“Lying and Flattery”

A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

Proverbs 26:28

The Ten Commandments gave the core of the covenant stipulations to Israel. They outlined the kind of life God called Israel to live before him (Ex. 20:1-11) and each other (Ex. 20:12-17). Jesus summarized the essence of the law with two basic commandments: to love God and to love one’s neighbor as himself (Mt. 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10), which neatly correspond to the first four and last six commands.

To create a healthy, loving society requires honest communication, which is why Israel was commanded, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Ex. 20:16) Lying against a neighbor could lead to their being punished unjustly which would be disastrous for society and would show an utter disregard for God’s moral character (Prov. 6:16-19; 12:22; 19:5). Paul repeats this to God’s new covenant family with more balance: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Eph. 4:25; cf. 4:15; Col. 3:9) Of course, Jesus gets to the core of communication by tying our words to our hearts (Mt. 6:33-37; 12:36-37).

Flattery is another form of deceptive speech. Even though we may think flattery a kindness, wisdom teaches that it is dishonest and “works ruin” (Prov. 26:28). “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” (Prov. 28:23) Honest reproof is always preferable to flattery. While flattery may be pleasing for the moment, because it is insincere it can never bring the constructive help of a loving rebuke. Like an antiseptic, the truth may sting at first but heals later. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov. 27:6) Let us not forget that our Lord was betrayed with such a kiss (Mk. 14:43-45).

Just like lying, flattery hurts everyone involved. “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.” (Prov. 29:5) The referent (“his feet”) is difficult to discern; the net could be spread for the one flattered or for the flatterer himself. Either way, flattery harms rather than helps. For example, when Jesus confronted the religious leadership in Jerusalem before going to the cross, “the Pharisees…plotted how to entangle him in his words.” They sent people to him saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt. 22:15-17) They prefaced their question with flattery to screen their wicked intent. But by laying their net at Jesus’ feet they only succeeded in getting tangled up in it themselves. (Mt. 22:18-22)

Gossip is the other side of flattery. Gossip involves saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to his face. Flattery is saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind his back. Paul warns us of those who cause division in God’s family. One of the red flags of a divisive person is their “smooth talk and flattery” used to “deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Rom. 16:17-18)

Whenever Paul announced the good news about Jesus he was very careful that his appeal to repent and believe did not spring from “error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but,” he writes, “just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.” (1 Thess. 2:3-6) The aim of his charge of preaching was “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5) Let us be genuine in our praise of others and remain loving in our criticisms. No matter what, “speak the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15)