I am a middle child who grew up in between an older sister breaking boundaries and a younger sister looking to speak up and be heard. So, I embraced the quiet, unopinionated middle child role in the family from an early age. My mom called me a peacemaker and I often avoided any share of the blame for discord in the household.
Often you would find me checking in with my family members, offering hugs and shoulder rubs, with a kind or sympathetic word. In the wake of a loud argument, the one-on-ones to follow would include a pinch of flattery, a dash of encouragement, and some insights to help them gain perspective.
This pattern continued with friends throughout high school, college, and into my 20s. During that time, the Gospel wasn’t active in my life, even though I knew many parts of the Bible and was a baptized believer in Jesus. I wasn’t living out a life surrendered to the living and reigning King Jesus, nor was I walking by the Spirit and reading my Bible regularly. And yet, people in my life would say I was encouraging, uplifting, and that I always had great and insightful advice to offer.
Despite their praise, I knew I was simply pandering to my audience. I did little more than help them with a positive mental reset. My heart posture was to give them affirmation and a sympathetic shoulder, but my aim was to raise my own stock and to keep the peace at all costs. In other words, I selfishly prioritized my need for relational stability rather than allowing God to function through me to bring the true reconciliation and restoration of Jesus.
I share this background because I know that many people have a hard time discerning the difference between a skill or disposition they are born with (or have acquired in life) and a supernaturally empowered gift bestowed upon them by the Holy Spirit. Key discerning factors for me to tell the difference are my heart posture, the alignment of my words to biblical truth, and the felt presence of the Holy Spirit. Without these indicators, I can slip back into the old behaviour of exhorting others for selfish gain.
A working definition of the gift of exhortation is: “The capacity to urge people to action in terms of applying Biblical truths, to encourage people generally with Biblical truths, or to comfort people through the application of Biblical truth to their needs.”
Here is one example I attribute to the gift of exhortation working through me:
I was recently chatting with someone about the idea of ‘Gospel community’ in the church. I said that to me, a simple description of Gospel community is a) allowing people to be part of your life and b) relying on the Spirit to help you live with them the way Jesus lived with people. This individual joyfully agreed and shared that they had people they were already living life with in Gospel community.
I celebrated this news and praised the Lord for it! I was genuinely interested to know more about their story, so I asked who these people were. They explained that their current Gospel community was a group of Christian friends that had all met in university. They had bonded there and became huge and lasting support for one another. Again, so great! I was smiling in astonishment, especially considering how my experience during that phase of life had been so different. I could have just left the whole topic there… But something was driving me to go deeper.
I asked if these were people that also now attended Westside. The response was no—some were roommates and some friends that now went to different churches. They all made the effort to stay tight. Again, the topic of conversation could have ended there; it didn’t need to be something special about that. But, at that moment, I recalled some things they had said on a different topic of conversation earlier. I felt a peaceful sense of understanding come over me and knew that there was something spiritual to address in this moment.
The words came clear and true, gentle yet urgent. “You know, I can feel God has people here at Westside that can be like that for you. You seem like someone who has been blessed with the experience of those close relationships so you can help others here experience it too. It's a gift you've been given for the church. Can I pray for you in that?”
The person paused as if realizing something for the first time. They had been in the Church for a while, part of a Gospel community, even a leader in certain ministries. Yet their relationships in the Church were starkly different from the ones they celebrated with these other close friends.
As we prayed together I was sure I could feel the Holy Spirit’s presence, a warm assurance ministering in our midst. I only realized upon reflection that I prayed portions of Ephesians 4 with them. Something lasting felt like it was formed in those moments.
For many minutes after I was filled with joy and faith. I might never know the fruit of that encounter or what footholds of the enemy were removed, but through it, I felt the gift of exhortation—a manifestation of the Holy Spirit to speak through me and into someone’s life. God gave me a word to help them hold fast to a Biblical truth for the purpose of unity and for the good of both the believer and the church.