“Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” – Romans 15:2
I have grown up in a culture where people are constantly ribbing each other. Most of it was good-natured, even a way we showed love and fondness. I don’t know that my brother and I have ever said a word to each other that a complete stranger would think of as “kind.” But it’s how we joke around and have a good time, especially now that we’re older. It was the same case with my college and seminary friends. If we were having a good time, it meant that we were poking fun of one another. Last summer I was the best-man in a wedding where the groom and I affectionately refer to each other as “arch-enemies.”
In the right context, with close friends and family, that’s a great thing. In a lot of other contexts—not so much. Because of my inclination toward good-natured ribbing, I have sometimes rubbed people the wrong way or even downright offended them. But I’d be lying if I said that the deprecating words out of my mouth were always intended as that “good-natured kidding.”
Consider those words of Paul above for a moment. “Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” How many of the words that I speak to another person’s face—or, more often, behind his or her back—would fall into this category of “building up”? Do the sentences that I speak about my friends, or other church members, or an irritating coworker, build them up? Encourage them? Or disparage them? Perhaps it is also worth mentioning status updates, news articles, and memes that we post to Facebook or Twitter. When I post that picture that shows a heart and a brain with the caption “not voting for Donald Trump starter kit,” I’m effectively saying that anyone who would vote for Trump has no heart and cannot think. Encouraging each other? Or tearing down anyone who would disagree?
When Paul tells Christians here to “build up,” the Greek word that he uses is the same as would be used for building or fortifying a house or other structure. Now I don’t usually envision my life’s associations as houses, but use your imagination here. Here’s what Paul is telling Christians to do for each other and for really anybody in the world around them. He’s telling us to strengthen them. Where there are boards or siding that are peeling away, grab a hammer and nail and sturdy their structure. Replace their warped shingles. Re-plaster the holes in their walls.
We do this when we encourage. We strengthen our neighbors when we speak words of God’s promises. We edify them not only with words, but with deeds—actions which prove our love and concern for them.
Too often I turn that hammer around, and instead of pounding nails use the claw to rip them out. Or grab a sledgehammer and knock holes back into the plaster. Building up quite quickly yields sometimes to tearing right back down again. That propensity to rip people apart, to discourage, to malign, and to gossip is one which every human being on earth has in common.
Jesus is the one who breaks the mold. Peter writes about him, bringing in some lines from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats” (1 Peter 2:21-23). Notice what’s going on here—the Lord of Life, Jesus himself, speaks no ill of his adversaries. No matter how much they mistreated him, and no matter how much they abused him, he did not sin by maligning them.
This perfect obedience of Christ in all things, followed by his agonizing death on a cross, is what allows us now to provide Christian encouragement, because he builds Christians. Jesus finds us—houses so broken down as to be only considered ruins—and he rebuilds us into his people, his brothers and sisters. The nails in his hands and his feet become the nails which take my dead soul and rebuild it into a soul alive again. And he continues to fortify the Christians that he has already raised by feeding us his Word, even his body and his blood in the Lord’s Supper. But he also gives us the responsibility—the privilege, really—to be “little Christs,” Christians, who image him to each other and to the world.
Build up one other, just as Christ has built and continues to build you up. Let’s be encouragers, not discouragers! We have enough real enemies—the devil and our sinful flesh and the evils in the world around us who are trying to destroy us. Why would we make enemies of each other, too? Especially of fellow Christians with whom we are going to share eternity together?
Encourage. Build up. Add it to your New Year’s resolutions. Strive to reach a point where when people look at you, they say, “There’s someone who is an encouragement in my life.”
Time to get a little bit introspective as you think about how you are personally going to apply this to yourself. Here are a few key questions or thoughts you might want to consider:
- In what certain areas do I catch myself doing more discouraging than encouraging? Work? College dorm room? Social media?
- How can I turn those areas into places of encouragement and reinforcement for my neighbors, friends, family, and coworkers?
- What people in my life seem nearly impossible to encourage? How can I find ways to encourage them anyway?
- Search the Scriptures on your own to pinpoint more great passages which speak to the encouragement we have received from Christ and the benefits of encouragement we have with fellow Christians and neighbors.
Good-natured ribbing among friends is something I consider a wonderful part of those relationships. But let’s all work toward something even better than that. Through the encouragement of God’s Spirit, let’s live with hearts that beat these words from Hebrews 10, which says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together … but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:23-25).
May God give you his encouragement to be an encouragement.