We live in a time of extremes when it comes to self-esteem and affirmation. Some people are constantly criticized, derided, and put down, even by family members, and feel as if they are worthless and can never be good enough. Other people receive nothing but praise and affirmations of their value and feel as if they are better than everyone else and that everything they do is wonderful even when it clearly is not. Most people are somewhere in between in terms of both giving and receiving affirmation, and it is often their personal experiences which dictate how comfortable they feel in giving or receiving affirmation and praise.
The attitude in many churches and in many relationships among Christians can be summarized as “assuming the positive and pointing out the negative.” Many feel our culture spends too much time building up people’s self-esteem; therefore, they feel the church is the place to bring people down a few notches. The tone set from the pulpit and in the Bible classes tends to reinforce this attitude: if something is being done well, there is little need to point that out; more time needs to be spent on pointing out the problems and difficulties. “Positive preaching” is frequently looked at with suspicion and is often associated with the itching ears of 2 Timothy 4:3-4. Likewise, husbands and wives take for granted when the other serves and does as they should in the marriage but are quite liberal with the critiques for where the other falls short. Parents often fail to show appreciation for the ways the children obey but are quick with censure for when they disobey; likewise children are full of criticisms of how their parents have let them down but often do not show any appreciation for their parents’ effective efforts and sacrifices.
We are not responsible Christians if we do not speak about or address problems and difficulties. Christians are to identify and handle disputes among one another (Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Sin and false doctrines are to be called out for what they are (Galatians 1:1-5:16, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus in his correspondence with them to point out, address, and rebuke the very real problems in the churches where they serve.
Yet we do well to note that the same Paul would always begin his correspondence with a message of affirmation, praise, and thankfulness, that which is truly “encouragement.” The Corinthian Christians are divided, tolerating flagrant sin, taking each other to court, abusing spiritual gifts, and some even deny the resurrection, yet Paul begins his letter to them by thanking God for how they had received His grace and were enriched in Him (1 Corinthians 1:4-8). Paul does not know much about the Roman Christians but first gives thanks and praise for them since their faith has been proclaimed in all the world (Romans 1:8-15). The Lord Jesus, when addressing the seven churches of Asia, began the letter to each church with whatever He could find that was praiseworthy: their works, their toil and patience, their poverty, etc., save for Laodicea, regarding whom Jesus could apparently find nothing positive (Revelation 2:1-3:22).
All praise and no censure and rebuke is a bankrupt way to communicate in a relationship, but equally so is no praise and all censure and rebuke! Assuming the positive and pointing out the negative is a toxic approach in any relationship, for only the negative is addressed. Such a posture invariably leads to discouragement, for the one receiving only negative feedback quickly becomes convinced that they can never be good enough or do well enough to be acceptable!
Such is why God expects Christians to encourage one another and build one another up (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25), and to do so in truth and not in pretense. Critique is not “encouragement”; it may be a necessary rebuke, an important tearing down so as to be able to build up, but can quickly become a source of discouragement if such is all a person hears. Encouragement demands strengthening and building up in the faith as seen in Ephesians 4:11-16; encouragement, by its nature, affirms what is right and good and praises all efforts to that end.
Not for nothing does Paul exhort Christians to say what is edifying, or building up, so as to give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29). Marital critiques are more tolerable when spouses generally affirm and praise each other. “Discipline” does demand correction of misdeeds but also praise for what a child does well (Ephesians 6:1-4). Christians and churches will always have problems and difficulties, yet Paul thanked God for them and Jesus first looks for what is praiseworthy among His people. Would we not do well to do the same?
Ethan R. Longhenry