.
The most important way we can help a discouraged person to realise that they are God’s beloved is to be fully present and to listen with great attention. More than almost anything else, this kind of listening presence witnesses to the love that God has for each of us. It communicates to the person struggling with discouragement: “You are important. Your life has value. I am interested in what you are thinking and feeling. Please know that I want to do my best to see things through your eyes.” Repeatedly, I have seen how been present and listening in this way can gradually help a discouraged person find their heart again.
Secondly, we encourage the discouraged when we call forth their unique giftedness and ability. When we fail badly at a task, or when our efforts are constantly overlooked, or when we feel unrecognised in our work, or when we lose our job, or when we go on forced retirement, it is very easy to lose heart. We feel that we don’t have anything significant to contribute anymore. A mood of discouragement grows which sometimes leads to destructive choices around alcohol, drugs and gambling. In these moments we need someone who will help us find courage to keep giving expression to our gifts and abilities.
It is critically important how we seek to do this. Usually it is unhelpful to try cheer the person up, or to offer cheap reassurances, or give advice when we haven’t been asked for it. When I am with someone who is discouraged in this way, I find it helpful to remind myself what the gift of encouragement is. As we saw earlier, to encourage someone is to help them rediscover the gift of courage within their hearts. Rediscovering our own courageous hearts encourages us to believe that there is always something creatively life-giving that each of us can bring to those around us. But how do we do this?
As someone who has been trained in having narrative pastoral conversations, I have found it helpful to learn how to ask genuine open-ended questions. Not only can we ask others these questions, we can ask them of ourselves as well. Often they put us in touch with the deep longings of our hearts, help us to regain our courage and encourage us to keep expressing our gifts. Here are a few examples of such questions: When do you feel most alive? When do you feel least alive? What work gives you energy? What work depletes your energy? When do feel significant? What gifts would you like to grow? Exploring questions like these, and there are many others, have a way of opening the windows of our discouraged lives to the fresh winds of encouragement.
Lastly, we encourage the discouraged when we learn to pray with them. When we are discouraged, we often feel that God has forgotten us. Our sense of God’s absence becomes stronger than that of God’s presence. We may begin to question the meaning of our faith, the validity of our prayers, perhaps even the reality of God. We can sometimes get drawn us into a time of painful doubt and darkness. Here I think especially of those who have suffered terrible loss, especially the tragic loss of a child or partner or parent. Losses like these can plunge our lives into deep spiritual upheaval and discouragement. In moments like this we need someone who is willing who can pray with us in a way that opens our hearts again to the gift of encouragement.
There is a significant difference between praying for someone and praying with someone. Exploring this difference continues to be a journey for me as I seek to get alongside those who are discouraged. I am learning that when we pray for someone we usually go to God with a request on behalf of the other person. There is nothing wrong with this. The danger is that we assume we know what the discouraged person needs and what God needs to do in their lives. It sometimes also conveys the message that we are somehow standing apart from their experience of discouragement rather than sharing it with them. More worryingly, when we pray for someone our many words can often get in the way of God dealing directly and personally with the person.
On the other hand, when we pray with someone who is discouraged, we come to God together. Now our main responsibility is to create the needed space for both of us to encounter God. While there is no formula or technique to follow, some simple steps can be helpful. We can sit with the person and ask if we may hold their hand or place ours on their head or shoulder. We can affirm the loving Presence of God enfolding us together. We can invite the other person to share with God, either in the silence of their hearts or aloud in words, how they are feeling. We can invite God to touch both of us with grace and healing. Afterwards, we may want to ask the person how the time was for them and share with them how it was for us.
In closing: In the tumultuous and turbulent times in which we live, it is critical that we explore “the way of encouragement.” Each one of us can learn how to become an encourager. I have made three suggestions to get us thinking about how we can do this today. I hope that my thoughts have stimulated your thinking about how you can give and receive encouragement. Together let us become encouragers of each other wherever we live and work and play. Surely then we will reflect the heart of the One who is called in Scripture, “the God of encouragement.” (Romans 15:5)
(1) The Gift Of Encouragement: Marjorie Thompson (Upper Room Books 2013)
INVITATION TO A NARRATIVE WORKSHOP: EXPLORING THE WAY OF ENCOURAGEMENT
On two Thursday mornings, the 18th and the 25th of October, the Institute for Creative Conversations will be hosting a workshop exploring the ministry of encouragement. It will be held at Emseni in Benoni. It will begin at 9am and end at 12.30pm. Early registration is important as the workshop will be limited to 30 participants to ensure greater participation and learning. The cost covering the two mornings will be R300. Tea/coffee and materials will be provided.
This narrative workshop is built around the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 where he encourages the early Christ-followers to “encourage the faint-hearted.” Together we will explore a gospel-shaped imagination around the way of encouragement in a time of discouragement. We will explore what it means to help each other rediscover courage in four crucial relationships of our lives: with ourselves, with our work, with those close to us and with God.
Who should attend? Anyone and everyone who wants to participate in the way of encouragement! We trust that this workshop will be especially helpful for those who serve in the pastoral care ministry of their local congregation, those who seek to be with others in times of crisis, those who work with young and older people, those who lead small-groups, those in positions on management and those who are parents and grandparents!
This narrative workshop will be led and facilitated by Trevor Hudson. For over forty years as a Methodist pastor, he has sought to live in the way of encouragement.