We are called in scripture to encourage each other (Hebrews 3:13) and comfort others as Christ has comforted us (2 Corinthians 1:4). Over the past year, the challenge to encourage brothers and sisters in Christ has weighed on my heart. We live in a broken world where we will always know someone who is struggling with heartache, waiting for answers, discouraged by life, etc (and sometimes we will be the persons facing hard times!) One of the hardest things to do in the midst of struggles is hope. I have been so encouraged in my own life by others who, through their words and actions, have helped me to hope. I want to be this way too—the type of person that helps others hold on to hope when life seems disappointing or hopeless.
How do I encourage others who feel hopeless? How have I felt encouraged when I feel discouraged? I’ve spent a few weeks thinking on this topic and here are some of the tips I’ve compiled (from my own experience)for helping others hold on to hope when everything seems hopeless.
1. PRAY for them and LET THEM KNOW you are praying for them.
Seriously do both. If you tell someone you will pray for them, actually do it. If you are praying for someone who is struggling to hope then it may be encouraging to tell them that you are actively praying for them (praying for a husband, baby, job, health, move,etc). I am always encouraged when someone tells me they are going before the Lord on my behalf. Letting someone know you are praying for her lets her know (1) that you take her concerns/worries/hurts seriously and (2) that although you can't solve the situation, you know the Lord can so you are actively bringing that person's requests before Him and (3) that you still have hope that her circumstances can be changed or improved.
Prayers don't have to be long or elaborate or on your knees at an alter. (I often pray for friends and family on my metro ride to work) But take the time to go to the Lord on behalf of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Go in prayer to the only One who can give them hope and answer prayers.
2. Have a little grace.
Sometimes, even when we trust God, we will have moments where we feel down. We've all been through stages of life that don't feel hopeful and we have to fight for trust. Certainly, encourage your friends to hope, but recognize that everyone has a down day or week. Another bad date, failed pregnancy test, problems at work, bad report, etc. can feel like a major setback. Although I appreciate (or at least try to appreciate) helpful critique to get out of my fog, sometimes, what I really need is someone who understands that life is challenging and lets me mourn before dusting myself off and moving forward in hope. We all need the freedom to struggle with difficulties without feeling like we are failing at the Christian walk (and about to be lectured by a Christian who seems to have life together).
3. ASK and LISTEN
This is a touchy topic because someone in a season of waiting or pain may not want to talk about it daily. (As a single, I probably didn't want to be asked if I was dating someone daily) But, those who are waiting do want others to ask about the details. It’s easy to ask about someone's wedding plans, nursery decorations or upcoming trip, but ask about the less exciting life situations to. Occasionally ask your single friend about her date or if she has met anyone new and interesting. Ask your friend getting fertility treatments about the procedure. Better yet, remember the date of procedures and check up on her. For someone struggling at work, ask how the project is going. Ask about the job search, the night class, the doctor's visit, the recovery from a breakup. You don't have to (and probably shouldn't) ask anything too personal (or too frequently), but a few questions shows concern, helps you understand the circumstances a little better, and encourages your friend.
And, if your question leads to more discussion and opening up, be willing to listen-- without offering TOO many opinions. Sometimes feeling free to discuss one's challenges and process feelings aloud (and feeling someone else is trying to understand) enables hope. Be someone with whom others feel safe to open up.
4. Talk about the future: use words like WHEN, not IF.
One of the most encouraging things you can do for someone is refer to what they long for as a future reality. As a single, I always loved when a family member or friend would occasionally say things like "when you get married, you should have this band at your wedding, when you have children, they will have to wear this cute smocked dress, etc" Sure, I knew marriage and family weren't guaranteed, but I still hoped they were likely possibilities and it always reassured me when others referred to my hopes as if they were going to happen. A lot of well meaning people think that using the word "if" helps keep someone from getting their hopes up, but it often has a crushing effect. Saying IF, MAYBE, POSSIBLY too much sounds like doubt. Trust me, someone who is waiting and longing and hoping has used the word 'IF' enough, so you don't have to remind them that jobs, healing, marriage, babies, health isn't guaranteed. Instead, help them remember the possibility that it will be WHEN, not IF.
You can also help someone remain hopeful by ASKING about when. If people are discussing babies, ask what baby names she likes. Ask about future weddings, marriages, health, adventures, etc. These are things those who hope think about, but our rarely asked. Those who are waiting for babies, husbands, homes, new jobs, etc have ideas and dreams about it, so give someone a chance to talk about their hopes. Discussion of the little details related to hopes and dreams shouldn't be limited only to those who have been blessed with those dreams already.
5. Rely on WORDS better than your own.
You probably don't know what to say to someone who is waiting in a way that you haven't. That's okay. You can be encouraging through prayer, asking, listening and using futuristic words. And, you can always rely on the words of others. If you see an encouraging article, Bible verse or quote, forward it along. We've all had that favorite encouraging verse or quote hanging on our mirror or saved in our phone. You could end up passing along words that help someone else keep going through a rough day. A sweet note or text with a bible verse can go a long way. When I am struggling to hope and stumble upon an article or phrase that gives me hope, I see it as a small encouragement sent from God. I often share these articles in attempt to help others feel encouraged as well (ask my friends who used to receive my article updates via email a few times a month ha!) Sometimes helping others hope is as simple as sharing hopeful words you read!
6. CELEBRATE small milestones.
Celebrate job interviews, treatment being over, a good prognosis, a good date. Rejoice in small steps in the right direction. Sometimes the answer to prayer seems so far away that we miss how God is actively working NOW. Help celebrate small blessings and step forwards.
AND FINALLY....... (and most importantly)
******7. Point the HOPELESS to JESUS.****
Yes, it’s the simple answer. Basic and expected. But it’s true. We can help others hope by pointing them to the one who provides hope. Simple as it may be, we have to be careful not to come up with insincere cookie-cutter answers like “God is Control” and “Trust God More”. Although these statements are true, quickly throwing them at hurting friends seems like a quick dismissal of their pain and discouragement, relieving you of any obligation to listen, care, pray because "God's got in all under control". Care for their needs first – celebrate milestones, pass along encouraging verses, listen, pray – and through all of this, continue to remind them that their Hope is in the Lord. What we hope for may fail, delay or not occur, but who we HOPE IN is solid.