Does encouragement matter? What does it take to encourage another person? Why should we even try?
At church one Sunday night, our pastor did what he many times did, asked anyone who had a prayer need to stand. About 10 or so stood. Then, he asked everyone to choose a person and gather round them for prayer.
Cynthia* stood nearby. I didn’t know Cynthia well but, after she sobbed out her story, I felt I knew everything about her.
She threw convention and pretense away and told us her marriage was not just falling apart but, in shambles. Her husband wanted a divorce and a relationship with a man. He told her he thought he was a homosexual.
Her heart broke in thousands of pieces as she cried her story. She hung on to God only by a fraying thread.
Our group of five laid hands on her, prayed with her, hugged her and loved her. She needed our touch and she needed to know someone cared. The circumstances didn’t matter. It mattered that Cynthia had hit rock bottom.
This night, there were no masks, there was only raw truth and gut-wrenching honesty. It was the type of emotional disrobing that necessitated more than the traditional, “I’ll be praying for you” Christian cliché.
A thousand thoughts were going through my mind. When my husband and I had difficulties early in our marriage, I did something similar in another church group of young married women.
Oh, they voiced a prayer for me that evening. However, from then on, they treated me like I had a contagious disease, bad marriage-itis. I was determined that Cynthia would not be treated the same way.
She bared her soul to us, a group of people she didn’t know well. But we were her sisters in Christ. She was asking for our prayer and support. She was putting trust in us as the church to be her support system. Would we?
She didn’t care about her reputation or her husband’s. Her bold transparency was born out of desperate need for an intervention from God. She pulled back the curtain of her life and let virtual strangers see the piles of garbage that lay there festering.
Cynthia stood before us exposed, naked with her need. I looked around at the group and wondered what we would do to encourage Cynthia beyond tonight? Oh sure, we would give her a hug at church.
She needed more than what we could offer her in 10 minutes on a Sunday night. She needed someone to stand along beside her and encourage her on an ongoing basis. I wondered who would do that?
The still, small voice of my Savior, said, “You will.”
“How can I? What can I do?”
“Send her cards of encouragement.”
“Nobody does that anymore.”
“It’s what I want you to do.”
The next day, I went to the Christian bookstore and selected a bevy of cards, cards that said I’m praying for you, I know there will be a brighter day tomorrow.
Do you believe in brighter days? Oh God, I surely do.
Over the next few months as I sent Cynthia cards and prayed for her daily, something profound happened. In addition to her being encouraged, I was encouraged.
I began to believe, really believe, that hope and life and purpose exist for Cynthia and for me. I began to believe God could work a miracle in Cynthia’s life and marriage. I told her so in cards, on the phone and when I saw her at church.
I shared a book that was meaningful to me during our difficult year. That year, I read every book available on marriage but, the smallest of them all was the best. Ed Wheat’s How to Save Your Marriage Alone gave me practical advice and spiritual fortitude.
It took months of commitment and faith in God, but Cynthia’s husband returned, repented and recommitted to his family and his faith in God.
Recently, a friend of Cynthia’s found herself in the midst of a broken relationship. Her husband of over 25 years wanted a divorce. He had been having an affair. Bonnie’s* situation, like Cynthia’s looked bleak.
Cynthia, though, entreated Bonnie to stand strong and hold on to God for strength. And Cynthia told Bonnie that during her dark night of the soul, my encouragement helped her hang on to that dwindling thread of hope in a God that never fails.
In the midst of her trial, Bonnie lost weight and her joy. Slowly, though she became stronger with the help of encouragement from Cynthia and other Christian sisters. Then, her husband returned. Things are still touch and go but, God is definitely moving in their marriage. Where there was no light, there is now a glimmer peaking through.
Of course, God was the one who hung on tightly to Cynthia and Bonnie. All I did was help Cynthia know someone cares. All Cynthia did was help Bonnie know someone cares.
We can encourage another person. It doesn’t take much time but it may mean a lifeline to the person we reach out to. Throughout his epistles Paul admonishes us to encourage.
“Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing,” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV).
The writer of Hebrews does as well, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today,” Hebrews 3:13 (NIV).
We can be and should be Jesus with skin on to those around us. We can change the world, one loving step, one hug, one card, one soul at a time.
That’s the heart of encouragement.
For more on encouragement, check out James Prescott’s free book, 5 Steps to Encouragement: A Manifesto for Changing the World, http://www.jamesprescott.co.uk/blog/free-gifts/.