Giving Praise and Affirmation: Do You Have the Transparency for This Biblical Mandate?
The following is an excerpt from Transparency: A Cure for Hypocrisy in the Modern Church (CreateSpace, 2018). As its title indicates, the book calls for more openness in the body of Christ—sharing our sins, struggles, griefs, hopes, and joys with one another as a way of establishing intimacy, accountability, and authenticity in Christ’s body.
This abridgement brings a message one doesn’t often hear from the pulpit these days: the biblical precedent for praising and encouraging one another.
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How many times have you been to a funeral where the person who died was extolled in the warmest possible terms? If you’re like me, this describes nearly every memorial service you’ve attended.
Now can you tell me why we wait till after death to say these things? Wouldn’t it be better to articulate such praises directly, while the person was still alive? Why do we squander so many opportunities to affirm, encourage, and appreciate? And why does it seem so awkward to say these things face to face?
Maybe it’s hard because such praises require utter sincerity—yes, transparency. To pay a sincere compliment, you really have to drop the mask and bare your soul.
But perhaps the main reason for this difficulty is that Satan detests such interactions—and he will work with all his might to prevent them. He is, after all, the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10 NASB; see also Zech. 3:1). As such, he delights to point the finger, to exacerbate guilt, to separate us from one another, to convince us that no one could possibly love us as we really are. Few things thwart these purposes so swiftly as unabashed appreciation from another believer.
So: If Satan wants to stop us from doing something, ought we not to work all the harder at making it happen?
Scripture provides ample mandate to so do.
Praising Churches . . .
Hebrews 10, for instance, famously commands us to “stir up one another . . . encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (vss. 24-25). To this we might add 1 Thessalonians 5:11: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
Indeed, just as that final verse does the very thing it commands, so we often find the Apostle Paul practicing what he preaches. Take Romans 15, for example: “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (vs. 14). And here are Paul’s effusive words to his beloved flock at Thessalonica:
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. . . . We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. (1 Thess. 1:2-3; 2 Thess. 1:3-4)
Note well the language of superlatives (“always,” “all,” “constantly,” “abundantly,” “every one of you”)—and the specificity of Paul’s gratitude toward this church.
Similarly, regarding the congregation at Corinth, Paul thrice insists that he boasted about them; he also avers that in “every way,” the Corinthians “were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge”; that they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift” and rather “excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you” (1 Cor. 1:4-7; 2 Cor. 8:7).
These are remarkable words about a church whose sins included divisiveness, incest, prostitution, and lawsuits, plus drunkenness during the Lord’s Supper—not to mention a long history of rejecting Paul’s authority.
“Don’t let the unattractive features of someone’s life blind you to the good,” writes Ed Welch. “All of us can see the good in our friends. Scripture, however, authorizes us to see the good and enjoy it in all people, even when most of us are not always so good.”
. . . And Praising Individuals, Too
In addition to encouragement for congregations, Paul often targets specific Christians for kudos—and many of these passages appear in letters intended to be read aloud, probably with the subject himself present at the time!
Philemon, for example, is addressed not only to its titular recipient but also to Apphia, Archippus, and “the church in your house.” To this considerable group, Paul says the following about Philemon himself:
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints. . . . For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. (4-5, 7, 21)
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians Paul also praises his co-worker Titus, citing his “earnest care” for the Corinthians; at the same time, he points to some unnamed brother “who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel”—“whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters, but who is now more earnest than ever because of his great confidence in you” (8:16-22).
But surely the most noteworthy individual encouragement is the final chapter of Romans, where the apostle greets no less than 27 Christians by name—with the word “beloved” recurring four times (vss. 5, 8, 9, and 12). Mary and Persis, for example, “worked hard” for the church and for the Lord. Prisca and Aquila “risked their necks for my life.” Phoebe “has been a patron of many and of myself as well”; Apelles is “approved in Christ”; and Rufus is said to be “chosen in the Lord” (vss. 1-15).
This list of ancient and often challenging names is just the sort of Bible passage many folks skip over—but it’s inspired Scripture. We overlook such passages—and such praises—at our peril.
Don’t Forget Your Spouse
Nowhere in the Bible will you find more effusive praises directed from one human to another than in Song of Solomon.
Throughout the book, the lovers refer to one another with such extravagant terms as “beautiful,” “beloved,” “radiant,” “sweet,” “lovely,” “awesome,” and “better than wine.” In two extensive passages, the man specifically praises the woman from head to toe: her hair, her eyes, her nose, her teeth, her cheeks, her lips (“your mouth is lovely . . . like the best wine”), her breath (“like apples”), her neck, her breasts, her belly, her navel, her thighs, her feet, and her overall figure, or “stature” (4:1-5, 7:1-9). Many of these bodily features are ones that worry women constantly, as they suspect they’ll never measure up to some impossible ideal of feminine beauty.
The husband’s praises seem calculated to allay such concerns—to assure her that, as he puts it so lovingly, “there is no flaw in you” (4:7).
The self-consciousness many women struggle with is hinted at in chapter 1 of the Song, where the woman reflects on her complexion: “Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me” (vss. 5-6). This tanned skin would not have been the cultural ideal at that time, marking her as somewhat lower-class—a worker in the fields (see 1:6), as opposed to the higher-ranking woman who could afford to pamper herself indoors. Yet immediately after this expression of self-doubt, the man responds first by insisting that she is the “most beautiful among women,” then by twice repeating, “Behold, you are beautiful.”
And the loving lady returns such compliments in chapter 5. Like his, her praises also are person-specific, indicating that she loves him particularly, for who he actually is: his complexion, his head, his hair (“black as a raven”), his eyes, his cheeks, his lips, his mouth, his arms, his legs, his body, and his overall “appearance”; he is indeed “altogether desirable” (vss. 10-16).
“Too Much Affirmation”?
As Iain Provan writes in his commentary on the Song: “No husband and no wife can ever offer the spouse too much affirmation of this kind, in the midst of the intimacy of lovemaking, or be too frank in their language in doing so.”
Whether in our ordinary relationships or specifically in our marriages, we cannot engage in enough affirmation of the unique worth and beauty of those whom we love. It is itself a major way in which healing comes to our lives . . . as we seek to recover from the influence of a world that depersonalizes and degrades. The effects of this world on us may initially be so great that we feel deeply embarrassed about affirming our lovers in such direct ways, and we may be reluctant to do so. . . . We become terrified of direct verbal intercourse, and sexual intercourse thus becomes a silent, awkward affair that does not minister to our emotional and spiritual needs as well as our physical needs.
As Provan suggests in his opening sentence, we need more conscious effort along these lines not only between spouses (and specifically in the context of love-making), but also in our “ordinary relationships.”
Yes, speaking such words to spouses and friends can feel awkward; but perhaps it would begin to import into all our relationships some of the precious intimacy that spouses enjoy in a loving lifelong marriage.
Before the Funeral
Mitch Albom’s best-selling memoir Tuesdays with Morrie concerns the author’s real-life friendship with a former college prof who has Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Morrie knows he hasn’t long to live, so he tells Mitch that he decided to have his own funeral beforehand—so he can know how people feel about him while he’s still alive.
Morrie says idea came to him at memorial services for a co-worker:
His funeral was so sad. . . . All these people saying all these wonderful things about him, and Irv never got to hear any of it. I said, “That’s not for me! Somebody’s got something nice to say about me, I wanna hear it right now!” So I made some calls, I chose a date, and we had a Living Funeral. . . . It was very successful. Everybody paid tribute to me. I kept thinking, “Boy, Morrie would have liked this.” And I did!
On a different note, I had a dear friend who passed away suddenly some years ago, leaving behind a grieving widow and teenage son. A humble Catholic with a Protestant work ethic, devoted to his wife and family, he spent his whole life laboring in a dreary blue-collar job and keeping up his tiny, aging home—yet I never heard one word of complaint from him. A good man, surely—though as far as I can recall, no one (including me), ever told him so. And now it was too late.
The funeral was especially difficult because his death was so unexpected. As the viewing came to an end, his devastated wife stood alone beside the closing coffin; and I heard her say plaintively, “I had so much more to say to you!”
That is one of the most heart-breaking statements I’ve ever heard. But my dear sisters and brothers, her painful words reflect how you and I are going to feel if we don’t take time to tell our loved ones how much we appreciate them.
Do it now, and do it often.
Transparency: A Cure for Hypocrisy in the Modern Church by Joseph W. Smith III
1. Edward T. Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Crossway, 2015), 88-93.
2. G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon: An Introduction and Commentary (Inter-Varsity, 1982), 76.
3. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Zondervan, 2001), 295, 326-27.
4. Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie (Dramatists Play Service), 21.
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