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Compliments or Flattery?

“Let’s clap for Mom for a wonderful meal!”

Our youngest, just a baby in the high chair, joined his older siblings for an enthusiastic acclamation of my dinner. My husband started this tradition when our oldest daughter was that little diner with a food-smeared bib. She couldn’t express with words her appreciation for the food served to her. But he knew that she had learned to “patty cake” and would quickly join in to applaud her mother.

Over the years, even though my children are now grown adults, our family continues this tradition to compliment and acknowledge the efforts of the cook, whether it be Mom or Dad or even someone we’re visiting. And the two of us never hesitate to congratulate a surprised hostess with the encouragement to those seated around the table to “clap for the cook for the wonderful meal.”

Formal acknowledgements of appreciation are routinely found in the pages preceding a book that has taken the efforts and encouragement of many contributors. When it came time to publish my Master’s thesis, I took the opportunity to say thank you to those who had guided my work and also to my family who had done so much to allow me to pursue my degree. None of this is required or even necessary. But it certainly is a wonderful gesture, a written tribute that goes a long way. 

Now most compliments we receive are more fleeting, a passing comment that sometimes just hangs in the air because we’re not quite sure how to respond. We don’t want to sound prideful in accepting praise for something we’ve done or even for something we possess.

When I compliment what someone is wearing, I often hear “Oh, this old thing? I’ve had it for years!” or something similar. That response has always bothered me, particularly since I’ve used it myself from time to time. This kind of self-deprecating reply sounds so negative, as if the wearer has to apologize for looking her best.

Rebuffed compliments can also be deflating. No one really enjoys hearing someone profess his accomplishment as “nothing special” when you think it’s absolutely wonderful.

Sometimes a simple thank you is all that’s needed when somebody throws a compliment your way. But those two words can be so abrupt. Where does the conversation go from there?

Watching how people accept compliments has taught me some excellent alternatives. I especially take note of how sports figures respond to the adulation of fans and reporters.

The famous basketball coach John Wooden had his usual comment ready after more than one spectacular win: “We have a few things we need to work on.” His humility in light of an outstanding career is a lesson to all.

I appreciate when players who are singled out as stars or Most Valuable Players spread the praise around. They give credit to their coaches, their fellow teammates, their parents, and even at times to their Lord Jesus.

Even though most of us never find ourselves being interviewed or publicly acclaimed, we do receive compliments. We need to have some options beyond the usual thank you. Something to say that smooths over a slightly uncomfortable moment.

The great pianist Van Cliburn was heard to say, “You’re so kind” in response to praise given to his performances. I like that!

A particularly well-groomed older woman gave me a line I plan to borrow. When I told her how lovely she looked in her blouse, she responded with “Thank you. I’ve enjoyed wearing it!” What a gracious response!

And it doesn’t hurt to share the compliments and adulation by spreading the recognition around to others, adding praise to coworkers, employees, bosses, or family members. 

The worst thing is to have a compliment dismissed in a truly unseemly manner. At an especially elegant dinner the host can quickly deflate the joy of the occasion by responding: “It had better be good, considering what I’m paying for this!” The effect of this wasted compliment is vividly described in Proverbs: “You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments” (23:8). While this word choice may be a bit overstated, I know I’ve felt a sour stomach in such a situation. Comments like that take the joy out of a celebration and ruin the enjoyment of a good meal.

Not all compliments that come our way should be readily accepted, especially when we sense there is something accompanying the words of praise or admiration. This is especially true for Christian leaders.

As parents of teenagers we learned to be wary of what request might lie behind an opening comment of praise: “You’re such a wonderful mom!” “I know you always have the best ideas.” A quick discussion using pointed questions usually revealed their true motives.

But when this kind of flattery moves into the workplace, we yearn for discernment and wisdom to recognize and deal with the situation. We may not have the divine insight of our Lord Jesus, but we can still learn from his responses.

The most famous flattery in the Gospels came from the Pharisees. They initiated their conversations with Jesus using an honorable title of “Rabbi” or “Teacher” which appeared to show proper deference. They followed this by piling on the compliments: “We know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Matthew 28:16). Wow! Now that’s a setup! Of course the follow up question was really a trap, the question concerning the lawfulness of paying taxes.

Yet Nicodemus used some of those same words sincerely when he approached Jesus in that secret meeting one night: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2).

So obviously not everyone who compliments is deceitful. We can only pray for the ability to recognize true sincerity and also to guard against treachery and flattery.

When we find ourselves in the position of giving compliments, we also need guidance. We need to be honest with those who have failed and yet give them encouragement instead of hollow praise for something we know was not worthy of recognition.

And when we do commend someone, whether it’s an employee, a group member, or someone in our family, we must be sure our compliments are sincere and not just a meaningless “good job” in passing. There should be a personal reference, a specific commendation so that person knows what to build on and strive for.

At the same time I should be sure that what I am commending is also what our Lord Jesus would commend… what I am doing is also what He would praise. As Paul said in Galatians 1:10, if I’m trying to please only people and win their approval, “I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Because my Lord Jesus is not one to throw out meaningless flattery. He is very specific in what he commends: the work I do to honor Him and to share His love and grace with others. He points me to what I should strive to improve on in order to grow in my walk with Him: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:21).

I know what I do in this life won’t ever earn me my place in heaven. That’s a gift from my Savior. But I strive to thank him with my words and actions. And I look forward to the day when I hope to hear His ultimate compliment, His loving voice of congratulations: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Leaving my guilt at the cross,


First published at Lead Like Jesus November 2018


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