We all need five affirmations for each criticism we receive. Our ratio for health, for education, for marriage, for success, for not going bat guano crazy or hating ourselves or acting self-destructively, is 5:1. These are the findings in multiple fields.
My last post laid this out and considered “why?” The point is certain. We need to receive five times more affirmation than criticism.
Here are some implications:
1)We should seek a positive, encouraging environment if we want to thrive. Sure, you can be tough and thick-skinned and suck it up. You can also starve yourself. But the long game for that is grim.
2)If you’re in a relationship with someone who is habitually negative or critical, you would do well to reevaluate. Run the numbers again. Reconsider your pros and cons. Perhaps muster the courage to tell this other, however significant, that this is not a lifegiving habit, for either of you. See if change is possible. If not, see implication #1.
3)If we need five encouragements for every criticism–in order to grow, in order to be able to respond productively to the criticism, in order to keep a healthy belief in our self-worth–then somebody had better do that encouraging!
So I’m nominating us.
It’s a scandal and a travesty that the followers of Jesus, collectively, are known for being negative and critical. God loved us when we were his enemies and Jesus saved us while we were still sinners. We don’t really have the qualifications to be casting stones. Yet we do.
I read the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15–really the Prodigal Father with two lost sons he loved–as central to our understanding of who God is and how God relates to us. God longs to welcome us home. He doesn’t wait for us to finish our apology or our “take me as your servant” speech. God wants to get this party started, for us. Repentance is important because it brings us back to God, not because God expects–or desires–us to grovel. God desires to forgive us. I think he longs to forgive us. That’s what I see in Jesus.
Jesus tells about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. One, an outwardly righteous man doing all the right things, thanks God for being himself, for not being that sinful, loathsome tax collector, and holds his head high. The other stares at the ground and beats his chest in shame. He begs for mercy…and he receives mercy. Jesus asks, “Which of the two do you think went home justified?” The tax collector “goes home justified” because he has grasped his own brokenness and need and asked for God’s help. The other didn’t. He believed in his own righteousness, stood on that to look down on others, and missed the boat. Completely.
What does that have to do with encouragement? Everything.
We live in this awareness of grace given to us. We retell our own story to ourselves: God loves us and always longs for us to be home with him. Jesus is not keeping score and he’s certainly not making sure he drives home every mistake and sin. Even as screwed up as we are right this second, our God who is both Father and Mother loves us and sees who we are, who we can be, and always sees the image of God in us. We might lose sight of that; God never does.
To be encouragers, we don’t have to make things up. We don’t have to lie. We don’t have to pretend or exaggerate. Rather, we learn to see people through God’s eyes.
In the story we must retell ourselves over and over, God sees us as beloved. The Father didn’t see a pig-feces-and-rag-covered, reeking, starving homeless boy. He saw his child.
Same human being, seen through different eyes.
“Look at this failure! Look at this wretch! Look at this betrayer of my family and our name! See what he’s done to himself? Let him drink in his shame.”
The Father could have said that. In Jesus’ parable, he had grounds to do so. It catches in my chest even to imagine that, because it is so antithetical to whom we have seen God revealed to be for us. Imagine Jesus kicking the woman caught in adultery while she’s huddled on the ground in shame (John 8). Imagine Jesus reviling the leper instead of touching him to heal him (Matthew 8:3). I honestly hope you can’t imagine that. Any theology that makes God out to have the opposite character as Jesus is not merely wrong, it’s warped and twisted.
“Bring out the best robe!” the Father shouts! “Put it on him! Bring a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet! Start our celebration right now, don’t wait another second. This, my child, my son, was lost and is found! He was dead and he’s alive again!”
What was the affirmation? Implicit is that the boy came home.
But the real affirmation is of his identity. Who he is. He is the beloved son! His very presence here, when he had been lost and even presumed dead, is cause for celebration.
Has anyone ever felt more affirmed than that young man in his father’s arms, home again?
We’re looking for who people are. We encourage them best when we remind them of their true identity, especially when they’ve forgotten, like the younger son, or when they doubt, like the tax collector.
We go out of our way to affirm what they do–anything we can see worth affirming–because we believe in who they are. We believe in their identity, in the beauty reflected in them by their Creator. We believe that God makes us beautiful because we are beloved, and even the rags and feces can’t ruin that or render it null and void. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. NOTHING can separate us from the love of God.
This is our starting point. We are sons and daughters of grace; we believe in God’s love and grace for ourselves and for one another. When we see who we are–including our brokenness and need–we are going in the right direction to receive God’s mercy and grace. We go home justified because God justifies us.
Then we pass that same grace on to others. I don’t mean we constantly remind them, “Wow, look how screwed up you are, but God loves you anyway.” When people are ready to see how screwed up they are, then it’s time to affirm that God forgives and redeems. But passing grace on to others means seeing all the good God imbues in people and calling it out.
I coach basketball. My players screw up plenty. There are times to point out these mistakes and challenge them to improve. But whenever possible, at every practice, I seek to affirm the good plays I see. I talk a lot and loudly, so it is natural for me always to be calling out, “Nice play! Good hustle! Great shot! Tough D!” Five to one applies to athletes, too.
Is affirming a good jump shot part of calling forth the image of God we see in people? Absolutely. When playing sports, we are seeking excellence, learning self-discipline and giving our best. We’re digging deeper to find our capabilities. Plus, we’re worshiping God with our physical bodies when we play.
Love one another. Jesus commands us to love one another and we can always encourage others as a means of expressing love. As in, encouraging others is always available to us. If we remember who we are by grace, learn to see others as God sees them (and us!), and do what Jesus says (“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?”), then encouraging isn’t an extra-curricular. It isn’t solely for those with the gift of encouragement. We become encouragers in order to advance the Kingdom of God.
Tomorrow I’m giving the commencement address for our high school graduating class. I confess I’m a little nostalgic and emotional going into this. But I’ll say this anyway, and I believe it’s true: the easiest way to change the world is to encourage the people around you.
I say it’s the easiest because we can all do this; the only prerequisite is to interact with other people, in any form. Look for opportunities to speak words of affirmation and life to the people who need it–and everyone needs it! Develop this habit.
I guarantee we will change lives. We often have no idea how much the people around us need to hear something positive. I’m certain their ratio is almost always well below 5:1, especially if those negative voices are playing inside their heads. Be the voice that speaks life against that death. God speaks that life to us. God speaks that life through us.
Encourage people. Let God speak through you.
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