Looking for Evidences of Grace
In Practicing Affirmation, Sam Crabtree has put into writing the teaching that he not only has sought to pass on to others in his role as Executive Pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, but also the pattern of affirmation that others testify that he models. This is a very helpful book that clarifies the difference between praising men and praising God, which “can be at odds, but not necessarily.” Readers will be equipped to discipline themselves to actively look for evidences of grace in others and verbally affirm those evidences in a way that promotes growth while giving God glory.
Practicing Affirmation is one of only two books that I had hoped to actually read from cover to cover while on an anniversary cruise with my wife–a book that I chose because it appeared to me that it would convict me of an obvious deficiency in my life and strengthen my marriage as well as other relationships. I was not disappointed. “When our mouths are empty of praise for others, it is probably because our hearts are full of love for self.” Ouch! Those words from the Foreword, written by John Piper, stung me because they are true in my experience. I have struggled with a negative, critical spirit all my life and, therefore, I bought and read the book because I knew I needed counseling.
This book begins with a correction of the idea that praising men is idolatrous by making a biblical defense of how pointing out the Christ-like qualities we see in one another is a means of giving God glory for His works of salvation and sanctification. “Affirming Christ-like transformation makes a distinction between praising a doer of good and praising a do-gooder. One commends the pursuit of that which is truly excellent; the other flatters the performer who longs to outdo others, seeking attention and man’s applause.”
The greatest strength of this book is its gospel-centeredness, in the sense that the author makes it clear that good affirmations “are God-centered, pointing to the image of God in a person. The only commendable attributes in people were given to them… The best affirmation is rooted not only in the character of God, but in the gospel.”
The author effectively argues that this affirmation of the work of Christ by means of the gospel in the lives of fellow believers brings biblical refreshment to them and is a vital part of their continued growth in godly character. He carefully clarifies that the practice of affirmation is not a spiritualized form of the world’s self-esteem teaching, nor is it void of gracious confrontation and correction of one another.
I greatly appreciated the humility of the author, which is demonstrated by the fact that one of the longer chapters in the book is entitled “Mistakes I Have Made” and by his admission that his book is not exhaustive in nature. Crabtree’s practical book ends with “100 Affirmation Ideas for Those Who Feel Stuck.”
I would offer one disagreement concerning his interpretation of Romans 10:1-3. While the author states that the religious ones who have a zeal for God not according to knowledge are “unbelieving Romans,” whom Paul sought to affirm and correct by the writing of his letter, the context is clear that the apostle (writing to believers) is actually exposing unbelieving Jews, those who find Christ to be a stumbling block (9:31-33) because they refuse to submit to the righteousness of God found only in Jesus (10:3).
Two questions also remain unanswered in my mind. (1) Does God-centered affirmation require that I always include God’s name in even simple declarations, for example, to my wife in tune to something like, “You look especially beautiful tonight,” which affirms the time and effort she took to get primped up for a special night out? Or must I instead say, “I thank God that He made you so gorgeous,” or “I praise God for giving you strength and skill in preparing yourself for tonight,” in order for my affirmation to truly be God-centered? Obviously, we know God the Creator ultimately gets the glory, and I do not argue that we should be very conscious of declaring it (it’s not second nature to us), but is it acceptable for a husband to make statements of appreciation for his wife’s beauty (as in Song of Solomon) that do not specifically mention God?
Might including God’s name in every affirmation to others lead to it sometimes being forced (and possibly hypocritical), or turn into a habitually trite use of His name like the person who must always shout “Praise the Lord!” when he or she finds a parking spot close to the store’s entrance?
(2) Could an over-emphasis on affirmation in the task of parenting actually hinder some children from being well-adjusted, mature, and prepared to live in a critical world? Or could they end up childishly liking only people who make them happy? I think the author would answer me, “No, not if you are also applying Chapter 8, ‘Mixing Correction with Affirmation.’” However, while reading, I still could not help but feel the call for affirmation was at times a bit “over the top.”
However, I am ready to admit that perhaps this is not a weakness in Crabtree’s book as much as it is a testimony of my own personal need for growth in practicing affirmation. I certainly hope that I have not simply searched for a few things to criticize because “everyone knows there are no perfect books outside of the Bible” and, therefore, any book review that does not mention a weakness is not honest.
So let me make it abundantly clear that overall I highly recommend Sam Crabtree’s book and pray for its application in my life to not be short-lived. It’s also a great reminder to biblical counselors to follow Paul’s example, as seen in 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, of pointing out evidences of God’s grace in people’s lives, rather than only zeroing in on the areas where correction is obviously needed.