For some reason, affirming is not an obvious practice. Some of us even doubt its usefulness. We may not practice affirmation for several reasons:
- We think affirmation is praising people instead of God
- We think we feed people’s pride
- We do not want people to depend on compliments
- We think people will become complacent
- We mistake affirmation with flattery and manipulation
It might be even truer in Asian cultures where “Not good enough” is what we have often heard from our parents. But affirming is not a simple pat-on-the-back “Good Job!”
In his book Practicing Affirmation, Sam Crabtree starts with giving biblical and practical reasons for affirming others and ends with practical suggestions.
Crabtree defines good affirmations as “God-centered, pointing to the image of God in a person.” (p.18). The idea of affirming is to praise God for what He has done in others. This is the pattern of the Bible as well. The apostle Paul does it often in his letters. 1 Th 1:2-3 says “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Praising the character of Christ in others is praising God.
“God is glorified in us when we affirm the work he has done and is doing in others.” (p. 12)
“I am suggesting that we rob God of praise by not pointing out his reflection in the people he has knit together in his image.” (p. 18)
“Just as the heavens are declaring the glory of God, if only we have eyes to see it, when we commend the character of a person, we are also pointing to the glory of God from which that character is derived—if we have eyes to see it!” (p. 23-24)
Affirming is good, but are we making man-pleasers instead of God-pleasers? Crabtree refutes this idea:
“People already do seek approval (but often with defective motivations) and should seek approval (with God-honoring motivations), so give them approval for the right things, for acting on godly principle and for not offending godly character. Encourage them as they seek to be workmen approved of God.” (pp. 24-25)
Desiring to be approved is not wrong in itself. Indeed, we should seek to be approved by God as “good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23). The problem is that we corrupt this desire when we seek approval for our own glory or for the wrong reason.
“Is It Wrong to Desire to Be Loved? No. In fact, to not want to be loved by God is to be faithless, to expect God to act like something other than God. To be loved by God is good, and he gets the credit for being a glorious lover of the unlovely. […] Similarly, it is not wrong to desire to be noticed, to be well thought of, to feel important, to be respected, to be recognized, to avoid conflict, to enjoy friendship, to have a good reputation, to be looked up to, to avoid the anger of someone, or to not suffer rejection—if our desire for such things is pure, meaning that God is seen as the Giver, the Root, the Fountain from which such things are flowing.” (p. 27)
Now affirming is not only for believers. It is also for unbelievers when their attitude reflects God’s common grace upon all.
From a practical and relational point of view, affirmation is key to developing relationships. Affirmations have a positive effect on others. It values what God is doing in them. An overload of criticism simply discourages and dismiss their desire for growth. Unfortunately, we have been accustomed to criticizing in order to change, and forgetting the positive reinforcement of affirmation. It is probably most apparent between spouses or parents/children. Before getting married, affirmation is the majority of a couple’s communication. For example, a couple will give presents to each other as a mark of their love. But once married, the frequency of corrections increases while affirmations are less common which leads to deteriorating the relationship. Married couples can testify how often they have heard things such as “why haven’t you washed the dishes?” or “I wish you could care more about I am saying.” Similarly, a child who only hears corrections will dismiss and rebel against his parents.
Without affirmation, a relationship flooded with “criticism, name-calling, sarcasm, and blaming” leads to this pattern (p. 50):
- “Others stop hearing our corrections“
- “They stop hearing us altogether, not just our corrections, but us as persons. They wouldn’t ask us the time of day. If they were to ask us the time of day, they fear they may hear, ‘Did you misplace your watch again? The clock is right there on the wall.’ They aren’t interested in another sword thrust from us.”
- “Your counterpart stops listening to you—is pictured in Jesus’ teaching about the speck and the log. First get the huge log out, and then you will see better to be able to help your brother with his tiny speck, and your brother won’t have your hypocrisy to deal with.“
Our struggle to affirm others may be rooted in our oversized ego, but the good news is that learning to affirm others transforms us by the grace of God!
“When our mouths are empty of praise for others, it is probably because our hearts are full of love for self.” (p. 7)
“Striving to affirm others puts us in the practice of looking at them positively—that is, looking for evidence of God’s work in them. Affirmation changes us before it changes them. It is one of the more beautiful features that God has designed into this fallen world, namely, that no one can sincerely benefit another without benefiting himself.” (pp. 73-74)
Affirmations are needed to balance corrections. However, let us not mistake affirmation and flattery. Flattery manipulates for selfish reasons. Affirmation corrects for the good of others. We only fool ourselves to think people do not know the difference. In fact, we do not like general commendations (“Good job!”). We often dismiss them because they are meaningless: “what was good? Aren’t you just giving me a pat on the back??” We do not like commendations that are for the sole purpose of correcting: “You did this well, but …” On the contrary, good affirmations come from a heart of love. We know when we receive a genuine affirmation because we know the heart of the one who speaks, and as result, corrections are accepted.
“True affirmations are more likely to come out of a truly affirming heart, which is another reason why it’s so important to be going hard after God, working out our salvation with fear and trembling, pursuing holiness, and asking God to transform us from the inside out.” (p. 68)
“We find pleasure in affirming positive behaviors, which then become positive patterns, because behaviors that are consistently rewarded tend to be repeated.” (p. 58)
“There is a place for both the carrot and the stick. The stick is reserved for moral infractions, and should be applied with brokenness and sorrow, not anger. Generally, the carrot not only brings performance results, but improves the atmosphere.” (p. 98)
Affirmation does not lead to complacency. Crabtree explains it well here:
“We commend improvement without settling for mediocrity, applauding incremental progress without confusing it with perfection.To praise someone doesn’t mean we have to give up our desire that they make even greater strides. God himself treats us this way. ‘Good job with five talents. Now try ten. No, eleven.’ ” (pp. 105-106)
The book ends with chapters on wisdom lessons, Q&A and 100 practical suggestions to affirm others – which are all good, but useless to summarize in this post.
In conclusion, the book is worth reading and practicing. One more argument – not present in the book – for practicing affirmation is its necessity for others to gain discernment about their own gifting. We are bias, and others’ input is beneficial to uncover them. But overall, Practicing Affirmation has given me insights about my relationships. The personal lessons to affirm rightly I have learned from this book are:
- First, praising God for His work in others,
- Second, centering affirmations on Christ-likeness,
- Third, striving to love and value others through specific affirmations because of Christ.