June 1, 1998
 The Power of
(a Good) Suggestion

Even Brief Advice or
Encouragement Can Make
A Radical Difference
    
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When I was first considering launching a teaching ministry, I weighed the possibility of getting more education. I was eager to move ahead at full speed giving seminars and tempted to bypass any further training. I sought the counsel of various people about what to do.

One afternoon I had lunch with a friend whom I respected and asked his opinion. Not surprisingly, he said that going back to school was the right idea. But he couched his advice in a metaphor: "By doing so you take away a number but you add a multiplier." As basic as his point was, it was the right thought at the right time and it clinched my thinking. Yes, I'd have to take a year or two off from public ministry, but I'd be better equipped to help people in the years ahead.

This was certainly not the first time I'd thought about the benefits of education in this way. But for some reason my friend's comment helped me appreciate these benefits more fully. Suddenly, I felt that the tradeoff of time needed to gain them was much more than worth it.

I entered the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Seminary. About halfway through it my enthusiasm began to fade. At that time I gained fresh heart through a meeting with the dean of students. More than anything, it was a single observation he made that helped. Since I'd been highly motivated so far, he suggested, it was a fair tradeoff to plod through a less scintillating time in order to complete the degree requirements.

Again, his advice wasn't profound. Yet it was exactly the boost I needed at that moment. It helped me see my loss of zeal as a temporary problem, which didn't have to sabotage my goal. I felt a surge of relief that it was okay to feel dry in an academic program. I could still finish my course of study and move on. These thoughts were so encouraging that by the end of our meeting my motivation had largely returned.

In each of these cases God gave me vital insight and motivation through one short conversation with someone. To a large extent he touched me through a single statement each man made. These incidents are not unique but typical of how I've often experienced the grace of God. And they reflect a common way that Christ gives wisdom and encouragement to each of us.

When a Few Words Are Enough

From the beginning of Scripture God is pictured as One who creates, heals and directs human life through his spoken word. "And God said . . . and it was so." It's intriguing enough that God often uses frail human creatures to convey his words to others.

What is most interesting, though, is that the words God uses to bring about profound effects so often are few. Consider how frequently Jesus inspired remarkable growth in someone through a brief conversation.

On one occasion a royal officer made a considerable journey from Capernaum to Cana to seek Jesus' help (John 4:46-54). When he found Jesus, he pleaded with him to come to his home and heal his dying son. The nobleman showed a certain faith in believing Jesus could heal miraculously. Yet his faith was elementary, for he assumed Jesus needed to be physically present to exercise his power.

Jesus, knowing this man was capable of more substantial faith, responded to him bluntly: "Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe." Your faith isn't what it should be, Jesus chided the official, for it depends upon seeing me perform a miracle.

The rebuke clearly sunk in, for the nobleman made no attempt to justify himself. He merely repeated his desperate request: "Sir, come down before my child dies."

Jesus made only one more brief reply: "You may go. Your son will live." The official took Jesus at his word and departed for Capernaum. In this case he showed impressive faith, for by leaving Cana he lost the opportunity to persuade Jesus to come to his home. Only a moment before he was convinced that Jesus needed to be physically present to heal; now he saw Jesus' power as more pervasive. With just a few comments Jesus had lifted him to a higher level of faith!

Speaking Life

In the same way God often speaks vital words of comfort, challenge and direction to you and me through a short conversation with another person. It's easy to lose sight of the value of such brief encounters today, with so much emphasis on the complexity of human problems and the importance of long-term counseling. We can imagine that extensive time is needed to work through a problem for which God may have a straight-forward answer.

I'm cautious in saying this, for conflicts can run deep and extended counseling is sometimes indispensable. I'm grateful for Christian counselors and psychologists who are able to go deep with people, and often recommend their services. Scripture affirms the value of long-term relationships, where we open the windows of our life to others, and benefit from their ongoing support and feedback. Such intimate sharing can occur in friendships, as well as in counseling relationships. Jesus spent much of his ministry interacting with just twelve men, helping them grow and learn how to get along with each other.

At the same time he showed how the power of God can touch our lives through words spoken just in passing. Appreciating this aspect of Christ's work can greatly increase our anticipation of receiving help from him through everyday contacts with people. The insight or encouragement we need may come suddenly through a few words exchanged with an unlikely person.

Great Expectations of Everyday Conversation

God may just as likely use you or me as a messenger of grace to someone else. Those of us who are not pastors or counselors may envy such professionals for the considerable time they have to devote to the deeper needs of people. We may feel frustrated at how little time we have to help others in this way, given the demands of our jobs and other commitments. Yet within our own unique sphere of relationships we have golden opportunities for ministering which no one else has. And these occasions don't always require a major investment of time.

I once heard psychologist Dr. Henry Brandt share a fascinating observation. He noted that those who came to him for counseling usually required five or six sessions to feel comfortable opening up fully with him. Someone who heard him speak in public, though, sized him up quickly and decided whether he trusted Dr. Brandt before he had finished his lecture. If that person then came for counseling, there was no need first to build up the trust level. Intimate sharing occurred in the initial session.

This same dynamic which leads many to quickly trust public speakers works to our benefit in many other situations of life. There are those who have observed you in action--on your job, within your church, in your community--and like what they've seen of you. They have already decided that they trust you. They are willing to be honest with you and are open to your counsel. Given the right situation, you may have the opportunity--even in a brief conversation--to speak words that inspire, motivate and heal. Your comments can radically affect the outlook and well-being of those around you.

We ought to begin each day asking God to give us high expectations for every human encounter we experience. We should pray for alertness to the special opportunities God brings our way to give or receive encouragement through conversation. The words we hear and the words we speak often carry the seeds of life.

"A word in season, how good it is!" (Prov 15:23)
  

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