Aristotle said, “No one would want to live without friends, even if he possessed every other endowment.”1 Most of us would likely agree with that statement and would gladly tell of important friendships in our lives. But the surprising thing about this quote from Aristotle is its source and its meaning in context.
In his Nichomachean Ethics, written in the fourth century before the birth of Jesus, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) produced what many philosophers still regard as the most complete book ever written on the subject of ethics and character. He devoted the single greatest portion of that work – nearly 25 percent – to a discussion of friendship. Why would he devote so much of his treatise on human moral behavior to friendship?
Aristotle’s answer to this question is anything but obsolete or archaic, and it in fact offers those of us at the dawning of the 21st century a refreshing and much-needed perspective on the profound ethical dimensions of true friendship. For Aristotle, the truest friendship is far more than mere companionship, mutual hobbies and a common network of acquaintances. Friends, in the highest sense of the term, are those who make a conscientious effort to take ethics and personal character seriously and inspire each other to be better – in thought, in action, in life.2
Leadership is an art. As such, it consists of skills that can be studied, practiced and mastered. Effective leaders may be found in the boardroom and in the boiler room. They may be teachers, coaches, bankers, lawyers, service station attendants or food servers. Exhortation is among the relational skills effective leaders cultivate. Exhorters are people who spur others on to higher levels of achievement. In doing so, they help turn their constituents into leaders. But think of the word just used: spur. Spurring, while it may sometimes be necessary, is not always a pleasant activity.
Effective leaders accomplish extraordinary things by spurring others in the right way. By practicing the careful art of exhortation, they enable others to act. The apostle Paul demonstrated this ability in 2 Timothy 2:15-21:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes, and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.
Paul began with a general exhortation for Timothy to “present [him]self to God as one approved (v. 15). He then offered specific guidelines as to how Timothy could accomplish this through his study and teaching of God’s Word and also through the development of godly character and personal habits. Finally, he offered a negative illustration followed by a positive one: Timothy was not to be like Hymenaus and Philetus, who had strayed from the truth. Instead, he was to be like a gold vessel in a great house. That vessel, when kept clean and polished would be used by the Master for a noble purpose.
Timothy, being somewhat of a fearful and uncertain person, lacked the level of godly self-confidence he needed to accomplish what he had been sent to Ephesus to do. Paul, demonstrating the qualities of a good mentor, encourages and spurs Timothy on to higher levels of engagement than he otherwise might have pursued. A good mentor will see potential in another person and desire to bring that potential to its fulfillment.
There are those who are willing to settle for mediocrity. Most of us have had times in our own past when we chose the good but not the best, when we did things well but not necessarily with excellence. This natural tendency is further complicated by the fact that our ability to live in self-deception is truly remarkable. Such self-deception, writes Neil Plantinga, is a strange and mysterious process that involves us willingly pulling the wool over our own eyes:
We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. Thus a liar might transform “I tell a lot of lies to shore up my pride” to “Occasionally I finesse the truth in order to spare other people’s feelings.”3
We all need people who are willing to speak the truth into our lives. Effective leaders, like Paul, use a variety of communication techniques to exhort those around them to strive for higher levels of performance. In so doing, they enable those they touch to be better prepared for their own leadership roles.
God always cares for his people and desires what is best for them. This is why he taught and exhorted the children of Israel through the many prophets he sent into their midst. Their future, for good or ill, depended upon their responses to God’s loving exhortations.
At the end of his life, Moses sought to prepare the generation that had been raised in the wilderness to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 28:1-19). Their well-being depended far more on their spiritual condition than on their military capabilities, and Moses exhorted them to grow in their knowledge of the Lord, to trust him always and to express this love and trust by obeying his commands.
The blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience that are listed in this passage are not vacuous promises or idle threats. The curses are urgent appeals from a loving heavenly Father who seeks his people’s welfare but will not force them to choose the right path. In this way, God is the perfect model of parenting.
For example, through the prophet Jeremiah, God tells his chosen people, “I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). This is surely one of the great promises of God that we do well to remember. But in the same breath, God says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (v. 13).
In other words, God has wonderful plans for his people. His plans are to make us joyful and prosperous, but he will not force his plans on us. We may have his best. We may have joy and prosperity if we will only choose to seek God with all diligence.
Many parents get frustrated when they see their children choosing something that will lead to great pain and harm. Still, we must let our children have certain measures of freedom; otherwise, they will not become fully human. As they get older, as the leash gets longer and longer, the danger is that they can make more and more foolish decisions. But they have to become mature, and we must allow them a certain degree of freedom. Otherwise, we continue to coddle them and, eventually, rob them of their dignity. Love always contains a risk.
Moses urged the people to lay hold of life by trusting and obeying the Lord: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (30:19). There is nothing obscure about that exhortation!
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19). Because God cares personally about us and our welfare, he warns and urges us to repent and follow his leading while there is still time. He does this through three primary means. First, he uses the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. The conviction of the Spirit of God will always be specific rather than general. Satan will accuse in generalities; the Spirit will lovingly lay his finger on specific things that need to be dealt with.
A second means God uses to correct his children is the exhortation of other believers. We should listen for the ministry of exhortation that God provides through others. Most often, this ministry will come from people who love us the most. Unfortunately, those are often the very ones we tend to take for granted. Still, God can and does use these people – most of whom we are already in covenantal relationships with – to speak words of encouragement and exhortation.
Finally, he also gets our attention by nailing us with his Word: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, we may frequently find things in the text that call out to us. It may be a word of consolation, but it may also be a word of conviction.
We must remember that revelation always requires a response. God never gives a revelation merely to inform us. His desire is to transform us, but we must respond to his invitation.
Sadly, it is possible to reject the exhortations of God. Repeated over time, this can lead to a seared conscience and an inability to be convicted by the Lord. Remember, he tends to speak in a still, small voice. We can become desensitized to this voice, and God may be forced to use more severe methods in order to gain our attention. He can be incredibly creative in the methods he uses to convict. As C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures. He speaks to us in our conscience, and he shouts to us in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a deaf world.”4
Have you recently sensed God’s exhortation through an inner conviction, a portion of Scripture or a fellow believer? How did you respond? “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11-12; cf. Hebrews 12:4-13). Again, there is nothing obscure about that exhortation.
Some of us are more comfortable with confrontation than others. Some, for various reasons, prefer to avoid conflict altogether and create what M. Scott Peck calls a pseudocommunity – a place devoid of conflict. Here we keep things safe, speak in generalities and only say things we think others around us will agree with. We are willing to tell small lies in order to preserve the status quo. Pseudocommunity is pleasant, polite, calm and stagnant – and ultimately lethal.5
Regardless of how we feel about confrontation, there are times when this is the most loving thing we can do for another person. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”6
Similarly, though being rebuked by another person can be uncomfortable, but our openness and willingness to respond to correction, without getting defensive and counter-attacking, are critical components of our character.
When John the Baptist exhorted Herod Antipas, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18), Herod responded by having John bound and imprisoned (v. 17). Herodias, the wife in question, cunningly maneuvered her husband into an embarrassing social position in which he was forced to order that the prophet be beheaded (vv. 19-28). Herod’s sense of guilt for having done so is evident (vv. 14-16).
Most rulers in the Bible responded unfavorably to prophetic exhortations and rebuke, and this constituted perhaps the greatest occupational hazard of the prophetic calling. Some prophets were imprisoned, starved, tortured and even murdered as a result of their exhortations. King David’s response of repentance to Nathan’s rebuke (2 Samuel 12:13) is rare in Scripture, and this kind of conviction is always atypical of people who have been elevated to significant positions of leadership. Nevertheless, it is critical that leaders give and receive exhortations from time to time.
Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Paul urged his assistant, Timothy, to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Similarly, the apostle instructed Titus to “rebuke [the Cretans] sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). The necessary balance in exhortation is best achieved by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We must give people the gift of truth, but do so in a sensitive and loving manner. As John Ortberg puts it: “There is a very important theological distinction between being a prophet and being a jerk.”7
Warren Wiersbe wrote in the front of his preaching Bible these words: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.”8 By writing these words in such a strategic location, he reminded himself that, even as he was preparing to present the truth to people, he must present it with love, kindness and sensitivity or the message may not have its desired impact.
“He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding” (Proverbs 15:31). How do you react when someone exhorts or rebukes you? “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6). Are you sometimes afraid of “wounding” your friends through words of exhortation? If so, you would be wise to heed the advice of Bonhoeffer:
One who because of sensitivity and vanity rejects the serious words of another Christian cannot speak the truth in humility to others. Such a person is afraid of being rejected and feeling hurt by another’s words. Sensitive, irritable people will always become flatterers, and very soon they will come to despise and slander other Christians in their community…. When another Christian falls into obvious sin, an admonition is imperative, because God’s Word demands it. The practice of discipline in the community of faith begins with friends who are close to one another. Words of admonition and reproach must be risked.9
When people make inadvertent or careless mistakes, the leader’s responsibility to exhort them is tough enough. When people sin and need exhortation, the job is just that much more difficult. Balancing justice and grace, consequences and forgiveness, restitution and restoration, can be confusing. When leaders are angry at and/or disappointed in the offender, the situation becomes even tougher. Because these incidences can become so complicated, God provides help in Galatians 6:1-5:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
First, Paul defines the purpose of exhortation. It is, simply, to restore. Unfortunately, as Dallas Willard points out, we often confront others in order to “straightening them out.” Done in this way, exhortation just becomes another tool of manipulation and coercion.10
Once the purpose of exhortation is clear, the process can begin. However, Paul cautions, the process must proceed “gently,” with an attitude of service to the offender. The act must be done in obedience to Christ. The “spiritual one” should act in humility, seeking counsel and accepting responsibility for the manner in which the exhortation is handled.
Because exhortation is important and often so difficult, Paul points out that it is fundamentally important who is doing the exhorting. The phrase “you who are spiritual” is the most critical guideline in this passage. A.W. Tozer says,
In any group of ten persons at least nine are sure to believe that they are qualified to offer advice to others. And in no other field of human interest are people as ready to offer advice as in the field of religion and morals. Yet it is precisely in this field that the average person is least qualified to speak wisely and is capable of the most harm when he does speak.11
Obviously, then, it is vital for those who exhort others to be among those “who are spiritual.” But what precisely does Paul mean by this qualification? Compare and contrast how those guided by the flesh (5:19-21) and those guided by the Spirit (5:22-23) would handle the matter of a brother or sister caught in sin. By whom would you rather be “exhorted”? It is no accident that Galatians 6 follows Galatians 5. Tozer continues,
No man has any right to offer advice who has not first heard God speak. No man has any right to counsel others who is not ready to hear and follow the counsel of the Lord. True moral wisdom must always be an echo of God’s voice. The only safe light for our path is the light which is reflected from Christ, the Light of the World.12
Before exhorting anyone, the leader needs to engage in self-examination. People fail, and leaders are often compelled to intervene and deal with the consequences. But, Paul reminds us, gentle restoration handled by spiritual individuals defines the Biblical approach to this tough part of leadership.
Sometimes an exhortation may take the form of a chisel and be used to rub off a rough edge. While the process may be painful, it may also be necessary. Indeed, the apostle Paul urged Timothy not only to “correct” and “encourage” but to “rebuke” as well (2 Timothy 4:2). Occasionally a rebuke is the most loving assistance a leader can offer.
In his book The Management Methods of Jesus, Bob Briner notes that the word “rebuke” is an archaic term that we don’t often hear today. Surely there are occasions in which an old-fashioned rebuke should be the action of choice. But we need to exercise wisdom so that our words build up others rather than tearing them down.
Briner notes that not one of the disciples Jesus rebuked ever left him. Even Peter, to whom Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) stuck with him. In fact, the disciples whom Jesus harshly rebuked became his most vocal adherents. Yet Jesus didn’t walk around with a loaded verbal gun, ready to fire rebukes at anyone who demonstrated arrogance. On the contrary, he first built the kind of relationship with his disciples that would prepare them to profit from a stern rebuke.
Similarly, we must be certain that we’ve invested enough in a close professional or personal relationship to ensure that a rebuke will be profitable, even though it may be painful. In fact, your most pointed rebukes are likely reserved for people about whom you care most. Remember that exhortations come wrapped in different kinds of packages. Sometimes, as Jesus demonstrated, they may be couched in the form of a rebuke.
None of us would say that we began a course of action only to have it fail miserably. Couples do not hurry to the church because they want to end up in divorce court. A businessman does not order a second martini at lunch because he wants to become an alcoholic. No one orders huge desserts because they want to binge their way into physical ruin. Yet these things happen every day because we do not have people in our lives who will exhort us and lovingly rebuke us for our own good.
As leaders desiring to become more and more like the God who leads and inspires us, we simply must have someone to exhort us. Likewise, we must be willing to exhort others in order for them to realize their full potential.
1 Nichomachean Ethics. 8.1.
2 Russell Gough, Character Is Destiny (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998), p. xviii.
3 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 105.
4 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1940), p. 93.
5 M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 87ff.
6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Trans. Daniel Bloesch and James Burtness, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 105.
7 John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 179.
8 Warren Wiersbe, Caring People (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), p. 103.
9 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 105.
10 See Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), pp. 218-221.
11 A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1955), p. 17.
12 Ibid., p. 18.