Session 5 focused on the important role listening plays in creating understanding and building trust. However, good listening is not the end of responding lovingly to those who tell their stories. Three more traits of loving response are encouragement, counsel, and forgiveness. In this session, you will discuss how these qualities contribute to building community.
Individual Aim: To learn how to offer encouragement and counsel and how to experience forgiveness.
Group Aim: To understand the significance of encouragement, counsel, and forgiveness in the process of building community.
Complete Life Story: Steps E and F beginning on page 83.
Complete Biblical Exercise: Ephesians 4.
Read Session 6: Encouragement, Counsel, and Forgiveness.
Read Ephesians 4:17-32. Also, review “A Method for the Biblical Exercise” beginning on page 17.
1. Who are the persons (including God) in the passage? What is the condition of those persons?
2. What subjects did Paul discuss in the passage? What did he assert?
3. Note the sequence in which Paul made these assertions. (You might number them in order.)
4. What did Paul emphasize? Are there repeated ideas and themes? How are the various parts related?
5. Why did Paul write this passage? (Did he say anything about ways he expected the reader to change after reading it?)
1. Coming to Terms—Are there any words in the passage that you don’t understand? Write down anything you found confusing about the passage.
2. Finding Where It Fits—What clues does the Bible give about the meaning of this passage?
3. Getting into Their Sandals—An Exercise in Imagination
1. What is the timeless truth in the passage? In one or two sentences, write down what you learned about God from Ephesians 4.
2. How does that truth work today?
1. What can I do to make this truth real for myself?
2. For my family?
3. For my friends?
4. For the people who live near me?
5. For the rest of the world?
As you explore encouragement, counsel, and forgiveness, it’s worth remembering the purpose of the study: for group members to pursue new depths of trust with each other out of a common commitment to discovering God’s authorship in their lives.
Encouragement, counsel, and forgiveness are all present or implied in the description in Hebrews 10:24-25 of loving Christian community:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Though forgiveness is not explicitly mentioned, one can hardly imagine a group of diverse believers meeting together consistently without ever needing to forgive one another. In Ephesians 4:17-32, which you studied, Paul wrote explicitly about forgiveness in an encouraging and edifying community:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Most of us are well aware of our responsibility to encourage one another. The Bible tells us that what we say to others can bring great blessing and healing. “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23). “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
So why do we often struggle to give encouraging words? James reminds us that no one can tame the tongue, which is a fire that can blaze out of control (see James 3:1-8). Controlling our words is difficult. We know that “the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). But how do we bring forth that life-giving power? Counselors Larry Crabb and Dan Allender suggest that we must overcome the obstacle of “surface community.” They write,
What prevents our words from having power? How do we bridge the distance between us and others so that what we say bears weight? Offering an answer requires that we first understand the problem of surface community, a kind of relational structure that prevents words from realizing their potential to encourage.
No matter how hard we may try to say the “correct” words, certain forces work for or against us, going beyond the words we speak. The great force we want working for us is the Holy Spirit through authentic community. Our words lose power, are easily misunderstood, or fall on deaf ears when spoken in a superficial or surface community.
A “surface community” may be divided by walls of fear, insecurity, self-protection, lack of trust, and individualism, but the answer to breaking down those walls is not unrestrained sharing. Crabb and Allender note that “sharing feelings without a prior and overriding commitment to the welfare of the other leads to disunity, not unity.” Unleashing our feelings is not always the path to authentic community and others’ encouragement. This is true for both the one telling a story and the one responding. We should share personal stories authentically and vulnerably with those we have come to trust. Sharing in this way with a stranger is unwise. Likewise, it’s often unwise to offer counsel to someone with whom you have no credibility. Constructive counsel should be shared within a relationship of trust.
Commitment to others is the crucial element. As we demonstrate commitment, trust builds. Paul describes the real meaning of commitment like this:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)
Choosing to share the right words at the right time in response to another’s deeply personal story can be a powerful source of encouragement. But how do we determine the right words and the right time? Crabb and Allender offer three important principles to keep in mind. The first of these principles states, “The essence of encouragement is exposure without rejection”:
It is true that Christians are fully accepted by God because of Jesus’ shed blood. For us, there is now no condemnation. But somehow we fail to grasp that God’s acceptance makes anyone else’s rejection no more devastating than a misplaced dollar would be to a millionaire. We foolishly believe that other people’s acceptance represents a legitimate measure of our value. We fear the rejection of people and therefore hide from them.
We can’t hide ourselves from one another out of fear of rejection if we want our shared stories to encourage us. Sharing stories involves sharing the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the aspirations and disappointments of life. This kind of sharing requires vulnerability. Meeting such vulnerability with acceptance produces encouragement.
Crabb and Allender’s second principle of encouragement states, “Understanding is sometimes better than advice”:
Lost people need direction. Blind people need enlightening. Stubborn people need prodding. Clear instruction on how to handle life’s problems is obviously necessary. But people are not only lost, blind, and stubborn; they are also scared. And scared people need patient, accepting understanding. Christians must grasp the apparently elusive truth that advice without understanding is not helpful. It is in fact a form of rejection. Quick advice communicates disrespect and disinterest. The words spoken may be “I think you should …” The words heard may be “Your problem is simple. But you’re too stupid to figure out a solution. So I’ll tell you what to do.”
Rather than counsel, people initially need someone who understands. Counsel may be helpful and needed, but only after compassion and acceptance.
Crabb and Allender’s third principle is, “The more precise the understanding, the more encouraging the words.” This principle involves more than just understanding what people say. Crabb and Allender suggest that it involves understanding the deep needs we all share for “relationship and meaning,” “love and purpose,” or “security and significance”:
The essential fear that is locked deep in the core of fallen people is the fear of insecurity (rejection) and insignificance (loss of value). If encouragers clearly understand that these two deep longings lie beneath people’s layers of self-sufficiency, their words may reflect a greater understanding of people’s fear. . . . Encouragers will be sensitive to ways in which they can pick up on the basic needs and say something that can bring hope to a person who otherwise might despair of ever experiencing the security and significance available in Christ. A precise understanding of people’s needs can assist the encourager to be more encouraging.
Our ability to listen well to both the verbal and nonverbal forms of communication determines the level at which we can encourage and give counsel to others. For instance, if we hear well enough to respond with, “Boy, that sounds tough,” we are either not listening well or not willing to engage at a personal level. In contrast, to respond to an intimate story with, “How has your dad’s abuse of you as a kid affected your ability to love your kids?” communicates profound encouragement and begins to open the possibility for offering counsel. The person not only will feel heard but also that he or she is being pursued and appreciated, so he or she will be more likely to ask for and receive counsel.
When we respond well, we build each other up. However, what about the times when we fail to respond well to others? What happens when we speak hurtful or malicious words? Even in this situation, if the hearts of the two parties are not hardened, there is hope for recovering and building trust. When we tell our stories and interact together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can err on both sides. The person telling the story may make statements that offend or hurt the listener, or the person listening may respond to a story in a disrespectful or patronizing manner. In both cases, the two must be willing to experience forgiveness. The one must be willing to own up to his or her error, whether that be willful malice or unintentional offensiveness. The other must be willing to respond with forgiveness.
When we confess and forgive, we weave new bonds of trust. When a bone that has been broken is properly set, it will heal to be stronger than it was before the injury. Even if one group member hurts another, trust can grow if both members go through a process of forgiveness. However, it may take time.
Forgiveness ought to distinguish Christian community from other groups. After all, we are the ones who have experienced the greatest forgiveness of all: reconciliation with our heavenly Father and all the blessing that accompanies it.
You will seek to go beyond surface community in the next session by sharing your life story with others. When you respond to those who share, be mindful of the need for edifying words over “honest” words, timeliness over assertiveness, and grace over judgment. And be willing to own any hurtful or offensive words that you speak, and seek forgiveness from those whom you wrong.
Rehearse your “Life Story” presentation mentally or out loud. Prepare to be a good listener during others’ “Life Story” presentations.