A woman in the front row raised her hand for me to acknowledge her question. I was teaching a Bible study and was talking about ‘encouragement.’ “This is all well and good,” she said, “but when are you going to get to the substance; you know, exhortation, the real meaty stuff?”
Pausing to think about how to respond to her question, I realized there lurks a profound misunderstanding of both the concept and reality of encouragement. Returning in the moment to answer her, I calmly reframed the idea. The meaning of the word is the idea of putting courage into someone, “to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope; to hearten.” Perhaps encouragement is the strongest thing we give someone at times. Still, it seems difficult to do encouragement well and so we may abandon the attempt. Perhaps a vague attempt at ‘pumping up’ somebody occurs, but it may truly feel or sound like fluff; an inauthentic expression, at best. I once heard that form of encouragement referred to as “sloppy agape.” “Agape,” is the Greek word for unconditional love and treating it in a sloppy manner may not send the message intended. It could also be used to avoid, manipulate or even serve as a pretense for authentic caring. In that state there is no clear rendering of appropriate comments of concern, admiration, or appreciation.
Some people seem to prefer to ‘exhort,’ or to call out something from someone, literally. Another rendering of the word is: “to give warnings or advice, make urgent appeals.” Yes, that is strong, necessary and true but, exhortation can easily give way to tearing down or destroying someone’s sensibilities or relationship. Minimizing someone for my gain or merely to ‘get it out,’ relieving my own need or piling on someone else my own expectation demonstrates selfish motives or a controlling attitude. Exhortation as a spiritual gift is meant to be utilized carefully, and embedded in the love of Christ along with encouragement. Exhorting in such a way tells the truth so that the receiver can hear it and truly learn from it if he chooses. As opposed to the ‘fluff’ of encouragement, exhortation’s shadow side is one of ’bullying.’
The two words complement each other and are actually two sides of the same coin. In their purest and best expressions, when they are working together, they accomplish worlds of benefit in the lives of people in relationship. Different personalities may lean more towards one or the other. The hope is that we not produce either fluff or bullying, but care well for others as each gift is expressed.
I hope the lady on the front row learned something that day; I know I did as I processed these ideas further. In our daily lives, whether we encourage or exhort, we do well to build our relationships authentically in the love of Christ.