Have you ever received a gushy compliment that made you feel distinctly uncomfortable? As Christians we want to give glory to God, and we know that nothing good is accomplished except by His grace and help, so we struggle with responding to a compliment that acknowledges the encouragement but diverts the glory to God, yet without sounding overly pious.
Evidently this is a common problem, because as I searched online for ways to give compliments that didn’t put people in that awkward position, instead almost all of the results were about how to receive compliments graciously. The only ones about giving compliments that I saw were work related, e.g., how to compliment your boss without making it sound like you’re trying to gain points.
I used to think that the way to handle compliments was to minimize whatever I was being complimented about. But once while thinking about this, I reflected on the pastor’s wife at the church we were attending at the time. She was a wonderful, accomplished, heartfelt pianist, and if anyone complimented her playing and she had said, “Oh, thank you, but I am really not all that good” – that would have rung false and sounded awkward. Plus it either deflates the complimenter or calls forth more compliments, as if the person now has to convince you that you really are that good.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said:
Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, “Well done,” are all pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, “I have pleased him; all is well,” to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.”
That helped me realize it’s not wrong to want to know you pleased someone and it helped show the dividing line between between that kind of pleasure and the kind that puffs up and oversteps.
The conclusion I gradually came to over many years was to just accept the compliment as the encouragement that it was meant to be, and, if possible to do so naturally and without sounding forced, to somehow acknowledge God in my reply. If, for instance, someone said something favorable about something I had written, my reply would often be something akin to: “Thank you. I’m grateful God could use it.” Sometimes, if there was time and the conversation warranted it, I might go into more detail concerning the Lord’s leading in writing that particular piece, but for a brief, passing response to a compliment, that sort sentence or something like it seemed best.
Besides struggling with this just a handful of times myself, I have sensed that awkwardness in others when I complimented them. Some would say something like, “Well, praise the Lord,” but I could sense they almost felt embarrassed and weren’t sure how best to respond.
So I began to think of how to compliment others in a way that acknowledged God’s part in it and yet let the person know their work was appreciated, too. There may be times a general, gushy “You’re so wonderful!” would be greatly appreciated: most husbands or wives would love to hear that! But it would make a church soloist being complimented for her service to the Lord feel quite awkward.
So what are some ways to graciously compliment people?
1. Avoid flattery. Many of the Bible verses regarding flattery depict it as laying a trap or being deceitful for personal gain. Most of us sincerely trying to compliment someone aren’t trying to do that. The Hebrew word for flattery in Proverbs 26:28 (“A lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it; and a flattering mouth worketh ruin”) means “flattery, smooth” – not much help. Dictionary.com sheds more light on the English word. Some of the meanings aren’t bad, like a hairstyle that flatters the face, showing it to its best advantage. But most of them convey that idea of deceptiveness. A few of the definitions that stand out to me are effusiveness, excessiveness, playing “ .” So the first rule of complimenting would be sincerity and appropriateness. Don’t overdo it, don’t appeal to the person’s pride.
2. Focus on encouragement. You’re not trying to puff them up; you just want to let them know you saw their hard work, their growth, their improvement, their doing the right thing in a trying moment, and you appreciated it. Something Elisabeth Elliot wrote arrested me (as her writing often does):
I turned off the radio and asked myself, with rising guilt feelings, “Do I need approval?” Answer: yes. Does anybody not need approval? Is there anybody who is content to live his life without so much as a nod from anybody else? Wouldn’t he be, of all men, the most devilishly self-centered? Wouldn’t his supreme solitude be the most hellish? It’s human to want to know that you please somebody…Sometimes readers of things that I write tell me long afterward that they have thought of writing me a letter, or have written one and discarded it, thinking, “She doesn’t need my approval.” Well, they’re mistaken–for wouldn’t it be a lovely thing to know that a footprint you have left on the trail has, just by being there, heartened somebody else? (From the chapter “The Trail to Shandia” in Love Has a Price Tag as well as one of the email devotionals of her writings that used to be sent out by Back to the Bible.)
3. Be specific. Instead of “You’re such a wonderful writer” or “You’re a brilliant piano player” or “You sing like an angel” or “You’re the best preacher I’ve ever heard,” which all sound effusive and excessive, perhaps focus on the one thing you most appreciated. “The paragraph about (whatever) really helped me understand it in a way that I hadn’t before” or “Your message on (whatever) really encouraged me (in this particular way).”
4. Acknowledge the Lord, especially if the act in question was something done as unto the Lord. So, instead of telling a musician or soloist, “That was wonderful!” or “I loved your song!” perhaps something more like, “God really spoke to my heart through your song this morning” would be fitting
Sometimes a sincere compliment can do wonders in encouraging someone, especially if that person feels unseen or ineffective.
A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good is it! Proverbs 15:23, KJV
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Romans 13:7, ESV
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11, ESV
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29, ESV
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11, ESV
How about you? Have you found effective ways to compliment others? Has someone complimented you in a way that blessed and encouraged you?