Words of Affirmation

Words of Affirmation

Words of Affirmation 150 150 Nathaniel Lee Hansen

Some years ago—you can’t remember precisely when—you read Gary Chapman’s The Five Languages where you learned that your “primary love language” is words of affirmation. Perhaps that’s to be expected for someone who has always loved language. While you found it revelatory at the time, and this awareness has strengthened your marriage and other relationships, there is a pet sin lurking in the spaces between those words, those letters. Idolatry.


You play keys and sing background vocals in the worship band at your church. The people with whom you play are some of the most gifted, humble, and fun people you’ve ever worked with. Yet almost every Sunday when you talk with them, you are hoping they will compliment you at some point during the 6 hours you spend together. You are wanting, yearning for any compliments. You sow comments to others so that you can harvest words of affirmation. Your own sense of self-worth is wrapped up in the words of others. You are trying to unlearn these patterns of behavior.

In July when you began seeing a therapist, you thought you were initially dealing only with an eating disorder. This idolatry is but one rope in a big ball of ropes that’s been tangled in the garage of your heart for years.


Recently, you had been working on a difficult piano piece for an evening worship service at your university, several people from your church’s regular band playing. The night before you were really stressed out, and a full day of teaching awaited the next day.

You were trying to learn this difficult piece (ironically a rendition of “Joy to the World”), and the experience was absolutely not joyful. As you practiced, you raised your voice at your kids, frustrated with them (because they were running around the house, dancing to the music, being joyful). Ages 6 and 3, they were unaware of your mistakes.

You felt overwhelmed and decided to text your worship pastor, feeling the need to apologize because the notes (the speeds of them in some places) were beyond your ability. That was problem #1.

Problem #2: You were worried what others would think.

Problem #3: You were apologizing for something that doesn’t necessitate apology.

He responded, “Don’t stress over it too much. You can add your own flair if you like.”

These words weren’t enough for you. When you’ve made Words of Affirmation your idol, there are never enough words. Even if there were—somehow—enough words, you’d find some way(s) to look for the gaps, the unstated, the subtext.

But you pressed on, decided to confess and to be vulnerable, in this realization that your idolatry stemmed from a distorted sense of self-worth, a lack of self-confidence, a difficulty in giving yourself grace. You wanted to be as transparent as possible, learning to live in the light of truthfulness.

You texted, “I’ve wrestled with self-esteem issues ever since I was young, and I guess the pressure (that I’m putting on myself about this piece, unnecessarily) is messing with me. Just pray for to relax and have fun.” You exhaled, disbelieving that you allowed yourself to be so open.

He replied, “No pressure necessary. And you always nail everything I’ve ever given you. Have fun with it!” You found yourself choking up, not at his words, but at all the weight you had been putting on yourself, and now you permission to cast it off. The headache you’d had all day even finally started to dissipate.


The next night, you played the song with the rest of the musicians, doing your best. Although what you played was not a duplicate of the recording, you felt joy.

You heard joy in the auditorium with everyone singing out this beautiful, happy, joyful song.


Nathaniel Lee Hansen

I’m a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. My chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian, was published by Spoon River Poetry Press (2014). My work has appeared in Christianity and Literature, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Blast Furnace, Driftwood Press, Whitefish Review, The Cresset, Midwestern Gothic, and South Dakota Review, among others. I currently serve as an assistant professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. I also edit Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and direct the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. When not writing or teaching, I run, read, play piano, listen to music, and play disc golf. My greatest joys are my wife, my son, and my daughter. I was born in southern Minnesota, but while growing up, I had little interest in the Plains and opens spaces. A stint at a rural state liberal arts college in southwestern Minnesota, as well as grad-school stints in northwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota, altered my interests. @plainswriter, plainswriter.com, & www.facebook.com/plainswriter

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  • I, too, am trying to unlearn this behavior. Unfortunately, it’s a dear friend to self-doubt and low self-esteem, both of which I am also trying to unlearn. Sometimes words are the only things that make us feel alive. But this shouldn’t be. The feeling is fleeting, anyway. This is a great piece. I have many words of affirmation toward you, but in the spirit of the piece, I’ll refrain from saying them for now. 🙂

  • Friend, as one who has, only days ago, experienced what I can only call a “deliverance” from a deeply embedded fear, I resonate deeply with your words. Although, biblical language would suggest the term ‘idolatry’ lying at root of this harrowing ill in my life, I must confess that even that was never “deep” enough to pull out any roots. I was always left treating symptoms: lack of boundaries, fear of risk, inability to delegate, fear of failure/rejection, etc., etc.

    Instead, it was God who needed to reach in and pull out a lifelong fear of abandonment which lay at the root of many idolatries. In other words, I acted and lived as an idolater for a deeper reason. Now that a healing has taken place, the blessing of a transformed consciousness has opened the door to limitless other possibilities for new life – one grounded in grace, rather than a scrambling after idolatry-free living. Heal the root, and the leaves will follow. One presupposes and fuels the other.

    Keep writing this stuff. Fantastic…R