When Love Takes You by the Shoulders

Embracing the Gift of Exhortation

The phone call came at nearly 9:00 at night. When I answered, I was caught off guard by a voice full of concern. “Jon! Where were you tonight? Are you okay?” It was Monty. Suddenly, I felt like a kid caught skipping school.

Monty Sholund had been a classmate of Jim Elliot’s at Wheaton College in the late 1940s and had gone on to spend 35 years on the mission field in South Africa and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). When he “retired” and moved back to the United States, he founded Village Schools of the Bible in 1982 “to assist newly converted Christians and older Christians in their growth and maturity in Jesus Christ” and to “help [them] know and apply God’s Word to their lives.”

I was enrolled in one of his classes, a yearlong Bible survey that met one evening each week at our church. Monty required us to complete an assigned reading and a paper for each class, and he made it clear that if we didn’t complete an assignment, we shouldn’t come to class.

That particular week, I hadn’t completed the paper. I don’t remember why. But being a 23-year-old newlywed with no kids and a light responsibility load, the reason wasn’t a good one. And I knew it.

Dose of Firm Encouragement

I’m sure Monty knew it too, though he was kind enough to give me the benefit of the doubt. When my fumbling explanation confirmed that the benefit was unwarranted, he extended me another kindness: a good dose of firm encouragement. “Oh, well, yes,” he said. “If you didn’t complete the assignment, you were right not to come. But honestly, Jon, my impression of you is different. I expect more from you than that. I hope I haven’t been mistaken.”

Now, Monty’s words may not strike you as encouraging. I can tell you that when I hung up the phone, I didn’t feel encouraged. Monty had exposed my negligence and lack of self-control, so I felt exposed and deflated. And rightly so.

“Sometimes, the encouragement we need most is the firm kind.”

The encouragement set in only later, as I reflected on Monty’s words and on the simple fact that he spoke them. I was one of about thirty students in his class, yet he personally sought me out because he wanted me to grow and mature in Jesus Christ; he wanted to apply God’s word to my life. He cared enough about the outcome of my faith to exhort me not to continue falling short — not merely of my potential, but of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) — by squandering the precious time God gave me.

Monty’s call that night pushed me to do some needed self-examination and soul-searching. He was right: I wasn’t heeding the command to make the best use of my time (Ephesians 5:16). Seeing this more clearly encouraged me to exercise greater diligence, not only in my assignments, but in my responsibilities in general.

Taken by the Shoulders

We all need regular doses of encouragement because we all face regular battles with discouraging weaknesses and fears. Of course, we all prefer the more tender kinds of encouragement, like being affirmed when we do something well or receiving sympathetic consolation when we’re suffering.

But sometimes, the encouragement we need most is the firm kind — the kind that confronts a harmful blind spot of weakness or a sinful form of unbelief that has a controlling grip on us. In such cases, we don’t need to be affirmed or consoled. We need to be exhorted to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, [so we can] run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

This is what makes an exhortation a form of encouragement, though it’s not so much a shoulder to cry on as being taken by the shoulders and given a firm appeal to exercise faith-filled courage. Some exhortations cause us to feel our courage rise right away. But others don’t, especially if they contain elements of reproof or rebuke (2 Timothy 4:2), like the one Monty gave me. But when given in love by someone who really cares about the outcome of our faith, an exhortation is a priceless gift.

Priceless Gift of Perseverance

That’s why we Christians are commanded to exhort one another, as the author of Hebrews makes clear:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)

“When given in love by someone who really cares about the outcome of our faith, an exhortation is a priceless gift.”

The way this text is worded tells us that exhortations are not always pleasant. Being exhorted to avoid or stop indulging in heart-hardening sin might not feel immediately encouraging. But the reason exhortations are priceless gifts is because of the fruit they bear in our lives, if we’re humble enough to heed them. If received faithfully, they become means of grace that help us persevere in the faith — grace-gifts from God himself, delivered through our loving brothers or sisters. Which is why, later in his letter, the author of Hebrews reminds us of Proverbs 3:11–12:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
     nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
     and chastises every son whom he receives. (Hebrews 12:5–6)

Every disciple requires discipline. And though “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, . . . later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Courage to Exhort

Giving the firm encouragement of an exhortation requires courage. And often, the more personal the exhortation, the more courage it requires. I’ve typically found it easier to issue a general exhortation to a group than to exhort a friend face-to-face (or voice-to-voice, as Monty did with me).

Once, having observed one of my oldest and dearest friends taking steps that I believed would lead him deeper into a sinful pattern, I knew I had to say something. So, I arranged to meet him for dinner. But as I faced him across the restaurant table, I remembered the strong internal resistance. If I said what I wanted to say, it might mark the end of our friendship. But I loved him. So, taking a deep breath, I spoke words that were hard for me to say and hard for him to hear. At first, he was indignant and defensive. But thankfully, as we talked, he heard my words in the context of my love and took them to heart. Later, he told me how grateful he was for that pivotal conversation, because it encouraged him to change course.

It takes courage to offer the kind of firm encouragement that exposes another’s weakness to sin. But “better is open rebuke than hidden love,” for “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:5–6). And in the case of my friend, the proverb proved true: “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue” (Proverbs 28:23).

Model of Encouragement

Monty Sholund passed away in the spring of 2007, “an old man and full of years” (Genesis 25:8), having spent his life faithfully in service to Christ. His eulogy stated that he “was always a great encourager.” As one whose friendship with him extended long past that Bible-survey class, I find that statement to be very accurate. He was one of the most lavish encouragers I’ve ever met. And his encouragement was always sincere, never flattery.

But Monty was a model of full-orbed encouragement in the biblical sense. His encouragement always aimed at helping saints grow and mature in Jesus Christ. So, he was lovingly generous with affirming and consoling encouragement, and he was lovingly courageous with firm and exhorting encouragement — the latter proving the credibility of the former.

So, as I remember this loving leader and “consider the outcome of [his] way of life,” it makes me want to “imitate [his] faith” (Hebrews 13:7). I want to be more like him. And I bless his memory.