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Avoid Flattery But Affirm Freely

June 21, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 2:5-6 (NRSV)

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 . . . .

Focus

Flattery is saying “nice” things to people that you don’t really mean. And it’s doing this for your own personal benefit, not to build up another person. As disciples of Jesus, we should avoid flattery. But we should excel in genuine affirmation that seeks to encourage others.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.

Devotion

Recently, a good friend of mine told me I was unusually open about expressing to others my appreciation for them. I felt grateful for her kind words. I would like to be generous in affirming others, whether in the workplace or at church, in the neighborhood or the shopping mall, among friends or strangers. For example, if I see someone working in a store or a restaurant who is doing a good job, I like to acknowledge that person’s work and thank them.

Now, I should be clear that I have not always been like this. My innate shyness used to get in the way of my speaking with strangers. Plus, I was afraid that if I affirmed someone, even a friend or work associate, that person might think I was doing it for my own gain. I did not want to be perceived as a flatterer.

I still don’t want to be someone who engages in flattery. In this way, I am like the Apostle Paul and his colleagues. In their letter to the Thessalonian Christians, they mention the fact that while they were in Thessalonica they did not practice flattery: “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery.” Flattery is affirming speech of a particular and pernicious kind. First of all, it is insincere. It is saying something that the speaker really doesn’t think or feel. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, flattery is self-serving. It’s not saying something positive about someone in order to build up that person. Rather, it’s saying something “nice” to get something for oneself. So, flattery is both deceptive and self-serving. This is something that Paul and his associates avoided and so should we as Christ-followers who seek to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Lloyd, Howard, and Mark Roberts at 2007 retreat.

Lloyd, Howard, and Mark Roberts at 2007 retreat.

Now, there was a time in my life when my fear of being a flatterer kept me from affirming people even in a genuine and loving way. I was not naturally inclined to notice good things about people or to mention these things to them. But, I’ve been blessed in my life with mentors who were flatterers, but who were generous in their expressions of appreciation for others. People like Lloyd Ogilvie and Howard Butt, Jr. showed me that it is possible to affirm freely while avoiding flattery. (At Laity Lodge, I had the joy of being with both Lloyd and Howard at a retreat in 2007. See the photo.)

Of course, I could have learned to affirm without flattery from the Apostle Paul and his colleagues. Though they avoid deceptive and self-serving flattery in their communication with the Thessalonians, the letter writers are actually quite generous in their affirmation of the Thessalonians. This begins in the third verse of the letter when the writers acknowledge the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (1:3). In the second chapter, the Thessalonians are affirmed for having received the gospel as the genuine word of God (2:13). In chapter 4, the writers affirm the Thessalonians for living in a way that pleases God (4:1) and for their exemplary love (4:9-10). Finally, in chapter 5, Paul and his co-writers affirm the Thessalonians for how they are encouraging each other (5:1). Now, if the writers had been doing all of this affirmation in order to get some personal benefit from the Thessalonians, then they would be engaging in flattery. But if their point is to build up and encourage the Thessalonian believers, then what they are doing is exemplary for us. It shows us how we might also affirm each other.

Let me conclude by saying that I do receive a certain benefit when I express my appreciation for another person. I do feel a kind of joy when I tell someone why I am grateful for them. Plus, often I receive a positive response from the person I have been affirming, and that adds to my joy. But, even when this doesn’t happen, I feel glad in knowing that my words can be an encouragement to others. So, I try to avoid flattery but affirm freely, yes, to build up others, but also because it gives me joy.

Reflect

To what extent are you generous in your affirmation of others? Why do you think you are the way you are?

In certain institutional settings, it’s common for subordinates to flatter the boss. Have you ever experienced anything like that? If you have a boss, is it possible for you to affirm things about your boss without engaging in flattery? If so, why? If not, why not?

How might the world be a different place if Christians made a concerted effort to affirm the good work of people out in the world?

Act

Sometime in the next few days, be intentional about affirming someone in your life. This could be a colleague, a family member, or someone who serves you in a business establishment. Pay attention to how the experience of affirming someone feels to you.

Pray

Gracious God, once again we thank you for the example of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. Thank you for their effort to avoid self-serving and deceptive flattery. Thank you also for their demonstration of how we can affirm others in genuine and edifying ways.

Lord, please help me refrain from flattery. Even if this is going on around me at work, may I always be truthful in what I say. And may I use my words to build up others for their sake.

Help me see the goodness in others and express genuine appreciation for them. Give me new eyes so that I might pay attention to those who serve me in the grocery store, the restaurant, the mechanic’s shop, and so many other places. May I use the agency you have given me to build people up. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Best of Daily Reflections: Labor of Love


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