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As we think about how to counsel flatterers, we should also make sure we never become flattering counselors. 

Nov 30, 2023

Many biblical counseling cases will require helping people turn away from lying. Dishonesty is a sin that very often grows in tandem with other sins. Anyone who has been counseling for any length of time knows this by experience. Scripture teaches the connection explicitly: the right-step and left-step of walking in darkness are unrighteousness and lying (1 John 1:5-10).

Because of this tight connection, when we help people repent of almost any sin pattern, helping them repent of dishonesty happens frequently as a natural by-product. Sometimes, however, people develop patterns of dishonesty that are so deep, wide-ranging, and destructive, that we need to give special attention to putting off lying in particular (Colossians 3:9; Ephesians 4:25). Thankfully, Scripture is sufficient to reprove and correct habitual liars and train them in righteous honesty.

Counseling liars will involve more than simply exhorting them to stop telling bold-faced lies to cover up sin. Dishonesty worms its way into so many other kinds of speech. And real repentance from lying can only happen when one recognizes—and turns from—more subtle, seemingly less harmless forms of lying too. One of those is flattery. 

I have been involved in counseling cases where biblical instruction regarding flattery was an important part of godly growth and change. My main goal for this blog post is to put flattery on your counseling radar as an issue you may need to address, and also provide some basic equipping to help you do that.

Counseling Flattery

Scripture identifies flattery as an especially pernicious form of dishonesty and denounces it strongly. “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. May the Lord cut off all flattering lips” (Psalm 12:2-3; see also Psalm 5:9 within its broader context of 5:4-10). Job’s righteous fear of the Lord made him afraid to flatter: “I do not know how to flatter, else my Maker would soon take me away” (Job 32:22). The Bible describes its devastating effects and sinister goals: flattery “works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28), designs harm for one’s neighbor (Proverbs 29:5), manipulates for selfish gain (1 Thessalonians 2:5-6), and takes advantage of the naïve (Romans 16:18). When we examine flattery biblically, we see how self-serving man-pleasing really is (cf. Galatians 4:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:5-6; Romans 16:18).

Flattery is often a form of pride and self-trust. Scripture says that if we look behind flattering lips, we’re likely to find a boastful tongue. Flatterers arrogantly trust in their own ability to spin words and craft compliments to get out of trouble or get ahead: “…flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, ‘With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?’” (Psalm 12:3-4). Instead of doing things God’s way (speaking honestly) and thereby trusting in God to bring about ultimate good, the flatterer trusts in his own ability to control people and situations by means of his own ingenuity in dishonest ear-tickling.

The liar needs to be taught that flattery is a form of lying, which must be put off. Some may need to be jolted by the Scripture’s witness of God’s strong displeasure toward this sin. Liars need to understand how flattery opposes true humility, love of neighbor, and trust in God, and then strive to put on those flattery-killing virtues. Of course, no one should overcorrect and decide they’ll just start giving full vent to hateful words that tear down, which may be more sincere. No, whoever restrains his lips is prudent (Proverbs 10:19). Rather, they need to learn how to bless people with honest, encouraging words that build up and give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:25, 29). And they need to stop using flattery as a way to paper over sinful heart attitudes they may have developed toward others (Psalm 55:21). The godly ideal is for kind words to come out of the overflow of a truly kind heart.

The liar might also need to be warned that a habit of flattery could eventually characterize one’s relationship with God. If it doesn’t bother you to praise people with words that you don’t really believe or mean, might you not start doing the same with God? Some people “repented and sought God earnestly.” They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer. But they flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant” (Psalm 78:34-37).

Flattering Counsel

Counselors should look in the mirror on this issue. As we think about how to counsel flatterers, we should also make sure we never become flattering counselors. 

Flattery might be tempting in some biblical counseling settings. Often, the people who come to us are very down on themselves, and, as Christians, we love them and sympathize with their hurts. Furthermore, generally speaking, we want our counselees to trust and like us so that they’re open to the ways we’re trying to help them with God’s Word. We must resist the temptation to speak “positive” words to or about someone that just aren’t true. Especially when we’ve got so many true and marvelously hope-giving words in Scripture we can share instead!

Hear Scripture’s encouragement: “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue” (Proverbs 28:23). Remember Scripture’s warnings that flattery works ruin and spreads an ensnaring net. If we speak words of flattery to a counselee, could that encourage him to “flatter himself in his own eyes, so that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalm 36:2)? Save the flattery for the false prophets (Isaiah 30:10)!

We’ve got better forerunners in ministry to follow. Like Jesus (no one could accuse him of being a flatterer! Matthew 22:16) and His apostle, Paul, who told the Thessalonians, “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…” Instead, “we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:4-5, 12).

This blog was originally posted at Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. View the original post here.