Offering Our Teenagers A Better Encouragement

Charles Dickens said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

That’s what an encourager does: lighten the burdens, loosen the chains, open the windows, and coax out the smiles. But not all words of encouragement actually set us free. We need to be trained by God’s Word in the art of biblical burden-lifting. In her new book, A Better Encouragement: Trading Self Help for True Hope, author Lindsey Carlson offers us a biblical approach to speaking words that spark courage in the hearts of those we love.

Carlson writes: …” an overemphasis on self-esteem, self-sufficiency and self-empowerment have prevented us from relying on the God of encouragement…” (p. 14). I experienced this firsthand after my husband died, leaving me to raise three grieving sons. Well-meaning friends would say, “You’re so strong,” when I actually had never felt weaker. Those words, offered out of love and a sincere desire to comfort me, made me feel ashamed, lonely, and burdened to maintain a façade of strength.

I knew that if I had to be my family’s source of strength, we were surely sunk. What I needed – what we all need—was to be gently reminded of Jesus on the cross, dying and rising again to meet our deep brokenness because of his great love.

Carlson points out that in his relationship with his covenant people, God constantly speaks words that lift their spirits and make them bold. For example, as they are poised to enter the Promised Land, God tells Moses to tell Israel, “Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut. 1:21). As she breaks down the Hebrew word hatat, translated dismay, I could not help but think that Carlson was describing the current emotional state of millions of American teenagers: “Whether literally broken down by violence or figuratively by confusion and fear, to be hatat is to be deprived of courage or confidence, hindered by disfavor, or dissuaded from doing something” (p. 17).

“Broken down by violence… confusion.. fear… deprived of courage [and] confidence…” Now more than ever our teenagers need encouragement, the kind that actually strengthens their hearts and makes them glad. According to Carlson, this means offering our teenagers Jesus instead of a cheerleading routine.

Thinking about encouragement in this way will take some self-discipline for moms and dads. When my kid is discouraged, I want to make him feel better, fast. When he has a problem, I want to give him the solution. We parents have to preach the gospel to ourselves as we sit with our kids in the discomfort of their unhappiness. We train ourselves to offer them the real comfort of Christ rather than slipping into “you got this, kiddo!” mode:

When we primarily encourage others only by our own words, thoughts or ideas that are not backed by promises in Scripture, we stand to commend God’s people to ourselves or to the world’s encouragements rather that to God’s promises or the good news of Jesus… We must work harder to commend others to the work of God, even when that means we feel helpless or have very little to do with providing immediate comfort or solutions. When we commend others to the compassionate care of God, we can trust his grace will provide everything they need through Christ Jesus (p. 141, emphasis added).

I am barely scratching the surface of Carlson’s book, and that’s by design: I want to whet your appetite to read it for yourself. Her target audience is women, but the wisdom here applies to every child of God who needs encouragement: that is to say, all of us. The book would make an excellent read for any parent who wants to be better equipped to reach the heart of their teenager, who wants to offer help that isn’t shallow and temporary but profound and eternal. For youth ministers, consider reading the book with your high school girls’ small group, and watch what happens when you build a community of young women who know how to offer each other affirmation in their true identity as adopted children of God.

Ultimately, adults need exactly what our teenagers need: encouragement that focuses on God’s unwavering character, his powerful presence, and above all his steadfast love demonstrated through Christ. Lindsey Carlson is a wise and trustworthy guide for anyone hoping to offer a better encouragement to teenagers in our homes and churches.

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Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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