Encourage One Another

Encourage One Another

Hebrews 3:12-15 & 10:24-25


“I think many Christians are ‘dying on the vine’ for lack of encouragement,” says pastor and author Chuck Swindoll. “An encouraging word spoken at just the right time. It’s a beautiful thing. Good news, encouraging words, make your heart lighter, make the day seem more bearable. The lack of encouragement is almost epidemic … When did you last encourage someone else? I firmly believe that an individual is never more Christ-like than when full of compassion for those who are down, needy, discouraged, or forgotten. How terribly essential is our commitment to encouragement! Is there some soul known to you in need of encouragement? A student away at school … a young couple struggling to keep their marriage alive … a divorcee struggling to regain self-acceptance … a forgotten servant of God laboring in an unseen and difficult ministry … a widow who needs your companionship … someone who tried something new and failed? Encourage generously! ENCOURAGEMENT! A new watchword for our times. Shout it out. Pass it around.”[i]


If you have your Bibles with you, turn to the New Testament book of Hebrews. Turn to chapter 3, and then flip over to chapter 10 and put your finger there. First, Hebrews 3:12-15 … And now flip over to chapter 10:24-25. Now, before we look at how we are to encourage one another, we need to understand what it isn’t. First, encouragement isn’t fixing someone. Someone trusts us enough to open up and share a struggle they’re going through, maybe they’re feeling down, or useless, or discouraged, or incompetent. And we want to help them feel better, and so we say “Don’t feel that way. I think you’re great. Or you’re doing great.” We do that all the time. That isn’t encouragement. A lot of times, when I do that, it’s really more about my own need to avoid your pain, your struggle. You’re feeling bad, and that makes me feel bad, and I want ME to feel better, so I try to make you feel better. That’s not real encouragement.


Second, encouragement doesn’t offer false hope. It isn’t about trying to paint a fake ray of sun on a cloudy day. When Becky and the kids and I were first dealing with the loss of Zeke, the most encouraging people were the people who said things like, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through right now. I don’t understand at all. But I’m here with you.” Or, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be. Your life is never going to be the same. You’re forging a new normal every day. It must be exhausting.” And those people just hung in there with us. That was encouraging.


You see, real encouragement doesn’t deny reality or try to paint a rosy picture. Real encouragement acknowledges pain and struggle and frustration and fear and sadness and simply seeks to offer the strength to take one more step. If life has turned into a rainstorm, an encourager isn’t standing there saying, “stay dry” or “at least it isn’t a wet rain” or “hey, it’ll stop raining someday.” No! An encourager stands there in the rain with you holding an umbrella and a rain coat saying, “I’m here with you.” When I was overwhelmed at the thought of facing life without my son, hurting and confused, mad at the world and mad at God, the most encouraging words I heard weren’t “It’ll get better someday.” They were “It changes but it never really goes away” and “just do what’s next.” “Don’t worry about next year or next month or even next week. Heck, don’t even worry about tomorrow. Just do what’s next.” And that’s what the writer of Hebrews is doing. Hebrews is actually a sermon intended to encourage a group of believers who were getting close to giving up on their faith in the face of some pretty intense persecution. Whether it was actually delivered as a sermon orally like I am giving this sermon today or not we don’t know. But it was written and intended to encourage a group of Christ-followers whose spiritual strength was fading fast. And in the two passages we’re looking at today, the writer is not only encouraging them himself, he is challenging them to encourage one another. To be there for one another. To support one another.


In what the news called “The Miracle at Quecreek,” nine miners were trapped for three days 240 feet underground in a water-filled mine shaft. They “decided early on they were either going to live or die as a group.” The 55 degree (Fahrenheit) water threatened to kill them slowly by hypothermia, so according to one news report “When one would get cold, the other eight would huddle around the person and warm that person, and when another person got cold, the favor was returned.” “Everybody had strong moments,” one miner told reporters after being released from Somerset Hospital in Somerset. “But any certain time maybe one guy got down, and then the rest pulled together. And then that guy would get back up, and maybe someone else would feel a little weaker, but it was a team effort. That’s the only way it could have been.”[ii] That’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews is challenging his struggling readers to do.


So look at the words he uses to describe the kind of encouragement he’s talking about. The first is translated “exhort.” To exhort is to seek to offer strength to someone who is struggling. It pictures a captain putting strength into his soldiers before a battle, reminding them of why they are fighting, what they are fighting for. Or today maybe we’d picture a head coach addressing his team in the locker room before a big game. He wants to inspire them, to give them strength, to fire them up. The second word is translated “spur on” or “stir up.” It’s a word that is most often used in a negative way. It means to provoke, and pictures an uncomfortable irritation, like a spur applied to the side of a horse to reinforce the direction the rider has just given. But the point of the spur isn’t to cause pain or fear. It’s to encourage the horse to move forward. It’s that “come on, let’s go. You can do this.” A little added “umph.” Encouraging words don’t cause pain, they don’t cause fear, they don’t bring about resentment. They offer strength and courage and focus when hope is all but lost.


“I think many Christians are ‘dying on the vine’ for lack of encouragement.” What Satan wants as much as anything else in the church is a group of discouraged Christ-followers. He doesn’t need a bunch of infighting and outright rebellion. He just needs a little discouragement. Because discouragement leads to frustration, and anger, and fear, and eventually, when all strength is gone, to another believer, another church, dropping out, falling by the wayside.


Now remember, I said that Hebrews is a sermon. And the preacher is preaching from the Old Testament – specifically the Exodus and 40 years of wilderness wandering. Look at V. 15. That’s actually a quote from Psalm 95:7-8: “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” Massah and Meribah.


The people of Israel had been led out of Egypt by God through Moses. Moses was God’s mouthpiece. He was the human leader, the one who stood before Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Israelites. But God left no doubt who was really setting them free. After God sent plague after plague on the Egyptians, they were begging Israel to leave. Exodus 12 says that “The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste” (12:33). In fact, they wanted them to leave so badly that they let the Israelites take whatever they wanted with them. “And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians” (Ex. 12:36). They took what they wanted and didn’t have to fight for a single thing. The Egyptian people just gave them what they wanted. And then they went out toward the Red Sea. 600,000 Israelite men, plus women and children and livestock and supplies and possessions, probably 1.5 million people in all, and the Egyptian army gave chase. They’d just freed 1.5 million slaves and thought better of it. Changed their minds. But God held both the Egyptian army and the Red Sea at bay while the people crossed the sea on dry ground. And when the Egyptians tried to chase them across, they were swallowed by the now unrestrained waters of the Red Sea. 1.5 million people escape, taking whatever they want with them. Not one arrow fired. Not one spear thrown. A miraculous deliverance.


And then, on their journey toward the land God had promised them, God himself as their guide, in a pillar of cloud visible in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night. He miraculously provided them with food and water when and where they needed it. Talk about a people who probably shouldn’t struggle with doubt and fear. But they did. Over and over again they grumbled and moaned and got to the point where they asked to go back to slavery in Egypt. “This salvation isn’t worth it!” These are the people who had been rescued. Who had seen God work some of the greatest miracles recorded in Scripture. Had seen it with their own eyes. They felt the sea bed of the Red Sea with their own feet. They saw the Egyptian armies swallowed by the waters with their own eyes. They had bread every morning and water flowing from rocks when no water was visible anywhere. They had the visible presence of God guiding them. And it wasn’t enough. “We can’t take this land, the people living here are too much.” And at Massah and Meribah, they argued and grumbled. “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7). Couldn’t they remember? “We’re going to die out here.” It’s human nature to quit. To give up. To lose faith. 1.5 million people left Egypt that day. 40 years later, two of them, Joshua and Caleb, set foot in the promised land. The rest died in the wilderness, refusing to believe that God could do what God had promised to do, even after all they had seen. Oh, their children went in. And their grandchildren. But of the original 1.5 million who left, only 2 went in. And the writer of Hebrews looks squarely into the eyes of his congregation and says, “Don’t you do the same.” I know you’re up against it. I know you’re fighting for your lives. I know some of you have been killed because of the name of Jesus. I know that you’re scared. I know that you’re frustrated. I know that the world seems dark right now. But keep going. Keep loving God. Keep loving others. Don’t quit. Take one more step. And then another. And then another.


Discouragement, and bitterness, and hopelessness can pass through a group of people like fire in a dry field on a windy day. It can take over. That’s why we are to encourage one another. Build one another up. Keep an eye out for those who are getting discouraged, ready to quit. And encourage them. It’s ok to cry out. It’s ok to be upset, even angry, with God. Read the Psalms. Read Job. Sometimes the most encouraging thing you can do is simply allow someone to vent their anger, their frustration, and just be there with them. Not sucked in, but there present with them. Instead of allowing their wobble to make your faith unstable, allow them to lean on your strength. Sometimes, your silent presence is the most encouraging thing of all.


At other times, true friends don’t just affirm and comfort us; they also “raise our game.” That’s what happened to Richard Dahlstrom when he was rock climbing with his friend Kevin. Kevin, a more experienced climber, was climbing as the belayer, or the one who’s supposed to protect Dahlstrom from plummeting to the ground. On this particular climb, Dahlstrom was exhausted and ready to quit the climb, so he politely asked Kevin to help him get back to the ground. But Kevin refused to grant his friend’s request. Here’s how Dahlstrom described the scene:


“Falling,” I shout, and Kevin puts a brake on the rope; after a few feet I come to stop. I’m hanging, spinning around while new blood delivers recovery energy to my fingers and my spent arm. “I’m done, man. Lower!” This the part where the belayer is supposed to lower you to the ground and congratulate you on a good try. Instead, Kevin says, “I’m not lowering ya, man. You can climb that.” “Funny,” I say, acknowledging his attempt at humor. “Lower, please.” “Not funny,” he says, laughing. “You. Can. Climb. That.” He speaks in staccato, punctuating each word to make sure I hear him. I continue to spin, hanging from the rope, about forty-five feet in the air. “Try it again.” Who is this person, telling me what I can and can’t do? Friends don’t let friends dangle in midair, do they? What did I ever like about him? “No, really. I’m finished.” “No, really. You can climb this.” He’s not going to let me quit. I need new friends. I reconnect with the rock, and he tightens the rope as I try again, and fall again. Once more I ask to be lowered. Once more he refuses. Once more I try, and this last time, for reasons still unknown to me, I succeed and finish the climb, exhilarated by the triumph …. Kevin saw something in me I didn’t and brought it out; he raised my game, so to speak. Good friends do that; so do good coaches.[iii] And we are supposed to do that to one another in the body of Christ too. Flip over the Hebrews 10:24. Here we’re talking not about quitting on God altogether but about encouraging one another to keep loving, to keep reaching out, to keep sharing the love of Christ, to refuse to allow discouragement to keep us from sharing his love. And notice this one, to keep participating in the body of Christ. “Hey, don’t neglect meeting together.” Haven’t seen someone in a while? It’s ok to call them. And to call them out. You’ll probably hear complaining. I don’t like the music. I don’t like the preaching. The pastor preaches in jeans. I don’t like carpet. I don’t like the pastor’s bald head. There’s too much singing. There’s not enough singing. It’s ok to say, “Yeah, transitions are hard. But to be honest, if you look at any church hard enough, you’ll find something you don’t like about it. Come on. Let’s go worship God.”


Discouragement – it means “a loss of confidence or enthusiasm.” Put the prefix “dis-“ in front of something and it means the loss of that thing. Dis-empowerment is a loss of a feeling of empowerment. Dis-couragement – a loss of courage. A loss of strength. A loss of the will to keep going, to keep doing. Joy, strength, enthusiasm, courage – they leak. That’s why we have to keep encouraging one another. Encouraging one another to keep sharing the love of Christ when it would be easier to be silent. To keep loving one another when it would be easier not to. And above all else, to stay faithful to Christ when it would be easier to quit. Let us pray.


[i] Adapted from Chuck Swindoll, Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes (Thomas Nelson, 1998), pp. 178-179.

[ii] Bill White, Paramount, California; source: adapted from “Teamwork Helped Miners Survive Underground,” CNN.com (7-28-02)

[iii] Richard Dahlstrom, The Colors of Hope (Baker Books, 2011), pp. 101-103