Have you ever been in one of those team-building circles where you are asked to share something positive about the person next to you? My palms grow sweaty just thinking about it. Not only is it hard to think up something on the spot, it’s terrifying when you look to your left and realize you have nothing to say about the person. So you begin making a mental list of words like “nice,” “kind” and “awesome.”
As a teacher, I have my students practice affirmation from time to time—usually when they aren’t getting along. It always starts out rocky. But as they sit thinking about the person next to them, a snowball effect of affirmation begins. It ends in amazement over how much they were able to say about one another.
Today, affirmation is clickable. It doesn’t require articulation of thought or even demand the use of words. If you want someone to know you were encouraged by their blog post, there’s a “like” button for that. If you enjoy their photography, you can click the heart icon under their photograph. After scrolling and clicking for about 15 minutes, you have fulfilled your affirmation quota.
I don’t want to downplay the ministry of emojis and “likes”; after all, technology and social media can be used to build up and connect believers from all over the world. But we need to look up from our screens long enough to see the body of Christ in front of us. How are we affirming the actual people we worship with each Sunday? Are we proactively considering “how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24)?
This isn’t just a job for the extroverts. The entire body must be engaged in the exercise of affirmation.
Affirmation vs. Flattery
The author of Hebrews affirms imperfect men and women—not ultimately to point us to Abraham, Noah, or Rahab but to “Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). Biblical affirmation is about God’s glory. It is loving truth-telling that helps the church grow in strength and Christlikeness (Eph. 4:15–25). Paul was an expert at it:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. (Col. 1:3–6)
In affirming the believers at Colossae, Paul accomplishes three things. First, he thanks God, making it clear who gets the glory. Second, he identifies what the Colossians are doing right: They are trusting in Jesus and loving the church. And third, he acknowledges that it is the hope of the gospel that enables them to do good. Paul’s affirmation discourages self-consciousness by promoting God-consciousness.
Affirmation is loving truth-telling. . . . Flattery builds up in order to be built up. . . . Flattery is immediately satisfying. Affirmation takes work.
In contrast to biblical affirmation, flattery builds up in order to be built up. Compliments are our easy, go-to response to those around us. If we’re honest, our flattery is often motivated by a desire to be liked. Flattery is immediately satisfying. Affirmation takes work. And it is not achieved without enduring awkwardness or risking rejection.
This past year, God has challenged me to speak loving truth to people. In practicing this direct, nowhere-to-hide affirmation, I quickly realized the vulnerability it requires. It’s been embarrassing at times. To gain courage, I ask God to help me care more about building up his body than how I am perceived, more about glorifying him than feeling in control.
Everyone’s Love Language
In the church, words of affirmation should be true, spoken in love, and deployed to point the person upward not inward. They should take into consideration what “fits the occasion,” and what would bring grace to the hearer (Eph. 4:29). Where do affirming words fit in, for example, when talking to a friend struggling with depression? If they are continuing on instead of giving up, affirm their endurance. If they are focusing on today instead of worrying about tomorrow, affirm their obedience.
Words of affirmation should be true, spoken in love, and deployed to point the person upward not inward.
The body of Christ grows lopsided, heavy, and out-of-joint when we assume affirmation is someone else’s gift. The whole body needs to be a part of building “itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).
So pull someone aside after church. Schedule a coffee date. Make a phone call. If you are more introverted, send a text or write a handwritten letter. Remember that God designed his body in a way that requires each member to “have the same care for one another” in order for it to function properly and grow in health (1 Cor. 12:25). There are members of your church who need to know the work they’re doing is bearing fruit. There are those who are asking God for direction, for encouragement to continue, for affirmation that the Spirit is alive in them.
When we affirm one another biblically, we do this work. We strengthen weak knees and lift heads upward to the Head himself.