Welcome back to the podcast. Recently, we’ve been talking about how we serve and praise God. A week ago, we looked at what it means to serve God — “one of the most important questions a Christian can ask,” Pastor John said. That was APJ 1956. And that led to this question: What do we offer God as we serve him? Does he need us? And the answer to that question was no, he does not need us. We meet no need in him. So then, what do we offer him as we serve him? It’s another essential question to resolve. And that was last time, in APJ 1957.
Today we look at praise, but a different kind of praise than what we have been talking about on the podcast recently. Today we’re talking about praise in the context of celebrating one another. How do we celebrate one another authentically, and do so without flattery, which is a sin? This question is from Sarah, a listener who writes us this: “Pastor John, hello. Can you explain to me the difference between flattery and encouragement? We are called to encourage one another, but also to not puff one another up in pride. How can I know which one is which?”
There is such a thing as flattery. Not all getting is good, so we have the word greed, right? And not all giving is good, so we have the word bribe. Praise, which involves both getting and giving, may not be good, and so we have the word flattery.
Flattery in Scripture
The Greek word for flattery, kolakeias, occurs one time in the New Testament. Paul is defending his ministry to the Thessalonians, and he says, “We never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others” (1 Thessalonians 2:5–6). And it is, I think, more than coincidental that flattery occurs in that sentence with the word greed. In other words, “I want something from you” — you’re kind of getting at the heart of flattery when you think about that.
“Flattery is a form of hypocrisy.”
The idea of flattery is present without the word in Jude 16, where Jude accuses certain men of admiring persons for the sake of their own advantage. That’s the idea: you’re admiring and you’re saying nice things about somebody for the sake of your own advantage.
Now, lots more is said about flattery in the Old Testament than in the New. The word flattery is built on the Hebrew word for be smooth or slippery. So, a person who flatters is smoothing and caressing. “The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil” (Proverbs 5:3). Here’s Proverbs 7:21: “With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him.” The most general statement about flattery in its destructive effects is Proverbs 26:28, “A flattering mouth works ruin,” or Proverbs 29:5, “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.”
Flattery vs. Praise
So, the key question becomes, How can we celebrate or praise good things about others without spreading a net for their feet or working their ruin? I think the key is to keep in mind the essential difference between good praise and bad flattery.
Flattery is bad because it’s calculated. It’s given with a view to obtaining some advantage (Jude 16). Flattery may be true; it may not be true. Sometimes people think it has to do with whether it’s true or not. That’s not the issue. You may be saying something true about somebody, and it may still be flattery. The issue is whether it’s calculated to achieve some purpose that is not rooted in the authentic, spontaneous delight that we take in the virtue we are praising.
In other words, the key mark of genuine, non-flattering praise is that it’s the overflow of authentic delight in what we are observing about the other person. It’s the opposite of calculation; it’s spontaneous. C.S. Lewis — one of my favorite quotes — says, “We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not only expresses but completes the enjoyment. It is its appointed consummation” (Reflections on the Psalms, 111). Yes, exactly right.
But flattery does not flow from a sincere delight in the thing being praised. It’s all external and manipulative. It’s elicited out of us by some other benefit that we’re hoping to get through the flattery, not by the benefit that we just got from the person’s kindness or virtue or beauty or accomplishment. So, flattery is a form of hypocrisy. We try to give the impression that we are being moved by a spontaneous delight in something we admire, but we’re not really being moved by a spontaneous admiration. We’re being calculating; we’re desiring to use praise to get something. And I think the very phrase “use praise” makes me gag. You’re going to go to God and use praise. Ick. It’s a horrible way to think, and it’s pretty prevalent today.
Keeping Praise Authentic
This reality raises the question of whether it’s appropriate to “use praise” as a means of bringing about behaviors in children or employees or friends. Doesn’t that imply some kind of calculated use of praise for ulterior motives? And that’s a tough question.
I think the answer goes something like this. If the praise can still be an expression of authentic, spontaneous delight in some good that we have observed, and if our goal is that the child or the friend do more of that behavior, not for the sake of praise but because it’s intrinsically beautiful and God-honoring, then it’s legitimate to hope that our praise will produce more good behavior. But in general, I think it’s dangerous to think of our praise of others — including our children — in utilitarian terms.
“The key mark of genuine, non-flattering praise is that it’s the overflow of authentic delight.”
Children are going to catch on to this eventually. They’re going to say, “I don’t think Daddy really enjoyed what I just did. He’s just trying to use it to get me to do something.” Thinking that our praise will bring about behaviors that we want — kids are going to catch on to that. That’s not going to be authentic. Parents will be thinking like psychologically trained manipulators. Far better to be the kind of person — the kind of parent — who sees God-given virtue or God-given achievements, and is so authentically stirred with admiration and joy that we spill over with praise.
And of course, it’s going to have wonderful effects on our relationships and on the future behaviors of our kids and others. But if we start making the utilitarian dimension of praise prominent — which it is being made prominent today — it will cease to be authentic and, in the long run, I think it will backfire.
Evidences of Grace
Just one last help. I have friends who have taught me that a good way to conceive of our praising other people is to think of it as drawing attention — spontaneously enjoying and thus drawing attention — to “evidences of God’s grace.” That little phrase is pretty common in some circles, and I think it’s a good one. If we believe that in sinful human beings all virtue is ultimately from God, which it is, then all praising of true virtue or true accomplishments or any beautiful traits that we see will be conceived of as honoring God, not just man.
So, it is a good thing in a family, in a church, and among friends to habitually call attention to evidences of grace in each other’s lives, to say to our children in a dozen ways — we don’t have to be mechanical about this —“I love what God is doing in your life.” “That was so good of the way you shared your toys with Jimmy.” Kids aren’t going to think, “Oh, Daddy’s preaching” — not if it’s authentic, and you really feel joy in what your child just did and joy in the grace of God.
But my earnest plea is this: try to avoid utilitarian, calculated approaches that turn spontaneity into manipulation. That’s the soil of flattery.