Learning How to Encourage Disappointing People to Change

Learning How to Encourage Disappointing People to Change

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If a family member or friend does not meet your expectations, what is your primary way of motivating them to change? Do you encourage them toward a better way of living, or do you use other methods like criticism, nagging, and condemnation that tempt them to fear? I will address this problem in the ongoing life and times of Biff and Mable. The answer is more complex than you might think.

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The Corporate World

In the corporate world, encouragement, and gratitude for a job well done happen because of an employee’s excellent performance. We call it a performance review. This strategy has proven to be an effective method for motivating subordinates to work harder and perform better. “If you meet my expectations, I will reward you monetarily for a job well done.”

Suppose you bring that methodology home to implement within your marriage and family structure. If you do, you will habituate family into a practice that is not just anti-gospel, but it will have an immediate, long-term, and generational adverse impact on your loved ones. One of the many aspects of the gospel is giving someone something they do not deserve.

It’s this aspect of God’s gospel that we love the most (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is because of the Lord’s grace that we become part of His family. He does not reward us with the prize of adoption after rising to the level of perfection, which is the price of admittance. No way! We anticipate and welcome the sacrificial work of another on our behalf. It’s because of His perfect sacrifice that we receive access to the kingdom of God.

Another Way

Imagine if, in the corporate world, you received an award for another person’s work. Though it’s not a wise practice in that environment, it’s what we need to become a Christian (Romans 10:9). You sense this perspective in Romans 2:4, where Paul said it was the “kindness of God that led to our repentance.” Because of the generous and merciful work of the Lord, while we were sinners (Romans 5:8), we changed.

We rejoice because the Lord is not our CEO but a grace-giving Father. He recognized our inability to merit the reward we needed, so He made another way through His Son. Though the Father was not pleased with our performance review, He fully approved His Son’s (Mark 1:11). Every Christian from every generation gladly rejoices that there was a workaround that secured our seat in heaven.

As you reflect upon Paul’s language in Romans 2:4, it’s wise to ponder how you could practically implement the concept of “kindness that leads to repentance” into your daily interpersonal relationships. What if you required others to meet a specified performance review before you rewarded them? Perhaps it would sound like, “I will encourage you after you meet my expectations.”

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The Ditch Question

The person who only rewards after an acceptable performance will build people-pleasing and works-based attitudes into their family and friends. It fosters a fear-centered, awkward way of relating to the authoritarian who withholds or dispenses praise, which depends on performance. Treating a family member like an employee tempts a person to figure out how to please so that they don’t end up on the short end of the performance review. Of course, there will be some “family employees” who will quit. They may leave (divorce) the company (marriage).

If the only way you’re going to be happy is when I meet your expectations, there is no point trying. I cannot live under a constant employee performance review. I’m out of here.

The children in this type of family wait for the day when they can leave home to get out from under the pressure of having to meet a parent’s expectations. The “kindness of God that leads to repentance worldview” does raise a few perceptive questions. For example, should you always extend grace and encourage someone with the hope of future repentance and never criticize a family member or friend? This concern is what I call a ditch question. It’s easy to live in ditches rather than doing the harder work of teasing out the complexities of a matter.

The Ditch-Dwellers

In one ditch, you have the person who is all about encouragement. They motivate by grace most of the time. A Romans 2:4-only worldview is a monotone response to anything a person does. If this is the only way you think about the change process, you must address what keeps you from implementing and enjoying a fuller range of methods to help your friends mature in Christ.

In the other ditch, we have those who motivate by fear. This person is a nitpicker, a critiquer, and a never able to please kind of individual. You realize before you start that it won’t be right. You sense defeat before beginning, which in time, will discourage you from trying. You’re giving up triggers the person you can never please.

The middle ground is the person who knows how to respond to a person who needs a specific kind of care at the moment. Perhaps your best option is to encourage the person toward change. In the next instance, it’s wiser to discipline them in love. Where do you land on the spectrum of motivating a person to change?

  • Do you typically motivate with kindness, patience, forbearance, and perseverance, which is Romans 2:4?
  • Do you usually withhold encouragement until the person does what you expect? Do you know how to correct someone in love?
  • What are a couple of scenarios where you would motivate by kindness? When would you initiate corrective care to help a person to change?
  • Do you see the pluses and minuses in these approaches?

Biff and Mable

Mable has had enough of Biff. It’s not as though Biff was doing outlandish sinning. The habitual sin that Biff does is annoying sinning. He does not help around the house. He’s too whiny—at times. He binge-watches on TV. There are outside chores that he only tackles after the weeds have almost taken over and the homeowners association sends their neighborhood upkeep requirements. Biff does not engage the church.

Biff has always been this way, even before their marriage. From birth to death, he’s a man in a steady decline as far as being lazy. It’s more accurate to say that Biff is a selectively lazy man because he’s another animal on the job. He works hard and provides well. He’s only a dud in the nonwork spheres. What Mable is experiencing is the accumulative trauma effect: if you keep doing the same wrong things over and over again, it wears thin on those who are closest to you.

Twenty-five years of slow decline during their marriage has pushed Mable to her wit’s end. She has taken a demand approach that feels more like an ultimatum. Mable is now conducting a performance review: if Biff does not change, she will respond with unkindness, critique, and displeasure. It will be clear that Biff has not met her expectations.

A Complicating Factor

There is one more data point here. When the heat of our lives turns up, the person we are will come out of us. Mable has been living under the slow burn of Biff’s lack of relational intentionality. She finally hit the tipping point. The heat was as high as she could stand it, and the person she has always been on the inside came boiling out of her, which explains her exasperated ultimatum.

Mable has never been an encourager, particularly to Biff. Whenever he did do something well, Mable did not think to show appreciation. It’s not her habit to be grateful unless it is for something that benefits her. A general attitude of gratitude is not in her wheelhouse. A Christian who is not appreciative does not understand a vital aspect of the gospel: thanksgiving for all things (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The only gratitude that Biff ever experiences is on his job, which is one reason he works so hard. They appreciate his effort. Though his motivation for working hard is because of the benefit of hearing a “job well done,” Biff is acting out an aspect of his God-given nature. Every person wants to hear “well done” for a job well done (Matthew 25:23).

The Victim-Sinner

Mable does not understand this basic idea about human nature. Her lack of gratitude for her husband has complicated their marriage problems. I’m not saying that Mable’s lack of gratefulness for her husband is the cause of his sin issues. It’s a complicating factor. When helping couples work through problems, you want to identify the real causes and the complicating factors. In this case study, I’m only addressing a complicating issue, not the cause—Biff’s sin.

Though Biff had this problem before he met Mable, after their marriage, Mable’s sin issues have complicated Biff’s. As the counselor appeals to Biff to repent, he must also help Mable understand the kind of man God gave her and how her sin patterns are complicating what God could do through her if she had the discernment and willingness to repent.

In all marriage situations, you will have the “victim-sinner construct.” You must know how to navigate these waters if you’re going to help them. Imagine if the counselor only helped Biff change but did not address a stumbling block in their home, his wife. An analogy of this problem is the rebellious teenager.

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The Angry Teen

Suppose an authoritative, angry dad brought his son to counseling, saying he’s rebellious and must change. The dad is correct. Rebellion is not acceptable, no matter how you got there. But the teen’s problem has a layer of complexity that you must deal with, which is the dad who is complicating (sabotaging) any reasonable effort that could happen in the counseling office.

Let’s say the teen made progress during the two-hour counseling session. You sent him home to live with his dad for 166 hours—the rest of the week—before he shows up for his next session. How do you think it will go during that week for the teen and his daddy? Whatever progress made in the counseling office will evaporate quickly in an intense family environment with an authoritarian, angry father. In this sense, the teen is the victim-sinner. He is guilty of his rebellion, and he’s a victim of his father’s anger.

Ironically, his dad is a victim-sinner too. He’s a victim to an angry, rebellious son, and he’s guilty of complicating his son’s life. There is always enough sin to go around, and though you don’t want to be sin-centered, you must be meticulous in thinking through the complexity of any relational dust-up. You also must have the courage to step into the victim-sinner construct or your counsel will be one-sided. It won’t ultimately help, and it will complicate things so much that the couple may be worse off after meeting with the counselor.

What about Mable?

She has a legitimate complaint against her husband. He’s a selfish and lazy man. His craving for approval manages him too much. His approval drive is so strong that he will only work for reward, and if you don’t encourage him, he will not respond well. The question that Mable will have to answer is, “Who will be the adult in the room?”

Will she stubbornly withhold encouragement to motivate her husband, or will she humble herself by looking for evidence of grace in his life and use those moments to express gratitude for his efforts? Though it would not be wise to jump into the “always grateful ditch,” she must repent by starting to encourage her husband. She needs to cooperate with God by becoming a gentle restorer to a man caught in sin (Galatians 6:1).

If she chooses not to do this, she will be culpable because she won’t be guarding her heart, and both of them will drown in their sins (Galatians 6:2). The primary way that she will learn how to change is by going back to the gospel. Did God expect her to perform well before He rewarded her, or did he give her something she did not deserve? The answer is apparent, and what Mable must do should also be.

Call to Action

  1. Are you more apt to withhold your gratitude from your family members and friends because they do not meet your expectations?
  2. What is the danger of always praising and never correcting in love?
  3. What is the danger of always correcting, nagging, and withholding praise?
  4. How did the change happen for you? You changed, and then you experienced the kindness of God? Or you experienced the kindness of God, and it led to your repentance?
  5. Are you more aware of God’s displeasure or pleasure in you? What does your answer reveal about your understanding of who God is and how you relate to Him? How does this knowledge influence how you relate to others?
  6. Are your family members and friends more aware of your displeasure or your gratitude for them? Perhaps asking them to answer this question would provide you with an excellent leadership opportunity and several fruitful discussions.

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