Few things are more powerful than a timely, specific word of encouragement. One word of encouragement can buoy mothers who feel unnoticed, pastors on the verge of burnout, friends struggling with depression, or singles feeling the weight of loneliness. Dane Ortlund once told this story:
A few weeks ago an older pastor said to me in passing, “You’re doing well.” It took him about five seconds to formulate the thought, say the words, and move on. Two weeks later—whether he’s right or not—I’m still drawing strength from it. The supernatural power of encouragement.
Most people have felt this joyful sensation. Not only is encouragement valuable (Prov. 25:11), it can actually be healing. Yet well-meaning attempts at encouragement can sometimes be ineffective or even counterproductive. How can we ensure our encouragement is both effective and God-honoring? Consider three tips.
1. Be specific.
Perhaps the top reason many words of encouragement lack power is they aren’t specific enough. Consider the difference:
Generic: “Thanks for being a good friend.”
Specific: “Thanks for being an active listener. Yesterday when you let me share my struggles with you—and you stayed engaged and asked follow-up questions—that made me feel loved and valued.”
When you attach your encouragement to a specific action or habit of the individual—and to a specific way it makes youfeel—it shows your encouragement is genuine. It also reassures the other person that her efforts are noticed (Matt. 6:4) and reminds her that she has unique gifts and a meaningful purpose from God (Rom. 12:6).
The next time you encourage someone, ask yourself, Was my encouragement specific? Or was it something that could be found on any motivational billboard? As a general rule, the more specific a word of encouragement is, the more powerful it will be.
2. Follow your encouragement with a related question.
You’ve probably been in a situation when someone complimented you—and then abruptly stopped talking and stared at you, leaving you scrambling to think of an appropriate response. Perhaps you tried to break the tension by deflecting the compliment (“Aww, I’m not that good at singing”) or by complimenting in response (“Well, you’re a great singer, too”). In either case, the pressure to respond can often rob encouraging words of some of their power.
One of the best ways to avoid putting someone in this situation is to immediately follow up your words of encouragement with a question about how this person has come to excel in this area. For example, “You are great at asking questions. How did you get so good at this?”
Asking this follow-up question encourages the other person while organically moving the conversation along (and bypassing that awkward staredown). This question also shows the other person that he has something valuable to offer—and it gives you (the encourager) an opportunity to learn and grow.
3. Give credit to the Holy Spirit.
Herein lies the primary difference between worldly compliments and biblical encouragement. Worldly compliments exalt self; biblical encouragement exalts God. When someone receives biblical encouragement, she walks away praising and thanking God—not praising and inflating self.
A great way to practice biblical encouragement is to follow your praise with “This is clear evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in you.” (If the person is not a believer, you might say, “God has clearly gifted you in this area.”)
Statements like these give glory to God (James 1:17), allow the other person to receive the compliment with gratitude rather than pride, and remind him that God is at work in his life (something many Christians have trouble recognizing in themselves). Every opportunity to encourage someone is an opportunity to worship and enjoy God. Don’t miss out on this pleasure!
To the Receiver
The best way to respond to a word of encouragement is with a simple and heartfelt “Thank you—that means a lot.” It is not humble to deflect encouragement—in fact, deflecting encouragement actually belittles God’s work in you and deprives the other person of the joy of building you up. Smile and say thank you. This will glorify God and create joy for both parties.
You will almost certainly come across someone today who needs encouragement. Yes, today! Make the most of this opportunity by making your encouragement specific, asking how the person did it, and giving credit to the Holy Spirit. If you include these elements in your encouragement, you can be confident that your words are effective and that God is glorified.
Ask yourself if you can relate to the following scenario:
Your loved one tells you about her current struggle. Shortly after she starts talking, you realize you already know what she should do to help herself. So you wait (and wait and wait) for her to finish talking, mentally replaying your advice to keep from forgetting it. You nod politely as she keeps talking, but your eagerness to speak swells inside you like a water balloon about to burst. After what feels like an eternity, she (finally!) stops talking, and you blurt out your opinion. “Mission accomplished!” you think.
If you can relate to this story, you aren’t alone. In fact, if you can’t relate to this story (or some variation of it), you are likely in the minority. As Stephen Covey observed, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” The norm in our world is for people to talk at each other rather than to each other, to use conversation to voice one’s own opinion rather than to truly understand the other person.
This tendency becomes especially problematic when interacting with a hurting loved one. We often refer to these people as “fixers”—those who seem more interested in offering their advice on how to correct a situation than truly hearing, understanding, and sympathizing with the person in pain. The “fixer” mentality can often be hurtful and counterproductive. Yet, never sharing our thoughts and advice also seems problematic. So, how do we know when to give advice and when to listen?
Quick to listen, slow to speak [advice]
Advice, itself, is a positive thing. Most of the time, when someone offers advice, he wants good for the person to whom he’s talking. Why, then, is advice often hurtful? Who wouldn’t want direction on how to better herself or her situation?
Often, the problem is not in the advice itself but in how or when it is delivered. Yes, some advice can be flat-out bad. But what usually makes advice harmful is what precedes it—or better yet, what doesn’t precede it, namely listening and understanding. Advising without first listening is like driving a car without oil—it usually won’t work, and even if it does, it will likely cause damage.
When walking alongside hurting loved ones, we should take James’ words to heart: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (James 1:19). Whether or not we give advice, our first priority should always be to listen and understand (not to “fix”). Consider four problems with a fix-first approach (i.e., prioritizing fixing over listening and understanding) and what makes a listen-first approach superior.
(1) The fix-first approach is often prideful—and foolish.
Whenever we offer advice before taking time to hear the other person, we communicate to her, “I am so wise that I don’t even need to listen to you to tell you what you need.” This sentiment not only drips with arrogance, but it’s also foolish. According to Proverbs 18:2, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:13 repeats the refrain: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Ironically, it is not wisdom that emboldens someone to advise without first listening; it is a lack of wisdom. Those quick to speak are repeatedly called fools (cf. Proverbs 10:8; 10:19; 17:28). But the opposite is also true. Those slow to speak are repeatedly called wise (cf. Proverbs 10:8; 10:19; 17:27–28; 19:20). Consider the inverse of Proverbs 18:2: “A wise person takes pleasure in understanding, not merelyin expressing his opinion.”
(2)The fix-first approach often leads to misguided advice.
Have you ever had a doctor cut you off and give you his prescription before you even finished sharing your symptoms? Isn’t it frustrating? You can’t trust his advice since he failed to listen and gather all the information first.
But imagine if the doctor had defended himself by saying, “Well, I am just a fixer! I don’t have time to listen!” That would be preposterous, wouldn’t it? You might tell him, “Listening isn’t opposed to fixing [or healing]; it’s an essential part of it!”
The same reality applies to our advice to others. If we advise without first listening, we will likely give the wrong prescription—a dangerous endeavor. Meanwhile, when we take the time to listen and understand the other person, our counsel will be more informed and much more likely to lead to true healing. If our ultimate desire truly is the other person’s healing—not some ulterior motive—we will listen carefully before offering a prescription.
(3) The fix-first approach keeps others from feeling safe enough, heard enough, and loved enough to take our advice.
Even when fixers happen to give the right advice (a rare feat when listening is absent), those around them seldom use it. The adage is true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Whenever we treat others as problems to fix rather than people to foster, we objectify them and usually leave them uninspired by our words. If you don’t listen well when someone speaks, you shouldn’t expect her to listen when you speak (let alone apply your advice). Meanwhile, whenever we prioritize listening and understanding—without judging or immediately correcting—we establish trust. 2
The moment after someone shares something vulnerable is one of the most crucial occasions for establishing trust and influence. If your immediate response to someone’s difficult situation is, “Maybe you should…” or, “Well, this is why I have been telling you to…”, she will feel like you’re treating her life like a check engine light. Meanwhile, responses like “Tell me more” or “I am so sorry; [insert follow-up question]” establish safety and trust. The more you listen and seek to understand, the more she will feel safe, heard, and loved—and the more receptive she will be to your feedback. You earn the right to speak into others’ lives by first listening well. 3
(4)The fix-first mentality misses a golden opportunity to reflect the heart of Christ.
If anyone had the right to fix people without first listening, it was Jesus. Jesus knew all things (John 16:30)—including what was in the hearts of men and women (John 2:25)—so he technically didn’t need to ask any questions. Yet, question-asking was one of Jesus’s favorite forms of ministry; the gospels alone record Jesus asking over 300 questions! Why is that? Why would Jesus ask so many questions (and take the time to listen) if he already had all of the answers? Why wouldn’t he simply step onto the scene and start fixing people?
Jesus saw his life mission as more than fixing and the purpose of listening as more than information-gathering. He used listening and asking questions to persuade others (cf. Matthew 6:25–34), to draw them out, to communicate love, and to help people understand themselves (cf. Matthew 9:27–31; 16:13–20; Mark 9:14–29; John 5:1–9; 11:21–27). If you met Jesus today, how would the interaction go? He would take an interest in your life. He would ask you questions. He would listen attentively. He would look you in the eye. He would smile. He would make you feel seen, heard, and loved.
Jesus is not an unfeeling dentist who only cares about getting the plaque out of your life. He is the Bridegroom who knows and loves you and saves you to know and love him. Jesus died on the cross not merely to fix us but to bring us to himself (1 Peter 3:18).
Love by listening
Jesus majored in the ministry of listening, and one of the best ways we can communicate the heart and love of Christ is by listening well to those around us.
Of course, Jesus did much more than listen to us; he also took action to save us. Jesus is not only a hearer; he is also a healer, and he regularly uses words to bring life and restoration. In the next article, we will consider how to use our words and advice to reflect Christ and speak life into others.
Yet, while Jesus’s ministry is more than listening, let’s take a moment today to cherish the fact that it’s not less than that. Even if no one in your life seems to want to listen, Jesus does. Rejoice afresh today in your loving, listening, Lord!
Note: This article focused on some of the dangers of giving advice. If you would like to learn more about how to use words to give life to others, check out this other article.
I once read a fictional story of a man who received an assignment from Jesus while traveling up a mountain. The story went something like this:
“How are you this morning?” Jesus asked.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Fred replied. “Is there anything I can do for you today?”
“Yes, there is,” Jesus said. “I have a wagon with three stones in it, and I need someone to pull it up the hill for me. Are you willing?”
“Of course; I’d love to do something for you! Those stones don’t look very heavy, and the wagon is in great shape. Where would you like me to take it?”
Jesus gave the man specific instructions, sketching a map in the dust at the side of the road. Cross the forest to get to the village; cross the village to get to the path; stay on the path until you reach the top.
So Fred set off cheerfully. The wagon pulled a bit behind him, but the burden was an easy one. He began to whistle as he walked quickly through the forest. The sun peeked through the trees and warmed his back. What a joy to be able to help the Lord, Fred thought, enjoying the beautiful day.
As Fred entered the village, he saw a man selling colored stones, slightly bigger than the ones Jesus gave him, and much more glamorous in his humble opinion. I’ll bet Jesus would want a few of these, too, he thought to himself. He found that only two of their size would fit in the wagon alongside the rocks Jesus gave him, so he purchased a couple and went on his way, proud of his own ambition to do even more than what Jesus had asked of him.
As he neared the end of the village—with the path in sight—he saw a signpost that read, “Freshly tumbled stones, two miles east! Rounder, smoother, and more polished than any you’ve ever seen!” It was off the path Jesus directed him to take, to be sure, but he could easily fit two more stones in his knapsack, maybe more—and Jesus would be so proud of him for carrying more than he asked! He could already picture the impressed look on Jesus’s face: “My, my, you’re even stronger than I realized!” Jesus would say.
As Fred went along, he collected more and more rocks—some from nearby towns, others from fellow travelers, still others from paths Jesus never asked him to go. He even purchased a new wagon—heavier, yes, but it gave him more space to fit his new rocks, and the tires looked to be more durable than the ones on Jesus’s wagon. Jesus doesn’t know how steep these hills can be, Fred thought.
With every mile Fred traveled, his load grew fuller and fuller, heavier and heavier. The wagon felt huge and awkward as it lumbered and swayed over the ruts in the road. No longer was Fred singing praises. Instead, resentment began to build inside, especially during the steeper parts of the journey. How could Jesus expect me to carry such a heavy load? he thought to himself.
Frustrated, he began to entertain thoughts of giving up and letting the wagon roll backward. About that time Jesus came to Fred’s side and asked him what was wrong.
“You gave me a job that is too hard for me,” Fred sobbed.
Jesus walked over to the wagon. “What is this that you’re carrying?” he asked with a tone of purer compassion than Fred had ever heard. One by one, Jesus unloaded the wagon, placing stones of various sizes and colors on his own back, until only the three stones he had given Fred were left in the wagon.
“I know you were trying to help,” Jesus said gently. “But when you are weighed down with all these cares, you will not have the strength to do what I have asked of you.”
Burdens Jesus never asked us to carry
As silly as this story may seem, there is a Fred in all of us. Every Christian has taken up burdens Jesus never asked her to carry—often with noble motives—and has had to learn to lay them back down. In fact, the Christian life could be described as a continual laying down of unnecessary burdens at Christ’s feet, daily seeking fresh mercy and relief in his soul-sustaining presence (Psalm 55:22; Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Peter 5:7).
Scripture highlights many heavy burdens that we will be tempted to carry in this life—burdens that Jesus wants to carry for us. Consider four:
(1) The burden of our sins.
“My iniquities have gone over my head; they are too heavy for me to carry.” (Psalm 38:4)
“Jesus personally carried our sins in his body on the cross. … By his wounds you are healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
The burden of our sins—the guilt, shame, and regret, the feelings of inadequacy, bondage, hopelessness, and humiliation—often feels less like a few heavy rocks on our back and more like a mountain of boulders that we’ve been buried beneath. As the psalmist relatably illustrates, “My sins pile up so high I can’t see my way out” (Psalm 40:12). Not only are we unable to carry the burden of our sins, we can’t even lift a finger as we lie face down in the dirt beneath them. Sin is beyond heavy; it is crushing.
This reality is what makes the name of Jesus so oxygenating for the soul of the believer. His name is the sound of deliverance; his burden-bearing arrival means our lungs can breathe again. As Dane Ortlund put it, “Not only can Jesus alone pull us out of the hole of sin; he alone desires to climb in and bear our burdens [for us].”
Jesus doesn’t pull us out of the avalanche of our sins and then leave us there to be buried again. Jesus was buried for us so that we—sheltered by his resurrection power and insurmountable love—never have to live beneath that oppressive weight again (Romans 6:4; 8:38-39; Galatians 2:20). Far from demanding masochism and salvaged guilt as penitence for our sin, Jesus welcomes us to live in ongoing repentance, daily breathing in the un-burdening freedom of his victory and God’s forgiveness (Colossians 2:13-15; 1 John 1:9; Heidelberg Catechism Q&A #1).
(2) The burden of saving, changing, or healing others.
Beyond attempts to atone for our own sins (i.e., the burden of saving ourselves), another common temptation is to take on the pressure of changing those around us (i.e., the burden of saving others). This, too, is a crushing weight. If we believe it is our job to save those around us, then we will constantly feel like we are failing both God and others every time people don’t change in the ways (or timing) we had hoped.
Of course, part of the ministry of sowing is helping others carry their burdens. I once saw a cartoon of a woman lying in her sick bed, clearly overwhelmed. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes. A huge basket of clothes to be ironed sat nearby. Two dirty children were fighting in one corner; in the other corner a cat sat licking spilled milk. A cheery woman stood in the doorway, smiling and waving as she left for her weekly pedicure. She called out, “Well, Florence, if there is anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask!”
Ignoring the needs of others is not what it means to be a sower—we are still called to carry one another’s burdens. But carrying someone’s burdens is not the same thing as taking them. Just three verses after the Holy Spirit tells us to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), he then tells us that we all must carry our own burdens (Galatians 6:5). In other words, Christians are called to support one another, but not to take responsibility for one another.The primary emphasis of the sowing imagery is not that the sower doesn’t put in effort, but that he doesn’t burden himself with the impossible task of causing growth in others. This he entrusts to God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6).
If you are faithful to simply sow the seed of the gospel, you can be confident that God sees your efforts, he is pleased by them, and he will bear fruit through you—sometimes in ways you see immediately, often in ways you see over a long period of time, and perhaps usually in ways you won’t see fully until eternity. So continue to sow faithfully, expectantly, and restfully—trusting that God will bring blessing through it.
(3) The burden of perfectionism.
“Jesus answered, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.'” (Luke 10:41-42)
Our culture is obsessed with the pursuit of being “good enough.” Am I a good enough mother? Am I a good enough singer? Am I a good enough student? Am I a good enough friend? Am I a good enough pastor? Am I a good enough Christian?
This constant pressure drives many to take up the heavy backpack of perfectionism—endlessly clawing for acceptance and constantly worrying if we have done enough to earn and maintain the approval of God and others. Carrying this burden is not only exhausting, but it’s also futile—we are always climbing, yet never arriving.
Ironically, even if we could arrive at the status of “good enough,” we would actually be settling for something far less than what God intended for us. God doesn’t intend to make us good enough; he intends to make us good. At the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10), Jesus won’t say to his Bride (the Church), “You are decent. Acceptable. Good enough.” Rather, he will say to us, “You are perfect. Without blemish. Stainless. Glorious. Beautiful” (cf. Ephesians 5:27; Colossians 3:12; also see Isaiah 43:4).
This glorious destiny will not come from us perfecting ourselves, but rather from throwing ourselves onto Christ to cleanse and beautify us (Ephesians 5:25-26). The fact that our salvation is received—not achieved—is at the very heart of the good news we proclaim (Isaiah 55:1-3).
“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.” (Lamentations 3:21-23; also see Isaiah 46:10; Luke 12:22-34)
Time and time again throughout Scripture, Jesus welcomes us to live for him today and to trust him to provide for us tomorrow. He frees us from asking, “What will happen tomorrow?” and calls us to simply ask, “What does faithfulness look like today? How can I love God and others today?”
Jesus wants to help carry our burdens and give rest to our souls in ways nothing (and no one) else can (Matthew 11:28-30).
Your burden is what qualifies you to come!
Are you weighed down by burdens today? You don’t need to do more or be better in order to come to Jesus—he wants to meet you where you are. In the words of Dane Ortlund, “You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come.”
So, as we sing, “Lay down your burdens; lay down your shame. All who are broken, lift up your face. Oh wanderer come home; you’re not too far. Lay down your hurt; lay down your heart, and come as you are.”