This scripturally prophesied danger can be named with a single word. Can you guess it?
CLUE SET #1:
1. I’m delicious to practically everyone.
2. I am extremely lucrative.
3. I can increase your social standing and popularity.
4. Love songs and sonnets owe their success to me.
5. Once I was offered mostly to kings and rulers. Today, I am offered to absolutely everyone on the planet.
6. Ancient wise emperors feared me as a poison.
Have an idea? Keep thinking while you scroll down for the next set of clues…
CLUE SET #2:
7. I am never associated with God, angels, or prophets—with one exception. During Alma-the-Younger’s sinful youth—before he repented—he used me a great deal.[i]
8. The scriptures specifically record that I was skillfully employed by all of the following wicked men[ii]: Sherem, King Noah, Korihor, Amalickiah, the robber Jacob, the Kingmen against Pahoran, and Satan himself.
9. America’s Founding Fathers warned that in a democracy, rulers might use me to harm the citizens.[iii]
10. The Book of Daniel warns that in the last days, an anti-Christ will rise to power using me as his principal tool. (More on this below).
11. Most people can’t remember ever having heard a sermon or family home evening lesson that focused on me specifically.
Yup, you’ve probably figured out by now who I am, but just to be sure, scroll down to test your guess against a third and final set of clues…
CLUE SET #3
12. I so closely resemble ordinary daily courtesies that most people never notice me or call me by name.
13. Your hunger for me can easily be increased and manipulated. Few are immune to my appeal.
14. I am the key addictive ingredient built deliberately into your social media feeds that keeps you coming back, constantly checking for notifications, likes, and followers.
All right, dear reader, now you know my name for sure, right? Ready for the answer? Scroll down to see my true identity (and why this matters so much….)
What am I? Flattery!
Did you guess it?
Have you ever discussed this topic with family or friends? Most people haven’t. Try it this week, and discover together how deeply flattery permeates our culture and how much it can influence our faith. The 14 clues above were just the tip of the iceberg. In your discussion with family or friends this week, be sure to consider the following six additional perspectives:
1. Flattery means offering praise strategically, for gain.
As Richard Stengal wrote:
Flattery is strategic praise, praise with a purpose. It may be inflated or exaggerated or it may be accurate and truthful, but it is praise that seeks some result, whether it be increased liking or an office with a window…it uses the enhancement of another for our own self-advantage. It can even be genuine praise…”[iv]
2. On-demand flattery permeates our generation like never before.
Today’s social media platforms offer us large doses of praise-on-demand because they know it will bring them billions in advertising dollars. Their business is pure flattery.
When you log in to social media, the screen asks you, “what’s on your mind?” Then, algorithms go to work to echo back whatever praise you most desire. Do you wish to be thought of as an exceptional cook? A clever sage? A great athlete? All you have to do is post, tweet, or pin your latest recipe, article, or winning race photo. Within minutes, a handful of online friends will tune in to notice the post, like it, love it, or compliment it.
Our friends’ individual pleasantries on social media don’t necessarily constitute flattery, per se. Most friends are very sincere, considerate, and loving. In a spirit of goodwill, we all joined social media with good intentions: to connect with old friends, fellowship our neighbors, keep in touch with our grandchildren, and even cheer each others’ victories.
But while individual comments may be both innocent and genuinely kind, their combined bulk in aggregate has a very strong flattery effect that social media engineers relentlessly exploit. They offer us increasing doses of praise-on-demand in exchange for our data, our time, our captive advertising presence, and ultimately our money. For their own profit and power, they’ve lured all of us and our friends into mutual admiration societies.
These are bottomless-self-serve-flattery-machines. It’s like going for ice cream at an all-you-can-eat buffet. When we want attention and approval, we just sit down, hold out our bowls, and pull the lever. Out comes the praise, in generous quantities, whenever we want more.
Today, billions of us log on daily, hungry for the validation of likes, comments, and followers. Our youth plaintively echo Snow White’s stepmother: “Mirror Mirror on the Wall, who’s the most-liked one of all?”
News articles primarily focus on other dangers of social media: privacy concerns, financial monopolies, and the depressing effects of excessive comparison with peers. While all of these dangers really exist, perhaps they pale in comparison with the nearly invisible spiritual dangers of flattery.
3. Flattery doesn’t satisfy us spiritually.
As with drugs, the more flattery we ingest, the less it satisfies us.
Imagine great-grandmother. If she craved a little validation, she might have made a tasty pie and put on her prettiest bonnet before driving into town. There, a few farmer’s wives might remark kindly on the pie or the bonnet, and great-grandmother likely lived on those compliments for several weeks.
But today, we can post a picture and receive dozens or even hundreds of likes within an hour. The sheer number of them exceeds our spirits’ ability to cherish them. We glance superficially over the list of names, shrug at the sincerity of our friends, and wistfully watch the total number of likes inch upward until, inevitably, it stalls. Sometimes we are already planning our next post. Sometimes we think more about the photo-ops and camera angles than we do about the fun activities in which we participate.
4. Hunger for flattery increases our vulnerability to deception
Not only does flattery fall short of satisfying, but it also increases our vulnerability to pride and deception. We become more susceptible to lies because they feed our vanity. Stengal tells us:
In many ways, flattery works like a heat-seeking missile, only what the missile homes in on is our vanity. And vanity, as the sages tell us, is the most universal human trait. We all want to be liked. We all want to be appreciated. Flattery almost always hits its target because the target—you, me, everybody—rises up to meet it. We have no natural defense system against it. We don’t doubt because we want to believe…If it’s a lie, it’s a lie we don’t care or want to question[v].
Over time, our hunger for praise can make us susceptible to a variety of flattering lies commonly used by Satan and his helpers. Such lies can include:
–You will be so much more beautiful if you use this makeup/hairdo/clothing/plastic surgery.
–People will think you’re much wiser if you embrace these social and political positions.
–The more followers and subscribers you have, the more worthwhile you are.
–You can do no wrong because there is no such thing as hell or sin.
–Anyone who doesn’t agree with you is ignorant or bigoted.
Whereas God continually tries to lead us to higher ground, Satan either tries to lure us lower or flatter us that we’re good enough as we are. While God offers us cleansing repentance to pave the way for joy, Satan paints calls to repentance as judgmental and hateful. God defines “sin” to protect us from self-destructive behaviors that hurt us and injure those we love. But Satan denies the existence of sin, and flatters us that whatever we do is right. [vi] Satan pretends to welcome us with loving, open arms. But make no mistake, he despises those who fall for his deceptions.[vii] He’s in it for the profit and the laughs.
5. Flattery will be a major danger to saints approaching the millennium.
Daniel 11 describes a coming anti-Christ who will arise during the last days before the millennium. It specifies that this leader obtains power WITHOUT having been given a government office (contrary to popular predictions.) Read these verses carefully, watching for how he gains influence:
“…a vile person to whom they shall not give the honor of the kingdom: but he shall come in peaceably, and obtain the kingdom by flatteries…” (v. 21)
“He shall enter peaceably even upon the fattest places of the province and he shall do that which his fathers have not done, nor his father’s fathers; he shall scatter among them the prey, and spoil, and riches, yea, and he shall forecast his devices against the strong holds…” (v. 24)
“he shall…have intelligence with them that forsake the holy covenant” (v. 30)
“such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries” (v 32)…
“…many shall cleave to them with flatteries” (v. 34).
Did you catch that? Flattery shows up three times in this account, together with profit-sharing for the rich. These verses may also suggest that technology (secured devices) will come into play in totally new ways (things not done by the fathers or fathers’ fathers.)
Evidently, the richest sectors of society will buy-in to this man’s flattery operations for profit. The more the flattery works, the bigger their “share of the spoil.” It’s easy to see how this scenario already exists today. Any paying business can buy a spot in your newsfeed, and profit from the flattery that keeps you coming back. By feeding the public craving for flattery, social media platforms offer advertisers an endless stream of potential and returning customers. The more businesses participate, the larger grows the flattery machine.
Again, spiritual corruption through flattery may surpass financial and privacy dangers. Much of the suffering and persecution brought upon the saints in Daniel 11 comes because former saints will trade their covenants for the praise of the world. (Happily, in chapter 12 we learn that the archangel Michael and the hosts of heaven will come to overturn the injustices and pains inflicted on the faithful saints during these tribulations.)
6. To use social media for good, we must increase our resistance to flattery.
Make no mistake. Prophets and apostles encourage sharing the gospel through social media. COVID-19 requires it of missionaries. Additionally, we can advance many other valuable causes through thoughtful online sharing. And responsible advertising can take many ethical forms. The solution to flattery is not to entirely abandon social media.
Rather, we need to decrease our individual dependence on the praise of others.
This question deserves an ongoing conversation at the dinner table, and at least a few hours of prayerful personal study using scripture and General Conference talks. The answers reach far beyond the scope of this article.
Here are just a few starter introspection questions:
–Are my posts genuinely meant to uplift others, or primarily meant to lift me up in the eyes of others?
–How frequently do I need external validation from my online crowd? How long could I fast from that?
–If upholding my beliefs were to result in my account being terminated, could I walk away?
–Are my social media marketing strategies truthful, transparent, and of genuine service to the customer?
–Do I think about my Savior and my covenants as often as I think about the reception of my recent posts, tweets, or videos?
–Do my posts reflect my commitment to my covenants?
These are tough questions that most of us can’t answer perfectly. But perhaps with some thought, effort, and prayer, we can improve our spiritual strength individually and as families.
As we learn to resist the flattery of the world, we will better prepare ourselves to hear true praise from the only source that matters: the Lord himself. “Come unto me, ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth.” (Alma 5:16).
[i] During Alma-the-Younger’s sinful youth, he “did speak much flattery to the people,” leading them astray. (Mosiah 27:8)
[ii] Evil Sherem used “much flattery, and much power of speech according to the power of the devil.” (Jacob 7:4)
Oppressive King Noah and his priests deceived the people right into idolatry “for they did speak flattering things unto them.” (Mosiah 11:7)
Anti-Christ Korihor was “the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by …lying and by …flattering words” (Alma 30:47)
The deceitful tyrant Amalickiah: “And there were many in the church who believed in the flattering words of Amalickiah, therefore they dissented even from the church.” (Alma 46:7)
Kingmen destroyed Pahoran’s government, “for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us.” (Alma 61:4)
The robber Jacob “flattered [his band] that there would be many dissenters…to contend with the tribes of the people.” (3 Nephi 7:12)
Milton called Satan the Arch-Flatterer, and scripture confirms it. (See footnote #5).
[iv] Stengal, Richard. You’re Too Kind. Simon & Schuster. 2000. p. 20.
[v] Stengal, Richard. You’re Too Kind. Simon & Schuster. 2000. pp. 14-15.
[vi] “And thus he flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie that they may catch a man in a lie, that they may destroy him. And thus he flattereth them, and leadeth them along until he draggeth their souls down to hell.” (Doctrine and Covenants 10:25-26) “And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell” (2 Nephi 28:22)
[vii] See D&C 121:20