The Dangerous ‘Well Done’
It is sometimes good, and often dangerous, to be praised by other people.
We know praise from others is sometimes good because the writer of Proverbs says, “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). The apostle Paul encourages those who serve as deacons to “gain a good standing for themselves” (1 Timothy 3:13). The Bible is full of praise for people — for their physical beauty (Genesis 24:16; 1 Samuel 16:12), humility (Numbers 12:3), wisdom and understanding (Daniel 1:17), godliness (Luke 1:6), faithfulness in ministry (Colossians 4:7, 9), and more.
But praise from other people always arrives with potential dangers. Therefore, if we’re wise, we will reflect biblically on the perils of praise.
1. Praise from others may mislead us.
On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, granting Adolf Hitler control of Czechoslovakia so long as Hitler agreed not to go any farther. That same day, Chamberlain and Hitler agreed on a peace treaty between Germany and the United Kingdom.
Chamberlain returned home to exuberant English crowds, declaring “peace for our time.” He was showered with praise. One member of Parliament spoke of his “courage, sincerity and skillful leadership.” Another said, “Our leader will go down to history as the greatest European statesman of this or any other time.” This all must have felt very good to hear. But most historians today regard the Munich Agreement as part of a disastrously failed policy of appeasement led by Chamberlain. Applause and adulation was not what he needed.
Praise for our mistaken or sinful thoughts and behavior can entrench us in error and rebellion. “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them” (Proverbs 28:4). Effusive praise may in fact be much less helpful than painful correction. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).
We should not ignore or spurn all praise. But we should be constantly alert to the dangers of being misled by it.
2. Praise from others may distract us.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for living to be praised by other people (Matthew 6:2). The problem is that human praise can become an idol that distracts us from a greater, higher praise we’re made to enjoy and meant to pursue. Astoundingly, the New Testament teaches that God’s people will one day receive praise from God himself (Romans 2:29; 1 Peter 1:7). We’re meant to live for God’s pleasure-filled praise, for his “well done.” But it’s almost impossible to do that when we’re living instead for the good opinion of those around us.
The Gospel of John says the religious authorities “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). They were distracted by a lesser glory. We’re meant to live for a greater one.
In his essay “The World’s Last Night,” C.S. Lewis reflected on “the irresistible light” of God’s future judgment. It will be, he said, the only absolutely infallible and final verdict on every person who has ever lived. “We shall not only believe, we shall know, beyond doubt in every fiber of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are: neither more, nor less, nor other.” At that final day, the good or bad opinions of others will matter not at all. We’re made and meant to live undistractedly for God’s praise.
3. Praise from others may destroy us.
Whenever we’re praised, we’re probed. Commentators debate the exact meaning of Proverbs 27:21, but one common understanding is that the praise we receive reveals our hearts. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise.”
Will we keep the praise for ourselves, or give credit to God? Will we become puffed up, feeling superior to others, confident in ourselves? Charles Bridges wrote, “Praise is a sharper trial of the strength of principle than reproach.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that praise, in fact, may be a catastrophically bad thing for us. The Puritan minister John Flavel issued a clear warning: “Christian! Thou knowest thou carriest gunpowder about thee. Desire those that carry fire to keep at a distance. It is a dangerous crisis, when a proud heart meets with flattering lips.”
The Safest Praise
Very much like fire, praise from (and of) other people is both a gift and a danger, meant to be carefully stewarded. We ought to be wise, thoughtful, and measured in receiving it — and in giving it.
In stark contrast, we need not hold back or restrain ourselves in our praise of God. Instead, we may be extravagant and exuberant. That’s because God doesn’t face the same dangers in giving and receiving praise. He is never misled, distracted, or destroyed by it. In fact, he made us (Isaiah 43:21) and saved us (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14) so that we would praise him.
We’re exhorted again and again, throughout the Bible, to cut loose in our praise of God — to praise him “more and more.” We’re urged to praise God continually (Psalm 34:1; 71:8; 145:2), corporately (Psalm 35:18), creatively (Psalm 98:1), skillfully (Psalm 33:3), loudly (1 Chronicles 15:16), universally (Psalm 48:10; 66:8), enduringly (Psalm 30:12), increasingly (Psalm 71:14), and supremely (Psalm 96:4).
It is sometimes good, and often dangerous, to be praised by other people. It is always good and never dangerous to sing God’s praise for his strength, wisdom, beauty, and worth.