Is It Okay to Want Affirmation?
Hi. My name is Alasdair Groves and I am the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life and Scripture Meet. This is Episode One of Season Two. And again, this season, we’re going to take each episode; it’ll come out once a month; and take them as an opportunity to do a little exploratory excursion into some element of life and scripture, some place in counseling or in conversation or in theology applied, where we can take one little angle and use that to reflect on larger questions and hopefully leave ourselves thinking more carefully about how our Lord has spoken to us in His Word as we move out from there. I hope you’ll join us.
Let me ask you a theological question. Is it okay to want affirmation? And by that, I mean, is it godly? Is it biblical? Is the desire for affirmation something a Christian should desire? And if so, how much is okay? Can you be someone who yearns for, who is desperately eager for affirmation? Is it something that you can want as long as you just only want it maybe a little bit? I’ve been thinking about this question quite a lot, the last week or two, since the conversation I had with a pastor that really got me thinking about the issue of our desires in general and affirmation in particular. How should we think about the fact that we do want affirmation?
Let me back up a step, before I get into the particulars of the conversation that my friend and I had. The history of thinking about desires, Christianly, has a long history to it. Obviously, it goes back into every book of Scripture. Jesus has a lot to say about desiring things. He has a lot to say about not desiring things. He talks about, for example, the love of money is the root of all evil. He talks about if you love anyone or anything more than me, you have no part with me. You must love the Lord, your God, above all else. This particular strand, this central theme of Scripture, gets developed over a couple thousand years of church history. You see it probably most prominently and early in Augustine who talks about rightly ordered desires, not having our desires be inordinate, so out of order, that nothing should take precedence over the love that we have for our Lord. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is picked up by many authors since. You have John Calvin in the Reformation talking about the heart of man is like an idol factory, just constantly churning out things that our heart pursues over and above the Lord, instead of the Lord, running to other places than the Lord for the fulfillment of our desires. That same theme continues to unfold. I really, really appreciate that particular idea, that our desires need to stay in order, that we need to love nothing more. And if we see any particular love in our life eclipsing a love for Christ, that is a problem. It is the problem of our life. To have anything in our hearts supplant the Lord, that is a desperate problem.
The challenge then is this: what do we make of our desires? What do we do with desires that remain in us? In particular, what do I do with a situation like this? Or what does my friend, my pastor friend, do? After decades of ministry, the particular question he asked me was, “You know, is it okay that when I’ve finished preaching a sermon, I find it really helpful when I get affirmation for the sermon afterwards? And I want to hear affirmation afterwards.” He went on to say, and I believe this to be true, he said, “You know, so far as I know my own heart, my underlying motivation in preaching the word of God is a desire to bless the flock. I want to feed the flock. I want to be faithful to the Lord and to make his word come alive to people.” So, certainly we can imagine a pastor who says, “Look, I don’t really give a hill of beans for the gospel anymore. It’s all about my desperate hunger to have my shoulder patted and my back patted and have someone say, ‘Great job! You’re such an amazing speaker.'” We can easily imagine situations where there would be an obviousness to affirmation being an idolatrous, ugly problem. But what do you do if, as far as you can see, there’s a distinct, decided central faithfulness to your desire to preach and yet, you find yourself interested in being told afterwards that there was some value to what you have done? How do you understand such things theologically?
Well, I want to follow a little thought experiment with you, because I think there is a right way to desire affirmation, to find it helpful. And it’s not necessarily what we might think if our paradigm is a shallow or truncated version of, beware inordinate desires.
Here’s what I find. I find that when you say, “I don’t want any desires to become inordinate,” here’s what usually happens. You start to think, “Okay, well is my desire for affirmation, or for this boyfriend or girlfriend and relationship I’m in, or whatever it is, desire for success at work, the desire itself, if it starts to get larger, if I feel like well, this is getting to be something I really do care about, then all my warning lights start to go off. Or, at least, they should go off. Or I see it in somebody else and my lights go off for them, afraid they’re blinded to it. But the idea is something like this: I’m afraid that any large desire is by definition, idolatrous. If you want anything too much, that is bad. And so the way towards Christian righteousness, one would therefore think, is I’m going to just make sure I don’t want anything too much.” There’s this narrow zone of like, “Well, I think maybe it’s okay to want things as long as I don’t really want them too much. I keep it in a small zone. I make sure there’s a nice big gap between my largest desires versus my desire for Christ.” And then, of course, questions begin to enter in like, “What exactly does it mean to want Christ, to desire Christ? Does that mean all I should ever want to do is read the Bible and that’s it? Is it okay to want to participate in the ministry at my church? Well, surely, that must be okay. But should I just not want it too much?” Anyway, you see where I’m going. There’s lots of questions that begin to arise if your paradigm is that really, you shouldn’t want much of anything, except for Jesus, except for a cognitive, spiritual experience, feeling emotion about the words of Scripture. Now, I am all in favor of rich, devotional times that are personal. I’m all in favor of sermons, and music, and a church service and time of corporate worship in ways that just ignite a fire in your soul of emotion, and of response, and of gratitude, and awe in beholding the Lord, who is the living God. That is right and good. What I worry about is a paradigm where you end up saying, “Okay, there’s my desire for Jesus. And then there are my desires for everything else. They’re at war with each other. There’s a competition here and I have to be careful to tamp down and to squash desires as much as possible in order to make sure that they don’t get anywhere close to my desire for Christ. And maybe they can grow a little bit as long as they stay clearly in the background.”
I think a better way to think about this, a better way to understand what’s going on, is actually not that. The goal is for us not to really desire anything very much, except for Jesus. It’s rather to say, “I want all my desires to be swept up into my desire for Christ. I want my love for the Lord to permeate everything I do, such that actually, my desires for everything that is good would grow.” So, let me come back to thinking, okay, so you’re a pastor. You’ve been doing ministry for decades. And you find that there is something inside you that still really appreciates hearing, after a sermon that, that there was good in it. Here’s how I would understand that. I would not be saying, “Well, as long as you don’t want it too much, I guess that’s okay.” I would say, “I actually think that the most mature pastor on the face of the planet…” Let’s imagine together a man in his early 90s, who’s been preaching for 70 years and who has grown in his faithful love of Jesus and his faithful love of the flock. I would actually propose that that man should desire affirmation after his sermons more than anyone else on the face of the planet. What I mean by that is that he should be on the edge of his seat to hear about the work of the Spirit in the people of God and in their hearts, as they heard him. That he would have this eagerness, this tip of the toes, hand cupped to his ear, just so deeply desiring to hear what was good. “I prayed over this material. I worked through it. I’ve studied. And I brought people, the best I could, to point them to Jesus, that they would find his comfort, his challenge, his invitation, his wisdom, his strength. That they would find it in some new way, because I spoke these words.” There’s a right yearning to hear afterwards, “Pastor, you know what? The Spirit moved in me today. You know what? Here’s what I found most helpful from our time. You know, I was really convicted. You know, I was really encouraged. You know, I was really challenged. You know, I’ve never thought about it that way before.” Those things should be utterly thrilling to a man whose love for his congregation has known 70 years of development. That the more mature you are as a pastor, the more you will love the flock that has been entrusted into your care on behalf of the chief shepherd. And the more you love your flock, the more you should desire to hear what good has happened in their hearts. The more you should be eager for a sense of participation in their growth, excitement, that they would see some new aspects of Jesus in their lives and in their minds. In fact, there should be an excitement that you got to be a part of that. There should be a delight that the work of the Spirit in your own life has been such that you are able to see with more clarity, that you are delighting in the spiritual health of your flock. There should be a desire to hear that feedback so that you can do maybe even a little bit more next week, to bring them even closer and even richer word, an even more nourishing and fitting, and occasion suiting kind of word from the Lord. So affirmation, it should be this wonderful, delighted, a pleasure glow that you have, having accomplished that which it was your job to do—that service which Christ has called you to.
Now, at this point, let me read you just a brief snippet from C.S. Lewis’s essay, The Weight of Glory, because I just think he captures this dynamic that I’m trying to get across so, so beautifully. Lewis, in talking about the idea of glory and having glory from God, which he said, “You know, that idea leaves me cold. What is glory? And what does it even mean?” But he then he goes on to say this,
“And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural. Nothing can eliminate from the parable, the divine accolade, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’ And with that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life, fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child. And nothing is so obvious in a child, not a conceited child, but, but in a good child, as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently, what I had mistaken for humility, had all these years prevented me from understanding what is, in fact, the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures, nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior, the pleasure of the beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its creator. I am not forgetting,” Lewis goes on, “how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please, turns into the deadly poison of self admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment, a very, very short moment, before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those, whom I rightly loved and rightly feared, was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased him whom she was created to please.”
I’ll stop reading there. I want to just read the rest of the essay. Many of us have heard numerous quotes from it over the years. But I love that phrase. Lewis is saying there’s something deeply right, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please. And he’s recognizing how quickly that turns to patting yourself on the back and a self admiration and a hungry desperation that focuses on me and says, “I need to hear you say I’m good, because I’m the point here.” And that, of course, is deadly. That is the danger. That’s why we talk about idolatry as such a serious thing. But, I think it’s important not to miss that there is something deeply right, that affirmation after a sermon, that affirmation of any job well done, that rejoicing in the work of the Spirit, in your own heart and in your own life, that these are deeply right and appropriate things. And that the more we love Jesus, the more we grow in Christian maturity, the more we will actually desire these good things. The problem is not that our desires need to stay constantly small and in check to make sure they don’t threaten our feeble love for Christ. It’s rather, we want our love for Christ to grow and grow. In growing, we want it to absorb, and infiltrate, and take over all of our other desires so that every desire would be more and more tinged with a focus on the kingdom, with a sense of being submitted to and enjoyed with Jesus himself.
This is difficult. This is not easy. It is complicated. We easily deceive ourselves saying, “Well, okay, if the desire can be good, then I’m probably just wanting something good here and I don’t have to worry about it.” There’s absolutely a danger of letting go of carefulness, of not guarding our hearts against the self deceptive pride that is so quick to seize on our desire for affirmation. As Lewis says, he says, “I’m not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions and how very quickly it turns to a deadly poison.” So, that danger and caution is there. But there is another caution. And the other caution is to say that we are to be stoics who are constantly trying not to enjoy anything, not to find good in anything, or to only allow a little bit of joy and pleasure here and there around the edges, because the only thing you’re really supposed to feel good about is this direct connection with Jesus. When instead, I don’t know what your experience has been, but in my experience, the most mature Christians I have known, and watched, and seen, are the ones who find the most joy everywhere. They’re the ones for whom the relationship they have with Christ has most moved into everything that they do and everywhere that they go. What they appreciate in reading the Scriptures, it’s the same muscle that also appreciates the beauty of the day and the way the sunlight is falling through the branches of the trees and creating patterns on the ground. They’re the ones who most feel a joy in accomplishment in having done something worthy of saying, “Hey, this was good. I’m glad we did this.” That could have been something for church: it could have been a sermon, it could have been leading a small group. It could have been a conversation. It could have been woodworking. It could have been cleaning the kitchen. There’s something of deep joy, of satisfaction found in knowing that you are stepping into the calling of the moment that Christ has given you, and that you have executed it with a faithfulness.
So, where are we going with all this? What’s my hope in suggesting such things? It’s something that I want to be people, who actually look for desire for Christ, a connection with Christ, a love for Christ, to be something that actually lifts up and strengthens and grows all other desires. And that puts to death the sense of, it’s all about me. My desire for affirmation is about me craving hungrily, to hear nice things about myself, as if I were the point, and as if my quality as a preacher were the most important thing. When instead, the whole point of this is: I get to be a piece of feeding God’s flock. So, whether you are a pastor and connect with my particular illustration from this particular conversation that has so grabbed my attention and my mind, or whether you haven’t ever, and won’t ever, preach a sermon in your life, there is this wonderful opportunity that we have to actually invite the Lord to grab our hearts and to actually expand our desires continually, that they would actually grow more and more with our love for him rather than fighting against it.
Let me just close us in prayer. Lord, would you help us? We don’t know ourselves well. Will you help us grab onto the help of brothers and sisters who often can see and know us better than ourselves? Will you help us invite them in, as we have desires that we wonder about how they are doing, whether they are being more and more absorbed by our love for you, or whether they’re actually pulling us away from a right heart, and a right focus, and a right rejoicing in all that you are and all that you do? And will you help us to love you above all things and to love all things that you love more deeply, because you love them and because we love you? Amen.
So, thanks for listening. Welcome back. I hope you enjoy Season 2.