Jeremy Sarber


Speaking edifying words

I delivered the following Sunday school discourse, based on chapter three of Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God by Sam Crabtree, at Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, October 31, 2021.

As I’ve thought about this subject of practicing affirmation, one verse, in particular, has been running through my mind, and that is Ephesians 4:29. The apostle Paul writes, Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

According to Paul, our speech can go one of two ways. It can be corrupting—that is, rotten, putrid, destructive—or it can be encouraging, edifying, and gracious. Our focus in this study is on the latter, of course, but let’s talk for a moment about corrupting speech. Some translations use the word unwholesome.

Corrupting talk

I doubt kids use this line anymore, but when I was a kid and someone would insult me, I’d often respond by saying, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It wasn’t true, and I knew it wasn’t true. Words can hurt. In fact, they can be very powerful weapons. And for reasons I can’t fully explain, critical words seem to be far more powerful than affirming words.

Just ask one of our pastors. Ninety-nine people may thank them for preaching the word well, but they’ll spend the next week thinking about that one critical comment they heard.

My daughter gives me one of my greatest joys every day when I get home from work. As soon as she hears me enter the house, she runs to the back door, shouting, Daddy, Daddy,” and wraps her arms around my leg. It’s one of my greatest thrills in life. And she’s full of sweet words and gestures just like that, but there was that one time she was upset with me. While I was standing on the other side of the room, she told her mom, I don’t like Daddy.”

I will confess to you that I wanted to cry when I heard her say that. If you had told me, One day your daughter will probably say she doesn’t like you,” I would have said, Oh, I know, but I’ll be fine. I know kids say things they don’t mean.” But when the moment came, it felt like someone punched me in the stomach.

That is the power of words. Specifically, that is the power of corrupting words. James illustrates the matter this way:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:3-6)

As children, we say words can never hurt us, but according to Scripture, and this is not an exaggeration, words are more powerful than sticks and stones could ever be. Sticks and stones have never been able to destroy the church. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church (Mt 16:18). But the wrong words can set the entire body on fire.

So, Paul says, Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths (Eph 4:29). Avoid insults. Avoid criticism. Avoid slander. Avoid gossip. Avoid profanity. Avoid speaking lies. Avoid any talk that is not good for building up. Instead, we, as followers of Christ, should be very intentional about using our words to edify those around us for the glory of God.

Imagine you’re attempting to build a tower of blocks. Slowly and carefully, you position one block at a time as you build the tower taller and stronger. Make one false move, and the entire tower comes down. Verbal affirmations and encouragements are those carefully positioned blocks. Corrupting talk, on the other hand, is like one of my children (Eph 4:29). It doesn’t seem to matter how strong the tower is, they can destroy the entire thing with one swipe.

Keep that in the back of your mind as we turn our attention to what Paul refers to as talk that is good for building up—affirmations, in other words (Eph 4:29).

5 characteristics of good affirmations

In his book, Sam Crabtree provides a list of four characteristics of good affirmations, and I’d like to add one of my own. So, if you’re taking notes, I have five characteristics of good affirmations.

Characteristic #1: Good affirmations require intentionality.

Let me ask you a seemingly unrelated question. How many times a day do you look at your smartphone? How many times a day do you pull the phone from your pocket and begin thumbing through apps without any explicit reason to do so? No one called. No one texted. You’re not waiting on an important email. You don’t need to get in touch with anyone. You just started using your phone without any conscious thought or effort.

If we paused long enough to really examine ourselves, I suppose we’d all find countless things we do each day that are motivated more by whims and impulses than intentionality. And that is often true of our speech, which is why the Bible reminds us to be quick to hear and slow to speak (Jas 1:19). Again, the tongue is a world of unrighteousness, according to James (Jas 3:6). It gets us into a lot of trouble because it tends to move quicker than our brains.

Maybe it’s harmless that we let our hands reach for our phones without a conscience thought—then again, maybe it’s not—but we certainly can’t afford to let our tongues have the same amount of liberty.

The whole of the Christian life requires a certain amount of intentionality. Doesn’t it? Consider Paul’s testimony in Romans 7. He confesses:

I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23)

Paul realizes the Christian life is essentially a war against one’s self. Though we are born again, the re-created workmanship of Christ, we still have to contend with our sinful flesh. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul said, I discipline my body and keep it under control (1Co 9:27). We have to beat ourselves into submission sometimes because sin is the only natural course of sinful flesh.

Do you see how a lack of intentionality would become a problem? Do you see the trouble we’d get into if we didn’t put some restraints on ourselves? If sin is the natural impulse of sinners, it’s probably not a good idea to let ourselves run on autopilot. And if the tongue is the most dangerous, volatile member of the body—well, to borrow from James’s analogy—we better grab the steering wheel and move the rudder in the direction it needs to go.

Again, the whole of Christian life demands intentionality. It requires intentional thought. It requires intentional effort. Jesus said if we’re even thinking about following him, perhaps we should first sit down and count the cost (Lk 14:28).

Now, what if we apply that principle to our speech? What if, before we speak, we weigh the cost of our words? What will those words accomplish? Will we tear others down or build them up? Will our words be destructive or edifying?

I believe thoughtful intentionality is what James has in mind when he encourages us to be slow to speak (Jas 1:19). When we are slow to speak, James implies we will also be slow to anger. Why? It is because the person who takes the time to think about the impact of his words before he says them will be far more likely to choose good words, words that build up and edify—that is, affirming words.

Criticism, anger, maybe even profanity— These are the kinds of speech that come naturally for us. If we are going to practice godly affirmation, we have to resolve in our hearts and minds to do so. We have to proactively seek opportunities to do so. We have to want it and strive for it. We have to grab the wheel of the ship and steer it.

Let me give you a practical tip. I find it helpful to make notes. Throughout the week, I will think of people I really appreciate. I will think of something someone else did, and praise be to God, I’m thankful for them, so I make a note of it. Then, when I have an opportunity, I will write, call, or tell them in person. Granted, I don’t follow through nearly as often as I should, but I certainly follow through more because I took a second to write it down. Give it a try.

So, characteristic #1 is intentionality.

Characteristic #2: Good affirmations should be steady.

In other words, let’s not treat them like New Year’s resolutions. On January 1st, we’re all zealous to start that new diet or exercise program, but by February 1st, our resolutions are a distant memory.

Practicing affirmation is not a shallow New Year’s resolution. We are talking about one of the things that characterizes a disciple of Christ. We are defined, in part, by the way we speak.

Not long ago, a colleague of mine thought it would be appropriate to tell me a dirty joke. I’m not sure why. He seemed a little unnerved, however, after the punchline because I didn’t laugh. I didn’t crack a smile because I didn’t think it was funny. After a moment of awkward silence, my colleague finally said, Come on, man. It’s just a joke. I thought even the pastor would find that funny.”

Maybe it was a bit harsh—I don’t know—but I decided to be candid with him that day. I replied, By the grace of God, I’m not amused by what God hates.”

Three things troubled me about that moment. First, this gentleman is a professing Christian. Second, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had ever done or said to make him think I would enjoy a raunchy joke that makes light of sin. Third, I was troubled by his statement, It’s just a joke.”

Jesus said, For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt 12:34). In other words, whatever fills the heart spills out through the mouth. Jesus also said, You will recognize them by their fruits (Mt 7:20). Even a believer gets angry. Even a believer can be negative and critical. God knows believers can gossip. But corrupting talk is not characteristic of a believer (Eph 4:29). It should not be the continual habit of a believer.

Maybe you’ve been there. You’ve had some rough weeks at work, and you feel yourself falling into a rut where every word you say is tinged by your frustration. Though it’s not your family’s fault, you catch yourself frequently snapping at them. Why didn’t you fold the laundry? Why didn’t you mow the lawn? Why didn’t you put your toys away? Then, when your spouse addresses the issue, you get even angrier because your short fuse feels justified. What about my stress doesn’t she understand?

Do you want to be convicted? Think about the first recorded words Jesus said after his enemies nailed him to a cross. Though humiliated, mocked, tortured, beaten, and exhausted, he said, Father, forgive them (Lk 23:34). And in case you’re tempted to argue, Christ was God; I’m not,” remember what Stephen, a mere man, shouted during his execution: Lord, do not hold this sin against them (Ac 7:60).

Corrupting talk is never justified (Eph 4:29). Despite the practice of many Southern women I’ve known, adding Bless his heart” to the end of an insult does not negate the insult. As followers of Christ, we should be a source of compassion, understanding, and encouragement to those around us—believers and unbelievers alike. To be clear, when we jot those reminders to affirm others throughout the week, we don’t have to exclusively reserve them for our brothers and sisters in Christ. As you’ve already heard from both Jason and Roger, there are things to be commended in every image-bearer of God.

The thing is, practicing affirmation has to become a steady habit. We are not called to give an encouraging word here or there. Instead, we should be known for our encouragements. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt 12:34). We should be a people so thankful for the godly traits of others that we are continually, consistently affirming those traits.

God willing, we’ll become the kind of people so known for our edifying speech that our presence alone has the power to lift spirits and encourage others. I’ve known people like that. They walk into the room, and I immediately feel better before they’ve spoken the first word. Why? It’s because history has proven an encouraging word is coming. If there’s one to be said, they’ll find it.

Characteristic #3: Good affirmations are not criticisms in disguise.

Again, criticism is the sinner’s default. When we are in the practice of speaking without careful thoughtfulness—slow to speak, that is (Jas 1:19)—we are more likely to criticize than edify. By nature, we are critical, self-righteous, and judgmental. We are also quite clever.

Let me explain what I mean.

Even the secular world understands one can attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Dale Carnegie’s been preaching that message since 1936 through his book, How To Win Friends and Influence People. If you want people to be receptive to what you have to say, you will need to sprinkle in some compliments.

I say we are clever because sometimes we can be as critical as ever, but we disguise our criticisms with a few affirmations. The truth is, however, it doesn’t work.

Let’s say a husband sits down to have dinner with his wife. They begin eating, and he says to her, Honey, I really appreciate all of your effort to make dinner. I’m thankful for your willingness to slave over a hot stove every night. You look beautiful, by the way. I love what you’ve done with your hair. But have you had the time to look at the cookbook I gave you for Christmas? There seems to be some great recipes in there as long as you follow the directions closely.”

What do you think his wife heard? She heard, Honey, I’d rather eat dog food than what you just served me.”

Maybe that’s a stretch, but as I said before, an affirming word is just one block on the tower while criticism has the power to knock the entire thing over. Even if we have thick skin, criticism tends to be louder than encouragement. You can speak ninety-nine edifying words to me, and I will walk away dwelling on that one discouraging word of criticism.

Affirmations should not be used like a Trojan horse for sneaking in criticism, insults, or even corrections. As Sam Crabtree says, Correction packaged with the affirmation will contaminate and weaken the affirmation.”

Having said that, I do believe there is a place for both affirmations and corrections in the same context. We see that throughout Scripture. For example, when Jesus speaks through John to the church in Ephesus—this is in Revelation 2—he says:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:2-4)

To be clear, what I’m talking about is knowingly or perhaps unknowingly using affirmations maliciously or deceptively. I don’t believe Jesus commended the Ephesian church to make his rebuke more palatable. I believe his affirmations were sincere. In other cases such as his address to the Laodicean church, he offers no commendations at all. His affirmations were not part of a strategy to manipulate the churches. He praised them when they were praise-worthy. He corrected them when they needed correction. And sometimes he did both.

What we want to avoid is using affirmations to merely justify a critical, judgmental spirit within us. Think of what Jesus said of Israel: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Mt 15:8). If I praise my wife just so I can get away with criticizing her cooking, that is not godly affirmation. That is not good for building up (Eph 4:29). That does not give grace to those who hear. Despite many of the words coming out of my mouth, I am not motivated by a genuine desire to edify my wife. Instead, my motives would be self-serving. I just want a better meal without the hassle of starting a fight.

In short, let’s not use affirmations as a disguise for criticism.

Characteristic #4: Good affirmations are honest.

Proverbs 12:19 says, Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment. Proverbs 26 says, Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips and harbors deceit in his heart; when he speaks graciously, believe him not (Pr 26:24, 25). The lesson in both of these passages is be honest.

We all understand what gossip is, right? Gossip is when we say something behind someone’s back we would never say to his or her face. Well, there’s another similar sin that we don’t talk about quite as often, though maybe we should, and that is the sin of flattery.

What is flattery? Flattery is when we say something to someone’s face we would never say behind his or her back. I suspect we’ve all been there.

There was a brother at our church in North Carolina who would often compliment something about the sermon I preached that morning, and he’d always follow that up with, And that’s not flattery.” In other words, he wanted me to know he was being sincere. He was not complimenting the sermon, then criticizing it in the car on his way home. He meant what he said.

As my mother used to tell me as a child, If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Sam Crabtree puts it this way: Commend only the commendable.”

We are not trying to manipulate or deceive people. Practicing affirmation is not an exercise in vanity. We are proactively, intentionally, steadily, and consistently looking for and affirming legitimate godliness in other people. We are striving to honestly, sincerely commend the commendable.

When a child paints a picture, we may look at it and think, I have no earthly idea what this is supposed to be, yet we still proudly hang it on the refrigerator and tell the child what a wonderful job he or she did. That may be appropriate in certain contexts, but sound, biblical, truly profitable affirmations will be honest.

We’re not affirming people for the sake of affirming people. We’re affirming people because we see God at work in their lives, and we want to encourage their faith and sanctification, which leads us to the fifth and final characteristic of good affirmations.

Characteristic #5: Good affirmations are God-centered.

In his sermon on the mount, Jesus taught:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

I think our definition of good works is often too narrow (Mt 5:16). We sometimes think of works as so-called religious activities such as praying, going to church, or reading the Bible. While I believe these things are good works, I also believe Scripture puts a particular emphasis on the good we do for others, which includes the words we speak to them.

When Jesus says, Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works,” he’s not telling us to put on a good show of religion in front of other people (Mt 5:16). In fact, he warns against that notion later in the same sermon. He says, Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them (Mt 6:1).

Again, the Bible often puts a particular emphasis on doing good for others. As we have opportunity, Paul tells the Galatians, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:10). Extending that concept, the book of Hebrews says, Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24).

So, as we do good for others, we are demonstrating to them good works and simultaneously encouraging them to do good also. They see our good, and they are inclined to follow suit. Our good works have a positive influence that spreads to and permeates through the people around us. And what is the end result? Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:16).

God’s glory is our primary objective.

We don’t encourage or affirm people to build up their self-esteem—emphasis on self. Good, godly affirmations are God-centered affirmations. We are affirming godliness. We are affirming righteousness. Furthermore, these affirmations are designed to glorify God, not man. We don’t commend people for just anything, and we don’t commend them because we want them to feel proud of themselves. We commend their good works because we want to motivate them to continue doing what is right, moving them ever closer to conformity to the image of Christ, and ultimately, glorifying God.

In short, we glorify God through our affirmations, which leads those we affirm to also glorify God. Good affirmations are God-centered from start to finish.

7 reasons to affirm others

In the time remaining, I want to consider some of the reasons why practicing affirmation is so important, and these reasons range from pragmatic to theological. I’ll give you a list of seven reasons to affirm others.

Reason #1: Affirmations gain us a hearing.

I remember an occasion when a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door. As an opener, he read a verse from Revelation that describes a new heaven and a new earth once Christ returns (Rev 21:1). He, then, asked, Did you know the Bible doesn’t tell us that people will live in heaven forever? We’ll actually return with Jesus to a new earth.”

I replied, That’s an excellent observation. I believe that’s precisely what the Bible teaches.”

This gentleman’s reaction was somewhat amusing because it was obvious he was not expecting me to agree with him. He was not anticipating that I would commend his interpretation of Scripture. And once his shock wore off, he was willing to actually have a conversation with me. It wasn’t a long conversation, but if you’re familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know they’re not prone to do much more than read a verse, make a theological claim, hand you a pamphlet, and walk away. But a single affirmation caused him to let down his guard and actually speak with me a few minutes.

If you want people to listen, affirmations go a long way.

Reason #2: Affirmations lift morale.

Do I need to explain this one?

Life is hard enough, and discouragements come easy, so we need all the help we can get.

Keep in mind that the Lord has called and assembled us together. By definition, the church is an assembly of God’s called-out people. Christianity is not an individual endeavor. Furthermore, God brings us together for clearly articulated reasons, and one of them is to encourage one another.

Again, consider Hebrews 10:

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day—that is, the day of Christ—drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24, 25)

God calls us together as his church, in part, so we can lift up one another as we inevitably stumble. He brings us together to encourage one another. As members of Christ’s body, every last one of us has a responsibility to practice affirmations, which consequently, lifts the morale of others.

Reason #3: Affirmations promote peace.

Proverbs 21:9 says, It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife. According to this proverb, it’s better to live on a small part of the roof, exposed to all of the elements—rain, wind, snow, the burning sun—than to be inside an otherwise comfortable house with a contentious person.

Why? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but corrupting talk can be even worse (Eph 4:29).

Several months ago, I was talking to a homeless man, who lives in a tent out in the middle of the woods. When I asked him why he lived in a tent, he explained that he once lived with his sister, but he said his sister despises him. After spending a while in what he described as a very hostile environment, he couldn’t take it any longer. He decided it was better to live in a tent without electricity, running water, or climate control than to live in a comfortable house with a quarrelsome person (Pr 21:9).

I suspect there was more to that story than he told me, but the illustration stands.

Criticism and contention cause division. Affirmations and edifying words, on the other hand, bring people together. Why wouldn’t they? We need affirmation. We need encouragement, and we’re naturally drawn to it. We’re drawn to people who give it.

Reason #4: Affirmations prevent destruction.

Obviously, if affirmations create peace, they will also prevent division and destruction.

One of my favorite lines from the book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, says, You cannot win an argument.” It’s true. Once a conversation becomes an argument, there can be no winners. The best thing we can do when an argument begins is stop the argument. As Proverbs says, The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out (Pr 17:14). Plug the hole immediately.

How? An affirming word works surprising well.

Reason #5: Affirmations change us for the better.

When we have our minds set on identifying godly, praise-worthy traits in other people, it forces us to focus on the goodness of God. We’re looking for God’s goodness in other people, so our minds are meditating on it, which influences our own hearts and behaviors. We increasingly become the goodness of God.

Reason #6: Affirmations change others for the better.

As we affirm the goodness of God in them—believers or unbelievers—they’re incentivized to pursue it more.

Reason #7: Affirmations glorify God.

Edifying speech is glorifying to God because it showcases his character. It obeys his commands. It reflects his goodness. And it, of course, spreads to others. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and also give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:16).

The power of the tongue

I’ll leave you with this thought. If nothing else, we need to remember the power of words. Proverbs 18:21 says, Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Words are not merely words. As one author aptly observed:

Words alone can bring a government down or establish peace, destroy a marriage or renew hope, crush a child’s sense of worth or lift him to confidence and joy, unify a church or splinter it into angry factions, send a soul to hell or to heaven.

May we use our words intentionally, steadily, and honestly to give life and, ultimately, glorify God.