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The Power of AffirmationMalcolm Webber
Christian leaders should always take the long view. We are striving towards eternity, not merely temporal goals. By keeping the people focused on our ultimate destination, we can encourage them to endure the many sufferings and setbacks along the way.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
The future is why we keep going now through difficulties and struggles. In the end, it will be worth it all!
The Power of Affirmation
Effective leaders affirm their people and their contributions. Look at how Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:
I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds… I am glad I can have complete confidence in you. (2 Cor. 7:3-4, 16)
Paul’s words are even more significant when we consider that this was the same church that previously required extensive correction in 1 Corinthians. Thus, leaders should not only affirm people who are perfect! Even in 1 Corinthians, before beginning his correction, Paul was positive toward the people:
I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:4-8)
Prior to his correction of the Colossians, Paul spoke affirmation:
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 the saints – the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. (Col. 1:3-8)
Thus, affirmation is not based upon the perfection of the people receiving it, but upon the grace and love of God.
Even in the midst of his stern rebuke to the Galatians, Paul is still genuine in his affirmation:
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, (Gal. 4:19)
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? (Gal. 5:7)
Paul’s letters are characterized by affectionate affirmation that is heartfelt, sincere, specific, and, most importantly, expressed:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you… (Rom. 1:8-11)
For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Eph. 1:15-16; see also Phil. 1:3- 8; 1 Thess. 1:2-4; 2:7-8, 13; 3:9; 2 Thess. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:3-5; Philem. 4-7)
John also affirmed the people he led:
It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. (3 John 3-6)
Of course, Paul and John were only following in the footsteps of God the Father who affirmed His Son:
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)
God is the ultimate Affirmer. Thus, it is only natural that those who are united with Him should do so too. Our inability to give healthy affirmation to others is a revelation of our own spiritual poverty.
Such affirmation is genuine encouragement. It should not be flattery, which only puffs up and “works ruin”:
A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin. (Prov. 26:28)
Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet. (Prov. 29:5)
Flattery is deceitful. One who flatters another deliberately tries to manipulate him, attempting to get something out of him by “buttering him up.” This is quite different from affirmation which is truthful and sincere with no manipulate motive.
To be effective, affirmation must be:
- Sincere. It must be from the heart. People will sense when it’s genuine. Moreover, people can develop a cynical attitude about excessive praise from above and infer that it may just be a tool to manipulate them into working harder.
- Specific. Like the biblical leaders, we should share specific encouragement, not only generalities that could apply to anyone. Moreover, affirmation should be made in the second person (“you have…”) and be shared personally.
- Spoken (or written). Positive thoughts or feelings are not enough; we must communicate them to others.
It is difficult for many people to give sincere affirmation to others for several possible reasons:
- We live in a negative, critical culture. It is much easier to be cynical than affirming.
- By nature, man is self-absorbed. He often does not notice the contributions of others. He does, however, notice when others do things that cut across his own agenda, thus eliciting his displeasure and rebuke.
- By nature, man is proud and self-loving. He would rather receive praise than give it.
- Leaders – especially in the Western world – tend to underestimate the importance that people attach to positive feedback and to overestimate the value of formal rewards.
Christian leaders must have the courage to swim against the cultural current and to give healthy affirmation to others. People need affirmation and encouragement. As someone said, “We live by encouragement and we die without it; slowly, sadly, angrily.”
This is how effective leaders keep the people moving ahead, rather than by threats, demands or coercion.