March 15, 2009
The Joy of Giving (Affirmation)
The Healing Effect of Compliments
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Sandra works for an employer who seldom affirms her. She can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times the supervisor of the small social service agency where she works has given her a genuine compliment, during more than two years that she has diligently served the firm. Even if a finger or two were missing, she could still make the count.

It isn’t that Sandra’s boss doesn’t appreciate her; in fact, she clearly admires Sandra’s work. Nor is her supervisor mean-spirited. She is a deeply compassionate woman, who gives herself relentlessly to the needs of others. Through her kindness and availability she does indeed affirm others in many ways.

Yet she is highly uncomfortable affirming others verbally. Though Sandra greatly enjoys her work, she has found it increasingly disheartening to spend so much time around someone who seldom commends her. At the end of the work day, this normally optimistic woman often feels deflated, and wonders if her efforts have really been needed.

I’ve known many Christians who, like Sandra’s boss--herself a strong Christian--find it difficult to give compliments. They are among the most compassionate and dedicated believers I’ve known, and come from all walks of life. While the reasons they don’t affirm others vary, there are six common assumptions that lead many Christians to be sparing in giving compliments.

1. “We’re all expected to do our duty.” In a fit of honesty one day, Sandra’s boss admitted to her that she doesn’t believe people deserve to receive compliments. Each of us is required to bear a certain burden in life. There’s no point commending someone for doing what they’re expected to do anyway.

2. “Compliments will go to another’s head.” If you compliment someone, it’s feared, they’ll become prideful. They may be left with a false sense of having arrived, and not be challenged to grow. A young man once told me that members of his church had informed him they would never compliment him for his song leading, even though he put a lot of time and energy into the task. Their reason for not affirming him, they explained, was so he would learn to receive his praise from God alone.

3. “Christians are not to stoop to flattery.” Some Christians fear that any verbal affirmation is pretentious. Given the desperate sinfulness of the human heart, there really is nothing authentic in anyone to compliment anyway.

4. “If you compliment someone, they’ll assume you love them only for their achievement; this will cause them to feel under unfair pressure to live up to your expectations.” Some feel that this is a reason not to verbally affirm their children. If you commend Johnny for getting an A in math, it’s feared, he’ll associate your love with getting good grades. He’ll then feel insecure if he doesn’t produce top marks in the future.

5. “Compliments don’t need to be verbalized.” Others will know you appreciate them simply by your actions. At most, an occasional or veiled compliment is all that should be needed to keep someone feeling affirmed.

6. “Praise is due to God alone.” To compliment someone is to give them commendation that God alone deserves. Since no one can achieve anything worthwhile apart from God’s help, we dishonor him by praising someone for their accomplishment. We imply that they achieved success by their own effort rather than by God’s grace.

Firmly Affirmed

There is certainly an element of truth to each of these objections. We each are expected to do our duty whether we’re praised for it or not. There are times when compliments amount to flattery or adulation that should only be directed to God. Too much praise may cause another’s ego to swell, or lead them to think that they now have to live up to certain expectations that we have.

Yet to adopt a philosophy of never complimenting others, or doing so only sparingly, because of any of these reasons, is to take the truth to an unfortunate extreme. It’s to ignore the fact that God has created us humans with a substantial and ongoing need for affirmation. An important part of how we experience his grace and commendation is through encouragement from people--particularly from other Christians, who are Christ’s body on this earth.

It’s to this end that Paul commands in Romans 12:10, “outdo one another in showing honor” (RSV). This is the only place in the New Testament where we’re told to strive to outdo each other in some way! Paul’s point is that we should give considerable attention to building each other up through giving compliments. The body of Christ should be marked by an unusually strong atmosphere of affirmation.

For this to occur, though, compliments need to be verbalized. It’s not enough to assume that others know we appreciate them even though we don’t say as much in words. I remember a long seminar I once gave where the sponsor afterwards merely thanked me but had nothing affirming to say to me about the weekend. I assumed from his silence that he must have taken offense at something I’d said, or that he didn’t think my teaching had been effective. It was only several years later that I found the event had been an important turning point in his life; it simply wasn’t his nature to express compliments outwardly.

Most of us have enough critical self-talk going on within us that we assume others are disappointed in what we’ve done unless they expressly say otherwise.

For most of us, too, it’s not enough for compliments merely to be occasional. Charlie Shedd has likened our need for affirmation to a tire with a slow leak, which though pumped up at night must be blown up again the next day. His point is that yesterday’s compliments don’t suffice for today. We have an ongoing need for affirmation, and initial compliments need to be followed up with reminders.

Giving Others Credit That They Can Handle Credit

But what about the objection that complimenting someone will make them think you only appreciate them for their achievement? Here I believe we have to give people credit--even small children--that they can discern whether our love is merely tied to what we’re commending them for, or that we’re complimenting them because we love them and want them to feel encouraged. If the latter is true, then we shouldn’t fear that our praise will make them think they have to act a certain way in order to merit our love. It’s more likely that our affirmation will have a freeing effect on them: they’ll be relieved to know they don’t have to strive endlessly and futilely to achieve our praise.

Consider those intriguing instances in the Gospels where Jesus commends individuals for their faith--telling someone he healed, for instance, that their faith had made them well. He actually paid these people a profound compliment by affirming their faith.

Take the example of the woman with the hemorrhage, who was healed after pressing through a huge crowd and touching Jesus’ robe (Mark 5:24-34). Jesus did her an extraordinary service merely by healing her. While she owed him plenty of praise, he didn’t owe her any compliment at all. It even would have been appropriate for him to say, “The power of God has healed you, even though you were unworthy of receiving it.” Yet instead, he declared to her--in front of all those standing around them--”Your faith has healed you” (Mark 5:34). In effect, I believe he was saying, “Your confidence in God, and your tenacity in persisting to find an answer to your problem in spite of so many setbacks, have played a vital role in your healing. You are to be congratulated!”

I’m certain that Jesus’ affirming the faith of sick people who sought his help often had as great a healing effect on them as the actual physical cures that he brought.

Yes, there is risk involved in giving compliments. Yet usually the risk is greater in refraining, since we may lose a golden opportunity for extending the love of Christ to someone who needs it. I might add that the loss is not only to others’ spiritual and emotional health but to our own, for some of the greatest joy we can know as Christians comes from the experience of affirming others. I can’t help but wonder if this was part of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

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