Painfully self-aware people cringe every time they receive a compliment. A simple, “You look lovely today,” sends them into a convulsion of excuses as they trip over their tongues in an effort to assure themselves and the world that they actually aren’t lovely at all, that they definitely do not think of themselves as lovely, and that they are forever indebted to the magnanimity of those who would sacrifice the truth for the sake of giving a compliment. Meanwhile, the person offering the compliment is left scratching his head in bewilderment at such an extravagant response to a friendly observation.
The reason for such torturous self-deprecation is, of course, because certain people actually do think of themselves as deserving compliments—perhaps even entertain grand notions of giving Helen of Troy a run for her money. Aware of this, they struggle against their pride and their delight in the compliment, and are carried away from seeing the truth of who they are by two conflicting false images.
In the majority of cases, most people are neither as lovely as Miss America nor as ugly as a toad flattened on the highway somewhere between Dallas and Abilene. Thus the interpretation of the compliment as a statement of absolute goodness or beauty is grossly exaggerated. On the other hand, the subsequent self-deprecation that borders on callous barbarism is equally false.
A generally well-adjusted and confident person is able to take a compliment with a grain of salt, knowing that a colleague’s, “What a witty comment” does not mean that he is perceived to be a true rival of Shakespeare or Austen. This sort of compliment drives fear into the hearts only of those who know themselves well enough to be aware of their wish to be among (and perhaps imagination of themselves as) the elite few who truly walk with ease among the Muses.
The standard remedy to the sin of pride is to learn to think of one’s self in more humble terms. However, such a remedy can only work in the short-term, since the real need is for the individual to not think so much of himself at all. A more lasting solution to the perennial problem of pride is to turn one’s gaze elsewhere, looking up to God and out towards one’s neighbors—both of whom it is the whole duty of man to love.
If all lies are equally abominable (not being the truth), then it is no better to have a falsely low self-understanding any more than it is to have an inflated view to the contrary. Rather than combat one lie (flattering words) with another (demeaning words), we ought to seek to know the truth about ourselves, rejoice and mourn that knowledge as appropriate, and then get on with the business of life.
Know who you truly are. Be no more conceited—or humble—about your identity, skills, and worth than God is. Do not accuse God of falsehood by denying the real work of sanctification taking place in your life; rather rejoice in it, thank Him for His gifts, and continue to work towards being more like Him. And, chances are, the next time someone tells you, “You look lovely today,” they probably don’t think you look anything like Helen of Troy. You shouldn’t think so either, and knowing this, you just might be able to smile and respond with a humbly true, “Thank you.”