Answer: To be assertive is to exude bold confidence in speech or behavior. Assertiveness, when taken to extremes, can devolve into pushiness or brashness; however, assertiveness can also be a positive quality that we ask God to give us. We all need to be assertive in some ways.
In Ephesians 6:20, Paul asks his friends to pray that “I might speak boldly as I ought to speak.” As a prisoner in chains, Paul’s natural boldness and courage had evaporated. It is difficult to speak assertively when we find ourselves in humbling situations. So Paul relied on prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit to speak with confidence to those around him, even though his natural tendency would have been to retreat into silence. The people he interacted with daily may have been guards, jailers, servants, and curious onlookers. Many of those had the power to make his situation more difficult, so he asked for prayer that he might not give way to fear and intimidation.
After reminding Christians of the great promise God has given us in Christ, Paul says, “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face” (2 Corinthians 3:12–13). God-honoring assertiveness comes from the knowledge that the message we’ve been given is of supreme value to the hearers. This is further explained in verses 16–18: “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Our bold confidence is supplied by the Lord and empowers us to declare His truth.
However, we can be assertive in wrong ways for wrong reasons. In our current culture, everyone is preoccupied with asserting his or her individual “rights” to do this or that or to not be offended. People are bold in declaring their opinions about every little thing, and that assertiveness can become overly forward or even militant, especially when coupled with a disregard for others. Social media provide a platform from which the unassertive can appear bold and assertive, but it is usually not for the right reasons. Internet blustering, threatening, and ranting are not demonstrations of healthy assertiveness but of self-centered preoccupation.
Assertiveness is good when it is used to right a wrong. Proverbs 24:11 says, “Rescue those who are being led away to death.” It requires assertiveness to rescue someone. James 5:20 says that whoever turns a sinner from his ways has saved him from death. We often shrink back from boldly confronting someone about unrepentant sin, but an assertive person will risk his or her popularity in order to say what needs to be said for the good of the other person. We can also properly use assertiveness to right injustices in our own lives. Assertiveness will ask for a well-deserved raise, respectfully show a supervisor where a time sheet is in error, and supply courage to address spiritual issues with church leaders. We can judge the propriety of our assertiveness by asking ourselves, “If Jesus were standing here, would I still do or say this?”
Godly assertiveness is declaring what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done for the benefit of someone else. It is not simply airing one’s grievances or complaining to an audience. It is not demanding rights or angrily telling someone off. It is motivated by agape love, not by selfishness or a wish to dominate others. When Paul prayed for assertiveness, it was for the purpose of spreading the gospel, not telling off the guards or yelling at his opponents. He did not pray for assertiveness to demand his rights or his freedom; he was preoccupied with the interests of Christ (Philippians 2:21). It was God’s message he longed to assert, not his own. When that is our objective, assertiveness is a gift from God.