One of my very wise teachers did something I have never forgotten—something I have never had anyone else do since. He apologized for paying me a compliment.
Having heard that my Old Testament professor liked a paper I had written, he was in the midst of telling me how impressed he was when he stopped, mumbled something about the dangers of pride, and quoted a proverb, “A flattering mouth works ruin.” The conversation turned to other things.
I have often thought of this incident as I have faced the problem of getting and giving praise. Some six years later I am coming to see more clearly why my teacher’s apology was wise and loving.
Not all getting is good, so we have the word “greed.” And some giving is bad; so we have the word “bribe.” Therefore praise, which always involves a giving and a getting, may not always be good. It may be flattery.
In a day when the therapeutic and motivational powers of praise are getting such good press, may we do well to ask, exactly what is bad praise?
The Greek word for it (kolakeia) occurs in the New Testament only once. Paul defends his ministry to the Thessalonian Christians: “We never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others . . . (1 Thess. 2:5–6, NASV). It is more than incidental that flattery and greed fall together here.
The idea of flattery is present in Jude 1:16, where Jude accuses certain men of “admiring persons for the sake of their own advantage.” This same Greek phrase for “admiring persons” (thaumazontes prosopa) is used in the Old Testament to describe something God never does, namely, “show partiality.” In Deuteronomy 10:17 and 2 Chronicles 19:7 this phrase is followed by, “neither does he take a bribe.” The NASV translates Jude 1:16, “they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.”
In the Old Testament much more is said about flattery, especially in the Proverbs. In all the texts which are cited, the Hebrew word for flattery is derived from halak which means “be smooth, or slippery.” Our word “flatter” comes from the Old French falter which means “to smooth, caress.”
In the book of Proverbs a man is warned against “the smooth tongue of the adulteress” (6:24), “for the lips of an adulteress drip honey and smoother than oil is her speech” (5:3). The meaning is that “with her many persuasions she entices him; with her flattering lips she seduces him” (7:21). But wisdom is able “to deliver you from the strange woman and from the adultress who flatters with her words” (2:16; 7:5).
Flattery is dangerous not only in the mouth of the adulteress but in any mouth: “A lying tongue hates those it crushes, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28). “A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps” (Prov. 29:5; Ps. 5:9). Therefore David says of the ungodly, “With flattering lips and with a double heart they speak. May the Lord cut off all flattering lips” (Ps. 12:2, 3).
After all these warnings, it is not surprising to read, “He who rebukes a man will afterwards find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue” (Prov. 28:23).
As a college teacher, I am a prime target for flattery.
For example, Dick was a transfer student in my New Testament history course. He was behind in his credits and needed to pass my course. For about five weeks Dick took every opportunity to tell me how superior my course was to a similar one at his former college. But after he got a D on the second exam, his praise ceased.
He came to me later in the semester and explained that he had to pass my course in order to finish school with his class. I told him what the final exam would be like and how to study for it. He flunked it, and came into my office to try to get me to change his grade. After reviewing his scores, I refused.
“I don’t think I could stand to take another Bible course here!” he said as he walked out.
In an instant I knew that all of Dick’s earlier praise had been mere flattery.
Flattery is bad praise. It is bad because it is given with a view to obtaining some advantage (Jude 1:16). Good praise or a good compliment is prompted by a sincere delight in something good or beautiful, and it aims only to bring this delight to completion by expressing it. As author/theologian C. S. Lewis says, “We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the joy; it is its appointed consummation” (Reflections on the Psalms). But flattery does not flow from a sincere delight in the thing praised. It is elicited by some other benefit which it hopes to entice or win through flattery.
Therefore, there is a duplicity in all flattery: “With flattering lips and with a double heart they speak” (Ps. 12:2). Outwardly, Dick gave the impression that he was moved by delight in the quality of my course. Inwardly, the quality of the course was irrelevant. His praise was not a sincere response; it was a device to curry my favor.
His flattery, like all flattery, was one of the many forms of hypocrisy.
Even if the compliments of a flatterer are true, he is still a liar, because he feigns delight in the thing praised when really his delight is in some other hoped-for favor. Here the essence of the flatterer’s sin emerges. There is an emptiness or insecurity in his heart which he is trying to satisfy by finagling human favors. He is not content or secure in God but is covetous or greedy (1 Thess. 2:5; Jude 1:16) for some benefit he can obtain by dishonest, hypocritical means.
His sin, therefore, is that he chooses to pin his hopes on some fleeting approval or advantage which he may obtain through flattery, rather than on the promises of God in whose hands are pleasures forever (Ps. 16:11). He thus exchanges the glorious trustworthiness of God for some man-made security. In so doing, he insults his maker.
Flattery is not only a sin for the flatterer, it is dangerous to the flattered.
Dick’s flattery in the early weeks of the semester was like an advance payment for services he hoped to receive. It was like a bribe, not a wage, and was offered to my pride. It was an attempt to gratify my vanity.
Since pride and vanity crave to be complimented, we are sometimes willing to return a service for the flattery. This service may be in the form of returned flattery (witness the proverbial “mutual admiration society”). Or the service may be a boost in rank, a hike in salary, or (as Dick was hoping) a good grade in school.
It is evident, then, that Dick was not only giving in to temptation; he was also giving a temptation—namely, to me. Pride and vanity are our arch enemies, for they are the arch enemies of faith. Flattery fans the fires of pride and resurrects the old self which Jesus has commanded us to crucify. This is why the Old Testament sage said, “A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps” (Prov. 26:28; 29:5).
How, then, can we avoid flattery?
One of the marks of a Christian is that his spiritual eyes have been opened to see and appreciate the glory of God in all of his gifts. There is nothing good in all the world that is not a gift from God (James 1:17; 1 Cor. 4:7).
For the Christian there can be no thought of praising men for some things and God for others. In all praise of men and things there should be an implicit praise to God. Only a person who does not love the glory of God resents this. As St. Augustine prayed in one of his moments of supreme eloquence, “He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee which he loves not for Thy sake” (Confessions X 40).
Another characteristic of good praise and proper compliment is that in it there is no ulterior motive, no duplicity. Good praise is drawn out naturally by our sincere delight in what is good and beautiful.
When I fell in love with my wife back in college I experienced something very refreshing, namely, the pleasure of complimenting someone without the slightest tendency to be insincere. The question of sincerity didn’t even arise in me because my response to her personality was so spontaneous.
This, I think, is a pattern for all good praise. It is not calculated like a bribe to achieve anything other than the proper consummation of itself. It is the spontaneous overflow of the enjoyment of truth and beauty.
Next comes the nitty-gritty question of when—if ever—to praise children, students, and employees in order to encourage and motivate them. Does this involve duplicity, hypocrisy, bribery? For example, there is no denying that rewarding a child with praise will tend to produce the rewarded behavior again, just as punishment will tend to deter the punished behavior. Given this situation, I would suggest two guidelines.
First, praise should be genuine, that is, it should spring from a sincere delight in the child’s good behavior.
If my three-year-old son climbs down from the lunch table, washes his hands in the bathroom, and climbs into his bed for his usual nap without saying a word to me, my first response is sheer delight in the rightness of his uncoerced behavior. My next response as I tuck him in is to let my happiness overflow in a few words of appreciation and praise.
The overriding motive in praise and commendation always should be the pleasure that comes from bringing to expressing the delight we have in what is good and right. That this spurs the child on remains an inevitable, but quite secondary consequence. If we start calculating our praise to him at what is secondary, the child will perceive our hypocrisy sooner than we think.
The second guideline is this: our goal for our children should be that they come to love what is good for itself and not because it wins the praise of men. The more we think of our praise as reinforcement of their good behavior, the more they will see good behavior as nothing more than a means to getting praise. Therefore, we must seek the sincerity to praise a thing because it is praiseworthy and not because it will elicit more good behavior.
There is perhaps one qualification which would limit this spontaneity which makes good praise. As a teacher I have many occasions when I am drawn by a student’s performance to praise him or her. But there are excellent students for whom another compliment would make their swelling heads explode. In such cases I may check the natural, spontaneous impulse to praise.
In this fallen world, in which we battle daily against pride and vainglory, even praise of a good achievement may engender pride and stimulate vanity. The Christian will always, out of love, beware of feeding the fires of pride. He will seek wisdom from Christ to know when, for his neighbor’s sake, a compliment should be withheld. So there will be times when he sacrifices his own pleasure of praise so as not to “spread a net” for the steps of another.
It is sad that for now the joy of praise is so closely linked to the sin of pride. But it will not always be so. There will come a day when we will be transformed into the image of our Lord. Pride and vanity will vanish. Our delight in each other will be complete and our praise unrestrained. All of this will resound to the glory of God like the praise of a painting to the glory of the artist.