Flattery or Encouragement

“Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver.”Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish philosopher, statesman. From “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” (1790).

I have often felt uneasy when receiving compliments even when I was young. Being raised in a church atmosphere from the time I was born, I was taught to believe that “flattery is vain,” and sometimes  it has been hard to distinguish between a genuine compliment or encouragement and flattery.

GotQuestions.org defines flattery as follows:

Flattery can be defined as “the act of giving excessive compliments, generally for the purpose of ingratiating oneself with the subject.” The difference between flattery and a compliment is the benefactor. Flattery has a selfish motivation. The flatterer hopes to gain approval or advantage over the one being flattered. Compliments, however, are sincere acknowledgments of admiration spoken to praise someone else. A compliment is intended to benefit the recipient, whereas flattery benefits the flatterer.

The Bible has a lot to say about flattery. The book of Proverbs warns of the “flattering lips of an adulteress” (Proverbs 6:247:521). Flattery is often the first step to an adulterous affair. A wise person learns to recognize it and separate flattery from sincere compliments. Flattery is often coupled with lying, as a flatterer is not concerned with whether or not he or she is being truthful (Psalm 5:9Romans 16:18).

Unfortunately, flattery can also be used within Christian circles under the guise of encouragement. Since biblical times, some false teachers have used flattery to lead people astray and to benefit themselves. In 1 Thessalonians 2:5, Paul reminds the church that the apostles had never resorted to flattery in spreading the gospel: “You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed.” Scripture warns of false teachers who use flattery to introduce heresies intended to deceive Christ’s followers and line their own pockets (2 Peter 2:3Romans 16:18Daniel 11:32).

Some teachers use flattery as a means to increase personal followings. Leaders desiring to attract a crowd sometimes water down their message until the gospel is reduced to little more than a God-tainted self-improvement program. They pepper their talks with cheerful verses and illustrations designed to make their hearers feel better about themselves (and about the teachers). There is much talk about discovering one’s potential and developing personal greatness. This is nothing more than flattery intended to create popularity for the speaker and his or her message. It sells books and media time, but it often bears little resemblance to the message Jesus proclaimed.

Jesus’ message did nothing to inflate the self-importance of His hearers. Rather, He stressed the need to die to ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him (Luke 9:23). He said that those who desire to keep their lives now will lose them (Luke 17:33) and that, if we love anyone more than Him, we are not worthy of Him (Matthew 10:37–39). These teachings are the opposite of flattery. Jesus never shied away from stating what someone needed to hear (Mark 10:21–22Luke 9:61–62) because His motivation was always to do His Father’s will (John 8:29). Jesus spoke the truth whether it was popular or not. He refused to compromise the Word, even when great multitudes left Him (John 6:66). He spoke in love, but He never resorted to flattery for personal gain. As His followers, we should be careful to do likewise. (Quote source here.)

In an article published on February 12, 2018, titled, Three Important Differences Between Flattery and Encouragement,” by Hannah Ploegstra, a contributor on GoThereFor.com, she writes:

There’s a fine line between words that flatter and words that encourage—so fine, in fact, that the words used might be identical. “You are so beautiful” could qualify as rank fawning; it could also, given the right circumstances, tone of voice, and context of relationship, serve as a genuine statement of appreciation, gently spurring a weary or discouraged person back into the game. It’s important to know the difference, because we are prone to getting it wrong.

Some people avoid encouraging others verbally, in fear of sounding like they’re flatterers. Other people flatter, thinking they’re encouraging, then wonder why people around them are proud and self-centered when it comes time to return the favor. Those in need of encouragement resort to soliciting mere compliments, but it doesn’t seem to help their discouragement. And when sincere encouragement does come our way, many of us get embarrassed and quickly push it off as if it’s flattery, not letting it sink in, fearing it will make us proud.

Here are some ways to tell the difference next time a compliment is paid.

1. Flattery is selfishly motivated; encouragement is humble.

By definition, flattering comes with an ulterior motive. Flattery, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the act of praising someone, often in a way that is not sincere, because you want something from them”. Someone who flatters wants to make a purchase using counterfeit cash in the form of sweet talk (Rom 16:18). Sometimes compliment-paying customers just want reciprocal admiration; other times the stakes are higher and they’re after money, sex, power, or any number of other self-serving commodities. But whatever the case, we learn to use the currency of flattery early on as little children. Flattery is the oldest trick in the book, an unabashed misuse of power (Prov 29:5).

On the other hand, encouragement is motivated by humility. My own personal working definition for humility (a notoriously difficult trait to define) is “the earnest desire and intentional effort to make another person strong”. Real humility is so unselfconscious that it finds no reason to blush or hold back when saying something nice about another person to their face. Sometimes the reason we can’t speak encouragement to another person is that, deep down inside, we are jealous or fearful of puffing them up. But encouragement, which is humble, desires to build strength—and that’s altogether the opposite of puff. Encouragement, rather than misusing power, gives it away for the sake of empowering someone else (1 Thess 2:5-8).

2. Flattery is insincere; encouragement is truthful.

While little kids can be Jedi-masters at flattery, they can also be refreshingly incapable of it (think The Emperor’s New Clothes). Job’s young friend Elihu, after waiting and waiting for one of the older guys to come up with a good explanation for Job’s suffering, finally exploded with the encouragement Job needed: God’s in control and he’s right (Job 37:23).

Elihu was incapable of flattery:

“I will not show partiality to any man or use flattery toward any person. For I do not know how to flatter, else my Maker would soon take me away.” (Job 32:21-22).

He didn’t pat Job on the back with vain compliments (“You’re a good guy, Job”) or make empty promises (“Everything’s going to work out”). He simply cut through all the lame philosophizing and made the truth plain and clear. And then (humbly) he stepped back to let God prove it himself.

When someone you love is suffering, don’t butter them up with empty praise and man-centered pride; instead soothe them by pouring on the oil of truth (Ps 141:5Prov 28:23). It may not hit them like a Hallmark card. But it will give them courage.

3. Flattery builds pride; encouragement builds strength.

Often flattery begins with the phrase “You are so…”. Granted, that doesn’t automatically define a statement as flattery, but when what follows is a thick syrup of meaningless praise, it’s a pretty good indicator. Since the flatterer is driven by self-serving motives, it makes sense they would appeal to selfishness in their attempts to get what they want. Pride is flattery’s middle name.

But a proper biblical alternative to flattery is not to refrain from saying anything affirming. God’s people aren’t to be stingy about their admiration, respect, appreciation, and gratitude for one another. Instead, we are to be lavishly encouraging. And biblical encouragement doesn’t begin and end with mere doctrinal abstractions about the attributes of God.

We need to learn to free our tongues to be directly personal at times when someone is losing heart in the work God has given them to do. Whether that work is professional ministry or parenting, persevering in faith or resisting the temptations of a besetting sin, often in addition to needing the gospel truth of the Bible weary souls need to hear something even more firsthand. They need someone who shares life with them—not a book or a blog or a podcast, but a person—to tell them something real and true and historically undeniable about God’s work in their own lives.

Paul was never pinched in giving concrete praise. He noticed the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” and commended them for being “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia”, even claiming that their excellent example had reached the ears of virtually all the churches (1 Thess 1:378). Would the knowledge of this fame make their heads big? Paul took the risk, knowing that a much greater risk was that their courage would shrink if he didn’t. Paul knew his praise wouldn’t puff them up; he knew it was substantive and would fill them with strength to continue.

Over in Corinth he was doing the same, perhaps even more affectionately: “I have great pride in you” (2 Cor 7:4). He goes into detail, first speaking objective truth (2 Cor 7:10) and then describing fully how he sees that truth playing out in living color among them (2 Cor 7:11). He finds rich adjectives to describe them: they are earnest, innocent, refreshing, and obedient, and Paul has no reservations in boasting about them to others, because he knows that the good things he sees in them are the very work of God (2 Cor 7:14, 16).

Flattery puffs up, but encouragement pumps up. The difference between them has everything to do with the quality of what’s inside both the speaker and the listener. Flattery is full of nothing; encouragement is full of muscle. Encouragement is good fat that soothes and strengthens; flattery is bad fat that clogs the spiritual arteries.

In the final analysis, flattery is something God forbids while encouragement is something he commands—a skill we can all refine and increase for the sake of finishing the race together. (Quote source here.)

In an article published on May 7, 2020, titled, Flattery is Not Encouragement,” by James Williams, Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church Atlanta (TX), he writes:

Lurking in the shadow of every good gift from God is a twisted perversion that seeks to imitate and destroy. These destructive copycats disguise themselves as good but are actually out to cause chaos and confusion. God creates healthy friendships as a gift, but sin turns them into something codependent or abusive. God blesses a person with a strong work ethic, but sin twists it so he becomes a work-a-holic. Patience can morph into passivity, a desire for kindness can lead to avoiding tough conversations, and a passion for unity can cause us to downplay truth. For every good gift of God, sin has an unhealthy perversion that leads to spoiled fruit.

One good gift of God is receiving an encouraging word. Over and over in Scripture God reminds us of the power of such words. We are told that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11). An anxious heart can weigh a person down, but “a good word makes him glad” (Prov. 12:25). Many of us grew up singing “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but Scripture says otherwise: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:21).

However, like other good gifts from God, even the gift of encouragement has a sinister imitation: flattery. While at times looking very similar to encouragement, Scripture warns that flattery leads to selfish and destructive ends.

The Difference Between Encouragement and Flattery

It can be difficult to discern between encouraging words and flattery since the exact same phrase can be used for either. For example, two different people may say, “You are very gifted,” and yet one may be encouraging you while the other may be flattering you.

It’s difficult to distinguish between the two because it’s often a matter of motive. Flattery is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “praise excessively especially from motives of self-interest.” Sometimes flattery is detectable because it is “excessive,” but other times it’s simply the motive of the speaker that differentiates it from encouragement.

While Scripture doesn’t provide an explicit definition of flattery, it does confirm the definition provided above. It tells us that flattery is deceptive (Psalm 12:2; Romans 16:18) and leads to ruin (Proverbs 26:24-28). Encouragement, on the other hand, builds up (1 Thess. 5:11, Ephesians 4:29). Encouragement stirs up love (Hebrews 10:24), but flattery sets a trap for the hearer (Proverbs 29:5). Flattery doesn’t rebuke (Proverbs 28:23) even when it would be beneficial to the hearer because doing so doesn’t accomplish the desired ends of the speaker. The flatterer’s concern isn’t for good of the hearer but rather his own interest.

The encourager speaks words of truth to build you up and spur you on. The flatterer will tell you what you want to hear so you’ll do what he wants you to do. Scripture warns that his words will be convincing: “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Psalm 55:21). Someone’s words may appear encouraging even when there’s something darker hidden in their heart: “Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully; with his mouth each speaks peace to his neighbor, but in his heart he plans an ambush for him” (Jer. 9:8).

Be Discerning

Whenever possible, we should assume the best when we receive kind words. However, that doesn’t mean we avoid being discerning. Jesus tells us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Do you only receive “encouragement” from a certain person when they need something from you? Beware. Let us not be deceived and fall into the trap of the flatterer.

We need to discern our own motives as well. Do I “encourage” others to gain some advantage? Do I encourage those who cannot do anything for me? Perhaps asking ourselves such questions will reveal unhealthy motives in our own heart. By the power of the Spirit, may we strive to pluck such impurities hidden within ourselves. May we not taint God’s good gift of encouragement or use it for our own ends. Let us be known as people of encouragement, not as flatterers seeking power or prestige. May we continually be “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25). (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the words from Paul in Ephesians 4:32Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…

Forgiving one another . . .

As God in Christ . . .

Forgave you . . . .

YouTube Video: “I Will Fear No More” by The Afters:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here


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