Over twenty years ago, after graduating from university, I spent a year working with the Christian Union (InterVarsity Fellowship) movement in Birmingham, England. It was a privilege. It involved theological training, practical service, and some great opportunities for ministry among students, such as small group meetings, one-to-one Bible studies, and the odd talk at the front.
It was a year of huge growth—I loved a deep dive into John’s Gospel via D.A. Carson’s commentary and getting to grips with some systematic theology via Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth. Yet, it also revealed a surprising tendency in my own heart: the ability to criticize. With clarity in understanding came the critique of others.
Puffed Up or Building Up?
Today, as I read what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, I wonder if the context he wrote into was similar to mine. Paul wrote his epistle to a divided and disordered church that claimed to be wise but overlooked the vulnerable. People knew truth and theology, yet that knowledge was not used for good, to build others up, but rather in a way that caused them to stumble.
Paul explicitly states, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Think of an individual with a head full of truth. Yet—rather than these right ideas leading to heart change and conformity to Christ, flowing out in self-sacrifice and generous love for others—he ends up with an ego blown up like a balloon. At Corinth (and in me), self-centered arrogance poisoned good theology.
I wasn’t the only one. In fact, as our little cluster in Birmingham shared team life, confessing, encouraging, and praying, it became clear that many shared this battle with pride. We wrestled with it. We spoke about not wanting to be the “sound police,” Pharisaical gnat-strainers who could spot theological imperfections at fifty feet. We felt Paul’s warning about noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, people who speak “in the tongues of men and of angels,” who understand “all mysteries and all knowledge,” and who even “give away all (they) possess,” but are without love (1 Cor. 13:1–3). We saw this in ourselves but didn’t want it.
A Better Way
It was around this time when I first heard the simple phrase, “encourage the good.” It was a breath of fresh air for us. It spoke of a culture of encouragement and a posture of pointing out and being thankful for the good things we saw in the life of the Christian Union. Rather than critiquing, criticizing, and condemning, it was about simply encouraging what was good.
This concept is even there in Corinth! Despite the mayhem in the church and the critique that’s to come, Paul begins by encouraging the Corinthian believers. Of course, encouragement doesn’t mean not challenging, questioning, or even critiquing. Encouragement means an overarching and shared thankfulness to God for those things we can truly be thankful for. How, in love, can you build them up (whoever “them” is in your world)? What are the good things you can point out? Where has God been at work in or through them? Why are you thankful for them?
I’ve sought to continue this posture. In fact, I’ve sought to multiply it because, as it turns out, most people are starved of encouragement. In different seasons it works in different ways. It could be a text, an email, a phone call, or even a deliberate space in my schedule each week to write postcards to people.
A Lasting Need
My hypothesis is that not only do we need this now, but we’ll increasingly need it in the months, years, and decades to come. We’re people who need encouragement.
Generally, we need encouragement now because we live “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:14)—a place of sin, suffering, and frustration. We live amid thorns and thistles, where it’s hard to be a follower of Jesus. But we particularly need encouragement now because of the last two years. We need it as we deal with the end of a global pandemic and the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual hardships it has brought.
And we’ll need encouragement for the future, too, as we struggle through what’s left of Covid, yes, but also as our communities become increasingly secular. The soil is hard. We need to look for the good and remind one another that it’s there.
Gratitude and Encouragement
Will you join me in this posture of grateful encouragement? Let’s create a culture in our churches that embrace the vital task of encouraging others. Rather than simply spotting the things that are not quite right or could have been done better, be thankful for what’s good.
If you’re a church planter, pastor, or leader, think about how you can deliberately, daily, look for opportunities to generously encourage the good you see. And if you’re a church member, how can you encourage others in your church? How can you encourage your pastor or members of your leadership team? From my experience, no one in leadership is at risk of being over-encouraged.
Gratitude and encouragement are inseparable. We may need to do some searching, but we will always find something good because our God is always good. So, even in challenging situations, deep troubles, or frustrating relationships, let’s turn our minds gratefully to Christ and encourage the good.
Written by: Dan Steel