The Art of Encouragement

We're coming to the end of a series called "Get Connected." In today's wired world, everyone is getting connected. They have email addresses, pager numbers, cell numbers, and work numbers. But no matter how connected we're getting technologically, we're getting less and less connected to the people around us.

You weren't made to live that way. The Bible says in Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for man to be alone." You were made for relationships. You were made for connections. There is a universal need to belong. From the moment we're born, we long for the warmth of loving other people. There's a desire to belong and to be accepted by other people. There's a need to connect at the deepest level. The Bible has a word for that: it's called fellowship.

Fellowship is extremely important for one reason: we get discouraged. Life has a way of wearing us down. Proverbs 17:22 says, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person's strength." There are going to be times that we have a broken spirit. There are going to be times where we just don't have much strength. With the crowd that we have out today, it's possible that some of you are in that condition. You're discouraged, and you could barely find the strength to drag yourselves here this morning.

Now, when we get discouraged, what do we do? We complain. We feel sorry for ourselves. We get bitter. But I'm finding that a lot of us also isolate ourselves. The very time that we need other people is the time that we run away. Sometimes we're so discouraged that we stop going to church. It's ironic that we do this, because times of discouragement are the times that we most need to be at church. Isolation isn't the answer.

There's a book in the Bible that has a lot to say about encouragement. It's the book of Hebrews. This book was written to Jewish Christians who were probably undergoing fierce persecution. It appears that many of them were ready to give up the struggle, and to go back to their old way of life. It was a group of people who were struggling with discouragement.

This morning, there is somebody sitting near you who probably needs encouragement. People are hurting more deeply than we know. Now, we are different from any other organization of people. You can have clubs or organizations. You can have labor unions or guilds. You can be friends in the workplace. But the church is different. Any group of compatible people can enjoy themselves, but only followers of Jesus Christ can know that when they spend time together, they can have an eternally significant impact on one another. The Bible says that true fellowship has the power to revolutionize a life. True community is when the "masks come off, conversations get deep, hearts get vulnerable, lives are shared, accountability is invited, and tenderness flows."

Why do you need to encourage? Three reasons.

1. BECAUSE IT'S COMMANDED

You need to encourage others simply because it's a command. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, "So encourage one another and build each other up, just as you are already doing." Hebrews 10:24 tells us, "Think of ways to encourage one another." You need to encourage because it's commanded.

Last week someone showed me a fake driver's license along with a real one. I looked at the two and couldn't tell the difference. They looked completely the same, right down to the hologram. How can you tell whether something is genuine or not? Jesus told us in John 13:35, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." Jesus has loved us without reservation and without limit. The way that we can show we're followers of Jesus Christ is to do the same with one another. That's what shows the world that we're the real deal.

A lot of people don't understand what Christianity is about. Christianity is about relationships - relationships with God, and relationships with other people. It's not about rules. It's not about knowledge. It's about relationships. Jesus said, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37-39). That's what Christianity is about. It's about relationships.

The best thing you could do this morning is to get in a right relationship with God. You don't have to earn it. All you have to do is to accept the gift of this relationship through Jesus Christ. The Bible says, "For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. This is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others" (2 Corinthians 5:19). You need this right relationship with God. Once you've done this, you're commanded to love one another.

Encouragement is an expression of that love. Why should we encourage one another? Because it's the clear command of Scripture. There's another reason why we need to encourage one another:

2. BECAUSE IT'S NEEDED

Once in a while I'll sit in my office after meeting with people, almost stunned by the amount of hurt that people carry around silently. More than once I've met with people and been humbled by the weight that they're carrying and how well they're carrying it. All around us this morning are people who are being crushed by life. Their marriages are falling apart. Their finances are a mess. They're worried for their jobs. They're worried about their kids. They have regrets - huge regrets - from the past. Their health isn't what it used to be. Job 5:7 says, "People are born for trouble as predictably as sparks fly upward from a fire." Life has a way of wearing you down.

When the letter to the Hebrews was written, as I mentioned, things were tough. It looks like some people were ready to pack it in and give up spiritually. The circumstances of life had got them down. It's the same today. Every week there are a few people teetering on the edge. They don't know whether or not they're going to continue. They're not sure if they're going to make it spiritually or not. They don't know if other people care. We need to encourage them because it's needed.

There's one more reason why we need to encourage others:

3. BECAUSE SO MUCH IS AT STAKE

One of my heroes is William Wilberforce, the man who pushed Britain's Parliament to abolish slavery. Discouraged, he was about to give up. His elderly friend, John Wesley, heard of it and from his deathbed called for pen and paper.

With trembling hand, Wesley wrote: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God?"

"Oh be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery shall vanish away before it."

Wesley died six days later. But Wilberforce fought for forty-five more years and in 1833, three days before his own death, saw slavery abolished in Britain. Who knows what would have happened of John Wesley hadn't encouraged him?

Encouragement is important because so much is at stake. Hebrews 10:25 says, "And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near."

Jesus is coming back very soon. We need encouragement if we're going to be able to stand before him without regrets. Eternity is at stake. The influence we can have on others is at stake. That's why we need to encourage others. Because it's a command. Because it's needed. And because so much is at stake.

At this point, you're probably thinking that you agree that we need to be encouragers. The question is, how? The answer is this: by selecting words that will influence others meaningfully toward increased godliness. It's all in the selection of words that are genuine and meaningful. Proverbs 25:23 says, "How delightful is a timely word."

Bu t how do we do this? The Bible gives us three principles on how to encourage effectively:

1. CULTIVATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER BELIEVERS

Listen to Hebrews 10:25: "Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near."

If you study what the Bible says about the church, there are some things the church can do well from a distance. This morning you could turn on the television and hear some of the highest quality sermons preached from Dallas, Atlanta, or even Toronto. You could hear some of the most inspiring worship. If church was just about preaching and music - the service - you could stay home and watch television.

But that's not what church is about. God gave a mandate to a church that goes far beyond the preaching and the music - as important as that is. It's called community - the idea of fellowship. It's to love and be loved. It's to know and be known. It's to serve and be served. It's to celebrate and be celebrated.

You can't do that at home watching television. You can't do that even coming to church and leaving immediately after the service. It's done in community.

Over a dozen times, the New Testament uses the phrase "one another." Love one another. Forgive one another. Serve one another. The only way that you can effectively encourage is if you commit yourself to being part of a church family - not just for the sermons or the music, but to live in relationship. You need the support of other believers.

Howard Hendricks says, "You can impress people at a distance; you can only impact them up close. The general principle is this: the closer the personal relationship, the greater the potential for impact."

Now listen: some of you have been coming out for a long time, but you've never taken that step of committing to relationships with other believers. You're not part of a small group. You may come to this church one week, but you'll go to another church another week. Or you'll miss church altogether. The time is going to come when you need a church family. Before that time comes, you need to build relationships with other believers. The time to do that is now. Commit yourself to relationships with other believers.

2. CREATIVELY EXPRESS ENCOURAGEMENT

Should you encourage? Absolutely. But how? By giving thought to the most effective method. Hebrews 10:24 says, "Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds." It takes thought. The way that you encourage one person might not be effective with another. You need to be creative in how you encourage.

The word for encourage here is interesting. It's a word that usually has a negative connotation. It means to irritate or incite. It's a word that has the connotation or prodding and poking. It's a little like the company that introduced a new pension plan, that called for a small employee contribution. One hundred percent employee participation was needed; otherwise the plan was off. Only one employee refused to sign up. His name was Sam. His fellow workers pleaded and cajoled, but to no avail. Finally, the company president called Sam into his office. "Sam," he said, "Here's a copy of the new pension plan and here's a pen. I want you to sign the papers. I'm sorry, but if you don't sign, you're fired. As of right now." Sam signed the papers immediately.

"Now," said the president, "would you mind telling me why you couldn't have signed earlier?" "Well, sir," replied Sam, "nobody explained it to me quite so clearly before."

That's basically the idea of the word encourage here. In a positive way, we are to incite others to outbursts of love and good deeds. Use your creativity.

With some of you, encouragement just happens. I'll tell you why. It's because you have been given the spiritual gift of encouragement. Some of you have been saying, "I don't have a gift," when all along, God has given you the gift of encouraging others. You derive joy from it. You almost can't help yourself. You've got to encourage other people. Romans 12:8 has a message for you: "If your gift is to encourage others, do it!" Use your spiritual gift of encouragement. You have a vital ministry that is needed here by all of us.

But for the rest of us, encouragement won't happen unless we plan ahead. So if you're not gifted in this area, let me give you some ideas on how you can encourage other people.

What are some creative ways that we can encourage others? I don't know what your mailbox is like when you go home, but mine is stuffed full with magazines, bills, and junk mail. When I see a handwritten note, I'm surprised. One of the most effective ways of encouragement can be to simply drop someone a short note telling them that you're thinking of them.

I'm one of these people who has a love-hate relationship with the phone. I can't decide whether to pick it up or throw it through the window. But what would happen if you and I picked up the phone to say, "I can't talk, but God just put you on my mind. I wanted you to know that you're in my prayers." Use your creativity to encourage others using the phone.

Some of you who have been bereaved know how tough anniversaries of that bereavement can be. Use your creativity to encourage someone on the anniversary date that they lost a loved one.

Sometimes the best way to encourage isn't through words at all. It's through listening. It's by trying to understand the other person. Understanding is better than advice.

There are countless ways to encourage. The Bible says, "Think of ways to encourage one another." You need to put some thought into it - to use some creativity. That's the second principle on how to encourage effectively.

3. COMMIT TO ENCOURAGING EVERY DAY

Hebrews 3:13 says, "But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." Encouragement is to be a daily action. Commit to encouraging every single day that you're alive.

This means encouraging even when there's very little to encourage. An elderly pastor's wife was known for her ability to make positive comments about every facet of her husband's Florida ministry. The church choir, however, often defied positive but truthful comment.

She finally solved the problem one Sunday morning. As the choir members filed into the choir loft, she leaned over to me and remarked, "Aren't they walking well this morning?" There's always something positive that you can say about another person! Encourage every single day.

The reason we need to encourage everyday is simple: if we don't make it a habit, we'll only do it when we feel like it. When you came to church, it's likely that you weren't thinking of other people's needs. That's true of me and it's true of you. Hidden opportunities for encouragement will surface only as we express sensitivity to other people - only as we've made a commitment to a habit of encouragement.

Proverbs 12:25 says, "Worry weighs a person down; an encouraging word cheers a person up." I was 19 years old, and invited to preach my first sermon ever in my home church. I stood up one Sunday night after months of preparation with just a few notes and ideas about what I wanted to say. My mouth was dry. I gave it everything I had to give, and it was over in about twenty minutes. I sat down and said to myself, "I never want to preach again."

That evening we went out to celebrate at a hotel on Dixon Road. I remember the waitress spilling something on me, and I almost felt like I deserved that. If someone had told me that night that I was a disgrace to the pulpit and should never get in front of people again with an open Bible, I would have believed them. I was low.

But the next day a friend told me that he saw potential. He took me aside and pointed out the things he appreciated about my sermon. He didn't gloss over my f ailings, but he looked me straight in the eye and told me, "You have potential as a preacher."

"The tongue has the power of life and death" (Proverbs 18:21). Your encouraging words can change someone's life.

Prayer:

Following God is about relationships. There might be someone here who has never realized that Christianity is not about church attendance, following rules, or Bible knowledge. It's about a relationship with God. The Bible says that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. Today you can have a relationship with God, and he will no longer count your sins against you. Pray these words: "Thank you, God, that you desire a relationship with me. Thank you that Jesus came to reconcile the world to you. I accept what Jesus did on the cross, and pledge to follow you. Accept me as your child, I pray."

If you've prayed this prayer within your heart, you've taken the most important step you'll ever take in your life. Welcome to the family! In a few minutes I'm going to tell you the steps that you can take to get established as a new follower of Jesus Christ.

Father, thank you that our words can have an impact on others. You've told us that our words have the power of life and death. I pray that you would grant us understanding hearts, that we may see people - their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and despairs, their efforts and their failures - and touch them with your love. May we encourage one another, not just today but creatively, everyday. In our Lord's name we pray, Amen.

God's Answer to My Doubts (John 20:24-31)

The Department of Social Services in Greenville County, South Carolina, sent the following form letter:

Your food stamps will be stopped, effective immediately because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances."

Dead people don't usually have changes in their circumstances. Dead people usually stay dead. When Mary Magdalene went running off yelling, "He's alive! He's alive!" - who could be expected to believe her? I've sometimes put myself in the Biblical story, saying, "If I had been there, it would have been different." But would it? I would have doubted to.

This morning we're going to talk about doubt. There are two types of people here this morning. There are those who have never doubted the truths of Scripture. You have never wrestled with the question, "Did Jesus rise again?" For you, it's certain. It's a matter of faith. About you, Jesus said these words: "Blessed are those who haven't seen me and believe anyway" (John 20:29). You are blessed people indeed, because God has given you a strong faith.

But there's another category of people here. We could call you the doubters. You have a questioning mind. You need to examine the evidence, the proof for the fact that Jesus is who he claims to be. You wonder, "Could it be true? Is Jesus really risen from the dead? Has he really conquered death, with all that such conquest means? Or is the claim that he is risen just the deluded wish fulfillment of a few mean and women made unstable by grief? Is the whole thing a concoction, or is it true?"

It's my premise that most of us, from time to time, are doubters. Some of us are occasional doubters. It catches us at odd moments and surprises us. Others of us are chronic doubters. We are always asking to see the evidence. We are always evaluating things. But not all of us have been given the privilege of believing without questioning. And it's to this second group that I want to talk about today.

If you want a bad name, then admit to your doubts. Look at Thomas, which we read about in the Scripture. Thomas really wasn't the doubting kind. When Jesus' travel plans called for him to pass into very dangerous territory, Thomas said, "Let's go too - and die with Jesus" (John 11:16). Hardly the words of a doubter. But for almost two thousand years, we've been beating up on Thomas for saying very honestly, "I won't believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side."

My premise is this: most of us, at one time or another, will doubt like Thomas. Thomas's doubt is our doubt too. Even the best person among us will occasionally feel the chill of doubt's shadow. It could be as you bury a loved one, and wonder, "Is there really a resurrection? Is it real?" It could be as you talk to someone of another faith at work. You could say, "Is what I believe really right and what they believe really wrong?" It could be as you hear someone try to debunk Christianity. But most of us, from time to time, will doubt.

What does the Bible say about doubters? We need to understand three realities about doubts:

1. YOUR DOUBTS ARE NORMAL

One of the most frustrating thing about doubting is to feel isolated. We're ashamed about our doubts. We feel that if we stand up and admit to our doubts, we're gong to make a name for ourselves. We feel like we're second-class for doubting. As a result we keep our doubts to ourselves. We isolate ourselves.

When Jesus appeared to Thomas, did he criticize him? Did he put him down? Did he yell at him? Did he scold him? Not at all. He allowed Thomas to take the test he suggested; that he touch his wounds. He said, "Put your fingers here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!" He opened his arms in love to Thomas, and Thomas believed. He said, "My Lord and my God."

When you read the Bible, you discover that some of God's greatest servants had temporary doubts about God. David in the Psalms says, "God, I don't know what's going on. Why are you allowing this? Why do bad things happen to good people?" Job says, "God, are you sure you really love me? Are you sure you know what's going on? Are you sure you have the power to change my situation?"

Abraham didn't believe that he was going to be a father at age 90. Abraham doubted God's protection and told lies about his wife's identity. Moses doubted that God would provide the food that they needed in the dessert. Peter doubted that he could walk on the water. The early church doubted that God had released Peter from prison in answer to their prayers.

Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest man who ever lived and even John the Baptist had doubts. One time John the Baptist was in prison, everything was going wrong, he was at a low ebb in his ministry. He sent some people to Jesus to say, "Was I wrong? Did I make a mistake? Are you really not the Messiah?" He had doubts. Jesus sent the people back to John to reassure him. He didn't condemn or criticize him. Then Jesus turned around and said to the crowd, "John the Baptist is the greatest man who's ever been born." Right after John had expressed doubts about Jesus.

Many of God's greatest servants have been occasional doubters. You are probably going to doubt - at least occasionally - too. Your doubts are normal. That's the first reality about doubt that you need to understand.

2. YOUR DOUBTS ARE UNIQUE

One of the problems with doubt is that we lump all sorts of doubt together. We think that if we doubt, we're throwing everything into question. We fail to realize that there are three causes of doubt:

The first type of doubt is caused by CONSCIENCE. It is the hardening of a mind to the truth. This type of doubt is sin. It is deliberate denial, disobedience, rebellion, and resistance. It is always condemned in the Bible. 1 Timothy 1:19 says, "Cling tightly to your faith in Christ, and always keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked."

If your type of doubt is unbelief, you have a serious problem. Hebrews 12:15 says, "Look after each other so that none of you will miss out on the special favor of God. Watch out that no bitter root of unbelief rises up among you, for whenever it springs up, many are corrupted by its poison."

CRITICS cause us to doubt God. Those people who challenge us, who ridicule your beliefs. The Bible talks a lot about scoffers. All of us have been in a classroom or at work where our faith was criticized and challenged. I heard about a young man in school. The teacher stood up and said, "The Bible doesn't make sense. It's hard to understand and nobody should even try to read the Bible. You can't understand it at all." The young man raised his hand and said, "Sir: The Bible is God's love letter to Christians. And that's what you get for reading somebody else's mail." Critics cause us to doubt God.

You don't need to be afraid of critics. You don't have to be afraid of asking tough intellectual questions. The Bible doesn't ask you to check your brain at the door when you enter church. In fact, I think you'll find that the Bible makes the most sense when you look at all the evidence. Don't be afraid to ask the tough questions.

The third type of doubt caused by CIRCUMSTANCES. It is sometimes hard to make faith fit with the painful realities of life. Someone we love, dies. A child faces hunger. We lose a job, or a marriage. The hard realities of life begin to crush our faith. For a lot of us, there is a large gap between what we expect and what we actually experience. And as a result, doubts begin to enter into our mind about what we've been taught to believe.

Circumstances can cause us to doubt God. When our prayers are unanswered, when there's a tragedy that strikes, when we're faced with an impossible situation.

J esus is out on the Lake of Galilee with His disciples. He's asleep and a great storm comes up. In Mark 4:35-41 the storm comes up and they wake Jesus up and they say, "Jesus, don't you care if we drown?" That's a typical reaction when we get under pressure. We start doubting. "Don't you care God?"

Gallup has pointed out in the Gallup poll that 96% of people believe in God. It's the type of God that they doubt. What is he like? Is he personal? Is he loving? Can he be depended on? Is he interested in me? Those are the kinds of doubts that people have.

I have never met a real genuine atheist who doubted God for intellectual reasons. The fact is every person that I've met who is an atheist doubted God because some Christian had burned him or her. It wasn't an intellectual doubt. It was the fact that "When I was a kid I went to church or somebody hurt me or some Christian said ‘this' and I thought ‘If that's what it means to be a Christian, forget it God!'" A lot of "atheists" are simply resentful people who've been hurt legitimately by "Christians".

Critics, our conscience, circumstances can cause us to doubt God. Your doubts are not only normal, they are unique.

3. YOUR DOUBTS ARE AN OPPORTUNITY

The strongest faith comes out of struggles with your doubt. When we see doubters, we tend to put them down. We think that they're just religious weaklings. But those who wrestle with their doubt often come out with the strongest faith.

Thomas's doubts were an opportunity for him. When he eventually saw Jesus, his doubts were answered. But he didn't just walk away saying, "Okay, now I believe." He exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" His heart was changed. His doubts ultimately brought him to belief.

For the past few months we've been selling the Case for Christ in the foyer. The author, Lee Strobel, was an avowed atheist. To Strobel, there was far too much evidence that God was merely a product of wishful thinking. How could there be a loving God if he consigned people to hell just for not believing him? How could miracles violate the laws of nature? What about evolution? Didn't science disprove the supernatural?

When his wife became a Christian, Strobel began a quest to discover whether or not the Bible is true. As a journalist and as a lawyer, he set out to ask the tough questions. On November 8, 1981, after two years of research, he pulled out a legal pad and began to list the questions and the answers that he had come up with. And he concluded:

I was ambushed by the amount and quality of the evidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God. As I sat at my desk that Sunday afternoon, I shook my head in amazement. I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber with much less convincing proof...In the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: it would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth!

Sitting at his desk, legal pad in front of him, Strobel took the next step of committing his life to Christ. On November 8, 1981, he turned from being a skeptic to a committed follower of Christ. His doubts had led him to Christ.

Doubts are normal. Your doubts are also unique. Doubts can also be an opportunity. They can bring us closer to God, rather than driving us away from him.

Now, today is Easter Sunday. Just like Thomas, we are going to wrestle with issues of our faith. Some of us are even going to wrestle with the question, "Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Can I believe this stuff? Can I trust Jesus with my life?"

How do you deal with these questions? How do you keep your doubts from defeating you? Some suggestions from the Word of God:

1. ADMIT YOUR DOUBTS

Be honest. Say, "I've got some doubts." You cannot overcome them unless you recognize them. So many people I know who are Christians are intimidated by their doubts. A doubt comes up, starts to creep into their mind, and they being thinking "Oh, no! I may not be a Christian. Maybe God won't love me if I've got these doubts." They can't even face the fact that they have some legitimate, honest questions.

The point is that not even your doubts can stop God from loving you. Even if you doubt him, he loves you. That's what the story of Thomas is all about.

Listen to this: honest doubt is better than dishonest faith. God is big enough for you to ask the tough questions. God isn't threatened by an honest examination of the facts. Admit your doubts. Recognize that the doubts aren't bad in and of themselves. Ask God to help you with your doubts.

Jude 1:22 says, "Show mercy to those whose faith is wavering." Don't condemn them. Don't call them heretics. Don't tell them that they need to have more faith. Show mercy to them.

I believe that the world is looking for a church in which they are free to ask questions; free to not automatically accept everything that is said. They are looking for a place where they can doubt and wrestle with the issues. Some may even continue to doubt in their first few weeks, months, or even years with us as a church. That's okay. It's a freedom that Jesus has given them. The sin isn't in doubt. If your doubt leads to questions, and your questions lead to answers, and you accept the answers that God gives you, then doubt has done good work in your life.

This past fall, a seminar student went to his professor of theology and said, "I don't know if I believe this stuff. I don't know if I'm a Christian." I know how some of us would have reacted. We would have asked what he was doing in seminary. We would have been shocked. We would have told him to grow up. The professor of theology didn't. He prayed with him, and gave him a copy of the book that we have available at the back, called The Case for Christ. He encouraged him to read it honestly and prayerfully, and to ask the difficult questions. The student came back a few months later and said, "I believe. And my faith is stronger than ever. Jude says, "Show mercy to those whose faith is wavering."

Do you ever have doubts? Congratulations! You're human. Welcome to the club. How do you keep your doubts from defeating you? Admit your doubts and...

2. DOUBT YOUR DOUBTS

It's ironic. We do the exact opposite. We doubt our beliefs and we believe our doubts. That doesn't make sense. What we need to do is believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts. Doubt your doubts.

Solomon said in Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding." There comes a time when you need to doubt your doubts. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who haven't seen me and believe anyway."

What do you listen to the most? Do you listen to God's Word or do you listen to your feelings? "I don't feel loved...I don't feel God in my life...I don't feel like God has a plan for me... I don't feel like I'm good enough..." Do you listen to God's Word or do you listen to your feelings? Do you listen to circumstances or what the Bible says? Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don't depend on your own understanding. Doubt your doubts.

Hebrews 11:6 says, "God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him." If you begin to seek God - asking the tough questions - then he will reward your quest. Doubt your doubts, and honestly begin to seek after God beginning today.

3. BEGIN WITH THE FAITH YOU ALREADY HAVE

It may be just a little but you begin with the faith you already have. Mark 9 is a beautiful story. A man came to Jesus with sick son. Jesus looked at him and said, "I can heal him. If you will believe I will heal him" There was a classic statement that the man made: "I believe. Help me with my doubts!" (Mark 9:24)

Have you ever felt like that? Can you be filled with faith and doubt at the same time? Yes. You can have the faith that God wants you to do something and be scared to death at the s ame time. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is you go ahead and do it in spite of your fear. You can have faith and doubt at the same time. This man was filled with faith and doubt yet in spite of his honest doubts, he went ahead and went to Jesus and Jesus did a miracle. Jesus healed his son.

No matter how weak or how frail you think your faith is it's enough. It's enough to get you through. It doesn't take much faith. Matthew 17:20 says, "If you have faith as small as the mustard seed nothing will be impossible to you." In the middle of that verse it says "If you have faith as the mustard seed you can say to the mountain move and it will be moved." Mustard seed faith moves mountains.

I've talked to people who say they don't want to make any commitment or attempt anything or start a ministry until they have all their doubts cleared up. That's not the way you do it. Then it wouldn't require any faith.

What if you don't think you have enough faith? Do what Bruce Davis did. Bruce was a member of the infamous Charles Manson gang. Those of you who were around then remember that in the sixties, they committed the most grisly murders in American history up to that time. They were all caught and eventually put into prison, and for the last 29 years, Bruce has been serving his life sentence in prison.

In 1974, God got his attention, and he realized the despair in his own life. He realized that he needed a Savior, but he didn't have enough faith to believe. One day he prayed this:

"Okay, God," he remembered saying while lying in his cell bunk. "You say you love me, and we both know that I don't love you. You say you want to help me, but I don't believe it. I've never done anything for you. But if you still love me and still want to help me, then do whatever you can."

He said, "That was the ugly truth. It was all I could give to him." But he said, "Little by little, God began to transform my life, and by God's grace, in my 32nd year, I was saved."

He now leads the prison chapel, Bible studies, and counsels others who are in prison for life.

William Rainey once said, "Why didn't somebody ever tell me that I could become a Christian and work on all my doubts afterwards?" Every little step you take towards Christ moves you further away from doubt, discouragement, depression, and despair.

When Jesus saw Thomas, he said something to him that I believe he is saying to you today: "Stop doubting and believe." Stop doubting and believe. There's a time to doubt, but there's a time to stop doubting, and to simply come to God and say, "God, I don't understand everything, but today I believe. Today I trust you and ask to you become the Lord, the manager of my life."

What was it that turned Thomas the doubter, the skeptic, into a believer? It was a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. If you've never had that, regardless of your religious background you need that. You need to meet Christ personally. What do you say? "Lord Jesus, I want to believe. Help me with my unbelief." That's it! That's all. That's good enough. Jesus healed a man for that very statement. "Jesus, I want to believe in you. Help me with my doubts." That's good enough.

Let's close our eyes in prayer.

Some of you are really struggling with your doubts. Maybe you've wondered, "I don't know if I could believe in God, in Jesus. I don't believe I'm good enough. How could God love me?" Or maybe you've thought, "Maybe I wouldn't be able to hold out as a Christian. If I committed my life maybe I couldn't hold out and then I'd embarrass myself." But deep down inside of your heart there's a little bit of faith. And like a seed it's beginning to grow in your life. You're beginning to notice the difference in your life and in the lives of those around you. You can't ignore it. Today is your day. You can let your faith sprout and blossom. Put your faith in what you can accept. That's much more important than any doubts that you have about things that are hard to understand. I challenge you to take the first step today. Committing your life to Christ will give you a new confidence. You don't need any longer to doubt the future or doubt God's love or doubt the uncertainties of life. You can face them with confidence. The history of the Bible is that He takes doubters and turns them into believers. Abraham, Job, David, Paul, Thomas.

Pray this prayer in your heart right now. Maybe you've never even thought about opening up your life to Jesus Christ. Say, "Jesus Christ, I want to believe. Help me with my unbelief." Say that honestly and sincerely. "Jesus Christ I want to be a believer. Help me with my unbelief. As much as I know how, Jesus Christ, I ask you to come into my life. Put your Spirit in me. I don't understand everything but I'm asking you to do it." You don't have to understand it all. I don't understand the chemistry of digestion but that doesn't stop me from eating. Open your life up. "As much as I know how, Christ, come into my life. Be my Lord." That means manager, director, call the shots in my life.

I made a decision like this several years ago and I'd have to say it was the most important decision I ever made - the one you're making today. I didn't understand it all but I just said, "God, I want to take the first step." Today, you've done that. The purpose of this church is to help you grow and to understand more about your decision.

Father, I thank you for your word. Thank you that in spite of circumstances and our conscious and critics that we can come to you. Thank you that you understand us completely. Help us to admit our doubts so we can get them out in the open and struggle with them and overcome them. Help us to doubt our doubts and to believe our beliefs. Help us to begin with the faith that we already have. Help us to realize that it just takes a little faith to do great things when we put it in a great God. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

When Christians Disagree (Colossians 3:12-14)

This morning we're going to look at resolving and reducing conflict. When you look around at God's creation, it's obvious that God loves diversity. He made all of us different. We all have unique interests, tastes, and desires. There aren't too of us who are alike. The interesting thing is how God puts very different people together. Morning people marry night people. Neat parents have messy children. God loves diversity, and diverse people often end up together.

A rule of thumb is opposites attract. But have you ever noticed that after a while, opposites attack? If you're around human beings for any length of time, you're going to have to learn how to deal with conflict. This is true in your marriage. It's true with your children. It's true in the church. This morning we're going to discover what the Bible says about managing that conflict.

We need to learn this because churches haven't always demonstrated appropriate behavior when disagreements take place. If you've been in a church any length of time, you've been in a conflict. It's guaranteed. In some churches, the fight is over theology. It's sometimes over personality. It's sometimes over music styles. It's sometimes over who used the forks in the kitchen on Thursday night. If you ask the average person on the street why he doesn't go to church, you're likely to hear two things. "Christians are hypocrites." And, eventually, you'll hear, "Christians are always fighting one another."

I read this letter in a magazine recently:

What if church was a place where we didn't have to pretend to have all the answers or try real hard to look good? What if it truly was a place for sinners to come to the Cross of Christ and be reminded of the hope we have in him...if the lost didn't have to try to see past all the...splits and divisions...would more lost people want to be found?

Psalm 133 says, "How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!" That's the goal. 1 Peter 3:8 tells us, "Live in harmony with one another." Ephesians 4:3 says, "Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace." God's intention is that when conflicts do occur, we would follow his instructions to stay in harmony and unity. It's a beautiful thing when brothers and sisters get along.

If you don't need this right now, you still need to take notes because someday you're going to be in a major conflict in a relationship and you can say, "What was it Darryl was saying about that?" and you can go back and find these notes and it will help you out. The reality is that we're all going to experience conflict in our relationships. You are going to need these attitudes in your life.

The Bible gives us SIX SECRETS OF REDUCING CONFLICT IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS. There are six ingredients, six attitudes, that if you'll work on these, if you'll build these six things we're going to look at into your life, your satisfaction and fulfillment in your relationships will dramatically increase and the conflict in your relationships will dramatically decrease. They're found in Colossians 3:12-14. Let's read it together:

Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. You must make allowance for each other's faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. And the most important piece of clothing you must wear is love. Love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.

What's interesting is that these qualities are pictured as articles of clothing. Have you ever watched a hockey game in which a fight breaks out? The gloves come off. Many times the shirts come off. By the time the referees break the fight up and get them into the penalty box, the ice is littered with sticks, gloves, and clothing. It's like that in conflict. The gloves come off. Then certain attitudes that should be there disappear. That's why Paul says, "Dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you." There are six pieces of clothing - six attitudes - that you need to put on in conflict:

1. BE COMPASSIONATE IN YOUR ATTITUDE

I remember a day that I was dating my wife. I traveled up to Newmarket, where she worked and lived at the time, and waited for her to get out of work. When she did, I snuck up behind her and poked her from behind. I'll tell you, she nearly jumped out of her skin. But then she turned around and saw who it was and smiled. Why? It was her attitude towards me at that time. If I had been a stranger in the street, she would have belted me. Because it was me, she reacted with delight.

Before we even begin to deal with others, especially in conflict, we bring an attitude to the relationship. It's either going to be a tender attitude - one of compassion and respect - or it's going to be a cold attitude. Many times in a conflict we come with an attitude. Our looks say all that needs to be said. And we've doomed the discussion already, because we have the wrong attitude.

In Colossians 3:12 we read, "Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy." The word literally means compassion and tenderness. It's being predisposed to the needs of the other person. It's coming with a tender heart towards them regardless of how they are coming to us. 1 Peter 3:8 puts it this way: "Love one another with tender hearts."

This is hard to do at the best of times. How can we be compassionate in the middle of a disagreement? What makes it so difficult to be tender in our approach?

Many times WE'RE PREOCCUPIED WITH OURSELVES. We are so convinced that we're right that we don't take time to listen. Or we're so caught up with our own lives that we don't have time to even think of other people. It could be that you're so busy with your own life and your own need that you're skimming over your relationships. You don't have a tender heart toward other people. You need to write this down: hurry is the enemy of tenderness. They don't go together. You can't have a tender heart when you're running around preoccupied with your own needs.

Another reason it's hard to be tender is that WE PREJUDGE PEOPLE. A friend of mine had her head shaved one summer. She found that when she met people, they treated her very differently than when she had hair. Why? They prejudged her based on her appearance. We do this all the time. When we meet people, we judge their character by their appearance - their hairstyle, their dress, the way they carry themselves. This sometimes prevents us from being tender toward them. We've prejudged them before we even talk to them.

It's like the Peanuts comic strip where Linus had drawn a comic strip. He went to Lucy and said, "Lucy, would you read this and tell me if you think it is funny?" In the next frame, you see Lucy patting her foot, and a little bit of a grin comes across her face. She looks at Linus and says, "Well, Linus, who wrote this?" Linus with his chest heaved out and a great big grin says, "Lucy, I wrote that." In the next frame, you see Lucy wadding it up, throwing it to the side, and saying, "Well, then, I don't think it's very funny." Sometimes we don't give people a chance just because of who they are. We don't hear the good that they have to say because we've written them off as people.

Sometimes we don't just prejudge people, WE PREJUDGE SITUATIONS. Do you ever dread meeting with someone and later ask yourself, "What was I worried about?" The other week I dropped Charlene off to get a haircut. When I returned to pick her up, she had the biggest shopping bag that you've ever seen. Being a tender and compassionate husband, I had three questions for her: What did you buy? How much did it cost? Is it refundable? I had completely prejudged her and the situation. We do this all the time.

What attitude are you bringing to other people? I want you to rate yourself here. If you come into a conflict with a closed mind, rate yo urself a one. If you come into a conflict with a genuine interest in hearing the other person, rate yourself a nine.

That's the first secret to reducing conflict in your relationships. Be compassionate in your attitude. The second secret is this:

2. BE KIND IN YOUR WORDS AND ACTIONS

Colossians 3:12 says, "Clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, [and] kindness." If compassion is the attitude we bring to the relationship, then kindness is compassion in action. It translates that attitude into action primarily two different ways: by what we say to others and the way we act toward others. Kindness can go along way in the middle of a conflict. Albert Schweitzer said, "Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to disappear."

Listen to Ephesians 4:29: "Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them." Kindness means that you will speak the truth, but that you will do so in a kind way. You can say the same things, but you can say them in a way that shows respect for them as people. Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, "The tongue can kill or nourish life." The words that you choose - what to say and when you say it - are going to make all the difference in conflict.

But kindness isn't just shown by our words. Kindness is also shown by the way we act toward people, the actions that we take. 1 John 3:18 reads, "Dear children, let us stop just saying we love each other; let us really show it by our actions." When you're kind, you set off a ripple effect of kindness. When you're kind, the recipient of your kindness is going to be kind themselves. Pretty soon you're going to be spreading a climate of kindness in your circle of influence.

The owner of a drive-through coffee business in southwest Portland, Oregon, was surprised one morning to have one of her customers not only pay for her own mocha but also for the mocha of the person in the car behind her. It put a smile on the owner's face to tell the next customer her drink had already been paid for. The second customer was so pleased that someone else had purchased her coffee that she bought coffee for the next customer. This string of kindnesses - one stranger paying for the mocha of the next customer - continued for two hours and 27 customers. Now, imagine what would happen if you consistently showed kindness, even in the middle of conflict. You will never know the effects of that kindness, but it's guaranteed to affect those around you. It will change the climate in your family. It will change the climate in your church.

When in conflict, the gloves usually come off. Kindness goes out the window. Rate yourself from one to nine. If you tend to lose your cool in conflict, rate yourself a one. If you are able to maintain your kindness even in a disagreement, give yourself a nine. It's the second secret to defusing conflict in your relationships.

3. BE HUMBLE IN YOUR THINKING

Colossians says, "Clothe yourselves with...humility." 1 Corinthians 13 says, "Love is not proud." It's amazing, but pride always rears its ugly head whenever we get into conflict. And then along with pride also comes stubbornness. When you and I are sitting across the room from each other, eyeball to eyeball, and we're both kind of self willed, stubborn people with strong opinions, if we get ourselves locked into conflict, our attitude becomes "No, way! I'm not backing down this time!" Nothing happens other than more anger, more conflict, and more bitterness.

Proverbs 13:10 says, "Pride leads to arguments." It always does. The opposite is true. Humility defuses arguments. Humility is the courage to say that you could be wrong. It acknowledges that you might not have all the answers.

? Humility is being honest about my weaknesses. I've got some flaws. I've got some problems. I don't have it all together. One of the best ways to defuse conflict is just to say, "I need help. I'm struggling." Don't worry about your reputation - people already know you're not perfect. It helps to admit it.

? Humility is not assuming that I know it all or understand completely everything you're trying to say to me before you even say it. James 1:19 says, "Dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry." Sometimes all you have to do is listen, and the conflict goes away.

? Humility is being willing to admit a mistake. Proverbs 28:13 tells us, "You can't whitewash your sins and get by with it; you find mercy by admitting and leaving them."

Humility sometimes means saying the hardest three words, "I was wrong." Those words are tough to say, but they will defuse conflict. Or, "Please forgive me." The more I understand that I'm not perfect and I can't always give a flawless performance, and I do things that are wrong and say things that are wrong and I do hurt the people I love, the more I will be ready to say these words. I realize that God's forgiven me then I can turn to them and say, "Forgive me. I was wrong." That's what humility is about.

How do you rate on humility? Do you find it difficult to back down? "I'm in that corner and I'm staying in that corner and you can't make me budge out of that corner." Is it easy for you to ask forgiveness? Rate yourself. If the words, "I was wrong" haven't crossed your lips since 1962, give yourself a one. If you find it easy to say, "I need your help, I was wrong, forgive me," give yourself a nine.

4. BE QUIET IN YOUR STRENGTH

We've just talked about how to handle conflict when you're wrong. But what about when you're right? That's almost harder, isn't it? Don't you hate it when you're patently right and the other party is wrong? Colossians 3 tells us how to handle this as well. The word Paul uses is gentleness or meekness. When Paul used this term, just like today, it was not a positive term. Nobody aspired to be this way. But it's exactly what is needed in conflict.

What does this term mean? I love how the Message translates it: "quiet strength." It means that you're ready to take someone else's feelings into account. You may be correct, but you're not necessarily asserting how correct you are. You're willing to make concessions. You're willing to place the relationship ahead of the issue.

It's amazing how often the issue isn't as important as the relationship. There are times that it's worth fighting about. But most of the time, the issue becomes less important as our egos get more and more important. The issue isn't one of theology or of national security. It's only about preferences. It's about what somebody else likes, or it's just about different ways of doing things. Sometimes you don't even remember what the issue is. You just have a grudge. Don't be arrogant. Even if you feel you're right, evaluate the issue. Don't insist on getting your own way.

How do you do this? It comes from seeing the other person as more important than you are. Philippians 2:4 commands us, "Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing." We need to be more concerned with others than we are for ourselves. When this happens, conflict amazingly begins to disappear.

Let me tell you what maturity is. The signs of growing old are not the same signs as growing up. The signs of aging are not the signs of maturity. You can grow old without growing up. You could still be immature. What is maturity? Maturity is when your concern for other people is greater than your concern for yourself. That is maturity. And you're not mature until that is true in your life. Your concern for others is greater than your concern for yourself. The more selfish you are, the more immature you are. The more unselfish you are, the more mature you are. The more concerned you are with other people, the more maturity you display.

How quie t are you in your strength? How mature are you? Are you just concerned that everyone knows that you're right? If so, give yourself a one. Or do you put other people ahead of yourselves? Do you put the relationship ahead of the issue? If that's you, give yourself a nine.

5. SHOW RESTRAINT WITH YOUR TEMPER

Colossians 3 continues, "Clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. You must make allowance for each other's faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others."

What is patience? Patience is putting up with the wrong that someone is causing without doing wrong ourselves. It means that we suffer wrong without retaliating. It means forgiving, because God has forgiven us. It means dealing with jerks without becoming a jerk yourself. It means holding on before giving into passion. It means putting up with people who are irritants to us. It means that we don't keep a record of wrongs.

Every relationship needs massive does of mercy. When you get close to someone you have an incredible ability to wound another person very deeply. There are all kinds of energy that is stirred up when you're angry. You have the choice to either use that emotional energy in conflict to retaliate, to wipe out the other person. Or use it to try and reconcile and resolve.

How do you pay back with a blessing instead of a curse? How do you pay back when someone's hurling angry words at you? How do you pay back with a blessing instead of more angry words? What I try to do - and I'm not always good at it - is to pray, "God, I know your way is different than the world's way. Would you please give me calm words rather than more inflammatory words that are going to stir it up?" 1 Peter 3:9 says, "Don't repay evil for evil. Don't retaliate when people say unkind things about you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God wants you to do, and he will bless you for it."

How do you rate yourself on patience and forgiveness? If you keep one of these score cards on people, give yourself a one. If you're quick to offer forgiveness and to let go of grudges, give yourself a nine.

6. SHOW LOVE IN EVERYTHING

When you get right down to it, love is what we're talking about. Not a mushy feeling, but an act of obedience. Listen to Colossians 3:14: "And the most important piece of clothing you must wear is love. Love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony." Or, as the Message paraphrase puts it, "And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it." Love is the ultimate sign of a believer. It is the ultimate secret to defusing conflict. Love trumps all else.

The letter of Colossians was written to a unique church. It was written to a church comprised of very diverse people. There were Greeks and Jews, barbarians and Scythians, slaves and free. That doesn't sound too bad, but it would be like holding a cat convention in the dog pound. The differences were too great. Conflicts were bound to happen.

Look around you this morning. God loves diversity. We're all different ages, and all different backgrounds. We all have different personality types. What makes sense to me can sometimes be gibberish to you. Conflicts are bound to happen. And when they do happen, the one thing that will keep us from splintering apart is love.

Love holds everything else together. If you don't have love, you may as well give up. The other attitudes won't do you any good. 1 Corinthians 13 says, "No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love." 1 Peter 4:8 says, "Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins."

I love what somebody once wrote as a rule for followers of Jesus Christ: "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity." In other words, we're going to disagree on certain things. But we should never disagree on the essentials. And, even when we do disagree, our disagreement should be characterized by love. Jesus said, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:35).

Rate yourself on love this morning. If you struggle with loving those who are different than you, rate yourself a 1. If you can honestly say that you love others, rate yourself a nine.

These are the secrets of diffusing conflicts: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, self-restraint, and love. When the gloves begin to come off, these are the qualities that we need to pick up.

What if this doesn't work? What if you try to demonstrate all these attitudes, and you still run into conflict?

Well, that's going to happen. But when it happens you've got some help. You've got God's method of conflict resolution. It's found in Matthew 18:15-17:

If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the fault. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If that person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. If the church decides you are right, but the other person won't accept it, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

It says when you have a problem the first one you go to is the person you are having a problem with. Don't waste your time talking to other people. Talk to the person who has offended you. Go to them. Then it says if they won't listen you take a long another witness. Most of the time, if you follow this procedure, and if you display the attitudes that we've talked about this morning, the issue will be resolved. Even if you can't come to an agreement on the issue, your relationship can be restored.

Friends, this isn't at the fringe of what it means to follow Jesus. This is at the core. If we don't know how to handle our differences, we have no right to say that we're following Jesus. 1 John 2:9 says, "Anyone who claims to live in God's light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark. It's the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God's light and doesn't block the light from others." This is at the core of what it means to be a believer.

God made us with all our diversities. Contrary to what you may think, you don't have it all together. You don't have the total picture and perspective on life. So God took His truth and put it in different personalities so that we would need each other. As much as I would like to think that my worldview is the correct way or that you'd like to think that your way of doing it is the correct way, it's not. God has seen to it that we are different and we need each other. He wants those differences not to divide us but to enrich us. Not to compete, but to compliment. If you will take these six ingredients and build them into your relationship, you'll find that happens.

Let's pray.

I'm sure that in a congregation this size there are relationships here this morning that are really hurting. When communications come to a stand still or maybe it's being distorted, the message is weak and it just isn't getting through. Maybe what's needed in your relationships is a healthy dose of these six attitudes. You need to put on God's clothing in order to have healthy relationships.

Father, we pray that you would help us put on these attitudes. Help us to be more compassionate and kind. Help us to be humble enough to admit when we're wrong. Give us quiet strength, so that even when we're right, we're willing to make concessions. Make us patient. Make us loving. Lord, I know that I can't control these things and build these in my life on my own. Father, I'm asking your Spirit to give me the power to make these changes in my life.

If you aren't a follower of Jesus Christ yet, God can give you the power to be the sort of person who displays these qualities. Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of what means to be compassionate and kind. There's nobody more humble than him. He is gentle and patient. He loves you, and he is willing to come into your life today and to begin to work these qualities into your soul.

Would you pray with me, if you would like Jesus to take control of your life this morning: "Lord, I need your forgiveness. But I also need your power. I need you to take control of my life. I come to you today, depending on you alone for my salvation, and ask that you would take control of my life, my heart, and my actions. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."