I’m amazed that Sam Crabtree’s Practicing Affirmation has not had much wider “affirmation.” As John Piper says in the foreword, it’s a “one-of-a-kind book.” Do you know any other book that deals with the subject of how to praise others and to do so as a habit of life? No, neither do I; and yet, as Sam demonstrates, it’s a topic with lots of Scriptural support and explanation, together with huge consequences for our families, friendships, and fellowships.
Obstacles to affirmation
But there are significant obstacles to practicing affirmation. Praising others does not come easily to human nature; we like to receive praise, but not to give it. Criticizing comes much easier because we feel more comfortable looking down on people. Praising involves looking up in admiration, and our necks and egos tend to creak and ache when we attempt it.
Affirmation is also discouraged by powerful societal trends: cynicism, distrust, suspicion, negativity, envy, political strife, and bad news at home and abroad, all combine to chill our hearts and shrink our souls.
Sometimes even Reformed Theology, or I should say an imbalanced Reformed Theology could deter expressions of appreciation. “Affirming good works? Don’t we believe in total depravity?” “Praising people will only make them proud; isn’t humbling people our aim?” “Soli Deo Gloria! Where does people-praise enter the picture?”
In light of these substantial personal, societal, and theological obstacles, we need lots of biblical warrant to help us climb up, over, and into a more positive, affirming, and encouraging life. And being novices at this, we also need lots of hand-holding and step-by-step guidance on how to do this in a helpful and God-honoring way. Thankfully, Sam Crabtree’s book is full of both theological warrant and practical instruction.
As some of us might worry about the danger of taking glory away from God by praising a mere human being, Sam begins by demonstrating that God is glorified when we affirm the work He has done and is doing in others. In fact, if we fail to do so, we risk robbing God of praise by not recognizing His work in His people.
We keep God at the center of our affirmations by following the biblical pattern of saying, “I thank God for you…” This way, the person is encouraged and God gets the glory.
“But what about unbelievers? Should we praise them for doing good things?” After a helpful exposition of common grace, Sam says, “Yes, we should!” but only if it’s regularly set in a wider Law/Gospel context that stirs the unbeliever to seek the only one who is good, that is God (Matthew 19:17). He persuasively argues that honest affirmations even of slow progress can strengthen relationships, open the door to further change, and help evangelism.
Although I agree with all that he says here, I’d have liked to see Sam explain what is a good work from God’s perspective, and how we integrate that with affirmation of the unbeliever. The Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter 16 on “Good Works” would have been a great starting point for such a discussion.
Now I don’t want you to get the impression that Sam’s book is all “sugar and spice and all things nice.” He also deals with the thorny issue of if and how to criticize. I especially enjoyed his critique of the “sandwich method,” the correction strategy that puts every criticism between two slices of praise. Sam calls that “a baloney sandwich” and offers some more digestible alternatives.
His main point is that our corrections will have no effect if there is no deep, wide, and long context of encouragement and affirmation.
Numerous examples from Sam’s family and working life illustrate and enforce the principles, making it much easier to envisage how this should all look in our own lives and callings.
If you practice affirmation, everyone in your life will benefit, you too will be refreshed, and God will be praised. It’s a win-win-win situation.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and chairman of HeadHeartHand. He blogs at Leadership For Servants and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray.