I love working with you, Dan.” It was only a simple text from a colleague, but it buoyed my spirits during an intense week of work on a project together.
As I thought over his kind comment, it reinforced to me a simple truth I’ve learned during my years in leadership: Affirmation may be the most valuable currency in building relational capital. I’ve served on large ministry teams, I’ve led a small church staff, and now I serve in an executive role. I’m also a husband and a father of four. In all of these contexts, regardless of the environment, I have found that nothing is more important than consistent encouragement.
People closest to us need to hear words of affirmation from us. They need to hear them regularly, consistently, and sincerely. Not empty words of flattery, like something we’d type on Facebook on someone’s birthday (“best husband in the whole world!”), but genuine and heartfelt praise for the unique gifts and contribution of those closest to us.
What’s interesting is how little we think about encouragement. It seems a nice thing to give to others, but not terribly important. Yet in Scripture we find not only the wisdom that reveals the utility of kind words (Proverbs 25:11), but also the command to encourage, especially among followers of Christ. God’s children should be people who “build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Pastors and church leaders are tasked with the ministry of encouragement (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV). And this is not just a once-a-year-at-the-company-party type of empty praise. The writer of Hebrews says encouragement should be a daily part of Christian witness (Heb. 3:13).
I think of Paul, who began most of his letters with praiseworthy attributes about his readers. Even his tough letter to the Corinthians started with an expression of his deep love and appreciation for them. Jesus, who was known to rebuke His disciples strongly, nevertheless assured Peter of a future spiritual transformation—a future only Jesus could see (Luke 22:32). True encouragement isn’t empty words. It’s not bluster or flattery. It’s real, honest affirmation of the gifts and talents you see evident in the lives of others. It’s an acknowledgement of them as people created in God’s image and transformed by the gospel. It’s recognizing the beautiful, even among the brokenness.
So why don’t we encourage more? It could be the simple self-absorption that we all fight. In our fallenness, we tend to look inward and think only of our own emotional needs. It might also be that we are not as affirming in our behavior as we might assume we are. An employer might think that offering generous pay packages and health benefits and time off should be enough to keep his people happy. A husband may think that because he works long hours and provides a decent wage, he shouldn’t have to continually affirm his wife and children. A pastor might think that because he’s preaching good sermons and providing faithful ministry, kind affirmations to his staff are unnecessary. After all, shouldn’t Christians be more concerned about God’s glory than their own?
True encouragement is an acknowledgement of others as people created in God’s image and transformed by the gospel. It’s recognizing the beautiful, even among the brokenness.
All this is true. Those who work in and around us should be grateful to God for their blessings. But if God wired us for relationship and if the human heart is tender and in need of affirmation, how can we withhold from those around us what they desperately need? I’ve observed that people will often value an affirming environment over other, more tangible rewards like higher wages, time off, or company perks. I’ve noticed that my kids are more desirous of my time and my approval than the neatly wrapped gifts I might put under the Christmas tree every year.
Encouragement is vital. It’s the oil of human relationships. Some are better at this than others, but all of us should seek the Spirit’s help in becoming a beacon of encouragement to those around us. It begins, not with over-the-top flattery, but with a few words, as Solomon writes, fitly spoken (Proverbs 25:11 ESV). Not once a year but regularly, even daily.
You’ll be surprised at the reaction you get from those around you: a spring in their step, a smile, and more motivation toward excellence. You’ll also notice how much it helps you shift your gaze from your own problems and relational issues to the needs of others.