Dearly beloved: We are gathered here today to honor and commemorate the death of … the compliment. No one is quite sure how it died, and unfortunately, the autopsy is far from conclusive. At this time, no person has been implicated in its death, but the police are still investigating. If you’ve seen hip-hop artist Akon, his friend David Guetta, Girl Who Hates Compliments, Silent Man, Modesty Enforcer, or OkCupid founder, Christian Rudder, please contact your local authorities, as they are wanted for questioning.
If you’ve been so single that it feels like you’ve been put out to pasture — your long, lovely hair, your bright eyes, or your sparkling laughter are like window dressing in a closed shop. You could dress in a way that might get you a cat-call or a drive-by honk, but that won’t change the fact that, in your life, there’s a lack of genuine heartfelt compliments that are accurate and sweet — that might even make you blush — and not because it was inappropriate but because it connected with you. A simple, nice compliment from a member of the opposite sex. Not from a girl. Or from your dad. Or from a random OkCupid user.
The post-mortem on the compliment is tricky and not easy to analyze. Almost everyone is a bit to blame. Men, women, pop culture, and evangelical subculture have played a part in this intertwining mess.
Men and Women
Displayed on the backdrop of our cultural canvas, individual men and women attempt to navigate the choppy waters surrounding “when to say what to whom.” Women generally, for some valid and invalid reasons, don’t take compliments well.
Some think it’s impolite or proud to say “thank you” when a man says that you look nice. Christians have a special brand of this. Being noticed and complimented means that you’re ensnaring some poor guy in lust.
“No, I’m not, and where’s my sweatshirt?”
Other women are on edge from manipulative comments they received in the past. They’re rightfully on their guard against niceties because they associate comments on their appearance with a man wanting something from them. Ergo, good men affirming women in non-creepy ways, stop saying things because they are continually not well-received. That may not be the cause of death, but it definitely is a factor.
Singles are in a uniquely awkward position — namely that there’s almost no room for non-lecherous compliments outside of being in a relationship. Married men in the church, for good reason, aren’t freely telling women how beautiful they are. Single men in churches are skittish already because they can’t have coffee with a girl without Nosy Nancy handing him a flyer for Kay Jewelers. So, singles are left with accolades from strangers on OkCupid plying them with humorous, cheesy, but shallow pickup lines about you being a rare, five-cent beauty or more beautiful than if you were painted by a thousand painters for a thousand years. (No, these were never said to me, why would you think so?)
Culture and Subculture
Broader culture and evangelical subculture have lost the ability to see the differences between the sexual, the feminine, and the just plain beautiful. Artists like Akon and David Guetta are proud they can put together a catchy beat, but can’t find ways to describe women without being disrespectful. Evangelical subculture responds to disintegrating broader culture by piling on the culturally based modesty standards in ways that aren’t always helpful and sometimes are harmful, bringing unhealthy shame. Women shamed for their created shape and form. Men shamed for inborn tendency to notice.
On the one side, we’ve been reduced in our way of talking about physical appearance to anatomical comments and descriptions as if there’s nothing to a woman beyond hip-to-waist ratio; and on the other, it’s as if the female form is nothing but a thing to cover up and hide. Both sides have limited our ability to affirm the good in both sexes.
Women reflect a unique beauty rooted in the image of God, and part of that beauty cries out to be noticed, seen, and appreciated. Men, likewise, reflect the image of God in their own ways. There’s something about a compliment about your physical appearance that is fundamentally important to the human spirit.
Instead, the Gospel frees men and women to appreciate God’s good design in one another in ways that build up and encourage our hearts. The Church should place a premium on modesty — but in ways that center on highlighting and framing physical beauty, redrawing lines between sinful glorification of human sexuality and true Eden-type respect for the image of God imprinted on our human bodies. The culture (and specifically singles) would benefit from renewing those distinctions to the point where there is no shaming of men or women for being created lovely or for noticing the creation, and where unquenchable desire (lust) is not the reigning king in our hearts to the exclusion of appreciating what God called very good.