Discussion with Sam Crabtree

Good afternoon and welcome to Desiring God Live. My name is Scott Anderson, Executive Director here at Desiring God, and we’re broadcasting this afternoon live from our studios here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thank you so much for joining us. It is a joy to have you with us. Our guest for the broadcast today is Pastor Sam Crabtree.

Sam is the Executive Pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he has served since 1997. Prior to that, Sam had served for about 16 years in church ministry in Brookings, South Dakota. Sam grew up in the upper Midwest and he received his education from St. Cloud State and then a master’s in education from South Dakota State University. Besides his pastoring, Sam has recently had his first book published with Crossway Books entitled, Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God. This book is going to be the subject matter of our broadcast this afternoon. Sam is married to Vicky, whom he met and married in 1973, and they have two grown daughters. Pastor Sam, thank you for being on the broadcast today.

Really a privilege. I’m grateful that you’re doing this.

Well, it’s a joy to have you with us. I’m going to cut right to the chase here. In the foreword to your book, John Piper writes the following, and I’ll quote this:

Sam’s book is a healing balm for cranks, misfits, and malcontents who are so full of self they scarcely see, let alone celebrate, the simple beauties of imperfect virtue in others. Or to say it differently, I need this book.

So Sam, why did you write this book and who did you have in mind when you wrote Practicing Affirmation?

Well, after you came to me and told me that John Piper is a crank and he really needs a book like this . . . By the way, how long have you been at Desiring God, Scott?

I’ve been here almost 10 years.

Congratulations on your new role, which is?

Executive Director.

Excellent, excellent. And you’re a good man for the job. So why did I write a book like this? Well, I’ve been talking about the subject for a number of years in pre-marriage classes and at marriage retreats and other places, and people would say, “Is there anything written on this?” And that was my answer. I would say, “Well, there’s some smattering of stuff out there.” And they’d say, “Well, why don’t you write something?” I thought, “Well, maybe someday.”

But the more I thought about it and the more I thought about how this is about God-centered praise of those who are not God, and there’s a lot of honor that God is not getting because people aren’t seeing it around them and calling it out and mentioning it. A lot of Christians think, “Is there a way my life could be more glorifying to God?” This is one way, and I think I’ve seen relationships really hurting over this.

I will allege that the vast majority, if not all divorces, happen in part because affirmation went away in their relationship. So for the good of marriages, for the good of parenting, for the good of all kinds of relationships, I wanted to write this. One of the things I said to one of the publicists about this is that this is the book the people around you hope you’ll read, because they want you to be that kind of person in your relationship with them.

So I wrote it because I really hope relationships will be strengthened in a God-centered way and that the activity of God in lives all around us will be seen, because God is at work in everyone, even unbelievers. He’s stamped his image on everybody. He’s at work in everybody. If that isn’t seen, he doesn’t get the explicit honor from it. If the heavens are declaring the glory of God and we don’t look out there and see it and say, “Wow, look what God did out there,” he doesn’t get as much glory as when we do look out there and say, “Isn’t God amazing for what he’s done?”

So if I say to you, “We see God developing your responsibility. It’s really growing in you and God’s doing something there, and we think you should rise to a new position at Desiring God,” we’re honoring God for what he’s doing in you, but hopefully, you’ll feel encouraged that God is doing something in you. He’s at work. You’re not just plateaued or stuck in something. And you and I get the benefit of a better relationship because we talk about these things and talk this way to each other and the whole atmosphere around us, I think, takes an uptick. The morale is better because we encourage the observation and the calling out and the commendation of those good things, namely those God-centered things or the character of Christ in people.

That’s a long, convoluted answer to talk about why I would write about this. Plus sometimes you just get a bee under your bonnet and you think, “If the church ever gives me a sabbatical, I think I know what I’d like to just get off my chest.” And they gave me a sabbatical in 2009.

Well, I want to come back to this notion of using affirmations as a means of actually praising God. But before we go there, do you have a working definition that you like to use for affirmation? What is an affirmation?

Yeah, that’s good to define our terms. First, let me say that I think before we define it, that almost everybody, meaning everybody who’s reasonably rational, intuitively recognizes affirmation when they see it. They have a feel for it. Every couple that’s fallen in love, affirmation was at work. They found a thousand ways to affirm each other verbally: “I like you. You’re special to me. I love you.” And they find nonverbal ways of affirmation in the way they touch each other and they make time for each other and they interrupt what they’re doing when the other person calls and they schedule things. They give each other secrets — “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t told anybody else before.” Well, that invites them into some closeness and that’s very affirming. Or they give gifts to each other or they pick up on each other’s suggestions, like if I’m going with you and you say you love Pizza Luce down the street here, I make a mental note of that, and pretty soon guess where you and I are going? Pizza Luce. Or I will give you a gift card. So I think we intuitively know how to do it.

Now your question is, what is it? Affirming is calling out something that’s to be commended. And what I wrote about is that I don’t just want to commend any old thing or affirm any old thing, I want to commend that which is most commendable. Commend the commendable, which is the character of Christ that’s reproduced in us.

So by affirmation, I don’t just mean do nice things for people. I mean, if I make a contribution to the soup kitchen over here, that blesses some people, but it doesn’t affirm them for anything that’s happening in them. It’s just a blessing and it might encourage them and give them some hope, but it doesn’t commend something that ought to be growing even more in them and reproduced in the lives of others. So I want to commend the commendable, and I want to make that commendation God-centered.

Is there then a difference, a category difference, between something like blessings versus encouragement versus affirmations? You touch on this a little bit in the book. What’s your take on that?

Well, in the book there’s a Venn diagram of circles, and if people aren’t into Venn diagrams, then fine. They’re better to look at than to describe. We probably should have a graphic right now or something. But as I just alluded to, I could bless a lot of people, even anonymously, by making a gift to their ministry, to their life, or providing something for them.

Like kindness and generosity?

Yes, all those can be a blessing. I could pronounce a blessing on them. I could pray for them without them ever knowing it, and that would be a blessing. And then there are encouragements. Encouragement is future oriented like, “Go, team go. Come on, Scott!” In that wrestling match, you say, “Grab his other leg.” Those encouragements are hoping you can do something in the future. But what I mean by affirmation is that I’m looking back to something that’s already happened, it’s already present. God has already put it in you and I’m recognizing it. I’m calling it out. I’m saying, “Did you see that? Did you look at that?”

I mean, what comes to my mind when I talk this way is little children. We should help little children notice what God is doing in them. When a child who broke something comes and says, “I broke the thing,” you say, “You just told the truth. Did you see that? You told the truth? That’s so important. That’s what God does. God tells the truth and he’s helping you become like him in that way, and I want to become like you in that way, in telling the truth.”

So God gets the honor for being the baseline for truth telling, the source of truth, and the child gets the encouragement of knowing, “Oh, something good is happening in me. That feels good. That’s refreshing.” And he and I, or she and I, have an improved relationship because they think, “Here’s an adult who points out good things in me. They don’t just scold me. I don’t just get me in trouble and they shake a stick at me,” and that sort of thing. But they think, “This adult is for me. He’s in my corner. He sees good things happening in me.” So I’m praising God for his work and I’m commending a feature.

That’s what I mean by affirmation. I’m looking back, seeing this thing that’s happened, and affirming it. I’m commending it. I’m maybe even rewarding it. Maybe you say, “Thank you for telling the truth. Before we go fix this broken thing, let’s have a cookie,” or something that helps seal that this was a very good thing that God was developing in them. So that’s the difference between a blessing and affirmation. The recipient of a blessing might not have much good going in them at all.

You can give soup to the soup kitchen that serves people who are really rascals, but you could commend the man who comes to the soup kitchen and goes through the line and says, “Thank you for the hot soup today,” and you can say, “Well, we appreciate the gratitude. God is developing gratitude in you. That’s a good thing.” So that’s affirming, whereas the soup is just a blessing, and it’s aside from whether he has any character or he just is a character.

I think one of the takeaways from the book for me was that there is a sense in which this subject doesn’t feel all that complicated or technical, and yet therein lies the great struggle for us. We blow past it, and so there is an issue with specificity. You are very specific in our understanding of these things, both in terms of some of the examples you gave, but even definitions like you just spoke of. Encouragement is more forward facing, future-oriented, and affirmation is more commending what you’ve observed God do in the past. So those are the takeaways that I really enjoyed from the book.

But you just touched on something that I want to focus on. Related to this issue of specificity, how are we to be God-centered in our affirmation? Or I might ask it this way, can affirming someone actually be a means of praising God, and if so, how does that work? What specifically needs to come out in that affirmation for it to be in praise of God and not just in praise of this person who isn’t God?

Yeah, I think you’re getting at what, to me, is one of the most important things I’m trying to say in this book, to have it stand apart from the regular pop psychology, self-esteem, you-deserve-good-things kind of talk. I’m not saying those things. Here’s one way maybe to make a distinction that you’re asking about. Here comes my granddaughter. She’s five years old. It’s Easter and she’s wearing a lovely dress and it’s a lovely dress. I could just say, “Well, aren’t you cute?” Well, what I’m drawing attention to is her cuteness. And she’s not the source of good things in her life. She’s the beneficiary of good things in her life, as we all are. Everything is from him, through him, and to him, so that he would get the glory. So if I say, “You’re cute,” I’m leaving it as though she’s meritorious in some way and I’m drawing attention to cuteness, which is really temporary.

There’s nothing wrong with being cute, but I’m the poster child for the fact that cute isn’t going to stay. It’s going away, if it ever was there. Rather than that, I could say to her, “God has put somebody around you who loves you, who would provide you with such a lovely Easter dress.” Now that’s different. I’m still observing that the dress looks nice and she looks nice in it, but God put someone in her life who loves her. So I’m commending God, I’m giving God credit, and I’m drawing attention to love, which is a Christ-like thing, and not just cuteness, clothing, or dresses. I’m trying to help get at a distinction there between just giving people compliments, which is fine, and God-centered affirmation. I mean, I’m not trying to make a sin now out of saying to someone, “Well, that’s a cute dress.” That’s not what I’m trying to do. But I just think there’s a better way that puts God right in the middle of the commendations that we make.

Even so, let’s play a little bit of devil’s advocate here then. Is there not still the risk, as it were, even with God-centered affirmations, that somebody could come in here and say, “Yeah, but you’re making much of all this stuff. You’re going to end up just fueling people’s internal craving for attention and focus, their idolatrous pride?” Is that a legitimate risk that you run going down this path, and if so, what do you say to that?

Yep, the risks are everywhere. There are landmines everywhere. Luther or Spurgeon or somebody said, “You can fall off this donkey on more than one side.” So yes, you can fuel a person’s pride by almost anything you do. And that’s partly in their own heart. So I’m striving to be as explicit as we can. If I say to you, “God is developing you into a great leader at Desiring God,” you can get proud over that. You can have an inflated ego over that. You can get a big head over that and you could brag and boast about Scott. Yep, you could. I still think I should tell you the truth, that is, that I believe God is developing you into a great responsible leader, and I miss an opportunity to honor God and to show you that I honor God for his work in you if I say, “Well, it’s too risky. You might get a big head over this, so I’m not going to say anything.”

Besides, I think there are a lot of relationships — this is why I alluded earlier to marriages that are falling apart — that are thirsty. People are thinking, “Would somebody please recognize that something good is going on in my life?” There are teenagers who wish their dad would recognize something. They feel like he’s just on their case all the time. They can’t do anything to please him. They can do no right before him. They have to walk on eggshells around him. I think if Dad would just once in a while say, “You know son, I see God developing something in you,” it would be like a whole new day. A whole new openness can come from that.

In fact, let me tell a story. I was talking about this at a conference of Campus Crusade for Christ staff, gathered from several states in Indiana, and I talked about this stuff, and then we took a break. During the break, a guy went away and after the break they came back and we resumed and I talked about some other subject. This guy hadn’t returned. So we finished that seminar. We went to a lunch break, I think, and he approached me and he said, “I wanted to apologize that I didn’t get back to your second session.” But he said, “I’m not going to apologize because here’s what happened. I saw myself in that first session, that I was critical. I have a 14-year-old son and for about two years we’ve had almost no conversations, just grunts. He avoids me, and I think I’ve contributed to it because I’m always correcting him. I’m always picking on him. I’m always saying, ‘Straighten up your room, son,’ or, ‘Have you got your homework done?’ or, ‘Don’t do it that way,’ and there’s just been this alienation that’s come between us. So at the break I determined I’m going to go to the phone, I’m going to call him and not say anything negative. I’m just going to affirm something about my son and tell him that’s why I’m calling. I’ll tell him I’m calling him from Indiana just to tell you something I appreciate about him. And we talked for 45 minutes. My son, who never says anything to me, talked to me for 45 minutes. I wasn’t going to hang up.”

I think that’s the power of this affirmation stuff and why we should take the risk. His son could get cocky, his son could get proud about whatever he commended him for. That’s a risk. But I just think what happened in lubricating that relationship is worth the risk. So I think it’s a gamble worth taking.

Let’s talk about that a little bit. You have a really helpful section in the book where you unpack over several pages the nature of affirmation as it relates to correction, or truth telling. I’d like to ask a few questions related to that. We are called as believers to tell the truth to one another, and I wonder if you could just comment on, in our truth telling, our need to also make sure that the truth telling (to use your word) is lubricated with affirmations as well. How have you seen these things correlate? Do we tend to be overly corrective, or do we tend to be a little too mushy and too affirming and never really dealing with the truth? How are those things related?

Well, there’s a continuum and there are some people that are mushy, nicey-nice, and they never confront anything. You can swing to that imbalance that way. But I think in general, here’s what happens. Relationships that are new start out fairly positive, like a salesman. He says, “Hey, nice to meet you there. I can tell you’re a distinguishing purchaser. Would you like to look at this car? You don’t like this car. I can tell you’re a distinguishing purchaser. Let’s look at this car.” He’s full of positives.

Or you meet a new baby. How do people talk when they meet a new baby? “Oh, what a little blessing. Oh, he’s so precious.” And two years later, how are they talking about the kid? “I said not yet. I’m talking to Scott.” They get a no. There are couples who start out full of, “I like you,” and, “You’re special to me,” and, “Here’s a valentine,” and, “I’ve got this fancy creative way to ask you to marry me with metrodome scoreboards and blimps,” and I don’t know. Relationships start there, and then we get busy, we get preoccupied.

We’ve said a lot of nice things and we’ve run out of creativity, and I’ve already told my wife a thousand times that I love her. What doesn’t go away is correction, because problems come into the relationship. They just come up every day. We live on a fallen planet where things are not right, and so your spouse leaves the lights on in the car, or loses the keys, or leaves the refrigerator door open, or leaves hair on the sink in the bathroom, or whatever. There’s just these things that just keep coming. So you say, “Could you wipe the sink when you’re done shaving?”

Well, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, but it comes across as a drain. It’s a correction. It’s saying, “You don’t shave right. You don’t clean the sink the way I’d like.” Correction. Ding. And it adds a brick to the scale and life tends to go there. We don’t tend to do this: “I went in to use the bathroom and the sink was so clean. Thank you for being a person who cleans the sink.” We don’t do that. We say, “There’s hair again.” So we see the faults. We’re just wired to see the problems, to see the defects, to see what’s not working, to see what doesn’t make us happy. And it elicits from us a response.

We think, “How many times am I going to have to ask you, could you please do something with the toilet lid?” Or whatever. And we are tired and we’re fatigued. We’re running busy lives and fatigue puts us in a position to not do things we would do if we were fresh and we had lots of energy, things that we think are a good idea. We’re just tired, preoccupied, and we forget to affirm. When’s the last time I wrote my wife a poem? I mean, probably 99 out of 100 men would say writing a goofy, silly, mushy poem to your wife, even if you’re not a good poet, is probably a good idea. They’d probably go, “Yeah, okay,” or something similar. Or bring flowers or chocolates or something. And when’s the last time I did it? Somebody had to remind me, like one of the marketers of Valentine’s Day or something. So that proclivity to correct overwhelms affirmations.

In fact, Proverbs 12:18 talks about how hasty words are like a sword thrust. They gash, they cut, they wound, they dig, they hurt, and we’re more inclined to do them. Well, if the pattern continues so that there’s more correction than there is affirmation, the relationship becomes strained. If you’re constantly correcting me, I can’t do things to please you, I can do no right for you, I start to just tune out, not consciously even. I just tune out your correction because the way you always are. You’re just nag, nag, nag. Bah, rah, rah. Pick, pick, pick. And so hey, I just put a corral around that and push it away.

If it continues, not only do I not listen to your corrections, I don’t listen to you. I don’t want to talk to you. I’m like that 14 year old boy and his dad. If I want to ask, “What time is the game Friday night?” I don’t ask you, because if I come and talk to you, you’re going to say, “I told you when the game is. Didn’t you pay attention? I put the schedule on the refrigerator. Don’t you know how to read?” It doesn’t have to be that harsh, but I don’t want to be with you because you’re going to find something else I’m not doing right and that’s depleting and exhausting and not encouraging. And if it continues, not only will I stop hearing your corrections and stop being with you, I’ll become oppositional to you. Meaning if you’re for it, I’ll be against it, simply because you’re for it.

So you say, “It’s getting a little late, should we have some supper?” And she says, “Well, I’m too tired to fix some supper.” You say, “Well, okay. How about let’s go out and we’ll get a bite to eat?” She says, “Well, then I have to change clothes and start the car. It’s cold out and slippery on the sidewalks of the recent snow.” You say, “Well, okay, how about we order something.” She says, “Well, we’ve been spending a lot of money lately, and it’s the end of the pay period and we should watch our money.” They’re against everything you’re for. Now, where did they learn to be against what you’re for? Well, they picked it up from you, because you’re constantly against everything they’re doing. What I’m saying is then, by stoking the engines for affirmation, you can dig your way out of that hole. You can gain a hearing.

So one takeaway then is that a single corrective can do more damage than multiple affirmations. Is there a principle you’re trying to get at here where for every correction there needs to be tenfold more affirmations, or at least that’s the mindset we need to be adopting?

Yeah, I will tend to say yes, though I don’t think there’s an absolute rule.


One phone call to that 14 year old opened a relationship. But in general, I would say yes, corrections are so stinging that it takes more affirmations to heal the wounds and strengthen the tissue and make the relationship strongly knitted. For years, I’ve defaulted to just 10 to 1. Different researchers have suggested different numbers, like 3 to 1 or 5 to 1.

I would say, that if you’re my son and I walk in the room, you have a little meter in you that either tilts toward, “Oh, good. Dad’s here,” or, “Oh . . . Dad’s here.” Everybody who knows us very well has a meter, and it tilts one way or the other when we walk in the room. So what’s the ratio? Is it 3 to 1, 5 to 1, 10 to 1? It’s enough until your reputation with that person is positive, not negative — until they believe you’re in their corner.

Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, doesn’t start by saying, “You’re caught in adultery. Quit it.” He starts with, “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” So he does get around to, “Sin no more,” but he starts with, “I’m for you. I’m in your corner. I just saved your life. You’re safe around me. Now quit it.” So I think he’s gaining a hearing there.

You use an example in the book that affirmations and corrections are like a bank account. Describe what you mean by that.

Yeah, what I mean is that affirmations make deposits. The more you deposit, the more your balance is. Then when it comes to making a correction, that’s a withdrawal. If you make too many withdrawals, there are several consequences. First of all, your check bounces. You try to write a check on insufficient funds, the check is no good. And that’s like, they stop hearing your corrections and they stop taking your check. If you keep writing bad checks, they close your account. They don’t want to do business with you anymore. If you keep writing checks, you’re under arrest, you’re going to jail for this. They oppose you.

If you’ve dug a hole and you’re in debt to the bank, as it were, you should make a bunch of deposits. The good thing about affirmations is they’re free to get. Just open your eyes and look around. You don’t have to be particularly smart. You don’t have to read this book. You can just look at what God is doing in people and point it out. And it’s a deposit as you do that sort of thing. So that’s what I mean by that analogy.

And that presupposes a work of grace going on in my eyes, that God would open my eyes to see what is commendable in others and give me that spirit to notice.

Right. Exactly. In fact, one of the chapters in the book is a bunch of assumptions that deserve a book probably of their own. One of them is that a Spirit-filled person will be able to do this in a way that a person who doesn’t have the Spirit of God in him, not only won’t be able to, but he won’t want to for very long. He’ll get distracted because there’s a selflessness in this. You do it for the good and the refreshment of the other person. Yes, it will boomerang back on you. You reap what you sow. But not directly from them. It’s not flattery, where I say something good to you because I want something. I want to extract something from you. This isn’t that. This is saying, “I think God is honored. You’re refreshed. Besides, my joy is increased when you’re happy, so I’m just going to do this kind of thing.”

One of the assumptions is that being Spirit-filled will help that and sustain it and empower it, whereas if you don’t have the Spirit of God and you try to do this in the flesh, you’ll start keeping score.

Amen. Very helpful. We’ve covered a lot of ground thus far, but I want to go back to something that you touched on just a moment ago, and that’s this notion of flattery. What is the difference between praise, which is something good, and flattery, which we would not want to do and think is something bad. You’re not arguing for flattery here at all, but how do you distinguish between something that’s praising somebody and something that’s just buttering them up so that they maybe change their behavior, or like you more, or something like that?

Yeah, very good. That’s a good question and an important question. The Bible does talk about flattery, and I put a few paragraphs in this book to try to make a distinction, and I think you’re getting at it. Flattery aims to butter someone up, by which I think you mean I’m predisposing you to give me something. So a young man walks up to a young woman and says, “My, you’re a lovely young thing,” and he’s hoping for something. He wants something in return, and on a fairly short timeline probably.

Whereas the grandfather who walks up to the same young woman and says, “I love the way you kindly take care of your younger sister,” doesn’t want anything in return. He doesn’t want any favors, and especially not anything wrong; whereas, a young man may flatter a young lady because he wants something and what he wants is illicit. He wants something unlawful. He wants something that doesn’t belong to him. Flattery tends to point to things that are very shallow, rather than things that are God-centered and Christ-like. Though you could use Christ-likeness to flatter someone. You could. You could abuse it. I mean, Satan can quote Scripture. So Scripture itself can be abused, but mainly, God-centered affirmation of people, you do this for their refreshment and for God’s honor, not because you want anything in return.

You do talk in the book about the power of influence and that people are more influenced by those that they’ve received praise from. How does this not start to feel man-centered and manipulative?

Or like flattery. I’m doing it because I want influence. It is a fine line and it does take wisdom and discernment. Where I want people to go is to gain a hearing when they should be speaking into a person’s life. You should be speaking into your children’s life, so I want you to gain a hearing from your children. You should be speaking into your wife’s life, so I want you to gain a hearing with her. A pastor should be speaking into his congregation’s life, so I want him to gain a hearing. A teacher should be speaking into the lives of the students, so I want that teacher to behave in a way in which he’ll gain a hearing from those. That seems healthy and fitting, as opposed to, “If I can gain a hearing from you, I can sell you something you don’t really need.” Okay, now that’s manipulative, and salesmen know how to do it and they can use affirmation to get it done, in part. But there’s a difference between me trying to extract something from you and the refreshment that God wants me to provide to you.

How does this practice of affirmation then help us to gain a hearing for the gospel? And maybe I could tag onto that, do you do this with the unregenerate? Do you do this with your enemies?

I’ll start with your first question first. CS Lewis writes, and I can’t quote him verbatim, but there’s a paragraph or two in the book where he talks about how Christians can live in such a way that we really turn off our un-Christian neighbors towards what we have to say. We’re really off-putting, we’re offensive. The gospel is an offense, but we’re not to be offensive. But we can live in such a mouthy way and a critical way of our neighbors that, pretty soon, they just turn a blind eye to us and turn a shoulder and think, “Why do you want to listen to that guy? He’s just a crank.”

Whereas there are ways to talk to unbelievers that are very respectful of them, even seeing the image of God that is in them, even as unregenerate unbelievers, so that they are intrigued and want to give you a hearing if you have something important to say because they know you don’t just trash them all the time or think that they’re completely worthless.

To get to the second part of your question, here’s something that might help. I taught in the public schools for a number of years, and I had a student that, in the book I called him Wayne. It’s not his real name, but we’ll use Wayne. Wayne was trouble. I had an agreement, as a male sixth grade teacher, with the administration that any boys that didn’t have dads for whatever reason — their dad is dead or their family separated or whatever — I’ll take those boys in my class. I was the only male teacher in our school. I don’t think I’m perfect, but I’m probably a better role model of a male than the female teachers, so I wanted these boys in my class. So here comes Wayne. He was from a broken home. He was antisocial. He hated school and he made it known verbally day one, even before he came in the building. He said, “I hate school.”

He was dangerous to the property. He would carve up the furniture, and if you sat in front of him he might write on you or on your clothing or cut your hair or cut your clothing. He would take rectangular erasers and push stick pins through them in all different angles, and then he’d toss it to you and say, “Here catch,” and if you catch it, you bleed. Or if you don’t catch it, you might bleed. It’s probably a crime today, but back when I was teaching it was just mischief and they were still inventing knowledge back when I was teaching.

So here’s Wayne, and I was thinking about the trouble that he is causing to people and to property and to himself. It probably would be a good idea if he listened to a teacher that had good intentions toward him, which was me. So what am I going to do? Well, I believe in this principle. People tend to be influenced by those who praise them, and he’s made in the image of God. So what can I commend in Wayne? He’s trouble all the live-long day. He always was in trouble and he deserved it. He looked bad, behaved bad, talked bad, and he smelled bad. He was bad news all day long.

So I’m thinking, “What can I commend in him?” One day I’d given an assignment, and I was working my way through the classroom helping students that had raised their hand and stuff, and I was keeping one eye on Wayne, which was always the rule — keep an eye on Wayne. And I noticed that though he wasn’t doing his assignment, he wasn’t killing anybody at the moment, and I thought, “I’ll settle for that.” And so I made my way over behind him, he was daydreaming actually. He was just looking out the window, in a fog somewhere. And I put my hand on his shoulder and he immediately jerked up and looked up at me, like, “What did I do now?” Because he was always in trouble.

And I said, “Wayne, I can tell that you are deep in thought. I like that about a guy. A guy who’s a thinker.” I just patted him on the shoulder and he looked at me with this look on his face, like, “So that’s what a compliment feels like?” It was as though he’d never had one. I went about the classroom circulating and keeping one eye on Wayne, and when I would start to look over in his direction, he would look contemplatively out the window. What’s happening? Just one commendation to him and I’m gaining a hearing with him. Now I can’t say, “And the next day he became valedictorian and was called into the ministry.” It’s not that kind of a story. I’ve lost track of Wayne over the years, but I’m saying that there was power in the affirmation. What I commended him for is something that’s in God. I commended him for thinking, just for thinking.

It’s God who is the great thinker and it’s God who says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This was way back in the seventies and I was still developing my own clarity on this kind of stuff back then, so I didn’t at that moment say, “I think God has made you a thinker.” If I had to do it over, I’d make God explicit in it. God was implicit. He was there all the time, but I think I would make God explicit. But there is power in affirming an unbeliever. He was an unbeliever, and yet there was a way to affirm him for some godly image that is there because God put it there, and I gained me a hearing with him. By Christmas, a few months later, when he walked out for the Christmas holiday break, he said, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Crabtree,” and then he turned back and said, “I still hate school.”


Yeah, catch! So he was opening up to me but still wanted to have this shell, this veneer, the “I hate school” and everything, but he was starting to listen to this guy who didn’t see him as only trouble.

So in a case like that, when it’s within your purview or responsibilities before God to bring guidance, or leadership, or correction, or even behavior modification as in the case of Wayne, or one’s own children, affirmation is not manipulative; it’s in fact, a very loving thing to do.

Well, in its best practice, I think yes. I don’t deny that it can shape behavior. I don’t deny that. But I also don’t deny that — while we are not only behaviorists from BF Skinner’s radical behaviorism school of thought — God has designed a universe in which rewards reinforce behaviors. We’d be foolish to ignore that. Regarding Pavlov’s salivating dogs, God put that salivation in them. So if you take a child or somebody you supervise, and you commend them for something, you’ve increased the possibility that whatever you commended them for will be repeated. They’ll do more of it. Well, that’s not wrong.

It may seem manipulative, but I think it’s just cooperating with the way God made the universe, especially if you’re commending them for godliness. If you could manipulate people into godliness, which we can’t, but if you could, wouldn’t you want to? We should want to encourage people. We should spur one another on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). So if this will help spur people on by commending what is already present in them as good, as Christ-like, as godly, I think we would want to do it.

There were so many takeaways and points in reading this that the penny dropped or the light bulb went on. In that regard, the book is simply a joy to read. It’s convicting in the right kind of way.

I wrote it to me.

Thank you for that. One of the things that jumped off the page at me was that you mentioned the text 2 Timothy 1:16–18 and the case of Onesiphorus. I wonder if you could just talk to our listeners today, what’s the connection between receiving mercy and affirming others? How are those two things related?

Well, I need to admit, as I think I do in a footnote about that text, that I’m stretching that text to mean more than it means in the Bible, but I don’t think I am contradicting anything that it means. So the mercy of God, or the mercy of the Lord, comes to Onesiphorus. It doesn’t just come to Onesiphorus, it comes to his whole household. Paul says, “May God show mercy to his whole household, for he refreshed me.” So here you have all these parties. I’ve got items here. Can the cameras see all these items I’ve got here? Can they pick all that up?

They can try.

So here’s God, here’s Onesiphorus, and here’s Paul. Onesiphorus refreshes Paul and God gives Onesiphorus mercy. In fact, his whole household gets mercy, which is one of the things I believe about this affirmation business. If you’re an affirming person, not only does it help you, everybody around you is helped. The tide rises in the whole house, or the whole office, or the whole classroom, or the whole church, wherever you’re at. It’s just good for everybody. So that’s the dynamic. Actually in that text, you have the Lord, who’s explicitly mentioned, you have Onesiphorus and his household, so there’s a fourth thing, and you have Paul. But there are two other entities.

One is that it’s written to Timothy, so Timothy is supposed to learn from all this. He’s supposed to look at what Paul has reported and say, “Oh. I want to get mercy from God. I should refresh other people.” And there’s a sixth party. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he knew others would read it. He said, “Read this to the whole church.” It’s us. You and me, and everybody who reads the Bible today should benefit from what happened between Onesiphorus and Paul. This guy gives refreshment to this guy and God gives mercy. And who doesn’t want mercy? Who doesn’t need mercy?

God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. If there’s anything I don’t need, it’s resistance from God. I need mercy from God. I need grace from God, and one way to get it is to refresh other people. Refresh them. I should seek out people that I can refresh.

Now here’s the tie. A word of affirmation is almost universally refreshing. Almost. I mean, there are some people that are really in a funk and really depressed, and you can give them a word of affirmation and it’s water off a duck’s back. But almost universally, if I commend a person for something, it refreshes them. I write lots of notes of commendation to people. I’ll hear years later that it’s still pinned up in their cubicle. I have parents tell me, “They still have your note taped up on the mirror in their bedroom.” People are thirsty for some evidence in their life that God is taking them somewhere, that there’s growth. And if we point it out, that’s refreshing.

So just to summarize, as we’ve talked about this with God-centered affirmations, when done well, God is receiving glory, the person is receiving refreshment, and the giver of that affirmation is receiving mercy from the Father?

Right. And the refreshment that others receive from me needs to be real refreshment, not just what I imagined might refresh them. I was talking about this in a marriage class one day, and there was a guy who was telling a story about himself. He said, “One Christmas, scout’s honor, I gave my wife for Christmas a table saw.” The point being, it didn’t refresh her. He gave her a gift that he thought she’d think, “Well, I’m glad I have a happy husband.” That’s the gift to his wife, that she has a happy husband.

My wife has a digestive disorder and people of goodwill and good intention have given her gift cards to bakeries and stuff, and she can’t eat gluten. They were well-intentioned, but it’s not refreshing in the sense that they meant it to be. So you have to be a little bit of a student of the person that you’re wanting to refresh so that the refreshment you give them is really refreshing from their standpoint.

Let’s go back to your comments earlier in the broadcast about God needing to open our eyes to what is truly commendable in other people. There’s intentionality behind it, noticing these things, caring about loving people enough to get involved in their lives to such a degree you know they have these idiosyncrasies or these disabilities or these preferences, so that you can truly refresh when you attempt to do that refreshment.

Well, let me ask you this before the thought goes out of my mind here. What about the issue of humility? It seems almost oxymoronic to somehow praise humility in someone else. Does that not start to push the bounds where this is all good and true, Pastor Sam, but when it comes to virtues like humility, how do you really affirm that in a way that doesn’t immediately just sound weird or make that person feel weird for being so humble? Talk about humility and how we affirm that in a way that gives glory to God and real help to the other people.

Yeah, well, praising humility, except in God, only works if you’re commending it in others. So if you commend your own humility, wrong answer. But I think you should commend it where you see it, and if you see real humility, commend it. And trust God that if there’s real humility in that person, they’ll take it humbly. That is, they hear this affirmation come to them and they do what wise people do with affirmation anyway; they deflect it to others and mainly back to God. They say, “He uses ordinary jars of clay. I don’t deserve anything. Everything is from him and through him and to him. He’s not served with human hands as though he needed anything. He gives to all life and breath and everything else. I don’t have anything I didn’t receive.”

I mean those persons will receive that commendation with such gratefulness and say, “Wow, I’m growing in humility. Can that even possibly be true? Maybe there’s a sliver of hope that my sanctification is making progress. Glory to God.” And that’s what they’ll do with it. They’ll give it right back to God. It’s like our crowns in eternity. We cast our crowns at his feet, or whatever the great hymn says.

We’ll talk about that a little bit more then, even broader than just how one receives an affirmation for their humility? Is there an appropriate way to receive affirmation in general? Will “thank you” suffice? Or, “that was very kind”? I mean, you said nice things earlier in the broadcast, and I’m thinking inside, “Man, that’s all God’s grace. Thank you, but that’s God’s grace.” If there’s a right way to give affirmation, is there a right way to receive affirmation?

Very good question, and you just modeled it. I mean, you just modeled it. There’s more than one way to do it well, I think, and it depends on your context and how much time you have. I mean, in some cases you don’t have time to give a long speech, and so thank you is enough and you move on. But two things I try to keep in mind are that God is in the center of everything that has happened to me that’s good, and everything that’s happened to me that’s difficult. He’s behind everything. So if something good has happened, he’s at the root of it. He’s at the bottom of it. He’s been in the middle of it all along.

And secondarily, others have probably contributed to me. So if I learned to ride a bike, I can’t really brag that I did it by myself because I didn’t even invent the bike. I didn’t invent rubber that goes on the tires. I didn’t invent the wheel, the chain. Other people set the table for me to do that, and then my dad bought the bike and pushed me around for a long time. So I think when you receive affirmation, you can deflect it, that is, you receive it and don’t reject it. You say, “I’m glad you’re noticing something commendable. Good for you, and I’ve been helped along the way. I’ve gotten a lot of help.”

Part of my privilege at Bethlehem in my job as Executive Minister is that when I hear that Bethlehem is doing something good, is to commend lots of people that are doing the good work that’s being done at Bethlehem. So instead of me saying, “Yeah, boy, Bethlehem, it’s quite a place, isn’t it? Guess who’s the executive pastor there?” But rather to say, “We have such an incredible staff and God has enabled me to hire people that are better than I am at everything that they’re hired to do. I’m here in this studio right now, they’re doing the ministry. They should be credited for doing that good work.” So I’m passing the credit through me to them.

Here’s the other thing I try to do. Sometimes a person who’s pointing out something that’s commendable, I want to commend them right back because they have powers of observation. So someone might say something affirming of me and I’ll thank them for their kindness, saying, “This is really merciful of you to say a nice thing to this jar of clay.”

Or I mean, you were very astute earlier in the way you put this question here, so I would want to commend you for astutely saying that this was when the penny dropped, and I don’t know, stuff like that. Something in you gives you powers of observation, an alertness and attentiveness to things that matter, to make certain connections, and so I just want to rebound commendation right back to people who give affirmation. So those are some ways to respond when you receive affirmation.

Is it wrong to desire to be loved?

In the book, I have a whole list of things like that. Is it wrong to desire to be recognized? Is it wrong to desire to receive credit? And in the list, is it wrong to desire to be loved? If I were to refuse love, I would be refusing to let God be God because that’s the way he is. He is love, and the only way I’ll have a relationship with him is if he loves me, and I should want that. Thank you for asking. I should want him to love me.

In fact, elsewhere in there I say that I think there’s something defective with the professing believer who doesn’t want, earnestly want, to hear God commend him. Not so he can boast himself, but someday you should want to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So I should want to be loved by God, but not base that love on my merit that I’m worth loving. If God owes me love, then it wouldn’t be love.

So, no boasting?

Yeah, no. He loves me because he’s who he is, not because I’m deserving of anything. And so that kind of love is entirely, not only appropriate, but I think it’s essential.

Very helpful. Well, as we move toward a close here, you have a chapter in the book called “Sightings of Jesus.” Maybe there are some who have listened or they’ve caught part of this broadcast and they’re not quite latching on to this whole idea of being God-centered. They might think, “Can’t I just thank Grandma for making good chocolate chip cookies? How do I bring God into that when I’m praising her and affirming her in that?” What should we particularly be on the lookout for when it comes to intentionally affirming those around us? What’s up with this “Sightings of Jesus” chapter regarding other people?

Well, we’ve nibbled around the edges of it earlier. What I mean by God-centered praise mainly is Christlikeness; that the attributes, the qualities, and the character of Christ are being worked into human beings, especially those that welcome him and are filled by his Spirit (believers), and that’s what we ought to be looking for. So take the 9 fruit of the Spirit from Galatians. We should be looking for those. Be on the lookout for love, people who are loving, who really invest in the wellbeing of others. We should be on the lookout for people who are joyful, patient, or peacemakers.

As I told earlier the story about Wayne. Look for thinking. That’s something God does. Look for everything God does. Before we started this broadcast, one of the staff came over and prayed. It was a very reverential prayer. It was a very God-centered prayer, and I noticed the reverence in that prayer. That’s something to commend and it’s in Christ. He reverences the Father all the time.

Creativity is another thing. He created everything that is, so to be creative is some aspect of the image of God being worked out in you or through you. To be forgiving is miraculous, and we can commend forgiveness and mercy wherever we see it. Dependability, decisiveness, wisdom, faithfulness, thriftiness even, to not expend what you don’t need to expend. Or consider generosity. Who’s more generous than God or Jesus? Just quality after quality after quality that are Christ-like, look for them, and that’s what I mean by sightings of Jesus.

That’s good. You have chapter nine in the book, and I quoted it here. The title of the chapter is “100 Affirmation Ideas For those Who Feel Stuck,” and I wrote in my notes that this chapter is worth the price of the book. So chapter nine is worth the price of the book right here. It’s 100 affirmation ideas, and you really list a hundred ideas. So my question is how’d you come up with all that? There’s something beneath that.

What I want you to talk about here is, what’s the Sam Crabtree history behind that? Anybody that can come up with 100 different wonderfully creative ideas for affirming other people is somebody who’s been working on this a while. What’s your own story in this? And then I’d like to close with one more question regarding those who are really struggling with this. So just talk about your bio piece behind this a little bit.

Well, I don’t want to put the center of it in my wiring, but undoubtedly, somebody who writes a book, his wiring contributes to why he writes that book and why he writes it the way he writes it and lives it out the way he lives it out. I think if we were to use the parlance of love languages, one of my main languages is words of affirmation. They mean a lot to me, and I think they mean a lot to other people. I’ve seen relationships just blossom when somebody would just point out something that they appreciated, even a young bride who burns the casserole. If her husband says, “Way to be adventurous in the kitchen, dear.” He’s commending her. That keeps things from just closing off. If he says, “Oh, you burnt the casserole, I see,” it’s another brick on the scale of heavy correction.

So yeah, I’ve seen it in the classroom when I was a teacher for seven years. I’ve seen it with my own children. I’ve seen it in my marriage. Usually the dry, difficult seasons in my marriage to Vicky are when I’ve gotten too busy to appreciate all that God is doing in her and through her, and some of it is directly for my benefit. When I start paying better attention and calling out the good things in her, I feel better about her, and she feels better about her, and we both feel better about God because he’s doing these things. So yeah, there’s a piece in me, but how do you write a list of 100? Here’s some things. Start.

A list of 100 has a number 1, so think of 1. Or think of 5. Just start. And there’s nothing magical about the number 100, but then ask for help. I think God wants us to do this. I think he wants us to be affirming. He wants us to bless. In fact, there’s a text, and I’m not going to remember what its reference is now, but it’s something like “build one another up, for to this you were called” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). That’s our calling to build up one another with speech. So pray, ask God, “How else can I affirm my wife?” And then work at it. Work at it. If you think 100 is important, which I thought was arbitrary, but it’s a number. I just numbered it to 100, and figured I was going to stay at this until I had 100.

Well, it’s impressive and extremely, extremely helpful.

I just really appreciate that. I wanted this book to be helpful, and not just be a book.

Well, I’ll ask you one more question here at the end of the broadcast. Sam, for the person who’s watching tonight who maybe is discouraged because of their own lack of affirmation with their spouse or with their children or with their coworkers, who wonders if they could ever develop what you call “a reputation for affirmation.” For that person who’s hearing this or reads this and feels the weight of their own lack in that regard, what do you say to them today? Where do they go from here? What’s the next step for them?

I’d say several things, a handful of things. Want it. Do you really want it or do you just think maybe you want it? Do you want to be affirming? Do you want to be a blessing to others? Do you want to get the mercy of God that comes to you by refreshing others? So want it.

Next, pray that it would happen. Ask God to make it happen. Say, “This is the desire of my heart, God. I think it would please you. Therefore, I ask for it in Jesus’s name. I think it accords with what Jesus wants me to do and be and become, so help me accelerate my growth in this particular area.” So want it and pray for it, then read this book. It’s very practical. I’m not good at hard sell and I’m aware of the dangers of pride about this, but I wanted this to be practical and you just affirmed that it is, and so people can read a book like that. Then practice it. Just practice it. Do it.

One of the things I do is I write a 3 by 5 card note to my wife every day as a discipline. And you can decide beforehand. Guys think, “I’m not very good at this.” Well, just decide that you’re going to do it before you go to bed tonight. Say, “Before this day is over, I’m going to do one. I’m going to do one.” And that puts you on a path to becoming a pattern of your life, a reputation for you. So want it, pray for it, read the book, practice, and then help others get good at it, which is what I think you’re doing right now by having this broadcast. You’re helping other people get good at it, which makes you get better at it and I think it cycles then.

Amen. Well, Sam, thank you for writing the book and thanks for being a part of the broadcast today.

Thanks for doing this.

Well, I trust you’ve been encouraged by our broadcast today. If you’re interested in learning more about the things that we’ve been talking about here on the broadcast today, we encourage you to pick up a copy of Practicing Affirmation authored by Sam Crabtree, published by Crossway Books.

I’m Scott Anderson, and on behalf of all the staff and crew here, we thank you for watching this edition of Desiring God Live and we trust that you’ll join us next time. Until then, may Christ remain your treasure and your joy.