You don't need to be an optimist to encourage others

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Like friends often do, the disciples of Jesus and those leaders in the early church gave each other nicknames.

Two of Jesus' disciples, James and John, were called Sons of Thunder, which likely spoke to their boldness in their spiritual testimony or perhaps their overall intensity. There was Simon Peter, who Jesus dubbed Cephas, or "Rock," a designation that spoke to his future as foundation of the church. Here's a side note: Some of these names do or could easily double as wrestling names.

Then there was Joseph, a leader in the early church who is better known by his nickname, Barnabas, which means Son of Encouragement. Barnabas was known as the one who pushed his friends into making the right decisions.

God gives us natural abilities and talents, personalities or attributes that are inherent. While one might be inclined to give generously, another might have to condition himself to be generous. There are those with leadership abilities that seem to have seeded in grade school while others, if the opportunity arises, must rise to the calling.

I am not an encourager by nature, at least not until I realized my very real need to establish this characteristic in my life. For my part, I erroneously thought that an encourager was more or less an optimist - the type of person you consult when your day is going poorly. I'm not really an optimist, so why focus on being an encourager, I thought.

Barnabas was an encourager in that sense, and he used his resources and talents to help the early church, but that isn't the entire breadth of his encouragement abilities. His primary focus wasn't on making others feel better about themselves but by pushing them toward making a good decision, a God-honoring decision.

"[H]e saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts." (Acts 11:23, NIV)

He instructed the early church to take in a brother who had previously made it his mission to persecute Christians. He traveled to other churches in the area and pointed them toward God. His mission wasn't simply to lift the chins of the downtrodden; he was there to point them toward a God who wanted the best for them.

An encourager is not simply defined as an optimist, just as a peacemaker isn't always a milquetoast. All these lovely traits we hear about and then ascribe to the sweet and simpering souls around us aren't always a true representation of what God intended. There is a fire behind those attributes that comes from having God control one's life. These aren't weak people; these are fighters and defenders of God's plan for our lives.

What does this mean for those of us who aren't encouragers by our own admittance? It means we take on that mantle and search out Scripture that would develop that sense of discernment that Barnabas the encourager must have had.