Giving and Receiving Commendation
Criticism is far and away one of the most difficult features of life in this fallen world. Two things in particular complicate the practice of giving and receiving criticism. Pride revolts when others point out areas of our lives in which change may be needed; and, many who raise criticisms are themselves hypercritical individuals--often overstating or misstating their assessment about an aspect of another's life. Accordingly, the subject of giving and receiving criticism must be approached with the utmost care. While considerably less burdensome to the mind, the subject of giving and receiving commendation is an equally challenging part of life. Like its counterpart, criticism, commendation interacts with pride and is easily misstated or misapplied. Thankfully, we are not left to our own reasoning capacity to sift through all of the attendant difficulties. As with every other important part of our lives, Scripture has much to teach us about how to give and receive commendation.
1. We must not praise ourselves. Commendation is meant to be an external act of kindness. God does not permit us to praise ourselves. This ought to be self-evident, but our propensity to do otherwise shows that it is not. For this reason, the Proverbs tell us, "Let another praise you and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips" (Prov. 27:2).
2. We must not seek our own praise. Just as Jesus said that looking with lustful intent is tantamount to adultery, so fishing for praise is coextensive to self-adulation. Our flesh loves praise and commendation. We must guard against being desirous of the praises of others. The Scriptures give us an exceedingly straightforward approach to praise--namely, we are to hold the praise of man with the least amount of significance possible and the praise that is from God in the highest possible esteem. The Apostle Paul emphasized this in Romans 2, where he explained that the true people of God are those whose "praise is not from man but from God" (Rom. 2:29). Jesus exemplified this principle for us in His responses to praise during His earthly ministry. If anyone was deserving of praise it was the sinless Son of God incarnate. Men often praised the Savior for His mighty works and words. However, he never welcomed the misused praise of men. When the rich, young, ruler commended Jesus for being a "good teacher," Jesus didn't welcome his commendation. Instead, Jesus said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God." Jesus was not denying His own divine nature; rather, He was helping this man see that he thought more highly of men than he ought to think--and, specifically, that he thought more highly of himself than he ought to think. It would do us good to come to terms with the fact that most praise, while well-intentioned, is usually misplaced or misapplied by men to men. By nature, we love the praise of men because it feeds our pride. Jesus summarized the great problem that sinful men have with seeking praise from men rather than from God when He told the unbelieving Jews, "I do not receive glory from people...you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5:41, 44).
3. We must guard against all forms of flattery. The Scriptures have much to say about the danger of flattery and why we are to view so much of the praise of men as exceedingly fickle. Job's wise young friend, Elihu, warned about the danger of flattery when he said, "Let me not, I pray, show partiality to anyone; Nor let me flatter any man" (Job 32:21). Likewise, the Psalmist explained that one of the marks of the depravity of men is that "they flatter with their tongues" (Ps. 5:9). and "speak idly everyone with his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak" (Ps. 12:2). The immoral woman of Proverbs is said to have a "flattering tongue" (Prov. 7:5) with which she seduces her prey (7:21). Solomon charges us not to "associate with one who flatters with his lips" (20:19) because "a flattering mouth works ruin" (26:28). The Apostle Paul insisted that many flase teachers are marked by "smooth words and flattering speech" with which they seek to "deceive the hearts of the simple" (Rom. 2:18). These are ample reasons why we should be exceedingly cautious about giving praise to men and receiving praise from men.
4. We must learn to honor others in the Lord. While there are enormous dangers that accompany the giving of praise to men and the receiving of praise from men, the Scriptures do not teach that all praise is inappropriate or sinful. Surely, it is fitting to give honor to those who serve the Lord diligently and faithfully in the church. The Apostle Paul referred to "the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel" (2 Cor. 8:18). Both John Chrysostom and John Calvin believed that Paul was referring to Barnabas when he made this commendation. Of the praise of Barnabas, Chrysostom wrote:
"Let us see on what score he eulogizes this man...First, praising him from his preaching; that he not only preached, but also as he ought, and with the befitting earnestness. For he said not, ‘he preaches and proclaims the Gospel,’ but, 'whose praise is in the Gospel.' And that he may not seem to flatter him, he brings not one or two or three men, but whole Churches to testify to him, saying, 'through all the churches.' Then he makes him respected also from the judgment of those that had chosen him. And this too is no light matter. Therefore after saying, 'Whose praise in the Gospel is spread through all the churches,' he added, Ver. 19. 'And not only so.' What is, 'and not only so?' 'Not only on this account,' he says, 'is respect due to him, that he is approved as a preacher and is praised by all.' 'But he was also appointed by the churches along with us.'
Calvin offered a similar explanation when he noted:
"[Paul] honors with a signal commendation, that he had conducted himself as to the gospel in a praiseworthy manner, that is, he had earned applause by promoting the gospel. For, although Barnabas gave place to Paul in the department of speaking, yet in acting they both concurred. He adds farther, that he had received praise, not from one individual, or even from one Church merely, but from all the Churches. To this general testimony he subjoins a particular one, that is suitable to the subject in hand — that he had been chosen for this department by the concurrence of the Churches. Now it was likely, that this honor would not have been conferred upon him, had he not been long before known to be qualified for it."
Surely, this is an example of how we are to give appropriate praise to men. This is what it means to "give honor to whom honor is due" in a sanctified and God-honoring sense.
We are all guilty of having given unjust praise to men and having received unjust praise from men. We have all sought our own glory far too often. None of us have adequately sought the glory of the only true God. This is why we need the Savior to cleanse us with His blood from our propensity to praise ourselves, seek the glory of men and flatter others for sinful gain. When we are humbled at the foot of the cross by a glimpse of what Jesus did to purchase our praises, we learn to rightly direct our praise to the true and living God, to give Him the glory due to His name, to love just interactions with men and to honor our brethren who, by His grace, labor diligently for His name's sake.