When I was about 13, my older brother and half-brother did something that they almost never did. They said some nice stuff to me. It felt kind of weird, but much better than the usual assortment of barbed comments, accusations, and snide remarks. They followed this newfound sibling acceptance with an invitation to play cards with them. Now normally an invitation from them to anything that didn’t involve pain or humiliation would have set off the whole ‘fight or flight’ thing for me. Unfortunately, their compliments disarmed my early warning system. I joined in with the happy naivety of the fool that Solomon warned about, who heads off to the punishment of the stocks with a doofus looking grin on his face, thinking “this is gonna be so cool.” The guys told me that as a reward for not acting so much like an annoying little kid lately, they were going to teach me how to play poker like the older guys. An hour or so later, the allowance money I had been saving for a couple of months was gone. “That’s the price,” they said, “of growing up.”
God loves praise. Unfortunately, so do the rest of us, and it can be a dangerous thing. We learn to cherish the sound of it to the point that we hardly notice when a compliment slips across the murky line that distinguishes it from flattery. Compliments are a good thing, and can be very encouraging and uplifting. Flattery is different. Flattery is deceptive, but the sweet sound of appreciation or adoration can dull our senses and disarm us even when we suspect that there might be a hook in it. Like its counterpart, seduction, flattery feels good, especially at the beginning, and it seems that our culture has managed to elevate both of them from repellant character flaws to enviable art forms. Dexterity in the use of flattery is seen as a strategic asset and a marketable skill in many circles these days.
For many young Americans, waiting for the emotional rush of that next self-exalting compliment is too erratic and uncertain, so they feel compelled to step up and take the matter in hand—thus the creation of that ubiquitous blend of flattery, narcissism, and electronic technology, the ‘selfie’. If no one else is willing to advertise our presumed importance, then we must rise to the occasion ourselves. The message that we are innately and irrevocably superlative is pervasive in this culture, and sets us up for the siren’s song that flattery so easily becomes.
Being average is disallowed as almost insulting in our world. Hyperbole abounds and words like ‘amazing’ might just as easily refer to a completed ‘Lego’ project, as to some scientific breakthrough – or simply a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Unwarranted praise, excessive commendation, and ingratiating compliments are tossed around like candy on Halloween and contribute to our mental and spiritual health about as much as the candy bars contribute to us physically. Unfortunately, we’ve become addicted to flattery in all its forms, and flattery is at its core, nothing more than a lie presented in an attractive and desirable package—the preferred format, by the way, of its inventor.
Flattery is a pleasant, silky smooth injection of false or exaggerated information, and that injection often goes directly into the heart. It can alter our perception of who and what we are, and ultimately spreads its influence to what we do. Flattery fosters the growth of pride, which Solomon warned is the precursor to self-destruction. The desire that we share for excellence is natural, and grows out of the fact that we were created for perfection. All of us want to be seen as superlative, but superlative commendations should be predicated upon superlative effort. Flattery pretends to offer it without that price tag, and the damage can be extensive.
Flattery spawns and then feeds on moral and spiritual degradation, and eventually comes to exemplify the social decay it helps to produce. The plague is not a new one. David was confronted with it, and his response is relevant still.
“Help, LORD,” David prayed, “for the godly man ceases! For the faithful disappear from among the sons of men. They speak idly everyone with his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaks proud things, who have said, ‘With our tongue we will prevail; our lips are our own; who is lord over us?’” (Psalm 12:1-4 NKJV).
The communications of the culture David grieved over were characterized by excessive, deceitful, and vain flattery. The people, like their words, were disingenuous, deceitful, and arrogant. David traced the cause of the widespread social decay beyond the language, and found it rooted in an alarming decline of godliness, and the disappearance of the “faithful” from the public scene. In the absence of men whose words could be trusted, deceitful men with evil hearts and empty words flooded in to fill the void. Their words reflected the nature of their relationship to God—praise without practice, expression without connection and confession without commitment. The effect of their deceptive ‘double hearts’ fueled the growth of pride and arrogance until it blossomed into a general rebellion against God that posed an existential threat to the entire nation.
What a positive and powerful alternative God presents.
“Let your speech always be with grace,” He says, “seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6 NKJV).
Granted, both ‘grace-speech’ and flattery offer the recipient something undeserved, but their similarity ends there. ‘Grace-speech’ is godly, offered in love, meant for good, rooted in truth, and strengthens a relationship with the hearer. Flattery is selfish, rooted in lies, cruel in intent, larcenous in nature, and leaves pain and regret in its wake.
The deceitful communications and social decay that David warned about weren’t descriptive of a speech problem. That plague doesn’t originate in the mouth and can’t be cured with altered semantics. It’s a heart issue, so let’s not get confused and start crying out, “Help, Lord, we need more English professors.”
© 2015 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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