Compliment Machine

August 30, 2009



James 1:19-21

19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.


A woman is coming out of anesthesia after a series of tests in the hospital, and her husband is sitting at her bedside. Her eyes flutter open, and she murmurs, “You’re the most handsome man I have ever seen.”

The husband is really flattered and he continues his vigil while his wife drifts off to sleep again. Later, she wakes up and says, “You’re cute.”

He asks, “What happened to the most handsome man you have ever seen?”

She replies, “The drugs are wearing off.”

I guess in that case we can give the lady some slack. After all, she had been sedated, but she needed to work upon her compliment ability. We all do. Christians need to be compliment machines.

By the way, there was such a thing. A couple of years ago, if you were standing at a corner of 14th Street N.W. in Washington, D.C., you might have heard a sound that would make even the most street-wise city dwellers slow their frantic pace and lower their lattes. It was the positive sound of a compliment. Ding-dong, a chime cuts through the street noise, followed by a pleasant voice saying, “You create a brighter future.”

Your first question might be where did that come from? Well, there on 14th Street was a bright red-and-white-striped box perched on a platform of bricks, with a speaker at eye level and a grid of ventilation holes in the side. A small sign read, “The Compliment Machine.” Ding-dong! “People are drawn to your positive energy.” You can almost imagine that government bureaucrat or preoccupied office worker stopping for a moment and pondering that. Really? Me?

The Compliment Machine was the brainchild of Tom Greaves, a local visual artist. It was part of SitesProject D.C., an exhibit by the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran, which featured a collection of public art along 14th Street N.W. between P and V streets.

Describing his project, Tom Greaves said, “On the one hand, I think there are a lot of gratuitous praise and awards and trophies heaped upon people for barely showing up. On the other side of that coin is the real human need for assurance and reassurance and to be complimented.”

People can believe it or not,” said Greaves about the hundred messages he recorded on an iPod Nano and set up to play from the box at random intervals. So, did people believe it? Well, Tom Minter, a playwright and resident of nearby Q Street who walked past The Compliment Machine regularly, said, “It really makes you feel good. If I’m having a really bad moment while I’m walking down this street, and it penetrates the fog, it’s a good thing.”

And so the Compliment Machine had kind words for everyone who walked by. “Maybe if the compliment doesn’t apply to them, they’ll want to change that,” said Greaves. If the machine said, “You leave things better than you find them” or “You are on a constant quest for knowledge,” then maybe the recipient will be inspired to improve one little thing about themselves. Or maybe people just need to cheer up, to realize that the world is not as bleak as they think.

We are bombarded by so much negativity. Commercial jingles remind us every day that we are too fat, too poor, too unattractive. Turn on your local news. What do you get? Wrecks and robberies. Turn on the national news. The economy is still bad, the wars go on and on. In the midst of all that negativity, we need to hear a positive word.

The letter of James may not sound like a first-century compliment machine, but its message is enlightening and empowering. For James, the “word of truth” is a “perfect gift” from God, through which God “gave birth” to humankind as the “first fruits” of all his creatures (vv. 17-18). In other words, the truth about God’s love for us has been with us from the beginning.

That is a compliment. The Creator has always sought to be in relationship with his human creations. That is the ultimate compliment, and we need to hear it again and again. Christ died for you so that you can be adopted into the family of God; therefore, you are a child of God. The next time you are feeling down and depressed remind yourself of that. We must weed out the negative messages and focus on that “word” of truth that God has implanted in us and that, James says in v21 has “the power to save [our] souls,”

So, we need to receive the compliment of the gospel, but we also need to apply the lesson and become compliment machines ourselves. God does not give us his love so that we might sit on it. We are supposed to spread it around and one way to spread love is to praise others.

I remember long ago when I was in seminary we had a guest speaker at chapel one morning. I have forgotten his name, but he was a businessman who was talking about the practical application of Christianity. He said something like this: God calls everyone to a certain work or mission in this world. I believe God has called me to be a complimenter. I have to find out good things about other people and tell them how much I appreciate the good things of their lives.

Now notice the way he put that and notice what a compliment is. A compliment is not flattery. Flattery is when someone so exaggerates your good qualities beyond all sense and proportion that the truth is lost. Flattery is a kind of lie.

Long ago, I had a mission church in Atlanta. I came to church one morning and there was a woman standing on the steps. I parked the car and walked over toward her. As I approached she said, “There he is the man of God. Such a handsome man, and I can see your halo shining, God is with you to extend a helping hand to an old woman.” It was so overdone, it was funny. As I talked further with her, it developed that she wanted a handout, but when I told her what we could do to help her, my halo suddenly vanished apparently because she said, “The Methodist church in down the street helped me twice as much.” I did not say anything in reply to that but what I thought was I do not care what the Methodist church down the street did. But think about her praise. She was just talking to try to get more from me. That is flattery. Often flattery is not that obvious, but flattery usually has a selfish motive. I need something from you so I will say good things about you, but when I don’t need anything from you I probably will say bad things about you. Christians are not supposed to do any of that.

You probably have heard the old saying, “if you cannot say something good about a person, do not say anything at all.” James says we are to be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak” (v. 19). That is good advice. Another piece of good advice is that we should be careful that our praises are the truth.

That means it is harder to be a “complimenter” than you might think. You might say well anybody can say good things to people. No that is not it. First you have to know about them before you can honestly complement them. That means you have to care about that person enough to learn about them. A real compliment is an act of caring.

If you say to a person, “You did a great job,” and they know that they did not in fact do a great job, they will smile and say thank you but it has no effect because they do not believe you. So the question is how do you effectively compliment people? The simple answer is that if you see a person doing good, you ought to tell that person right then how much you appreciate what they are doing.

They might say, well I don’t want recognition, and recognition should not be our motive for doing good, but it never hurts. We ought to talk about the good we find in people. Yes, there is plenty of bad in people, and the news media does a good job of reporting that, but that businessman who spoke in that chapel meeting so long ago was right. We need some “complimenters.” We need people who will make a ministry of praising others.

A lot of people are hurting out there. They need a good word. You may have heard of Willie Mays, one of baseball’s greatest players. Did you know that he had a very disappointing start in the Major Leagues. In his first 26 times at bat, he had only one hit. Eventually, the disappointment got to Mays. One day, as he was sitting in the dugout, he started crying. Mays thought no one was around, but his manager, Leo Durocher, heard him. Putting his arm around Willie Mays, he asked, “What’s the matter, son?” “I can’t hit up here,” Mays replied. “I belong in the minor leagues.” Durocher replied simply, “As long as I’m manager of the Giants, you are my centerfielder.” Mays later credited that simple act of praise with turning his hitting career around. The rest, as they say, is baseball history. One sincere compliment, one honest act of praise, changed a person’s life. What greater ministry could we have than that?

But notice something here, a good compliment needs to be specific. Durocher did not say to Mayes, you are a good baseball player. He said, you are my centerfielder. He reassured him about his position on the team. Even so when we give compliments we need to get detailed.

For example, I saw one of my neighbors picking up trash in another’s neighbors yard, while that neighbor was gone on vacation. I probably should have stopped and said something right then, but I was on an errand at the time and just passed on by. But it so happened that a couple of days later I was speaking to him and I told him that it was a really nice thing to do, and he seemed to appreciate it. You might say well that was just a small thing. Picking up trash is no big deal. Praising him for it is no big deal. But that is what most compliments are, little praises for little acts of goodness.

But you might ask, do most people believe us when we compliment them? That is one of those things that we cannot control. You can offer your compliment sincerely and the receiver might just blow it off, pay you no attention whatsoever. Everyone who tries to compliment other people has had this experience. It sort of goes with the territory.

I have had people ask this same question about other aspects of relationships. For example, they will ask, what if I forgive a person and they refuse to accept my forgiveness.? You are not in control of what other people do. Therefore, if you do your part, that is all you can do. God does not hold you responsible for other people’s sins, or other people’s follies.

If God has called you to be a “complimenter” and to some extent God has called us all to this ministry, if God has called you to do this, then you ought to do it as best you can, as sincerely and as lovingly as you can. Reach out. Look for opportunities to perform your ministry.

This has a special application with regard to people you do not particularly like. As the old saying goes “they gee when you haw”--which is a way of saying that the two of you go in opposite directions. In any case, if you take this person that you do not get along with very well and ;look for something good in their lives and tell them about it. You might make a new friend.

But now let us talk about how this affects you. Say you take on this ministry. You say, I am going to be a “complimenter.” You work at it diligently. You do it because you feel God has called you to do it, and you feel it helps other people. That is good and noble and right, but I would offer you this also. Being a “complimenter” helps you. In fact it can be argued that the “complimenter” benefits most from the compliment.

First of all, if you are going to be a “complimenter,” you need to look for good in people’s lives, and this very process gives you a positive attitude. You keep finding good things, and that leads you to think that I can do good things also. If I see one person picking up trash, well I can pick up trash. If I see one person holding a door for another, well I can hold a door.

And the act of speaking the compliment, actually telling another person that they did good, makes you feel good.

So we have here something that we all should do, that is good for us. Do it then. Pay someone a compliment today. In fact, I will offer you a challenge. This is the first day of the week. Make a promise to yourself right now that you are going to compliment at least one person every day this week. You are going to offer honest praise to at least one individual every day. Do that and you will be the better for it. Amen.



Lauer, Claudia. “Ding! Compliment machine gives pedestrians artful praise.” Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2007, A-12. Viewed February 16, 2009.

Zumbrun, Joshua. “The art of gratuitous praise.” The Washington Post, July 21, 2007, C01. Viewed February 12, 2009.


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