How often do you walk into a situation and have no idea what to say? You so badly want to say the right things, while also avoiding the wrong things. I often find this to be the case at funerals, in hospital rooms, and while sitting across from someone who is dying or who has just suffered a loss. In these moments, I am very cautious about the words coming out of my mouth.
We all want to be an encouragement to those who are hurting, but what do we say? What can we say to someone who just lost a spouse, a parent, or a child? What words can we use to comfort someone that won’t seem like a lifeless platitude? Furthermore, why do we not think about our speech this deeply in the daily course of life? Why is it only in times of the obvious suffering of others that we seek to be careful with our words and seek to encourage them?
Do Our Words Even Matter?
As is his common practice, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Ephesus with three chapters of gospel-rich theology. In chapter four, he then pivots to how we ought to live as those who have been given new life through the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul urges us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). However, he does not stop there. Paul says that the way we live should be marked with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (v. 2). He then addresses our speech in verse 29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up.” In these verses, Paul calls us to speak (both through the words that come from our mouths, and those that come from our fingertips through electronic means of communication) with humility.
Our speech should be gentle and patient, demonstrating our longsuffering with others and our love towards them. Why do these things matter? Look again at verse 29—Paul says that our words should only be for building up. But what are we building up? The body of Christ! Our speech towards other believers should build them up. To put it another way, our words should encourage them in their walk with Christ, strengthening their faith, rather than discouraging their faith and tearing them down. Speech that discourages and tears down is marked by pride, harshness, and impatience. Thus, our speech matters. It can either build up the church, or it can tear down others, resulting in disunity within the body of Christ.
Paul shares a similar message with the Christians in Rome. While instructing them how to live in light of the gospel, Paul writes, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2). Here we see this idea again. Our lives should be focused on building up others. Paul then continues:
“For what was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (vv. 4-7)
There is a lot here about encouragement. First, God is a God of endurance and encouragement. Second, encouragement is found in the Scriptures, God’s living word that is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Since encouragement in the faith comes from God, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and is found in his word, which equips us for good works, the tool that we use to encourage others is the word of God, which, according to Paul, brings hope. To put it another way, the way that we encourage others is by speaking courage to them through speaking God’s word to them. This word will never return void. It produces hope, courage to endure, faith to believe, endurance to continue on, joy in Christ, and unity in the body of Christ.
Commanded to Encourage
Twice in 1 Thessalonians 5, we see commands to encourage fellow believers. In verse 11, Paul exhorts us to “encourage and build up one another,” once again linking encouragement and building up the body of Christ. This is a general command, calling all Christians to encourage one another. A few verses later, Paul tells us specifically to“encourage the fainthearted” (v. 14). The Greek word here for fainthearted is discouraged. Thus, we are to encourage the discouraged.
How Do We Encourage One Another?
The Greek word for fainthearted appears one other time in the New Testament, this time the book of Hebrews: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so the you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). How do we encourage ourselves and others? We consider “him.” Who is the “him” in this passage? Jesus.
In a moment of unbelievable discouragement, the prophet Jeremiah writes:
“He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord. Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down with me. But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:16-24)
How do we encourage someone? How do we return hope to the hopeless soul? We call to mind and consider Jesus. We remind ourselves and others of who Jesus is, what he has done, and the promised hope we have in him. We consider and call to mind God’s steadfast love and share those reminders with the discouraged. We never graduate from the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for the lost, as well as the power of God for encouragement for the discouraged believer.
Are you discouraged? Consider Jesus. Is someone you know discouraged? Help them to consider Jesus and call to mind that Jesus has “delivered them from the domain of darkness and transferred them to the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). Help them to call to mind that, though the dark nights of the soul can be long, God’s mercies are new, fresh, and continual for us every morning.
This type of encouragement builds up the unity of the church body. Failing to encourage one another in this way (or to discourage others by speaking and writing words that tear down) brings disunity and leaves people discouraged. As followers of Christ, we are all running the race to the finish line of eternity. Let us ensure that we are each other’s biggest fans and advocates, reminding each other of both what Jesus has done to put us in the race and that he awaits us at the finish line.
Jeremy Sumners (BA, Boyce College) serves as the Office Administrator at Oak Park Baptist Church. He lives in Jeffersonville with his wife, Beth, and their two children.