There are many different ways to encourage people. Think how encouraged a single mom or a struggling young couple who have children would be by an offer of free babysitting. There are people around us every day who feel marginalized because they lack resources or relationships; we just have to see them. In every group of people, there are some wondering whether they will ever be accepted. We must ask God to help us see them. Similarly, some people need a second chance—or perhaps a third, fourth, or fifth. Indeed, it is easy to get down on yourself when you blow it. At such times, we all need an encouraging word spoken by someone who believes in us. In my role as a professor, I have gotten to know several students who need both a word of encouragement and a second chance. I have students who have dealt with drug addiction, self-harm, sexual promiscuity, prison, and suicidal thoughts. And these are young people attending a Christian university. Think how many more have the same needs outside the Church!
I was discouraged during my first year teaching at the college level, afflicted by a full-blown case of what some call the “imposter syndrome.” I often felt as if someone were stalking me, waiting to arrest me for impersonating a professor. Among the members of the faculty, I admired Dr. John Castelein in particular because of his academic training, his brilliant insights, and his teaching skills. He even had a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago! One day he came up to me after a faculty meeting and said, “Mike, whenever you speak up in a faculty meeting, I always listen closely to what you have to say.” He might not remember saying those words to me, but I have never forgotten them. They encouraged me at a time when I seriously doubted that I had what it took to be a real professor.
Encouraging words can also speak life in written form. I keep a file in my office labeled “Encouraging Mike.” It is a file in which I put encouraging notes I have received over the years, all collected in one place to lift my spirit when I need it. This file comes in handy especially after I have given a poor lecture or when I wonder whether my teaching is making any difference. These notes are life-giving on days when I ask myself whether I should be in another line of work. And a few years ago, I decided to write people what I call “Barney notes.” Like Barnabas the “son of encouragement” in Scripture, I try to look around for someone who could use some encouragement, then write that person a short, encouraging note. The results have been profound. I have discovered that people love to get encouragement notes just as much as I do. We live in a society that constantly tears people down. Cutting sarcasm is our favorite style of humor. Paul charges Christians to not be conformed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). He also challenged the Christians at Ephesus to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” (Ephesians 4:29). If that Scripture were a regulation for television shows, sitcoms would disappear! In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul encourages the Christians to “do everything without complaining or arguing,” so their lives would “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:14–15). We live in a society filled with complaining and arguing. If we Christians could stop complaining and arguing and instead become encouragers, we would stick out in a good way. Indeed, the contrast would be like that of diamonds on black velvet or shining stars on a clear night.
REFLECTIONS: Ask God to help you see the people around you who need encouragement. Then ask Him to help you find a creative way to encourage them. Consider making it a regular habit to right “Barney notes” to those who need them. Begin keeping a file of encouraging notes that people have given you that you can review when you are feeling down.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear