Flattery Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Flattery

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Flattery consists of words and actions that are hollow in their sentiments but that are designed to curry favor with a person of influence by heaping praise and compliments on that person. When we flatter, we at best exaggerate how we feel toward another person and at worst we manufacture feelings toward another person because we believe this will yield financial or other tangible benefits for ourselves.

In Scripture

On their lips "They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain" (Ezek. 33:31).

Who do they serve? "For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded" (Rom. 16:18).

Our appeal "For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children" (1 Thess. 2:3-7).

Distinctions among yourselves "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, `Have a seat here, please,' while to the one who is poor you say, `Stand there,' or, `Sit at my feet,'[ ]have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:1-4).

Points to Ponder

Flattery as Vice: Although Scripture rarely uses the word flattery, the Bible is everywhere concerned with the core of flattery, in that the Bible commands God's people to be truthful even as it commands that God's people be especially mindful of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Flattery is a sinful vice that leads us to tell lies ("You are the most wonderful person I've ever met. I think that your viewpoints are so much sharper than anyone else in our community!"). Flattery is also sinful because it means we will treat the wealthy and the powerful in deferential ways that we'd never lavish on the weak or the poor. Taken to an extreme, flatterers ignore the very people God desires us to expend extra effort on — the poor — because they are too busy cozying up to the wealthy and powerful who, they believe, will reward their attention by giving them money, donations, or positions of privilege. Flattery is at once deceitful, discriminatory, insincere, and thus fake. Flattery also aids and abets the deadly sin of pride, puffing up those who may already be sufficiently puffed up in their own minds.

Flattery and Gospel Witness: The apostle Paul was particularly sensitive to the accusation that he was a glad-handing, smooth-talking flatterer. When criticized as such, Paul took pains to make plain that his motives were sincere. He wasn't trying to get anything from people but only to give the greatest treasure of them all: the Good News that we are all saved by grace through the love of Christ. Unfortunately, in Paul's day as now, there were/are people around who have ulterior motives — including, it is sad to say, some who preach in churches — so it is necessary to distinguish genuine gospel proclamation from the messages of those who are trying to get something for themselves.

"Favoritism" in James: We are told in Scripture that God shows no partiality (cf. also Acts 10 when Peter comes to realize God's Spirit was working even among non-kosher Gentiles). In his salvation and love, God shows no favoritism and, therefore, God's people must not do this either. No one is clearer on that than the apostle James, Especially in James 2 we learn why this sin of flattery-inspired partiality/favoritism is so loathsome to God. The word for "favoritism" or "partiality" in James 2 is a rare word in Scripture: prosopolempteo. Literally it means "to take hold of the face" and it refers to the practice in the ancient world of a commoner bowing low to the ground when in the presence of a rich and powerful king. If you found favor in the king's eyes, he would extend his hand and raise up your face so your gaze could meet his own. Then you would know you were approved. James claims that the people in the congregations to which he was writing were doing this toward only the rich and powerful in the hope of currying favor and reaping monetary rewards. Not only did James find this ridiculous in that it was the rich who were more likely than anyone else to sue people or make life difficult in other ways, this was also an end-run on Christ and on the gospel. We are not to bow down our faces to the rich, rather, we do this in humble service to the poor, the marginalized, and to everyone else in the church or in society regardless of social rank. Waiting for only the rich and powerful to take hold of your face to give you approval makes you forget that God has already done this for all of us poor sinners. Our joyful privilege is to serve others in grace — ALL others, not just the wealthy — even as we have been served.

A Loathsome Trait: Despite the fact that almost everyone is tempted to engage in flattering speech or behavior when faced with rich or powerful people, most people despise flattery, as reflected in the ways it is typically described. Flattery is "buttering up" and "sucking up" and "kissing up." Flatterers are described as "bootlickers" and (more coarsely) as "brown-nosers." A flatterer may be called a "Yes-man," a "sycophant," or (in the earliest days of a flatterer's career) a "teacher's pet." When someone is pouring on the flattery fast and furious, people start to refer (in varying degrees of coarseness) to excrement, saying that something stinks, that you'd best watch where you step, that it's getting deep. Other descriptions along the lines of "toady," "leech," and "parasite" are often used as well.

A Society of Flattery: Inevitably a celebrity-driven culture that glamorizes media stars and the wealthy runs a higher risk of both encouraging flattery and rewarding it. TV talks shows and interviews with celebrities on news programs routinely lavish praise on movie stars whose personal history and morality are scandalous. The rich are treated with kid gloves and looked to for their opinions on a range of subjects despite the fact that they often know no more about those subjects than anyone else (in fact, they frequently know a whole lot less than other more learned individuals who never appear on television). Even the recent phenomenon of the "selfie" reflects people's desire — including the desire of many Christian people — to post a picture on Facebook or Instagram of themselves standing next to a famous person, though it would never occur to them to do this standing next to a homeless person or someone in need.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.