“You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed–God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you” (1 Thessalonians 2:5-6).
When I first became a Christian I confused encouragement with flattery. I loved to tell people flattering things like “That’s a cool tie” or “That is such a beautiful dress” whether I meant it or not. The praise I heaped out was excessive and occasionally less than completely sincere. This confusion grew out of the mixed motives of my heart. Was I motivated to say these flattering things to build up another person? Or was I speaking this sweet-talk in order to make myself look like a good guy? Maybe some of each?
It is a mistake to confuse encouragement with flattery. Words of encouragement may be positive, or they may be negative, taking the form of a verbal “kick in the seat of the pants.” Flattery ignores all things negative and just pours out the syrupy smooth talk. Encouragement may point out the down side of things (“Hey, come on, you are slacking.”) and quickly follow with an exhortation (“Get back on track and get moving again!”).
The Bible warns against flattery, associating it with deception and lying (Psalm 12:2, 78:36). A flattering mouth “works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). In the end, people appreciate a frank rebuke more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23). Especially dangerous is flattery as a religious approach (Ezekiel 12:24; Daniel 11:32; Romans 16:18; Jude 16).
Flattery is very self-centered. On the surface the flattering words appear to be focused on saying something positive for the benefit of the person addressed, but in reality, the words are spoken for the advantage of the person speaking.
Flattery is a great form of manipulation.
So what’s the appeal? We generally like flattery because it appeals to our pride. We want to hear good things spoken about our favorite subject (ourselves). And so what better way is there to build up a church? Appeal to people’s pride! It may have been tempting to Paul and his team, but they chose another route. They spoke the truth, being more concerned about pleasing God than pleasing people.
While flattery appeals to pride, the gospel destroys it. Flattery tells us in sugary excess how wonderful we are. The gospel tells us, straight-up, we are lost in sin and can do nothing about it in the way of personal accomplishments. The escape from condemnation is out of our hands. Bridging the chasm between ourselves and God is out of our control. The Good News of Jesus begins with the bad news that we are not “all that.” That’s why John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching repentance.
My prayer is that flattery would lose its appeal to me as I talk, listen, and minister.