“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” - Proverbs 18:21
Words are important. God made the world through His Word (Genesis. 1:3; John. 1:1; Hebrews 11:3). Jesus established His Kingdom through words (Mark. 1:14-15; Luke. 4:16-21). The church is transformed through words (Romans 10:17; Ephesians 4:15-16). The world is saved through words (Romans 11:14-15).
As pastors, we need to cherish words and choose them carefully, not only in our presentations but also in our conversations. Since our words bring life or death to those we lead, we should strive to encourage and affirm others as often as possible.
I’ve heard some pastors say that affirmation doesn’t come naturally for them. They look to other more “naturally” encouraging leaders, hoping to unlock the affirmation code. While we certainly see some have the spiritual gift of encouragement (Romans 12:8), we would make a catastrophic mistake to assume their encouragement comes naturally.
As we contemplate the journey to becoming more encouraging leaders, we must start at the beginning—we are all natural born killers, and words are our weapon of choice. In our sinfulness, the serpentine accent lingers. Apart from Christ, our words always end in a hiss. To save face and to feel superior, we gravitate toward slander, manipulation, critique, spinning, defending, blaming and on and on.
This is why the New Testament says so much about our words (Matthew 12:36-37; Romans 3:13, 15:6; Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31; Colossians 3:8, 16, 4:6; 1 Peter 2:1; Revelation 21:8). When Jesus saves us, his Southern Galilean accent rubs off on us as proof that we no longer belong to the father of lies but to the Father of Light.
If you are supernaturally gifted to encourage or not, we all need supernatural grace and discipline to grow in encouragement.
Not only a Key but a Command
In Sam Carbtree’s helpful book Practicing Affirmation, Sam compares affirmation to a key. A key to your house is not the most important aspect of your home. However, if you lose your key, you are locked out of the warmth, safety and love that your home provides.
Relationships are the same. We quickly see faults in others, and critique overflows in public or private. When we lose the key of affirmation, we often lose access to the relationship. In addition to being a key, affirmation is also a command in Scripture:
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” - 1 Thessalonians 5:11
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” - Ephesians 4:29
This picture of an affirming community sounds wonderful, yet we’re skeptical of living this way. If we really practiced affirmation, wouldn’t we feed egos and promote pride? Why then would God command us to affirm? The answer is counterintuitive: as we speak life into others, we kill pride in ourselves. Ultimately, our lack of affirmation is not because we want to save others from pride but because we are proud.
Encouragement is the verbal expression of “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Encouragement is a spiritual assault on the kingdom of self. Rather than using our words to manipulate praise for ourselves, we praise others giving honor where honor is due (Romans 13:7).
The Discipline of Encouragement
Encouraging others is a supernatural grace, an assault on our pride and a discipline we must develop. So, how do we exercise affirmation?
1. Pay Attention
Relationally, we drift toward critiquing others and need God’s Spirit to reorient our attitudes. Those who encourage well deeply love and delight in others. This is why David joyfully wrote, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Psalm 16:3). When criticism floods our heads and hearts, genuine love will detox our system.
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” - Romans 12:10
Love pays attention. Love delights. Love looks for ways to encourage. Often we have nothing encouraging to say to others because we naturally observe their faults and never prayerfully look for God’s grace in their life.
2. Be Specific
Paul tells us that the body of Christ “builds itself up in love” when we speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:16,15). Because we tend toward critique, we often interpret this verse like “I will speak hard, correcting truth in love.”
While we need to speak correcting truth, we also need to speak comforting truth. We don’t flatter or puff people up with false information. But as we observe growth in other’s lives, we should point it out. Thankfully, the New Testament is full of lists to help us—lists charting the characteristics of someone growing in Christ (Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 4:25-32; Colossians 3:5-17).
If someone you lead displays faithfulness, acknowledge and celebrate that fruit of the Spirit. If someone on your team navigates an infuriating situation without blowing up in anger, thank God for His work of grace in their life. We often miss how God is working in our lives; we need others to pay attention and share specifics about what God is doing in and through us.
3) Ask Questions
We can think we’re good at encouraging others, and yet we might only be good at encouraging others the way we like to be encouraged. If encouragement is a school for humility, then we should be quick to say, “I don’t know.” We should ask those around us how they feel most encouraged. As we study those we lead, we can more skillfully impart courage to them through our encouragement.
This takes time. It requires sacrifice and focus on others rather than ourselves.
4) Alternate Methods
Affirmation produces endurance. Encouragement promotes joy.
“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” - Proverbs 12:25
Shouldn’t we help each other with our anxiety by speaking truth in love? Shouldn’t we seek every possible means of sharing good words with one another?
Praise publicly. Praise privately. Affirm verbally. Encourage through an email or text. Honor through social media. Sit down and write a handwritten note of encouragement and gratitude. Express to people how thankful you are to God for them.
Torches in the Night
Maybe you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of work, and you’re right! Maybe you’re not sure if it’s really worth it. But love is always worth it, and here's why: Every soul longs to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). We all desire the affirmation and praise of God on Judgment Day. Yet in this dark world, we lose our way. We get discouraged. We lose heart; we lose faith.
Godly affirmation foreshadows God’s affirmation. As my fellow-pastor Alex Baxley once said, “Words of encouragement are torches in the night, especially during the dark nights of the soul.” Specific, godly encouragement becomes little torches, filling up the night to spur on us. Encouragement helps us keep the faith!
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” - Hebrews 10:24-25
Becoming an affirming leader is not just a good leadership principle; it’s essential to pastoral ministry.
Satan seeks to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). He is the father of discouragement who uses his words to accuse and condemn (Revelation 12:10). The Accuser wants to use our careless words to destroy those God loves.
Jesus is the Light and Life of men, and he came to give us abundant life. (John 1:4,10:10). May our carefully chosen words encourage others toward Jesus, and so “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Rusty McKie is the lead pastor of Sojourn Chattanooga in Chattanooga, TN. He has led in various ministries for over a decade. Both Rusty and his wife Rachel have a passion for loving people by connecting them to Jesus and each other. You can connect with Rusty on Twitter: @RustyMcKie