Encouraging Families, Encouraging People Back to all sermons

Date: October 23, 2015

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Tags: encouragement, discipline, families, parenting

Synopsis: At the conclusion of this service, 15 couples dedicated their children to the Lord and themselves to the task of Christian parenting. In keeping with this family theme, Pastor Cam preached this message entitled Encouraging Families, Encouraging People. What makes families and people encouraging? And how does Biblical encouragement differ from what the world has to offer?

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The title for my sermon this morning is “Encouraging Families, Encouraging People”. As I say that, I recognize it is ambiguous, and deliberately so. Am I going to preach a message that will encourage families and encourage people? Or am I going to describe families that are encouraging and give instruction on how to be an encouraging person? Well, actually I am going to do both. I am going to encourage us all to be encouraging; as families and as people.

At the conclusion of the two services today, over a dozen couples will be dedicating themselves and their children to the Lord. Thus the focus on families. But families are made of people. So what I say to parents and families today is equally applicable to everyone here, whatever your family status might be. We are all called to live in relationships with other people; room-mates, house mates, office-mates, school-mates, etc.

So let me begin with a diagnostic question; Is your family an encouraging family? Do you think people would describe you as encouraging person? And what is encouragement? What does it look like? How do we do it? And is Christian encouragement different from other kinds of encouragement, and if so, how?

We are all keenly aware of things people say that are not encouraging. I remember an incident many years ago when we were living in Alaska. We were driving from our home in the Matanuska Valley to a speaking engagement in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory in Canada. Our children were small, so we were driving during the night so they would sleep. While I was driving, we hit a patch of black ice. The car slid out of control, swerved back and forth across the road, and before I could bring it back into control, we slid slowly into the snow covered ditch beside the road where the car shuddered to a halt.

Our son Drew, who was about 4 years old at the time, popped up out of the back seat, surveyed the situation and said in an accusing tone of voice: “Daddy, you drove us into the ditch! Mommy never drives us into the ditch. You should let Mommy drive.” I did not find his words encouraging!

I recall another situation that occurred shortly after we arrived in Alaska to take up our ministry in a little church there. The church held a welcome reception for us. I am somewhat of an introvert by nature, and never at my best in a room full of people I don’t know. I must have been standing there somewhat awkwardly, because one of the women came up to me and said, “Do you feel as uncomfortable as you look?” I was not encouraged!

We can probably all recall things that others have done or said that did not encourage us. But what exactly is encouragement and how do we do it? And how can we do more of it?

We can start by taking apart the English word itself. “Encouragement”. What lies at the heart of the word? “Courage.” Then you add the prefix “en” or “in”; the suffix “ment” simply makes it into a noun. So what we have is “something that puts in courage or injects courage into someone else.” It is the opposite of “Discouragement” which takes away or diminishes courage in another.

But I want to particularly focus on the Biblical word today. Once again, we can learn quite a bit from the makeup of the word itself. The Greek word often translated encourage is “parakaleo”. It is a compound word. The first part, “para” is a preposition which means “alongside.” The second part of the word, “kaleo” means “to call”. From this we can see that encouragement is both a position as well as an activity.

So, one of the first things we learn is that 1. An encourager comes along side. To do it effectively, we have to be in the right place. We have to be alongside. We have to communicate to the other person that we are with them in the struggle; that we are on their side as well as by their side. We are not above them or ahead of them or behind them. We are beside them. Effective encouragement comes out of effective relationships. A superior attitude tends to crush rather than encourage, even if the same words are spoken.

This is important in families. It is important in all relationships. Parents, do you clearly communicate to your child that you are on their side and by their side? Or do your children perceive you as harsh, domineering, judgmental? What about our other relationships; at home, at church, at work? Do you communicate that you are an ally or an adversary and a critic?

The next thing we learn from this Biblical word is that 2. True encouragement requires discernment to offer the help appropriate to the need of the moment.

Why do I say that, and what do I mean by that?

One of the interesting things about this particular Greek word, (parakaleo) is that it isn’t translated the same way every time you see it. It’s kind of a “chameleon word” that changes color in different settings. Sometimes it is translated “encourage.” But other times it is translated “comfort” and in other places it can be translated “exhort” or “urge.”

Why does the translation of the word keep changing? The basic idea is to offer verbal assistance (“to call”) from a position alongside. But what kind of assistance is necessary? What kind of call is required? That depends on the circumstances and the need of the moment. If someone is sad, what do they need? They need comfort. If someone is timid and fearful, what do they need? They need courage; hence the English word “encouragement.” If someone is feeling lazy or reluctant and about to quit or give up, they might need exhortation and urging. What the encourager does is come alongside, assess the need of the moment and offer the appropriate help. That requires alertness. It also requires sensitivity to the other person’s feelings and needs. The encourager must be tuned into the person he’s with as well as tuned into the Holy Spirit to discern the need of the moment and speak the right words.

Parents, this is a huge challenge to you if you want to be true encouragers to your children. Because not only does the need of the moment require discernment, but so does the need and temperament of your individual children. What works for one child may be counterproductive with another. What works with your son might be devastating to your daughter.

The same challenge exists for all of us in all of our relationships. What is the need of the moment or the situation? And what will best communicate and meet that need with this particular individual? I guess we can see, almost before we begin, that we will never get this right all the time. But that doesn’t mean we just give up. We should continue to strive to build our skill, our perceptiveness, our knowledge of the significant people in our lives. Sometimes it may be as simple as a smile and a thank you to someone who is doing a good job. Other times, an encouraging e-mail or text. For others, taking time for a cup of coffee and a chat to see how they are doing. But for others it may require confrontation and stern rebuke.

But so far, all I have said is pretty generic stuff. Helpful and useful as far as it goes. But it is truth you could read in almost any self-help or psychology book. What I want to do now is to take us deeper into the uniqueness of Christian encouragement.

One of the characters in the Bible who has always impressed me in this regard is named Joseph. Now, before you turn to the Book of Genesis to look at that story, that is not the Joseph I am talking about. I am talking about the New Testament Joseph. But again, before you turn to the early chapters of Matthew and Luke for the stories of Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus, that is not the Joseph I am talking about either. I am talking about the Joseph who is written about in the Book of Acts. Now you may be looking a bit puzzled. You may not remember anyone named Joseph in the Book of Acts.

I can assure you that he is there and he actually plays quite a significant role. But the reason you don’t recognize him is because he is usually known by his nickname. He is introduced in Acts 4:36-37:

Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.

The apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement” in the Aramaic language. And so he was known in the rest of the Book of Acts. He was not only generous, as described in this introductory paragraph. He also had a knack for coming alongside of people. He was the one who came alongside a new convert by the name of Saul whom everyone was afraid of. He succeeded in breaking the ice and introducing Saul to the church leaders in Jerusalem and eventually defusing the suspicions they had of him. He also remembered Saul (later called Paul) and went to Tarsus to recruit him to join the leadership and teaching team in the church of Antioch.

Barnabas and Paul become the leaders of the first missions team sent out by the church in Antioch. His encouraging heart is on display later in the case of a young man named John Mark. John Mark had washed out of the first missionary journey; he quit and went home in the middle of the mission, leaving the others in the lurch. It was Barnabas who later advocated for John Mark and urged that he be given another chance. His encouragement to this young man eventually did see him restored to important and effective ministry. But there is one particular verse which captures the heart of Barnabas, and in the process captures the unique nature of Christian encouragement.

The verse is found in Acts 11:19-23:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.

There it is in verse 23. That is our word “parakaleo” but you will notice that the translators of the ESV have used the word “exhorted” to capture the sense of it. Whatever word you use, this verse is a wonderful summary of true Biblical encouragement: he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.

Some of the other versions give it some additional flavor:

The NIV translates: he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.

The New American Standard Bible says: he began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord.

The New King James Version states that he encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord.

This is Biblical encouragement. 3. Biblical encouragement always has a direction and it is aligned with God’s purposes and values. This is where Christian encouragement parts company with what the world calls “encouragement.” It carries with it a strong spiritual component. It is about spiritual steadfastness and perseverance. And it is about Christian character. Christian encouragement isn’t just helping people feel better. Its goal is to help them be better. And above it all it is to encourage and exhort them to maintain their heart commitment to the Lord and his kingdom and his purposes.

In fact the world’s kind of encouragement is often in direct contradiction to Christian encouragement. Remember the story of Peter and Jesus, when Jesus predicted that he was going to Jerusalem to die. Peter took it upon himself to try to “encourage” Jesus by saying, “No way, Lord! You are not going to die.” Do you remember what Jesus said to him? That’s right: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

I am sure Peter thought he was being encouraging. But he was proving a hindrance, because he was not setting his mind on the things of God. I preached on that passage a little over a year ago, and I want to repeat a powerful quote that I used at that time from a commentary written in the 1930’s by a man named A.B. Bruce: “None are more formidable instruments of temptation than well-meaning friends, who care more for our comfort than for our character.”

So we need to be sure that our encouragement is in fact aligned with God’s purposes. That is why encouragement, at least Christian encouragement, should not be confused with praise. Praise is good. We all need it and we are encouraged by it. But we must be careful to be sure that we are praising the right things and will lead to a commitment to the Lord.

Parents, this is what lies at the heart of Christian parenting and Christian encouragement for your children. This is your number one priority. It ranks higher than making sure they get good grades in school and have good manners and good hygiene and eat a nutritious diet. It’s more important than excelling in sports and being popular at school. It is even more important than keeping them happy and pleasing them. Lead them to the Lord – and then encourage them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.

Now let me add this precautionary note. With all the encouragement in the world, your children may still turn and walk away. At the end of the day, their decision to follow or not follow the Lord will remain theirs and theirs alone. But your role does have an enormous influence in the decision they make. Encourage, exhort, urge, beseech – whatever synonym you want to use. But do it.

Remember my earlier points about doing it effectively – doing it in a way that demonstrates that you are by their side. Do it sensitively, according to the need of the moment and the need of the child. But do it – and always with this Biblical purposes of mind: that they will remain true to the Lord.

And of course, this instruction is not just for parents and children. It is for all of us, in all of our relationships within the family of God. The Christian life is tough. Pressures are many. Temptations abound. The temptation to quit, to turn back and to lapse back into old patterns and olds ways is always with us. We need to constantly encourage one another along the path of commitment to the Lord.

I know that back in September, Pastor Steve preached from Hebrews 3 as he emphasized the importance of life groups. But let’s look at it again, especially verse 13: But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

By now, you probably recognize that this is our word “parakaleo” again. And once again, the translators have decided that “exhort” best captures the sense of the word in this context. Exhort, urge, beseech. Choose your favorite synonym, but do it! Because we are all prone to fall prey to the “deceitfulness of sin.” We need someone to stand watch.

Once again, this verse has immediate and specific application to the role of parenting. How easy it is for our children to be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Who will stand guard and warn them? The first line of encouragement must come from the parents. And it is not an easy task and it is not always a task full of “warm fuzzies”. Sometimes it takes strong action.

My parents raised five sons. I remember my father articulating his philosophy of parenting, comparing a child to a young tree. He said, “Allow the young tree to grow naturally, but if it starts to grow crooked, trim it back and trim it back hard.”

Those were more than just words for him. I have a vivid memory of something that happened when I was about 11 or 12. It was a Saturday after lunch. My mother had spent the morning baking some homemade sweet rolls called “butterhorns” for an occasion she had coming up that afternoon and we were told not to touch. They were cooling on the kitchen counter. I was finishing up my usual chore of washing the lunch dishes. I dried my hands and looked longingly at the butterhorns. My mother was sitting, reading in the living room. I was on my way out to play with my friends. There was a distance of about 10 feet that I would have to cross when I would be within her view. But I calculated that if I held the butterhorn close to my side on the far side of my body, she wouldn’t see it. It was a good plan. I grabbed one, held it close and crossed the living room quickly, shouting a quick “Bye Mom” over my shoulder. I was almost out the door when my mother called, “Cam! Come back here!”

I came back, my head hanging, caught red handed in the act of stealing. I still don’t know how she saw it! Mom called Dad. I won’t tell you what happened next, but butterhorns have never tasted quite the same to me since!

The deceitfulness of sin. Parents, your children are under attack, both from temptations around them and from the deceitfulness of their own hearts. You must “encourage” them, and “exhort” them and even, when necessary, discipline them until they recognize sin’s deceitfulness.

But this verse has wide application beyond parenting to all of us in the family of God. We are all prone to the deceitfulness of sin all of our lives. We must stand guard for each other and be willing to warn and exhort one another when we see a brother or sister succumbing to sin’s allure.

Hebrews 10 carries the same message. Starting in verse 23 we read:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

I started reading in verse 23 deliberately, because it describes the need for us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” It’s the same thing that Barnabas urged the new believers to do in Antioch. “Stay true to the Lord with all your heart.” And in order to do that, we need to meet together to encourage and exhort one another. It is one of the primary reasons for gathering together every week. When we are alone, we are far too vulnerable.

I have always been fascinated by Africa’s wild life. So many of the mammal species live in groups: call them herds, troops, prides. And many of them post sentinels to keep a watch for danger from other animals. It is always the lone animal that is most likely to fall prey. It is the same in the Christian life. Meet together to encourage, exhort and warn one another, and always with this purpose – to remain true to the Lord with all our hearts.

So, parents, the task is large and difficult and never really done. But you will never play a more important role. Give yourself to the Lord and to this task with all your heart.

And for all of us who are part of the family of God, we also have a crucial role to play in one another’s lives. Let us commit ourselves anew to this task.

And so, with a Biblical understanding embedded in your minds, I come back to the question with which I began. Is your family an encouraging family? Are you an encouraging person?

Discussion Questions

  1. Share a story about someone who said or did something that was NOT encouraging.
  2. Did you grow up in an encouraging family? If so, describe why it was encouraging. If you answered no, explain why.
  3. Based on the structure of the original Greek word, Pastor Cam pointed out that an encourager comes along side and encouragement is both a position and an activity. What did he mean by that? And why is it an important thing to keep in mind. What are some ways that we communicate that we are “on someone’s side” or “by their side”? What are some ways that we fail to communicate this? How does this relate to families and parenting?
  4. Based on the fact that the original word is translated in different ways in different contexts in our English versions (comfort, encourage, exhort, urge), Pastor Cam makes the point that true encouragement requires discernment to offer the help appropriate to the need of the moment. Expand on this point and give some examples.
  5. Read Acts 11:23, Hebrews 3:13 and Hebrews 10:23-25. Based on these Scriptures, Pastor Cam drew his 3rd point: Biblical encouragement always has a direction and it is aligned with God’s purposes and values. How is this different from what the world views as encouragement? What is the application of this principle to Christian families? What is the application of this principle to our other relationships?