Though we sometimes confuse flattery with praise, the two are not the same. Praise is a sincere expression of appreciation, flattery is an insincere expression. Praise is a thoughtful comment selflessly offered for encouragement, flattery is a calculated comment selfishly offered for gain. Where praise speaks honest words that are true, flattery speaks dishonest words that are false or exaggerated.
When our selfishness is severe enough to have us remaining the ever-present protagonist in our story, our own personal gain becomes the motivating force behind every action and interaction. We don't love people, we use people. On our giant chessboard of life, people are pawns to be manipulated and strategically moved in ways that advance us. Even our giving is about taking. That's the essence of flattery. Stroking an ego (giving) with the motivation to secure something in return (taking).
We all struggle with selfishness, and we're all guilty of flattery that has us uttering insincere words for personal gain. But there's a place we can land on the continuum of narcissism where our selfishness is severe enough to keep us from humbly stepping away from ourselves long enough to actually see ourselves and our sin. It's at this place where we are the most likely to make flattery a habit, even justifying it as a necessary part of survival and success. Wounds we inflict in this prideful place of blind ignorance are always the most damaging because they don't come with our humble repentance.
Whenever we flatter others for our personal gain we spread a net before their feet. It's one of the many reasons why humility is so essential to the health of any meaningful relationship. It ensures the removal of any net that our inevitable selfishness may spread before another. But when pride has us justifying ourselves, we risk entangling the hearts of the vulnerable.
The Word of God isn't alone in calling flattery a destructive form of communication. I enjoy tuning into the voices of the leading business and leadership advisors, and it's interesting how often they levy warning against flattery. Mike Myatt, a Fortune 500 CEO coach and Forbes columnist, is one of many who has expressed increasing concern over the blind spots in leaders, with the most dangerous blind spot being a looming ego that flatters and leaves them vulnerable to being flattered. Because a thirst for acceptance, affirmation or advancement doesn't just drive us to manipulate, it's a thirst that leaves us vulnerable to being manipulated.
Indeed, flattery is a dangerous game of risk for every person thirsty enough to play. If the unredeemed can recognize this, how much more should Christ-followers uphold their love for integrity enough to shun every word of insincerity that isn't supported by a pure heart. Song of Solomon 2:15 warns of the little foxes that spoil the vine. We can't afford to think of flattery as some trivial nitpicking over words. Those "little foxes" are what set a net before feet, and if we're not careful their selfish nature will hurt others deeply as they gnaw away at the relational vines of love.
Even if we humble ourselves and repent of our selfishness, how do we keep another from ensnaring us in a dangerous net of manipulative flattery? How can we know if someone is offering us sincere praise? How can we be certain that the same smooth words seducing us into special positioning aren't being whispered to others? How can we tell when a friend is merely using us? How can we ever know if someone is speaking honestly from their heart?
These are all great questions that have never come with easy answers, but Mike Myatt explains why they are more challenging than ever:
No doubt about it, time is what reveals the sincerity of words best. That person who uses us will eventually reveal their self-serving hand as we discover we enjoy warm connection when it interests them. Their reach (not ours) determines engagement, so time will present us with enough cool dismissals to know. Time will also tell us with a pattern of misaligned words and actions. High praise will meet low value, exposing the grain of words once believed smooth.
But if time is what tells us best, what do we do to keep from being ensnared when time isn't on our side?
Although there's much to discuss about entering relationships wisely, the condition of our heart is ultimately what leaves us vulnerable to flattery. Because whether or not we discern the selfish motivation of another, words can only carry as much weight as we afford them. The rapid increase of social networks in this digital age doesn't mean the weight we offer to words has to increase. And it won't, unless we find ourselves thirsting for acceptance, affirmation or advancement. Even if we discover a flatterer has set a net for our feet with their insincere words, it will only ensnare us (or keep us ensnared if we entered into intimate relationship) if our heart is thirsting for something we are looking for them to supply.
We are all vulnerable to flattery's seduction if our treasuring of Christ is too weak to eliminate the presence of heart idols that cry to be fed. We may be vulnerable because we thirst for the affirming of our beauty or our sexual appeal. Or we may be vulnerable because we thirst for the affirming of our intelligence or spirituality. And maybe we're vulnerable because we thirst for success and personal advancement. Regardless of our area of thirst, if we are struggling to untangle ourselves from a net of flattery, there is typically a place of need in our heart that God is seeking to satisfy with Himself.
Guarding our heart is about keeping Christ on the throne, not about keeping people at a distance. It's about loving others more fearlessly, not loving them less. Although wisdom dictates that some people should be kept at a distance, distance has no power to protect our heart. Honoring the Kingship of our Sovereign Savior is our only safeguard from the seduction of sin, whether it comes in the form of manipulative flattery or not.
May the wise guarding of our heart find us thirsting for One King, One Lord, and One Savior!