Can you remember the most discouraging month of your life? I can. September 2014 quickly became one of the most disheartening months of my life as I received hate mail from across the country because of a disagreement over the promotion of a sermon series. What baffled me more than anything, though, was the amount of animosity coming from religious people — many who were professing followers of Jesus.
The need to reverse Christian critic culture
While some of the critiques I received were valid, many of the responses broke my heart because they revealed a very serious problem in American Christianity at-large. The sheer amount of hostility from fellow believers was stunning. One example was, “Get a refund on your seminary degree because you obviously don’t know what the gospel is.”
But in the middle of this messy month, God gave me some beautiful insight and perspective on what has now become a major calling for my life and ministry. Someone in my life was initially upset, and when we talked in person the tension between us only got worse. But early the next morning, this person called to read me a long apology letter. I’ll never forget one of the most powerful lines from that letter: “Dan, you’re on the mission field trying to reach people for Jesus. We should be cheering you on, not tearing you down.” Not only did that letter provide healing for our friendship; it also gave me hope that reversing Christian critic culture is possible.
Believe it or not, criticism is not a spiritual gift, nor should it be a hobby for followers of Jesus. My friend Jan Gebert says, “Finding fault is no great accomplishment.” But if you’ve spent any time on social media this past year, you’d think Jesus said, “They will know you are my disciples by your critiques of each other.” While discernment, critical thinking, and warning others well are certainly important aspects of the Christian life, tearing each other down in the process makes Satan smile. Our Christian critic culture needs an antidote, and biblical encouragement is just that.
Fighting critic culture by embracing encouragement
Love is Christianity 401, not 101. In 1 Corinthians 13, God tells us that nothing we know, do, or say in the Christian life matters if love is absent. Love is for every Christian — but especially the strong and mature Christian. Love is the epitome of living “grace and truth” together because that’s who Jesus is (John 1:14; 1 John 4:10). Love is not void of truth. Instead, it uses truth to serve and sacrifice, just like our Savior (Mark 10:45).
Without love, we cannot become more like Jesus, and we cannot show a watching world that living for Jesus is actually worth it. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”1John 13:34-35 Without love, we cannot practice the one-anothers of Scripture. And one of these most neglected yet most powerful one-anothers is biblical encouragement.
Encouragement requires effort
Biblical encouragement is coming alongside someone else, pointing them to Jesus, and giving them the courage to walk with God. Love is the only soil where this spiritual discipline takes root and bears fruit. Biblical encouragement is not naïve, utopian idealism or cotton-candy Christianity. On the contrary, it requires far more strength than the knee-jerk rhythms of our Christian critic culture that take the easy road of tearing others down rather than building them up.
Our tendencies toward petty jealousies, ministry competitiveness, splintering divisions, and lack of collaboration reveal the reality that we are consistently missing the mark of God’s love. Many believers today are known far more by what they oppose rather than who and what they are for. And even if we are identified by what we positively support, it tends to be a large laundry list before getting to loving like Jesus does.
Biblical encouragement is the antidote God has placed in our hands to live out both comfort (grace) and exhortation (truth) together. We can flip the script on Christian critic culture by paving the way forward through our words and our walk in tandem. Every follower of Jesus has the honor and privilege of representing him to a world that desperately needs hope. In order to effectively represent Jesus, though, believers must rise to their responsibility of loving rather than destroying one another.
We need to spur one another on
While America rapidly secularizes, we need to build one another up and spur one another on in faithful witness. When gossip goes unchecked, assuming the worst becomes common, and using our thumbs and fingers to type what we would never say with our mouths is the “new normal,” we have a problem. Sadly, we often say more encouraging words in our eulogies once people have died than we do while they’re alive. But all of this does not have to continue if we’re willing to give and receive biblical encouragement: to come alongside someone else, point them to Jesus, and give them the courage to faithfully follow our Lord in the various ways he has called us.