Perhaps it went largely unnoticed a couple weeks ago as Americans were gearing up for a holiday weekend. Still, something rather remarkable happened. North Korea test fired some ballistic missiles yet the President of the United States—right next door to North Korea while visiting Japan—tweeted out his shoulder-shrug. It did not bother him at all. Not personally. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me,” the President tweeted. But it is what he tweeted next that reveals the truth about this: “. . . also smiled when [Kim] called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?”
Kim Jong Un is a murderous dictator but give him credit for this: he long ago figured out that with President Trump, flattery will get you everywhere.
It requires no imagination whatsoever to imagine Citizen Trump’s reaction had Barack Obama responded to a North Korean missile launch of any kind with a shrug of the shoulders and a “doesn’t bother me” reaction. But now those who flatter the President can (almost literally) get away with murder.
That, of course, is the insidious thing about flattery. A couple of years ago I wrote up a topic study on “Flattery” for the Preaching & Worship web portal. I noted there that Scripture everywhere condemns all forms of flattery. This is due largely to the fact that flattery is always rooted in deceit. Flattering speech emerges from a deceitful heart even as it spreads untruth to others, not least to the person being flattered.
Although we are all tempted to flatter especially the rich and powerful, most of the time we find flattery odious. We refer to flatterers with increasingly unsavory terms like boot-licker, teacher’s pet, toady, yes-man, sycophant, leach, parasite, brown-noser. Speaking of the latter term of derision, it is also no coincidence that being in the presence of heavy-duty flattery leads to thoughts related to excrement: we say “better hold your nose . . . watch where you step . . . it’s getting pretty deep in here . . .”
Curiously but perhaps not surprisingly another key reason the Bible is against flattery (and here consider the Letter of James in particular) is because it causes people to do what God consistently told Israel—and what Jesus eventually told his disciples—never to do: overlook the poor and marginalized. We can neither notice, nor certainly extend care for, the poor and needy when we are focused on buttering up only the rich and powerful. James had harsh words for the people in the early church who were doing precisely this (more on that in a moment).
Scripture and the church have always taken a dim view of flattery also because it perpetuates the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride (and then also its ugly first cousin envy). Flattery aids and abets the conceit and deceit, the sheer untruthfulness and web of lies, that the proud and envious need to thrive. The person being flattered gets cut off from the truth about a whole range of subjects and if it is true that the proud have their own sins to confess and deal with, those who make it harder for them to do so by engaging in flattering speech become guilty not only of their own sinful deceit but in furthering the proud person’s disconnect from reality. Flattery, in short, is deadly for the giver and the receiver.
Unsurprisingly, flattery thrives in our celebrity-driven culture. It happens so frequently now that many even in the church may no longer take notice of flattery much less be troubled by it. Everything from the realm of politics at the highest levels to selfies on Facebook and Instagram when we pose next to the rich and powerful depend on a high degree of Grade A flattery.
But make no mistake: it can lead to our spiritual ruination. As I wrote in that article, “In James 2 we learn why the 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.”
To put it mildly, James had a point. Are we even able to receive this teaching today?