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False Prophets and Flattery


"We do not try to please people, but to please God, who tests our motives. You know very well that we did not come to you with flattering talk, nor did we use words to cover up our greed."

These words from the Apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 2, help to explain why Jesus said that a true prophet will never be popular.

It has struck me recently just how much the entire world revolves on flattery. Ross recently shared with me about a churchy convention that he had been invited to attend, which had a very wide platform stacked with many dignitaries. One after the other they stood to speak, and listed the names of all the people that they wanted to thank and praise for something. Two hours later, when Ross and his companion had decided that they had had enough, the dignitaries were still making their way through the many names and many speeches of praise. There is no telling how much longer the praise went on before anyone got around to actually preaching.

Obviously that is a little extreme, and it is clear in Paul's epistles that he had no problem with thanking people and politely offering compliments. Common courtesies never hurt anyone, but at some point they cross a line and become flattery. I think the real test of whether or not a person is a flatterer is whether or not they have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths when the compliments have ended. It is a vital test of character when a person is put in a position where he or she must take a stand that is unpopular, and this is especially true when the person we must offend is someone very close to us.

The Bible tells us to "speak the truth in love". Much is said about the "love" side of this equation, but very little about the need to speak the truth. There are several verses in The Proverbs about the rebuke of a friend being better than flattery from an enemy. Yet I have seen it happen over and over again, where someone comes along... often someone who has already given ample evidence that they are not a friend... and they start flattering people, gushing over how nice they are, how much they love them, and you can almost see the birds tweeting around in circles above the sucker who walks off gah-gah over the flatterer, only to be used by that person in some bigger agenda of hate.

Then, along comes someone who tells the truth simply because it is the truth, and you find people running in all directions, crying about how they were "attacked", "condemned", "set upon", etc. Why? Because they did something wrong and could not stand to have it pointed out.

I remember one ex-member who made it very clear to Cherry and me many years ago that if we were going to have anything to do with him or his family, it would only be on the grounds that we never criticise them, and if we did, the consequences would be serious. I still have the email he later sent, ordering us never to contact him again. He is typical of a growing army of people who all agree that they have found me or other members of our community to be cruel and unloving. Never mind that we have a forum on which to make rational comparisons between the things we have said and the things that have been said about us to see where the real hatred and destruction is coming from.

If anything, what makes our criticisms so unbearable is their accuracy. We all sling off at one another occasionally, saying hurtful things for which we are sorry later. But if someone has learned to keep that kind of criticism to a minimum, and only speaks up when there is something that needs correcting, that is the person who is going to be damned the most.

I remember one friend (and I think he genuinely was a friend in those days) who said much to indicate that he donates generously to charities. One day he complimented (flattered, perhaps?) us by saying that we are the kind of charity that people ought to support. Then one of our members had the audacity to say that something did not make sense, because we had no record of him ever having done anything more than entertain a few of our members for dinner after they had travelled hundreds of miles to visit him. The relationship has never been the same since.

I could go on with others. The woman who had suffered a nervous breakdown, and said I was the most hateful man she had ever met when I pointed out that wandering the streets of a major city without any clothes on is not quite the same as forsaking all and followering Jesus.

Go through the lists of our opponents and ask them each to tell you what they most hate about us, and you will find little consistency except for that one thing, which is that we did not behave lovingly enough toward them. In their own way they are each trying to define something about us that is quite true. I don't personally think that we are "unloving", but I do think that we are not flatterers. I think that we try to speak the truth, even to one another. We try to do so in love, yet when we do, the sparks often fly in return. Our numbers remain painfully small when we do things this way, and yet what I have seen of the alternative almost makes me physically sick... something like Ross felt after two hours of flattery in a big church. If that is the price they have to pay to keep the pews full and the offering plates overflowing, they can have it.

"Woe unto you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers of the false prophets. But blessed are you when you are reviled and when all men speak evil of you for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets."

Matthew 5, from The Sermon on the Mount.



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