What makes something “good”? As Dallas Willard has suggested, our culture has devolved to the point that we equate “desire” with goodness. Simply by virtue of the fact that we want something, it becomes “good.” Hmm. There are so many problems with this that we could easily get way, way off-track, but I bring the concept up for a reason. When I spoke of affirmation as “expressing ‘positive’ thoughts and feelings about person with the intention of eliciting those same thoughts and feelings in them,” the question has to be asked: what makes a thought or feeling a positive one? In other words, when we “affirm” someone, we’re really hoping that they’ll think or act in a way that we consider good or positive. Herein lies the dilemma – what if my desire to see someone think or act isn’t truly good (yes, this is possible – even if I really want it!)?
I’m suggesting that much of what we hail as “affirmation” is nothing more than carnal manipulation. It is a means to an end that circumvents the Gospel. What do I mean? Well, consider the affirmation commonly given to a person who has just lost their job or failed a test at school. IF the individual is in this circumstance due to sheer laziness, then attempts to make them “feel better about themselves” is a delusion. Granted, I’m not speaking of those who are victims of situations beyond their control. As peers or parents, we are tempted to use “affirmation” as means of changing the sour emotions of the unemployed/failed. But feeling bad in this instance is a good thing! This is when our emotions function as a sort of spiritual nervous system. None of us likes physical pain, but we recognize the value of a nervous system that lets us know when we’re harming ourselves. In this way, “affirmation” is harmful – deadening us to the discomfort that would lead us away from harmful choices.
Of course, affirmation is also common in instances of success. We also refer to this as praise. Maybe even appreciation. But herein lies the complication: does a lack of “affirmation” make the success feel hollow or incomplete? In other words, was this “good” deed or effort done to be acknowledged by men? When we give our best effort as an opportunity to express worship to Christ and his Gospel in the earth, the praise of men truly takes on a hollow ring. Why would I need anything else? I’m not saying we should loathe praise from our peers – I am saying that if we need it, we’re not walking worthy of our calling!
So then, in the passive sense, I find that when I am suffering due to my carnality, I don’t need to be comforted, but encouraged to acknowledge my sin and repent. And when I enjoy a measure of success, I don’t need a pat on the back because I’m secure in knowing that Christ’s pleasure is sufficient. I need to walk in freedom from the delusions of avoidance and acceptance our culture’s affirmation offers. The Gospel tells me that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5.20) and that my best efforts are like filthy rags compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3.7). Let this truth shape my expectations!