When I was little, I remember feeling really confused about parents and teachers saying, “I’m proud of you.” Because my little Christian-school-educated mind had picked up on the fact that pride was a sin. Like, a really bad sin. Satan’s favorite sin.
So how does that line up with gold stars and award ceremonies and talent shows and my A+ spelling test on the refrigerator?
This question came up again because this weekend I posted on Facebook about a contest I won…but I almost didn’t. When I asked myself why, I came up with a few reasons, and none of them were good. Like many Christians, I often fall into the trap of thinking a compliment is a bomb—that I have to run from it, defuse it or, worse, throw it back.
“Oh, no, it’s not really that great.” “Thanks, but I wish I could have done better.” “Um…uh…” [blushes and changes the subject to the weather].
Why do we do this? Three reasons, I think.
Reason 1: We’re afraid people will think we’re arrogant.
Sure, you can celebrate your accomplishments in extremely smug, obnoxious, and self-righteous ways. People do it all the time. But you don’t have to. Obviously, it’s not a black-and-white sort of thing, but here are a few tips to determine if you’re being arrogant in the way you talk about yourself.
- Bragging pretends to be humble when it isn’t. If you accomplished something you’re excited about, cool. Be excited about it! But don’t mask it in humble-speak, or you’ll just look like you’re trying too hard.
- Bragging compares. If you are ever talking about how much better you are than others or trying to top someone else’s story or steal attention away from them, don’t.
- Bragging is a newsfeed, not an announcement. When you’re constantly updating people on how cool you are, whether that’s a constant parade of look-at-me selfies or turning every lunchtime conversation back to your interests, it gets old fast. That’s significantly different than letting people know about the occasional milestone or achievement.
- Bragging comes from a braggart. Your whole character creates the context for what you’re saying. If a smarmy stage mom who monopolizes every conversation and a sincere, enthusiastic lady who always remembers everyone’s name post the same Facebook status—“So excited for my daughter and the talent God has blessed her with! Come see the show tonight!”—I would roll my eyes at one and “like” the other. Who you are influences how people take what you say.
Reason 2: We’re afraid the person complimenting us is secretly jealous.
We’ve been raised in a zero-sum world. Someone else’s gain is your loss. It’s a world of suffocating scarcity. And sometimes, it makes us doubt others’ sincerity, to think that they must be talking about us behind our backs even as they offer a smile and a “Nice job!” to our faces.
Stop that. Seriously. We need other people, despite what society tells us. We need them to challenge us, to call us out when we’re being stupid, to cry with us, sure. But we also need them to celebrate with us, to cheer us on. Give them that chance.
Maybe a few of them are jealous. But as long as you’re handling your success in an appropriate way (see Reason 1), that’s their problem to deal with. Maybe this is my idealist side showing, but not much good comes of assuming the worst about others.
Reason 3: We’re afraid we’re inadequate.
Fear of success is basically the same thing as fear of failure taken up a notch. When you’ve done a task well, received recognition, had your name announced as the most likely to do something awesome, there is that terrible sense of foreboding: what if I can’t live up to this?
What if the next novel isn’t as good, what if I never do the things I wrote about in my scholarship essay, what if the new guy really is better than me, what if I give the wrong advice or make a spectacular mistake or let them all down?
This is where it’s handy to keep in mind your identity in Christ. There’s a beautiful, stabilizing paradox about being a Christian: the answer to “Am I worthy?” is both “No” and “Yes.”
“No” because we are sinful, broken people who mess up time and time again. “Yes” because we are made in the image of God and are loved by Him. If you can hold both of these in tension—“What is man that you are mindful of him?” and “You have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8)—you don’t have to be afraid of success or failure.
“Do all things to the glory of God” isn’t meant to add pressure to our lives; it’s meant to take it away. The standard for “successful” living, if you want to call it that, is both something we already have (we have Christ’s righteousness credited to us at salvation) and something we’ll always be working toward (becoming more like Christ is a continual process).
So the next time someone compliments you, remember this. Practice it if you need to. Smile. Say “thank you.” Let yourself enjoy the occasional gold star sticker. And don’t go running for a bomb shelter every time you accomplish something.