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The Art of Connecting: A pat on the back - Part 2

The Art of Connecting: A pat on the back - Part 2

Friday, May 7, 2021 2:55 PM
Friday, May 7, 2021 2:55 PM


Philemon 4–7

It was the 1960’s. What a time to be in high school! Those were the days of pep rallies and pom-poms, glass pack mufflers and drag races, bass weejuns and Levis, madras windbreakers and buttoned-down collars, hay rides and sock hops, the Beatles…and…high school English! Well, we couldn’t have everything in those days. When it came time to do my English homework I would much rather have been, in the words of Petula Clark, “Downtown, where all the lights are bright”. My high school English teacher’s name was Miss Ava White. Emphasis on the “Miss”, if you please. Not “Mrs.” nor “Ms.” but “Miss”.

Miss White had devoted her life to teaching high school English and had developed quite a reputation around my home town for being a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian. Some might think that automatically goes with the turf of never having married and being consumed with the finer points of “the language”. The first half of the year I never applied myself in her class. I seldom studied, had a very active social life, and, in my immaturity, sought simply to just “get by”. I remember well the day Miss White told me she wanted me to stay after class. I immediately thought to myself, “I know what this means. She is going to give me a piece of her mind for my poor conduct and grades and probably accompany it with a pink slip and a trip to the vice principal’s office.” I knew what would happen there. I had visited before. I had been the recipient of his discipline and those were the days before corporal punishment was banned in our public schools.

When everyone had left, Miss White called me to her desk, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Son, you have character. You are smarter and capable of doing far better work than you are doing. I just wanted you to know that I believe in you and am confident you could be an “A” student if you would go for it.” Wow! She believed in me. And that pat on the back after class did more for me than I could ever put in words. Miss White and I started meeting after school, not that I wanted any of my friends to know it. I would sneak up the back stairwell at the end of the day to her room on the third floor. She spent an hour with me each day teaching me how to outline and to think analytically. She believed in me and she let me know it. In no time my grades soared from “C’s” to “A’s”. To this very day, every time I outline a book or write a chapter, I am indebted to Miss Ava White. She changed my life and the way I thought about myself with a word of affirmation, a simple pat on the back.

A word of affirmation, yes, a pat on the back, is an essential element in the development of positive and productive interpersonal relationships. Paul’s private and personal letter to Philemon is a case study in the art of connecting. In the first paragraph of the letter following his salutation he uses this principle of a pat on the back as an entree into what was to come later in the heart of the letter. Paul affirms his friend saying, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Philem. 7). How is that for a pat on the back?

Everything has a beginning and all beginnings are vitally important. A lot of relational failures result from getting started on the “wrong foot”. Some relationships that might have been, crumbled at the outset through an awkward date or an ill-planned interview. Affirmation is the beginning of positive connecting. A pat on the back that is genuine and from the heart has a disarming effect. It sets the other person at ease and causes them to feel good about themselves. If we think about it, most of us can attest to times in our lives when some “Ava White” spurred us on to greater heights by giving us a simple pat on the back.

The lack of positive results in many negotiations is at the very point of the lack of mutual affirmation by the parties involved. This is certainly true, for example, in the fifty-plus year struggle for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation which has demanded world headlines for over five decades. Think about it. This is one situation that is virtually void of the element of affirmation on either side and the result has been stagnation and stand-off for years. What do you think would happen if the current Israeli leadership would affirm the Palestinians’ plight? If they recognized their right to individual dignity and some type of self-autonomy? If they acknowledged the tragedies of the massacres of villages like Deir Yassin where 254 women, children and old men lost their lives in 1947? If they acknowledged the displacement and confiscation of homes of thousands of innocent victims? In short, if they simply spoke some word of affirmation, some simple pat on the back. And what would happen if the current Palestinian leadership affirmed Israel’s right to exist within safe and secure boundaries and genuinely repudiated previous statements about driving them into the sea? If they acknowledged the modern Jewish struggle and the atrocities that took the lives of their grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in such places as Dachau and Treblinka? In short, if they simply spoke some word of affirmation, some simple pat on the back. Perhaps this sounds a bit simplistic. But, my point is, a pat on the back has an incredibly disarming effect and can indeed become the launch pad for the beginning of positive and productive interpersonal relationships. There is little hope for successful negotiation in any relationship that is void of the element of affirmation.

Realizing this valuable principle, Paul begins his letter to Philemon with a pat on the back. Before coming to the heart of the letter with its request to receive Onesimus back, he disarms Philemon by telling him how much he appreciates him and what an encouragement he has been to him personally. The lack of affirmation in modern relationships is epidemic. In fact, it is almost an extinct commodity in our “me” culture. Think about it. When was the last time you gave someone a pat on the back, a word of positive affirmation and appreciation, a word of encouragement? When was the last time you sat down and wrote a thank-you note or made a phone call to lighten the load of a friend with a word of affirmation?

We all need a pat on the back from time to time…and often when we deserve it the least. This is certainly true in the home. Our children need our love the most when they deserve it the least. A pat on the back is the best way to begin productive interpersonal relationships.

I. Appreciation

There are many revealing aspects about affirmation in Paul’s letter to Philemon. He begins by showing that a pat on the back involves appreciation. He says, “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers” (Philem. 4). He was not hesitant nor ashamed to let his friend know he was appreciated. The tense of the verb in the Greek allows Philemon to know this was not just an arrow of thanks shot at random but it was a sincere word on Paul’s behalf. He repeatedly found himself feeling thanks for his friend and he wrote him to let him know it. Thanksgiving has a liberating effect about it. Have you told anyone you are thankful for them lately? How about your son or your secretary? Your husband or your hairdresser? Your employer or your employee? Paul let his friend know he was appreciated. Appreciation is the missing element in many relationships and its absence is at the root of many misunderstandings and strained friendships.

II. Authentication

In the event that anyone might get the erroneous idea that this important principle of a pat on the back is simply a manipulative maneuver in the attempt to influence another person, Paul makes clear that it must be authentic and not artificial to be effective. He goes on to say why he is thankful for Philemon. In his own words, “Because I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and our love for all the saints” (Philem. 5).

Honesty is essential in long-term productive relationships. Many secular volumes dealing with relationships within the marketplace are built upon manipulation and are often dishonest in their approach to gain leverage over the other party in relationships. Give people some credit. Most are wise to this approach. Make sure the pat on the back you may give someone is authentic and not artificial. Not all affirmations are necessarily authentic.

Manipulation and false affirmation simply to take advantage has no place in positive interpersonal relationships. Learn from Paul. He finds a character trait in Philemon to which he can legitimately give him a pat on the back. He affirms his loyalty, his personal belief, by saying he is thankful for his “faith in the Lord Jesus”. He also affirms his love, his positive behavior, by saying he is thankful for his “love for all the saints”.

Paul affirms his friends genuine loyalty. He says, “I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus.” In the art of connecting, order is important. Genuine faith in our Lord comes before true love for our friends. We cannot place behavior before belief because what we believe generally determines how we behave. Paul writes these words in the present tense to indicate his appreciation that faith and love are on-going character traits of Philemon.

Having affirmed his friend’s loyalty, Paul now affirms his genuine love saying, “I hear about your love for others” Philem. 5). When faith is authentic it always manifests itself in love which is the glue that holds together all lasting interpersonal relationships. Belief determines behavior. When someone truly loves others it is because they love themselves and they love themselves because they have come to realize how much God loves them. Philemon’s love for others was but an authentication of his faith in the Lord.

It is also noteworthy that Paul mentions Philemon’s love for “all” the saints. He had productive relationships because he didn’t play favorites. He reached out with affirmation not just to those who were popular and prosperous, but to those who were powerless and poor. Do you see what the letter writer is doing here? There is authentication in his affirmation. It is legitimate. Paul is thinking ahead. Later in the letter he will bring up the situation with Onesimus. Philemon’s love for all the saints, about which he speaks, will obviously include Onesimus, the runaway former employee who is already on his way home in remorse and restitution. What choice would Philemon have but to receive him and restore the relationship? And what choice do we have when we are in the same place? Near the end of the letter Paul will say, “If you consider me a partner, welcome him (Onesimus) as you would welcome me.” And when he does, these words of authentic affirmation about love for all the saints will ring in his mind.

Recent national polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans profess to have some type of a relationship with God and believe Him to be the source of all being. But these are the two acid tests — a personal belief followed by a positive behavior. Loyalty and love. They are two wings on the same airplane, two sides of the same coin. They go together like Siamese twins. Through all sorts of subtle ways, many modern philosophers tell us that it doesn’t really matter what we believe just so long as we love others and are benevolent. But what we really believe always has its way in determining how we behave. John, one of Paul’s contemporaries once put it like this, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers…If anyone says, I love God yet hates his brother, he is a liar. for anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Their own leader and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, in His great commandment, said loving others issued from first loving God, our source, with all our heart.

Put yourself in Philemon’s place as he read this initial paragraph in this personal piece of private correspondence filled with words of authentic affirmation. Word had gotten out about him. Paul writes because he says he has “heard” about all these positive character traits on the part of Philemon. Can anyone in your home give you an authentic pat on the back? Can anyone in your office give you an authentic pat on the back? Has anyone in your sphere of influence “heard” about your faith in and love for others? Is the word out on you as it was on Philemon? If not, why not?

A pat on the back must be authentic in order to be effective. In winning friends and positively influencing others it is not enough to let them know they are appreciated but why they are appreciated. This is not manipulation. It is honesty in affirmation.

III. Aspiration

A genuine pat on the back involves not only appreciation and authentication but it also has an element of aspiration about it. It causes us to aspire to greater goals. Paul continues his epistle, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith” (Philem. 6). Now what is this effective people person up to? He is challenging Philemon to “be active”. Not reactive! But, active. Having previously acknowledged his faith, Paul now gives a word of encouragement and challenge to his friend. He calls on Philemon to aspire to release that same faith. A pat on the back involves a note of aspiration. It should challenge us to greater heights. Think about it. What happens when someone pats you on the back? It turns you on! You aspire to rise higher than ever before.

Listen to Paul’s words. “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith” (Philem. 6). Paul’s pat on the back spurred Philemon on. It is easy to douse out the fires of enthusiasm in the lives of those around us. Just throw a little cold water on them. Put in your two-cents worth of discouragement.

Our world has no shortage of negative pessimists. But how many times has a pat on the back, a word of affirmation given someone the aspiration and self-confidence to go on? Those among us in the business of building mutually beneficial, positive relationships share those things nearest and dearest with others. And nothing can be of more value than a personal faith which produces an endless hope instead of a life philosophy offering nothing but a hopeless end.

Paul was active in sharing his faith and challenged others to be also. Can you imagine winning a million dollar sweepstakes and not telling any of your friends or family or fellow workers about it? Can you imagine winning the World Series in baseball and never wearing your championship ring, never sharing the good news with anyone? And you tell me, is it possible to be connected with the Creator of the universe through a personal faith in His Son and not be active in sharing that faith with others? Paul’s affirmation and encouragement of Philemon brought a positive aspiration into his life that motivated him to become proactive in his relationships with others.

Jesus reminded His followers that a truly wise person was one who not only knew what he should do but was one who became active in putting it into practice. Paul is challenging his friend, Philemon, and us, to become the initiator in our relationships by becoming active. A pat on the back has an element of aspiration about it. It challenges us to aspire to new beginnings. It moves us to make it happen. A pat on the back will work in your business. It will get you off dead center. It will work on your athletic team. It will work in your classroom. It will do wonders in your home. When you affirm someone it motivates them to try harder and do better. This is why the most successful college football coaches over the long haul are leaders who lead their young athletes by encouragement and affirmation. Watch them on the sidelines as they move from player to player patting them on the back and causing them to believe in themselves. This is why the most successful businessmen are men who motivate others to be better than they are through encouragement and affirmation. This is why the best educators are those like Ava White who recognize the importance of giving a young teenager a pat on the back, even when he might not deserve it.

A pat on the back is the first step in the development of positive, productive interpersonal relationships. To be effective, affirmation involves appreciation, authentication and aspiration.

IV. Anticipation

Paul continues to challenge Philemon to be proactive in order to “have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”(Philem. 6). Much is under the surface of this statement in the opening paragraph of affirmation in his letter to Philemon. He is “anticipating” asking Philemon to receive Onesimus a couple of paragraphs later in the epistle. He was keenly aware that if Philemon possessed a “full understanding of every good thing” he would have no recourse but to forgive and accept his runaway former employee. This phrase of the letter is filled with anticipation that Philemon will do the right thing. There is a bit of a sense in which he is setting his friend up here, anticipating the fact that if he does, indeed, have a “full understanding of every good thing in Christ” this will also include Christ’s familiar command to forgive those who trespass against us.

Paul is anticipating the fact that Philemon’s “faith and love for all the saints” previously mentioned will include Onesimus who earlier wronged him. This is a big pill to swallow. In fact, you cannot know how big a pill it is unless you have been deeply wronged by someone you held within your confidence and trust. Paul believes in Philemon and is filled with anticipation as he pens his letter. A few paragraphs later he will call upon his friend to “welcome him (Onesimus) as you would welcome me”. And then he concludes saying, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philem. 21). Talk about a pat on the back that carries with it a note of anticipation…there it is!

Do you see it? Paul maintains a positive anticipation of the resolution of the broken relationship between his two friends. And when we note carefully what he writes, it is affirmation of both of them that is the key. He genuinely praises Philemon and Onesimus in the same letter. We have all experienced the dynamic power of affirmation that leads to anticipation. Have you ever been with someone who talked positively and favorably about someone else in their absence? What happened? You went away feeling better about them both. A pat on the back has a liberating effect.

The problem with some of us who find ourselves in estranged relationships such as Philemon and Onesimus is that we have resigned ourselves to the belief that we will live out our days without reconciliation. If you are Onesimus in your interpersonal relationships, if you are the offending party who has split the scene, do what he did. First, get in right relationship with yourself by getting rightly related to God and then begin to anticipate mending the broken relationship through reconciliation and, if need be, restitution. If you are Philemon, the offended party who has been deeply wronged, receive your Onesimus and forgive him when, and if, he comes in genuine remorse and repentance.

Perhaps there is an Onesimus in your life who has wronged you. Perhaps there is a Philemon in your life, someone you have wronged. Perhaps you are Paul and could be the key in restoring broken relationships. The situation may seem so complex you are at a loss as to where or how you could ever begin? The place to start is with a pat on the back. How do you think Onesimus must have felt when he heard Paul say to Philemon, “If he (Onesimus) has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” That particular pat on the back helped bring him home in remorse. How do you think Philemon felt when he heard Paul say, “I am confident of your obedience and I know you will do even more than I ask.” That particular pat on the back was the encouragement he needed to do the right thing. Anticipation… it is the outcome of an expression of authentic appreciation.

V. Admiration

In his letter, Paul relates a bona fide admiration of his friend Philemon. He resumes his letter stating, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement” (Philem. 7). In reality, it is not simply Philemon’s love for Paul personally that has brought him this encouragement, but, his love for “all the saints”. What is it about this fellow that is so admirable to the great apostle? It is his love. Where did it originate? In the eternal connection, his “faith in the Lord Jesus”. This is what inspired his love for others. His giving of himself which cheered and challenged, motivated and moved others to greater service brightened Paul’s day across the miles and into the very Roman prison cell in which he was held. This led him to say in admiration of his friend, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

Some time ago, my wife, Susie, and I were guests of friends at Skibo Castle in the Scottish highlands. It is the former home of the late, great Scottish-American industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. I was particularly fascinated by his library, still in place and containing much of his personal correspondence. There I came across the name of Charles Schwab. I suppose everyone from Dale Carnegie to Alan McGinnis who has written on positive relationships has told his story. It certainly bears repeating in any chapter dealing with affirmation of one another. Charles Schwab worked for the multi-millionaire industrialist, Carnegie. He became the first man to earn a one million dollar salary in a single calendar year. One might be quick to assume that he knew more about the manufacturing of steel than anyone else in the world. Wrong. In fact, by his own admission there were many others with far greater technical know-how than his. Why then would Andrew Carnegie pay Charles Schwab a million dollars a year? And, keep in mind, this was shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Schwab was paid such a handsome amount primarily because of his ability to motivate others into positive and productive interpersonal relationships. He was one of the first widely recognized motivators and movers of men.

Charles Schwab put his secret in his own words — “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among men the greatest asset I possess. And the way to develop the best that is in a man is by appreciation and encouragement. There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of men as criticism from their superiors. I never criticize anyone period. I believe in giving a man incentive to work. So, I am anxious to find praise but loath to find fault.” Charles Schwab let others know what he liked about them and then positively motivated them to build the most successful industry in the entire world. Long centuries before Schwab helped Carnegie build his financial dynasty through admiration and encouragement, Paul used the same technique in this ancient piece of personal and private correspondence to his friend, Philemon. And, I might add, it still works today. The best way to increase production is through appreciation, admiration and affirmation. Yes, a simple pat on the back.

The best way to give someone a pat on the back is with a positive word of encouragement. Try it the next time you are in an office elevator, stopped at a turnpike toll booth or conversing with a waitress in your favorite restaurant. We touch the lives of people everyday who have not heard a complimentary word of appreciation and admiration in years. Some in a lifetime. Say it with a smile… “That is a beautiful dress.” “You have such a pleasant smile.” Some of us go months and even years without a personal word of admiration directed at our wives or husbands and then wonder why the relationship seems to be in a rut. Some parents allow their teenagers to graduate from high school and move away without any remembrance of a word of affirmation or encouragement on the part of a mom or dad. What am I saying? A simple compliment, a pat on the back, can make someone’s whole day and change the way they think about themselves. It can make your employees more productive in the office, your family more respectful and loving around the house and it can make your friends enjoy your company and look forward to being in your presence.

Listen once more to Paul’s word of admiration to his friend, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.” We live in a macho world where it is not in vogue for men to express their love for one another. In many ways that is sad and even tragic. When Holly, our daughter, was in high school I drove her to St. Thomas High School in Fort Lauderdale where her team was playing in a basketball tournament. I had never been on that campus before and as I drove into the parking lot I noticed a sign on the football stadium that read, “Brian Piccolo Field”. Brian Piccolo was a hometown boy who played football a generation ago at St. Thomas High. He went on to an out- standing college career at Wake Forest University and then to the world-famed Chicago Bears of the National Football League. Alan McGinnis tells his story in his classic volume, The Friendship Factor. When on road trips with the Bears, Piccolo’s roommate was the great, black, Hall of Fame running back, Gale Sayers. In those early days of integration and racial strife neither of them had ever had a close friend of the opposite race. Their friendship developed into one of the best known in sports and is forever immortalized in the motion picture entitled, “Brian’s Song.”

During the 1969 football season Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer. It was not unusual for Gale Sayers to fly to his bedside between games. They planned to sit together with their wives at the Professional Football Writer’s annual dinner in New York City where Sayers was to receive the prestigious George Halas Award given to the most courageous player in professional football. Brian Piccolo did not make the dinner. He was confined to what would soon become his deathbed. Gale Sayers stood to receive his award and with tears filling his eyes and running down his cheeks said, “You flatter me by giving me this award. But I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George Halas Award. I love Brian Piccolo and I want you to love him. Tonight when you hit your knees please ask God to love him too.” Did you read that? “I love Brian Piccolo.” Seldom do we acho men express our love and admiration for one another. The greatest motivational book of all time, the Bible, reminds us that “love never fails!” We all need someone to love.

Is there anyone in your circle of friends whose love has given you great joy and encouragement? Why don’t you go ahead and tell them? Sit down, like Paul did, and write them a note of admiration. Give them a pat on the back. You might be surprised what it will do for you and not just them. A pat on the back is the key that opens the door to positive, productive, interpersonal relationships.

VI. Affirmation

Paul completes this pat on Philemon’s back by affirming the fact that he has “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Philem. 7). This is just another way of letting his friend know he enjoys his presence and finds it, in his own words, “refreshing”. He uses a Greek word here that carries with it the connotation of being relieved from pain. Have you ever had a toothache, gone to your dentist and had the problem solved? Talk about a refreshing feeling. Have you ever climbed a mountain and just before the summit thought you could not make it another step. But you did. Then you pulled out your bottle of water, gulped it down and laid down in the grass with an exhilarating sense of accomplishment. All that is in the word Paul used to describe the effect Philemon had on himself and others. He “refreshed the hearts of his friends.” I have known people in my own experience who have been the embodiment of this phrase. Being in their very presence is a refreshing and beautiful experience. My late friend, Gene Whiddon, had this effect on everyone who touched him. And when he died a premature death literally thousands of people filed by his casket to pay their respects. They covered the gamut from United States Senators to common laborers and they each had a story to tell about how this man had “refreshed” their lives through affirmation and encouragement.

How would you feel if someone wrote you today and said, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints”? How would that word of affirmation feel if it were directed at you? Conversely, how would you feel if you received a letter that was unjustly caustic and critical? Which one would motivate you to be a better and more productive person? During the writing of this volume there came a day when I received eight or ten letters in the mail. I opened the first one and it blistered me and it did so extremely unjustly. It wounded me greatly. I continued through my daily mail and by the time I concluded I had read over a half dozen other letters that were filled with affirmation. One letter writer indicated she had gained the encouragement she needed to seek to mend the relationship with her estranged husband from a recent sermon I had given. And she had done so! Others told of “miracles” that had taken place in their relationships when they put the principle of a pat on the back into practice. I cannot tell you what those letters did for me. Words of affirmation have a positive and a powerful effect. Mark Twain, who left us volumes of quotes and quips, was never more on target than when he said, “I can live for two months on one good compliment!” A pat on the back will lighten the load and brighten the road. The lack of affirmation is the single reason for the breakdown in many relationships. Give someone a pat on the back before you pillow your head tonight.

As I presently sit at my computer thinking about the power of positive affirmation, my mind is racing back to an experience of my boyhood days in Fort Worth, Texas which I haven’t thought about in over forty years! I played Little League baseball as a kid and my first two seasons our manager was a big and husky, rough and tough man, and we were all scared of him. He demanded the kind of perfection that a lot of ten-year olds could not deliver. I was a very average ball player those first two years. But my third and last year a new manager took over our team. I remember well the team meeting Mr. Huffman called on the afternoon after our first game of the season. He called me to his side in front of all the other guys, patted me on the back, and said, “Did you see what Hawkins did last night? Instead of throwing home where we had little chance to get the runner out, he faked the throw and then threw to second, caught the base runner off guard and got us out of the inning. Now, that is what I want us all to do. THINK! Anticipate the play.” And then, with another pat on the back, he looked at me and said, “Great job!” He affirmed me. The coach believed in me! I can’t tell you what that word of affirmation, that simple pat on the back, did for me. I played above my head that year and won the league batting title. Oh, that is not a big deal to anyone else, but it surely was a big deal for a twelve-year old kid on the east side of Fort Worth. Never underestimate the power of positive affirmation in your relationships.

The greatest affirmer who ever lived was Jesus of Nazareth. That is why so many people flocked to Him. The religious phonies of His day felt uncomfortable around Him. But everyone else was refreshed in His presence. When we think about it, He simply walked around affirming others and giving them a word of encouragement and a pat on the back. One day in the village of Bethany a woman came to Him and anointed His feet with very expensive perfume which cost the equivalent of a year’s salary in the first century world. Several people began to rebuke her at what they considered to be a waste. How do you think that woman felt when Jesus looked into her eyes and said, “You have done a beautiful thing to me”? He reached down and gave her a pat on the back. Talk about refreshing someone’s heart. This is the reason she was later one of the women who followed Him all the way to His cross even when His own disciples had forsaken Him and fled.

And what about the woman taken in the very act of adultery? The legalists of the day had their fingers pointed at her in accusation and were preparing to execute their judgment upon her. How do you think she felt when Jesus stopped them, drove them away, then looked into her eyes, saw her repentant heart, and said, “I don’t condemn you. But go and sin no more.” How do you think she felt when, most probably, for the first time in her life someone gave her a word of affirmation and a pat on the back. I will tell you how she felt. It changed her life. She, too, was one of the women faithful to the very end.

And, what about the big fisherman, Simon Peter. He blew it for sure. He had been so self-confident and braggadocios. But when the chips were down he wimped out and failed miserably. How do you think he felt when some days later Jesus met him on the shore with a pat on the back and let him know that one failure doesn’t make a flop. Peter was never the same again and went from that encounter to become the undisputed leader of first generational Christianity.

There is incredible power in a pat on the back. It should be of no surprise that Paul begins his letter on interpersonal relationships with this significant note of affirmation. There is something about our very make-up that calls out for affirmation. From time to time we all need a pat on the back. It is the single greatest motivating factor around. Athletes need it. When they know the coach believes in them they perform better. Musicians need affirmation. When they know the maestro believes in them they perform better. Students need affirmation. When they know the teacher believes in them they study more. Employees need it. When they know the boss believes in them they work harder. Children need affirmation. When they know mom and dad believe in them they seek to be more obedient. Husbands and wives need affirmation. When they know their spouse believes in them they love better. It is true in any kind of interpersonal relationship on earth. A pat on the back has a supernatural motivating power about it.

Look around you. There are people in your world who have lived months and perhaps years without anyone, anywhere, anytime affirming them. They are looking for it and longing for it. Go ahead…make someone’s day! Try it this week. Think about it. You know someone with a broken heart or a broken dream or, even, a broken life. Someone in crisis. Someone who is desperate. Someone who is hanging by a thread with hope almost gone. It may be that if you do not affirm them in some way no one else in the entire world ever will.

I know what some of my readers are thinking right now. “I wish someone would pat me on the back like that.” But, you are missing the whole point. Why don’t you begin to say, “I am going to find someone to affirm, to pat on the back.” You might be surprised how quickly you might be reciprocated and begin to reap what you sow. The problem with many of us in our interpersonal relationships is that we are “reactive” and not “proactive”. We sit around waiting for others to take the initiative so that we can react to them. And guess what? They are waiting for us! Be proactive. Do something. Make it happen. Reach out and touch someone with a pat on the back.

The absolute master at this art of affirmation was Jesus of Nazareth. He went about His world lifting people up, affirming them early on in the relationship and He continued by patting them on the back along the way. Once in the middle of a hot day He met a woman at a well who had not heard a word of affirmation in years. Everyone criticized her. But He reached out to her, told her about living water and it changed her life. His simple pat on her back was the catalyst that brought her entire village to faith in Him. One day on a Roman cross of execution outside the city walls of Jerusalem He met a man hanging on a cross next to His. That man had not heard a word of affirmation nor had a pat on his back in years. Jesus reached out in His own darkest hour with a word of affirmation spoken slowly through dry parched lips… “Today, you will be with me in Paradise!” And a few moments later He took that man by his nail-pierced hand and walked him into heaven. And, incidentally, those same hands are ready to affirm you today. He believes in you!

Can you imagine Philemon as he begins to read this letter? The opening paragraph is filled with affirmation. There was appreciation. Paul was not ashamed to let his friend know he was appreciated. There was authentication. This was not a manipulative maneuver. It was from the heart. There was aspiration. Paul was challenging his friend to aspire to become proactive. There was the element of anticipation. It enabled Philemon to get into the proper mind set to anticipate good things ahead. There was admiration. Paul let Philemon know he genuinely admired his love and it was, in fact, his own source of joy and encouragement. Finally, there was affirmation, a positive pat on the back. I think as he read the letter Philemon must have sat up straight in his chair, thrown his head back, stuck his chest out and began to feel a little better about himself with each passing sentence. And, I am confident we would feel the same way if someone said this about us.

Everything has a beginning and beginnings are vitally important. A lot of relationships that “might have been” crashed and burned due to poor beginnings. In the art of connecting, the best place to begin to build positive, productive, interpersonal relationships is with…a pat on the back!

Practical pointers:

Now it is time to make a conscious decision to put this chapter into practice. I would rather my readers “do” one chapter than to simply read a hundred. What can you do about it? A good place to begin is to write your wife a letter and tell her the things about her that particularly please you. Give her a pat on the back. Perhaps you need to affirm your husband by writing him an encouraging note to let him know he is loved and appreciated. Out in the traffic patterns of life why not give an extra tip to the kind waitress who serves you breakfast each morning? And, at the office, stop a moment at someone’s desk and give them a pat on the back. Remember to be honest. Affirmation must be authentic. To be effective, a pat on the back must comply with the following principles:

  1. Make it personal…Paul did. He did not send his word of appreciation to Philemon through a third party. He did so in a personal letter. Affirmations lose their positive effectiveness if we ask someone to tell someone else something we want them to know. In short, do it yourself. A pat on the back must be personal.
  2. Make it positive…An affirmation is not an affirmation unless it is given in a positive vein. The best attempt some can make at a pat on the back is to say something to the effect, “Well, you have done your best and I suppose it is better than average.” What kind of an affirmation is that? To be effective it must be not only personal, but positive as well.
  3. Make it present…Paul wrote his letter in the present tense. He said, “I hear about you.” Affirmation must be up to date and in the present. It rings a bit hollow and doesn’t mean much to affirm someone now for something they did twenty or thirty years ago. Make it present and up-to-date.
  4. Make it pointed…Paul was specific and pointed in his praise to Philemon. General affirmations which say something like, “You are O.K.”, do not go very far. We must be pointed. We must let the other party know specifically why it is we are giving them a pat on the back. When you pat someone on the back this week spell it out for him. Make it pointed.
  5. Make it plain…Philemon could understand Paul’s letter. It was not garbled nor couched in any type of linguistic gymnastics. We often hear others excuse themselves by saying, “Oh, he knows I appreciate him.” Does he? Tell him so with a personal, positive, present, pointed and plain word of affirmation.
  6. Make it passionate…That is, it must issue out of the heart. Paul patted Philemon on the back for “refreshing the hearts” of others. Phony affirmations are quickly exposed and do not mean much at all. When you pat someone on the back this week, make it passionate and let it come from the heart.

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