by Dorothy Littell Greco
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
Being an encourager has not come naturally to me. I was raised in a family where criticism flowed freely. This left me with a heightened awareness of my flaws and a propensity toward fault-finding.
Not long after I got married and started having children, I felt convicted that I needed to change. How that change might happen was not obvious.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit, I made a counter-intuitive decision to intentionally give away the very thing I longed to receive: words of affirmation and encouragement. Today, more than twenty-five years later, I’m still writing notes of affirmation and encouragement to friends and sometimes people I’ve never met.
The Human Need We Sometimes Forget
Regardless of whether we’re twenty or eighty, we all need to be affirmed and encouraged. This is particularly true in today’s culture where, thanks in part to social media, critiquing and putting others down seem to be one of our favorite past-times.
Even without the dross that gets dished out on social media, life is often overwhelming and difficult. An unexpected diagnosis turns your world upside down. The college tuition payment comes due the same week the furnace dies. One too many run-ins with a misogynistic boss leaves you angry and shaken.
The writers of the New Testament repeatedly exhorts believers to encourage one another. Peter ends his first letter with, “My purpose in writing is to encourage you and assure you that what you are experiencing is truly part of God’s grace for you. Stand firm in this grace.” (1 Peter 5:12) And the Apostle Paul, no stranger to discouragement, wrote, “Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor. 13:11)
In Greek (the language of the New Testament writers), one of the meanings of encourage is to call to one’s side. I love the image of drawing near to someone with the explicit purpose of comforting and supporting them: of assuring them it’s going to be okay.
The difference between encouragement and praise
There’s no rigid formula for what encouraging and affirming others should look like. I long to help friends feel seen and ease their aloneness. I also want to speak God’s truth and remind others that though they may feel overwhelmed or discouraged, God will faithfully provide manna—in whatever form they need—every morning.
After reading an article or book that moves me, I might send an affirming email highlighting the specifics of what someone did well. Encouraging someone by noticing details does so much more than simply praising them. Noticing and naming details lets people know they are really seen and appreciated, things that offering a generic “good job”, or a sending a cute emoji can’t communicate. When one new friend was going through a personal crisis, I felt moved to send her a card and a basket of treats. Following through on that impulse opened the door to what is now a wonderful friendship. A few years back when a neighbor lost her husband, a mutual friend texted her every day for two years to let her know she was thinking of and praying for her. This small but sustained effort helped my friend to move through her grief.
In the midst of our hyper-busy lives, the thought of extending ourselves in these ways might feel like one more thing. While it’s true that committing to come alongside others does take time and energy, this practice has also benefited me. New friendships have formed and others have become more intimate simply because I repeatedly reach out to check in and remind others that I care and am praying for them. More importantly, this habit has changed my internal wiring. I grew up thinking and speaking critically, but not I’m more inclined towards encouraging.
And perhaps because sowing and reaping is a real thing, I recently received a lovely, hand-written card from another writer. He offered some specific affirmations which truly ministered to me. Several months later, his note still sits on my desk as a testimony to the life-giving nature of our words.
By simply paying attention to what’s going on around us and then making a small, concerted effort to notice and name the good, we can change the trajectory of someone’s day and possibly their life. That’s a powerful and beautiful gift.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days stringing together words and making photographs. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and the forthcoming Marriage in the Middle (IVP 2020). You can find more of her work on her website or by signing up for her monthly newsletter (where she’s always giving away new books!)