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The Power of Encouragement

“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.” Hebrews 10:24,25

The Highlander was a wilderness program for incoming freshmen at the college I attended back in the 1980’s. I signed up for it in the spring before my freshman year, and trained diligently through the summer months, running daily, swimming laps, doing sit-ups and push-ups, and breaking in my hiking boots. I read all the books that we were supposed to read prior to the big Highlander trip in August. I still remember some key words from Victor Frankl (an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and Holocaust survivor) in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He said, “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger”. We were supposed to learn this principle by experience, through doing a ropes course together, rock climbing in Rattlesnake Conservation area in Canada, hiking part of the Appalachian trail, and doing a “solo” in the woods for a few days (each person living on their own in the wilderness with almost no supplies).

While struggling to survive in the Nazi camp, Frankl, from his experiences and observations, developed the theory of logotherapy which claimed that through a search for meaning in life, individuals can endure and overcome suffering. I do believe this is true, but my own experience and observation added to this theory.

In addition to my physical preparation being beneficial in surviving the course, my Christian faith at age 18 was also very meaningful to me and gave me a framework to filter, process, and endure the challenges I was going through, but equally as powerful was the encouragement I received from my group. When I found myself on top of a thirty-foot pole on a one-foot by one-foot platform (named the “Pamper Pole”), needing to jump to a bigger platform at that same 30-foot height, my being in-shape physically meant very little as long as my mind wouldn’t cooperate. As my team looked up at me from 30 feet below waiting for me to jump, and the minutes ticked off as my legs shook with fear, it was the encouragement from these fellow classmates that helped me to make that frightening, literal leap of faith.

Repeatedly throughout that course, it was the positive words of fellow Highlanders that helped me to keep moving upward on a vertical rock face, to release my death-grip on a secure fixture and then walk on only a rope in the air, or to hike another mile along the Appalachian Trail when my blistered feet screamed for me to stop and soak them in the rushing, cool stream. Their words were always positive—providing gentle reassurance to work a little harder, overcome my fears, and to finish what I set out to do. In my Senior Year as a Psychology Major needing to do a semester experiment for my Experimental Psychology class, I knew rather quickly what I wanted to study…the power of encouragement. I wanted to test, prove, and quantify how encouragement works. The experiment took students through the Pamper Pole element on the college’s ropes course. The participants were all people who had never done it before. They were divided into three test groups. None of the groups knew they were being timed from start to finish. The first group just agreed to do one element of the ropes course and received no instruction or encouragement. The second group received instruction to know what to expect, but no encouragement. The third group received instruction as well as encouragement. You can guess which group was the most successful (measured by time taken to complete the Pamper Pole element of the course as well as a survey after the event). There was more to it than this, but almost 40 years later I can still remember the overwhelming difference in the three groups. The third group went up the pole, jumped quickly, and came back down several minutes faster than the control group receiving no instruction or encouragement. The third group was also significantly faster than the group that had instruction only.

If positive words are so powerful, why don’t we speak them more often? If someone had mocked me or laughed at me while my legs were trembling in fear 30 feet in the air, I would have crumbled. If someone had impatiently barked for me to “hurry up,” I may have done it out of shame and pressure rather than courage. If I had been ignored, I would probably still be stuck in my insecurity and lack of faith in myself.

Our words are powerful—as either tools or weapons. We must use them carefully so as to build one another up and to spur them on to begin the hard task, to endure hardship or suffering, or to continue on in something they have started that for some reason is difficult to finish. Together—with the help of God and our Christian brothers and sisters—we can accomplish things we never thought we could. Look for those who need your word of cheer or encouragement. Take the time to praise someone using specifics for how they are doing well and spur them on to “keep up the good work”. There is true power in the words we speak…words to heal, comfort, encourage, and strengthen. You can do it! Let’s be intentional in employing the Christian principle of putting courage into one another to run the race well and to finish faithfully.

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)

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” I Thessalonians 5:11

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