1 My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you; 2 keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye; 3 bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend, 5 to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words. 6 For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice, 7 and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense, 8 passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house 9 in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness. 10 And behold, the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart. 11 She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; 12 now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait. 13 She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him, 14 “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; 15 so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you. 16 I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen; 17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. 18 Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. 19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey; 20 he took a bag of money with him; at full moon he will come home.” 21 With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. 22 All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast 23 till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. 24 And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. 25 Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, 26 for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. 27 Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
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.
Note: This article focuses on the value of listening and common mistakes when giving advice. If you would like to learn more about how to use our words to give life to others, check out this other article.
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, replaying your advice in your mind 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 immediately 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 one interacts 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. This “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, it is because 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 if it does, it will likely cause damage.
When walking alongside hurting loved ones, we should take the Apostle James’ words to heart: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” 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). Fortunately, 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 say to 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 a green light 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 just step onto the scene and start fixing people?
Clearly, 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 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 who saves you to know and love him. Jesus died on the cross not merely to fix us, but to save us from sin 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 used 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!
Watch or listen to “With Us in the Wilderness” (sermon) here.
Read “Four(teen) Ways to Improve Your Listening” here.
Read “Can I Do Anything With Completely Pure Motives?” here.
I once had a conversation with a friend who had been hurt by someone he loved. He told me he was doing everything in his power to not harbor bitterness toward this person. He then made a comment I have not forgotten years later: “I’ve heard it said that harboring bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. I’ve experienced this firsthand. The more I feed bitterness in my heart, the more it brings death to me.”
This is precisely how bitterness works. Bitterness is poison dipped in honey. It tastes sweet going down, then it proceeds to metastasize and kill us from the inside out. In this way, bitterness is the poster child for the deceitfulness of sin. Whenever we love something that brings death to us, the devil has us right where he wants us.
There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra where the devil incarnate is tempting a woman to sin. After baiting her with lies, the devil says, “It is for this that I came here: that you may have Death in abundance.” Death is the devil’s favorite seed to sew. If we do not actively starve bitterness, it will bring death to us—and there are no exceptions to this rule.
How is bitterness fed?
In order to starve bitterness, we must first know what feeds it. Proverbs 17:9 gives us a helpful starting point:
“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
Here we see the antithesis of forgiveness is something called “repeating a matter.” There are three primary ways we can repeat a matter—each of which feeds death-producing bitterness in our hearts.
1. We can repeat the matter to ourselves.
Repeating the matter to ourselves is when we replay the videotape of the other person’s offense over and over again in our minds. This is perhaps the most common feeder of bitterness and unforgiveness. Every time we replay someone’s sin in our minds, we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts—and it grows.
2. We can repeat the matter to the sinner.
Ken Sande (author of The Peacemaker) calls this gunnysacking. This is when we collect the other person’s sins in a figurative bag (gunny sack), and we carry that bag around with us wherever we go. Then, whenever we get into an argument with this person, we dump out their old sins and throw them back in their face.
Whether it’s through actively attacking this person (e.g., lashing out in anger) or through passive aggression (e.g., giving the cold shoulder), we have one goal: Don’t let them forget what they did.
3. We can repeat the matter to someone else.
The Bible calls this gossip. (The CSB actually translates Proverbs 17:9 as “Whoever gossips separates close friends…”) One thing to notice about gossip is that it harms four different parties:
Every time we repeat a matter in one of these three ways, we feed bitterness in our hearts—and this bitterness inevitably brings death to us and those around us.
Of course, there are certainly situations where we must lovingly and prayerfully confront the person who sinned against us and discuss their offense with them. (In fact, it is our duty to lovingly communicate how we’ve been hurt, so the person can take steps toward growth.) There are also situations where we should report an offense to the authorities, especially in criminal activity or abuse cases. There are also situations in which we should discuss sins committed against us with a counselor, therapist, or pastor. None of these things are what Proverbs 17:9 warns us about when it talks about “repeating a matter.”
Rather, this verse warns us of the danger of allowing bitterness and vengefulness to consume us, causing us to repeat the matter with the intent to harm the sinner or to justify our own sin. Whenever we do this, we give the devil a foothold to sew death-producing bitterness inside of us (Ephesians 4:26-32; Hebrews 12:14-15).
Before you read on, ask yourself: Which of these feeders of bitterness do I need to repent of? Which do I need to be on guard against in this season of my life?
So, how can we starve bitterness?
Ephesians 4:31-32 is helpful here: “Let all bitterness … be put away from you … Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
In order to starve our souls of one thing, we must feed our souls with something else. According to this passage, we “put away” bitterness in part by preoccupying ourselves with God’s love and forgiveness toward us. How does God love and forgive us? I love how J.I. Packer put it in Knowing God:
There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me.
God’s love for us is so deep, strong, and committed, that he’s actually able to see the worst in us and yet still desire good for us. He is constantly pursuing us—even when we wander from him—eager to embrace us, kiss us, bless us, forgive us, and celebrate with us when we repent of our sin and return to him (Luke 15:20-32).
Rehearsing the gospel of God’s grace and love toward us is always the first step in starving bitterness and cultivating forgiveness toward others (1 John 4:19-21).
Remembering God’s promises
Beyond this, Christlike love and forgiveness are cultivated by keeping three promises of God on the forefront of our minds:
There is mercy waiting for every repentant sinner, including you in your imperfect forgiveness (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9).
If we rest in these promises, our hearts will become fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to work. Remember this: bitterness is not something that you have or don’t have; it’s something that you cultivate—and the same is true for forgiveness (Luke 6:45).
Freedom through forgiveness
It has been said that to forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then to discover that the prisoner was you. May God work forgiveness in our hearts—as we are compelled by the gospel of Jesus Christ—for God’s glory, the good of others, and our own freedom and joy.