Personally, when I recall my adolescence I remember receiving both affirmation and criticism at different times from my parents. Such is generally the norm in parenting. Yet, I also recall there being times when I felt like the criticism far exceeded the affirmation. Such, too, is a norm for teenagers. Nowadays, I find myself reflecting regularly on my words and actions—of both affirmation and criticism—with my own toddler as he learns things such as practicing appropriate boundaries with others, communicating in an effective manner (e.g. not yelling), and expressing himself in various ways. When the behavior is inappropriate and needs changing, I tell him it is not good and try to offer a better alternative. On the other hand, when the behavior is appropriate and done well, I praise him so as to encourage more of that same action. Even so, like all parents I sometimes find myself having to be extra mindful of my ratio of criticism (or correction) to affirmation (and praise). With each passing day, I see more and more how easily, unfortunately, it can be to offer criticism at the expense of affirmation. If ever I forget this, I run the risk of giving my son the impression that he is a failure, unworthy of praise—something no parent ever wants to be felt by their child.
Much like each of us individually, the body of Christ that is the church can only take so much negativity before it gives into it, becomes ill, and dies. In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul mentions the diversity of gifts given by God, in part, for the building up of the body.
“The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (v. 11-13)
To confirm that, indeed, what someone has done or is doing is good work is in itself a gift of great value. It is not a gift reserved for a few—bestowed only upon clergy—but one I believe we all have been given, whether we choose to share it or not. Created in the likeness of God, each and every one of us is looked upon by God at our birth and blessed with the divine affirmation: “Daughter/Son, you are very good.” In Jesus’ death on the cross, God reaffirms God’s great love for us—going so far as to give Godself up for the whole world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). In the sacraments, we receive “means of grace”—God’s affirmation through water and the Word, in bread and wine—that we are loved and forgiven despite the many criticisms that could be made against us, our words, and actions.
Therefore, Paul encourages the Christians in Ephesus to build up one another—not tear each other down. In the affirming of another we come to see that person as a beloved child of God who has many unique gifts to offer. Constant criticism closes off the gifts one has to offer, hurting the larger church—just like pinching a vein pains the heart. When we fail to affirm another—the child who serves in a small but meaningful way, the young adult who is new to the church but tries despite not knowing the “right” way, the seasoned parishioner who cannot do as much as they once could but still does that one little thing—we unfortunately contribute toward disassembling the body of Christ. When we affirm another, however, we strengthen the body and rejoice in the rich diversity that is the church. Filled with the Holy Spirit, each of us is called to point toward those things that deserve affirmation. As we enter further into a season where our media is inundated with interpolitical criticism, we ought to feel compelled now more than ever to instead work toward cultivating a culture of affirmation. Instead of tearing one another down, our society would be made better in lifting each other up. Take the time and make the effort to affirm someone in what they have done or are doing. It may feel difficult or awkward at first, but it is a necessary and much needed work of the gospel in building up the body of Christ.