Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Sarah, a podcast listener, writes in with a really outstanding question: “Pastor John, what’s 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?”

You could not do better, after the Bible, than getting a copy of Sam Crabtree’s extraordinary book called Practicing Affirmation. And I love the subtitle: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God.

Sam mustered a battery of biblical passages and gave such a compelling argument for praising people in a God-centered way that it significantly altered how I think about this. It is quite a remarkable book. I don’t think there is another one like it. So I am giving it, yes, a very high recommendation, just for the sake, if not all the other practical applications, of the biblical data that Sam has brought together in a way I have never seen anywhere else. So that is an advertisement, with joy.

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.

The Greek word for flattery, κολακείας, occurs one time in the New Testament. Paul is defending his ministry to the Thessalonians and he says, “We never came with flattering speech as you know, nor with a pretext for greed, nor did we seek glory from men either 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 can kind of get at the heart of flattery when you think about that. The idea of flattery is present without the word in Jude 1:16 where Jude accuses certain men of admiring persons for the sake of their own advantage. That is the idea. You are admiring and you are 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 Testament. The word flatter is built on the Hebrew word for “to be smooth or slippery.” So a person who flatters is smoothing and caressing. “The lips of an adulteress drip honey, and smoother than oil is her speech” (Proverbs 5:3). Here is Proverbs 7:21: “With her many persuasions she entices him, and with her flattering lips she seduces 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 is spreading a net for his steps.”

So the key question becomes: How can we celebrate or praise good things about another person without spreading a net for their feet or working their ruin? I think the key difference between good praise and bad flattery is this: Flattery is bad because it’s calculated. It is given with a view to obtaining some advantage (Jude 1:16). Flattery may be true. It may be not true. That is not the issue. You may be saying something true about somebody and still be flattering. The issue is whether it is 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 is the opposite of calculation. It is spontaneous. C.S. Lewis, in 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.” Yes, exactly right.

But flattery does not flow from a sincere delight in the thing being praised. It is all external and manipulative, it is elicited out of us by some other benefit that we are 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.

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 are not really being moved by spontaneous admiration. We are calculating, desiring to use praise to get something. I think the very phrase “use praise” makes me gag. Like you are going to go to God and “use praise”? Ick. It is a horrible way to think, and it is pretty prevalent today.

So this raises the question of whether it is 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 is 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 is intrinsically beautiful and God-honoring, then it is legitimate to hope that our praise will produce more good behavior.

But in general I think it is dangerous to think of our praise of others, including our children, in utilitarian terms. Children are going to catch on to this eventually. They are going to say, “I don’t think dad really enjoyed what I just did. He is just trying to use it to get me to do something” — namely, thinking that our praise will bring about behaviors that we want, that kids are going to catch on to that. It is not going to be authentic. Our parents are going to think 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 is 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.

Just one last help: I have friends, including Sam Crabtree, 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 is 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, among friends, to habitually call attention to evidences of grace in each other’s lives. To say to our children in a dozen different ways, “I love what God is doing in your life. That was so good the way you shared your toys with Jimmy.” Kids aren’t going to think, “Oh, daddy is preaching.” Not if it is authentic and you really feel joy in what your child just did and joy in the grace of God.

But my earnest plea: Avoid utilitarian, calculated, approaches which turn spontaneity into manipulation. That is the soil of flattery.