Isn’t the commendation of people idolatrous? If we should make our boast in God alone, how dare we praise mere people? Have we gone off the deep end, away from God-centeredness and into the popular cultural psycho-jargon of self-esteem?
If we aim to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things – including the commendation of people – then we are most definitely not speaking of their self-esteem. The jails are full of individuals who already have too much self-esteem. Just about all they think of is themselves. They, like we, are born that way: self-centered. Who has ever heard an infant in the nursery crying because some other child is wet or hungry?
We should not shrink from affirming people. To affirm people well is to affirm the work of God in them, and God is at work everywhere. Even the unbeliever is stamped in his image. If we seek for his work, we can find it. We shall find it. That’s why the subtitle of my book Practicing Affirmation is: The God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God.
Affirming well is both a science that can be studied, learned, and taught (hence books can be written about it), and it is an art. A good artist has a kind of eye. The good artist sees something, and then helps others see it. We can ask God for eyes that see.
If you think praising people is idolatrous, then fasten your seat-belt and put on your heresy crash helmet for this next assertion: God himself praises people. I can hear the objections: “What!? God praises people!? That’s totally upside down!” But God does indeed praise people.
The Lord affirms Noah as righteous in his generation (Genesis 7:1). He calls Solomon “very great” and “majestic” (1 Chronicles 29:25). Jesus commends the woman of great faith (Matthew 15:28), marvels at the faith of the centurion (Luke 7:9), affirms Nathaniel for not being a hypocrite (John 1:47), to name a few.
Not only has God praised people in the past, but He will in the future. There is something defective about the person who does not want God to praise him. Every individual who has ever existed should desire to hear God one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
What keeps God’s praise of man from becoming man-centered idolatry? Answer: man’s immediate recognition that everything commendable in himself is owing to God, coupled with a humble, grateful, joyful desire to deflect that praise right back to God. When Paul boasts of his own work, saying, “I worked harder than any of them,” he immediately follows it up with “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Meanwhile, cautions are justifiable, for it is possible to praise people poorly, even wrongly – making much of shallow, passing qualities. Commending wrong behaviors. Flattering people with insincere exaggerations motivated by the desire to obtain wrong-headed favors.
So we are wise to commend that which is most commendable in people. What is it that makes something commendable? We will look at that in tomorrow’s post.