Is It Praise or Flattery?
SOMEONE says to you, “Your new hairstyle looks great!” Is it praise or flattery? “That suit is just perfect for you!” Praise or flattery? “This is the most delicious meal I have ever tasted!” Is it praise or flattery? When we receive such compliments, we may wonder whether they are really sincere and truthful or whether they are simply meant to please us without necessarily being believed by the speaker.
How can we know whether what a person says to us is praise or flattery? Does it matter? Can we not just accept at face value what is said and bask in the pleasure it gives us? What about when we give praise to others? Have we ever examined our motives? Thinking about these questions can help us to be discerning and to use our tongue in a manner that brings praise to Jehovah God.
Praise and Flattery Defined
Praise is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as an expression of approval or commendation, and the word can also denote worship or the giving of glory. Clearly the latter two meanings refer only to praise that is directed to Jehovah God. This is an integral part of true worship, as the inspired psalmist exhorts: “For it is good . . . , it is pleasant—praise is fitting.” “Every breathing thing—let it praise Jah.”—Psalm 147:1; 150:6.
However, this does not mean that praise cannot be given to humans. It can, in the sense of commendation, approval, or a favorable judgment. In a parable given by Jesus, a master tells his servant: “Well done, good and faithful slave!”—Matthew 25:21.
On the other hand, flattery is defined as false, insincere or excessive praise, where the flatterer usually has motives of self-interest. Artful commendation or adulation is given to gain favor or material benefits from another or to create a feeling of obligation toward the flatterer. So flatterers are motivated by selfishness. According to Jude 16, they are “ready with flattery for other people when they see some advantage in it.”—The Jerusalem Bible.
The Scriptural View
What is the Scriptural view of praising fellow humans? Jehovah sets a pattern for us to follow in this regard. We are told in the Bible that we will be praised if we do Jehovah’s will. The apostle Paul says that “each one will have his praise come to him from God.” Peter tells us that the tested quality of our faith “may be found a cause for praise.” So the fact that Jehovah will praise humans shows us that giving genuine praise is a kind, loving, and beneficial act, one not to be overlooked.—1 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Peter 1:7.
Another source from which praise can come to us, according to the Bible, is government authorities who observe our good conduct and honestly commend us. “Keep doing good,” we are told, “and you will have praise from it.” (Romans 13:3) We may also receive praise from people who sincerely believe what they are saying and who have no ulterior motive in praising us. The inspired Scriptures say at Proverbs 27:2: “May a stranger, and not your own mouth, praise you.” This indicates that accepting praise from humans is proper.
Not so with giving or receiving flattery. Why is flattering speech so displeasing to Jehovah? For one thing, it is insincere, and Jehovah condemns insincerity. (Compare Proverbs 23:6, 7.) Further, it is not honest. Describing people who warrant God’s disapproval, the psalmist says: “All they do is lie to one another, flattering lips, talk from a double heart. May Yahweh slice off every flattering lip.”—Psalm 12:2, 3, JB.
Above all, flattery is unloving. It is motivated by selfishness. After speaking of the flatterers, the psalmist David quotes them as saying: “With our tongue we shall prevail. Our lips are with us. Who will be a master to us?” Jehovah describes such selfish ones as ‘despoilers of the afflicted ones.’ Their flattering tongues have been used, not to build up others, but to despoil them and afflict them.—Psalm 12:4, 5.
“An able-bodied man that is flattering his companion is spreading out a mere net for his steps.” So says wise King Solomon, and how true that is! (Proverbs 29:5) The Pharisees tried to spread a trap for Jesus with flattery. They said: “Teacher, we know you are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and you do not care for anybody, for you do not look upon men’s outward appearance.” How disarming that sounded! But Jesus was not taken in by their smooth talk. He knew that they did not believe his truthful teaching but were just trying to trap him in his speech on the issue of paying tax to Caesar.—Matthew 22:15-22.
In sharp contrast with Jesus was first-century King Herod. When he gave a public address in the town of Caesarea, the people responded: “A god’s voice, and not a man’s!” Instead of rebuking the people for such blatant, false praise, Herod accepted the flattery. Jehovah’s angel brought instant retribution as Herod was stricken with a worm infestation that resulted in his death.—Acts 12:21-23.
A mature Christian will be alert to recognize flattery for what it is. Congregation elders should be particularly wary when someone involved in a judicial matter is effusive with admiration, perhaps even to the point of comparing one elder with another and saying how much kinder and empathetic the one being spoken to was.
The Bible clearly shows another pitfall that flattery can pose when it describes how a young man is lured into immorality by a seductress. (Proverbs 7:5, 21) This warning is germane to the situation today. Among those who are disfellowshipped from the Christian congregation each year, many are removed for immoral conduct. Could such a fall into gross sin have started with flattery? Since humans are so desirous of compliments and of being well spoken of, smooth talk from flattering lips can lower a Christian’s resistance to improper conduct. When such is not guarded against, it could lead to serious consequences.
Safeguards Against Flattery
Flattery gratifies the self-love or vanity of the one flattered. It tends to give a person an inflated view of his own worth, making him feel superior to others in some way. The philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld likened flattery to counterfeit money, “which, but for vanity would have no circulation.” Thus, the way to safeguard oneself is to heed the apostle Paul’s down-to-earth admonition: “I tell everyone there among you not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind, each one as God has distributed to him a measure of faith.”—Romans 12:3.
Though our natural inclination is to want to hear what is pleasing to our ears, what we really need most of the time are Bible-based counsel and discipline. (Proverbs 16:25) King Ahab wanted to hear only what pleased him; his servants even asked the prophet Micaiah to let his word become “like the word of one of them [Ahab’s flattering prophets], and you must speak good.” (1 Kings 22:13) Had Ahab been willing to listen to straight talk and change his rebellious ways, he could have prevented the terrible battle losses to Israel and also his own death. For our own spiritual welfare, we should be quick to respond to the firm, yet loving, counsel of appointed Christian elders, who want to help us to stay on the straight path of truth, rather than search out people who keep telling us how wonderful we are, tickling our ears with flattering speech!—Compare 2 Timothy 4:3.
Christians would never, for any reason, want to resort to flattery. Like faithful Elihu, they determinedly pray: “Let me not be partial toward anybody, nor flatter any man; for I do not know how to flatter, else would my Maker soon take me away.” Then, like Paul, they would be able to say: “At no time have we turned up either with flattering speech . . . or with a false front for covetousness.”—Job 32:21, 22, An American Translation; 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 6.
Praise Where It Is Due
The inspired proverb shows that praise can act like a touchstone, saying: “The melting-pot is for silver and the crucible for gold, but praise is the test of character.” (Proverbs 27:21, The New English Bible) Yes, praise may foster feelings of superiority or pride, leading to a person’s downfall. On the other hand, it can reveal his modesty and humility if he acknowledges his indebtedness to Jehovah for anything he has done that has brought him praise.
Sincere praise for worthy conduct or attainments builds up both the giver and the recipient. It makes for warm and wholesome appreciation one for another. It encourages striving for praiseworthy goals. Deserving praise given to the young may make them want to work harder. It may help mold their character as they aim to live up to the standards expected of them.
Let us, therefore, avoid flattery—whether on the giving or on the receiving end. Let us be humble when accepting praise. And let us be generous and whole-souled in giving praise—regularly to Jehovah in our worship and sincerely to others in the form of wholesome commendation and appreciation, remembering that “a word at its right time is O how good!”—Proverbs 15:23.