Flattery July 8, 2020

Master of François de Rohan : Fleur de vertu, le vice de la flatterie / Wikimedia Commons

“Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26 RSV). Not everyone who has a good reputation is unworthy of that reputation. The saints often were recognized for their saintliness while they lived. Their reputation matched their actions. What set many of the saints apart from others who also had a good reputation, but did not deserve it, is that the saints were not so concerned with what others thought of them. They did not let flattery change them. They understood how people use flattery as a way to get what they want out of others, and so those who look for and seek honor and respect from others are able to be manipulated by that desire.

What is important for us to recognize and learn is how not to become distracted by what others say about us. We should especially take no concern of what people say to flattery us. For, as soon as we give in to such flattery, we begin to let vainglory and pride consume us.

“A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28 RSV). Obviously, those who flatter us want something from us. If we do not give them what they want, they will be quick to turn on us, as St. Mark the Ascetic understood “If someone praises you hypocritically, be sure that in due course he will vilify you.”[1] If we are focused on our reputation, if we are concerned about what people say of us, we will be afraid of what will happen if we do not act according to the wishes of those who praise us to others. We will become slaves to flattery.  We must not let this happen. We must remember that such flattery is false, and whatever benefits it gives us is fleeting. Those who flatter us will eventually go away, but what we make of ourselves will not.

“A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet. An evil man is ensnared in his transgression, but a righteous man sings and rejoices” (Prov. 29:5-6 RSV).  When we receive such flattery, we find ourselves being tried: will we give in to temptation, and turn ourselves over to vainglory, or will we fight against it, ignore all the flattery, and truly distance ourselves even further from all such nonsense?

Those who seek what is good and true see through such flattery. They do not care what others think of them. They would be willing to be despised by all, if that was the consequence of doing what was right and true. Of course, they also know that just because they are despised, just because people fight against them, that also does not mean they are in the right. Thus, they will not let themselves be trapped by the other side of flattery, and being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, thinking that is how one escapes the tyranny of flattery. For they are still concerned with the opinions of others, letting it dictate to them what they should do, but now, instead of following it, they try to do the opposite of it.

Those who have yet to cast aside their ego, those who reify themselves and like to prop themselves up so as to be admired by others, will find themselves caught by temptation and will allow flattery get the best of them. So long as they embrace the self, especially through vainglory and pride, whatever good they do (and they will do some good, as there is no such thing as pure evil) will be overshadowed by their ego. Indeed, they enjoy, not only the flattery, but the fleeting pleasure, the fleeting rights, they think they deserve for becoming so well-loved by others.

Paul, therefore, tells us that we should seek to please God in what we do:

For our appeal does not spring from error or uncleanness, nor is it made with guile;  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts.  For we never used either words of flattery, as you know, or a cloak for greed, as God is witness;  nor did we seek glory from men, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ (1 Thes. 2:3-6 RSV).

Now, we must be careful. We can think that if we ignore what others have to say of us, that means we are doing good. We might be. We might not be. But it is likely, without proper direction, we will end up becoming prideful, thinking that by ignoring the fleeting opinions of others, we are pleasing to God. Such pride is not pleasing to God, and it is likely, if we are being directed by such pride, whatever good we accomplish is corrupted by that pride and not as good as we assume. What we must not do is confuse our own desires, our own inordinate passions, and confuse them as being what God wants for us. Just because we have avoided the fleeting opinions of others does not mean we have avoided our own fleeting opinions. If we think we do what is good and true, that our ideas are in accord with what God wants, without proper examination of them, we risk thinking of ourselves as being oracles for God. And once we do that, we will lowly allow the accolades of others once again affect us. We will like being thought of as people who speak for God. The reality is that all we will be doing is speaking for ourselves. We will have created an idolatrous notion of God, one which worships us instead of us, God. Thus, instead of promoting God and what is good, instead of speaking for God, we end up becoming false prophets.

We must not assume we speak for God. We must not let people think we speak for God. We must always act in humility, never letting flattery, or the opinion of others, affect us. We should do good, whether or not others believe it is good. We must do good, not for our sake, that is, not for what we think we get out of it, but for the sake of the good itself. Then if we are praised, we can shrug it off, and if we are not praised, we likewise can shrug it off, so that we do not find ourselves directed by any vain consideration but instead, only by that which is good and true.

[1] St. Mark the Ascetic, “On the Spiritual Law” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 121 [155].

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