Smooth Words That Cause Harm
COMMENDATION for a job well done warms the heart of a diligent worker. However, there is a type of speech that, while sounding similar to commendation and often mistaken for it, always causes harm.
At Proverbs 28:23 we read: “He that is reproving a man will afterward find more favor than he will that is flattering with his tongue.” This is a warning, not against commendation, but against flattery.
According to a dictionary, the words “to flatter” mean to praise too much, untruly or insincerely. The expression also refers to efforts at gaining the favor of someone by praise and attention. Different from commendation based upon a correct appraisal of hard work, flattery is grounded upon untruth.
THE FOLLY OF EXCESSIVE PRAISE
Flattering speech always bears bad fruitage. For instance, it contributes to haughtiness, which Jesus listed among the “injurious reasonings” that issue forth from the heart. (Mark 7:21, 22) The Bible counsels the worshiper of God “not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind.” (Rom. 12:3) The exaggerated self-image promoted by flattery works against such Christian soundness of mind.
Persons who love flattery react adversely to criticism. They prefer hearing only laudatory remarks about themselves. Of that type were Israelites who complained to the prophets of God: “You must not envision for us any straightforward things. Speak to us smooth things [“flattering things,” The Jerusalem Bible]; envision deceptive things.” (Isa. 30:10) However, craving for smooth words of flattery rather than for corrective counsel from God led to ruin for the nation of Israel.
In Jesus’ day lovers of flattery included especially the scribes and Pharisees. Concerning them, the Son of God said: “All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes of their garments. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.” (Matt. 23:5-7) But this led to their ruination. Because of “accepting glory from one another” they failed to exercise faith in the promised Messiah and lost out on the blessings of becoming part of God’s kingdom. (John 5:44; 12:43; Matt. 21:42, 43) Moreover, their rejection of Jesus Christ led to the destruction of the Jewish nation by the Romans in 70 C.E.
FLATTERY TO GAIN ADVANTAGE
Pride and haughtiness are only part of the bad fruitage caused by flattery. Often the flatterer uses smooth words as a tool to take advantage of others. The Scriptures speak of certain ones getting into the Christian congregation who were “mischief-makers, grumblers governed only by their own desires, with mouths full of boastful talk, ready with flattery for other people when they see some advantage in it.” (Jude 16, JB) With similar ones in mind, the psalmist cried out: “Do save me, O Jehovah, for the loyal one has come to an end; for faithful people have vanished from the sons of men. Untruth they keep speaking one to the other; with a smooth lip [“flattering lips,” JB] they keep speaking even with a double heart.”—Ps. 12:1, 2.
One with “a double heart” uses smooth words of flattery to conceal selfish motives. By means of such speech he appeals to the vanity of his hearers and ‘gets into their good graces.’ Then the flatterer uses his victims to advance selfish interests. True indeed is the Scriptural statement: “An able-bodied man that is flattering his companion is spreading out a mere net for his steps.”—Prov. 29:5.
Wisely Jesus counseled his disciples: “Do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:8-12) Persons who wish to imitate Christ do not seek exaltation by humans through flattering speech such as by using high-sounding religious titles. The exaltation that really counts comes from God, and is only for humble ones. “Before a crash the heart of a man is lofty, and before glory there is humility.”—Prov. 18:12.
Christians will shun flattery as a means of inflating their own ego or that of others. They will avoid it also as a way of taking advantage of their fellowman. The example of the apostle Paul is a fine one: “At no time have we turned up either with flattering speech, (just as you know) or with a false front for covetousness, God is witness!”—1 Thess. 2:5.
STRIVE FOR BALANCE
This is not to say that all flattering speech is wrongly motivated. By nature some individuals are easily overawed with abilities that they see in their friends or acquaintances. Certain persons are inclined to make a habit of telling others how “brilliant” they are or otherwise of showering them with compliments. Generally, however, such expressions tend toward exaggeration and add up to nothing more than flattery. Since all humans are sinful, no individual is so gifted that he must constantly be told about it.—Rom. 3:23.
On the other hand, it is important to avoid the opposite extreme of never giving commendation. Instead, one must be mindful of the fact that Jesus was ready to commend even when about to administer reproof. For instance, the Son of God said to the Christian congregation in Ephesus: “I know your deeds, and your labor and endurance, and that you cannot bear bad men, and that you put those to the test who say they are apostles, but they are not, and you found them liars. You are also showing endurance, and you have borne up for my name’s sake and have not grown weary. Nevertheless, I hold this against you, that you have left the love you had at first.” (Rev. 2:1-4) Likely that commendation encouraged those Ephesian Christians and prompted them all the more readily to correct the one thing that Jesus ‘held against’ them.
While commendation brings benefits, God’s Word makes it plain that the smooth words of a flatterer result in harm. Both the one using flattery and those ‘taken in’ by it will find the inspired statement true: “A flattering mouth causes an overthrow.” (Prov. 26:28) Jesus Christ refused to be flattered. (Mark 10:17, 18) He is an example for his followers.