Build Each Other Up in Love
Recently, after spending time with some friends from another city, I began to think about the influence that other people can have over our behavior. On the way home I said to my husband, “Those two somehow see me as a whole lot nicer than I really am.” He agreed (he now sees the folly of that) and pointed out that my behavior is different around them as I rise to the occasion and try to be the person they think I am. It’s not something I do intentionally. It just happens. It’s interesting that their words and what they believe about me actually make me a better person.
The apostle Paul recognized the power our words and actions can have in our relationships with other people. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is asking us to consider the choices we make about how we treat other people. He knows that we are naturally selfish and like to put ourselves first. But Paul tells us that is not God’s way: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess 5:11 NIV).
Our human nature tells us it’s okay to get angry. It’s okay to be rude to each other. It’s okay to tell a story about a person who behaved badly. But Paul says, Don’t tear each other down. Build each other up. And he says it more than once:
• “Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Rom 15:2 NIV1984)
• “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.” (Eph 4:29 NIV)
• “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” (1 Cor 14:12 NIV1984)
So, how do we build each other up?
We need to realize what it is that we’re building. It’s not our own interests and agendas. We’re building each other. And it’s for God’s glory, not ours.
Because this runs contrary to our human nature, we’re going to have to be intentional about it. The people around us won’t be built up by accident. We have to decide to live as builders. We must take the opportunities that come to touch someone’s life with love. Be ready with kind words. Take the time to tell someone what you appreciate about them. Send a card. Give a compliment. Make the effort to be a blessing to someone. Quit thinking about yourself and invest in other people.
We have the power to mold and shape the people around us into better people. We have the power to build each other up. We need to use it!
A friend of ours recently wrote a short but beautiful tribute on Facebook to an older lady in his church who had just died. My husband posted back saying how touching that was and that he wanted Ronnie to be the one to write his eulogy someday. Ronnie responded by writing a short, humorous, but really nice eulogy about my husband. He then said that too often we save our kind words until after someone has died. He wanted Don to know how he felt now. Don’s original comment to Ronnie was said in jest, but the response was thoughtful and affirming and definitely in line with what Paul was talking about when he said we should build each other up.
A few years ago, when I was reading Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage, I was struck by the story of a wife who no longer felt appreciated or valued by her husband. The author advised the women to intentionally begin telling him how important he was to her and how much she appreciated all the things he was doing for their family. She did, and in a surprisingly short time, he began to become the man she was telling him he was. I decided to try this experiment on my husband, who is already quite wonderful. It was an amazing lesson on the power of words to build another person up. As Paul knew, this really works.
Praying for others is also a part of building them up. But how often do we promise to pray for a certain person or situation and then forget to do it? Several years ago, I determined to do better with this, and now I carry a small notebook in my purse. The things I write down in the course of a week can then be transferred to my prayer list at home. One unintended benefit is that when people see you do this, they feel valued and heard.
When we were living in Africa, our friend Sydney Johnson met another friend of ours named Papu. Papu had an adolescent son whose legs were not developing properly and had just had surgery to correct the problem. There would be a long recovery and the results were not yet certain. Papu told us how desperate he was for his son to walk normally, and Sydney told our Sikh friend that he would be praying for him. Two years later, when Sydney was once again in Africa, he saw Papu and asked about his son. Papu was surprised but happy to report that the surgery had been a complete success. With tears in his eyes, Sydney said he’d been praying for the past two years. This made a tremendous impact on our friend. He didn’t understand the whole prayer thing, but he recognized love when he saw it.
All of us want to be loved, and sometimes this causes us to get caught up in what John Ortberg calls image management. In his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, he describes the way we work at projecting a flattering image of ourselves and mask the truer picture that might show our inadequacies. He points out that when we are with other people we are not really with them. We are busy in our heads thinking of our next sentence or wondering how we came across in our last sentence. This does not build others up. But if we could learn to truly be with people, imagine how loved and valued they would feel. This is the love of Christ that builds.
Why should we build each other up?
We need each other because together we are God’s temple. In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple . . .?” (NIV). When we are connected with each other, living out the love of Christ with each other, building each other up, the temple is strong. And people notice! When we are fighting with each other, people notice that too. And the message of the temple is unclear.
The early believers worshiped together, prayed together, taught each other, helped each other, corrected each other, encouraged each other, and shared their possessions with each other. They built each other up. They were God’s temple, and it was strong. And people noticed! And the gospel spread because of the way they treated each other and the way they treated the people around them. The Jews saw the love of Christ in action.
Later, the gospel began to spread all over the Roman Empire, even to Gentiles, who already had their own gods, along with majestic statues and beautiful temples. They were not interested in the invisible God of the Jews. But the believers stayed connected, and the gospel spread because of the way they treated each other and they way they treated the people around them. The Gentiles saw the love of Christ in action.
Then believers arrived in Greek cities. To be a Christian in a Greek city was extremely counter-cultural. The Greeks had never heard about God or Jesus. But they had their own gods and were afraid of anyone who would make their gods angry. They made it very difficult for anyone who did not respect their gods.
Each Greek city had a large market area. This is where everything was bought and sold. Food, pots, clothes—everything. And at the entrance to the market there was a man who was the manager of the market. He controlled who could buy and sell, and he made sure that all who entered first showed the proper respect for the gods by sprinkling incense on the fire he tended for their honor. When the Christians refused to do so, they were shut out of the market.
The Greek cities also had a large meeting hall where the city council met. People could come there to listen to the leaders and give suggestions or comments. But before you entered, you had to walk past a large basin of hot coals with the faces of the gods carved into the stand. The people who came to talk council business put a pinch of incense on the coals before they could enter and sit down. Christians refused to do this and were shut out of local politics.
With no economic or political power, those Christians had few opportunities for interaction with the Greeks. But when it came to making the gospel known, they didn’t have to say very much. The way they lived, as a loving community, changed the cities. The Greeks saw the way the Christians treated each other and the way they treated the people around them. They saw the love of Christ in action.
In the first century, Jesus chose twelve disciples and he taught them. By the fourth century, Constantine, the leader of the Roman Empire, declared Christianity the true religion for the empire.
How did the gospel spread? Not through powerful preachers. Not through large churches with lots of money. But through Christians—Christians who were building each other up so they could be strong enough to be different, Christians who were strong enough to live in a counter-cultural way.
Paul’s words remind us that we have the power to use our words and actions to build the kingdom of God. And when we do, we have the power not only to mold and shape the people around us but also to change the culture that surrounds us. We need to be about the business of building each other up.
Don and Caroline Armstrong serve as regional coordinators for the Asia–Pacific region of Global Missions.