Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2009.
Simple but effective, encouragement is often an overlooked or forgotten part of counseling with others. When we encourage someone, we help to inspire them with courage. People who need to make changes in their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors usually need personal courage in order to make those important adjustments.
Encouragement is a skill. It must be applied appropriately and effectively. It must be realistic and genuine. A counselor could offer false encouragement or encouragement for the wrong things or the wrong reasons. The outcome of that kind of "encouragement" can be disastrous.
Encouragement should be timely and true-flattery is not encouragement. It is honestly helping a person to see the more hopeful and brighter side of something. Psychologist Larry Crabb wrote something that should be sufficient motivation for every Christian counselor, "As part of my post-fifty reflections, I've had to admit that I still struggle with a lot of the same problems people pay me to help them deal with. That's not a new thought, but it strikes with more force today than it did ten or twenty years ago. I thought I'd be farther along the path toward maturity than I perceive myself to be."
Since we are all fellow strugglers, that is even more reason to offer well-meaning and accurate encouragement to people who come to us for help. That does not imply compromising the truth of God. It does mean doing to another person the same good we would like for someone to do for us.
To Christians, God says we should consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, "not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near" (Heb. 10:25).
The goal of a Christian counselor is to glorify Christ in his or her counseling. We cannot do that if we do not hold people accountable to the Truth of God. However, we must not neglect to encourage them in what is good and right. We must encourage them so they can build hope. Hope in a client's heart is a great step toward making godly changes in his or her life.
The Holy Spirit convicts of sin. Counselors and pastors are not the Holy Spirit or even an assistant, but we are the people of God and we can walk in the fullness of the Spirit. We can also grieve the Spirit. We can possess spiritual gifts and we can be anointed with the power of the Spirit. We cannot be the Spirit-we are tools of the Spirit. There are things that only God can do, and there are things He has given us to do. Encouragement is one of those things He has counseled us to do for others.
A counselee who has received effectively and honest encouragement from a counselor often finds more motivation for moving forward in the work of sorting out wrong patterns of thinking or sinful ways of relating. Through encouragement, they can be empowered to recognize sin, confess wrong, and embrace new ways of thinking and living. A diagnosis may help, but encouragement may be the additional help that influences a person toward real cognitive and behavioral change that not only helps them deal with the issues of life but brings God honor in the process.
Encouragement is not an end in itself. It is an uplifting heart touch that can be applied in virtually any situation. Discouragement destroys motivation. Encouragement builds motivation. As counselors and people who minister to others, we are about building up what is good and healthy. May God help us to use this powerfully effective force in our counseling ministries.
James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He serves as the editor of The Baptist Courier, the official newspaper of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.