The power of encouragement can transform lives, and there are many examples of it throughout the Bible, explains Eric Gaudion.
Encouragement is like fuel: you can travel a long way on it. And, like most fuels, it is both vital and delicate. Vital, because if we have too little, we will be going nowhere. Delicate, because it takes effort and sometimes high cost to refine and use it.
But young people, especially teens, have leaky tanks and low levels of self-esteem and desperately need the fuel that only regular topping-up with encouragement can provide.
And they are not alone, as encouragement sets hearts beating and energy flowing at any age.
Discouragement, on the other hand, is both dangerous and contagious. It is one of the devil’s most potent tools, because it mutes truth and muffles hope.
And while it may come easily to the lips of the one providing it, it can cost the recipient dearly. Countless young folk have been belittled and bullied into believing that they will never amount to anything by those who should have known better.
All this has got me thinking. What proportion of my interaction with others, whether online or in person, gives someone else support, confidence, or hope? (This is the dictionary definition of ‘encouragement’).
Too much comment and content is of the other kind, tearing people down, criticising, cancelling, or mocking them.
I know the power encouragement can have. When I was a young minister, an older, retired pastor took me under his wing and offered me the encouragement I didn’t feel I merited, but desperately needed.
He chose to overlook my many mistakes and cheered my few achievements loudly. He told me repeatedly that he believed in me and was confident I would do well in life. I travelled far on the infusion of his words.
I also happen to be married to one of life’s great encouragers! For over 50 years my wife Diane has brought laughter, warmth, hope, and encouragement to me, through some of the darkest times imaginable.
From being at my bedside in dingy, Dickensian hospital wards in London, to holding my hand through long periods of unconsciousness, this lady chose to be a ‘herald of hope’ when others felt all hope was gone. She encouraged me back to life and health. She remained a filling station when my fuel reserves faltered.
And there is a science to encouragement, too. Apparently, research has shown that words can change our brains. How we speak, and are spoken to, regulates a large chunk of our emotional activities.
Multiple recent studies have shown that even single words and phrases like ‘no’, ‘shut up’, ‘ peace’, and ‘love’ introduce quantifiable changes in the chemistry of our brains.
Negative words and expressions increase the flow of cortisol in our bloodstream, leading to restlessness. Excess cortisol can erode our ability to think clearly and make decisions, and also our motivation.
Positive words, on the other hand, unlock our reward circuits, and have a rejuvenating effect on the listener. They light up those areas of our brains associated with creativity and cognitive functions such as thinking, memorising, and information processing.
More importantly, positive words and attitudes boost the production of dopamine, a well-being hormone, thereby increasing our motivation and renewing our good feelings.
How can we become more encouraging? Well, firstly we need to take care about what we say to people, whether audibly or online. Words matter, and can either wound or build up.
Then we need to exercise empathy. Take a moment to think through how you would feel if you were in the same situation before you speak. If you must point out specific behaviours you believe to be unhelpful, avoid the blame game. Generalised blame feels unfair to a listener, and that feeling of hurt often impedes them from self-improvement. Focus on the positive and the good. People matter more than petty principles.
The Bible says a lot about the power of encouragement. St Paul gives wise instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
One of the most famous early Christians was a guy called Barnabas, whose name literally means ‘son of encouragement’. Why not decide to become a modern-day Barnabas today?
• Eric Gaudion has written three books and is married to Diane, and is Associate Minister at Vazon Elim Church on Guernsey.