Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shooting Higher than the Moon: Encouragement and Christian Persecution

Encouragement is a subject that people seem to like talking about. They take a lot of pleasure in practicing it and reminding others of its benefits. The web, for example, appears to be a never-ending resource of encouragement-related material. If you search one of the numerous "inspirational quotes" databases on the web, the word "encouragement" yields many results. The quotes range from the short and practical ("Correction does much, but encouragement does more") to the flowery and poetic ("Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars. ")The word also yields many results when you look it up in a dictionary or thesaurus. For example, here are but a few "encouragement" synonyms from Roget's Online Thesaurus: advocacy, aid, cheer, comfort, confidence, consolation, faith, helpfulness, hope, incentive, optimism, reassurance, relief, stimulation, trust. The sheer length of this list testifies to the variety of encouragement methods given and received by people throughout the world.

I am pleased to say that, during the past few months, I have been able to experience the benefits of encouragement on numerous occasions. Since I began working here at VOMC, all of the staff members have been a ceaseless source of encouragement. Likewise, I have been surrounded by a network of encouraging faculty members and fellow students since I began my school studies this August. Without such support, both of these experiences would be far more difficult. In fact, I think I might even have surrendered to my doubts and insecurities by now. Instead, I have been surrounded by people who comfort me, appreciate me and, most importantly, challenge me to serve Christ to the best of my ability.

For me, these experiences have emphasized how powerful encouragement is when it occurs between fellow believers. It also got me thinking about the role that encouragement plays within serving the Persecuted Church. My main question is: "How does the encouragement that we are called to give to persecuted Christians differ from the encouragement that is doled out on poster platitudes and hallmark cards?" I've come up with a few possible characteristics that could help to distinguish "general" encouragement from the encouragement that we offer fellow Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.

The encouragement that we offer Persecuted Christians is not...

  • ... Necessarily synonymous with praise ---- Encouraging persecuted believers doesn't mean showering them with flattery or "buttering them up" with praise. Don't get me wrong, I think that complimenting or commending someone is a completely legitimate form of encouragement. However, I also think that people often forget that praise is not the only form of encouragement. The term "praise" is a tricky synonym. When we say we "praised" someone, it obviously don't mean we offered them the same praise that we offer God. After all, you can praise God, but you can't "encourage" Him; he has no need for our encouragement. So when we encourage a fellow believer we shouldn't be trying to say that the person is ‘better' or ‘holier' than we are. Instead, encouragement between believers is a way to say "You have done well!" It is a way to acknowledge that all good is not accomplished by man alone, but ultimately achieved through God. That's why both the giver and receiver of encouragement can respond to a job well done by exclaiming "Praise the Lord!"

  • ... About establishing power roles ---- In some social environments, such as the workplace or even the classroom, encouragement is something that is offered hierarchically. The person with the most knowledge or authority educates or trains the person "below" them by offering them encouragement. It's a necessary part of the process, but it also inevitably marks one person as "above" the other. If, in the context of Christian Persecution, it would imply that those who give it are always the ones teaching or training those who receive it. While teaching and training can be part of the process of serving the Persecuted Church, it's also very apparent that suffering saints can in fact be the teachers to those of us who are not suffering. Their suffering doesn't make them "weaker" believers. They don't need to our pity or our despair, what they need is our support. They need to know that we don't stand above them; we stand beside them, recognizing that we can both teach them and be taught by them about living in full submission to Christ

  • ...Given because its recipient is failing ---- On a related note, a sufferer's need for encouragement isn't a sign of their failure. Those who remain faithful and steadfast during persecution are, in fact, achieving a remarkable victory. Thus, when we encourage them, we are not encouraging them to get out of their suffering by surrendering their witness, the way we might tell a soldier to get off the battlefield simply because he is wounded or outnumbered. Instead, we are to encourage enduring faithfulness, despite the consequences. This is another way to show them that we stand with them. We can also encourage them to remember that their suffering is speciali---its meaning goes far beyond the human conception of success/failure and demonstrates the paradox of victory through sacrifice

  • ...Always sweet, poetic or flowery ---- This point was inspired by those so-called "inspiring" quotes, such as the call to "shoot for the moon." Sayings like this are certainly clever and can be a lovely way to express yourself. However, even if we might offer persecuted Christians nice sayings like this from time to time, I think we also need to go beyond greeting card sentiment if we want the encouragement to be effective. As much as I love crafting a poetic phrase or a pretty metaphor (and trust me, sometimes I love that just a little too much), I've learned that simple and practical words are also extremely powerful and, in some cases, simply more appropriate. For example, what exactly does it mean to tell an imprisoned Christian to "shoot for the moon"? Are those really the most effective words of encouragement we can offer? Probably not. Offering them a specific message, such as a relevant scripture passage or a personal message that pertains to their situation is more concrete expression of hope and faith and so will likely be a more sustaining form of encouragement.

  • ... Just about the encouraging the individual --- Encouragement is not only beneficial to the individual being persecuted, but it is also essential to the worldwide Church as a whole. The giving and receiving of encouragement in response to Christian persecution is a mutual recognition of the union that believers share as members of one body. This reciprocity stands against the individualistic idea of building one person up simply because he or she needs to live up to personal potential or reach independent success. Christians have the blessing of being able to encourage one another with the knowledge and assurance that they have received through Christ. Both the giving and the receiving are enabled by God's grace. Encouragement is but one of the many tools that God supplies for the building and his Church. It uplifts, bonds and sustains believers and strengthens their witness to nonbelievers. Its primary purpose is to prove that we are never alone in our afflictions.

In order to serve the Persecuted Church, God calls us to more than merely shoot for the visible moon; he asks that we faithfully direct all things heavenwards, so that even our acts of encouragement will reflect our hope in things unseen. Only this hope can truly comfort and sustain the men and women who willingly suffer for their Saviour's sake.


Glenn Penner said...

Well said, Adele

Comfort said...

Really, if we just wait for a moment in our spirit man and ask the Lord to give us appropriate words to give to a persecuted saint, the Holy Spirit can help us out beyond our imagination – or may be I’m a lazy one who just can’t be bothered to think out things for herself! But truly, I have seen the Lord helping me out in writing or speaking encouragement to a needful soul.