In our “Politically Correct” culture – exhortation is a 4-letter word. People don’t like to be called on things. Oh, we secretly admire high-profile people like Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura who “tell it like it is,” but we don’t want them (or anyone else) to tell US like it is. No, we push people away who try to speak into our lives with that kind of straight-forwardness. (I don’t always think those two individuals always have the right balance of love in their exhortation, but that’s for another discussion.) When people do try to speak into our lives we say, “Who does he think he is to stick his nose into my business like that?!!” We react negatively, become offended, get mad, and make them pay for caring enough to speak truth to us. And they eventually stop. It’s the great American defense mechanism, and we use it all the time.
Some of the reason exhortation has become so unpopular is that some have used exhortation as a club instead of a loving correction. That surely doesn’t help. It makes people defensive, not open and transparent – and it shuts down the dynamic of growth. Love always has to be one of the primary ingredients in the formula (see my post on that issue here).
Another reason exhortation has gone the way of the dinosaur (on second thought, dinosaurs are probably more popular than exhortation) is that our culture has promoted the idea that “Everybody’s O.K. You just have to accept them and not make judgments.” Even the Christian church has fallen into this distorted way of thinking (see my post about this issue here), and it’s kept us from being as effective and as influential in the world as we could be.
And there’s still another reason that exhortation has disappeared in our churches. People in general seem to have such a fragile sense of self-worth, it’s terrifying to think that someone might point out something about them that is wrong or in need of improvement. So up go the walls of defensiveness – and a sign us hung outside of our walls which reads, “Keep your opinions to yourself!”
None of that is supposed to characterize the church of God. Paul said we are to “speak the truth in love” to each other as Christians. (Ephesians 4:15) He goes on to say that when we do that, the church grows up. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that is exactly what the church needs – to grow up!
The loss of this practice of loving exhortation has been devestating to the church. Yes, you read correctly – devestating! Instead of having a church that is full of maturing people to whom righteousness matters, we have a church that is full of “stay-out-of-my-business” people who are continuing to live out the same mistakes/sins again and again – because nobody is courageous enough to step in and confront out of love. When that happens, people begin to get comfortable with their failings, used to their sins, and lose their motivation to do the hard work it takes to change those things. Afterall, they are doing alright compared to everyone else – right? But that’s where we go wrong – in the end, we’re not going to be compared to our fellow strugglers, we’re going to be accountable to God for what we’ve done to uphold His holy standards in our lives. But we don’t bother with that – it’s too hard, and we might have to hear something about ourselves that is difficult to handle…
Is that what God wants for His church? Is that His heart for us, His bride for whom Jesus died? Not at all! He wants to see us radiant, alive, vibrant, and holy – a representation of Him in this world of which He can be proud. He wants us to demonstrate authentic faith by living with each other in unity, in common concern, and in loving exhortation as needed. He doesn’t want us living in fear of each other’s reactions! He wants us loving each other enough to confront and being humble enough to receive a word of encouragement or exhortation. When the lost world sees a church where loving correction is given AND RECEIVED, and where genuine and lasting life-change is happening as a result, they will begin to take notice.
Some suggestions for rediscovering this lost gift:
- Ask God to reveal the severity of the problem in your fellowship. Look around you. Let yourself be amazed at the lack of real and lasting change you see in your fellow church-goers. Ask yourself, “Would this be the case if we were lovingly exhorting and helping each other as we should?”
- Drop your defensiveness (we’re all messed up – we have to accept that fact).
- Open your heart to correction (God loves us just as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way). God may want to use a word of correction to bring about a world of good in your life – are you able to handle that?
- Humble yourself before your fellow believers (Give people permission to point out the inconsistencies and weaknesses they see in you). You can’t repent of something you don’t see, or are not willing to admit. Let others help you here. The accountability will do you good.
- Respond well when they do. There’s nothing worse than asking for help and then criticizing or attacking those who try to give it. Be gracious to those who point out your areas of need. Remember, it was hard enough for them to come to you in the first place.
- Commit to obeying the Spirit of God, should He guide you to exhort someone else.
- Prepare for God to do a work. People’s lives can be changed only when they become aware of the areas in need of change. You may be used of God to do just that.
- Get ready for the fall-out. Though you’ll have some good responses, you’ll have some very bad ones also. Don’t let that stop you from doing what God commands us all to do. The church will be better for it.