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When Honor Becomes Toxic

Toxic honor. You’ve seen it. I know I have. In fact I’ve done it. The public introductions that went way too long, the private praise that slid towards flattery. It’s honor overkill, and I carry the toxins. I’ve maneuvered conversations for a small slice of praise and instantly felt starved the moment praise fell silent.

Funny, but honor comes with irony. We want lots, but give too little. At least I do.

How about you? Ever dropped a name, blithely mentioned an award, checked Facebook too much for who liked your post? It’s the dark side of stalking honor. We all fall prey to it. But is there a bright side?

Surprisingly, yes! God calls us to show honor to others. One of God’s Big Ten commands is “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

But honor is not just an Old Testament thing. Paul said, “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:11), and Peter echoed, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 5:17).

We know God is not schizophrenic, commanding one thing only to lay the smackdown when we do it. Clearly it’s more complex. So how are we to think about honoring one another?


Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

What is honor?

Honor is giving voice to what we value. We are created to praise the things we prize. No one needs to tell us to talk about the person we love or the movies we’ve seen three times. The conclusion of Les Mis needs no “applause” signs like the daytime game shows. What we experience throws open a heart-valve to release the spillover of honoring applause.

When we love something, honoring comes naturally. The Apostle Paul regularly commended and praised those he was writing to. He said of Timothy, “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare,” (Phil 2:20) and said later of Epaphroditus, “…honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me (Phil. 2:29 – 30).”

Honoring others is a means of showing that we value the work God does in and through a person. As Sam Crabtree says in his helpful book Practicing Affirmation:

God is glorified in us when we affirm the work he has done and is doing in others. (Page 12)

Honor means expressing integrity. Honoring others for their service or help acknowledges that we are not independent. The honoring words we speak about others acts as a reminder that we have not arrived where we are simply because of our own talent, resilience or ingenuity. Praising others for their words and works rightly locates other people in our stories. We did not arrive where we are alone. Our stories are filled with the influence, insight, help, correction, and care of others. Honoring others is simply a way to acknowledge that we are products of community.

In Philippians 1, Paul thanks the Philippians for, “…their partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:5).  He says, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil 1:7). For Paul, the Philippians were part of his story.

In Dallimore’s biography on Whitfield, he remarked on Whitefield’s journals:

In his journals and letters, an impartial reader will find instances thereof almost in every page: such as, lively gratitude to God in the first place, and to all whom God had used as instruments of good to him…

Think of honor as just another way to do what Whitefield did:  “to offer lively gratitude for all whom God has used as instruments of good to him.”

Honor means knowing our hardware. God has created us in His image. One of the communicable expressions of his image is how our hearts also resonate when honored. As humans, we are stirred deeply when honored. It’s not incorruptible, but it’s part of our human hardware. When God commands us to honor each other, it’s because he knows a little something about how we tick.

Clearly, there is a time and place for giving honor to whom honor is due. But if we’re going to properly show honor to one another, we must also realize that the practice of showing honor can become toxic. How does this happen? How do we know when showing honor has become toxic? Here are two ways:


Honor Is Expected More Than Offered

Apart from grace, we have the tornado-like tendency to suck everything inward, as if all of life is about our story, and other people only come onto the stage in supporting roles. We sinfully tend to put ourselves at the center and minimize the influence of others. Pride always preaches to us that we have arrived where we are independently, fueled by our own gifts, abilities, and prowess. We believe that we have summited the mountain through sheer force of will. We start to expect others to honor us without us ever giving thought to the honor to others. And we value the practice of giving honor, but only when others are praising us. This overvaluing of honor causes us to become entitled and bloated with pride.

God calls us to model giving honor, not receiving honor. The godly Christian concerns himself not with how he is remembered, but with how others are remembered and how God is remembered. The biblical command to honor others isn’t some sort of technical loophole which allows us to smuggle ourselves into the center. Rather, the command is intended to make us distinctly others-centered.

Several years ago, I was standing in the lobby of my church, greeting people as they came in. I happened to meet a PCA church planter and his wife. The man said to me, “I’ve always wanted to come here, but it wasn’t until today that I realized that you were the pastor.” This was a great compliment to me. Why? Because, even though the man had read some of what I had written, the name of my church exceeded my own name.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no poster-child for humility or honor-avoidance. Too many times after I preach I long to hear voices that will celebrate not just the truth of my message, but the messenger too! Too often I’ve felt puffed up by the honor of seeing my name in print. Just the other day I felt a pang of injustice when some ideas I had were credited to someone else.

The only reason I’m not honor-toxic is because of the gospel. My hope is not in the purity of my motives, but in the purity of Christ’s motives. The gospel is the glorious reminder that all my sinful honor grubbing was laid on the One who always had the honor of God in view.  Therefore I can trust in the Savior even when my heart drifts towards myself.


Honor Is Given More Than Confession Is Modeled

The practice of giving honor to one another must exist in tension with transparent disclosure of sins and faults. We must seek to foster a culture in which there is a freedom to give honor to one another and a freedom to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). Without free confession, we end up creating a culture of what John Piper calls, “naive admiration”, which in turn produces Christians who appear untouchable. Untouchable Christians live about a centimeter away from the cliff’s edge. In fact, Piper’s full quote was, “Disillusionment often follows naive admiration.”

When honor is elevated above confession and humility, giving honor becomes toxic.

Without a culture of confession, pastors become holy articles admired by people from afar, like relics nestled in the Vatican. That is, of course, until it becomes evident that the pastor is just as much a sinner as every other person. Part of the reason people become disillusioned and disenchanted is that the leaders they once admired fail to live up to uninformed expectations.

It’s a dangerous thing to make a living with a microphone in front of your face. There are a thousand ways to nuance words and bend illustrations so that honor flows your way. Leveling the field by acknowledging specifics on sins and weaknesses helps humanize you so that the honor remains proportionate to the reality. After all the people around us know we’re sinners. A good leader just eliminates the curiosity and fills in the blank.

A Solution

If giving honor is toxic, should we stop giving honor altogether? Of course not. As I said at the beginning, we are commanded to honor one another. So how can we avoid creating a toxic environment? Three quick suggestions:

First, give honor lavishly and freely. Problems arise when we focus on receiving honor rather than dispensing it. The more we focus on dispensing honor, the less we’ll be obsessed with receiving honor. So let’s get to work on practicing honor.

Second, learn to tell your story through the influence of other people. Think hard about the way God has used community to shape and influence you. When you’re asked to tell your story, make much of God and the church. Make it their story, not yours.

Lastly, when we receive honor, seek to immediately transfer the glory to God. I’m not talking about some kind of weird, It wasn’t me, it was all God!, kind of way. (It’s probably just my twisted mind but I often think, “No, if it was God I think He would have done an even better job!”)  I’m talking here about a quick and quiet, “Thank you Lord for using me. Receive the glory!” When we transfer the glory to God, it suffocates the insidious pride which so often rises in us.

Honor is like medicine: wonderful when swallowed in the right dosage. Giving honor freely and transferring all glory to God will help us receive honor without overdosing on it.

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