“Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips” (Proverbs 27:2).
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible commentary kept it simple on this verse: “Avoid self-praise.” It certainly isn’t hard to understand this proverb, they nailed it with great precision, but perhaps we can find a little more than that to say here, so I’ll toss in a few other hopefully profitable thoughts.
- It is not just that self-praise is of less value than the praise of others, it is actually detrimental.
- We are to live a life of such moral quality that others, when they speak of us, will have good things to say, rather than bad things to say.
- We are to be so exemplary in our character that even “strangers”, those who don’t know us well, will speak positively. Those who know us well and care about us should see the work of Christ in our lives — but so also those who are more disinterested.
- Are we spending our time developing things for which we want the praise of others? When I was using painkillers after my operation, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, so I spent some time playing Mario Kart. I got good at Mario Kart! But I don’t want my tombstone to say “He was good at Mario Kart.” Others would be praising me, I guess, but not the praise I want. Since I stopped using painkillers, I haven’t really been refining my game driving skills. (I still enjoy it when I beat the kids sometimes, though!)
- There’s a reverse challenge here that is often overlooked. Are we speaking well of others? If someone is doing well, and no one ever notices, we may tempt them to discouragement and/or self-praise. We can be so careful, in avoiding tempting someone to pride, that we neglect the encouragement that God calls us to give. This verse is not just an exhortation to avoid self-praise, but also, practically, a reminder to encourage others.
So, how do we praise ourselves? Obviously, by talking about how good, smart, loveable, and handsome we are, right? Some of those things might even be true for some of us. But there is more than one way in which we might “praise ourselves”. I’ll give three others:
- Denigrating Others. This is one of the nastiest ways we praise ourselves. We try to make ourselves look good by making other people look bad. This is especially unpleasant when we do something like talk down our co-workers so that I am seen as heroically saving my department despite the horrible colleagues I have. If we are especially devious, we’ll not even mention ourselves and what we are doing — but everyone will get the point. If my colleagues are all worthless, I must really be a hero to put up with it and hold things together. Tragically, sometimes spouses do this, too. “My spouse is horrible” — the unsaid corollary is, “I’m a hero for holding this together.” Some spouses are heroic, but they aren’t the ones talking down their spouse all the time.
- Praising Others to get Praise for Ourselves. Sometimes, this is very transparent — if I brag about how well-behaved my kids are, I’m bragging about how well I’ve trained them, and most people can see through that. Sometimes, it is silly, as someone boasts about the sports team they support in a way that shows they somehow are claiming personal credit or validation because they were smart enough to choose a good team, or something. Sometimes, it’s more subtle. Someone can commend a preacher or teacher that they admire in a way that shows they are taking some kind of reflected pride, as if they feel some self-commendation because they know about such a good preacher.
- Praising a Principle (Conveniently). Although I’m a pastor, I earn my living as a computer programmer. I believe it is good for a pastor to be paid by his church. I also believe it is good for a pastor to earn his living outside the church. Both approaches are good and appropriate. If I were to write a blog (or a book) extolling the latter approach, and explaining why it is better than the former, and that those who follow it are the ones who are really serving the Lord, etc., etc., many people would say, “That Jon Gleason knows what he is talking about. He’s put his money where his mouth is; he really believes what he is teaching, and he’s doing it.” Others, more astutely, might recognise the danger of praising the principle as a means of self-praise. If I am likely to be seen as an example of a principle, I need to be careful about how I teach it, to avoid overly praising that principle as a convenient means of self-praise. That obviously doesn’t mean we don’t teach the principles we practice. It does me we need to guard against subtle self-praise.
There are probably many other subtle ways in which we praise ourselves, but these are three that came to mind. We really do have an atrocious tendency to pride and self-praise, and it can be very, very subtle. We can help each other avoid this if we are alert to the subtle ways in which pride reveals itself. If anyone has any other thoughts on ways that we self-praise, I would appreciate hearing from you, and it might be beneficial to others as well.