Lurking in the shadow of every good gift from God is a twisted perversion that seeks to imitate and destroy. These destructive copycats disguise themselves as good but are actually out to cause chaos and confusion. God creates healthy friendships as a gift, but sin turns them into something codependent or abusive. God blesses a person with a strong work ethic, but sin twists it, so he becomes a work-a-holic. Patience can morph into passivity, a desire for kindness can lead to avoiding tough conversations, and a passion for unity can cause us to downplay truth. For every good gift of God, sin has an unhealthy perversion that leads to spoiled fruit.
One good gift of God is receiving an encouraging word. Over and over in Scripture, God reminds us of the power of such words. We are told that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11). An anxious heart can weigh a person down, but “a good word makes him glad” (Prov. 12:25). Many of us grew up singing “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but Scripture says otherwise: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:21).
However, like other good gifts from God, even the gift of encouragement has a sinister imitation: flattery. While at times looking very similar to encouragement, Scripture warns that flattery leads to selfish and destructive ends.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENCOURAGEMENT AND FLATTERY
It can be difficult to discern between encouraging words and flattery since the exact same phrase can be used for either. For example, two different people may say, “You are very gifted,” and yet one may be encouraging you while the other may be flattering you.
It’s difficult to distinguish between the two because it’s often a matter of motive. Flattery is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “praise excessively, especially from motives of self-interest.” Sometimes flattery is detectable because it is “excessive,” but other times, it’s simply the motive of the speaker that differentiates it from encouragement.
While Scripture doesn’t provide an explicit definition of flattery, it does confirm the definition provided above. It tells us that flattery is deceptive (Psalm 12:2; Romans 16:18) and leads to ruin (Proverbs 26:24-28). Encouragement, on the other hand, builds up (1 These. 5:11, Ephesians 4:29). Encouragement stirs up love (Hebrews 10:24), but flattery sets a trap for the hearer (Proverbs 29:5). Flattery doesn’t rebuke (Proverbs 28:23) even when it would be beneficial to the hearer because doing so doesn’t accomplish the desired ends of the speaker. The flatterer’s concern isn’t for the good of the hearer but rather his own interest.
The encourager speaks words of truth to build you up and spur you on. The flatterer will tell you what you want to hear, so you’ll do what he wants you to do. Scripture warns that his words will be convincing: “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Psalm 55:21). Someone’s words may appear encouraging even when there’s something darker hidden in their heart: “Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully; with his mouth each speaks peace to his neighbor, but in his heart he plans an ambush for him” (Jer. 9:8).
Whenever possible, we should assume the best when we receive kind words. However, that doesn’t mean we avoid being discerning. Jesus tells us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Do you only receive “encouragement” from a certain person when they need something from you? Beware. Let us not be deceived and fall into the trap of the flatterer.
We need to discern our own motives as well. Do I “encourage” others to gain some advantage? Do I encourage those who cannot do anything for me? Perhaps asking ourselves such questions will reveal unhealthy motives in our own heart. By the power of the Spirit, may we strive to pluck such impurities hidden within ourselves. May we not taint God’s good gift of encouragement or use it for our own ends. Let us be known as people of encouragement, not as flatterers seeking power or prestige. May we continually be “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).