I would like to begin today’s post with the wise, wise words of a bunny named Thumper. Since the release of the animated movie Bambi, Disney has aided in the moral formation of many a child as scolding mother’s across America have quoted this classic line:
If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.
(Excuse the double negative–he’s a rabbit)
As basic as that teaching is, I have come to live by those words. Throughout my life I have said many, many stupid things that I wish I could stuff back into my mouth, so over the years I have learned to ask myself, “Will this be edifying?” before speaking. Needless to say I’m still working on it.
But being the over-achiever that I am, I was not content to stop there, so I decided to take Thumper’s teachings even further. Instead of saying “nothing at all,” I began to live by the motto, “If you can’t say something nice, say something nice anyway.” Surely this is the height of virtue! So I patted myself on the back every time I spoke niceties and kind words, rather than gossip or slander. I am a really good Christian, I thought.
Well it turns out that bunny is smarter than I realized. I probably should have stopped while I was ahead before improving on his age old wisdom, because I discovered something in the Bible that is a little troubling. Shockingly, saying nice things about people is not always a good thing. In fact, it can be very, very bad.
When it comes to excessive praise, Scripture is very clear on this point. It makes statements such as, “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin,” (Prov. 26:28) and “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.” (Prov. 29:5) The heaping on of compliments, flattery, is not merely to be avoided; it is a highly destructive act.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve always glossed over these passages without ever really considering what flattery is, so I decided to pull out the dictionary and have a look. After all, if flattery is essentially the act of saying nice things, what is the problem? And at what point am I doing it? Well here are some definitions I found…
1. To try to please by complimentary remarks or attention.
2. To praise or compliment insincerely, effusively, or excessively
3. To represent favorably; gratify by falsification
4. To show to advantage
5. To play upon the vanity or susceptibilities of; cajole, wheedle, or beguile
*fyi, upon reading this definition, I subsequently had to look up the word “wheedle”–it means “to influence through flattery or the art of persuasion”
The common thread between all of these definitions is that the compliments being delivered are categorically untrue. But perhaps the more important subtext of these definitions is that the flatterer stands something to gain–why else would you lie to someone?
That said, flattery becomes flattery when it is done for the sake of the flatterer. Even if the compliments are deserved, there is a degree of insincerity to them if given for the wrong reason.
So when exactly do we go awry with our compliments? Well there is the obvious stuff–flattering a boss to get ahead, flattering a group of peers who you would desperately like to be friends with, etc. But I suspect it is more widespread than that. If you are any kind of people pleaser at all, and I am, then flattery may actually define your way of relating to people. You cannot help but dole out the compliments to everyone around you–“You look SO pretty today,” “That outfit is SO cute,” or “I love you SO much I can barely stand to be away from you for a second.”
It’s not that saying these things are wrong in and of themselves. In fact, it’s really important to affirm one another regularly. BUT, we have to check our motives in doing so. Are we doing it for the sake of getting other peoples’ approval, because we want others to like us? Before we dole out the praise so excessively, we need to ask ourselves why we are doing it.
And why is this so important? After all, what is the harm in saying nice things to people? Why is Scripture so harsh on this point? The problem is that it not only harms the flatterer, but the person being flattered as well.
Now to understand how flattery can harm the recipient of the compliment, we can look to the first few episodes of American Idol. Every time I watch those horrible singers, burying my face while they embarrass themselves in front of millions of people, I think to myself, “Where were their friends and family? And more importantly, why didn’t they stop them?!?!” That right there is one example of flattery gone awry. Instead of being honest, those singers’ friends and family allowed them to publicly humiliate themselves.
When we flatter someone who does not deserve the flattery, we do them a disservice. We lie to them and encourage them instead of telling them the difficult truths that they need to hear. I have done this the most when someone has asked me whether or not I thought their behavior was wrong. Rather than be honest and say the difficult thing, I have wimped out and instead focused on the “positive,” going so far as to praise them for the things they are doing right. In doing so, I not only compromised myself, but pushed my friend further into a destructive behavior. That is why those proverbs use such harsh language–when you flatter someone, you are often setting them up to fall.
But the other problem with flattery is that it can be harmful to the flatterer. It enforces a mindset in which we are constantly basing our worth upon the approval of others. We cannot pass up the opportunity to win someone’s affection, so we dole out the praises excessively. In doing so, we reinforce a dependency upon man’s approval rather than God’s.
So I challenge you to watch your words. Just because you aren’t gossiping or slandering others does not mean you are loving them well. Satan has a knack for taking every good thing and perverting it for his own ends, and kind words are no exception. Examine your heart and determine why you say the things you say. Your compliments may seem harmless at the time, but Romans 16:18 reminds us: “Such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
Flattery is no small thing, so if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. But even when you can say something nice, it may still be best to keep quiet.