“Well, first of all I don’t know how many people will find this topic interesting. I’m not sure many will view this as an essential activity for a Christian”.
There you have it. Those were my first thoughts as I decided to write a few articles on a simple idea. “How to become an encouraging spiritual friend towards all people”.
People will most likely think “I already have enough friends, or at least acquaintances. I already have a family I’m investing in. So the idea of learning how to become an encouraging spiritual friend seems like one more thing to do. Many are already feeling the pressure of needing to be a better spouse, parent, and congregant. And don’t forget… They also need to have relationships in their neighbourhoods and in their workplaces.
And so, at first pass I don’t think people will aspire to learn how to become an encouraging spiritual friend to others. It may seem like just one more thing I need to add to my already busy life.
But that said, I believe that some people may change their thinking when they see that being an encouraging spiritual friend Is a better way of being with others…To become an encouraging spiritual friend to their spouse, to their family, to their neighbour, to their co-worker, to people in their congregation.
No matter what sphere they find themselves in, to understand what it means to be an encouraging spiritual friend, is to engage in some simple practices. They are familiar practices to most people. They just need to be recognized and then put into practice until they become our normal way of relating to others.
These are practices that will greatly increase the likelihood of someone feeling deeply encouraged for having spent time with you.
And so, let me try to answer the question. “Why do I think people will be interested in this?” I think it might happen as they begin to personally experience the benefit of having richer relationships. All because of some simple practices they integrated into their way of living life among other people.
Now, let’s shift to a different question. “Why ‘encouraging spiritual friendships’?” “Why this term?” “Surely you could have come up with something cooler than that?”
I prefer descriptive over cool.
The word ‘encouraging’ points to the goal in every engagement you have with a person. And there is a goal… And the goal is that at the outcome of your time, any given time together, is for that person to be strengthened. For me, the word encourage means to implant courage, or instill courage. And so, whenever you engage someone in conversation, you do it for one purpose. That they might feel stronger and have a little more courage to proceed in life. . And that is an attainable goal. Imagine every interaction being done in such a way that the other person can have courage and strength to carry on with their day in a way that adds value to society. And so we will be talking very practically about how to do that.
In the context I am using, the word ‘spiritual’ means that we allow conversations to go to deeper levels. We learn to be comfortable going to places of deep intimacy (non sexual of course) that very few people get to experience. We can learn to create the kind of space where people can go there with us, if they want to. Some people you meet will go there quickly, some may never go too deep. It’s all O.K. We become the kind of people that others feel safe enough to go there with, if they choose to. I like the word spiritual, because we are open to have the kinds of conversations that carry a sense of ‘the sacred’. It is a beautiful experience when that happens.
And so the kind of friendship we are talking about here is the kind that is encouraging, where people feel stronger. It is also the kind that is spiritual where the relational encounter goes beyond superficial. It is the kind of relationship that echoes the kinds of encounters Jesus had with others, wherever he went. Read the gospels and you will see what I mean.
The word ‘friend’ reminds us that we are for the person we are with, even if we hold different perspectives on something. A friend is not a means to an end for us. We are simply present to them for their benefit. For me, friendship is the experience of belonging. I don’t see myself as better than, or less than. I am coming alongside others as a fellow sojourner. It is rewarding to offer someone the gift of encouragement, as an encouraging spiritual friend.
Now, if I were asked what a few essential characteristics of an encouraging spiritual friend are, here is where I would begin.
They see that their mission in life is to add value to people’s experiences of life. Their primary strategy is to implant courage in others. Who doesn’t need more courage to step into the challenges before them?
Your hope is that the other person would feel like you actually understood them and that you are for them. They would feel validated as a human being. Believe it or not, there are many people who seldom get validation as a human being. Many are related to on the basis of what they do and how well they do what they do. People get categorized.
And so I would say it all begins with you learning to interact with other people with the goal of making it all about them. Your focus remains on them simply wanting to understand their story to the degree they are interested in letting you in on their story.
If the first characteristic is that it is not about you, it is all about them, then the second characteristic is a close cousin. Humility. Humility is not only that of giving deference to another, but it is the act of lifting up another in an honouring and respectful way. People who feel encouraged also feel honoured and respected. To maintain humility, practice the discipline of setting your own ego centric nature to one side. Lay it down. Lay down your own priorities, your own interests. So again it is not about you, it is about them.
The third characteristic is that they are advancing towards being great communicators. Anyone can learn to be a great communicator. It is a learned skill. By the way, great communicators are not great communicators because they can say ‘many’ ‘great’ words. A great communicator knows how to ask wonderful questions and they know how to listen. Have you ever been listened to in such a way that you felt like you were the only person in the room? You just experienced being with a great communicator.
These three characteristics will be found in people who have learned how to be an encouraging spiritual friend to others. They realize that it is not about themselves, it is all about the other. They present themselves to all people from a posture of humility. And both of these characteristics show up in how they communicate with others. They listen deeply to others and they ask wonderful, respectful questions.
Each of these three characteristics can be developed. All three can be practised. All three require daily practice, and opportunities will present themselves to you every day for that to occur.
So, where does a person start if they want to start the journey of becoming an encouraging spiritual friend to all people?
I think a good place to begin is to notice people in the course of your day to day activity. Just in the ordinary events of your day begin to notice the people around you. Begin to notice the people you have interactions with in the course of your everyday, ordinary life. Notice the stranger, the neighbour, your friend, and your family. Just begin to notice the people around you.
For most people I know, this will be a big challenge. Some of us have a proclivity to be so focused on the task at hand that we don’t notice we are not alone.
Just begin to nurture your awareness of people around you.
And maybe secondly, begin to wonder how people might be seeing you. Ask, “I wonder how people are interpreting my actions towards them?”
It’s amazing how our non-verbals send all kinds of messages to those around us. I don’t think any of us wake up in the morning deciding to portray ourselves as Mr. or Miss Obnoxious. The point I’m trying to communicate is that I think it is good to begin to entertain the question, “I wonder how I am actually presenting myself to this person?” I might think I’m doing ok, but I wonder what it is that they see. I am not suggesting you actually ask people, however you can if you want to. But just begin to develop an awareness of how other people might be perceiving you.
To become an encouraging spiritual friend to those around you will serve you well if they perceive you as someone who is approachable.