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Exhortation: A Dying Art?

“And with many other words did he testify and exhort…” Acts 2:40 

Our stable of young preachers was jammed with hopefuls, as wild as a herd of bucking broncos, full of zeal, eager to be turned loose behind a pulpit.  We weren’t experienced enough to command a real time slot, but those that ran the conference or camp meeting carved out some time during the preliminaries to give us wannabes a shot.  We were told to get out there and “exhort” for one to two minutes max.  Exhortation equaled entertainment.  God only knows what all we screamed at our amused audiences in these tryouts; I doubt much of it would qualify as exhortation.  Whatever happened to exhortation?

Here’s why this is important.  We know that “paraclete” is the Greek word for the “Comforter,” meaning the Holy Ghost.  This may shock you, but did you know that the Greek word for exhort is “parakaleo,” which is the verb form of paraclete?”  In other words, the practice that we disdain is the same practice used by the Spirit of God in us and in the church.  The character traits of God’s Spirit have been well rehearsed among us.  He’s not a bulldozer or a ramrod.  He is not a policeman or a tyrant.  He is kind, gentle, easily entreated and loving.  He does not force His way into our lives.  Rather, He stands at the door and knocks, waiting patiently to be admitted. 

Today, the profile of exhortation has fallen into a weak practice, perceived as a method used mainly by amateurs who have little or no spiritual authority.  The scriptures, however, overflow with instructions to exhort, beseech and admonish.  1 Thessalonians 4:1 is a good example:  “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.”  Similar scriptures are found throughout the New Testament, especially in the epistles.  The apostles rarely pulled rank.  While they had all the spiritual authority they needed, they were much more likely to employ the art of exhortation to motivate people. 

Not only has the word “exhort” been diffused, we have generally abandoned the concept as well.  We don’t exhort much anymore.  Instead, we pronounce, command, demand, direct, give ultimatums and otherwise use much stronger methods to impose our will on others.  It is my observation, however, that those who are really strong persuade.  Coercion belies weakness.  The “because I said so” mentality may gain immediate compliance, but, eventually, it breeds long-term resentment. 

We often get caught up in “black and white” discussions about right and wrong, obedience or disobedience, submission or rebellion.  Exhortation bypasses these discussions, knowing that they generally turn into debates that only prove the intransigence of one side or the other.  Exhortation bases its efforts on whatever is the wisest, most productive choice to make, not on some absolute rule.  Prayer is a good example.  If I were to tell you that if you don’t pray enough, you won’t make it to heaven, I would be judgmental and you would be offended.  If, on the other hand, I were to tell you that prayer will get you closer to God, I am encouraging you to pray because positive results will follow.  Indeed, that is exactly what we find in scripture.  “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2. 

Whether you are a preacher, a church leader or a parent trying to lead your family, much more success may be found in exhorting, not demanding.  Exhortation implies care for the individual; demanding implies care for one’s own agenda, period.  Exhortation says “I really believe you should do this.”  Demanding says, “Either do this or else!”  Exhortation says, “This is the best thing for you.”  Demanding says, “You are making it difficult for me if you don’t do this.”  Demanding sees black and white.  Exhortation is willing to operate in the gray area if it must, always trying to lead people to the black and white.  Demanding is the quick and easy solution to any problem.  It eliminates the guesswork and sets people straight.  Exhortation is complicated, difficult and messy.  It wrestles with doubts, moods, attitudes, frustrations and repercussions.  But, then again, loving and caring is complicated, difficult and messy too!  It takes time, energy, focus and desire.

I was one of those young preachers champing at the bit to strut my stuff.  I was in a rush to proclaim the truth and pronounce judgment upon anyone who balked at it.  Thank God for great men of God who took me aside and exhorted me to be better.  I’m still too embarrassed to write about some of the more reckless things I said (I know you’re just dying for me to confess!), but I will say that on more than one occasion, a word of wisdom by an esteemed elder rescued me from disastrous consequences. 

Apostolics would be wise to emulate the Apostle Paul’s approach to the Thessalonians.  It is a gem in the crown of exhortation.  “We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.” 1 Thessalonians. 2:6-9 (NIV).

Demanding is not evil.  It is only an attempt to shortcut the way to success.  If you truly feel a need to demand, then demand the best and highest of yourself first.  That will be your wakeup call.  When reality hits you in the face, you will understand the wisdom of exhortation.  If the practice has suffered a long demise in your life and ministry, revive it and begin the practice anew.  Rather than goad and intimidate people into righteousness, bless and love them into it.  It’s the honey versus the vinegar; the warm sun versus the chilling wind. 

Learn the art of exhortation. 


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