Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from practicing affirmation: god-centered praise of those who are not god by Sam Crabtree (Crossway, 2011).
God-Centered Affirmation of Those Who Are Not God
Affirmation is the purpose of the universe—specifically, affirmation of God. Commending the praise of men could meet with justifiable criticism. Landmines are everywhere. Take, for instance, this warning: "The love of our own glory is the greatest competitor with God in our hearts. And sometimes we can cloak this idol in a pious disguise." If this is true, and I think it is, then how can I possibly advocate the praise of people? Am I not fueling idolatrous pride?
The Bible Commends God and People
Even with the Bible's emphasis on humble self-denial and its warnings against pride, the Bible praises people—to the glory of God, ultimately. The chief end of God is not to glorify man, as humanistic thought would have it; the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Meanwhile, the praising of people does not necessarily preclude the praising of God, if the people are commended ultimately for his glory. God is glorified in us when we affirm the work he has done and is doing in others. For example, the Bible commends the majesty of Solomon: "And the Lord made Solomon very great in the sight of all Israel and bestowed on him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel" (1 Chronicles 29:25). Note that it is the Lord who made Solomon so great and majestic. Solomon's greatness and majesty are to be recognized and commended, but at the root lay the greatness and majesty of the God who made Solomon so.
The Bible also commends Jabez as being more honorable than his brothers: "Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.' Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!' And God granted what he asked" (1 Chronicles 4:9-10). Note that Jabez's honorableness is a result of the grace of the God who grants his requests and enlarges his borders. Jabez, clearly the lesser of the two, makes requests of God, the one who has the power Jabez lacks to fulfill such requests. Jabez's honorableness should be recognized and commended, but it stems from the blessing of God in his life, and the one who is the source of the blessing is the one who deserves the honor for Jabez's honorableness.
The Bible commends the excellent wife of Proverbs 31. It is proper to recognize and commend her excellence. In fact, Proverbs 31:30 explicitly says, "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Is what? Is to be praised! What I think the Bible is saying there is that a good, proper, healthy, important, and necessary way to praise people is to the glory of God. In the case of the excellent woman, what is one thing that makes her so excellent? She fears the Lord. God is honored by pointing to the woman's excellence in fearing him, the One who defines and exemplifies excellence.
Isn't Praise of Man Idolatrous?
Praise of man and praise of God can be at odds, but not necessarily. And let me join James in raising the stakes: those who know they should do something—like commend commendable people—but don't do it, are sinning: "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (James 4:17). So we can sin in two ways: by idolatrous commendation, or by failing to commend the commendable. The challenge for us is to not sin in either direction.
When Jesus says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25), he is not forbidding that people pay tribute to Caesar. We must be on guard against either/or thinking, when the giving of praise can be both/and. When it is both/and, that is, when we are honoring a person and we are honoring God, it should not look like this:
Honor humans and honor God
(with humans listed first and on an equal plane with God)
Rather, it should look like this:
(with God listed first and listed above humans)
By acknowledging that it is God who put the governor in office and by thanking God for the governor when he governs well, we honor both the governor and God, and we honor God more than the governor because we give God the credit for establishing the governor. Also, there may come a day when in love we owe the governor an objection or criticism; we never owe God an objection.
Honoring humans is not necessarily idolatry. Consider the following.
Daniel is not dishonoring God when he praises Nebuchadnezzar, saying "You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all . . ." (Daniel 2:37-38).
The king is glorious, because he has been made so by the God who is more glorious than he. Daniel honors both the king and God by honoring the king in the way he does.
In a later episode, at the first light of dawn when king Darius hurries to the lion's den to see if God had rescued Daniel, Daniel is not diminishing God's honor by saying to king Darius, "Oh king, live forever!" (Daniel 6:21)—a very high blessing to seek on behalf of someone who gave him a death sentence less than twenty-four hours earlier. God is not dishonored, for if King Darius lives forever, it will be God who brings it to pass. God gets the credit for being the one able to do the work.
Gabriel is not stealing praise from God by singling out Mary for a commendation uttered to only one woman in all of human history, by saying, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). He affirms her by (1) greeting her (a simple practice overlooked in many homes to the detriment of many relationships); (2) describing her as favored—she has earned nothing, can boast in nothing, and has passively received this bestowal, yet it is an honor to be savored, to be sure; and (3) declaring that the Lord is with her, for her, proactive on her behalf. Again, Mary is distinguished from all other women as being "favored," and yet ultimately God gets the honor, for he is the one doing the favoring, the gracing, the bestowing. The writer of Hebrews 11 violates nothing of God's honor by commending the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses' parents, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, and the martyrs. "For by it the people of old received their commendation" (Hebrews 11:2). All of these were "commended through their faith . . ." (Hebrews 11:2). They are commended, yet their commendation steals nothing from the glory of God, because they are commended for faith that is from him and in him.
In addition to the above, there are other instances of people being affirmed in the Bible:
- The Lord affirms Noah as righteous in his generation (Genesis 7:1).
- Pharaoh affirms Joseph as remarkably discerning and wise (Genesis 41:39).
- Boaz commends Ruth as a worthy (virtuous, strong, noble) woman (Ruth 3:11).
- Saul commends David for being more righteous than he (1 Samuel 24:17).
- Achish affirms David as blameless (1 Samuel 29:9).
- The woman recognizes that Elijah is godly and truthful (1 Kings 17:24).
- The centurion highly values his servant (Luke 7:2),and the elders affirm the centurion (Luke 7:4-5). Note that the centurion did not praise himself. Unsolicited praise from mouths other than the person's own is best, unless you are God, who may solicit all the praise he deserves.
- Paul commends Phoebe for her servant ways (Romans 16:1-2).
- Paul commends the Corinthians for their faithful remembrance of traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2).
Even to a bunch of scalawags, Paul affirms the work of God he sees in them:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:1)
Paul had much to correct in the Corinthians. They had:
- serious doctrinal error
- a form of immorality
- lawsuits among themselves
- problematic corporate gatherings
- misunderstandings and misuses of gifts
- broad opposition to Paul himself.
And yet, in his opening lines he tells them, "I give thanks to my God always for you." Why? "Because of the grace of God that was given you in Jesus Christ." Do you see the God-centered affirmation?
Jesus himself, the one to whom belongs all glory, affirms others:
- He calls his disciples "salt" and "light" (Matthew 5:13-14).
- He says his listeners are more valuable than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31).
- He commends the woman of great faith (Matthew 15:28).
- He commends the woman of ill repute for doing a beautiful thing (Mark 14:6).
- He marvels at the faith of the centurion (Luke 7:9).
- He praises John with superlatives (Luke 7:28).
- He endorses the generosity of the widow (Luke 21:3-4).
- He commends Nathanael for not being a hypocrite (John 1:47).
Obedience as Praise
Obedience is a way of praising. Obedience honors the one being obeyed.
Obviously, when the Bible teaches us to obey God rather than man, it is not saying we should never obey man, children should never obey parents, students should never obey teachers, and drivers should never obey traffic officers. Generally, we are to obey those in authority. However, we are to disobey man when he is commanding us to do something that turns us away from God. Obedience to God supersedes obedience to man, but does not forbid all obedience to man.
In the same way, we ought to praise God rather than man, while acknowledging that the praise of God does not forbid all praise of others. It only prohibits the praise of others in ways that diminish God's glory, such as approving of their wicked practices, or making excuses for their sin, or attributing to them honor as though it is intrinsic to them and not derived from him.
What's the Point?
Good affirmations are God-centered, pointing to the image of God in a person. The only commendable attributes in people were given to them. Everything is from God, through God, and to God so that in all things—including the commendable qualities in people—he might get the glory: "‘Who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?' For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:35).
Sam Crabtree is a former public school teacher and has served as executive pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis since 1997. He is also lead pastor for life training, serving as the "vision keeper" of the church (Crossway).