A loving person always speaks the truth because love rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6; John 14:6). Love never speaks in the deceptive dialect of the devil (John 8:44). And a loving person always speaks the truth graciously (Ephesians 4:29).
Gracious truth, though, is not always soothing truth. Sometimes grace comes to us in the form of a reproof or rebuke (2 Timothy 4:2). Wise people understand this. That’s why, even when they are on the receiving end of a stinging gracious truth, they say things like, “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue” (Proverbs 28:23).
Flattery is contrasted with a rebuke because flattery is a form of lying. And it’s a particularly insidious form, because in the moment it is spoken, flattery sounds so much like encouragement. Yet there’s a heaven-and-hell difference between the two. Encouragement is truth spoken from a loving motive to increase faith and hope in the hearer. Flattery is a lie, masquerading as encouragement, from a selfish motive to manipulate the hearer in order to achieve the flatterer’s covert purpose.
Love never flatters others, and wisdom never desires to be flattered. But sin is neither loving nor wise, which means we, who live with indwelling sin, are tempted to manipulate others with flattery — as well as to enjoy being flattered. We must be on our guard against this foot-entangling sin.
Beware of Using Flattery
God tells us “a man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5). That’s what makes it evil. Whether or not flattering words have truth in them, their purpose is deception.
A biblical example of this is when some opponents tried to spread a net under Jesus’s feet:
“Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test?” (Mark 12:14–15)
These men are poster children for Psalm 5:9: “There is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.”
It did not matter that their flattering words about Jesus contained truth. Truth still was not in their mouths because 1) they did not believe the true words and 2) their flattery was merely a smokescreen for their attempt to destroy Jesus’s public credibility and influence. They were speaking the language of their father, the devil (John 8:44), who also uses true words in lying ways.
Now, this is an obvious example of manipulative flattery. But we all know that flattery can be much more subtle and slippery. We learn early to use flattery to grease the wheels of attempts to make ourselves look good or discredit, perhaps destroy, another’s reputation or influence. It is a seductive temptation because the short-term reward can appear appealing. But because it’s a lie, it will eventually wreak destruction.
We must remember that any time we hide a manipulative motive inside a Trojan horse of encouraging sounding words, we employ a demonic strategy and lay a snare for our neighbor’s feet. We exchange the truth for a lie and in doing so betray the Truth.
Beware of Being Flattered
But we are not only tempted to be manipulative flatterers; we also are pathetically vulnerable to being manipulated by flattery. This is due to the gargantuan pride in our sinful nature.
Our sin nature wants to be flattered because it loves to be admired. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if we know the flattery is disingenuous, as long as it enhances our image in the eyes of others or simply gives us a buzz from the fact that someone thinks us important enough to flatter.
This, in fact, is the snare of much sexual sin. The real seductive power in much sexual lust is high-octane pride mixing with the sexual drive, fueling the intoxicating experience of being desired, even if it’s just fantasy. Flattery is what the adulterous in Proverbs 7 used to snare the young man and lead him away “as an ox goes to the slaughter” (Proverbs 7:21–22). The adulteress seduced him, but the man was “lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14).
This is the way flattery works on us. It seduces us, but only because our pride finds it enticing. And if we take the bait, it wreaks destruction.
Rejoice in the Truth
Love never flatters others, and wisdom never desires to be flattered. This is why the psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the man . . . in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2). This is what Jesus saw and commended in Nathanael: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47).
Let’s examine ourselves for the deceit of flattery. Is there any relationship, or perhaps relational habit in our lives, where we employ manipulative flattery to grease the wheels of our own advancement or another’s discredit? Are there areas where we are allowing ourselves to be seduced by flattery because our pride finds it enticing?
If so, repent today, confessing it to God and, as the Spirit leads, whomever else we should.
Flattery is a demonic, foot-ensnaring sin-encumbrance not only for us but for others. We must lay it aside to run our race faithfully with Jesus and help others do the same. Let us press more and more to be “Israelites indeed,” disciples of Jesus, the Truth, who rejoice in his truth and resolve to only speak what gives grace to our hearers (Ephesians 4:29).