Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Spirituality of Sin: Flattery

Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

--Psalms 12:1-2

Recent days have prompted thought on the nature of sin. What is it, exactly, that induces us to obey our sin nature and to commit transgression against the Lord? I've attempted to think about this in relation to sins that plague my own heart.

Before I go any further, let me first say this: I am a flatterer. The language we choose to describe our sin shapes the way we understand that sin. Instead of saying, "Sometimes I flatter" or "I can sometimes be a flatterer", I have found that I best target the sin of my heart by identifying myself by my sin. Sometimes I commit the sin of flattery; therefore, I am a flatterer. That's it. That's all there is to it. Labeling myself in this way helps me to avoid compartmentalizing my sin (though I still fall prey to compartmentalizing--ergo, I'm a compartmentalizer, too!). I'm not this pristine person who occasionally slips into flattery. I'm a sinner through and through whose sin takes shape in the form of flattery.

I find that admitting this to myself is helpful in turning away from my sin. I can't simply jump to consideration of the wonder of Christ's atoning work when I am justly shamed for my sin. No, I need to allow myself to feel the weight of my sin, to offer confession whenever possible to the Lord. In seeking humility and restoration, it is of course best to give the fullest, most heartfelt confession possible. This necessarily involves me calling myself what I am--a sinner whose sin takes definitive shapes and forms. I'm not merely a sinner, after all; I'm a sinner with certain predilections and weaknesses. If all we ever own up to is "being a sinner", then we're not going to get very far in the way of honesty and humility and true confession and gospel restoration.

With all that said, let me say that I think that I flatter people because I don't trust God's providential power. In other words, I flatter people because I think that in order for good things to happen in my life, I've got to make them happen. One of the best ways to make things happen and to get ahead in the world is to heap praise on people who are in positions to help you. It's not a real complicated matter, and it's as old as stone. Smooth things out with the tongue so you walk an easy path. This is a common practice among sinful man, to disingenuously push himself forward by the power of his "flattering lips" and "double tongue" as the Psalmist so evocatively puts it in the above quotation. Sadly, even when people become Christians, they still sin against God by heaping unnecessary praise on others for the purpose of saving their own skin and beating others at their own game.

This is especially true in today's Christian celebrity culture, replete with famous authors and speakers and professors and presidents. For the smooth-tongued among us, it's easy to lie--however gently--to get ahead, to cozy up to people in order to jump off of their backs. Instead of trusting God to direct our paths and bestow what blessings he would give us, many of us talking types drop praise every chance we can get in order to make good and get ahead. It's sad to see others do this, and I have seen a good bit of it in my young years. It's even sadder to catch oneself doing it, and to realize, "I am a flatterer." Those are harsh words. Harsh because they're true.

So what do you do if you're a flatterer? Well, it's pretty simple. You trust God. You live a godly, assertive life but you live it without constantly keeping an eye on yourself and your peers. You try to discern as best you can from Scripture, prayer, counsel, and your intuition what it is that you should do in life for God's glory, and then you do it. But you do so without fretting over all the blessings your friends and fellow workers are getting. You do so without constantly taking stock of your life and then allowing yourself to slip into anxiety because you're not where your ambition tells you you should be. You live assertively and wisely, attempting to take what dominion you can in the world, but you do so with your foot on the brake, staying ready to stop yourself if you sense anxiety and a lack of trust in God to take you where He wants you to go.

The funny thing about all this is that it seems to me that God often lets us flatter and sin to get what we want. Just because you don't do things the right way doesn't mean God doesn't still bless your life. But this kind of achievement pales in comparison to that which is had through trust and faith. If you live aggressively, with sinful ambition fueling your flattery and other trustless acts, you may still get a lot. You might "win" in the game of life, and you might do so as a Christian. But you'll do it in your own strength, on your own time, and at the end, you'll celebrate with your own self. In your planning, God was left behind a while ago. The rewards of the works of your hands didn't come through steady trust and persevering, patient faith. They came through flattery and ambition, the same tools the faithless man of Psalm 12 uses to get ahead in this alien world.

I'm not writing to get anyone specifically, except myself. I know by the grace of God that I'm a flatterer. I know that I often don't trust God to bless and lead me and my family. I can see these things, and increasingly, I can see their ugliness. I'm not backing away a hair from godly assertiveness and kingdom ambition, but I want to distance myself by a thousand miles from my double tongue and the double-minded heart that engineers it. Perhaps you're like me. Perhaps you can see this sin in yourself and the lack of trust that propels it. If you are, pray for yourself and your fellow Christian flatterers. At every chance you get, trust God to lead you. We'll all struggle sometimes to balance godly assertiveness and ungodly ambition, and that's okay. That's how life is--decisions don't come gift-wrapped with five-step directions.

Be accountable to your church, pray for growth, and wherever you can, flex the muscle of faith. Let that double tongue go limp. Maybe then you and I will bring back the faithful to the land--the faithful, of course, being not someone else, some other sinner, but ourselves.

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Blogger Dustin said...

Thanks Owen for this article. There are many helpful insights that I can apply to my own life. Thanks again for revealing a sin in your own life that is similar to my own.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sometimes I commit the sin of flattery; therefore, I am a flatterer."

Don't you rather mean: "I am a flatterer; therefore, sometimes I commit the sin of flattery"?

9:02 AM  

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