Please Clap: The Dangerous Addiction to Compliments

by Steve Bezner May 23, 2018

A flattering mouth works ruin.—Proverbs 26:28

A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps.—Proverbs 29:5

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?—Galatians 1:10

A few years into my pastorate, I noticed something about myself I didn’t like.

After I finished preaching, I wanted someone to tell me I did a good job. Early in my ministry, compliments were common. Young preachers commonly receive the effusive praise of their congregations, families, and friends. They seem to know, almost instinctively, that fledgling ministers need to know that they did well, that they indeed heard the calling of God.

But, eventually, the praise slows. Not because the pastor is necessarily doing a bad job. Instead, those who liberally poured out compliments sense that doing so would be unhealthy or perhaps even inappropriate. Perhaps it would be weird to tell someone every seven days that he did a good job. It is, after all, his job.

And yet there I was, fishing for a compliment.

I knew how to set it up. “I’m not sure how the sermon went today,” I would say. What polite conversationalist could help but reply with something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s crazy! It was terrific!”? Sometimes I was even more direct, my neediness coming blasting into the open: “What did you think about the sermon?”

Maybe I should have simply said, “Please clap.”

I was quite pitiful.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Recently, a friend of mine who is a long-time pastor, shared that he struggled with the same thing. He confessed that when women in his church would give him compliments on his sermon, he would feel loved and important. His exact words to me: “Her words were like a healing oil to my soul.”

My experience with pastors over the years shows me that we’re not alone. It turns out that pastors are—for some reason—praise addicts. I recently quipped to my wife that an informal poll of pastors would reveal that the majority of them have Words of Affirmation as their primary Love Language (that’s still a thing, right?). We don’t just want others to like us; we are no mere people pleasers. We want adulation. We want admiration. We want to be loved.

We want glory.

That desire for glory manifests itself as a desire for compliments, for others to sign off with approval for what we do.

This is problematic, of course, because we do not work for the praise of another. Paul understood this. He wrote to the church of Galatia, reminding them that he did not work for the praise of people, but rather only of One:

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?—Galatians 1:10

It is easy to forget, of course. Each Sunday pastors preach to a room with people. They receive feedback from people. They get calls from people. E-mails and texts arrive from people. It makes sense that, over time, pastors would be tempted to believe that they work for the people of their church. Granted, they are to shepherd the people of their church. But they do not work for them. And they most especially do not work for their praise.

They work for the praise of Jesus alone. As Deuteronomy 10:21 says, “He is your praise.”

Believing the finished work of Jesus means believing that the gospel is all the approval and compliment we need. We were chosen through the Incarnation; Jesus did not have to choose to become human, but he did. We were given approval through the crucifixion; Jesus did not have to die for us, but he did. We were given eternal love through the resurrection; Jesus did not have to bless his followers with eternal life, but he did.

Rescue, redemption, and eternal union with Christ—enough to satisfy the hungriest of glory hounds.

If only we would daily sit at the table of his grace and feast on his goods. His body and blood fill our plates with enough love to leave us stuffed, and yet we wander aimlessly, hoping to scrap crumbs of compliments from the plates of passersby.

The danger of flattery lies when we find ourselves continually drawn back to the well, hoping desperately that there is still enough praise to quench our seemingly insatiable thirst. How can a man who is dying from thirst faithfully proclaim Living Water? When we find ourselves in need of congregational approval, we find fear filling our hearts when the texts are difficult, when we confront the idols of our people. Do we dare climb into our pulpits and speak the Word of God when it might mean that no compliments would come forth? Even worse, are those who are bound to compliments able to speak the truth when it means that people might leave our congregations or fill our inboxes with criticism?

We must fill our souls at the banquet of the gospel of grace, because it is the sustenance that will allow us to boldly speak truth.

Flattery may feel good in the moment, but, in the end, it is the difference between empty calories and honest nutrition. Both may fill us up, but only one gives us what we truly need.