Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How Do You Encourage Yourself? (And others?)

This Advent at Good Shepherd we've been talking a lot about hope: anticipation and looking forward to the coming of Christ.  But even though hope has been our focus, it has also been a heavy season: the reason why we look to Christ for hope is because we ourselves are hopeless without Him.  Advent is a season where our human weakness, brokenness, and sin are emphasized, and in light of these dark realities (and in much of life in general) we need encouragement.

But where do we go for encouragement?  When you get knocked down in life, how do you encourage yourself? 

This is an immensely important question, the gravity of it cannot be overstated.  Why is it so important?  Because the scripts (spoken or unspoken) that we use to encourage ourselves tell us where our hope lies.  And what we hope in (and what we hope for) shows us where our heart is, where our true devotion is.  (Luke 12:34; Matt 6:21)  And if our hope, our devotion, is in anything but the One True God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, then we are full of false hope.  Nothing is more bitter to the human soul than false hopes.

So, let me ask: What do you say to yourself to encourage yourself? 

Here's a few common avenues of false encouragement, false hope. (Warning, this will be convicting): 
  • "I'm sure everything will be fine." — This is blind optimism... if it doesn't ask "Why will it all work out? How?" This is a tactic that only works in prosperous regions of the world or for those who have little-to-no responsibility.  
  • "I can handle this." or "I'm really fine."  — This is self-righteousness and self-reliance and works only some of the time for some of us.  Strong-willed and able people gravitate to this strategy of encouragement.   The "churchy" version of this false encouragement is: "God will never give me more than I can handle."  This oft-quoted proverb is not found in the Bible, nor is it consistent with how God works with us.  
  • "Well, I know things are tough, but at least I have my ______ (e.g. "health, family, job, etc.") — This is idolatry.  Again, like self-reliance, this will only work some of the time for some of us.  For what happens when our family or health fail? If our job is lost, etc.?  
  • "I will ignore this, and it'll go away." — This is mere avoidance, the lazy twin of blind optimism.  We practice avoidance by taking a nap, taking another drink, seeking a distracting pleasure like TV, a movie, some shopping, a hobby (the golf course, music (for me), working out), etc.  This makes our "stomach" (pleasure) our hope because pleasure distracts us from the pain.  (Philippians 3:19)
I have encouraged myself (and still often do) with anyone of these methods.  Most of the time I do it unconsciously.  (Just ask my wife how often I mess this up!)  Never does it really satisfy.  

But what does real hope, real encouragement look like?  

When we need to encourage ourselves (or others!) how should we do it?  Even though someone who has false hope and someone who has true hope may take the exact same action in a difficult situation, where their heart is in situation makes a huge difference (e.g. If you're discouraged because you're in debt, you're gonna have to work out of the debt regardless of where your hope is.  But where your hope is in the work will determine much.)

Here's a few ways to walk in "gospel" encouragement... and let me tell you, this is where real life is found.  
  • Rather than just saying "It'll all work out" say, "God will work all things together for good for those who love him and who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)  — God is the source of good outcomes, and his definition of "good" is very different from our culture's definition.  
  • Rather than saying "I can handle this," hold onto these words "Abide in me and you will bear much fruit.  For apart from Me you can nothing." (John 15:4) and "My power is made perfect in your weakness." (2 Cor 12:9) — God is the source of our strength (2 Tim 2:1; Prov 3:5,6), and even our own ability to work hard and to "get back up" is his power working in us (Philippians 2:12-13).  Our hope cannot be in ourselves, even when God is working in us.    
  • Rather than saying, "At least I have my ____," say "Since I have God, by his grace, I have everything."  (Psalm 16:11 " your right hand are pleasures forevermore.") — God is the greatest gift/thing/person we could ever "have."  He is the source of all pleasure and any good thing, and if we had nothing but Him, we would have all we need.  Pondering this truth for a bit will blow your mind.
  • Rather than ignoring our sufferings, we can say to ourselves: "God is at work in this suffering for good!" (See Philippians 2:13; Romans 8:28; Rom 5:1-5; 2 Pe 1:3-15) — God is always, even in the worst situations, for the good of his people.  We can face suffering head-on, small or big, knowing God uses it like a tool to make us more holy.   Avoidance shortchanges us the opportunity to see God at work.  
One friend of mine always says that we need to preach the gospel TO ourselves.  When we need encouragement, we need to go to the real good news.  

So, may God give us the grace, in the dark times or even just in the small moments of discouragement, to be able to say: "Because of God's grace in Christ, I know God loves me.  Because of God's grace in Christ, I know He is working in me.  Because of God's grace in Christ, I know all will end well."  (Titus 3:5-6).  

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