So maybe you didn’t know I’ve been sort of discouraged lately. (Understatement.) More to the point, I’ve been sad, depressed, angry, cynical, resigned, bored, confused and exhausted. I wrote a little about it in another post called “She’s Come Undone.” (That was just the tip of the iceberg.)
Yesterday I had lunch with a friend, and I walked away from it encouraged. Later I wondered why other friends had tried to encourage me, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as a 30-minute lunch conversation. The more I thought about it, the more I recognized some traits. I call these traits “un-encouragement,” because they undermine true efforts to encourage. See if you can relate.
Disclaimer: I’ve been guilty of these same tactics, so I’m not passing judgment! I love and value my friends, and I know their intentions are pure.
UN-ENCOURAGEMENT 1: You’re a Liar
Sometimes when we’re sad or upset or whatever, a loving and well-meaning friend will tell us all the reasons we shouldn’t be. You might say, “I suck as a Christian and as a human being in general.” And your friend might fiercely object. “What?! That’s ridiculous! You are the kindest, most generous person I know!” The result: Now, in addition to feeling as if you suck, you also feel more lonely and misunderstood than ever. After all, you know you suck. You know the ugly, dark thoughts in your heart. When your friend objects, it just shows how your friend doesn’t know you … how no one knows you. It also makes you feel your friend doesn’t believe you. If you honestly share your feelings, and your friend responds by basically calling you a liar … well, you do the math.
UN-ENCOURAGEMENT 2: You’re a Bad Christian
Sometimes when we’re sad or upset or whatever, a loving and well-meaning friend will direct us to scripture. You might say, “I feel like God’s so far away from me right now.” And your friend might respond, “What? That’s ridiculous. Haven’t you read that God will never leave you? Listen, read Deuteronomy 31 tonight. And read the book of John. Yes, the entire book, because God’s love is written all over it.” The result: Now you feel like an even worse Christian than you did five minutes ago. You already know what the Bible says! Reading the scriptures isn’t going to help! … Wait a second … shouldn’t it help? Maybe your faith is too shallow to let the scripture “drop from your head to your heart.” Maybe God really has abandoned you! Et cetera.
These forms of unencouragement cause many people to keep their feelings to themselves. We don’t want pat answers and easy 3-step solutions, because these things are useless and condescending. So we close in on ourselves, and our situations seem increasingly impossible and hopeless. Who knows how that will end?
In my opinion, real encouragement involves listening and sharing. It’s saying to a friend, “I’ve been there.” Or if you haven’t, it’s being honest about it rather than behaving as if you’re dripping with answers. I’ve found that when people are able to honestly relate what they’re feeling (and unencouragement is avoided at all costs), God’s really able to get His foot in the door. (You must also be determined not to have a pity party.) You begin to dialog about your thoughts and experiences, and somehow, amazingly, you begin to remember God’s character–as revealed not only in the Bible, but in your own life. It’s like your soul shakes off its amnesia and you begin to remember how good He is, how kind and loving He’s been. You remember the lessons He taught you before, and you recognize how they’re still applicable to this situation today. You wind up encouraging one another.
It’s also helpful to talk because nine times out of ten (I don’t have any research to back up those statistics) you realize you’re not alone. Your friend has either gone through it before, or is going through it right now. For some reason it helps to know you’re not the only Christian on the planet who has doubted God’s decision to choose you as His own.