It’s easy to remember the first time that Therese complimented John in front of his mother. It was an autumn day. We had driven over a hundred miles, complete with construction detours and hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Our three preschoolers were beyond cranky when we arrived at his parents’ house. John took the kids out in the yard for a while. Then he lined them up on the couch to read a book about animals. His flair for the dramatic kicked in, and the kids were enthralled. “John, you really brought those animals to life and helped all the children settle down. That was great—thank you!” Therese called out from the kitchen.
John’s mother was flabbergasted. She teased us by patting herself on the back and exclaiming, “Boy, am I wonderful! Call the television studio and have the President come and give me a medal!” Offering and receiving affirmation was something foreign to Mom. She was taught that compliments would make a person have a “swelled head.” She was more accustomed to being ignored for all that she did. For us, too, it was a new skill that flowed from learning how to be grateful for each other and then trying to express that gratitude to strengthen our marriage.
What were some of your key experiences of being affirmed by parents, teachers, or relatives as you were growing up or in your early adulthood? Or perhaps you only remember episodes of destructive criticism, sarcasm, bullying, or negative humor directed at you by significant people in your life. Let’s take a look at the many ways that Jesus encouraged and affirmed those around him and the way he encourages those who follow him today. Then we will consider ways to act out the gift of gratitude through affirming speech.
Jesus and Affirming Others
Jesus Christ is the living Word, the Word that transforms us (John 1:1-4). Scripture uses the word dabar (Hebrew) or logos (Greek) for “word” or “event” to describe Jesus and the first joyful coming of Christ at Christmas: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing [dabar/logos—word/event] that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15, emphasis added).
Jesus is the climax of every word from God in the Old Testament, beginning with the Father’s creative, affirming, and life-giving words: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). God also spoke to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, affirming his covenant love for the Hebrew people. As he said through the prophet Jeremiah, “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33). And so God’s word unfolded in salvation history, touching the depths of the human heart for all time.
Then Jesus was sent as the final Word of God made flesh to free us from our rebellion and our brokenness and lead us home to God the Father (John 1:1-14). At his baptism in the Jordan River, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22). Jesus, in turn, spoke words of encouragement and affirmation to those around him. When Simon Peter saw the miraculous catch of fish on the lake of Gennesaret, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ . . . Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him” (5:8, 10-11).
We hear God’s affirming voice at Simon the Pharisee’s home when a woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). We hear another affirmation when a Roman centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant and said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Jesus replied, “‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. . . . Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour” (Matthew 8:10, 13).
St. Paul followed Jesus’ lead through the many greetings he offered at the beginning of his letters. He referred to his listeners as “God’s beloved” (Romans 1:7). In 1 Corinthians 1:4, Philippians 1:3, and Colossians 1:3, he thanked God for the goodness of his followers. How can we do less when we greet one another?
Surrendering to the Gift of Affirmation
When John went off to college, he hoped to find a good wife and graduate with good grades so that he could land a job making good money. By sophomore year, he realized that these hopes would be much harder to come by than he had ever imagined. Emptiness and loneliness followed. No combination of work and partying filled the void. During his junior year, he began to plan a painless way to commit suicide, until Jack invited him to go on an Antioch Weekend retreat. He accepted, willing to give life one last chance.
On Saturday night of the weekend, he spoke to a priest on the retreat team, who gave him a copy of the New Testament with the Psalms and suggested that he go to the chapel and ask God for what he needed to be happy. As he sat before the Blessed Sacrament, he opened the Scriptures and his eyes fell upon the first line of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” John thought, “I want all kinds of things, but how, God, how?” He wept in pain until deep down inside, he sensed God saying to him, “I love you just the way you are. You don’t have to be the best. You don’t have to be perfect or in control. Just let me love you. I’ll change whatever needs changing in you.” John’s problems didn’t clear up overnight, but ever since then he has learned to search out God’s affirming voice in his life. Ever since then, the living Word, who is Jesus, has become the first and last word in his life.
Debby is another example of someone who has heard the affirming words of Jesus. She had run away from physically abusive parents and then worked as a prostitute to support herself. In her mid-thirties, while she was waitressing in a local diner, a woman from our parish invited her to our Bible study. She came for weeks and then months, eyes darting around, back glued to the far wall, never speaking a word to anyone. Finally, one night after we had studied the story about the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50), Debby asked to speak to John. “This words,” she explained in her broken English, “they about me!” She had heard God’s voice, and now she was home. Little by little Debby’s life began to change. She sat down during our studies and even smiled from time to time. The Holy Spirit spoke to her in many ways, especially through the acceptance of the members of our group. About a year later, Debby announced that she wanted to follow Jesus by becoming Catholic.
God’s Invitation to Affirm Others
You, too, can be strengthened by the affirming word of Father, Son, and Spirit. And from that strength, you can affirm others in their goodness by seeing them do good things and encouraging them to continue doing the good. It is a simple way to love like Christ in daily life, a way of virtue that echoes God’s word to others.
Read more about growing in the spiritual life in John and Therese Boucher’s latest book, Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones: Eight Ways to Love as Jesus Loves Us (The Word Among Us Press, 2015). Available at wau.org/books