Would You Extinguish a Smoldering Wick?
JESUS CHRIST declared the good news of God’s Kingdom to all kinds of people. Many of them were oppressed, discouraged. But Jesus gave them a heartening message. He had compassion for suffering people.
The Gospel writer Matthew highlighted Jesus’ compassion by drawing attention to a prophecy recorded by Isaiah. Quoting words fulfilled by Christ, Matthew wrote: “No bruised reed will he crush, and no smoldering flaxen wick will he extinguish, until he sends out justice with success.” (Matthew 12:20; Isaiah 42:3) What is meant by these words, and how did Jesus fulfill this prophecy?
A Look at the Prophecy
A reed commonly grows in a wet area and is not a strong and stable plant. A “bruised reed” would be weak indeed. It therefore seems to represent oppressed or suffering people like the man with the withered hand whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:10-14) But what about the prophetic reference to a lampwick?
A common household lamp of the first century C.E. was a small pitcherlike earthenware vessel with a loop handle. The lamp usually was filled with olive oil. By capillary attraction, a wick made of flax drew the oil up to feed the flame. Of course, a ‘smoldering wick’ would be one about to go out.
Jesus proclaimed his comforting message to many who were figuratively like a bruised reed, bent over and knocked about. These people were also like a smoldering flaxen wick because their last spark of life had nearly been extinguished. They really were oppressed and discouraged. However, Jesus did not crush a figurative bruised reed or extinguish a symbolic smoldering wick. His loving, tender, compassionate words did not further discourage and depress suffering people. Instead, his comments and his dealings with them had an uplifting effect.—Matthew 11:28-30.
Today, too, many need compassion and encouragement because they face disheartening problems. Even servants of Jehovah are not always towers of strength. At times some resemble smoldering wicks. Christians should therefore be encouraging—fanning the flame, as it were—thus strengthening one another.—Luke 22:32; Acts 11:23.
As Christians we want to be upbuilding. We would not deliberately try to weaken anyone seeking spiritual help. Indeed, we desire to imitate Jesus’ example in strengthening others. (Hebrews 12:1-3; 1 Peter 2:21) The fact that we could unwittingly crush any who look to us for encouragement is good reason to give serious thought to our way of dealing with others. We certainly do not want to ‘extinguish a smoldering wick.’ What Scriptural guidelines can help us in this regard?
Effects of Criticism
If a Christian ‘takes some false step, those with spiritual qualifications should try to readjust such a person in a spirit of mildness.’ (Galatians 6:1) However, would it be proper to look for flaws in others and seize every opportunity to correct them? Or would it be right to push them to do better by implying that their present efforts are inadequate, perhaps causing them to have guilt feelings? There is no evidence that Jesus did anything of that kind. Though it is our intention to help others to improve, those on the receiving end of unkind criticism may feel weakened rather than strengthened. Even constructive criticism can be quite discouraging if carried to excess. If the best efforts of a conscientious Christian were to meet only with disapproval, he might virtually throw up his hands and say, ‘Why try at all?’ Indeed, he might give up entirely.
While the giving of Scriptural counsel is important, it should not characterize the spirit of appointed elders or others in the congregation. Christian meetings are not held primarily to give and receive counsel. Rather, we meet together regularly to upbuild and encourage one another so that all can enjoy their association and their sacred service to God. (Romans 1:11, 12; Hebrews 10:24, 25) How good it is when we discern the difference between a serious flaw and an imperfection that it is wise and loving to overlook!—Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7; Colossians 3:13.
People respond more quickly to encouragement than they do to criticism. In fact, when individuals feel unfairly criticized, they may hold all the more tightly to the criticized behavior! But when they are justifiably commended, their spirit soars, and they are motivated to improve. (Proverbs 12:18) Like Jesus, let us therefore be encouraging and never ‘extinguish a smoldering wick.’
What About Drawing Comparisons?
Hearing the fine experiences of other Christians can be very motivating. Jesus himself rejoiced when he heard about the success of his disciples in preaching the Kingdom message. (Luke 10:17-21) Likewise, when we hear of the success, good example, or integrity of others in the faith, we are encouraged and feel more determined to hold to our Christian course.
Yet, what if a report was presented in such a way as to suggest, ‘You are not as good as these Christians, and you ought to be doing much better than you are’? Is the listener likely to embark on an energetic program of improvement? It is probable that he will become discouraged and perhaps give up, especially if comparisons are often made or implied. This would be much like a parent asking his child, ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother?’ Such a comment may cause resentment and discouragement, but it is unlikely to promote better behavior. Comparisons may have a similar effect on adults, even making them somewhat resentful toward those with whom they are being compared.
We cannot expect all to do the same amount in God’s service. In one of Jesus’ illustrations, a certain master gave his slaves either one, two, or five silver talents. These were given “to each one according to his own ability.” The two slaves who traded wisely and increased their talents were commended because they were faithful, though their work yielded different results.—Matthew 25:14-30.
The apostle Paul appropriately wrote: “Let each one prove what his own work is, and then he will have cause for exultation in regard to himself alone, and not in comparison with the other person.” (Galatians 6:4) To be truly encouraging to others, then, we should try to avoid making negative comparisons.
Some Ways to Build Up
What can we do to build up the discouraged and avoid ‘extinguishing a smoldering wick’? Well, providing encouragement is not a matter of following a specific formula. However, it is likely that our words will build others up if we apply Bible principles. What are some of these?
Be humble. At Philippians 2:3, Paul exhorted us to ‘do nothing out of contentiousness or egotism.’ Instead, we should speak and act humbly. ‘With lowliness of mind we should consider others superior to us.’ Paul did not say that we should think nothing of ourselves. Yet, we are to appreciate that every person is superior to us in some way. The Greek word here rendered “superior” suggests that a man “turns away his eyes from his own privileges, and studiously contemplates another’s endowments in which he is superior.” (New Testament Word Studies, by John Albert Bengel, Volume 2, page 432) If we do this and consider others superior, we will deal with them in a humble manner.
Show respect. By expressing ourselves sincerely, we can make it clear that we have confidence in faithful fellow believers, viewing them as individuals desiring to please God. But suppose they need spiritual help. Then let us provide assistance in a respectful, dignified manner. Paul put matters this way: “In showing honor to one another take the lead.”—Romans 12:10.
Be a good listener. Yes, in order to encourage those who may face discouraging problems, we need to be good listeners, not lecturers. Instead of offering quick, superficial suggestions, let us take the time required to provide Scriptural guidelines that truly meet existing needs. If we do not know what to say, Bible research will help us to speak consolingly and strengthen others.
Be loving. We need to feel love for those we wish to encourage. When applied to fellow servants of Jehovah, our love should go beyond merely acting in their best interests. It should involve intense feeling. If we have such love for all of Jehovah’s people, our words will be of genuine encouragement to them. Even if we need to offer a suggestion for improvement, it is unlikely that what we say will be misunderstood or will cause damage when our motive is not merely to make a point but to give loving help. As Paul so aptly said, “love builds up.”—1 Corinthians 8:1; Philippians 2:4; 1 Peter 1:22.
Always Be Upbuilding
In these critical “last days,” Jehovah’s people face many trials. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) It is no wonder that they sometimes suffer to what seems to be the limit of their endurance. As servants of Jehovah, we surely would not want to say or do things that might cause any of our fellow worshipers to feel like smoldering wicks that are about to go out.
How important it is, then, that we encourage one another! Let us make every effort to be upbuilding by being humble and respectful to discouraged fellow worshipers. May we listen carefully when they confide in us and always seek to help them by directing attention to God’s Word, the Bible. Above all, let us display love, for this fruit of Jehovah’s holy spirit will help us to strengthen one another. May we never speak or act in any way that might ‘extinguish a smoldering wick.’