It is difficult to exaggerate the value of an encouraging letter, a letter which affirms the value of a person made in the image of God, and which affirms the work of God in others. In his excellent book, Practicing Affirmation, Sam Crabtree writes:
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.
As Christians, we are too often light on commendation, and heavy on criticism. We sometimes have the strange idea that if we praise a person for their work, character, and love then they will become proud. And we somehow think that it’s not God’s job to keep a person humble—it’s ours. So we tend to be light on praise and heavy on criticism, light on commendation and heavy on complaining.
But the apostle Paul did not think that way. Instead, his mind’s eye looked for that which was praiseworthy in people. Now, mind you, he was also not afraid to give rebuke when it was necessary. But his habit was to look for evidence of grace in the lives of others, and praise them for it.
For example, just in this little letter called Philippians, we find the apostle commending the recipients no less than seven times. Paul praised them for:
- Their partnership in the gospel (1:5)
- God’s saving and sanctifying work in them (1:6)
- That they were partakers of grace in his imprisonment, in contrast to those who forsook him, or those who were enemies of Christ (1:7)
- Their love and prayers (1:19)
- Their progress and joy in the faith (1:25)
- Their kindness in meeting his $ needs, and supporting the work of the gospel. Their gift, he said, was a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice to God (4:15-20)
- The spiritual fruit that was increasing to their account because of their love and generosity (4:17)
This is a cheerful letter of encouragement.
How about you? Are you heavy on criticism and light on praise? Instead of looking for evidences of God’s grace in the lives of your fellow believers, do you more quickly look for their flaws? Do you write letters of encouragement that build others up, or are you more prone to write angry, caustic emails?
As Paul began his letter to the Philippians, he began with words of affirmation and encouragement, and he greeted them with grace and peace. The order is significant: grace precedes peace, true peace only comes to those who experience grace. We need to remember, too, that Paul’s continued prayer means the supply of God’s grace and peace has not run out. There is still plenty there for you, and for me. And there is plenty to pass on to others.
So, here’s your homework (Yes, this blog post contains homework!). This weekend, write at least one letter of encouragement to a brother or sister who has been a blessing to your life. Note the evidence of God’s grace that you see in their lives. Tell them you are thankful to God for them and how God has used them to enrich your life, model Jesus, and help you to grow spiritually. Extend to them the grace that God has so richly extended to you. And then pray…ask God to make you the kind of believer who is heavy on praise and light on criticism or complaining.
[These thoughts are from last Sunday’s sermon, A Letter of Encouragment.]